In order to best appreciate the following article, I would firstly recommend reading my previous article https://soccerballworld.com/soccer-formations-and-tactics/ for it will ensure you have a solid understanding of what soccer formations are most commonly used and the reasons why. This will then allow you to understand that the best soccer formation is not set in stone; it can, will and should change (if only marginally) according your opposition, what types of players you have and your managers style. Yet ultimately the best soccer formation is often quite simply the one that wins you the match!
Best Soccer formations – Teams and Players
If you have read my previous article you will understand that the formations soccer teams employ are often the result of the players they have at their disposal. Liverpool and Paris St Germain for example are blessed with very gifted attacking players. In the former case Diego Jota, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah. In the latter case Angel Di Maria, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi. Resultantly they will play a very attacking style of football, 4-3-3 in Liverpool’s case and 4-2-3-1 in PSG’s case as the emphasis is that the best players are not best sat on the bench! Your best players are best utilized causing the opposition problems. Ultimately the ethos here is quite simple – ‘we are going to score more than you’ and we are letting you know we intend to ‘blow you off the park’.
Different soccer sides however possess different soccer players and as such they must change their soccer formations to get the best out of the players they have. Bayern Munich and Chelsea for example are both very compact sides with few to no weaknesses in any area on the field. Their players all play at a very similar level to each other. For example Robert Lewandowski aside there is no ‘out and out’ superstar player but all are top top professionals who work hard for their team. Thereby the soccer formation they usually set up under are more solid formations 4-4-2, 4-5-1 systems which are designed to control the game, give away nothing and win the game by attrition with the constant pressure exerted eventually providing the win. Sometimes even by large margins so rigorously and intensely structured are the formations they employ.
Ok, so you can see how the soccer players that you have at your disposal affects what is the best soccer formation for your team. Lesser league soccer sides for example with technically less gifted players will often just have to resort to a ‘fighting formation’ whereby they will ‘scrap’ for everything and often resort to ‘route one’ soccer. This basically means when they get the ball they will ‘loft’ a long ball down field into the opponent’s penalty area and hope they can achieve victory from that style of play.
There are some other factors however that majorly effect on a team’s best soccer formation:
Best Soccer formations – The Manager Impact
Each and every soccer manager has own style of play which he will insist is incorporated into the soccer formation he wishes played. To illustrate this let us take a look at three iconic managers: Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
- Jose Mourinho is one of the most decorated and respected Managers in world football, but his soccer formations and style of play was and has never been pretty to watch. For Mourinho quite simply the win is everything. As such his best soccer formation is one that concedes next to nothing and often just pinches a goal and 1-0 win through the odd counter-attack or set play. Mourinho is the man who is credited with effecting the ‘parking the bus’ style of play when needed. Indeed, fellow manager Brendan Rodgers once was so incensed by it he accused Mourinho of ‘parking two buses for 90 minutes’ as Mourinho’s formation that day placed 11 men behind the ball for the full length of the game and ground out a famous 1-0 win. One mistake, a subsequent counter attack, saw Mourinho and Chelsea beat Liverpool 1-0 in that famous game on route to denying them the championship in 2014, illustrating just how effective a best soccer formation just for the day can be.
- Jurgen Klopp employs a pretty rigorous 4-3-3 soccer formation at Liverpool. However it is his ‘heavy metal’, high pressing, high pressure soccer insistence which are the key to his sides formations being successful. At Liverpool, Klopp has an abundance of talent, but at Borussia Dortmund he did not, yet he still managed to make them a very respected and difficult formation to play against because he set up the best soccer formation for that particular side. Underrated as a tactician Klopp is a master of subtly tinkering with a basic formation to ensure he gets the best out of whatever side he has available.
- Pep Guardiola. Now this man is an absolute genius and soccer purist. A scholar of ‘Total Football’ Pep’s best soccer formation is what he decides it to be on the day and nobody but nobody is beyond being dropped under it. Thierry Henry once recalled a nice anecdote whereby he played for Pep at Barcelona and went into the half time break quite pleased having scored two goals. Only to be summarily deflated when he was told he was being substituted! When he inquired why he was told not quite verbatim but in no uncertain terms ‘I told you to stay in a certain position – and you didn’t’. ‘You will play as I tell you or you do not play’.
Pep however is unique in that he can get the best soccer formation out of any side. See his successes at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Moreover, whilst he has been given untold wealth at Manchester City, the innovation he has used to create the best soccer formations whatever the circumstances is largely unparalleled in the modern era. Formations including ‘double eights’ in midfield (a nice article which explains this system provided here) ‘false nines’ (basically a formation which uses a number 10 or other capable player as a main but not out and out striker) and this season a side and formation that does not even have a recognized striker! Yet still tops the league by some way! Testify that there are few better managers than Pep Guardiola in setting up the best soccer formation for a side and that the formation frequently has to be able to change and adapt. This leads us nicely on to the following.
Best Soccer formations – Total Football.
From a purists position and fan lover of the game’s perspective however there is one soccer formation that stands ‘head and shoulders’ above them all. ‘Total Football’ is a tactical formation in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in the team. The Dutch club Ajax and the Netherlands national soccer team are generally credited with creating this system/formation during the 1970’s though other soccer teams have been credited with pre dating Johan Cruyff and company!
For this writer and I believe any true lover of the game, ‘Total Football’ is ultimately the best soccer formation. In this best of the best soccer formation any player who moves out of his position is immediately replaced by another soccer player from his team, thus retaining the team’s intended organizational formation. A fluid system – no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role; anyone can successively play as an attacker, a midfielder and a defender and the only player who must stay in a specified position is the goalkeeper.
There is only one problem with this soccer formation. Manager’s and players alike all have to be largely way, way, even above the highest of skill levels for it to work. Looking at the teams that have played it throughout history (in addition to the two already mentioned) only arguably Brazil’s National sides of 1970 and 1982, Barcelona’s all conquering team of 2008-2012 (managed by Guardiola) and the equally devastating Spanish National side of the late 2000’s and early 2010 have been good enough to fully exhibit it in all its glory. Though currently Manchester City is making a very good case for saying they are doing likewise.
Why is it so good? In essence ‘this non formation’ puts the beautiful back into the ‘beautiful game’ and if you have the players to play it – it is largely unplayable. Take a look at the following clip and you can see why:
Watching the clip shows you how every player is utterly comfortable on the ball, switches play and position seamlessly and ultimately you cannot largely spot the difference between the skills of players throughout the team from the defence to the forwards. Indeed it is difficult (as it is meant to be) to pick up who is exactly playing where.
The only problem with the best soccer formation of them all is being good enough to play it!
A fan and participator of more or less all sports up to University level from Burnley, England. I am now writing as a freelance sports journalist. My speciality in particular lies in global Football (soccer) – which I played to a semi-professional level.