The rise of the 5-2-3/5-4-1 system

by István Beregi

In 2016, the five-defender systems are flourishing in Germany, probably more than ever.

The first signs were visible in 2015, when Werder Bremen neutralised Bayern’s positional play effectively with their 5-4-1, though we would have never thought that this and the 5-2-3 could be the best defensive system against Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.

Bayern Munich had an amazing run in the first half of the season, with their new false full-back concept and reversed-pyramid offensive shape they looked unstoppable.

Although now these concepts are not as effective as they were three or four months ago, as Bundesliga teams – and Juventus – found the possibly best defensive formation against Bayern’s and Dortmund’s offensive shape: the 5-2-3/5-4-1.

In Bayern’s offensive shape the wingers provide width all the time, as the full-backs are occupying the half spaces – in a false full-back role. With this positioning their main goal is to create 1v1 situations for the wingers with horizontal circulations.

The offensive shape forms a 2-3-5, which is perfect to maintain the possession, while circulating the ball, and capable of counter press instantly if needed which is very important against Bundesliga teams, as was written in Pep Confidential.

Guardiola had to create a system which is effective in possession against horizontally and vertically compact teams, while maintaining the stability in the positional structure so as to not get caught by counterattacks, something that German teams are very good at.

Dortmund’s shape is very similar, although there it’s the full-backs, who are providing width, and the wingers are occupying the half spaces up front.

Both teams main goal is to stretch the opponent’s defensive shape horizontally, in order to open up space for the winger, – for a 1v1 – or for the full-back – who can cross/cutback etc.

That’s why the 5-4-1/5-2-3 is perfect against them. With five defenders at the back it’s almost impossible to stretch them horizontally, plus it’s very effective against vertical passes – using man-marking.

Rise of formation 1

The system’s biggest advantage though is its flexibility – even if a FB presses high, there are still 4 defenders at the back, therefore the positional structure doesn’t lose its stability.

That’s why Juventus were very effective in pressing Bayern at build-ups, as the wingers defended the false FBs in the half spaces, and the FBs could step up to close down the wingers, leaving no option for Bayern – only long balls.

Example from Bayern Munich-Juventus

Example from Bayern Munich-Juventus

Another example from Bayern-Juve, no chance for verticality, Bayern is being forced towards the sidelines.

Another example from Bayern-Juve, no chance for verticality, Bayern is being forced towards the sidelines.

Mainz's 5-2-3 against Bayern , Alaba drives forward, but he has no vertical options - maybe RCM, but that pass is too risky, and the LCB is able to close him down immediately if needed.

Mainz’s 5-2-3 against Bayern , Alaba drives forward, but he has no vertical options – maybe RCM, but that pass is too risky, and the LCB is able to close him down immediately if needed.

In this system, the wingers are closing down the half spaces, but from there both the centre, and the flanks are available for them – using the half spaces well in defensive phases.

Therefore the system is capable of defending against double-width offensive systems – where both the FBs and the wingers are occupying the flanks. What does it prove again? The flexibility.

Dortmund against Augsburg's 5-2-3: RCB can't find verticality, they are forced towards the flanks, where both the CAM and the RW are closed down, RB has to pass backwards.

Dortmund against Augsburg’s 5-2-3: RCB can’t find verticality, they are forced towards the flanks, where both the CAM and the RW are closed down, RB has to pass backwards.

Another situation, LCB may drive forward, although his vertical option - the LW - is being man-marked. As the front three is very narrow it doesn't let vertical passes through the centre -even if a passing lane opens up, the two CMs may close the opponent's down with man-marking.

Another situation, LCB may drive forward, although his vertical option – the LW – is being man-marked. As the front three is very narrow it doesn’t let vertical passes through the centre – even if a passing lane opens up, the two CMs may close the opponent’s down with man-marking.

As LW drops the RCB follows him for a while, but that opens up a passing lane towards the CF. Weakness of the shape and the man-orinted defending.

As LW drops the RCB follows him for a while, but that opens up a passing lane towards the CF. Weakness of the shape and the man-oriented defending.

An asymmetric 3-3-4, with a left-sided overload.

An asymmetric 3-3-4, with a left-sided overload.

Although it’s very tough to break through these shapes, it’s not impossible. Of course every shape has its own weaknesses, you just need time to explore and then exploit them.

Bayern were struggling against Werder Bremen in October, Juventus, Mainz earlier, but they were better against Cologne recently; the positional play was more penetrative than it was before.

Although according to 'juego de posición' 2 players mustn't occupy the same vertical line, because they are blocking each other, but here this vertical overload helps Coman - RW - to receive and turn with the ball between the lines, as the RCM blocks the LCB, who can't step up to close down the RW.

Although according to ‘juego de posición’ two players mustn’t occupy the same vertical line, because they are blocking each other, but here this vertical overload helps Coman – RW – to receive and turn with the ball between the lines, as the RCM blocks the LCB, who can’t step up to close down the RW.

Another example for the vertical overload, LCM - Thiago - is open as the RCM blocks the LCB for him.

Another example for the vertical overload, LCM – Thiago – is open as the RCM blocks the LCB for him.

CF - Lewandowski - blocks the RCB, therefore LCM - Thiago - is open between the lines.

CF – Lewandowski – blocks the RCB, therefore LCM – Thiago – is open between the lines.

Same concept against Werder Bremen - 1-3-6 against the 5-4-1 as a probable solution.

Same concept against Werder Bremen.

1-3-6 against the 5-4-1 as a probable solution.

1-3-6 against the 5-4-1 as a probable solution.

Exploiting this system's man-oriented defending, as CF drops it pulls out the LCB, opening up a passing lane for RCM to run into.

Exploiting this system’s man-oriented defending, as CF drops it pulls out the LCB, opening up a passing lane for RCM to run into.

I think it’s important to note that Pep Guardiola also uses this system in defending and pressing.

The DM drops in between the two CBs, which gives them flexibility, the CBs may follow their man in the half spaces knowing that the DM is behind them, providing defensive depth support.

When they are pressing, they start from a 5-4-1 formation most of the time, and if a CM has to step up to press to opponent’s CB, then the DM has to step up as well, and then they form a 4-4-2.

Bayern's 5-4-1 against Juventus in defending.

Bayern’s 5-4-1 against Juventus when defending.

To sum up, the trending of the 5-4-1/5-2-3 is not a coincidence, because this formation provides a wide variety of tools – flexibility – in defending and pressing, plus it’s very effective against teams who like to circulate the ball much in order to open up vertical passing lanes.

Abbreviations/marks
  • FB: full-back (LB: left-back, RB: right-back)
  • CB: centre-back (LCB: left centre-back, RCB: right centre back, MCB: middle centre-back)
  • DM: defensive midfielder
  • CM: central-midfielder (RCM: right central-midfielder, LCM: left central-midfielder)
  • W: winger (LW: left-winger, RW: right-winger)
  • CF: centre-forward
  • Solid line: pass
  • Jagged line: movement with the ball
  • Dotted line: movement without the ball

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