Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment.

Today's featured excerpt comes from the July 2020 magazine. It's called, "Tactical Theory: Resurrecting football’s 2-3-5 pyramid.”

If you have read Jonathan Wilson’s extraordinary book, “Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics”, you are well aware of football’s historic march from attack-focused formations and the general progression to pragmatism. As the book portrays, football tactics started with attack-minded systems, then became more defensive in the pursuit of results.

Like today’s game, the tactical trends and formations in football's history followed a problem/solution progression. There's no doubt that professionalizing the sport and the use of technology has increased the tempo of introducing new tactics and game models to the sport.

Formations like England’s 1-2-7 and Scotland’s 2-2-6 in the first international match certainly strike the modern fan, coach, and analyst as novelties of football history and, to an extent, they are. The 2-3-5 pyramid formation will strike a similar tone. You might ask how teams defended with just two defenders.

With football returning to more attacking philosophies, there are many historic influences, but none greater than the legendary Johan Cruyff. His time at Ajax and Barcelona shaped the modern game, developing his philosophy and winning over disciples who have carried on his legacy.

In this tactical analysis, “Inverting the Pyramid” will serve as our guide to football’s earliest developments, then I will give an account of my research in the usage of outside-backs, a key cog in this project. In the end, this article will show how modern tacticians have resurrected and implemented the 2-3-5 pyramid formation. Examples of usage and tactical responsibilities will show how this is no longer a novel concept of a previous age, but an attacking system favored by many of Europe’s elite.

Historic use of the outside-backs

The first 90 years of tactics followed a common tactical structure: high targets across the forward line and the remaining players taking away the middle. As Wilson notes, football was highly individualized in the early days. Dribbling ability was the mark of a great player and a physical approach was equated with toughness. Early losses to the English led Scotland to develop the passing side of the game, but both approaches fit within the 2-3-5 pyramid formation.

As you can see in the image below, the basic structure of the pyramid allowed for greater width in attack while protecting against central counterattacks. The skillful forwards were covered by midfielders, or centre-halves. As possession was lost and teams moved into their defensive third, the center-halves joined the full-backs to numerically account for the opposition’s forwards.

In the 1920s, legendary coach Herbert Chapman introduced the W-M formation. A variation of the 2-3-5, the W-M layered the forward line, adding an element of central dominance and triangulation. This 2-3-3-2 ensured losses of possession resulted in the opposition needing to clear another line of defense.

Chapman is known for placing results above style, so, while this evolution of tactics was more pragmatic and defensively sound, it does initiate a more defensive, pragmatic, results-based approach to the sport, a trend that would continue for several more decades. Progressions included one, and then a second, center-half dropping in between the full-backs for further defensive solidity.

In fact, after the W-M, many teams moved towards a 4-2-4. Historically, this was the next major evolution of tactics. The center-half now took on the roles previously assigned to the full-backs, making the center-halves fully back. Regardless of whether the center-backs were flat or in a sweeper/stopper alignment, the full-backs of the past were seen more as defensive cover, especially in the wings.

Three forwards occupy the center

The transfer of Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid to Barcelona led many, myself included, to ask how the Catalans would deploy three center-forwards in the starting lineup. Despite some inconsistencies in attack and issues beating the low block, Barcelona averaged a staggering 2.25 goals per match, conceding an average of 1.03.

Though the side is not nearly on par with the Golden Generation, which was developed by Cruyff and coached by Pep Guardiola, the attacking mentality of Barcelona is ever-present. With the side commonly featuring three centre-forwards, the basic idea is to occupy the middle of the pitch and provide width through the outside-backs. The reasoning behind this tactical motive is that teams are already dropping off into deep blocks. Whether or not Barcelona, or any of these other pyramid teams, dedicates players to Zones 14 and 17, the opposition will. Without players sitting in those zones, it’s extremely difficult to connect crosses, engage in combination play or run in behind the lines.

As Barcelona enters their attacking half of the pitch, the center-forwards tend to occupy the central channel. The one exception, of course, is Messi, who drops into a more standard creative midfield role. One variation we see with Barcelona is that, rather than positioning Messi in that highest line, allowing opponents to largely negate his influence, Barcelona uses players like Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitić to switch positions with the Argentine. As you see in the image below, by situating the three center-forwards so closely to each other, the defence becomes horizontally compact, freeing the wings and half spaces for the outside-backs.

High and wide outside-backs

Ajax took the world by storm during the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League. Defeating Real Madrid and Juventus, then nearly defeating Tottenham in the semi-final, the Dutch side offered a thrilling, dazzling brand of football. Much like the Golden Era at Barcelona, the man painting the developmental picture was none other than Cruyff.

In Ajax’s classic 4-3-3 system, we’re seeing a greater emphasis on the forwards occupying the central channel and half spaces. Much like Barcelona, this side does like to free up their top playmakers. The future Chelsea man, Hakim Ziyech, is one of those players. With his sensational dribbling and crossing ability, it’s common to see the right-back, often the young American, Sergiño Dest, switch roles with him. Ziyech and Dest rotate frequently, but it’s Dest’s discipline to get into a high and wide position that allows the rotation to occur.

Between Ajax’s outside-backs and wide forwards, one will remain high and wide on the wings while the other moves more centrally. If the wider of the two players prefer isolation to engage 1v1, the other moves closer, sometimes into, the central channel. In the example below, we see Noussair Mazraoui starting against Valencia and moving centrally to free up space for Ziyech.  

While most cases of the pyramid structure link the outside-backs with the forwards, this scenario is a really nice example of the flexibility of the system. As the center-midfielders move higher, the players in the outside-back roles drop off.

A couple of reasons for this are the security of the rest defense and getting key attacking targets outside of the opponent’s defensive structure. With the center-mids pushing higher and the outside-backs, which includes Ziyech because of his switch in roles, Ajax now has a high wide target to deliver a cross and five possible targetmen in the box. Plus, with Ziyech alone on the wing, Valencia must move their defensive shape to pressure him and contest his delivery. Gaps emerge for the five players at the top of the box.

From a different angle, we can see Ajax’s attacking setup. A line of three forwards in the box, three midfielders triangulating their rest defense, and the two wide players looking to deliver crosses into the box.

Whether it’s the outside-back offering width or a teammate who has switched roles with him, the attacking responsibilities of the outside-back role far outweigh the defensive duties in the pyramid. An outside-back must push high up the pitch, either offering width or enabling a teammate to do so. Since the opponent is compact in defense and wide outlets are typically not immediately available, the outside-backs must push higher up the pitch to pin the opponent back. Since the pyramid protects against counterattacks with the two center-backs and three center-mids taking away the middle of the pitch, the wide players have few defensive concerns if possession is lost.

The full article offers more insights on the backline and forwards, as well as an entire section on midfield pragmatism in the modern pyramid. Head to Total Football Analysis for the full analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

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Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid