Analysis of Norwich City's 3-5-2 vs Wolves

Analysis of Norwich City's 3-5-2 vs Wolves

Last week in Norwich’s game against Wolves, Paul Lambert opted to start with a 3-5-2 formation. Norwich had played this system a handful of times during the previous two seasons but never with any real success. Before looking at Norwich’s performance, let’s begin by taking a look at the theory behind the 3-5-2 system.

The 3-5-2 System

Typically, the back three can be organised in such a way that two defenders will act as markers, leaving one defender as a libero (or sweeper). In midfield, two wing-backs will flank three central midfielders. The central midfielders can organise themselves in a number of ways – such as, as a flat line or with a defensive midfielder playing behind two central players. Finally, the two attackers would be deployed far up the pitch and would sometimes include one central striker with a second floating striker.

When attacking with this formation, the libero is normally used as an outlet for the goalkeeper. The two markers should look to create space for a forward pass or offer a passing option if the libero is pressed by the opposition. When defending, the two markers should always get tight to their opponents, restricting time and space in the knowledge that the libero will be the defensive cover.

The wing-backs provide the width for the 3-5-2 system, operating in an imaginary corridor down the length of the pitch. During the attacking phase, if the build-up doesn’t present an adequate opportunity to get forward, the play can be directed to the other wing-back, who would stay out wide in anticipation of a switch. This approach moves the oppositions’ defensive unit from one side of the pitch to the other, creating space and openings to progress the build-up play. Additionally, creating overlap situations with the wing-backs can be very effective attacking tactic – one of the central midfielders or attackers can combine with the wing-back for this.

The two strikers will usually play centrally, offering their support by making diagonal runs into the channels.

Overall, the 3-5-2 system emphasises a solid central defence and a very strong midfield in both attacking and defensive situations. However, the major weakness of the system is that it is vulnerable in defensive wide areas.

Team Setups

The libero for Norwich was Elliott Ward, who had Zak Whitbread on his left and Russell Martin on his right. All three defenders have played centrally this season and this unit had a nice balance to it.

Elliott Bennett was deployed as the right-sided wing-back, and with Pilkington and Drury out, Simon Lappin made a rare start as the left wing-back. However, Bennett is predominantly a winger and Lappin’s defending is not regarded as his strong point, so it remained to be seen how they would adjust to their new roles.

In the centre of midfield, David Fox played in his usual sitting position, with Jonny Howson playing more centrally. Wes Hoolahan played further forward and more towards the right.

Up front, Grant Holt and Simeon Jackson kept their places in the starting line-up.

Ever since Howson’s arrival from Leeds, many people have debated if he could play in the same team as Hoolahan due to the perceived similarities in their styles of play. However, Lambert has always maintained that they are different types of players. Whilst they both like getting forward, Hoolahan is the more creative, with Howson having a much more rounded game. The change in formation to 3-5-2 is evidence of Lambert trying to find a system that allows both players to play together without compromising the balance of the team.

Wolves’ 4-4-2 shape was fairly standard with the two wingers, Jarvis and Kightly, being the focus of their attacks. Wolves don’t always play with two strikers – had they played one up front, then it would’ve caused problems for Norwich’s 3-5-2 formation.

Here are the positions both teams adopted when Norwich were playing 3-5-2:

More on Page 2: Match Analysis

The Match

Both teams started the game brightly, each creating an opening in the first few minutes. Norwich took control of the game but fell behind against the run of play after 25 minutes.

Starting from the halfway line, Stearman, and then Kightly, ran 40 yards with the ball down the right-wing, unchallenged by both Howson and Lappin. As Kightly approached the byline, he produced a low cross towards Doyle but it was slightly behind him. Doyle still managed to get a glancing touch on the ball, diverting it into the path of Jarvis who had cut in from the opposite wing. Bennett failed to track Jarvis’ run inside, leaving him free to place his low shot calmly beyond Ruddy in the Norwich goal.

The goal highlights the main problem when defending in a 3-5-2 formation – the Norwich wing-backs were both exposed by the Wolves wingers. Lappin allowed Kightly run at him but couldn’t prevent his cross, whilst Bennett failed to track Jarvis’ run into the box from the opposite flank.

