Basics of Atlanta United’s 3-5-2

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino’s decision to switch from a 4-3-3 formation to a 3-5-2 formation in last week’s 3-1 win against D.C. United affected three positions arguably more than the others: 

  • Centerback, because of the switch from two to three;
  • Wide midfielders, whose responsibilities increased as they morphed into a midfielder/fullback combination known as a wingback;
  • Strikers, because of the switch from one central striker to two;

Three players, centerback Michael Parkhurst, wingback Julian Gressel and striker Hector Villalba, shared on Tuesday how their responsibilities change when Martino switches from the 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1 that the team frequently used last season, to the 3-5-2. It’s a formation the team used a few times last season and practiced during training camp. Martino said he likes the 3-5-2 because it puts extra bodies in the midfield and is now one the team can use, depending upon the opponent or the situation.

“Whatever formation we play we have to go out there with the right mentality,” Parkhurst said.

Starting from the back: In the 4-3-3, there are two centerbacks, usually Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who play inside, and two fullbacks, typically Greg Garza and Franco Escobar, who play outside, one on the left and one on the right. The fullbacks are charged with defense first, but are given license to get up the field and join the offense.

In the 3-5-2, there are three centerbacks, typically Parkhurst, Gonzalez Pirez and Escobar, who play in the middle of the pitch. Playing ahead of them is defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. Communication and coordination is more crucial between the centerbacks in the three-man backline than in the four man, according to Parkhurst and Gonzalez Pirez, because at any time one of them can step forward and become a defensive midfielder, if needed, to recover a ball, make a tackle or break up a counter-attack. If that decision is made, the remaining two centerbacks have to make sure to talk so that they slide to cover the space vacated by the player going forward.

“Thought the back line did pretty well,” Parkhurst said of Sunday’s performance that limited D.C. United to seven shots, one on goal. “It was good to play alongside Leandro and Franco again. Hopefully we can build on that performance.”

The fullbacks are replaced by wingbacks who have the dual responsibility of getting back on defense and sprinting up the field to join the offense. The wingback is thought to be a more offensive-minded position than a fullback, but Gressel said he has to be conscious of getting back to help on defense. Even in the 4-3-3, Martino wants the fullbacks as high up the field as they can go.

The wingback’s defensive responsibility is to take the opposing player who is closest to the sideline. If that player moves inside, the wingback typically passes them on to a teammate. Gressel, Escobar and Larentowicz nullified D.C. United wide midfielder Yamil Asad on Sunday by maintaining their discipline and responsibilities in the formation.

On offense, the wingbacks are supposed to try to stay wide to stretch the opposing defense. However, if there is space to exploit, they can move into that to create numerical advantages. That’s why Gressel was near the top of the penalty box, and not near the sideline, when he assisted on Miguel Almiron’s goal against D.C. United.

In this formation, the wingbacks run, and run, and run. Gressel said he didn’t know how much more he ran than when he plays as a wide midfielder, but he knows it was more.

“I felt good,” he said. “I didn’t feel too tired at the end of the game.”

The single striker used in the 4-3-3, typically Josef Martinez, is joined by another. On Sunday, it was Villalba. Because there are two, either can drop deeper down the field to pick up a pass or retrieve a loose ball. Villalba said he has more defensive responsibilities in the 3-5-2 than as a wide midfielder in the 4-3-3 because the man he is supposed to mark is closer.

Villalba was near midfield, helping on defense, when Darlington Nagbe sprung him on a counter-attack that led to Martinez’s goal in the first half. Martinez was much higher up the field, occupying the attention of the opposing defenders.

“The more we play it, the more we train it, the better things will be,” Parkhurst said. “The better the guys will know where to go when. There are little things that came up that don’t come up when you are in the 4-3-3.

“It’s nice to be able to interchange between formations if we have to go, going forward.”