Soccer is evolving like never before! Long gone are the days when there was only one accepted method of trying to win matches and every team used to try and play the same way with the same soccer formations.
Soccer tactics and formations are now a kaleidoscope of different ideas and innovations. In fact, the modern soccer era is dominated by a vast spread of diverse tactics used in different stages of the same game, let alone one way of playing that defined a whole generation of teams.
A good coach really needs to understand the intricacies of the different soccer formations, to give their team the edge over their opponents, which is why I've written this ultimate guide to soccer formations for you....
Why are Soccer Formations so Important?
It's easy really, a tactic or strategy is more or less the style in which a team plays. Some teams keep the ball, others are more reckless in possession or play long ball, and some play a more defensive game while others are more attack minded.
Some have highly prescriptive methods that instruct where their players should be standing and how they should be moving through different phases of play and others are more laissez faire in their approach allowing players the freedom to express themselves individually at any time.
One coach's tactics and soccer formations can be completely different from the next and the beauty of it is that both of them can have success. There is no right or wrong way.
Tactics can include a team's formation, areas on the field to exploit, how the team play when they have the ball and what they do when they don't and many other factors as well.
The foundations of any success in soccer are based on two main factors; players and tactics. This is why there is so much activity and money in world soccer thrown at player recruitment and the changing of coaches, those people with ultimate responsibility for defining the strategy, formation and tactics of the team.
Whether you're a pro team or an amateur soccer club, getting the best players to play for you can be difficult. At pro level the clamour for the world's best players is now an expensive free for all which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Finding tactical advantage can make you successful with the players you have even though they might not be as individually talented as the players they are up against.
Usually, the soccer team's coaching staff decides and trains their team to deliver the tactical strategies and tactics in a match although this is made easier if every player has a good tactical understanding of the game. Some teams have complex tactics and difficult styles to match up against for many different reasons.
Some teams are just strong in all areas and it's difficult to find weaknesses so adjusting your team's tactics for that match is more challenging.
Soccer tactics are always up for debate and no matter how much you know about the game your knowledge of strategy and tactics will change over time so having a versatile mindset and players that can adapt to several situations is important.
This is a comprehensive guide to a range of different soccer formations and tactics you can use to achieve success on the soccer field with your team.
Before we dive in though, let's look at how one team revolutionised soccer formations in the 1970s...
The Netherlands - Total Football
The country of the Netherlands are a tiny nation that continue to produce more of the world's top level coaches per capita than any other. They reinvented their soccer tactics at the start of the 1970's and have been punching well above their weight at all levels of competition ever since. We found a great documentary in the video above, about the team of 74!
The basis of the Dutch thinking was to break the game of soccer down into 4 'moments' as follows:
- What to do when in possession of the ball
- What to do when out of possession of the ball
- What to do in the 4 seconds between being in possession and then being out of possession of the ball (transition)
- What to do in the 4 seconds between being out of possession of the ball and then in possession of the ball (transition)
They apply different tactics to each of these four moments and so every player in the team has a clear idea about what they should be doing at every stage of the soccer game. As we look at different soccer formations and tactics it's important that we consider them across these 4 different moments.
It is not enough to simply talk about soccer formations in isolation or view them through the prism of attacking and how to score goals alone. A successful team must be strong in all of these moments.
There is also a 5th moment that is quite separate and treated differently to the ones described above which is set pieces. Set pieces is a term used to describe any restart in play, for example, throw-ins and free kicks are both examples of set pieces and very often bring with them tactics of their own.
What are Soccer Formations?
Soccer formations describe the positions occupied by players in a team during play and are described in the form of the number of defenders followed by number of midfield players followed by number of attackers.
For example, 4-3-3 would describe four defenders, three midfield players and three attackers.
Outfield soccer positions are still generally broken down into three types; defenders, midfielders and forwards. Go to any soccer website, or look at a FIFA roster, and you'll see players broken down into these three categories.
However, these traditional lines of delineation are becoming less relevant with modern tactics. This ignores the progression of football tactics in recent years, where the pitch is often broken into four 'bands'.
The midfield has been separated into two bands - midfielders are either defensive, or attacking, with some forwards able to drop deeper and play in the attacking band. Strangely, this is essentially a return to the system used fifty years ago, when the W or M formation (see below) dominated the game.
The shift back to four probably started with the success of the deep-lying forward, who played between the lines of opposition defence and midfield, creating what often became a 4-4-1-1 shape.
If the deep-lying forward was supported by wingers, the shape suddenly became a 4-2-3-1, which is a popular formation currently although is really just a version of 4-4-2 which has been popular for decades.
With the deep-lying forward drawing either a central midfielder or a central defender out of position in a three-band system, the obvious response was to 'match' the four bands - whether through matching up with a 4-2-3-1, or a 4-1-2-3 (which in itself is a version of 4-3-3) and then both sides are playing in four bands.
How have Soccer Formations Evolved over Time?
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The Early Days
In the early days of soccer, formations and tactics were very different to how we recognise them today.
All out attack was often the order of the day and it was not unusual to see teams line up in a 2-2-6 formation with 6 or 7 players in attack to try and ‘outscore’ the opposition.
As the game professionalised in the country of its birth, the UK teams became more astute in their thinking and changed their approach albeit softening they're attacking stance only slightly to 5 players in attack!
In the 1800’s Preston North End in England became the original ‘Invincibles’ team winning both the league and the cup without losing a game by playing this way.
By the 1920’s a man by the name of Herbert Chapman had introduced a new tactical innovation at Arsenal Football Club by employing an additional defender so they had 3 in defence, 2 x deep lying midfield players, 2 x attacking midfield players and 3 x attackers.
This formation became known as the WM formation and was instrumental in winning four league titles for Arsenal under Chapman. Different teams around the world now started to experiment with their formations and tactics.
In the 1950’s the country of Hungary produced a national team that swept all before them due to their outstanding players and the way they slotted into their new formation. Playing with 4 x forwards, the Hungarians introduced new thinking by having them swap positions throughout the game into different areas of the pitch so that their 4 x individual players would attack from different angles at different times in the game. This was something that had not been seen before and led to some incredible high scoring victories, most famously when they beat England 6-3 at Wembley (England were generally regarded to be the best team in the world at that time).
