Efficacy of 3-5-2

Carlos Bilardo, the manager of the 1986 World Cup winner Argentina, boasted that the 3-5-2 combination was his innovation. The author says this came about more as an accident rather than intent.

Predictably, perhaps, the 3-5-2 formation swept the world of football after a World Cup: that of 1986 in Mexico, when Argentina won the trophy using that formation under the leadership of Carlos Bilardo (in pic), and defeating West Germany in the Final.   -  Getty Images

Liverpool started the present season with an unaccustomed 3-5-2 formation not too convincingly. At Wembley, in the Charity Shield, they, as Cupholders, lost 4-3 to the league champions, Leeds United.

The wide open spaces on the right flank of Liverpool’s defence were a gift to Leeds, especially to their left side attacker, Rod Wallace, who did much as he pleased, laying on a couple of his team’s four goals.

In their opening League match, at Nottingham Forest, Graeme Souness, Liverpool’s manager, persisted with the 3-5-2 formation, and again, it shipped abundant water. Forest, who hadn’t impressed me at all a couple of weeks earlier when I saw them comfortably beaten by Sampdoria at Leeds in the Makita Trophy, had a wonderful time of it against a Liverpool defence which again conceded far too much space.

Forest eventually won 1-0 with a spectacular cross-shot by Teddy Sheringam, but had it not been for the excellence of Liverool’s new young goalkeeper, James, the margin could have been much more.

Predictably, perhaps, the 3-5-2 formation swept the world of football after a World Cup: that of 1986 in Mexico, when Argentina won the trophy using that formation under the leadership of Carlos Bilardo, and defeating West Germany in the Final.

Subsequently, Bilardo would boast that his new formation had won imitators everywhere. This to some extent was true, but his claims tended to mask the fact that 3-5-2 came about only by accident: and comparatively late in the competition, at that.

First, though, let us examine what 3-5-2 means: or is meant to mean. Notionally at least, a team deploys only three defenders. In the case of the 1986 Argentina team this meant Jose-Luis Brown as the big sweeper, behind a couple of close marking man-to-man central defenders, in Cuciuffo and Ruggeri. On each flank played a midfield man: Giusti on the right, Olarticoechea on the left. The latter, who did very well indeed as an attacking flanker, in fact came into the side only as a result of the suspension of the first choice.

Enrique, Jorge Burruchaga and the incomparable Diego Maradona were the three central midfield men. That left the tall Jorge Valdano, the present manager of Valencia, up front, with licence to wander where he wished. A suitable role for a player who had figured on both wings and at centre-forward during his career. The idea was that the flank defenders would continually move forward, and that the five midflelders would always be ready to reinforce the lone attacker. Against England, Belgium and West Germany, in Argentina’s last three games, the system worked pretty well, overall. How it might have worked with anything but a footballing genius such as Diego Maradona in the midfield must be another story.

Against both England and Belgium, he scored an amazing individual goal: not to mention the traumatising goal he punched with his so called “Hand of God,” in the quarterfinal against England. In the Final, Maradona was somewhat subdued, but he still gave Burruchaga the pass for the winning goal.

All considerations of effectiveness aside, it must be recorded that Bilardo, though he may have had the idea in his head, certainly didn’t begin the 1986 World Cup with a 3-5-2 plan. He brought with him two young centre-forwards of promise, Claudio Borghi, who would later win the esteem of Milan’s President, Berlusconi, but not of their manager, Sacchi, and Pasculli.

Each was used, with inadequate effect: which meant a formation with two strikers up. That same scheme was in use when Argentina beat their eternal rivals Uruguay at Pubela on an afternoon of thunder and lightning, in the first round proper: when the knockout system succeeded the drawn out group games. Pasculli led the Argentine attack, with indifferent success, and Bilardo thought again about his tactics, before playing England at the Azteca Stadium in the quarterfinals.

To what extent can we really say the 3-5-2 system worked that day? Giusti and Olarticoechea were, in truth, no more than up to date versions of your old fashioned wing halves, whose function changed after Arsenal invented the third back game in 1925 and moved those wing halves from the wings into the middle. The old school wing half was expected to attack as well as defend.

England’s much criticised manager, Graham Taylor, has yearned for such players in his team, not least after a drawn game late last season in Prague against the Czechs, whose flank players constantly attacked. The truth is that the modern British full <FZ,2,0,9>back is a bit of a hybrid. The withdrawal of so many men into midfield means that he has to overlap, but he’s never quite sure what to do when he does, while a lack of true wingers means that when he actually meets one, he’s none too certain how to defend.

Total Football, in the 1970s, threw up such splendid all-round adventurous full backs as Wim Suurbier, Rudi Krol and Paul Breitner. But we seldom see their like today. 

Giusti, playing on the right flank for Argentina against England, was run ragged when John Barnes. a true winger, came on for the last quarter of an hour, set up one goal for Gary Lineker, and nearly made him another.

Liverpool have only the sketchiest idea of how 3-5-2 works. But just as the whole of football, bar Italy, seemed to imitate Brazil and 4-2-4 after the 1958 World Cup, so Argentina were followed after 1986. It just became the fashion.

This article was published in The Sportstar of September 12, 1992.