Updated: Feb 16, 2021
The 2–3–5, originally known as the "Pyramid", was a long-term successful formation back in the 1880s. Believe it or not, it was pretty much the normal football formation in the UK, something like today's 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, it was hugely popular. The 2-3-5 pyramid shape is actually not too strange. Recently, I covered Pep Guardiola's Manchester City 2020-21 tactic and he achieves a similar shape but in transitions and not as a starting position. He may start of using a more traditional 4-3-3 shape but as the play develops, the wing-backs come inside and form a line with the holding midfielder, this would leave 2 at the back and 3 holding midfielders. Two central midfielders could join the attack and this would effectively make a 2-3-5 shape.
The formation would usually consist of 2 defenders (side-backs) and 3 central midfielders (half-backs). The 2 central defenders would have the job of marking the attackers in their zone and the 3 central midfielders would cover the areas needed, that could be the flanks to engage tackling the wingers or the gaps possibly made in half-spaces and in between the lines.
The use of, essentially 5 defenders, and 5 attackers strikes a balance. But this also gives you the possibility of having a numerical advantage in central attacking areas as you will have 3 attacking occupying central areas. This is far from easy to defend because then the formation would have two wingers who stretch play, so if the opponent's full-backs choose to close down or mark the wingers, this leaves space for attackers to attack the channels (the space between the full-backs and central defenders).
In an attack, things can be easy to read if the attackers are assigned to the same duties/roles, which is why you'll usually see teams who use this shape in their transitions would have some variations in their attack. Instead of having all 3 central attackers running forward into channels, you have the option to use an attacker as the main creator. Asking him to drop deeper to collect the ball can disrupt any defensive shape because the opponents would have a choice to make, stay or follow. A defender may not want to follow in case it leaves space in-behind him but he also may not want to stay and allow your creator to create. This is where you can force your opponents into mistakes when making decisions and in moments like this, a game could be won.
In build-ups, the midfield 3 would be vital in ball progression. With the 5 attackers occupying the final 1/3 areas, the ball needs to work its way from defence to the attack and the midfield 3 need to be confident in doing so. For solidarity in the team shape, the midfield 3 wouldn't look to roam around the pitch for multiple reasons. They need to consistently be an option in deeper areas for the ball to progress unless you look to attack with a direct ball. Also, in case the ball is lost, the midfielders need to be in positions where they can stop a counter-attack and protect the back 2. Once the ball has worked its way forward to the attackers, they could be expected to use positional rotations. This is a way to create space and disorganise the opponent's defence by giving the attackers freedom. One idea could be when the ball is out to a wide player, one of the central attackers can look to move into the wide-area to create a 2v1 situation, the central attacker can then take control of the ball whilst the winger then takes up the position the central attacker was occupying.
Defending is where you can have issues when starting out with a 2-3-5 formation and I'm pretty sure everyone can spot the weakness, the flank areas. Having just two CBs leaves a massive space out wide for teams to attack which is why it would be essential to do most of your defending in central areas. You may want to force your opponent into the central areas as a trap in order to win the ball OR you can allow your opponents to have the flank area if you don't consider that a dangerous area to concede but either way, pressing would have to be done expertly to make sure players are not leaving their positions at times that would leave spaces for the opponents to then attack your defence directly. Starting off with a lower line of engagement or mid-block may be wise to force your opponents to play out a little. Having your attackers inviting pressure rather than closing down may give your team some solidarity and make the opponents think twice with the ball as they know one direct ball can beat all 5 attackers. But with the attackers dropping off and inviting the opponent's defence with the ball, you can then trap them in the middle of the park where you can potentially have 7/8 players ready to engage the opponents. So if it's pressing we want, the pressing can be done in the middle of the park where it's much safer.
As crazy as this formation looks on papers, it's something that many teams use or attempt to achieve when transitioning. The game back in the 1880s, compared to now of course, is different. The intelligence of some coaches now allow for formations like this to work their way back into the game as they have fresh tactical ideas and most coaches now prefer to play adventurous football and using a shape like this can only mean you want to attack, you have no other option. Question is, are you brave enough to coach your team to play this way? Thank you for reading.
The Football Manager 2021 TACTIC DOWNLOAD
For FM21, what I have created is probably best used with the elite teams (only tested with PSG) due to its very attacking nature. The quick tempo is a bid to get the ball forward to the danger players so we can affect the final 1/3 areas where we are most dangerous. Off the ball, we want to press slightly to win the ball back because, despite our attacking nature and direct style of play, we still rack up a high possession number and this tactic, of course, will be more effective when you are on the ball. We also deploy a mid-block for the reasons explained earlier in the blog. In midfield, to try and add stability rather than creativity, we have not one, not two but three deep-lying playmakers. All three midfielders, naturally, will hold their position and cover both attackers and defenders, adding glue and stability. Up-front, we have plenty of variety in our attacking play. The wingers have the same job of supplying width but centrally, we have an AF who will look to directly attack the channels and will be your main goalscorer. His ST partner is a PF(s) who will look to hold the ball up and bring others into the game whilst the AMC just behind them is an AP(a) who will inject the creativity, collecting the ball and causing danger by operating in spaces between the opponent's defence and midfield