These high scoring victories were soon tempered with more realism as tactics and formations evolved and it wasn't long before more defensive line ups were being introduced.
Brazil won three out of four World Cup competitions between the 1950’s and the 1970’s playing a new formation. They introduced 4 x defenders that played behind 2 x midfielders and 4 x attackers and by playing this way they brought the best out of their highly talented individual players such as Jairsinho and Pele.
By 1970 they were truly dominant in world football and other countries looked for ways that they could compete and ultimately get the better of the all conquering Brazilians.
In the 1970’s the Dutch national team introduced a new way of playing that they called ‘Total Football’. This was a highly fluid way of playing although it started with 4 x defenders, 3 x midfielders and 3 x attackers.
Their philosophy was that any player could play in any one of those positions at any time in the game so long as the teams overall shape was maintained.
This new innovative style would famously take the small nation of Holland to two World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978 although famously they narrowly lost on both occasions despite being comfortably the better team.
The fact that they ultimately lost out to teams that were more defensively minded meant that a more defensive way became ever more popular in the years that followed.
Italy won the 1982 World Cup with a defensive team that relied on the brilliance of a sweeper who was a defensive lynchpin in their team playing behind the back line to intervene in opposition attacks.
The philosophy was that you do not lose if you don't concede and so the main focus was to protect the zero that they started the game with. This was married with a focus on lightning quick counter attacks meaning they could soak up a lot of pressure before breaking forward and creating chances to score goals.
Following their success there followed a period where no one team or style dominated world football but more and more people looked to innovate and create their own way of playing.
This was true until roughly 2010 when the Spanish national team became the dominant force in world football and their domestic champions, Barcelona, started to dominate European competition.
Demonstrating that soccer tactics had by this time gone from one extreme to the other, it was a very fluid formation that often involves playing with no out and out strikers at all.
Since their success the game of soccer has become a wash with even more innovation and new tactical formations than ever before.
Classic Soccer Formations
There are a number of formations, which have been around for a long time, which we're calling classic soccer formations...
2–3–5 (Pyramid) Formation
The original 2-3-5 formation was known as the pyramid and became popular in the very early stages of the game of soccer.
The two defenders would only mark the opponent’s forwards on either the right or the left and it was the deep lying midfielders known as ‘halfbacks’ that would drop in to provide support.
The central half back would drop in to man mark the opposing team’s centre forward when needed and would also be a pivotal player in launching attacks forward.
This formation was based on the 2-3-5 and was used by the Italian national team which won successive World Cups in the 1930’s.
The players in this formation are much more static and it involves 2 x defenders, 3 x deep lying midfield players, 2 x attacking midfield players and 3 x forwards.
This particular formation has inspired a number of modern ways of playing.
The WM system is so called because of the shapes the players make line up in from an aerial view when playing this system.
It was introduced in the mid 1920’s by Herbert Chapman of Arsenal in England following a change to the offside law in 1925.
This formation was designed to introduce a centre-back specifically to stop the opposing centre-forward and provide more of a balance between defensive and attacking play. This formation became so successful that by the 1930s most teams were using it.
The 3-3-4 formation was a natural extension of the WM and became very popular in the 1950s and 1960s with successful teams.
At its heart was a midfield playmaker through whom all the attacking play was funnelled.
This formation has been used extensively by Antonio Conte in recent times who won the Italian national League with Juventus and relied upon the incredible ability of the two wide players Lichsteiner and Asamoah to get up and down the pitch.
The 4-2-4 formation became very popular following the success of Brazil at the 1958 and 1970 World Cups.
This formation made increasing use of the improved skills levels and fitness of more modern players at the time and they were asked to cover the necessary ground to attack with 6 players and defend with 6 players.
The midfield players were asked to perform both tasks and make contributions at both ends of the pitch.
This formation also invited defenders to come forward with the ball which is a trademark of all Brazilian sides even to this day, regardless of which formation they are playing.
Modern Soccer Formations
This is a popular formation which was commonly used through the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s. It was strongly favoured because of the very balanced and natural way teams occupy the pitch. There are many variations and subtleties to this formation which are often categorised as separate formations in the modern era.
Again midfield players are required to be fit and cover the necessary ground to support both in defence and attack. A number of great Italian club sides used the 4-4-2 formation successfully to win European Cup competitions and UEFA Super cups.
Although orthodox 4-4-2 is not as common as it used to be, it is still regarded by many as the best formation to provide a balance formation and to protect the full width of the pitch with two solid banks of four. Leicester City notably revived the use of the 4-4-2 formation to win the English Premier League in 2016.
This is a classic formation which has largely been adapted in the modern game but is still practised in its truest form by a few successful teams. Leicester City won the English Premier League playing 4-4- 2 in 2016.
It favours a strike partnership with 2 x forwards who work well in tandem which often make attacks quicker and more direct as the aim becomes to move the ball through the lines as fast as possible.
Often one of the front players will be strong enough to get hold of the ball and bring their teammates into play further up the field, while a midfield playmaker can always be confident of having options in front of them when they lift their head.
One of the reasons for the decline of the 4-4-2 is the loss in the modern game of the traditional winger who were tricky skilful and fast players who provided the service into the box for the front 2.
Which teams use this formation? Leicester City and Burnley FC
This is a variation of 4-4-2 with a deep lying striker dropping into the space between the defensive and midfield lines of the opposition where they are able to get on the ball with time and space and create opportunities.
Teams that favour the use of this formation often have highly skilful attacking players who are suited to playing in this way.
Players who have vision to pick out an attacking pass or who can run at the defensive line to commit players will enjoy playing as the deep lying striker in a 4- 4-1-1.
Critics of this formation point to the fact that its effectiveness is largely based around the ability of this one individual to influence the game alone.
This is a simple formation that provides balance and security.
