What Manchester United need to do to make 3-5-2 work

Joshi Mukard
How will Manchester United line its players up

The new season has already seen three games, but Manchester United are yet to pick all three points in a game. After their impressive pre-season exploits in the United States under new boss Louis van Gaal, expectations were going high into the new season but things haven’t worked out the way they would have wanted. The club find themselves sitting in 14th place in the table with only 2 points in the bag.

So what is wrong with Manchester United? This has actually become the most favorite topic among football writers. There are various versions of analysis out there, but most experts find fault with the formation that United currently employ. I have also decided to jump on the bandwagon with my version of analysis.

United having played in 4-4-2 formation almost in the entirety of their history are predictably finding it difficult to adapt to the new 3-5-2 formation. But no formation is faulty in itself. The claim that no team in the English Premier League has ever won the league title with a 3-5-2 formation and hence United should abandon it, is lame.

3-5-2 is a tried and tested formation. Antonio Conte has won three back to back league titles with Juventus using this formation. Of course, it is in Italy, but if it works in Italy it should work in England too. Brenden Rodgers used the formation to good effect in some of the league games last season. Steve Bruce has enjoyed success with the formation at Hull City. Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle have employed it for England national team in the past. But why isn’t the formation working for Manchester United?

3-5-2 Formation:

There are two ways to approach the 3-5-2 formation. The first one is to work with three proper center halves and two defensive midfielders who have some experience working as center halves. Here there are no wing backs, but only proper wingers.

It would look like this:


This formation can also be read as 3-2-3-2. Rojo, Evans and Phil Jones can be the center-halves while Daley Blind and either Darren Fletcher or Micheal Carrick can anchor the midfield. Since the holding midfielders have previously been deployed at center halves on multiple occasions in the past, it should work beautifully well. To top it off, these midfielders are also good on the ball, but on the flipside it leaves new signing Luke Shaw on the bench.

The other way of doing the 3-5-2 formation is to have three center halves and two proper full backs converted into wingbacks.

It would look like this:


This in fact is a defensive formation with 5 defenders in the side as this formation is actually a 5-3-2. In this formation the most important players are the defensive midfielder and the central center half. The central center half is actually a sweeper who should also be able to support the midfield. A player like Mats Hummels is the most suitable one for this position. No wonder why Van Gaal wanted him badly.

Why United’s 3-5-2 formation isn’t working:

So far at United the formation employed is actually 5-3-2 instead of 3-5-2. To make this 5-3-2 formation work, as I told before, two key top class players are needed – a defender like Hummels and a holding midfielder like Carrick/Blind.

This is how United have lined up so far:

United’s 3-5-2 formation

By looking at the figure above, you can easily see where the problem is. The wingbacks remain quite close to the center backs along with the defensive midfielder that there’s a huge gap between the defence and the attack. The absence of a quality ball playing center half/sweeper and defensive midfielder has made the ball circulate deep in their own half rather than moving up the pitch. So the attacking midfielders are forced to come deep to fetch the ball and carry it forward. You may have seen Juan Mata unusually deep in the last two games, but a player like Mata isn’t made for such a physically demanding role and that’s why he has been struggling so much.

United play 5-3-2 until the 60th minute and only when they start to feel the heat with time running out, they change into 3-5-2 formation. But when it becomes 3-5-2, the quality of wing backs matters a lot. In Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia United do not have premium quality so the problem with the formation doubles. So, this is what United has been facing so far.

How to make the 3-5-2 formation work:

I believe with the addition of high quality players in Di Maria, Daley Blind and Falcao, the formation will click. United can line up like this:

3-5-2 to make it work

United’s wingbacks haven’t been very effective so far. So, in the above formation with two holding midfielders sitting in front of a three men defense, there’s no need for wingbacks. Blind and Fletcher (Carrick, when available) are ideal for the holding role and with both of them working in tandem they can pluck the holes and stop the midfield from being over-run. Also, the presence of two holding midfielders can relieve the wingers from tracking back and involving in defensive duties. With Di Maria and Januzaj as wingers, United will have width, pace and abundant quality on the flanks.

I would want Ander Herrera to be the central attacking midfielder, but his role would be slightly different to Juan Mata’s role as #10. Herrera would sit deeper and allow the wingers to cut-inside behind the strikers and ahead of him.

The biggest problem for United, especially in attack, in the last three games have been the poor quality of their wingbacks, but by terminating wingbacks and employing two holding midfielders and two proper wingers, United can have stability in midfield and potency in attack.

United can make the 3-5-2 formation with wingbacks work if someone like Carrick takes the role of the sweeper in the heart of the defence. On paper, the formation would look like this:

When Carrick plays a deeper role

Since United do not have an imposing center half in their ranks, it makes sense for the wingbacks to remain closer to the center halves to form a five men defense. In that case, the central center half is the extra man. The formation will click if the extra man can work both as a sweeper and also as a defensive midfielder. In my opinion Micheal Carrick is tailor made for a sweeper cum defensive midfielder role. To add further bite in central areas, Blind can be deployed as defensive midfielder. This formation will also need two hardworking attacking midfielders, and Di Maria and Herrera fits the bill. The biggest plus point of this line up is that it can include all the six new recruits on the pitch.

Having said all these, it’s only the manager of United who knows what is best for the team and as a fan I shall only sit back and support. But whatever it is, it is going to be interesting to see who and how will United line up against QPR.

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Edited by Staff Editor


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