As Cork City get ready for life back in the top flight of Irish football, one thing that looks like it will remain from their First Division title triumph is the 3-5-2 formation.
Colin Healy adopted that system early in 2022 when trying to deal with injuries to James Doona and Dylan McGlade, and it sparked a four game winning streak. City tore teams apart during that run by having six different goal scorers find the net on 13 different occasions.
It looks like the club’s coaching staff are going to keep that formation as they regularly played it in their preseason games. Healy most recently deployed it in a 1-1 draw with Cobh Ramblers in Mayfield, and he saw his side have the majority of the chances in an evenly contested derby.
Healy picked a team that had a back three of Josh Honohan, Cian Coleman, and Ally Gilchrist. They were joined by Cian Bargary and Kevin Čustovic, who operated as wing-backs. Their job was getting forward and tracking back so that the defensive trio became a unit of five when defensive cover was needed.
The main aim of the full-backs is allowing a team to add numbers into the midfield and forward lines, which the Bargary and Čustovic did. This allowed the club to force overlaps and outnumber Cobh in the final third with the pair often linking up with Ruairi Keating and Darragh Crowley.
Healy’s commitment to this formation showed with the substitutions as everything was a straight swap in Mayfield. Ethon Varian went in for Crowley, with that second striker role getting played by Tunde Owolabi during a preseason game with Treaty United. It was a similar situation in defence with Josh Honohan going off for Jonas Häkkinen and that made no difference to how the back three operated. Matt Healy, who anchored play in the centre of the pitch, swapped with midfielder Albin Winbo.
City have experience in the Premier Division with this tactic, with John Caulfield using it for a few fixtures back in 2019. That was an unsettled unit, as the coaching staff repeatedly sought to find a combination up top that would score goals. This edition of City has grown up together and they know their places, with the majority of the squad having played under Healy since 2021.
This team was moulded around the arrival of Aaron Bolger and Barry Coffey, who came to Cork midway through that season. City found form with their new acquisitions and that turned out to be the start of their First Division title charge.
If the team struggles in the top flight, and the 3-5-2 becomes obsolete over other teams using that formation to neutralise the overlapping full-backs, Healy has shown that he is not afraid to mix things up.
This goes right back to the beginning of 2022 when he swapped 4-4-2 for 3-5-2 after a stalemate in Longford. He also used a 4-2-3-1 formation against De Town when they took an early lead in a league game at Turner’s Cross.
Whatever happens during the season with regard to opposition tactics and squad injuries, Healy has admitted he is not afraid of tinkering with his system.
“We didn’t think that we were going to be 3-5-2, but sometimes players push formations, and if it works, why change? I know we changed at some stages of the season. We went with a back four, but teams are always changing formation in games and for different opponents. You have to be flexible,” he said in 2022.
Fluidity is vital in a division that has teams regularly using variations of 3-5-2, with the most high profile of those being Shamrock Rovers. The Hoops have played some form of this formation under Stephen Bradley since 2016 and they’ve used it to win three league titles in a row and a FAI Cup.
They showed that this system can be used to bring success, but they needed time to build the team that matched Bradley’s vision, something that paid off with their first trophy in 2019.
City’s focus will be on staying in the division, and for that they’ll need to worry about the basics; scoring goals and keeping clean sheets. That’s something they can do with their current 3-5-2 formation and they showed it by winning the First Division title.