The defensive four and midfield four are usually very orthodox and the wide players often make as much of a contribution defensively as they do from an attacking point of view.
It’s important the lone striker stretches the play as much as possible creating the pockets for the deep lying forward to drop off the front and get on the ball.
Which teams use this formation? Arsenal’s Invincibles side and VfL Wolfsburg
The 4-3-3 is another popular formation and has long since been used with different teams down the years.
It has been used to good effect by the likes of Uruguay and England who both won World Cups in the 1950s and 1960s playing 4-3-3.
More recently it has been favoured by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and has long since been the foundation on which the Dutch national team is based.
Like 4- 4-2, there are countless variations of this formation that are often categorised as formations in their own right. A traditional 4-3-3 would often have the 3 x midfield players are tightly together providing a defensive screen and the 3 x forward players often split wide allowing spaces for joining midfielders to exploit. It is often a formation favoured by possession based teams.
There are many variations of 4-3-3 and a version of this is currently being used by Pep Guardiola to great effect at Manchester City.
It offers the opportunities for fast-paced combinations from back to front and gives the opportunity for the full backs to get forward and create overloads.
Often in the midfield three one player is a defensive anchor that breaks up play. The other two enjoy a more expansive role that allows them to break forward.
Which teams use this formation?
Portugal, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City.
This is a variation of 4-3-3 where a striker drops into the vacant space between the opposing teams defensive and midfield lines.
Again this is a formation which is heavily reliant on the ability of the individual player dropping into this space to create chances also has been used greatly in European competition in the last 10 years.
Another variation of the 4-3-3 formation which is currently being employed to great effect by Manchester City who are the champions elect of the English Premier League in 2018.
Splitting the midfield three into one holding player with two more offensively minded midfield players creates good angles for them to find forward passes and also provides security for full backs to bomb forward and join in with attacks.
4–4–2 Diamond or 4–1–2–1–2 Formations
A 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond provides more depth to the midfield set up with one defensive midfield player providing an anchoring role directly in front of the defenders, and one dropping into the space between the defensive and midfield lines of the opposition.
The remaining two midfield players often play in narrow channels enabling the fullbacks to bomb forward outside them and join in attacks.
Again this formation places a reliance on the attacking midfield player creating opportunities when they have the ball, although it does also offer more opportunities for varied attacks.
This formation is a progression of the midfield diamond and enables the 2 x narrow midfield players to play further forward.
This is usually due to the strength and dominance of a good holding midfield player who excels in their role and has the ability to effectively screen the back four.
It could also be that the full backs are more prepared to stay and defend as a defensive unit of four allowing the more attacking players to create the opportunities.
4–3–2–1 (the "Christmas Tree" Formation)
This formation was popular in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s although is less common now and it is another variation of 4-3-3.
It sees the 2 x wider attacking players dropping into the vacant space between the two lines of defence and midfield of the opposition and also playing narrower.
Very often a number of goals are created from these pockets of space which are difficult to defend and this formation seeks to exploit this to the maximum.
This formation is very often seen as a defensive set up although this is really dependent upon how it is executed.
It usually sees 3 x central defenders with one potentially playing as a spare defender or sweeper and lining up with 2 x full backs on the outside.
The full backs can bomb forward to provide numbers going forward if needed, although if the principle reason for playing 5 at the back is a defensive one then they can retain their position to provide a strong line of defence.
5–3–2 with Sweeper or 1–4–3–2 Formation
A specific variation of the 5-3-2 formation is with a free back or a sweeper playing deeper than the rest of the defenders.
A sweeper’s role is unique and their job is to read the game and intervene in attacks as they deem necessary.
They have no marking responsibilities and are also able to get on the ball and spark attacks moving forward. Franco Baresi was a famous sweeper who played for the Italian national team and was as important for them in an attacking sense as he was defensively.
The 3-4-3 formation largely relies on the ability of the two outside midfield players to run the full length of the pitch and support both defensively and in attack.
Again this is a formation that teams can be fluid with and play in a number of different ways, for instance a diamond 4 in midfield or with the central striker dropping off the front to make a pyramid with the 2 x central midfield players.
This formation is increasingly coming back into fashion with the improved strength and conditioning of players assisting their ability to get up and down the pitch to good effect.
A benefit of this formation though is that it doesn't either succeed or fail on performance of the wing-backs. They are important but there are two wide forwards dropping into pockets off the front into key areas for creating chances.
The passing angles created are plentiful, and this formation encourages short, quick passing and a high possession game that is popular with fans.
Centre-backs have options in possession and playing two touch through midfield can see teams progress up the pitch quickly.
Which teams use this formation? Roman giants Lazio and French club Lille play this way.
4-1-2-1-2 (Midfield Diamond) Formation
The midfield diamond, 4-4-2 diamond or 4-1-2-1-2 is a relatively rarely used way of playing despite some notable successes in recent years.
It has a standard back four but requires the full-backs to push on and provide width tapping into the high energy of modern full backs.
The deepest midfielder is usually a strong defensive anchor, the two central midfield players are also high energy and get around the pitch and the attacking midfielder is usually a skilful creator.
Which teams use this formation? AC Milan played this way for many years with great success and it has been used at different times by Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Napoli.
The 4-1-4-1 is a little more technical than it might first appear due to the specific type of players needed to make it work well.
The holding midfielder screens in front of the back four playing a disciplined and defensive role.
The midfield four need to be explosive with the 2 x central midfielders playing with high energy and the wide players need to travel up and down the flanks.
This formation is often seen as quite defensive but it gives license for the midfield players to get forward into the opposing penalty area.
Which teams use this formation? Toulouse and Lokomotiv Moscow
This is a very similar formation to the 5-3-2 but with the 2 x wide defenders pushed on into midfield. Again it relies largely upon their ability to cover yards on the pitch and support where they are
needed. It is a formation that is once again becoming popular in the modern game and is being used more frequently at the top level.
The 3-5-2 formation dominates Italy and is spreading its way across the rest of World soccer.
Many managers have employed this to good effect including Roberto Mancini, Sam Allardyce, Glenn Hoddle and Antonio Conte.
