Football tactics explained: the most common formations – and how to beat them

John Robertson presents a rock, paper, scissors guide to the most familiar strategies employed by contemporary coaches...

If there's one thing that has permeated football debates since the birth of the sport, it's the validity and effectiveness of one formation over another. With no 'perfect' answer, history has seen an ebbing and flowing between one formation and the next as coaches try to overcome and reinvent the prevailing trends of the moment.

This unyielding race towards new knowledge and innovation is one of the primary reasons behind the constant evolution of the sport. Without doubt, a coach that can implement a formation strategy that their peers are unfamiliar with has an enormous advantage going into a competition.

Below we dissect some of the most popular formations in football today and highlight some of their most crucial strengths and weaknesses.

4-4-2

To employ 4-4-2 today is often seen as something of a defeat and an indication that a club is unconvinced of its players' ability to execute a more advanced gameplan

One of the oldest formations still in regular use today, 4-4-2 might be most commonly associated with English football but many teams around the world have dedicated themselves to it at some point in their history.

Whatever the case, the formation's Golden Age has well and truly passed. To employ 4-4-2 today, particularly if you're a 'big' club with grand ambitions, is often seen as something of a defeat and an indication that a club is unconvinced of its players' ability to execute a more advanced gameplan when in possession.

Sacchi Van Basten

The Milan side of Arrigo Sacchi and Marco van Basten were hugely successful using 4-4-2

4-4-2 is easy to understand and implement, meaning a well-drilled team can still find genuine success through it, but it does lack the complexity and more sophisticated passing lanes/angles offered by more modern, forward-thinking systems.

Strengths

Unlike formations in which only one striker is played, 4-4-2 allows the primary attackers to drive forward without having to wait for support from the midfielders

Having two dedicated strikers means that the midfield and defence needn't delay their attempts to get the ball into advanced positions. Unlike formations in which only one striker is played, 4-4-2 allows the primary attackers to drive forward without having to wait for support from the midfielders. For this reason, the best strikers to have ever played in a 4-4-2 are those that are adaptable and able to contend with a wide variety of situations with minimal midfield support.

Playing two wide midfielders, as well as very wide full-backs, allows for the creation of width. This can result in flurries of crosses being driven into the box, but it also forces the opposition to stretch their defensive line to counter any threat down the wings. Often, this can leave defensive gaps through the centre for the two strikers to take advantage of.

Diego Simeone

Simeone continues to enjoy success with the 4-4-2

Due to its clear structure and ease of execution, many teams, no matter what their 'primary' formation, will adopt something close to a 4-4-2 when under pressure and defending deep in their own half.

Weaknesses

Predictability and rigidity are typically the problems associated with a 4-4-2, as is the enormous pressure on the central midfielders to both attack and defend constantly. The formation has been around for so long that any number of ways to overcome it have been developed, a task made particularly easy if the wide players in a 4-4-2 lack discipline when it comes to their defensive duties.

The formation has been around for so long that any number of ways to overcome it have been developed

Having just two players in the centre of midfield can make keeping the ball difficult against teams playing a three-man central midfield. However, often you'll see one of the two forwards dropping back into midfield when not in possession in an attempt to even up the numbers.

In order to counter this, many 4-4-2 practitioners will play a defensively minded central midfielder alongside a more attack-focused individual, it being the former's job to cut out any danger posed by an opponent's superior numbers before the backline is put under pressure. However, this takes a body away from the centre of the pitch and can force a team into playing a predictable wide game.

Who uses it?

Atletico Madrid, Leicester City, Borussia Monchengladbach, Milan (1987-1991).

Which formation does it trump?

While it's difficult to pinpoint a specific formation against which 4-4-2 is especially effective, there is a case to be made for using the system when playing a team that is overly aggressive in attack. The even distribution of players across the pitch tends to lend itself to players being unmarked at the moment possession is won back, opening the potential for an instant attack.

4-4-2 • 4-3-34-2-3-14-5-13-5-2

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