In order to best appreciate the following article, I would firstly recommend reading my previous article: Soccer positions numbers 1-to-11 for it will ensure you have a solid understanding of how the traditional ‘eleven’ numbered players take to the field in a standard 4-4-2 formation, the system from which all other soccer formations developed. This will ensure you most easily understand the far more complex formations and ‘set ups’ that coaches’ employ in differing leagues around the world today, which I will go on to explore.
Four, Four, Two!
4-4-2 is the ‘granddaddy’ of all Soccer formations. Quite simply it consists of four defenders, four midfielders and two attackers. It is a very solid and balanced formation which if played in a ‘flat’ style has little weaknesses. It is neither particularly attacking nor defensive in nature.
The midfield is perhaps the key to the formation as they dictate the play of the game and each member should know when to help out both the defence and the attack according to how the ‘flow’ of the game is progressing. So, for example, if a team is under pressure then the midfield (and even the strikers) will ‘sit’ deeper on the pitch in order to relieve pressure on the defence. Conversely, if a team is attacking, the defence and midfield should move up the field as a ‘unit’ and help support the strikers in an effort to score goals.
What is absolutely key to this system is its rigid nature – players must stick to their roles and should not and are not given license to move vastly out of position or the formation will be exposed by the holes that occur. If a player, say for example, the left back finds himself venturing into a more advanced role up towards the oppositions penalty area then it is imperative that he ‘calls’ to one of his team-mates (probably the left midfielder) to fill in for him. If he doesn’t and the opposition win the ball then it is likely the opposing winger can expose a big hole that has been left and create a goal scoring chance.
There are many different Soccer formations that have developed and are used throughout World Soccer. Different coaches look at the strengths of their teams and indeed the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent’s team before deciding what system to employ. Some coaches tend to favour sticking to a ‘set’ system and will more often than not play that system ‘week in week’ out as this gives their side a cohesion, understanding and continuity in their play.
Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool FC for example rarely alters from a 4-3-3 set-up, citing this consistency of approach as a major reason for his recent successes. Pep Guardiola at Manchester City on the other hand (who is widely regarded as the greatest coach in modern club football) employs a variety of different soccer formations and systems from week to week according how he feels a formation will best suit each game. Let’s however first start with 4-3-3,
Four, Three, Three
The 4-3-3 system is probably the second most commonly used soccer formation in World Soccer history and indeed today. As I’m sure you’ll have now gathered it consists of four defenders, three midfielders and three attackers. Considered attacking in nature it is utilized by teams that are very good technically going forward both as a unit and at speed on the counter attack. Barcelona for example are notable exponents of this formation.
Weakness: Its weakness if any is that it is a fairly centralized system which leaves space on the sides of the pitch for wingers or teams that play an expansive passing game to exploit. Similarly it can also be put under pressure by teams that play 5 players in midfield, as they simply swamp the area and then control the game.
To counter-act this, Managers who are proponents of this system, have started to use what is known as the ‘high press.’ In essence this is a tactic which sees constant pressure on the opposition, even in their own half. All players are tasked with ‘harrying’ opposition players so they do not have time on the ball to find the spaces 4-3-3 is susceptible to.
Mistakes and errors are then enforced and the ball is won back. Klopp at Liverpool for example is said to insist his players try and win the ball back in under five seconds if they lose it. The reason – if you have the ball only you can score!
Barcelona have a different philosophy, they simply hardly ever lose possession of the ball!
Four, Five, One
The 4-5-1 formation is the first real defensive soccer formation that we’ll take a look at. This system can be extremely difficult to play against for any team for several reasons. Notably, the team employing it, ‘swamps’ midfield in an effort to not just control the game but to place a ‘strangle hold over it’ by dominating possession.
It is also a system which is very difficult to score against, especially if played rigidly and ‘flat’ for there are effectively ‘two walls’ of defence in front of the goalkeeper that a team has to penetrate in order to score. This formation is not pretty to say the least but can be very effective.
Jose Mourinho the infamous manager of some of the most extremely successful sides, (trophies wise), in history, including; Porto, Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Inter Milan, has made it into his very own ‘art form’. However, you would not see many soccer purists or even people who enjoy the game calling this ‘artful’, nor are you ever likely to see it employed to any extent in or by Brazil!
Such is the dislike for this system, especially amongst successful sides fans, Mourinho, great manager that he is, has frequently been ‘booed’ and criticized by his own fans for using it (even if they are winning) as it is inherently boring! And whilst a ‘win’ is all that counts for Mourinho, modern day fans are no longer happy with just a result.