The central defensive three are strong defnders and the outside centre backs need to be strong in the channels.
The midfield 3 can be blended from different types of players although usually there is a deep lying midfield player with screening duties.
The wing-backs have to be high energy and travel the full length of the pitch to provide natural width so there are options to switch play.
Which teams use this formation? Juventus, Italy and Chelsea.
This is a variation of the 3-5-2 formation where the 4 x players across midfield play as a more standard bank of four and one player pushes into the vacant space between the midfield and defensive lines.
This is a very uncommon formation and focuses on flooding midfield with players.
It is more common to see a 3-4-3 with the 4 x midfield players as a diamond and when the 2 x wide attacking players drop in it becomes a 3-6-1.
Its value is in the way it helps with ball retention and possession based soccer.
4-5-1 is often thought of as defensive formation and many teams who are protecting leads will drop into this shape to provide a strong defensive screen.
Also teams that are playing against superior opposition will often played this way. The 2 x wide midfield players will break forward so that the team attacks as a 4-3-3 but defends as a 4-5-1.
Another variation of this to provide balance is where the player wide player on the opposite side to the ball will drop in to make a 4-4-2 when defending.
This formation is very popular in the modern-day area although really it is just a variation of 4-4-2 with one of the central strikers playing off the front and two wide midfield players playing high.
The 2 x central midfield players often sit just in front of the back four providing a secure base and enabling the full backs to move ahead and join in. This formation is often used by a number of successful contemporary soccer teams.
This is comfortably the most popular formation used in modern day soccer and is an extension of 4- 4-2.
It supports possession based soccer, and using 2 x holding midfield players provides security for the high energy full backs to get forward often.
Crucially it allows them to stay high in the formation on turnover and they can be advanced for the next phases of play.
The 2 x holding midfield players also provide protection to the back four without the ball, and often determine how the team plays with the ball helping to build-up play and keep the ball moving when in possession. The simple principle of having 2 x holding midfield players offers a protective base when out of possession.
Which teams use this formation? Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund
This very unusual formation was initially popularized by Spain in European competition as they struggled to overcome the lack of an effective centre forward and a surplus of attacking midfield players.
They decided that they would push an attacking midfield player forward into the role of centre forward but then they would drop off the front as a false number 9 (i.e. false centre forward), thereby playing on the natural instincts of the opposition defenders to want to have a player to mark and producing space for one of their many talented and attacking midfield players to run into and exploit from deep.
Again this is seen by many as a distinctly defensive formation.
Although the balance of players are in defence it does allow many opportunities for players to get forward and join in attacks particularly full backs and wide midfield players.
4–2–2–2 (Magic Square) Formation
This formation was used by the French which won European competitions in the 1980s and became one of the best teams in the world. It combines 2 x high energy box to box midfielder players with 2 x deep lying attackers who drop in to midfield and provide lots of opportunities for players to combine and create chances.
This is a very flexible and fluid formation and you can only just get away with labelling it as 4-2-2-2 as the quick movement and rotation from players makes it look different at times.
The back four is pretty standard and as ever in the modern era the full-backs are required to be capable or making contributions both attacking and defensively. The central midfield duo usually consists of a defensively minded player and a playmaker, but this can vary.
The two wide players act more like fluid inside forwards, dropping inside and using their technical skills to create opportunities. This formation supports mobile and technically strong players who can isolate weaknesses in the opposition and exploit them.
The front two often drop in a little deeper to pick the ball up from midfield, although one will usually stretch high.
Defensively this formation looks more like a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2, in attack it ranges from 4-2-4 to 4-2- 3-1.
Which teams use this formation? Brazil often use this formation as do French Champions Paris-Saint Germain, and Spanish team Villarreal.
This is a modification of the 3-4-3 system and allows for a narrower spread of midfield players with one pushing forward into the space between the midfield and defence of lines to create opportunities
This is very compact formation and favours teams who are comfortable on the ball and will dominate possession.
It provides great strength through the central channel of the field albeit teams run the risk of becoming exposed on the outside if they do not adjust accordingly.
Again it relies heavily on the ability of key individuals to cover ground and make contributions at both ends of the pitch.
Again this is a variation of 4-3-3 although the 3 x midfield players are split into 2 x holding midfield players and 1 x attacking player between the lines.
It has been used to great success by Jose Mourinho who led Inter Milan to the 2010 Champions League Trophy with this formation, beating a number of much stronger sides along the way.
How to Choose the Best Formation for your Team?
So, is It better to be an attacking team or defensive team?
This is a long-standing argument that really depends on who you ask. Some will say defense wins championships, others will say if we attack and have the ball the whole game then the other team can’t score and you increase your chances of winning.
At different professional clubs, it is often the case that they have developed a traditional style and the supporters of those clubs don’t welcome a deviation away from the soccer tactics that have earned them their reputation.
A modern trend is to be always responding to the way the opposition tries to play and to try to counteract them. Jose Mourinho is one of the most successful modern coaches in the world and has achieved this without having a particular style or ‘brand’ of soccer. His teams alter their approach depending on who they are playing and the associated strengths and weaknesses.
Your tactics in terms of when to attack and when to defend can change game to game based on your opponent, conditions and situation.
The most successful teams are strong both in attack and defense. A common misconception is that the most successful teams are the most attack minded. This is often skewed by the way the media celebrate the attacking skills of the most successful teams.
A prime example of this would be the Barcelona team of the last ten years who have been one of the most successful clubs in world soccer with some incredible players.
You may look at a team like Barcelona and think, they are so attacking minded and keep the ball the whole game not giving the other team a chance to do anything. This is true, their tactics clearly work for them, but other things go un-noticed by the untrained eye about them.
They are very defensively sound and tactically aware. Next time you watch them play, watch the team’s tactical decision when they lose the ball, they collectively press very high in a particular style to try to regain the ball as quickly as possible and starve the other team of any attacking momentum.
The best approach for your team will be determined by the players you have, the opposition you face and how you want to play.
Seeking to exploit weaknesses in the opposition line up is something that professional teams often do and why they will have a team watched several times before they play them.
