3 5 2 vs 5 3 2

3-5-2 vs 5-3-2 – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on March 7th, 2022

Today, several formations appear to be considerably similar on paper but are very different in reality.

Two of such formations are the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations, and you may have encountered them while playing FIFA or watching football.

Here’s a guide to explain these 2 formations for you:

The Difference Between 3-5-2 and 5-3-2

The 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations are two formations that are perfectly suitable for teams looking to play direct, counterattacking football. Both formations permit an increased verticality in movement and passing, leading to quicker transitions from defence to offence.


Here’s how the teams usually set up:

Defenders3 Central Defenders 
Midfielders 3 Central Midfielders
and 2 Wing-Backs
Forwards2 Strikers

Coaches utilise varying tactical approaches for their teams, and this will influence their style and system

The 3-5-2 is suited to a side willing to relinquish possession despite having a third man in midfield. They look for the quickest release for the two strikers to work in tandem to score and create goals at a rapid pace.

This formation needs the wing-backs at their best for it to work perfectly.

It is also possible for defenders and goalkeepers to score goals too.

In a team that plays a three-man defence, the importance of the wing-backs cannot be overstated. Wing-backs need great stamina, and they must have an excellent recovery pace. 

In addition, they must be great with crosses, shooting, and defending. 

Moreover, the midfield trio must be able to play vertical passes to link play from their defenders to their forwards in no time at all. They can also extend their passing to find their wing-backs when they overlap to pull the opposition defence out of shape and create more openings.


Here’s how the 5-3-2 formation typically sets up:

Defenders 3 Central Defenders
2 Full-backs 
Midfielders 3 Central Midfielders 
Forwards2 Strikers 

The 5-3-2 formation can either mean two things: an extremely low defensive block, or a disguised formation using the attacking qualities of the full-backs. 

This formation will depend on the tactical preference of the manager leading the team as well.

A 5-3-2 formation means there will be at least six men who will block off the opponent’s path to goal at any given time. 

Usually, the three central defenders will be instructed not to overlap for any reason whatsoever. In addition, three energetic central midfielders will have to chase down every form of attack for the team. 

The full-backs can play 2 different roles, depending on the manager’s preference:

  • Act as wing-backs 
  • Maintain a flat five defence 

The two strikers must be willing to work hard on and off the ball and may often find themselves isolated.

History of these formations

Both the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations have been in use for some years now, with the first documented record being 5-3-2, which was reportedly used in the 1960s.

Argentine manager Helenio Herrera was the first to play the 5-3-2 formation, as his Inter Milan side won the Serie A thrice and European Cup twice in the space of eight years. The manager used an extremely impenetrable defence that was able to spring counterattacks at will.

More recently, the 5-3-2 was revived by the Brazilian national team and used in the 2002 Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup campaign, with the side winning their 5th World Cup.

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari used the extraordinarily rapid and attack-minded duo of Cafu and Roberto Carlos as his wing-backs. Scolari also had the creativity of Ronaldinho in midfield, enabling his side to play on the front foot at all times throughout the tournament.

Also, English Premier League outfit Newcastle United survived the last two seasons in England’s top-flight due to their use of the 5-3-2. They maximised their defensive numbers to eliminate errors in their play under Steve Bruce, which helped them maintain their Premier League status.

The 3-5-2 formation, on the other hand, was pioneered more recently. It was first documented to have been used in the 1986 FIFA World Cup by Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo, who led Diego Maradona and his teammates to World Cup glory. 

The pinnacle of the formation was achieved in the 1990 FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and West Germany, where both Bilardo and Franz Beckenbauer set up their teams in a 3-5-2 formation.

The 3-5-2 is almost exclusively seen as an Italian game system, with the formation mostly employed by Italian managers. 

Antonio Conte brought back the formation with great success in 2012 when he was appointed manager of Juventus. The side won the Serie A title thrice in a row, reaching the points record and recording the first unbeaten season in the 2011-12 season.

Conte took the formation with him to the English Premier League, where he implemented it with Chelsea as they won the Premier League in 2017

Louis Van Gaal also used the formation to great effect with the Netherlands during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, securing a third-place finish. 

Differences in defence

The most striking difference between the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations lies in the teams’ defensive shape. Looking at it on paper, the 5-3-2 formation appears to be much more solid than the 3-5-2. 

