The 3-5-2. Could it work?

While waiting for the next qualifying match against Qatar, I started thinking about something Roy had written prior to the Croatia match. A recommendation that Choi Kang-Hee do something drastic. That he change the team’s formation from a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 to a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2.This change is not a small one. Changing from full backs to wing backs, one striker to two strikers, three central midfielders to, well that’s actually the same. A very different style is needed to have success with the 3-5-2. At first, I’ll admit, that I dismissed the idea, but after thinking about it more I started wondering, maybe it’s not so crazy after all.

In fact, I recall that just after the 2010 World Cup, then-new manager, Cho Kwang-Rae, attempted to use a 3-4-2-1 formation in a friendly against Nigeria. His starting formation looked something like this:

korea nigeria

This match was notable for a few things. First it was the last match for Lee Woon-Jae, who retired from international football. He had already effectively been “retired” by the emergence of Jung Sung-Ryong (who replaced him in the 27th minute), but Cho Kwang-Rae gave him one last goodbye match, and the chance to be applauded off the field by the fans. A nice gesture. The second notable thing, was that at the time, Yoon Bitgaram was the young player tipped for greatness. Koo Ja-Cheol, who would eventually eclipse him, was not on the minds of many. Indeed in this match, Yoon showed some great footwork and an eye for goal. Unfortunately that has yet to be replicated on a consistent basis. Finally, it is notable for who we miss from this team, and who is (somewhat unfortunately) still with the team. Alongside Lee Woon-Jae, gone are the likes of Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo. How we could do with an experienced, quality left back, and an intelligent wide midfielder. Still with the team are Lee Jung-Soo (although only briefly) and Kwak Tae-Hwi. Two and a half years later, we still have not yet found adequate replacements.

Cho’s experiment did not last long. He would stick with it in the next match, a friendly versus Iran, but by match 3 (a friendly against Japan), he would start to move to the 4-2-3-1, which he used until his sacking. The 3-4-2-1 showed some promise, but was clearly a work in progress. One of the main problems was that none of the players really had any familiarity with it. The defense had only played in four-man backlines, and the midfielders weren’t quite used to the new defensive adjustments they would have to make. So, ultimately it was shelved. And ideas of the 3-5-2 faded from memory.

But recently, the 3-5-2 has made a resurgence. Mainly in Italy’s Serie A with champions Juventus using the formation brilliantly. Also using the 3-5-2 are Napoli, Udinese, Fiorentina, and to a lesser extent Inter. At Euro 2012 the Italian national team also used it on a few occasions (although Cesare Prandelli seems to favor a 4-3-3-/4-3-2-1). In the Premier League, Roberto Mancini has also toyed with the 3-5-2 on a few occasions. Last season under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona also experimented with a three-man defense (although probably from necessity) and played a 3-4-3 formation. Of all these teams that have tried, I believe it is Juventus that has really demonstrated how to use the formation. So, to start with, I would like to do a tactical examination of Juve’s 3-5-2 using their 2012-13 group stage match against defending champions Chelsea as an example.

The players/formation

juve lineup

Let’s start with the defense as it’s easily the biggest difference in the two formations. In an ideal four-man line, you want two high-energy and balanced fullbacks. Players who can surge forward to help attack, but can get back quickly, put in a tackle, and have enough pace to keep up with tricky wingers. Modern examples of this would be Dani Alves, Patrice Evra, Maicon (in his prime), Fabio Coentrao, Ashley Cole, etc. You also need two quality centerbacks, usually coaches prefer one “stopper” (a physical, hard tackling, aerial player) and one “sweeper” (good positional sense, fast, clean tackler). The former’s job is to stop attacking plays, the latter’s is to clean up any mess that get’s past the stopper. Examples of the former are players like Nemanja Vidic, Sergio Ramos, John Terry, Carles Puyol, and Vincent Kompany. Examples of the latter are Rio Ferdinand, Gerard Pique, and Raphael Varane.

When looking at Juve’s three-man line, they have Giorgio Chiellini, Leo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli. Two stoppers (Chiellini and Bonucci) and one sweeper (Barzagli). I won’t list all of the defensive combos that the teams mentioned earlier used, but generally this trend followed. Two stoppers, one sweeper. How they function though, would largely depend on the opposing formation. Right now, lone strikers are in vogue, either through the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3, and it is fairly uncommon to see a true two-striker partnership. Against a lone striker (as it a 4-2-3-1), one stopper, for Juve it is often Chiellini, steps out to mark the striker, particularly if it’s a dangerous one. Against two strikers, both stoppers usually will step out, leaving the sweeper free to clean up. So, when picking a three-man line, it is necessary to look for stoppers who are comfortable stepping out of the line to mark players, but who are also smart and have good positional sense (so they don’t get dragged too far forward or too far wide). That leaves the sweeper. The sweeper needs to have some pace (so not to get beaten by midfield runners), an excellent reading of the game (to spot dangers from deep), and a clean tackler (since many they will make will be last-man tackles). Additionally, the back-three do have offensive duties as well. The outer backs often have space to advance the ball, so they should have decent ball skills. The middle back often needs to have good passing skills in case the outer backs get pressured. In the Juve example, Chiellini and Barzagli both are decent on the ball, and Bonucci has good long-range passing ability.

