For those who appreciate the strategic side of football, tactics and formations are a juicy never-ending discussion subject. Great coaches obsessively chase the flawless plan, picturing their squads as group of soldiers ready to enter the battlefield or as pawns and rooks on a chess board. That’s OK. Not dehumanizing. It’s just football management.
Fortunately, there is no such thing as one perfect tactical solution since, most of the times, teams face opposing sides with different dynamics and game principles – but the same exact number of players, at least from the starting whistle. With such a myriad of possible approaches, these discussions can last for days.
Today, we look at the ancient 2-3-5!
One of the oldest base structures in the game, the 2-3-5 rose as football itself spread throughout the world. It was developed in the United Kingdom, giving Wrexham AFC their first Welsh Cup in the 1877-78 season. By the end of the 19th century, it was the most commonly used formation in top-level competitions – it had 3 major variations, with all of them being part of major success streaks:
- Pyramid: The original disposition of the players on the pitch made the formation look like a reversed pyramid. With only two defenders and a bunch of players up front, the centre halfback was the only one who swayed between offensive and defensive purposes – otherwise, it was a rather rigid setup, with each player caring only about the defensive, construction or attacking phases, depending on the position. The country of Uruguay triumphed under this formation in the 1930 FIFA World Cup, as well as in 2 Olympic Games (1924 and 1928);
- Danubian School: Popularised during the first decades of the 20th century in countries like Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (all part of the Danube river’s course, hence the name), this modification of the original 2-3-5 moved the centre forward slightly behind the inside forwards so that he can function as a target man, holding the ball with his back to goal and dishing it to teammates. It began a transition to a shorter-passing play, with less brute force ahead but a more fluid connection between the midfield and the offensive third;
- Metodo: A 2-3-2-3 in practical terms, the Italian version of the 2-3-5 brought Vittorio Pozzo and his pupils enormous glory – 2 World Cups, in 1934 and 1938. Reducing the distance between the 2 defenders and the halfbacks, both inside forwards dropped deeper and were supposed to receive the ball, pass it out wide and get to the box. This allowed for a safer defensive strategy, while still having a lot of players ahead.
All in all, what good can come from spreading the players across in such a bold formation, and why is it so uncommon nowadays?
- Offensive Manpower: Definitely the biggest upside. Putting so many people in favourable positions to score always keeps the opponents on their feet. With direct passing and multiple crosses from outside forwards in both flanks, at least 3 people are almost guaranteed in the box;
- Cake out of Crumbs: Since there are so many people that are ready to fire at goal, you don’t necessarily need technical superheroes to make this plan work. There’s no need to perform difficult dribbling runs or complex off-the-ball movements – if the outside forwards are keen at crossing the ball, most of the work is done and from there, you always have a chance to score.
- Exposed Backline: With so many people committed to the offense, you are always prone to conceding. Imagine two 2-3-5 formations playing against each other: The goalkeeper and defensive duo tremble in panic as they watch 5 forwards coming at them like an avalanche;
- Rigidity: Football has evolved and today, a 4-3-3 in the offensive phase is easily switched to a 4-5-1 when the team loses possession; a 3-4-3 quickly morphs into a 5-2-3 or a 3-2-5. Conclusion: it’s not so much about the formation, it’s primarily about the player’s movement and dynamics, both on and off the ball. In this ancient gameplan, most players usually stay around their original position;
- Outdated Philosophy: When the Pyramid strategy came up, the offside rule was different – 3 players were required to put the opposing strikers onside. In 1925, this law was changed to 2 players (as it remains today). This created the need for more balance between offense and defensive and most static all-out philosophies became obsolete.
To sum it up, it is clear that the 2-3-5 served its time, bringing stints of glory along the way. As the game developed, new models arose and, in current times, it is virtually impossible to find clubs whose entire structure and sportive performance depends on such an odd formation. It would probably turn out to be unsuccessful because of newer ways of thinking and laws of the game. However, at times, we get a glimpse of it when a team is desperately trying to score or, for example, when the opponent side is a man down.
Josep Guardiola has used it with fearful Bayern München, so how bad can it really be?