Formations and styles of play lie at the heart of soccer tactics. While the specifics of various styles of play and the significance of different formations can be complex and holistic, the simplest way that a team’s formation can be described is through the use of numbers. The three sets of numbers in a soccer formation represent the number of defenders, midfielders, and attackers on the field, while the number of goalkeepers on the pitch is assumed to be one.
Today, there are multiple formations and styles of play that teams can utilize, and different coaches have different preferences, of course. While most formations today tend to have a good balance of defenders, midfielders, and attackers, this was not always the case. Here some of the most notable and innovative formations and playing styles in soccer history, all of which fueled the advent of the modern tactics used today.
When people in the UK first began honing the rules of association football in the mid-19th century, the only formations considered and used were those that focused mostly on scoring goals, including the 1-1-8 and the 1-2-7. This meant that teams played with one defender and one or two midfielders, while everybody else on the field attacked. The two or three non-attacking players provided minimal defense and mostly just launched the ball upfield to the attacking players. Early soccer involved much more dribbling and less passing, so the thought was that the more attacking players a team had, the more likely one of them would score. In the 1870s, Scotland eventually tried incorporating teamwork into the game and utilized a system in which teammates were grouped in pairs and would pass the ball solely between each other to try to score.
The first formation to provide any sense of balance to a team originated in the 1880s and became widespread and common in the 90s. The 2-3-5, or the pyramid, maintained a strong attack but also designated enough non-attacking players to mark each attacking player on the opposing team. The two defenders were known as fullbacks and the three midfielders were known halfbacks due to the fact that these players were either all the way back or halfway back. Starting from the outside, or the wing, the attackers were composed of two wingers, two inside forwards, and one center forward.
The WM formation, or the 3-2-2-3, brought the central halfback into the defensive line and pulled the two inside forwards back as well. This caused the attacking players to resemble a W shape and the defensive players to resemble the letter M. The WM formation could also be adjusted to MM, MW, or WW simply by switching around the numbers in the 3-2-2-3. Although this formation was created by Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman in the 1920s and 30s, the Hungarian national team found incredible success with a variation of the formation in the 1950s.
In order to combat the WM, teams started bolstering their defenses and refiguring their positions accordingly. The first defensive shift came in the form of the 4-2-4 formation that the Brazilian national team perfected in the late 50s. With two halfbacks pulled back to defense, the fullbacks were pushed out wide and the defensive halfbacks became known as center halves or center backs.
The Italian catenaccio, which translates to “door-bolt,” was another defensive innovation. Catenaccio was not necessarily defined by a single formation, although the Italian national team found success with the 1-3-3-3 specifically in the early 90s. Developed around the 1960s, catenaccio focused on the use of a sweeper. This sweeper acted as the last defender and an insurance policy behind the first line of defense. The logic behind this was that if you don’t concede, you can’t lose.
With the increased strength of defenses around the world, teams needed to figure out a more successful way to penetrate a backline. The Netherlands came up with total football, the greatest tactical innovation in the history of soccer. The concept of total football was that every player can play in any position as long as the formation remains the same. Although total football had been used in the past, it wasn’t until Dutch manager Rinus Michels, who had played under this style for Ajax in the 40s, reworked it at Ajax in the late 60s that the style became revolutionary. With the help of Dutch forward Johan Cruyff, Ajax and the Dutch national team dominated in the early 70s before Cruyff brought total football to Barcelona.
Evolving from total football, the Spanish style of tiki-taka dominated the soccer world in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona as well as the Spanish national team, both led by the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, implemented the fast-paced style of incessantly passing and constantly moving in order to cut through the opposition. Tiki-taka focused on ball retention and possession as well as moving the ball quickly.
Today, many different formations are used around the world, and managers are constantly experimenting with new formations. Some find success, while others fail emphatically. Here are a few of the most widely used formations today.
The most well-known formation today is the 4-4-2. This classic formation acts as a default due to its stability and balance in all areas of the pitch. The four midfielders can play in a flat line across the field or take the shape of a diamond with an attacking midfielder, a defensive midfielder, and two outside midfielders that play wide or more central.
In recent years, Diego Simeone’s defensively solid Atlético Madrid and Claudio Ranieri’s counter-attacking 2015/16 Leicester City side found success with this formation. It is also currently used by Paris Saint-Germain, although the two wide midfielders often move up all the way into the frontline during attacking plays.
The 4-4-1-1 is similar to the 4-4-2 in its defensive and midfield roles, but this formation only has one pure striker upfront. Instead of a second striker, the last player in the XI takes up a position behind the main striker and can be called an attacking midfielder or a central forward. Thus, this formation adds another playmaking role to the frontline and relies more heavily on the single striker to convert chances in front of goal.
One of the most successful implementations of this formation dates back to Roy Hodgson’s 2009/10 Fulham who made it to the Europa League final, beating the likes of Juventus, VfL Wolfsburg, and Hamburger SV along the way. Bobby Zamora occupied the forward’s position, while Zoltan Géra played behind him.
Along with the 4-2-2, the 4-3-3 formation has become one of the most well-known and widely used formations in the world, due once again to its overall balance and stability. The four defensive positions in this formation are the same, but one of the midfielders moves into the frontline. The front three is often composed of a striker and two wingers on either side. The midfield three can then be flat or in the shape of a triangle.
