I’ve recently been addicted to Gordon Ramsay videos on Youtube. Don’t ask why, but it seems like a good way to kill time in between classes or before bed. In one Hell’s Kitchen episode, contestants are given the chance to cook anything for the Chef – any one-course meal they’d like. Though there were some remarkably bland meals (cauliflower couscous?) which Ramsey rejected with his usual sharp-tongued repugnance, one ingenious chef decided to serve a rib-eye steak with white peaches, almost to show how avant-garde and innovative he is. Ramsey is intrigued, but spits it out after taking a bite and says, “It doesn’t work. Fucking disgusting.”
Well, in the strangest of ways, that couldn’t-help-himself chef is Shin Tae-yong, and his 3-5-2 is the rib-eye steak with white peaches. It’s unnecessary, fails to fit ingredients that don’t go together, messes up some good individual ingredients and, simply put, is fucking disgusting.
The Birth of 3-5-2
Perhaps there was a time in which fruit on steak tasted good – or perhaps there wasn’t, and maybe it’s time for me to *really* drop this analogy. Regardless, let’s rewind and look for a moment at the place of 3-5-2 in past and modern tactics, because there obviously is a place and context for the 3-5-2 shape. Jonathan Wilson explains in his evolution of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, that in European football, the 3-5-2 was the natural progression from the Italian catenaccio, which saw two defensive defenders – a man-marking centreback and a defensive and central right-back – accompanied by two more aggressive ones – a central libero (or sweeper) and an aggressive left-back. To provide balance, the right midfielder often had the responsibility to tuck in defensively.
By converting the right midfielder into more of a wing-back and tucking in the defensive right-back into a 3-man central defense, you had your back 5 (3 centrebacks (2 defensive, 1 sweeper) and 2 wingbacks).
3-5-2 is both the progression from catenaccio, and the response to the tactical trend at the time, the 4-4-2. As illustrated below, the red team has a spare man at the back to cover for either centreback or move up as a ball-carrier, while the central midfield sees a 3v2 overload in favor of red. Without tactical innovation from the blue team, they theoretically have a disadvantage in attack and in midfield.
Teams playing this shape were victorious in the 1990, 1994 and 2002 World Cups, as well as the 1996 Euro. The tactical world either joined the club or tried new ways to beat it. Even the English, housekeepers of their beloved 4-4-2, tested the 3-back at one point.
The Death of 3-5-2
Michael Cox characterizes the 2000s as the “death of the three-man defense”. By around the mid-2000s, football was changing to a more modern form as we know it today. Cox hypothesizes that the game saw more pace, agility and versatility, a break from more rigid shapes. For example, teams saw more merit in integrating skillful midfielders centrally. One-striker formations like the 4-2-3-1, in which number 10s could play both as the attacking playmaker and a deeper second striker, rose to fashion. It also gave a new meaning to the role of the attacking full-back, as it allowed teams to provide the space and balance for overlapping fullbacks, not necessarily wingbacks (one attacks, the other stays at home beside the centre-backs to protect against the counter). Faced against these 1-striker formations (including the 4-3-3), the 3-5-2 fell out of fashion. Why play 3 centrebacks against just 1 striker? It was too much cover, and reactive to a threat that no longer existed – two traditional strikers.
Simply put, the 3-5-2 died. It was shelved and became a useless formation.
The Return of 3-5-2?
However, in certain contexts, 3-5-2 and 3-man defenses have returned somewhat to prominence. Jonathan Wilson again (this article is basically going to be me picking at the brain of Jonathan Wilson, don’t be too impressed) points out how despite the 3-5-2 largely vanishing from the tactical scene, some teams in the mid-200s remained successful with it. Egypt under Hassan Shehata won the 2006, 2008 and 2010 African Cup of Nations undefeated by playing the 3-5-2 in a continent where 4-4-2 was still then the basis of tactical thinking. Only sides that would try and fit players into a 4-2-3-1 system managed to pose Egypt discomfort, including in their World Cup playoff in 2010 against Algeria.
