Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have been imperious of late, commanding four successive wins without conceding a goal. The team’s defence has been central to this upturn in form, and Conte’s decision to switch to a back three appears to have been pivotal. With added width and guile, brought on by Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, the team seem to have more options going both forward and back. The formation has also released Eden Hazard further up the pitch, allowing him to operate with more autonomy as he is less encumbered with defensive duties, and he has gone on to score in four consecutive Premier League games for the first time in his career.
A near instant fix, then, for a team who looked well wide of the mark in the opening games of the season. But would it work for any old grassroots side?
The beauty of employing three at the back at Sunday league level is in its effectiveness when used against a 4-4-2 formation. The three at the back, when used in a 3-5-2, negates many of the threats poised within the 4-4-2 system, arguably the most common formation used by amateur sides in England.
In a back three, two man-markers can be used to hold up the opposing centre-forwards. The third centre back is then free to either play the ball with time, or act as a defensive sweeper. In the midfield the wing-backs can track the opposing wide men and press them off the field. Then, in the centre of the pitch, a three man midfield creates an overload, leaving an extra man free to help control possession. Finally, the two strikers are free to play one on one against the opposition centre backs.
Crucially, the 3-5-2 formation is effective at grassroots level because it creates situation where players are more likely to win their one on one challenges. As any grassroots player can attest to, at Sunday league level most games are settled by individual mistakes. By playing set up in a formation deliberately designed to press and unbalance an opposition side, the 3-5-2 creates the conditions for error in the opposition.
So, to go back to the original question, can old Sunday league team play in a 3-5-2?
There are to two pertinent concerns for a team at the grassroots level when looking at this system: fitness and understanding. The key tenets of the 3-5-2 formation are having disciplined full backs who are fit enough to cover the entire pitch, and making sure every players understands their role.
If your team does not have super fit full-backs, or ample time for training to nail the specifics of the formation, what can you do? Sunday league referees often allow rolling subs, which is a convenient way of rotating exhausted full-backs. If your team doesn’t train together regularly, why not ask your teammates to watch how Chelsea play, or even suggest they set up their team on FIFA with a back three to get a better understanding of the positions.
So if your side is struggling in your league and you often find that your team is overcome by more physical teams who play direct football in a 4-4-2 formation, even though fitness and football know-how are your key strengths, then consider employing the width and strategy of the 3-5-2. If you’re still unconvinced, why not ask Victor Moses what he thinks!