Soccer, or ‘football’ as they call it in some areas of the world is one of the greatest sports of all time, without a doubt. It’s funny how something can seem repetitive on paper, but continue to be more exciting every single year. We have seen soccer come a long way in recent years, too. In 1992 The English Division reformed itself as the English Premier League, with a Championship Division below it. Changes to relegation, promotion and European competition qualification have altered (and bettered) to a level where the game is constantly evolving in a positive fashion. Every aspect of the game has changed over the years, including management styles and tactical decisions. Formations are a vital part of the game and they have developed significantly too. The traditional 4-4-2 is long gone, there is a new formation that managers simply can’t get enough of…
The 5-3-2 is the go-to formation these days, it seems. Top managers have been caught using it, including the likes of: Antonio Conte, Gareth Southgate, Thomas Tuchel and more recently Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. For some it was always the formation of choice. What seems like a super-defensive formation actually turns into one of the most attacking formations available- utilizing the fullbacks. The smart thing with this formation is the fact that there are essentially three defenders. This appears misleading, since the ‘5’ implies five defenders, but this couldn’t be more wrong. If you’re a top attacking team, like Chelsea, you will spend the majority of the game attacking. This is where you can fully utilize your fullbacks, which essentially become wingers! The wide fullbacks are given the freedom to move so far up the field that it would be wrong to call them defenders.
The Chelsea Example
First we will take a look at Chelsea’s Left-Wing back, Ben Chilwell. He has been playing as a LWB this season, since ousting rival Marcos Alonso and has scored three goals in five games. This is impressive for any player, never mind a defender and just shows how much freedom he has been given. If we look on the other flank, we can also analyze Reece James’ statistics. James is the starting right-wing back for Chelsea and has five goals and three assists to his name from a total of eight appearances. This is mightily impressive and has spearheaded James up the rankings to be considered the top-performing right back this season.
Finally Some Recognition?
At the end of the day, defenders have it tough it terms of recognition. If we look at past ballon D’or winners, they are almost exclusively attacking players. Since the first Ballon d’Or ceremony in 1956, a total of three defenders have won the award. This seems impeccably low, considering some of the top defensive talent we have seen over the years. The grading system seems to be unfair, prioritizing goals and assists over successful tackles, goal preventions and clean sheets. Perhaps now with the increasing use of wingbacks, we might finally see defenders get the recognition they deserve. Adding goals and assists to their game while maintaining defensive security is some feat and will sure be noticed. It is fair to say that the wingback position now requires the most work and perhaps the stats will even show as much.
The ‘Safe’ Option?
Often we have seen managers revert to this formation to save their skin when the pressure is at its highest. Take Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United for example. United have been in terrible form over the last ten games, shipping far too many goals for a team that is home to a defense with a centre-back that cost £80 million ($108 million). So after a 5-0 demolishing from rivals Liverpool, what did Ole do? That’s right, revert to 5 at the back. The game after the Liverpool bash was another one for the media to ogle at. Both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United bosses were under pressure to secure a win, with the game even nicknamed the ‘el sackio’- as rumors said the losing boss would be fired (something that ultimately happened to Tottenham’s Nuno Espírito Santo). United utilized the 5 at the back for the first time that year and looked defensively secure for the first time in a long while. This saw them keep the formation for the games that followed, too.
Does It Always Work?
No! The formation doesn’t always work- it depends on a lot. Firstly it depends on your team’s ability to adapt to it. Secondly, you need to have good enough wingbacks that can track back when you’re defending and push forward when you’re attacking. The use of wingbacks often eliminates the use of conventional attacking wingers, so if you’re going to take out your Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech or Kai Havertz in favor of Ben Chilwell and Reece James, you better make sure it pays dividends. Lets not forget that using managers like Antonio Conte have been fired in the past for a lack of results using this formation- it depends on a lot of aspects. If you become to fixed to one particular formation, you run the risk of becoming predictable. This means teams can easily set up against you and overpower your tactics.
The formation is a good one. With the right wing-backs at your disposal you can truly achieve success. It has worked wonders for many managers thus far and we wouldn’t be surprised to see others try it in the future. We just hope that managers don’t become too reliant on one particular position on the pitch to achieve positive results.