This is an excerpt from Volleyball Systems & Strategies by USA Volleyball.
Five-Player Serve-Receive System
Explanation of Tactic
Some teams, particularly young or inexperienced teams whose coaches want to expose players to all parts of the game, might opt for the five-player serve-receive. This strategy gives everyone opportunities to develop their skills as forearm passers, without placing undue pressure on any one passer. In the five-player serve-receive pattern, all players except the designated setter are placed in a W formation (figure 2.1).
As you see in the figure, three players position nearer the net, on or near the three-meter line, whereas the two deeper passers are positioned closer to the end line. The strategy of this alignment is to hold all passers accountable for effectively handling a serve in their area of the court. Notice that the two deepest passers split the court down the middle, giving each of them equal responsibility in receiving serves that go behind the three-meter line. Passers stationed nearer the three-meter line are responsible for receiving serves that fall on or inside the line (short serves).
Though the entire W serve-receive pattern can be adjusted deeper or shallower in the court to place passers in the areas served most frequently by the opponent, passers who are closer to the backcourt typically have responsibility for the deeper hard-driven serves. The two players in the backcourt portion of the W also usually get more opportunities to receive serves (because most serves land behind the three-meter line and in the middle of the court), but as long as everyone gets a chance to rotate into and pass from these positions all players can practice their receiving skills.
Because one major reason for incorporating a five-player serve-receive is to give all players an opportunity to develop the skill of receiving serves, there are no strict personnel requirements. That said, as players work on developing their receiving skills in this system, they should have at least an average amount of ball control. If they don't, they will have only minimal chances to practice passing an "in system" ball, which of course undercuts the primary reason for using the five-player pattern to begin with. Average ball control means being able to put the ball-in this case with a forearm or overhead pass-to the desired target 70 percent of the time (90 percent of the time indicates outstanding ball control).
The decision to use the W serve-receive formation to help players develop their passing skills should be applauded, however you also don't want to put your team at a technical and tactical disadvantage to the point of crippling your offense. Disadvantages will always be present when passers of varying skill levels are receiving serves, so it's up to each team to balance the benefits of developing skills with the desire to compete.
Advantages and Disadvantages
It's easy to recognize the main disadvantage of the five-player serve-receive. As you can see in figure 2.1, multiple seams exist between players, both front to back and side to side (seams are the spaces between each of the back-row passers, between each of the front-row passers, as well as between back-row and front-row passers), which present opportunities for good servers to serve between two or even three receivers. Whenever two or more potential receivers are wondering if a ball is theirs to receive, the serving team gains a tactical advantage. In such a case, receivers must communicate well; if they don't, many balls will be passed ineffectively, drop between passers, or cause passers to collide
A second disadvantage of the W formation is that with so many players potentially receiving serve there's a much greater likelihood for inconsistent serve-receive, making it difficult for an offense to establish any rhythm. Some serves easily passed by one player (or from one position in the W) might be a challenge for another, causing disruption for players receiving the passes.
Finally, assuming all players are receiving serve from each of the five positions, it becomes difficult for them to become consistently effective because they're passing from various parts of the court. For instance, a passer passing from a back-row position has different angles and demands than a passer passing from a front-row position. If players must play all positions, they will take much longer to hone their skills because there are so many more skills (and angles) to learn. On the other hand, a formation that promotes some specialization of skills allows players to become adept at the skills required of their position; unfortunately, the W serve-receive is not such a formation.
There are of course some advantages to the five-player serve-receive, or else no team would choose to use it. As mentioned, this formation promotes all players developing proficiency in a variety of passing skills, which makes the formation beneficial for young or less experienced teams that are building skills for the future. This formation can help coaches determine which players have skills in certain areas and which do not.
Another advantage is that a five-player serve-receive makes it difficult for opponents to pick on any one passer since a struggling passer can be moved slightly out of an area or have their area of responsibility limited a bit if he or she is having trouble handling serves.
It's also difficult to wear down a particular passer in this formation because five players are taking responsibility for receiving serve as opposed to only three or four. In a more specialized passing system (using three or four passers; see chapters 3 and 4), it's easier to cause one of the primary passers to struggle because they are forced to receive all serves, whether they play in the front or back row.