Scouts will watch closely for areas that can be exploited. Seen a defender that is weak at heading? Then ask your centre forward to pull onto them at crosses. Is that midfield player receiving the ball with a closed body shape? Then make sure your players are quick to press them and win the ball back.
Whichever way you get your team to play will be determined by the players you have at your disposal. Some will be suited to different ways of playing but not others. For instance, midfield players who are good passers but not strong runners will be suited to the possession type approach much more than the counter attacking style.
You need to decide or experiment to find the style that suits your players the best.
Let’s look at how different soccer strategies will affect your decision about your soccer formation.
Defensive Soccer Formations
There are examples above of how soccer teams have won famous matches by successfully using defensive soccer formations and tactics. Here is a look at some specific defensive strategies and the formations they are best suited to:
Teams need to understand how they can defend successfully in a variety of circumstances. Some teams, as a mainstay of their defensive tactics, defend early (i.e. going back to the four ‘moments’ introduced by the Dutch, they try to recover the ball as soon as they concede possession to their opponents).
Others may choose to recover their team shape, regroup, and prepare themselves to defend later and deeper. Here we look at the basic principles of these two approaches.
Late Team Defending
Defensive team tactics may be as straightforward as deciding where to first engage and pressure the opponent’s build up play. If you decide that your opponents are highly skilful in possession of the ball and can play cleverly and quickly through a team that lacks compactness, you may decide to defend deeper with the first serious defence against the player on the ball taking place around the halfway line and the pressure coming from your strikers.
The midfield line will organize itself behind this first pressing line, and the back line will likely be positioned on or around the edge of the penalty area.
This would give your team 11 x players between the ball and the goal and would, providing your team is defending well, be difficult for the attacking team to break down and penetrate your defence.
The teams that use this tactic often combine it with a counterattacking style of play and when gaining possession of the ball they spring forward at pace.
Soccer formations that suit Late Team defending: 5-4-1 / 5-3-2 / 4-4-2 / 4-5-1
Early Team Defending
Alternatively, a team may decide to press the opponents as early and high up the pitch as possible when they are in possession of the ball.
This means that when the attacking team has possession in its own defending third of the field they are immediately pressed intensely by your forward players. With the midfield and defending lines pushing forward onto opponents to support the forwards who are pressing, your team retains defensive compactness, but in a higher position on the field of play.
You may choose to employ this tactic if your team is losing the game and needs to regain possession of the ball, or if you believe the opponents will surrender possession if your players sustain pressure for long periods of the game.
Soccer formations that suit Early Team defending: 4-4-2 / 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1
Group Defensive Tactics
Teams may adopt different defensive strategies and tactical formations and there are any number of different ways of defending that can be applied. In addition to the high or low press described you may wish to consider the following:
Man to Man Marking
This has been a highly effective strategy for a number of teams in world football over the years although it is arguably best remembered for the way the Italians utilised it to great effect.
This strategy involves nominating one or more of your team to mark one or more of the opposition. It can be used to cancel out the effectiveness of one particular player or to shut a team down by playing 11 individual games of 1 v 1 within the wider game.
This is often known as ‘locking on’ to the opposition, as can be seen clearly in this video when Vinnie Jones gets a little too close to Paul Gascoigne!
Soccer formations that suit Man to Man Marking: 5-4-1 / 5-3-2 / 3-5-2
Alternatively, a team may organize themselves using a zonal system. This is much the preferred option of modern teams as they believe it offers greater balance and flexibility to respond to different phases of the game.
This essentially means that players defend against opponents that come into their personal zones or areas of the pitch and pass on opponents who move from their zone into a teammates zone. They are still be required to track opponents who make runs, but generally their job is to defend certain areas of the pitch.
Although it seems that a zonal system may give opponents more time and space in which to receive and distribute the ball, when employed correctly, the opponent should be pressed quickly from the ‘owner’ of that zone meaning your team can press effectively in the most energy efficient way.
Soccer formations that suit Zonal Defence: 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 / 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1 / 4-3-3
Some teams prefer zonal defending and others prefer to employ man to man tactics, but this video below should help to explain the key differences between the techniques:
Individual Defensive Tactics
The individual strengths of your players and in this instance, your defenders will have a bearing on your tactics and the soccer formation you are able to play. For example, you have quick defenders who are good at recovery you may be able to play a high defensive line and a high pressing game.
You might have defenders who are slower but are able to read the game and are comfortable in possession.
You could have players who are very strong 1 v 1 and are capable of slowing down counter attacks with good body positioning.
All of this will affect your decision making when deciding which formation to choose.
Attacking Soccer Formations
The objective of the game is to score goals, but certain variable factors during the match can influence the coaches thinking as to how attacking they should be at any given time.
All of the following are different ways of attacking and scoring goals, your team’s relative strengths with the following will also have a significant bearing on your soccer formation.
For years, the golden rule for coaches everywhere was ‘pass and move’, and to keep possession at all costs, and as you can see Barcelona quickly became the masters of this technique
Quite simply, teams attempted to hold onto the ball for as long as possible at all times choosing safe passes to starve the opposition of the ball and patiently wait for opportunities to open up.
Moving teams from side to side often led to openings and the best teams would be quick to spot these and knew exactly when to make the right forward pass.
Keeping hold of the ball draws players from their starting positions, making spaces for killer passes and creating chances.
Formations that suit Possession Soccer: 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 / 3-3-4 / 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 / 4-6-0
With 11 players to get past, scoring a goal is a tricky task at the best of times. However, the beauty of counter-attacking football is to take advantage of when the opposition is most open.
By playing with a low base and drawing the opposition into your own half, but keeping players on the half turn ready to break forward you can take advantage of the spaces created by the opposition committing players forward.
This tactic is often used by teams who have inferior players to the opposition and know they will spend long periods out of possession. It relies upon good organised defending and players who can break forward at pace both with and without the ball.
Counter attacking tactics can also be used successfully against weaker teams and in two or three quick moves counter attacking masters can go from defending to scoring a goal.
