Soccer Formations – An overview

“Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better.” – Bill Shankly

Formations, part of soccer tactics, are a description of how the players on the pitch are positioned. These formations are altered as and when teams are more defensive or offensive and are used at every level of the game from the greatest leagues in Europe to Kids soccer up and down the country in order to get a sense of organization and structure to a teams play.

Historically, the game of association football ( or soccer as we know it ) was a game that had little or no organization. It was a game in which a pass to a team mate was deemed “not the done thing “ ( who knows what Mr Guardiola would have thought of that? ) and a game that was just basically all out individual attack with little if any regard for defense or team mates.

As the years went by however, the game became more organized and teams began to use more structured measures in order to beat their opponents. Formations were used from the mid 19th century onwards and they were influenced massively by the attacking nature of the game in those days. It was common in those days to see teams set up with seven or eight forward players and with only one true defender.

But, as the game progressed so did formations and the 1920’s saw the first resemblance of formations that we can still see to this very day with Arsenal ( and Herbert Chapman’s ) “ WM “, a formation that consisted of three defenders, two holding midfielders ( as we now call this position ) two advanced central midfielders and three attackers which can be translated to today’s more modern 3-4-3 formation which is used at times by the successful Louis Van Gaal Ajax teams of the 1990’s, previous Barcelona teams and the Napoli team of this year’s Champions League. Other popular formations that be may be familiar with were the 1930’s Metodo formation which won back to back world cups for Italy in 1934 and 1938. This formation can be seen today in a loose translation when we watch Barcelona play, with its 2-3-2-3 set up. You’ll note that formations always start from the defense forward. A 3-4-3 would show three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards.

The WM Formation - Made famous by the 1920's Arsenal team.           The Metodo - The origins of today's Barcelona

The 1950’s and 60’s saw even more emphasis on positioning players in what was deemed defensive positions, or areas of the pitch that were not seen to be attacking anyway. The 3-3-4 ( three defenders, three midfielders and four attackers ) used by the double winning Tottenham Hotspur team of 1961 was regularly used throughout Europe, we saw it most recently with the fabulous FC Porto team of 2006 that won the Portuguese Championship under Dutch Coach Co Adriansse. Other systems that were common place during this era was the 4-2-4 formation which was first devised by Hungarian coaches of that era and this system is the roots of the modern day 4-4-2, with its four man defense, two central midfielders with advanced wide players, and two strikers.

We then started to see formations being used that we are more familiar with in today’s game let’s take a look.

The 4-4-2 which became increasingly popular in the 80’s and 90’s in both Italy and England, giving success to various Clubs both domestically and on the European stage. This formation has lots of variations within it including the diamond midfield ( 4-1-2-1-2 ) and the 4-4-1-1 which would see a “ target man “ playing with a support striker playing “ in the hole “ who would be intended to be a more creative player than his strike partner.

The 4-4-2 Diamond Midfield          The 4-4-1-1 - Second striker in the hole

The 4-3-3 used by the Argentinian, Italian and Uruguayan national teams of the 1950’s and 60’s that is used today by numerous teams including Chelsea and Real Madrid. Its variations include modifications to 1920’s Arsenal’s WM formation which we touched on earlier and converts one of the midfielders to a defender giving us a more familiar shape that we now see each week in games across the world. Another variation is the 4-3-1-2 which is a more narrow attacking option that focus’s on attacking play through the centre of the opposition, with a front pairing of strikers backed up by a link up man who would play in a possible “ free role “, this formation can also somewhat be interpreted as the 4-4-2 midfield diamond formation in its similarity. We can also look at the 4-3-3 formation in a defensive way by restricting the attacking responsibilities of the wide attacking players, giving us an essentially 4-5-1 formation when not in possession of the ball.

The classic 4-3-3 - See Chelsea and Real Madrid        The 4-5-1 - A 4-3-3 defensive variation

Over the coming weeks we will look into these formation and others in greater depth including matching up one formation against another to find out what strengths we can find by playing one against the other. We’re hopeful that this will help you Guys in finding the best formation for your players bearing in mind that it is the players that you have at your disposal that influences how you play.

We must remember that where soccer is concerned “ the game never stops “ so formations and the style of play we want to play are never an exact science as players are moving into different positions of the field at all times.

Teams will be successful when they correctly apply and execute how the coach wants them to play on the training field and NOT on the day of the game. If your players are not doing what you want them to do where systems and formations are concerned, then maybe you could look into your training sessions and the communication process during them as opposed to singling out specific players for criticism on the day of the game.

From a building perspective, if you don’t understand your player’s capabilities and your players haven’t developed the ball control skills, it would certainly be futile to try to explain formations and lineups to them. This would be like asking a child to write in cursive without first teaching the letters of the alphabet. First things, first.

Published by

Wes Morlham

Wes has coached soccer at various levels of the game in North America, Europe & Asia. Originally from London, Wes started his footballing life playing with and against the likes of John Terry, Paul Konchesky and Jermaine Defoe in the School and League systems of East London and Essex. Now, a qualified scout, Wes works with the Sports Management Worldwide Scouting Network in Portland, Oregon. He also holds various English FA, LMA & USSF Coaching Licences and Certificates. You can connect with Wes on Twitter.

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