5-3-2 Formation – The Ultimate Coaching Guide
The 5-3-2 formation is very defensive and can be a tough proposition for any team to face.
This is because it’s so hard to break down with five defenders sitting in front of the box and three midfielders hounding the opposition in front of them.
While it’s often used by teams hoping to sit back and snatch a win against a superior opponent, the formation can be surprisingly attack-minded. Although this depends on the personnel you have available to you and the instructions you give the players.
As an example, Brazil won the World Cup in 2002 playing in a 5-3-2.
They did, of course, have two of the all-time greats in Cafu and Roberto Carlos lining up at wingback.
Add in the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho and the formation was much more attacking than it looked on paper.
The 5-3-2 can be a great formation to use if you have a wealth of great defenders and central midfielders, two energetic fullbacks, and a dearth of good wingers.
But the team does risk not scoring enough goals if players aren't encouraged to get forward and support the two strikers.
The formation also allows for a great deal of flexibility up front as you can select two strikers as well as one or two attack-minded midfielders.
Get it right and your team can control possession and launch dangerous attacks, all while remaining hard to beat at the back.
But get it wrong and the central players risk getting in each other's way while you sit back and concede possession, territory, and chances to the opposition.
To help you make the most of the 5-3-2, let's take a look at its strengths and weaknesses before moving on to look at the expectations of each position.
• Centrebacks who are comfortable playing in a back three, good at communication, and don't get in each other's way. When the team transitions to a 3-5-2, the two wide centrebacks should have the pace, power, and positioning to cover for the wingbacks and be comfortable on the ball.
• Energetic fullbacks or wingbacks who have fantastic conditioning and can get up and down the pitch. As well as defending their flank wholeheartedly and being good at one-on-ones, they should also be good on the ball and be able to support the midfielders further up the pitch.
• Disciplined central midfielders who not only help out in defence but contribute in attack. They should have a lot of stamina and be able to cover the wide positions and support the fullbacks. One or two of them should also chip in with goals and assists.
• Two strikers who work well together and are tireless at running into space, pulling the opposition out of position, and putting the ball in the back of the net. While one is an out-and-out striker, the other is often a support striker or more creative player who creates a lot of chances.
• The team needs to understand the line-up and instructions they’re given and know when to push up and when to sit back. They need to realise that they won't score many goals or create many chances unless they attack as a unit.
• To get up and down the pitch as a team, everyone needs to have very good conditioning with it being important for the players on the flanks and upfront to have a good burst of pace.
Strengths of the 5-3-2
1. Defensively Solid
With five defenders at the back, three combative midfielders in front of them, and one striker harrying the opponent with the ball, the 5-3-2 can be very hard to break down.
2. Very Strong Spine to the Team
As the majority of the players line up in the centre of the park, the team has a very strong spine to it with the strikers and midfielders lying in front of the defenders and goalkeeper.
As such, it’s a good formation to use if you have lots of good centrebacks and central midfielders and don't want to sacrifice a striker upfront.
3. Can Control Possession
As the five defenders are strung across the pitch, they create lots of passing angles with the three midfielders in front of them.
This means the formation is great for retaining possession if people pass, move, drop into space, and don't get into each other's way.
4. Can Easily Transform More Attacking
When the two wingbacks push forward, you instantly have a much more attacking formation.
This actually allows for a lot of creativity and fluidity.
5. Great For Counter Attacking
As the opponents are almost invited to attack and test out the back five, they leave lots of space in behind for the team to counterattack.
The important thing is to know when to pour forward and when to retain and recycle possession and stay in position.
Weaknesses of the 5-3-2
1. It Can Be Too Defensive
Without the right personnel and right instructions, the 5-3-2 can be too defensive and this means that the team will struggle to get forward and score.
2. Weak on the Wings
Although the spine of the team is very strong, the lack of wide midfielders means that the wingbacks can get outnumbered on the flank.
This means that the central midfielders may get pulled out of position and have to constantly drop to the wings to help out.
3. Can Be Tiring Mentally and Physically
If the team is instructed to defend for most of the match then it can get very tiring chasing around the opposition and staying switched on defensively all of the time.
4. The Centre of the Pitch Can Become Congested
If the central midfielders drop too deep then both they and the centrebacks can get in each other's way.
This makes it hard to create passing angles, to retain possession, and it invites pressure from the opposition.
5. You Need the Right Personnel to Play It
If you don't have athletic wingbacks then you may struggle to make the most of the 5-3-2.