Sharp strikers burst into life when possession is turned over to their team. A good striker will be aware of possession being won and look to get on the outside of their centre-half as invariably the full-back is upfield from the previous possession and there are vacant spaces.
With the right pass, you now have a one-on-one counter attack situation.
Formations that suit counter attacking soccer: 3-5-2 / 4-5-1 / 4-4-2
It is often thought that only inferior teams play a direct style of play although in truth just about every team will directly kick the ball forward at some stage and driving the ball accurately over distance is one of the most difficult skills in soccer.
Rather than spending time in possession to open the opposition up, a longer, more direct pass is played as an opportunist method of attack. By playing directly from defence to attack, the hope is that the strikers either secure possession in the top third and bring other players into the game with the next pass or create an opportunity for themselves.
Playing long ball tactics often negates the requirement of having skilful midfield players who can look after the ball but creates the requirement of having a physical striker who can either win first contact headers or get hold of the ball using their body.
It also places the need for other players to cover ground to be able to either run beyond the first striker or join him to make themselves available for the next pass.
A variation of this is to play forward without the expectation that the striker will win or secure the ball but to play exclusively for ‘second balls’ i.e. the ball that drops into midfield from the defensive headers and to compete tenaciously for this and to launch attacks from there.
Formations that suit direct attacking soccer: 3-5-2 / 4-4-2 / 4-5-1
The flanks or wings have always been a key part of attacking football. By shifting the ball wide and stretching teams, you allow a different angle of attack, create pockets of space and often isolate the attacking player on the ball in a 1 v 1 against the defender.
Good wide players will then travel with the ball and engage defenders in different areas of the pitch and / or deliver dangerous balls across the goal to be finished.
Formations that suit wide play: 4-4-2 / 4-4-3
The False 9
Although thought of as a new concept but actually a false 9 has been around for a long time.
It gets its name from the fact that, when soccer teams wore numbers 1-11, the centre forward would usually wear the number 9, so it could really be translated as a false centre forward.
The false 9 is essentially a lone central striker who drops off the front into pockets of space rather than playing up against the opposition’s central defenders at all times.
There have been a number of central strikers that have suited playing as a false 9, indeed Messi at Barcelona is arguably the greatest example in the modern era, but it was the Spanish national team that really brought it to prominence. They had suffered injuries in the 2012 European Finals and had no fit central strikers but a plethora of attacking midfield players notably Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.
They played with one of their attacking midfield players as a false 9 but would rotate them out of the central striker position and deeper runners would exploit the vacant space to devastating effect.
Formations that suit the False 9: 4-6-0
A common method for sides that are technically poorer than the opposition is to play a predominantly defensive formation and combine it with attacking from set plays.
This means exploiting all types of free kicks, throw-ins and corner-kicks. In the absence of highly technical players, teams will use the restarts from breaks in play to get numbers forward and execute well-rehearsed set plays to create chances.
This video demonstrates how effective the set play can be but you're going to need to practice and your team mates all need to be focused to pull this off.
Formations that suit Set Plays: All formations
Balanced Soccer Formations
The majority of teams want to be able to have a balanced way of playing that is effective in both defence and attack. Leaning too far in either direction can be dangerous and often it is better to have a balanced way of playing and a formation that suits this approach.
Occupying the pitch
A number of top soccer coaches like to be able to look across the pitch from their technical area and see their team occupying the pitch with good distances between them meaning the opposition team are going to need to do something special to break them down.
This is another approach that supports teams that are concerned they are inferior to the opposition and don’t want any of their players to become isolated or exposed especially when they are defending. They like to have players that cover round when their teammates are pulled out of position and by having a balanced formation to start from it makes this task much easier.
Formations that suit Occupying the Pitch: 5-3-2 / 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 / 4-1-4-1
Multiple forms of attack
In 2004 Arsenal FC made history by going through an entire season without losing a game and won the English Premier League. Their team was nicknamed ‘The Invincibles’ and is regarded as one of the best teams in Premier League history.
Jamie Carragher who was a midfield player for rivals Liverpool explained what made them such a great team,
“They could beat you in whatever way you wanted to play. If you wanted to turn the game into a fight they had players who could do that better than you. If you wanted to have a soccer match and get the ball down and play they could do that better than you. It didn’t matter what way you tried to play against them they could match what you were doing and win the game.”
Arsenal’s Invincibles team played a 4-4-1-1 formation and had great players in every position that were versatile enough to play in a range of ways.
They could easily combine ball possession and craft with strength and speed.
They even carried a big threat from set pieces meaning they had multiple forms of attack to win matches.
Formations that suit Multiple forms of attack 3-5-2 / 4-4-2 / 4-1-4-1 / 4-4-1-1
Innovation in Soccer Formations
Soccer coaches are always looking to innovate and the spotlight is always being shone on new or reimagined formations.
Here are some examples of how clever tactical thinking and a less popular formation was famously able to make the difference for a variety of soccer teams.
Ajax (1994/95): 3-3-1-3
Ajax of Amsterdam and their coach Louis van Gaal were able to win the European Champions League title in 1995 by playing an unorthodox 3-3-1-3 formation with players that had emerged through their own junior Academy structure.
That season, Ajax also went unbeaten through the Dutch league season and lifted their domestic title.
Van Gaal stretched the boundaries of tactical conventions and consistently played with a 3-3-1-3 formation.
Frank de Boer, Danny Blind and Michael Reiziger were often used as the 3 x defensive players behind the sitting midfielder, Frank Rijkaard. Further forward in midfield were two of either Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer and Clarence Seedorf. Van Gaal then had the immensely gifted Jari Litmanen operating in the channels behind the front three of Finidi George, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert.
It was a very unconventional way of playing but one that delivered great success and Van Gaal was widely regarded as a tactical genius for his innovative style and would go on to manage both Barcelona and Manchester United.
Australia (2006): 3-6-1
Another Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink was the Coach of the Australian National team that reached the 2006 World Cup knockout stages before narrowly losing out to eventual champions Italy.