In the recent Euro 2016, the two sides playing a back three – Italy and Wales – made it deep in the competition. Both sides, however, used that formation not out of ideology but out of practicality, Wilson argues. Italy needed a way to integrate the sturdy Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini trio, while Wales needed to patch up defensive problems while maintaining the integrity of their three-man midfield of Ledley, Allen and Ramsey.
In the respect that a few select national teams have used it to great success, the 3-back has returned. England and Russia seem set to enter the World Cup with a 3-man defense. It also has made a small breakthrough in club football, with Juventus and other Italian clubs using it frequently over the past few years, as has Conte’s Chelsea and on occasion Pochettino’s Spurs. Its muted return is more owed to teams playing to their strengths than to reacting to the trend of tactics in football. With the exception of Shehata’s Egypt, a 3-back today is practical, NOT about reacting to how to beat what everyone else is doing.
Shin Tae-yong’s shortcomings with the system
Since Shin Tae-yong took over, Korea has tried the 3-back on five separate occasions. And it is fair to say that so many goals conceded under the 3-back system have been a direct consequence of players being unable to play the system being exploited.
Let’s go over a few examples. October 2017, Korea is down 3-0 to Russia, and their 4th goal sees neither of the three centrebacks take responsibility for any of the two forwards.
Against Morocco, the wingbacks become the culprits. Shin Tae-yong had tried to shoehorn Lee Chung-yong as the right-wing back to dramatic failure.
The third run was against North Korea, where South Korea’s offensive approach was anemic, especially since North Korea was only deploying one forward…
Then against Poland, Shin ended his experiment in the first half because of it’s low efficiency at creating chances, switching to a 4-4-2 in the second half. K League Coach (@kleaguecoach on Twitter) highlighted this super well, so I won’t try and re-state things. Instead, here’s a comparison of Korea’s first half final third activity and their second half final third activity, courtesy of K League Coach (seriously, check him out, he’s the real deal!):
Finally, yesterday against Bosnia, all three Bosnian goals came from exploitation of the holes in Korea’s defense, and the inability of our wing-backs to track back down the pitch as quickly as one should in a 3-back formation. Goal number 1:
Goal number 2:
Goal number 3:
Fact vs Korean Context
Fact: The 3-5-2 is a dangerous game to play in modern tactics because of how the game as evolved as I’ve described above. It requires players comfortable in the system, a manager comfortable in teaching it, and the knowledge to know when it’s overkill to play three defenders against a given opponent. Unless you’re Italian, this formation requires commitment.
Korean Context: Shin Tae-yong clearly can’t teach the 3-5-2 in the short time-span of international breaks (or whatever homework he assigns players during their club season). Moreover, he’s trialing the 3-5-2 in all the wrong games (against North Korea’s 1 striker, and Bosnia’s 4-3-3 – he was *asking* for the wingers to run behind the wingbacks).
Fact: The 3-5-2 only really suits a squad that is made for it – even in club football, it’s hard to build a 3-5-2 system over time. Antonio Conte, for example, had to train and model Victor Moses into a wingback, but still went for 3-4-3 in order to please Pedro, Hazard, Willian and company, at the expense of Fabregas. This year, he opted instead to try and bring Cesc Fabregas into midfield and re-model Hazard into a forward drifting wide, and Chelsea declined mightily in quality.
Korean Context: Shin Tae-yong tried Lee Chung-yong and Kim Young-gwon as wingbacks early on. He sobered up and called up K League wingbacks or fullbacks, but is still trying to squeeze Ki Sung-yueng as the central centreback, when it clearly is a waste of his talents on the national team. Moreover, Hwang Hee-chan, Son Heung-min and Lee Seung-woo can all be effective as wingers, but the 3-5-2 forces any wing-forward centrally only.
Fact: The 3-5-2 needs powerful, powerful wingbacks. They take up the hybridization responsibilities as clever attackers, sort of like wingers, and disciplined wide defenders, like a fullback. They need to have pace and stamina in leaps and bounds.