The 5-3-2 is usually employed by teams looking to soak up the pressure against supposedly better oppositions.

The 5-3-2 always works with three rigid central defenders, one of whom acts as a sweeper and plays deeper than the other two. This essentially makes it a 1-4-3-2 formation when the side is looking to defend. 

The sweeper uses his abilities to read the game to mop up any loose ball that beats the four-man wall stationed in front of him. 

Meanwhile, the full-backs usually remain stationed in their own half, blocking off potential crosses and nullifying the width of their opponents.

With a 3-5-2, the three-man defence is kept on essentially the same footing. The two laterally positioned central defenders are responsible for swiftly covering large distances that may have been vacated by the wing-backs, who spend the majority of their time in the opposition’s half of the pitch. 

The wing-backs defend by attacking by keeping the opposition wingers and full-backs occupied by making runs at them with the ball.

Differences in midfield

The midfield shape of both the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations are extremely similar. Both play a three-man midfield with emphasis on ball-winning and retention. 

The three-man midfield usually consists of a defensive midfield anchor who stays close to the defenders, a box-to-box runner, and a creative outlet who links play with the strikers up ahead.

The function of the wing-backs as dictated by the managers is what makes a difference in midfield. If the manager instructs the full-backs in a 5-3-2 formation to sit deep, there will be no width in the midfield

However, in a 3-5-2, the wing-backs provide width from the midfield area, allowing the midfielders to pick an array of passing options.

Differences in attack

Both formations make use of a very similar two-striker system. One of the strikers plays as the runner, and the other plays as the target man.

Alternatively, they can be called the second striker and the centre forward.

Both men must be in constant communication and link up very efficiently throughout the game.

A perfect example of this was seen in the 2020/21 season in Serie A, as Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez struck up an unstoppable strike partnership that yielded the league title for Internazionale.

The major difference, once more, is in the way they use the wing-backs in the attack. The 3-5-2 system always becomes a 3-3-4 when the team is in attack, with the two wing-backs pushing up to provide width around the opposition box. 

In contrast, for a conservative 5-3-2, the two strikers may be left isolated by the relative lack of support from their full-backs.

Famous examples of teams that used this formation



Antonio Conte revived the 3-5-2 to deadly effect in Italy after being appointed Inter Milan’s manager. Wing-back Achraf Hakimi and strikers Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku were the best players as Antonio Conte’s side perfected counterattacking football and won the league title. 

When Simone Inzaghi took over in 2021, he used a similar system with Denzel Dumfries in the Hakimi role, and Edin Dzeko in the Lukaku role and has achieved a similar level of success so far.

Sheffield United

Chris Wilder brought a new form of 3-5-2 to the Premier League in Sheffield United’s debut season. He used his central defenders as marauding defenders who made runs into the opposition areas to cause havoc. 

The system worked extremely well and kept them in the league for one glorious season before they were relegated in 2021.


Louis Van Gaal set up his Dutch side in a 3-5-2 at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This enabled him to use the pace and attacking qualities of Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie in counterattacking situations and covered up his side’s defensive frailties. 

The side ended up third after defeating hosts Brazil in the third-place match.



In 2002, Luiz Felipe Scolari led Brazil to the FIFA World Cup using the 5-3-2 formation. He used the formation more similarly to the 3-5-2 as we know it today. 

Scolari asked wing-backs Roberto Carlos and Cafu to push opposing full-backs back to their half and had Ronaldinho in his three-man midfield behind Ronaldo and Rivaldo.

Newcastle United

English outfit Newcastle United played one of the most conservative variants of the 5-3-2 ever seen. They worked to block off spaces and prevent their opposition from outscoring them in the games.

The system worked perfectly for them as they managed to stay afloat in the Premier League despite looking like prime relegation candidates.


Here is a summary of the differences between 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations

3-5-2 5-3-2
Number of players
in defence
Number of players
in midfield 
Number of players
in attack 
Strengths Effective for counterattacking
with directness

Proper width

Solid team spine
Defensive solidity assured

No route for opposition
through the middle
of the pitch

Great for
WeaknessesGives up possession

Defenders may be exposed
when wing-backs fly forward
Too rigid

Strikers may be isolated

Congested centre of the pitch
Famous examples
of teams that use it


Sheffield United

Newcastle United

Both of these formations have their strengths and weaknesses, so it really depends on how the manager wants to play the match!

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