5-3-2 Soccer Formation

By Woodland Soccer Team •  Updated: 08/09/22 •  11 min read

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One of the numerous systems managers in world football have devised is the 5-3-2 system. To football fans that keenly followed the game in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the 5-3-2 was a widespread formation that teams employed regularly. In recent years, however, the popularity of the formation has waned due to the emergence of formations such as the 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and 4-4-2, all of which are far more suited to the front-foot football majority of teams prefer to be identified with today.

Due to the arrangement of the players in the 5-3-2 soccer formation, many fans assume that the 5-3-2 soccer tactics are wholly defensive. This article will correct misconceptions and answer questions such as “What is 5-3-2 in soccer?” “How to play a 5-3-2 soccer formation?” and “Is the 5-3-2 a defensive formation?” It will also inform those managers coaching the 5-3-2 soccer formation how to effectively play a 5-3-2 soccer formation.

5-3-2 Formation History

Argentine manager Helenio Herrera pioneered the 5-3-2 formation as he built a dominant Inter Milan team with the formation in the 1960s. The formation was revived during the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan when the Brazil national team stood out for its excellence at both ends of the pitch. With Luis Felipe Scolari in charge of the Selecao at the tournament, they won the competition for the fifth time in their history, a tally that has not been bettered to this day.

Scolari’s side was the first national team to set up with a straightforward 5-3-2, and they managed to achieve a great deal with the formation. The Brazilians have been known to play some of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing football in history. Seeing as they pioneered the 5-3-2 formation, it is clear that the formation is not a defensive tactic. The Selecao proved this as they won the tournament, scoring 18 goals in only seven games at the finals. They also conceded only four goals throughout the competition.

5-3-2 Formation Setup

Having watched some teams play a 5-3-2 soccer lineup to stifle and frustrate their opponents in recent years, many fans may wonder how it’s possible that the formation was used to such devastating effect at the 2002 World Cup by Brazil.

In soccer, the 5-3-2 system of play can be used in different ways, depending upon the manager’s specifications and instructions. The 5-3-2 formation is a variant of the 3-5-2 formation and can transform into this formation in no time. The manager’s instructions are essential to determine whether the formation employs a defensive or offensive approach. It is a straightforward system because of the verticality it gives teams, making it quite suitable for rapid counter-attacking football. As a defensive formation, it is one of the best because of the sheer number of bodies that will directly block off teams’ path to the goal.

Similarly, this number can translate to attacking situations when the team needs it. On paper, the 5-3-2 formation means having a rearguard of five defenders with three central midfielders and two strikers also included in the starting lineup. Several tweaks and modifications can be made to this structure, but this is the primary structure of a 5-3-2 soccer tactic.

5-3-2 Defensive Setup

The defensive arrangement of the 5-3-2 formation is intriguing, given how managers use it. It is usually composed of three central defenders and two full-backs, one on each flank.

For these three central defenders, however, there may be different instructions from the manager, which cause them to have different roles in the defence. In some cases, the manager may opt for a sweeper to play along with two central defenders to give them a 1-4-3-2 shape when they defend. Other times, the manager may choose to have all three central defenders on the same line and playing on an equal footing.

Some managers have managed to utilise their central defenders in this system as potent attacking threats, such as in the approach used by Chris Wilder in his days as Sheffield United manager. Wilder allowed two of his three central defenders the license to overlap. At the same time, the midfielders and full-backs took care of the spaces such runs created at the back. The likes of Chris Basham and Enda Stevens enjoyed this role for the Blades in their time in the Premier League.

On the other hand, the full-backs in the soccer 5-3-2 system are fundamental to how the formation changes periodically. When a manager opts to go defensive, the full-backs are instructed to remain in their half to provide defensive cover out wide without ever neglecting their position.

However, when teams play with a flat five at the back, they mostly do so to defend and prevent their opponents from finding gaps in their backline. Under the tutelage of Steve Bruce, Newcastle United perfected this system and used it to escape relegation from the Premier League for several seasons.

The other strategy that the full-backs in a 5-3-2 can play is when they are used as wing-backs in practice but full-backs on paper. To play this role, however, specialised full-backs are required with outstanding technical ability and excellent positioning. This same system was what Brazil used in the 2002 World Cup to get great attacking play from a seemingly defensive formation. Roberto Carlos and Cafu, two extremely technical full-backs, started in the back five for the Selecao. To thrive in this setup, the full-backs must have good stamina.

5-3-2 Midfield Setup

The midfield arrangement in a 5-3-2 formation is to have three midfielders playing together. The formation usually has three central midfielders or two central midfielders and an attacking midfielder in the number 10 position, depending on the manager’s game plan. The central midfielders usually maintain their positions to have a compact structure for defensive arrangements.