Korean Context: No Korean player active today shares all of these attributes.
Fact: The 3-5-2 also needs centrebacks who know their roles. Wider centrebacks have to be prepared to block crosses, but also cover rapidly, all while knowing when to shift narrowly. The central centreback is preferably both sweeping in behind and moving high up the pitch as a ball-playing defender.
Korean Context: Yoon Young-sun and Oh Ban-seok may have a reputation to be stronger centrebacks, but they were seriously exploited vs Bosnia for their inability to cover. Ki Sung-yueng was outmuscled by Dzeko on more than one occasion and doesn’t know the role, as demonstrated by his tunnel tirade at halftime (throwing his armband on the ground and swearing loudly).
Club Manager vs International Manager
The problem that Shin Tae-yong has had consistently for me is that he tries to manage national teams like a club manager. With both the U20 and Olympic sides, he has had extended training camps and multiple friendlies (remember the U20 team playing a random friendly against Jeonbuk Hyundai?), and he’s brought that approach to the Korean national team. We had a training camp in January with friendlies against Latvia, Moldova and Jamaica, and we’ve scheduled 4 friendlies ahead of the World Cup – the most of any national team. Granted, he’s been in the job for less than a year, and perhaps he saw how Hong Myung-bo’s inability to give his team tactical variations in 2014 as something that felled them. Simply put, he wants a lot, a lot, a lot of time with his team.
But his biggest achilles’ heel is his obsession with trying out multiple tactical variations with international teams. Under his tenure, the KNT has played 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 3-4-3 and 4-4-2. In less than a year! Shin’s reputation as the tinkerman has left fans – and probably players – guessing as to what he’s going to do in every match. Club teams can build around 2-3 tactical plans in a year and master them, training over a sustained period of time to find the players to fit the formation. International managers, however, given their limited access to the squad, should more often find the formation to fit the team. With the lack of a real #10 on the national team, and the obvious Achilles’ heel of an unorganized defense, Shin Tae-yong’s decision to go with a sturdy 4-4-2 against Colombia, which is capable of a dynamic high press against weaker sides, is a laudable one. However, the 3-back systems that he has deployed are the perfect example of Shin trying to desperately find the players to fit the system.
The 3-5-2 As A Solution for Sweden?
My reasoning for why Shin Tae-yong is still trying the 3-5-2 is because he believes it could give Korea a platform to beat Sweden. We basically know what the Swedes will do – they play 4-4-2 with two tall strikers, and their starting XI is largely set in stone for quite some time, and all their variations in their limited system are well documented. Forsberg likes to drift inside and work his trickery, Olsson (the left-back) likes to push up, and if everyone is in their usual place then Sweden will just go long to Toivonen or Berg from the ball-playing centrebacks Granqvist and Lindelof. Their defensive shape is predictable.
But not only can we not play the formation, Sweden has proven it can play against it if it’s not well executed. In their European play-off, Italy, for example, lined up in a variant of the 3-5-2 against Sweden’s 4-4-2 (it was more of a 3-1-4-2 than a 3-4-1-2), but couldn’t score across two legs. Ventura’s poor game management combined with Sweden’s rational decision to just play a very compact 4-4-2 in response to the numerical overload in midfield saw the Italians flounder. This Italian side also had not often played in the 3-back (though it’s a comfort zone for most Italian national teams) under Ventura, while the Swedes have been playing 4-4-2 for years.
They are not like the African sides of the past decade or the European sides of the 90s, and will adjust easily to the 3-5-2 as they did against Italy. The 3-5-2 isn’t some invincible formation like it once was, and Korea’s variation of it does not satisfy the practicality criteria required for its success in modern day international football.
So, Shin Tae-yong, don’t put peaches on your rib-eye. Keep it simple, because the 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3) just doesn’t work. It hasn’t, and it won’t, and quite frankly, it’s – in my best Gordon Ramsay impression – fucking disgusting.