Real Salt Lake Must Consider Utilizing 3-5-2 Formation Permanently

Sep 13, 2021, 2:35 PM
Photo courtesy: Real Salt Lake...
Photo courtesy: Real Salt Lake

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Real Salt Lake interim manager Pablo Mastroeni utilized a 3-5-2 formation against LAFC in the 3-2 loss on Sunday, September 12th. It was the first time Real Salt Lake has played in a 3-5-2 this season.

Since 2016, Real Salt Lake has utilized a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, despite being a very strong defensive formation, Real Salt Lake consistently struggled to create enough attacking opportunities.

The 3-5-2 allows Real Salt Lake to both defend with structure but also allows the club to attack with more options when passing through opposing defenses.

In this article, we will dive into both the pros and the cons of the 3-5-2 formation.

There are multiple variations of the 3-5-2, but for Real Salt Lake against LAFC, they utilized three center backs, two wing-backs, two defensive midfielders, a traditional number 10, and a two-pronged attack.

The Pros

In Possession

In a 3-5-2, the three center backs often have more passing options when attempting to build out from the back. Furthermore, the wing-backs also have a lot of space to operate in.

When building out from the back, Real Salt Lake can either choose to navigate through the middle of the pitch or push the ball out to either flank. Both options are easily plausible when operating in a 3-5-2.

The formation emphasizes creativity and forces all attacking players to be bold with how they attack.

Playing three along the backline also makes it more difficult for opposing teams to press, simply because there are more passing lanes with three center backs as opposed to two.

Moreover, it allows the possibility for one of the three center backs to get more involved in the midfield knowing that there are still two center backs protecting the player moving up the ground. It allows for more freedom.

When attacking, the formation can also be adjusted to a 3-3-3-1 or 3-2-4-1 or 3-4-1-2. Depending on what Real Salt Lake is trying to accomplish, or what the opposing defense is covering, Real Salt Lake will always be able to attack the weaknesses of the opposing backline.

It is important to remember that the most important players when in possession lies with the three center backs. They not only start all attacking chances, but they will likely also be the first player(s) to play a line-breaking pass. They control and organize the shape of the team and will be required to assist in the build-up of most attacks.


The 3-5-2 allows for a well-structured defensive outlook. When defending, Real Salt Lake drops into a 5-3-2 with the five defensive players suffocating the entire width of the pitch with their presence. The 3-2 at the top of the shape work together as a separate team, floating from sideline to sideline to deny any central passes from the opposition.

When defending in a 5-3-2, the goal always is to force the opposition down the flanks and if the five attacking players work together as a group the task should not be overly difficult.

When an opposition player makes a pass into the center of the formation, the defending team should have enough numbers to suffocate any attacking threat and either force a turnover or force the opposition to kick the ball out wide.

A well-organized 5-3-2 defensive shape makes life very difficult for opposing teams to navigate. With three center backs controlling the middle of the defense, the opposition will not only have a challenging time playing through the center of the pitch but will also rely on inch-perfect crosses if they hope to get on the end of a confined box.

The Cons

The 3-5-2 asks the wing-backs to work incredibly hard up and down both sides of the pitch. As the minutes grow, the work rate of the wing-backs can deteriorate and consequently allow the opposition to have more success in the attack.

The role of the center midfielders can also prove difficult when operating in a 3-5-2. Their role is to provide passing options to the center backs but to then quickly move the football forward either to the number 10 or the wing-backs. Center midfielders will rarely find themselves high up the pitch, rather, they must act as an outlet for when the attack breaks down.

Swift ball movement by the opposition can also expose the flanks and put the wing-backs in one-on-one situations especially when the opposition is operating in a 4-3-3.

Real Salt Lake Future Formation(s)

Following the conclusion of the fixture against LAFC, Mastroeni admitted that the players responded well to the informational adjustment. He also mentioned that they expressed their appreciation for the change.

However, it remains unknown if Real Salt Lake will operate in a 3-5-2 permanently going forward.

“We have quite a few games left and as we get closer to the end of the season I think it is important to have more than one suitable formation for your opponent that you’re going to play,” Mastroeni said.

Next Fixture

Real Salt Lake will now travel to San Jose for a date with the Earthquakes on Wednesday, September 15. Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m. and will be available to stream for free via the KSL Sports & KSL 5 TV apps or on KSL Sports dot com.

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