You also rely on players being very fit and having a good tactical understanding of when to spring the counterattack or when to push up and when to sit back.
5-3-2 Formation Setup
As we've seen, the 5-3-2 can be deceptively attack-minded; it all depends on the players you select and the way you line up.
However, it’s primarily a defensive formation.
In goal, the goalkeeper is expected to organise the defence, save any shots, and keep a clean sheet.
Before them are the three centrebacks.
While the two to either side mark the opposition's strikers, win tackles and headers, and challenge for the ball, the central player often acts as a sweeper and drops back to provide them with cover.
To either side of them are the two fullbacks or wingbacks.
Just how attacking they are and how much they get up and down their side of the pitch depends to a large extent on the instructions given to them by the manager.
In central midfield, two players usually lie to either side of a more defensive-minded centre mid.
Together the three of them should protect the defence, keep possession, and refrain from dropping too deep.
While one is usually a box-to-box kind of player, the other central midfielder is usually more attacking and creative in outlook.
Up front we have the two strikers.
These players have a very important role as they’re expected to work well together and score the vast bulk of the team's goals.
Whereas one usually acts as the main outlet, the other acts as a foil and plays off of them.
They should look to stretch the opposition, hold up the ball and make dangerous runs in behind the defence.
Let's now take a look at each position in greater depth to see what is expected of each player in the formation.
Player Roles and Responsibilities
As the 5-3-2 is quite defensive in outlook, the goalkeeper is mainly expected to command their box, claim crosses, and of course make any saves that are required of them.
With five defenders lining up in front of them and three midfielders before them, it’s highly unlikely that the opposition will get in behind the defence very often.
As such, they should mainly be on the lookout for long shots.
As each flank is only protected by one fullback, the opposition may look to outnumber them or overload the wings and get a lot of crosses into the box.
The keeper, therefore, needs to be brave and come and claim the ball when it comes near them.
To make sure they don't get in the way of their defenders, they need to communicate well and direct the players in front of them as to any danger that arises.
While coming to claim crosses, organising the defence, and saving longshots make up the bulk of what the goalkeeper is expected to do, their role changes somewhat when the team is pushing forward.
When attacking in a 3-5-2 for instance, the team pushes up and leaves gaps behind them.
When this happens, the goalkeeper needs to be quick off their line to cover the centrebacks and clear the ball or retrieve it and keep it within the team.
While centrebacks in the 5-3-2 formation are primarily expected to defend, they may have to be quite good on the ball, particularly if the team regularly pushes up in to a 3-5-2.
Normally, however, the centrebacks' main role will be to mark the opposition's strikers, challenge them for the ball, win tackles and headers, and prevent them from creating any chances.
While two of the centrebacks are usually more combative in their approach, the other centreback often acts as a sweeper and drops in behind the other two, providing them with cover.
If anyone manages to get in behind the defence, they should nip in and win the ball off them, only sliding in if no other option is available to them.
This sweeper is often very good on the ball and so is comfortable picking up the ball off of the keeper and passing it on to the fullbacks or central midfielders.
Sometimes this player also pushes up into midfield and in doing so creates a diamond.
This 4-1-2-1-2 formation then affords the team yet more possibilities in terms of both attacking and defending.
These three centrebacks need to work very well together as a unit and not get in each other's way.
If the opposition only lines up with one striker, for instance, they need to clearly communicate and let each other know who's picking them up at any one time.
In addition, they also need to have good positioning and make sure the fullbacks and midfielders take up the right positions alongside them.
Each wide centreback may also need to help out their nearest fullback and the three of them may have to deal with quite a lot of crosses into the box as the flank is one of the formation's weak points.
While some teams playing in a 5-3-2 formation only require the centrebacks to sit back and defend, other managers have a more positive outlook and encourage their players to get forward if possible.
In a 3-5-2, there is more emphasis on the centrebacks to be good on the ball and keep possession.
They also need to be more athletic and quick as they have to cover all the space behind the wingbacks who have pushed upfield. This then puts greater pressure on them to not give away any fouls or get caught out at the back.
For a team with lots of great centrebacks, the 5-3-2 formation is a great option as you can fit more of them into your line-up.
It’s also well worth trying out if you’re conceding lots of goals and aren't sure how to shore up the defence.
Fullbacks / Wingbacks
As aforementioned, the 5-3-2 can be deceptively attack-minded and one area you can really see this is with the players that the manager selects at fullback.
How these players play and the positions they take up again depend on the instructions they've received and the manager's aims for the game.
When defending, the fullbacks line up either side of the centrebacks and protect their flank.
