Just like anything else, soccer tactics tend to come in and out of fashion over the years. While it is very unlikely we’ll ever see a return to the likes of 2-3-5 which dominated the formative years of the sport, small positional tweaks and changes can play a huge role in how a team performs.
The beauty of tactics is of course that there’s no such thing as a perfect formation. Players have different attributes, and what may work well against one team could result in disaster against the next!
It is no surprise that the modern soccer media devotes endless hours of pundits and ‘experts’ debating the merits of one team formation over another.
Interestingly, some systems tend to be preferred in certain leagues instead of others – one of the reasons which often makes the European Champions League such a fascinating competition.
Having the top soccer formations explained in plain English makes appreciating the nuances of the game so much more interesting, so let’s take a look at the most common in the global game.
Perhaps the best known and until very recently the most common football formation, this system allows for a simple yet solid core which assigns every player a clear role.
Still frequently found in the lower leagues and at amateur levels, it also has the advantage of assigning the physical qualities and skills necessary for each player to perform each role successfully.
In defense, two strong and tall central players will look to dominate any long balls played by the opposition with ‘no-nonsense’ clearances either to the flanks or straight through the middle.
The full backs will usually be more defense focussed with occasional overlaps on the wing when pressing further up the pitch. A for the wingers, skill and crossing ability are key as is pace and directness.
In the middle of the pitch, two high-tempo box-to-box midfielders ought to expect to be good all-rounders, capable of tackling as well as playmaking.
In attack, the classic combination is the now rather outdated concept of ‘little and large’. A tall target man will look to get on the end of crosses from the flanks or long balls played over the midfield, and ideally play as an effective foil with a smaller, faster player possessing clinical finishing ability.
- Simple to understand.
- Easy to retain team structure.
- Positions have clearly defined physical attributes and required skills.
- Suitable for playing both lower and higher up the pitch.
- Rigidity can be easily dissected by more skillful opponents.
- Overly dependent on ‘classic’ wingers who are in short supply nowadays.
In recent years this has become the mainstay formation used by many of the worlds leading club and international sides. While it may at first glance appear only a slight deviation from the classic 4-4-2, the truth is that this is a very different style of play indeed.
It requires players who are very comfortable on the ball, tactically astute and suits those who play the ball on the ground, looking for defense splitting passes rather than the long ball.
Defensively speaking, the central pairing has to also be good on the ball as more often than not the goalkeeper will throw/pass them the ball to play out with from the back.
It is rare for goalies to just punt the ball upfield as this will more often than not concede possession – and this system is all about retaining it!
Popular with the likes of Barcelona and Roma, there is also a lot of pressure on the left and right sided defenders to operate as ‘wing-backs’ requiring outstanding fitness and positional awareness.
In the middle, one defender will play deeper as an ‘Anchorman’ (think Busquets of Barcelona) to retain possession and support two other central players who need to be high-quality all-rounders.
In attack, two players will operate as wide forwards, looking to cut inside and make a play/take a shot more often than cross the ball into the box.
The sole striker – quite often fashionably referred to as a ‘false 9’ will be a player of exceptional talent, capable of leading the line on their own and bring midfielders and the wide players into the attack on the break.
- Ideal for teams who play high up the pitch and keeps opposition defense under constant pressure.
- Three in the middle ought to be able to dominate teams who play only two.
- Excellent for retaining possession and limiting opponent’s opportunities to attack.
- Retains core defensive strength providing wing backs are of the highest quality.
- When done well presents attractive and impressive football.
- Very high reliance on the central striker to tie attacks together.
- Demands outstanding players in two key positions (defensive midfield, center forward).
When it comes to top soccer formations, this is perhaps the most popular in the English Premier League and La Liga at the moment.
Even lower ranked teams have been trying to implement this system because it suits the robust and more physical characteristics epitomized by these leagues.
In essence, it looks to pack and overwhelm the midfield, and often allows one or even two players to operate in offensively minded ‘free roles’. It may appear similar to 4-4-3 but in truth, it is even more flexible.
Central defenders can come under plenty of pressure in this system. Primarily this is because the full backs are going to be the only players in the system likely to offer much in the way of offensive width, and consequently will find themselves frequently high up the pitch.
Should the opposition counterattack down the flanks then they must maintain excellent positional sense and ability to effectively clear the ball when it is crossed towards the box.
Teams who operate this formation successfully tend to be those with top quality and long established central partnerships (for example Chiellini and Bonucci for the Italian National Side).
In midfield, this system is designed to be near impossible to overrun. Two defensively minded players will serve to cover the central defense, almost always forcing the opposition towards the wings for any counterattack. The other three midfielders can operate with a degree of individuality, and they’ll need to do so intelligently in order to complement each other.
One or two will advance to support the lone striker, with the other covering. If all communication breaks down and all three are performing the same duties, the system can break down either isolating the striker or even more dangerously leaving their defensive teammates badly exposed.
When performed well, this soccer formation ought to provide the central striker with plenty of goalscoring opportunities. Chances will come from practically anywhere across the middle of the pitch, so mobility and anticipation are essential features as well as being able to link up with roaming midfielders.