The three midfielders shield their defence and prevent their opponents from getting into advanced positions in the centre of the pitch. As a result, the central areas are congested, forcing the opposition out wide where the full-backs lay in wait to stop their progression.

When attacking tactics are employed, the midfielders have more work to do as they block possible counter-attacking routes while their full-backs move up the field. This transforms the team’s formation to a 3-3-4 formation with the full-backs playing high like wingers and providing width for the team.

The midfield in a 5-3-2 must have tireless runners because of the amount of ground they have to cover if their team is forced to sit deep and defend. Some teams play with a number 10 to aid their creativity in the final third and give them multiple creative outlets when they choose to attack. Ronaldinho excelled in this role for Brazil at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Some qualities expected of the midfielders in the 5-3-2 system include good pass selection and composure, as well as a good passing range. The midfielders must also be able to chip in with goals for their team occasionally. Midfielders in the system must also understand how important it is to maintain a reasonable distance between themselves and the strikers. If the midfield drops too deep, they leave a great deal of space for their opponents to thrive in, and their strikers are left isolated in attack.

5-3-2 Attack Setup

When a team plays a 5-3-2 formation, they have only two out-and-out attackers on the pitch. These two players are selected based on their profiles and what they can offer to the team, depending on their manager’s preference. A defensive manager, for example, would prefer two forwards adept at holding the ball up until their teammates arrive because of their lack of support. These strikers must be good at playing with their back to goal and are usually required to be physically dominant and assertive. They are hardly needed to perform intricate attacking plays and only serve as target men at whom long balls are aimed.

On the other hand, when a team has an attacking manager and implements attacking tactics, its strikers are usually required to be more than just target men. Their ball-playing skills and technical abilities are also critical, as well as their finishing abilities. Brazil had Ronaldo and Rivaldo in these positions, and both men wreaked havoc on teams at the 2002 World Cup with their partnership. In a defensive 5-3-2, however, technical strikers are not given much thought because the first instinct of teams that look to defend using the formation is to have dominant strikers upfront.

5-3-2 Formation Strengths

When a manager chooses to set his team up to play a 5-3-2 system, he always looks to take advantage of some of the formation’s strengths to give his side an edge over their opponents. Here are some of the strengths of the 5-3-2 formation;

Strong Defensive Lineup

Teams that line up with a 5-3-2 formation tend to have strong defences due to the number of players on defensive duties. These teams can afford to have up to six or more players helping out in defence when their opponents look to threaten in games.

Good for Counter-Attacking

The ability of the full-backs in a 5-3-2 confers this advantage to teams. Some conditions for playing as a full-back in a 5-3-2 system are stamina and the ability to run up and down the flanks. This is important because the full-backs are expected to carry the ball deep into opposition territory when their team counter-attacks. Because there are none of their teammates stationed in front of them, they have the freedom to carry the ball upfield very quickly. This can mean taking advantage of the opposition, who will likely commit several men forward in a bid to break down their defence.

Protected Against Counter-Attacks

Just as it is suited to playing counter-attacking football, the 5-3-2 formation is equally perfect for defending against counter-attacks. This is so because of the number of players usually left on defensive duty. At least three to four players always remain in positions to block potential counter-attacking openings during games, giving their team insurance against being caught out.

Suitable for Keeping Possession

The nature of the 5-3-2 system means that multiple players occupy the central positions and give each other passing options to enable them to keep the ball moving. When this happens, teams can control possession of the ball and thus dominate proceedings.

5-3-2 Formation Weaknesses

Just as the 5-3-2 formation has its strengths, it also has some prominent features that the opposition teams can take advantage of. Here are some of the weaknesses of the formation;

Isolation of the Strikers

In a 5-3-2 system, the striker may be left isolated if the manager opts for a defensive approach. This isolation may be due to the distance between the strikers and the rest of the team. When this happens, the strikers may resort to dropping deep to get involved in the play, which translates to taking goal potential away from their team.

Lack of Width

The 5-3-2 formation may end up costing teams numbers out wide. This is because managers opt to pack the middle of the pitch with bodies, leaving only one player on each flank. With only one player on each flank, the team would often find itself without any presence on the flanks, especially when they were on the attack.

Requires Very Fit Players

The formation is synonymous with hard work and constant movement on and off the ball. To successfully utilise this formation, very fit players must play for the teams. This means that players not used to working very hard on the pitch would struggle in this system.

Teams That Play a 5-3-2 Formation

Today, the 5-3-2 formation is rare because most teams prefer to start with the more attacking 3-5-2 system, but Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United used the formation until he was fired midway through the 2021-22 season. His side is the only notable one to have consistently used the 5-3-2 system in recent years.


The 5-3-2 formation has slowly gone out of popular use, but it remains an excellent formation for managers who are willing to use it. Especially known for its defensive features, the formation also offers good offensive threats, making it a very effective formation if properly used.

Woodland Soccer Team

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