IT’S a system that drifted out of fashion in the Premier League some years ago, but 3-5-2 worked a treat for Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool at Chelsea on Sunday. It smothered the attacking threat of the home side’s three forwards, allowing the improving Reds to spoil Fernando Torres’ debut with a shock win.
Lining up in 3-5-2 is particularly useful away from home against quality opposition, as it’s a formation that offers defensive stability and makes it hard for strikers to find space. Chelsea’s front three struggled to find room and got in each others’ way, partly because none of them like to drift out wide (Fig 1).
Playing three centre-backs allowed Liverpool’s defenders to mark their men tightly, knowing they won’t be outnumbered. This suits the likes of Jamie Carragher, who prefers to get in close than be run all over the place.
The system also suits the Reds well because it relies on athletic full-backs, such as Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson. In fact they are more like wing-backs as they get up and down, and allow the three in midfield to stay narrow and not be outnumbered.
Because it places the emphasis on defence it is not a tactic I’d expect Liverpool to use every week; against good opponents at home they will need more men in front of the ball.
But Dalglish was clever to use it against Chelsea for other reasons too. The Blues clearly did not have a plan to counteract it, and Dalglish probably guessed they wouldn’t. This is because Torres had only joined the club days earlier and had spent little time training with the team.
The defeat gives Carlo Ancelotti food for thought. The best way to beat a 3-5-2 with three forwards is to have one drop into a deeper role, playing as a classic No10 (Fig 2). Peter Beardsley filled that position brilliantly.
However, Ancelotti looks like sticking with his three strikers, and none of them naturally drop off. In any case, he doesn’t have a creative No10 in his squad, now that Deco has gone. Other teams will have seen the system work for Liverpool; now the Chelsea coach will have to find a way round it.