- Can allow a team to totally dominate and determine the tempo of a match.
- Extremely solid providing the wing backs are diligent with their defensive duties.
- Two ‘destructive’ midfielders allows it to be performed well even by less talented/flair based sides.
- Ought to allow plenty of goalscoring opportunities.
- Free kicks are often won centrally and within goalscoring range.
- Popularity in top leagues often means both teams attempt to use this formation.
- Pressure on wing backs can become exposed later in games as they tire.
- Requires midfield to communicate effectively -extensive training in this is essential.
This formation remains commonly found in Serie A where teams still often employ the defensive Catenaccio model. As implied, it is generally used by teams who look to ensure that they do not frequently concede but still retain offensive options.
Hybrids of this are found now and again in the EPL, often by teams who are playing away fixtures against much superior opposition.
Likewise, it is a formation commonly adopted ‘ad-hoc’ during cup competitions later in matches to protect a slender lead and run down the clock.
Employing three typically tall central defenders who may often make up for lack of skill on the ball with their height, strength and ‘no-nonsense’ approach to the art of defending, this foundation allows two wing backs to operate with relative freedom.
A common problem which may undermine this system is the defense being too flat, allowing slide-rule passes to be played between the lines for speedy opposition strikers to latch on to. Yet when done well it can present a formidable wall that can frustrate even the most imaginative playmakers.
As for the wingbacks, there are two schools of thought on how they ought to operate in a 3-5-2 formation.
It would imply that they should be fast – almost like wingers but with more defined defensive duties – but many coaches instead prefer their wide players to possess attributes similar to their center backs or midfielders.
This is because when defending, and that is the focus of this system they can also be drafted into an even more rigid back line towards the end of games.
For this reason, it is not uncommon to see midfielders adapted to playing in this role, especially when it is being used as an alternative to their regular game plan.
The three central players are most likely going to be responsible for providing the creative outlet for teams playing this system.
Typically it will be two high tempo players looking to press the opposition into making mistakes (a very tiring and often thankless role!) in support of a playmaker/trequartista playing close to the two front players.
More often than not teams using this system will attempt a high number of long passes towards their front pair, who once again are often going to be on the larger side.
Teams with players capable of being able to hold up the ball while their midfielders catch up are essential in this style of play. Think of the likes of Serbia’s Mitrovich or Poland’s Lewandowski as contemporary examples.
- A sensible strategy for teams looking to nick a result or play on the counter.
- Can stifle more talented opposition and encourage them to make mistakes/become restless.
- Suitable for teams comprised of strength and discipline more than flair or pace.
- Excellent for attacking and defending set-piece opportunities (free kicks/corners).
- Good teams can be easily trained to adopt this style of formation in-play if the match demands it.
- Offensively limited and easy to be pushed back and kept in own half.
- Requires a good commander at the back (ideally goalkeeper) to keep the defense organized.
- Center forwards will frequently be isolated.
Surely this is almost the same as 4-4-2? Not quite, in fact, it is rather different and happens to be on course to becoming one of the most common formations in the coming years.
Those who follow the game closely will have noticed that there is a shortage of players capable of playing entirely on their own up front.
Sure, the big names such as Suarez and Ronaldo may be capable of doing so but less stellar talents often end up isolated and frustrated.
A number of managers are also turning away from 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 because, without that focal point, their team can become dangerously inept going forward and leave huge gaps at the back.
4-4-1-1 works in a similar fashion defensively to 4-4-2, with full backs expected to press into wide midfield but not get too carried away very often with their offensive duties.
The center backs will ideally be good all-rounders and only go past the halfway line for set-piece opportunities providing they have the height to make it a worthwhile risk.
Midfield will be balanced with left and right sided players (not necessarily dedicated wingers) providing a structured and versatile range of options.
The number 10 playing behind the central forward is the key. At present there the game is blessed with players who may not have the physical presence to play up front alone or the endurance or physicality for a more central midfield role.
But what they do have is flair, vision and an ability to operate across the opposition defensive line at any opportunity.
Perhaps this will be attempting to play in the striker or advancing midfielders, or they may dribble forward themselves, looking to take a shot or draw in a foul challenge. Examples of this style of player – at an extreme level – would be Lionel Messi!
Now while not every team has a Messi, those style of players are in abundance at present (probably thanks to Messi being their idol!) and expect this formation to become ever more popular over the next few years.
- A solid, structured and flexible system.
- Suits a wide variety of players with each position capable of being tailored to a specific task.
- Allows expressive/creative talent to thrive much more than a classic 4-4-2.
- Can be used effectively against both superior and inferior opposition.
- Easily adapted in-match to more offensive or defensive systems.
- The number 10 is key to the formation working effectively.
- Requires a disciplined midfield to support what can become a predictable offensive style.
- Limits the role of both defensive and offensive wide players.
So there we have a run through of the five most commonly found top soccer formations found in the modern professional game.
As we’ve noted throughout, fashions change as frequently as the seasons in the ever more demanding world of football and each formation suits a particular match or opposition more than another.
Next time you’re enjoying watching a game and debating the coaches choice of tactics, just remember how thankless a task that it can be!