Kings of Rome: Return of the 3–5–2
Change in trends is talked about a lot by pundits and armchair directors alike. Much of Sir Alex Ferguson’s memoir, packed with valuable life lessons, is full of anecdotes about change in the beautiful game: from players evolving diets (there was a time when the best footballers’ diet consisted of steak and meat pie), training styles (from simply ‘running til’ you drop’ to hiring specialized technical staff), kits (from cotton shirts to the most advanced sweat-wicking synthetics), and everything in between. One factor in football which always appear to come and go like fashion trends, and certainly talked about by the media in a similar way, is tactics.
In the past 5–7 seasons, as physicality and speed (pressing play) came to replace style and midfield creativity, styles like 4–3–3 and even 3–1–4–2 have become commonplace in the top leagues. Classic formations like the 4–4–2, forever in the annals of footballing history, upon which the laurels of A.C. Milan rest, have also made a comeback. One such formation who has made a triumphant return: 3–5–2.
The most recent example of its success came last Friday in the Rome derby — where Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio side completely annihilated their higher ranking city rivals, AS Roma. The scoreline was 3–0, but this does not tell the whole story. From kickoff to final whistle, Roma were outclassed across 90 minutes by a brilliant and spirited display by Lazio. The fact that the result was only 3–0 is a testament to Roma keeper Pau Lopez, who received neither professional communication nor support from his defenders.
Let’s talk about the “5” in midfield. An odd number of midfielders allows for tighter concentration in the “center”, which in this case are the three players in the central midfield, Luis Alberto, Lucas Leiva, and Sergej Milinković-Savić (SMS). The compactness achieved by this artificial overcrowding of the midfield, coupled with placing agile wingers at the two sides, creates a lot of tactical freedom. First, it affords the three players at the center easier passing and therefore an easier time changing the axis of gameplay. Second, it gives the 6 (centerback or defensive midfielder) the option to assist play forward. During the match in question, both veterans Stefan Radu and Lucas Leiva did just that, often executing a forward pass that allows the attacking players to rush forward and create more space in the forward play without too much of a risk, thanks to the proximity of the 5 players. Third, the extended wings (in this example, Lazzari and Marušić) allow some overlap between them and the wingbacks (Luiz Felipe and Acerbi) and if the correct players — those with pace and stamina — are chosen, a wonderful tactical fluidity is achieved, as they can any time assist in the back line when under pressure and, like a spring, dash forward in a fast counterattack. (In other words, the fluidity of becoming 5–3–2 in a moment’s notice gives defensive options as well.) In fact, two of Lazio’s goals in this match were produced from this form of counterattacking play. Finally, like any formation with two at the front, a certain chemistry with the strikers is achieved, as they efficiently divide the space in front of goal. One of Lazio’s greatest strengths during the last few seasons has been the absolute chemistry that exists in their forward players, Immobile, Caicedo, and Correa. The team is doubly fortunate if they possess a striker like Immobile, who consistently demonstrate utmost enthusiasm in defense as well as in assisting his fellow strikers.
The team that uses this system has the freedom to choose whether to give the opponent possession and take the counters (Red Star Belgrade used this mentality to defeat Olympique de Marseille in the 1991 European cup final) or, use the compactness to keep timely possession. It is especially helpful for less “star-studded” squads. Lazio typically go the former route. Sheffield United, in their brilliant run in their Premier League return last season, used the latter. Either way, the burst of energy going forward is difficult for any opponent to stop, especially those who lack creativity in the midfield. After Friday’s Rome derby, statistics revealed that the two Roma players who passed to each other the most were their central defenders Mancini and Ibañez — 63 passes between them — a testament to the relentless tide which 3–5–2 allows to teams irregardless of squad depth.