Australia excelled with Hiddink employing the unique 3-6-1 formation and managed to reach the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1974. Having six men in midfield, deployed in two banks of three, enabled Hiddink to facilitate tactical fluidity as he could adjust the shape to suit their attacking and defensive needs as they arose in the game.
Mark Viduka was usually deployed as a lone striker, but he was supported by a trio of attacking midfielders – Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Jason Culina. The formation helped Australia have high possession stats during their World Cup campaign. They managed 55%, 56% and 58% against Japan, Croatia and Italy respectively, even managing to gain 47% of the ball against a vastly superior Brazil team.
Reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup was an immense achievement for Australia, a nation where soccer is a minority sport, but their journey showed that different tactical thinking can be very effective.
France (1984): 4-2-2-2
Michel Platini and coach Michel Hidalgo led France to victory in the European Championship Final against Spain in 1984.
They achieved this using another unconventional formation dubbed the ‘Magic Square’ and with the outstanding players they had at their disposal their team is widely regarded as having one of the greatest midfields in footballing history. Coach Michel Hidalgo constructed a midfield of outstanding creativity and strength with the quartet of Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, Luis Fernandez and the magnificent captain Michel Platini.
With Fernandez occupying the deep lying holding role, Tigana, Platini and Giresse all had the freedom to display their remarkable playmaking qualities. Tigana would regularly drop in beside Fernandez to ensure France’s back four were receiving sufficient cover giving the formation the look of a square and giving it the name by which it is still remembered.
Working in tandem, the talented quartet acted as both the engine room and creative hub of the triumphant France side. Platini scored a stunning 9 goals in 5 games to help propel his nation to European glory.
Spain (2012): 4-6-0
Following an injury crisis to his squad Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque hardly used a striker in the 2012 European Championships but still managed to win the tournament.
His team gave rise to the ‘False Nine’ formation, using it to perfect effect as they won the tournament playing football that their opponents simply didn’t understand and could not contend with.
Del Bosque’s tactics helped propel Spain to unprecedented levels of success, as they won both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 and the false 9 formation was used to devastating effect. Cesc Fabregas performed the role of the false 9 with great skill.
Do Formations Make A Difference?
There are many examples of how teams have used different tactics and soccer formations to upset the odds and defeat stronger opponents.
Steaua Bucharest vs Barcelona 1986 European Cup Final
For instance in 1986 Steaua Bucharest, an army team from behind the iron curtain in Romania famously beat the much vaunted and vastly superior Barcelona team in the European Cup Final.
The final was played in Seville in Spain and the 60,000 crowd at Sanchez Pizjuan stood firmly behind Barcelona. The overconfident Spaniards underestimated the Romanian army team, backed by Valentin Ceausescu, the son of dictator Nicolae.
Steaua played a highly defensive formation against the talented Spaniards closing down the match with a blanket screen of five defenders and four in midfield. The game remained goalless for 120 minutes as the Romanian’s played for the lottery of the penalty shootout. By the time it came the physically and mentally shattered Barcelona players were in no state to focus on their kicks and Bucharest’s keeper Helmut Duckadam performed heroics by stopping all four of Barça's penalties.
The final result was 2-0 for Steaua Bucharest in the penalty shootout and it was an incredible upset inspired by a masterclass of tactical strategy.
Brazil vs Uruguay 1950 World Cup Final
There are few shocks greater in world soccer than the World Cup of 1950 when another tactical masterstroke proved decisive.
In the deciding game of the tournament, which was still decided on a league basis rather than a final in 1950, hosts Brazil needed only a draw against Uruguay to be crowned as Champions.
With a world record crowd of 200,000 behind them, and having swept all before them in the competition to that moment they were firm favourites to dismantle an inferior Uruguay team and win the World Cup.
The game began as form predicted, with Brazil attacking against the Uruguayan defensive line for the majority of the first half. Many of the other teams that had played Brazil in the tournament had tried to ‘outscore’ them playing an open style. This hadn’t ended well and good teams like Sweden and Spain had been crushed 7-1 and 6-1.
Uruguay changed from the standard 2-3-5 formation with the wide players dropping deep and one of the 3 midfield players screening the defence. Uruguay’s star player Varela man marked Brazil’s main threat Ademir to cancel him out and effectively make it a 10 V 10 game.
Despite Brazil having an incredible 17 attempts on goal in the first half the Uruguayans managed to maintain their defence and reach half time scoreless. They’d thought in detail about how to respond to every situation in the match. Although they took the lead early in the second half, the increasingly nervous Brazilians were thrown out of their stride by Uruguay’s tactics.
When Brazil scored the first goal of the match Uruguayan player Varela took the ball and disputed the validity of the goal to the referee, arguing that Brazil’s Friaca was offside. Varela drew out this argument, going so far as to demand that the referee listen to him through an interpreter.
By the time the conversation had ended, the crowd had calmed down and Brazil’s momentum from taking the lead had died. Varela took the ball to the center of the field, and shouted to his team, "Now, it's time to win!”
Uruguay managed to take control of the game overloading players on the right side of the pitch to take advantage of the weak defenders down Brazil’s left side.
Juan Alberto Schiaffino scored the equaliser in the 66th minute and then Alcides Ghiggia, again attacking down that one side of the field scored another goal, with a low shot that went just under goalkeeper Barbosa with only 11 minutes remaining on the clock.
The crowd 200,000 crowd was virtually silent after the second Uruguay goal until English referee George Reader signalled the end of the match with Uruguay winning 2–1.
The size of this upset is hard to do justice to. In Brazil, many newspapers refused to accept the fact that they had been defeated; famous radio journalist Ary Barroso retired, and some distraught fans even went so far as to commit suicide
Brazil's white shirts with blue collars that were worn in the final game were, in the wake of the defeat, criticised for being "unpatriotic" and it was decided those colours could never be worn again.
In 1953, a competition was held by the newspaper Correio da Manhã to design a new outfit, with the rule being that it must incorporate the colours of the national flag. Eventually, the competition was won by Aldyr Garcia Schlee who came up with the design of yellow shirt with green trim, blue shorts and white socks that was first used in March 1954 against Chile and has been used ever since. All the result of some astute tactical thinking by the Uruguayan team!