Two of the best teams in England today, Pep Guardiola’s Man City and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, often use this formation, although Pep’s team changes shape frequently due to its squad depth.
3 or 5 in the Back
Teams do not need to play with four defenders, and although many often do, there are various formations that have three or five players in the backline. These include the 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 5-2-3, 5-3-2, 5-4-1, and many others.
One of the most notable uses of an odd number of players in defense in recent years was Antonio Conte’s 2016/17 Chelsea side. Conte switched to a 3-4-3 early in the season following a string of poor results and went on to win the Premier League title and the FA Cup that season.
Best Teams’ Styles of Play
While there are many top teams in the world today, only a few clubs have dominated over the past couple of years due to a single manager and the use of a specific style of play. It is no coincidence that these are the teams that have had the most success in their respective leagues as well as on an international level.
The first team on this list has to be Liverpool. Over the past five years, former Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp has brought this famous Merseyside club back to the top in a way only Klopp could do. Klopp had already proven himself at Borussia Dortmund, where he played a similar style and led BVB to two league titles, three German Super Cups, one DFB-Pokal, and an appearance in the Champions League final.
Since joining Liverpool in 2015, Klopp has somehow outdone himself. Liverpool is the current Champions League titleholder and Premier League champion. The Reds have been phenomenal over the past two years, finishing on 97 points last season and 99 points this season. Here is how Klopp has done it.
Liverpool utilizes a 4-3-3, with three central midfielders, two wingers, and one central forward. However, the central forward, Roberto Firmino, acts as a playmaker and a sacrificial cog rather than a natural striker. Firmino is the glue that allows Liverpool’s hyper attacking style to flourish through the team’s two prolific wingers, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah.
Besides the importance of Roberto Firmino’s role, Jürgen Klopp also uses a style of play known as gegenpressing, or counter-pressing. The philosophy of gegenpressing is that a team that loses possession will immediately press the opposition in order to win the ball back rather than fall back and regain structure. This does not solely include attacking players, however, as a defender can press the opponent if that defender is the closest player to the ball.
The final piece to Klopp’s tactically immaculate jigsaw is the way Liverpool uses its fullbacks. Liverpool’s fullbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, are some of the best crossers in the world. Therefore, they often push high up the field in order to cross balls in. The style of gegenpressing combines well with the crossing ability of Liverpool’s fullbacks so that Alexander-Arnold and Robertson often receive the ball back in dangerous crossing positions.
Pep’s Man City
Pep Guardiola is one of the best managers in the world and arguably one of the best managers of all time. His stints at Barcelona and Bayern Munich were prolific and resulted in exceptional success. His time at Manchester City has been similar.
Man City has won two Premier League titles, three EFL Cups, and one FA Cup under Guardiola and became the first Premier League team to reach 100 points in a season as well as the first Premier League team to win the domestic treble. Alongside Klopp’s Liverpool, Guardiola’s Manchester City has certainly been the best team in England over the past few years.
At Barcelona, Pep Guardiola utilized a tactic similar to what Klopp later coined as gegenpressing. Pep called it the “six-second rule,” meaning that his team had to try to win the ball back from its opponent in six seconds. In response to Liverpool’s intense gegenpressing, Guardiola has adapted his playing style for Man City. While City still implements a fast-paced attacking style of play, Pep also focuses on possession and the ability to play through teams that press high up the field. To do this, Pep has drilled his players with the importance of quick and accurate passing but has also helped revolutionize the role of the goalkeeper. Ederson is the best ball-playing goalkeeper in the world and is arguably one of the best playmakers on Man City. Besides his comfort and confidence on the ball when under pressure, Ederson has the ability to accurately pass the ball to his forwards at the other end of the pitch, allowing for swift and efficient counterattacks. Therefore, Man City can be lethal through possession and buildup play under pressure or through counterattacking.
Zidane’s Real Madrid
The final team that has dominated over the last few years is Real Madrid. Led by former midfielder Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid won the Champions League three times in a row before Liverpool lifted the trophy last year. Although it often seemed as though Zidane simply let Madrid’s world-class players do the work for him, Zidane has proven himself to be a masterful manager as he returned this past season and led Madrid to its first La Liga title since he won with the club in 2017.
As of now though, that first three-season stint with the club is Zidane’s greatest managerial achievement. During that time, Zidane utilized the 4-3-3 and the 4-3-1-2. The most important tactical aspect of Zidane’s Real Madrid side, however, was the use of a defensive midfielder. Casemiro played this role, and he played it consummately. Zidane used the strong and fearless Brazilian to stop attacks before they reached the defensive line. Zidane also had Casemiro move back into the defensive line to help start Madrid’s attacks. This allowed the fullbacks to push up on the wing, while Casemiro and his fellow midfielders, including Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, and Isco gradually pushed play up the field. Once on the attack, forwards such as Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo were able to take over and combine to create chances.
Going forward, formations and tactics will continue to be created and tested even if it seems like the best formations have already been used. Different teams and managers have different preferences, and all managers must adapt to their opponents, so however absurd a formation or tactic sounds, there’s probably at least once coach whose model it fits. Five years ago, who would’ve thought that Liverpool would dominate the soccer world with a striker that doesn’t score and that Man City would break Premier League records left and right with a goalkeeper that could play in midfield?