We have seen Manchester City feature a 3-5-2 formation throughout the preseason and first two games in the Premier League before switching to a 4-3-3 against AFC Bournemouth. This isn’t the first time Guardiola has played three at the back as he has deployed it going back to his early days at Barcelona.
It is still hard to say which formation will be Pep’s go-to for City moving forward. I am still in the camp that would prefer a 4-3-3 as the optimal lineup but Pep’s commitment to the 3-5-2 early on shows he has long-term intentions of using it and is more than just experimentation.
The 3-5-2 is a formation that takes more time to develop cohesion in, which is exactly why Pep has emphasized it so heavily early in the season. He is confident that his guys will be able to transition to a traditional 4-man backline (presumably a 4-3-3) but is aware that it takes experience to succeed in a 3-5-2.
Deploying this formation without the necessary preparation can easily result in catastrophe, which is exactly what happened when Jürgen Klinsmann decided to use this strategy with the United States National Team against Mexico last November. The team was not confident with their defensive roles and the team had to abandon the three-man backline for a more comfortable 4 at the back formation after Mexico sliced and diced them for the first 30 minutes of the match.
However, if Pep Guardiola can develop this formation into a strength at Manchester City, it will be an incredible asset to use when the situation calls for it. The beauty of the 3-5-2 is that it is a formation that breeds versatility and creativity, two things that Pep craves. It can be used in games where City expect to dominate possession but also against strong opponents who have the skill to hold onto the ball for long stretches.
Playing in this shape will allow City to outnumber opponents in midfield that deploy a more traditional lineup. It allows for greater midfield spacing for players like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to dictate play. Players can roam and interchange positions while in possession, making it more difficult for defenses to maintain structure. Defensively, playing 3 at the back is beneficial in thwarting 2-striker sets and creates a solid spine down the center of the pitch. This formation is not without its flaws however, and can be exploited without the right personnel.
Fortunately for City, this squad has the potential to thrive in the 3-5-2 if they are well-drilled in the responsibilities at each position. Succeeding with this strategy is dependent on having world-class wing-backs with great fitness and pace. City were in dire need of an upgrade at the fullback position as it was, but it became a more urgent priority with Pep’s plan to feature a 3-5-2. The wing-backs face a very demanding task as they are key factors in both attack and defense. While attacking, wing-backs are responsible for providing width and an outlet to switch the play yet must be able to recover quickly when the opponent gains possession.
Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo possess the skill and pace to fulfill what the formation requires of the wing-backs. Danilo’s ability to play both on the left and right is a major benefit, as rotating these positions will be necessary when City get into Champions League games due to how physically demanding the role is.
The 3-5-2 can be vulnerable to strong counter-attacks down the wing, especially with how far forward we see the wing-backs positioned while in possession. With only 3 at the back, there is a lot of pressure on the central defenders to shut down counters before they can develop into scoring chances. The outside center-backs will be required to defend in space if any counterattack develops down the flank and the wing-backs are unable to recover.
City will be able to utilize Fernandinho, a player we have seen fill in as a full-back, to cover for any hole opened up in the backline due a counter-attack.
However, City will be vulnerable to counters regardless of their formation due to how aggressive Pep has them playing. We saw plenty of counter-attacking opportunities for Bournemouth last week when City played a 4-man backline. Fact of the matter is, City’s propensity to allow counters is more related to style of play than it is formation.
The 3-5-2 will introduce some different roles in City’s transitional defense though, so the team will need to understand their responsibilities because any hesitation to react could result in a quality chance for the opponent.
The more pressing question on whether City can reach it’s ceiling in the 3-5-2 doesn’t lie on the defensive side; it’s about whether Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero can work as a forward partnership. There’s been early dysfunction between the two, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t figure it out.
These two naturally have similar mindsets and instinctually play as central striker who want to be around the box all the time. But wanting to occupy the same areas of the pitch has led to limited spacing in and around the penalty area. City fans must be used by now to broadcasters commenting on how some forwards prefer to operate as the single target-man, because they bring it up whenever the two play together.
For this combination to really thrive, Pep may need to drop one of them deeper into midfield similar to what Chelsea have done recently against Tottenham Hotspur, with Willian sitting behind Álvaro Morata in a 3-5-1-1 formation. Jesus could also be pushed out further wide, as he has played on the wing in the past for both City and Brazil.
The striker partnership in a 3-5-2 works best when both players are dynamic, having the ability to link-up with the midfield/wing-backs and provide playmaking. No one doubts that Jesus or Agüero can do this but they must develop an understanding between them on how they will react to each other’s movement if they are to succeed together up top.
Another interesting option would be play Raheem Sterling up top with either Jesus or Sergio. Pep has talked about playing Sterling in a more central role this season and his natural tendencies as a provider may be a better fit in a two-striker formation.
It remains to be seen what formation will allow City to maximize their potential, but it is safe to assume that the 3-5-2 will be used throughout the season and Pep will choose his starting eleven based on each matchup. As I mentioned earlier, I tend to believe that City are better off defaulting to a 4-man backline, simply because it allows Pep to play another attacking option at their national position in place of a center-back, where City clearly lack depth.
I would rather see Pep maximize the talent on the pitch and definitely prefer starting one of Sterling or Leroy Sané in place of John Stones. Not to mention, one of the three center-backs will inevitably be injured or suspended at some point this season and Pep will have to put the 3-man backline into storage unless he can develop trust in Eliaquim Mangala.
Nevertheless, this flexibility will give City a dangerous element if opponents can not plan for a specific formation. The Blues may go to this formation in games against strong opponents who they expect to maintain possession through the wings such as Real Madrid. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal dictate Real’s play more than most full-backs and Pep may be inclined to sit back, letting his wing-backs defend the flanks while maintaining 3 center-backs in the box to cut out incoming crosses.
I would be surprised to see Pep deploy a 3-5-2 for the upcoming match against Liverpool because Roberto Firmino is often utilized as a false nine. This role is effective at exploiting 3-man backlines because false nines are able to draw the middle center-back into midfield, leaving space behind for diagonal runs from wingers. Liverpool is a great counter-attacking team and City will have a difficult challenge in containing a pacey attack featuring Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah.
Pep’s willingness to tweak his tactics and try different formations is exciting for fans of the team because it allows us to consider a number of lineup possibilities for City. Though the 3-5-2 may not be City’s peak lineup in a vacuum, it may be their best lineup against particular opponents.
It will be interesting to see how the formation choices factor into the squad rotation as Champions League games start this month. The best of Manchester City is yet to come and it is going to be fun to see how they get there.