The ubiquity of digital media has led to a common lament that it’s almost impossible to be truly surprised by players or systems featured on the world’s stage. While that’s often the case, it’s still been excellent and a novelty to watch a few of the early round standouts play the under-used and tricky 5-3-2/3-5-2.
Though recently making a strong comeback in Serie A, notably with the Scudetto winning Juventus, the system has been rarely seen in the rest of Europe. Requiring highly skilled players in demanding positions to make it truly effective, it can lead to defensive overkill against the lone striker 4-2-3-1. That system being the default setting in recent years at club level keeps the formation rare. However 3-5-2 has been a winning formula against the more common 2 and 3 man front lines at this competition with wing-backs quickly becoming one of the defining features of this blockbuster World Cup.
Even more fascinating has been watching the way different nations use the advantages the formation presents, especially in the wingback position.
Mexico’s Miguel Herrera brought the 3-5-2 with him when he became El Tri’s fourth manager of the qualifying cycle. Importing both formation and players from his La Liga side gave Mexico a solid base to build off of after the fortuitous turn at the end of their qualifying campaign.
The Mexicans field Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar as two wing-backs, both playing the most recognizable versions of that role of any team in Brazil. Both hug the touchlines from their own end of the field, their dribbling skill and speed carrying them up level with the opposition box, Layun providing the better delivery from the left, usually looking for Oribe Peralta lurking at the edge of the box. Aguilar tends to combine with Giovani Dos Santos on the right, the quick one-twos between the pair dragging defenders around the box, opening space for Dos Santos thrilling footwork or a ball through for Oribe Peralta.
The Netherlands sailed through qualifying with Louis Van Gaal generally sticking to the 4-3-3, occasionally breaking out the 4-2-3-1 for some variety. Being a unique combination of realist and perfectionist, Van Gaal experimented during the friendlies prior to Brazil. The loss of Kevin Strootman and a defense featuring mostly young players prompted Van Gaal to risk the wrath of the Dutch purists by moving away from the old Ajax saw.
The Oranje, as ever, play the 3-5-2 in their own way. The two players stationed out wide have very different briefs, Daryl Janmaat only occasionally passes the halfway line. Instead Janmaat is tasked with helping cover space as the 3 man defense shuffles up and over to shut down space in midfield and compensate for the space left by Daley Blind. Starting his career as a left-back Blind recently received the Dutch Player of the Year award for his season in the holding midfield role at Ajax.
In the opening demolition of Spain, Blind was crucial with his devastating long range passing totally bypassing a bewildered Spanish mid-field while avoiding leaning on the fading Wesley Sneijder to provide the spark. Continuing with this formation isn’t a sure thing, Van Gaal prefers flexibility and the rambunctious Australia exposed the inexperience of the young back line and it’s susceptibility to pace. The lighting quick hydra that is Chile will provide the Dutch with their sternest test of the tournament.
Costa Rica came to Brazil as a bit a of mystery. Qualifying second in the Hex they had a pretty average run to that spot, some good wins, mostly away losses, but showed that they had a few quality players that could give them a threat come June.
On June 14th fans in the stadium and watching at home were treated to Costa Rica schooling Uruguay with a textbook performance. Los Ticos’ counterattacking 3-5-2 worked flawlessly against Uruguay’s mundane 4-4-2, Gamboa and Diaz brought the energy needed to work hard up and down the touchline, stretching Uruguay as soon as the ball turned over. Gamboa in particular added to the joy Costa Rica got down the right, combining well with Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. In the end set-pieces proved the difference but the hard running of Gamboa and Diaz meant that Costa Rica found themselves in a 3v2 or 2v1 against the Uruguayan back line, leading to the hacks and last ditch fouls that created the parade of Ticos set pieces in the final 20 minutes. Costa Rica has a tough group but their dominate opening display will give the England and Italy back lines something to think about.
The demands of international soccer are very different from that of club matches but perhaps the effectiveness and possibility for variation will lead to the 3-5-2 appearing on more European pitches in August.