They’re expected to not only prevent the opposition's winger from getting in behind them but also from getting any crosses into the box.
Therefore, they need to have great timing, know when to tackle the winger and when to stand off, and wait for support to arrive.
Theirs is a thankless task as they may often be outnumbered unless a centreback or central midfielder comes across to help them out.
As such, the fullback needs to have great positioning and communicate well with the centreback alongside them and call a midfielder across when necessary.
In possession, the fullback should push wide and help create passing angles and lines for the centrebacks and central midfielders.
This means that they should have good ball skills and passing abilities.
While some managers will simply ask the fullback to stay back and protect their side of the defence, others will ask them to bomb forward and make the formation into a 3-5-2.
They need to have extraordinary fitness levels to get up and down their side of the pitch.
In the final third of the pitch, they need to combine well with the midfielders, make runs into space, and try and get crosses into the box if possible.
Their movement helps create space for the players in the centre and the passing angle they create helps the team to retain possession.
Transitions are very important with the 5-3-2 however so it’s crucial that the wingbacks push up at the right moment and don't get caught out by advancing up the pitch too quickly.
As you can see, the fullback/wingback position is a very tough one to play in the 5-3-2.
In this position, you need disciplined, hard-working, and talented players who are happy to run all day for the team.
As we saw earlier, the 5-3-2 formation has a very strong spine to it and this is in large part thanks to the three midfielders who line up in front of the back five.
With these three shielding and sitting in front of the defence, the formation becomes very hard to break down as the opposition has very little time and space in which to operate in front of the box.
While the centre of the park should almost be impenetrable, providing of course that they do their job correctly, the wings can be exploited by the opposition if the team isn't careful.
This means that one of the central midfielders on each side needs to constantly drop out wide and support the fullback in defending their flank.
Consequently, the midfielders should have great stamina as they need to put pressure on and harry the opposition in front of the box and out wide.
These three centre mids play a key role in determining how successful the team is and they need to communicate and work well together to not only defend but also retain possession and advance up the pitch.
As well as having fantastic positioning skills and passing abilities, they should also be confident on the ball and be great at finding space in the congested centre of the park.
While one central midfielder traditionally sits and does the main brunt of the defensive work, the other two have more freedom to contribute in the final third.
They shouldn't neglect their defensive work, however, and are expected to rush back whenever the team concedes possession.
This strikes a good balance between being a defensive and more attacking formation.
As the formation is quite defensive in set up, they need to refrain from dropping too deep and the two more attack-minded midfielders should get up in support of the strikers as much as possible.
The more creative of the two should aim to create lots of goalscoring opportunities while also weighing in with goals themselves.
The 5-3-2 is a great formation to choose if you have a wealth of excellent midfielders and don't want to sacrifice a striker up front.
It may also be well worth trying out if you don't have any brilliant wingers out wide.
As the team lines up with so many players in defence, it’s up to the two strikers to score the main bulk of the goals.
They need to have great finishing skills and be able to strike and head the ball powerfully and accurately.
Between them, these two players should have a wide array of different abilities and skillsets.
For instance, while one of the two often acts as the team's main outlet and makes darting runs in behind the opposition's defence, the other is often more creative and drops off into space to link the attack to the midfield.
Evidently, they need to be able to link up well and make sure that the ball sticks to them whether it’s played into their feet or chest.
They can then hold it up and wait for the rest of the team to advance up the pitch.
This is particularly important when the team is camped in their own half and is looking to play a long ball to relieve the pressure on the defence.
As well as communicating and working well as a duo, the strikers should also have a good relationship and understanding with the more attack-minded of the three midfielders.
This player can then thread passes through the defence for them to get on the end while they, in turn, can lay the ball off for them to have a shot.
The strikers' intelligent movement and darting runs are what create enough space and time for the central midfielders to operate in.
While one of the two may be expected to drop back and help the midfield win the ball back, both of them should refrain from dropping too deep as this makes it hard for the team to advance up the pitch.
When the team does push up into a 3-5-2 formation, the strikers then have more opportunities to get on the end of crosses into the box.
Here they need to be brave and have impeccable timing to judge the flight of the ball correctly.
In addition to this, the two strikers in the team need to have great technique and ball skills, be able to do deft one-touch passes, and ideally know how to dribble as well.
With so many strings to their bow, the two strikers actually give the formation a lot more attacking options and flexibility than appears at a first glance.
Attacking in the 5-3-2 Formation
As we've already seen, the 5-3-2 formation is quite defensive in nature and so teams often push up into a 3-5-2 when attacking.
