All the brouhaha about England moving to 3-5-2 made me think it was time to explore the general topic of defending in football. Although 4 at the back has been more or less standard in football since the Brazilians used it to win the '58 World Cup, most of the time it shared pride of place with three at the back in club football. What makes the England move so surprising is that it comes after a decade or of steady decline for advocates of the 3-at the back.
For the uninitiated: one of the most basic tactical decisions in football is whether to play two or three across the centre of defence. Two is traditional - a preference which goes back almost a century to when 2-3-5 was the most common formation. However, a change in the offside rule in the early 1930s led then-Arsenal manager Hebert Chapman to experiment with three at the back - an innovation which led to Arsenal becoming the dominant English team of the decade, and which was widely copied across Europe.
If you play two centre-backs, then you also need to play two full-backs to cover the right and left corners. In a more defensively-minded club, these four players will make up a "flat back four", which will try play on a straight line and spring offside traps. The more cinematically minded of you may remember the scene in The Full Monty when the choreographer, despairing of being able to get a group of middle-aged Yorkshiremen to dance as a unit, gets the to imitate Tony Adams and the Arsenal defence...a choice of model which was far more apt when the movie was made (6 months prior to the more attack-minded Arsene Wenger's arrival) than it is today. In a more attacking squad - of which today's Arsenal and the 1970 Brazil squad are among the better examples - the full backs join in the attack by bombing up the wing.
If you play with three centre-backs, you have three defensive options. You can opt to play with two traditional full-backs so that the formation becomes a 5-4-1 or 5-3-2. If this happens, one of the centrebacks usually plays a little behind the others as a "sweeper" (i.e. he/she "cleans up" what the others leave behind). This sweeper formation is in fact the actual origin of the Italian term "catenaccio" - meaning "door bolt" - , with the fifth defender sweeping back and forth behind a solid line of four (visualise it, you'll get the picture); the present-day lay-meaning of the term "catenaccio" - which in the English press roughly means 'bunch of big Italian guys playing 10 men behind the ball" is both inaccurate and defamatory.
Your second option with three centre-backs is to have two attacking full-backs, who play somewhere between the defensive and midfield line. Sometimes this is called an attacking 5-3-2, sometimes it is called a defensive 3-5-2; which is one of those not-very-interesting tom-ay-toe/tom-ah-toe debates. Either way it's three in the middle with two guys on the wings playing slightly higher up. If England play 3-5-2, it will probably look a bit like this.
The final option with three at the back is to play simply with three central defenders and damn whatever happens on the wings. The advantage to this is that it allows an extra person to play further up the field, thereby creating more pressure on the opposition; the drawback is that one tends to leave oneself open to attacks down the wings. This drawback makes it very important that the three centre-backs are tall and have good vertical to guard against headed goals that might ensue from the inevitable stream of crosses that come from the unguarded wings.
Three at the back comes in and out of fashion - it was reasonably common it Italy about seven years ago but most teams have since gone back to four at the back. It is rare in Spain and almost unheard of in England over the past few years (though some desperately untalented squads - Bolton's 2001-02 team comes to mind) will play with five at the back against top teams. It is more often seen these days in Latin America - Boca have played 3-5-2 for considerable stretches in he last five years, for instance.
So how will England handle a 3-5-2? Well, let's be clear about why they are doing it. The 4-4-2 they used in the World Cup was seen as ineffective because, with the offensively-minded Gerrard and Lampard in the centre , the team kept getting overrun in midfield. When they added a midfielder by sacrificing a forward, they found their attack blunted. So the purpose behind a 3-5-2 - fundamentally is to be able to play all of Rooney, Crouch, Lampard and Gerrard. Which, let's be honest, doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence. If England plays with a strong trio in defence - Ferdinand, Terry and King would be the natural trio for this formation - they probably won't have too much trouble against Macedonia. However, this implies that Maclaren has the guts to drop Neville, which seems unlikely.
And even if it works well against Macedonia, there is no guarantee it will work well against anyone else - against a team with real wingers (France, say), England will get murdered. Any formation requires intelligence - a knowledge of where others will be on the pitch. Switching formations requires a great deal of practice. For a national team to adopt a formation that none of the players plays on a regular basis is a recipe for confusion on the pitch.
Or, since we're talking about England, a recipe for more confusion than usual on the pitch.