Moving to the wingbacks. The major difference between a normal fullback and a wingback, to me, is that a wingback must be a good attacker and defender. If they cannot do one or the other, then they are not a very good wingback. If a fullback can do one of them well, they can still be decent. In the example, Juve does not use a true wingback on either flank. Lichtsteiner is a fullback, and at times he has struggled in Juve’s 3-5-2. A good defender, decent crosser, but his flaw as a wingback is that he is not great at beating defenders. He makes an excellent fullback as he can combine well with a wide midfielder and makes good overlapping runs. But as a wingback, neither of these two things really exists. The wingback must largely do it on his own. On the other side is Asamoah, a central midfielder by nature. But his high energy allows him to do a good job as a wingback. He can beat a man, and be a threat offensively. And his defensive ability is solid.

Here we will stop the Juve analysis. The central midfield is the same as picking the midfield three in a 4-2-3-1. The strike partnership is like picking any two-striker partnership. So, let’s turn our attention to the South Korean national team. Do we have the players to effectively play a three-man defense and use wingbacks?

For the backline, we’re looking for three centerbacks, two stopper and one sweeper. Here we could fashion that, if you accept youth and inexperience. The two stoppers would be Kwak Tae-Hwi and Jung In-Hwan. I would place Kwak Tae-Hwi in the outer stopper role mainly due to his larger experience. I feel that Kwak would be less likely to stray too far out. Plus he could help shield the more inexperienced Jung. The sweeper would be Kim Ki-Hee, who did a decent job in this role in his only senior squad appearance (against Australia where he partnered Jung In-Hwan). The wingbacks are a bit harder as we don’t really have any true wingbacks. We don’t really have any top fullbacks either. Although historically, I think Lee Young-Pyo and Cha Du-Ri would have made great wingbacks. The closest we have to a wingback now is probably Park Joo-Ho of FC Basel. So, it would make sense to start him as the left wingback ahead of say, Yoon Suk-Young who is more of a traditional fullback.. Oh Beom-Seok might be able to pull off the wingback role as well. Choi Chul-Soo was decent against Croatia, might be able to fill in as well on the right. A third option would be to use a midfielder like Lee Chung-Yong, but his defending is a bit suspect. So, I’d be hesitant to use him there.

In midfield we are looking for a basic three-man midfield. In a three-man midfield, I like one deep playmaker (Ki Sung-Yueng) and two high energy midfielders. One who is generally more attack-minded (Koo Ja-Cheol) and one who is more defensive minded (Park Jong-Woo remains my favorite, but given the current squad, that would be Ha Dae-Sung). Again we could look to Italy for ideas, particularly AC Milan when they were under Carlo Ancelotti. Then they used Andrea Pirlo deep, Gennaro Gattuso was the defensive midfielder, and Clarence Seedorf was the more attack-minded midfielder.

Up front we have two strikers. My preference is to have one striker who acts as a semi-target man who can draw out defenders (Park Chu-Young) and one who drops a bit deeper and runs into the space (Son Heung-Min). The strikers must also be comfortable switching roles. Due to this little requirement, I would not include Lee Dong-Gook as the target player (nor would I include Kim Shin-Wook). Ji Dong-Won could do it, but I think he’s less effective dropping deep in a central position. An alternative would be to put Koo Ja-Cheol in the support striker role, and fill the midfield with another high energy runner (this would look more like Milan in the later years with Pirlo deep and Gattuso and Ambrosini as the runners).

So, my proposed 3-5-2 would look something like this.

korea 352

Would it work? Honestly, not too sure. The players would certainly need time to adjust to it.  But, it’s an interesting thought.

Let me know what you think in the comments section.

About Jae Chee 339 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.


  1. We need a new coach, someone who the players can trust and believe. I feel like the current coach is a substitue teacher whom the players know will either be caned or quit as soon as they qualify for the World Cup. I think a Brazilian/Portuguese coach would benefit us the most, since the World Cup will be in Brazil and he will know the culture/style and hype the media for our team benefit.

    Please KFA, pick a new coach and let him grow the team in order for the team to thrive.

  2. I agree that we need a new coach, and that it needs to be someone who the players can trust and buy into. That is something that Cho Kwang-Rae had going for him. All of the players seemed to buy into his idea for the team. I don’t feel the same about the team and Choi Kang-Hee. I’m not sure about a Brazilian/Portuguese coach purely because they will be more familiar with the culture/style of Brazil. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and think that the national team coach should be a national if possible. So, my first choice would be Hong Myung-Bo. He’s a legend in the game for Korea, has national team experience, is learning more now over at Anzhi, understands the team and the political culture of the KFA, and would be popular with the players.

    • I agree that we need a new coach. Someone who can bring out the best in players and support them both mentally and physically. Hong Myung Bo did a great job at the Olympics. Gus Hiddink could do this he was connected with all the players and brought out the best in all players.

      • Hiddink did do an amazing job in getting the players to believe in themselves and play together. Although if I step out of my Korea bias we were a bit fortunate against Italy and Spain. I think that Choi Kang-Hee really sent the wrong message from the start when he publicly said he didn’t really want the job and wanted to go back to Jeonbuk as soon as possible. Plus he said he wasn’t good enough to coach at the World Cup. What player could take a coach like that seriously. He doesn’t need to say he’s the second “special one”, but he needs to show self-belief and pride in the job. I think his poor attitude is starting to really filter down to the players.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Augsburg loses 1-2 to Nurnberg / Tavern Weekend Listings - Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors

Join in the Tavern's conversations -Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.