This is because it creates lots of passing angles and triangles, with the two wingbacks either side of the midfield.
Up front, the two strikers can make runs in behind the defence, and in doing so stretch the play and increase the space and time in which the midfielders have to operate.
They can then exploit any gaps that arise in the opposition's defence and can always push forward and have a crack at goal if they see an opportunity arise.
In addition to this, the wingbacks can put crosses into the box for the strikers to get on the end of.
Unless the opponents have also lined up with three at the back, the strikers should find themselves one-on-one versus the centrebacks.
Add in an attacking midfielder and this means that the team can actually outnumber the opposition's defenders from time to time.
With two strikers rushing forward, an attacking midfielder or two arriving in the box and two wingbacks out wide, the formation can certainly be very offensive.
With lots of players making runs, it can be very hard for the opposition to keep track of what's going on.
While some teams regularly push up into the 3-5-2, other managers are more cautious and instead set the team up to counterattack.
Here, the idea is to draw the opposition forward, win the ball back when they’re out of position, and exploit the gaps they've left in behind.
The team then attacks very directly, hoping to release one of the strikers or briefly overwhelm and outnumber the opposition's defenders and have a shot on goal.
Yet another alternative that teams lining up in a 5-3-2 have is to push the sweeper up into the base of midfield and in doing so form a 4-1-2-1-2.
This midfield diamond then affords the team yet other attacking opportunities.
With a defensive-minded midfielder lying in front of the back-four, the rest of the midfielders and even the fullbacks can push forward, safe in the knowledge that there is at least some protection in front of the defence.
This allows even more players to join attack.
As you can see, the 5-3-2 formation actually has quite a lot of attacking potential and flexibility.
But this depends on the personnel you select, the instructions you give, and the tactical intelligence of the players.
Defending in the 5-3-2 Formation
With so many players lying in front of the box, it should almost be impossible for the opposition to work their way into the area and get a shot on goal.
As such, the main threat will be from longshots or crosses into the box from out wide.
As the fullbacks will often have to face the opposition's winger and fullback alone, a central midfielder or centreback should come across and help them out.
Though they need to make sure that they don't leave any gaps for the opponents to exploit in behind them.
The fullback should look to tackle their opponent if possible or block the cross into the box.
The centrebacks, however, should be alert to any danger and be ready to drop and head the ball away if it does make it in.
The midfielders should then look to win any second ball and clear it to safety.
While two of the centrebacks should be marking the opposition's strikers, the sweeper can then drop in behind them and clear up any loose balls that do make it through.
In addition to this, they can also put in a last gasp challenge on any player who does manage to snake their way through.
In front of the centrebacks and fullbacks are the three central midfielders who should hassle and harry the opponents and try and win the ball back.
These three need to have great stamina and constantly look to make interceptions and screen the defence.
When defending, one of the strikers may also drop back in support. This then makes it into a 5-4-1 which is even tougher to break down.
If necessary, the main out-and-out striker can also put pressure on the player with the ball although they should really conserve their energy and make sure they keep possession when it comes their way.
As the 5-3-2 formation can be very tiring for players, both physically and mentally, they really need to make sure that they retain their focus for the whole duration of the match.
Managers should also look to make substitutes and freshen up the team when possible.
While it’s a very defensively sound formation, the 5-3-2 can leave dangerous gaps in behind when the team pushes up and attacks.
In a 3-5-2, for instance, the centrebacks need to be very aware of the space to either side of them and cover the wingbacks who have pushed forward.
Another danger is if the team counterattacks too early and gets caught out when transitioning to attack.
This then means that some of the players are out of position which can lead to goalscoring opportunities for the opposition.
Great to use if you have lots of fantastic defenders, the 5-3-2, as with all formations, relies on the players being disciplined and hard-working if it’s to succeed.
While most managers select the 5-3-2 formation primarily for defensive purposes, it can actually be quite attacking, provided you have the right personnel.
With five defenders across the back and three combative midfielders chasing and harrying the opposition in front of them, the formation can be a nightmare for any team to face.
Once having won the ball back, the team can then spring a deadly counterattack or push up into a more offensive 3-5-2.
With two strikers upfront, the team should be able to fashion goalscoring opportunities, provided of course that they don't drop too deep.
As it can be both defensive and offensive, depending on what instructions you give, the 5-3-2 can be a great formation to use with the right mentality, tactical understanding, and hard-working players.
Further Reading: 5 Soccer Formations Explained (Full Guides with Images)