What are the Best Ways to Train Soccer Formations?
Professional soccer teams often incorporate a drill called ‘shadow play’ into their last practice session before a match.
Shadow play is a little bit like a walkthrough of positions in slow motion. Two full teams line up in their formations, the coach will determine how they expect the opposition to play from the scouting reports they have, and ask a full 11 players to copy this.
The ball is moved slowly around the field of play and the players adjust their positions at walking speed to get the feel of where they should be at any given time. As the ball is moved and the opposition players change their positions then your team readjusts accordingly.
The coach will play through the four moments we identified earlier showing positions for defending, attacking and the transitions in between.
How Many Soccer Formations Should you Train?
The simple answer to this question is as many as you think you need to beat the other team! It isn’t practical though to learn lots of different formations because the chances are your team will struggle to learn them all well.
It is much better to be able to execute 3 or 4 different ways of playing well than 9 or 10 to an average standard.
You might want to work through 4 different options based around the way you would like to play and the strengths you have as well as the types of teams you are likely to come up against.
What is the Best Soccer Formation?
As a personal opinion, it’s hard to get away from the 4-2-3-1 formation which offers an excellent and secure defensive set up with the 2 x defensive midfield players perfectly complimenting the modern way of playing soccer.
The natural dispersal of players enables the ball to be kept for long periods of possession relatively comfortably and it is a good formation for playing to a range of attacking strengths whether it is counter attacking
The Popularity of the 4-2-3-1 Formation
It is the most widely used formation in international soccer at present for the reasons above and most of the top clubs in the world have been using variations of 4-2-3-1 (itself an extension of 4-4-2) over the past decade.
For example in the European Champions League, with the exception of Barcelona and Manchester United in recent years, all finalists have used a 4-2-3-1.
Turning 4-4-2 into 4-2-3-1
The idea of playing the second striker off the front became particularly popular in the 1980’s as there was a number of famous players who liked to play in this way. One of them, Diego Maradona, virtually single handedly won the 1986 world cup with his incredible skills and throughout the tournament defenders struggled to get to grips with him from the deep lying position he occupied.
Traditionally, central defenders enjoy the battle of having a forward playing up against them and by dropping off it immediately gives them a decision to make, do they follow closely and leave the space behind them vacant or do they hold their position and let the other player have the ball with no pressure?
It was only a matter of time before teams started to support this by allowing their 2 x wide players in their standard 4-4-2 formation to stay high and then anchor midfield with the 2 x central midfield players thereby turning the formation into 4-2-3-1.
This has seen a shift in the way modern central midfielders play and the quality of holding midfield players has improved whilst the number of box to box midfield players i.e. those who cover as much ground as they can all over the pitch has declined.
The efficiency and the compactness that the 2 x holding midfield players provide make them a vital screen to the back four and provide the scope for full-backs, who have largely become the players that now cover the most ground, to join in at the top end of the pitch.
Very often the 2 x central midfield players determine how the team will play and what do they do from their own keeper’s possession is usually a good barometer of this.
A team that are trying to play progressively up the pitch will often see the 2 x centre backs split wide, the 2 x full backs push high and the 2 x central midfield players join with the attacking midfield player to form a rotational triangle designed to get the player at the base in possession on the half turn ready to play forward.
Alternatively a team might miss out their 2 x central midfield players and go more direct up to a number 9 with players around them.
The central attacking midfield player is often the most creative player in the team, playing between the lines and finding space in pockets off the front 2.
The 2 x wide players are needed to stretch the pitch as much as possible and the full backs support with either overlaps or underlaps (i.e. getting past the wide players on either the outside or the inside).
The central striker is needed to stretch the pitch as long as possible in possession creating the pockets for the attacking midfield players to get on the ball. It often helps if the striker has physical attributes that support them doing this.
The 2 x central defenders often play as they would in most other formations.
A Solid Foundation – the Strength of 4-2-3-1
The 2 x defensive midfielder players allow little space between themselves and the defensive line or the next midfield line making it hard for the opposition to play through them.
This provides great security to the back four and often prevents teams playing directly up to their central striker due to the additional screening. They can also support in wide areas without being stretched and it supports the full backs with making forward raids.
These 2 x players are often the focal points for build-up play and look to keep the ball with safe passing.
Turning Defence into Attack – Getting Full Backs Forward
In recent years, the role of the full back has changed. Constantly teams will push one if not two full backs beyond their wingers who often shift inside to create the space outside them.
This helps to get greater numbers forward in attack but can leave space to exploit on transition in behind, something the use of the 2 x midfield players can help to cover.
Full backs in a 4-2-3-1 have to be physically capable of covering the ground needed to make contributions at both ends of the pitch.
The Attacking Three
The roles of the 3 x advanced midfield players can vary but also require the ability to cover a lot of ground.
They often rotate in and out of position to support build up play and get themselves on the ball in pockets off the front. They will link with each other or into the front man to create good possession high up the pitch and create opportunities.
They also need to get themselves into the penalty area to threaten the goal themselves.
The Role of the Central Striker
The centre forward often known as the point striker, must stretch the pitch as long as they can to provide the spaces for the 3 supporting midfield players. It often helps if they have physical attributes to support them with this, whether that is strength or pace.
The ball is bounced into them often and so they need to be adept with their back to goal and have an appreciation of their teammates around them. They also need to get themselves into the box for the next phase after joining in the build-up.
Soccer Formations Summary
In summary there are many different soccer formations that you can adopt for you team. Some play on the side of caution and others throw caution to the wind, however, the most important thing is finding a formation which is right for your team.
Identify the strengths of your squad and develop your formations to match these strengths and you will see the benefits. In my opinion it's always good for your team to know up to 4 different formations, so that you can switch tactics and react to events in the game.
We've looked at some memorable examples in the article above of how specific soccer formations have changed games and even won tournaments, so every coach should make sure they understand the tactics that you can use, and more importantly, will be used against you!