A successful team is expected to win, and win in style! Thereby ‘parking the bus’ in front of goal (as this system has come to be associated with) and largely just relying on a single big powerful center forward such as Didier Drogba or Romelu Lukaku to steal you a goal on the counter attack is not what people want or pay their hard earned money to see.
Indeed, one manager (Brendan Rogers) was so incensed by it, that, when asked about it after a game he stated ‘a bus? he parked two!’ The other reason this system is universally heavily criticized is that it produces and is geared towards a low scoring game. Typically 1-0. However, it can be extremely effective and is also frequently used by sides that do not have the budget, players or skills to play any other way as it does grind out results.
Weakness: this formation does have one significant drawback – if the opposition side scores first, often from a ‘set piece’ such as a corner or free kick then it is very difficult for the team using this formation to get back into the game as it often requires ‘wholesale’ changes to the players’ involved and the formation itself, just to try and get back into the match and earn a draw. ‘Holes’, inevitably then open up when this is done and opportunities to concede further goals occur.
Three, Five, Two
The 3-5-2 soccer formation, was traditionally known as an ‘Italian formation’ as few outside of Italy would use it. However, under the modernization of the game this formation has become very popular, notably because it is easily switchable between a very defensive system and a very attacking system. A side that uses it frequently and very effectively is Manchester City – though they frequently ‘tinker’ with it throughout the match (as it is very adaptable) according to how the game is proceeding and in order to ensure the win.
The basic soccer formation however is set up as follows. The 3 defenders are three traditionally strong center-backs. The midfield 5 is not a flat midfield five as under 4-5-1. But instead consists of three hard-working yet creative center midfielders who run the game by controlling the center of the park and distributing passes as and where necessary.
The center midfielders are augmented by two players on the ‘flanks’ to their left and right. Known as ‘wing backs’ it is their job to get to get up and down the touchline in order to get crosses in for their two strikers to get on the end of and also to get back and prevent opposition wingers doing the same should their side lose possession.
In modern club soccer and also at International level this has become a very popular formation as it lends itself to being easily changed by the players themselves ‘in-game’, to either attack or defend depending on the ‘run of play’. Indeed, it is also relatively easily changed by the coach or Manager to one of the three other systems previously mentioned should he consider that it is not working particularly well for his side in the specific game being played.
Internationally, Brazil, are largely credited with inventing ‘flying’ wing backs such as Roberto Carlos and Cafu, and frequently employing it in an attacking formation. Whereby, Germany have used it as a more defensive style of play with their wing backs such a Phillip Lahm helping both the defence and midfield out to ensure they remain a solid outfit which does not concede goals.
Weakness: this soccer formation is highly susceptible to ‘cross field’ balls being hit into the ‘channels’ i.e the gap between the wing backs and the back three. Which in turn leads to clever players getting in behind the defence or to the ‘by-line’ to get crosses over or indeed have a direct run goal.
Four, Two, Three, One.
Finally, we move on to a more intricate yet commonly used modern soccer formation. This system is usually used by the more defensively orientated managers as well as by some at high level teams with players of great technical ability. Jose Mourinho has been known to use it with his sides and Gareth Southgate also used it recently on route to taking England to the finals in Euro 2020/1.
The key reason why this soccer formation is used is the two players in front of the back 4 ‘the holding or defensive midfielders’ help in effect create two teams. A strong back 6 which is very difficult to break down, whilst also forming the platform for an equally strong and fast attacking front 4 as they relieve those players of any defensive duties and give them license to express their talents and break down defences at will.
A further reason for this formation is that it also helps control the center of the pitch and thereby often the game with 5 or even 6 players there, without even the need for a defender to step into this area.
Coaches, using this soccer formation, expect their 3 attacking midfielders to be very creative opening up spaces for the striker and full back. Paris Saint German are perhaps the best exponents of this formation as a very direct attacking system with the emphasis on Neymar, Di Maria and Mbappe (and now Messi) all running riot behind a central striker – Mario Icardi. Please refer to the above diagram for a better idea of how this system now operates.
Weakness – the extreme technicality of the system means that’s if the players do not operate their roles absolutely correctly, particular the two defensive ‘holding’ midfielder’s then chaos can ensue and teams can and do get torn apart when that happens.
Similarly every player must be very comfortable on the ball and not lose possession, for if they do a fast counter attack from the middle of the pitch can occur and the ball ends up in their own net rather than their opponents!
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.