Norwich’s response was swift though and was more about individual play than formations. Jackson dropped into the hole to pick up a loose ball, causing Wolves centre-back Johnson to step up to challenge him. A simple ball over the top into the space vacated by Johnson was enough to release Holt, who calmly lobbed the ball over Hennessey before nodding the ball home for the equaliser. Poor defending from Wolves combined with excellent play from Jackson and Holt left the game all square again.

The Norwich winner was another great example of the ball being switched across the pitch into space. The build-up began with Whitbread and then Lappin down the left touchline. The ball was then played inside to Jackson (who had dropped deep) and then square to Howson. From a central position, Howson slotted a neat crisp pass to Hoolahan, who was occupying the space left by Jackson on the left edge of the penalty box. At this point, the build-up play down the left side had moved the Wolves defence over to that side of the pitch, leaving space down Norwich’s right flank. Hoolahan had the vision to see this and cleverly switched the ball out to the right where Bennett was completely free to run towards goal. Bennett’s subsequent shot was deflected away into the path of Lappin who pulled the ball back to Hoolahan. He took a first-time shot from the edge of the penalty area but it was handled by Jonnson, resulting in a Norwich penalty. Holt converted it to put Norwich 2-1 in front. Both Norwich wing-backs were heavily involved in the goal and the width they provided was key to creating the penalty.

Despite going in at half-time 2-1 up, Lambert decided to change the 3-5-2 to 4-4-2, with the aim of containing the Wolves’ wingers who had been dangerous in the first half. This change of system worked well and Wolves struggled to seriously threaten Ruddy in the Norwich goal, even in the last 10 minutes when Wolves pressed for an equaliser.

Norwich’s dominance from start to finish saw them end the game with over 62% of the possession – far higher than Norwich normally achieve. Clearly, the extra man in midfield helped Norwich to control the match. The statistics below confirm their dominance, even if goalscoring chances hard to come by:

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The crossing statistic is interesting as it shows just how much the two Wolves wingers featured in their attacking play, even if their crosses failed to reach another Wolves player.

More on Page 3: Player Tactics using the StatsZone App…

Player Tactics

At an individual level, some Norwich players had to adjust their game more than others to accommodate the 3-5-2 formation.

Ruddy’s distribution during the first half was mostly to the libero, Ward. After Norwich changed to a 4-4-2 shape in the second half, Ruddy kicked the ball long up-field, instead of going short to one of the defenders:

John Ruddy's distribution

The effect of the tactical shift can also be seen with Norwich’s libero. During the first half, Ward was central to the initial build-up play. But when Norwich changed to a 4-4-2, he was far less involved:

Elliott Ward's passing

On the flanks, both wing-backs stayed within their corridors, with Lappin having a more eventful first half:

Wing-back involvement

Lappin was substituted at half-time when Lambert reverted to 4-4-2. Perhaps Lappin’s lack of match fitness was a contributing factor in Lambert’s decision to change formation – playing wing-back is a very demanding role in fitness terms and Lappin has hardly played in the first team so far this season.


Norwich’s use of the 3-5-2 system was mostly very good although the general vulnerability in the defensive wide areas was clearly evident, especially for Wolves’ opening goal. Saying that, the defence generally worked well as a unit and the midfield controlled large parts of the game. The mix of attributes in the centre of midfield with Fox, Howson and Hoolahan was really encouraging for the future use of this system and proved that the latter two can play effectively together.

On the evidence from this game, it’s clear to see how important it is to have specialist wing-backs who have the physical stamina and range of skills needed to make a true success of the system. With all due respect to Lappin and Bennett, both are not known for their defensive qualities. Both Norwich wing-backs were ultimately substituted but by this time Norwich were 2-1 up and were controlling the game.

It will be interesting to see if Lambert uses the 3-5-2 system in any of the remaining games this season. Norwich’s next game is at Fulham, who tend to attack predominantly through the middle of the pitch. Because they pose less of a threat down the wings, a 3-5-2 system might work even better for Norwich than it did against Wolves.

In the longer term it will be just as interesting to watch Lambert’s transfer dealings over the summer and whether he brings in any dedicated wing-backs. The formation is very popular in Italy at the moment, and by the time next season comes around, Norwich as well as other Premier League teams may feature it far more often as well.

All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.comSubscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) See Demo’s and videos about the Stats Centre & read about new additions to the stats centre.