FIFA 21 best formations: 5 great tried-and-tested systems explained

(Image credit: EA)

Picking a formation in FIFA 21 is never easy. This year, it has dozen of formations, and literally hundreds of tactical combinations on offer. If you're looking to get an edge, you need to know what are the best formations to use. 

Don't let this that complexity put you off though, as this handy guide is going to walk you through five of FIFA 21's best formations, that will help you play the sort of football you want to. Below, we'll break down each formation: their strengths, weaknesses, and how to beat your opponent, no matter what style of football you’re looking to play.


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For… a possession-based game.

Long before Antonio Conte popularised playing three at the back in England during his stint at Chelsea, FIFA die-hards leaned on this tactic to bamboozle and bewilder everyone from uni housemates to screaming kids online.

Things to consider: With last year’s FIFA bringing an increased emphasis on 50/50 tackles, this tactic became more effective than ever - and it's still a favourite. A tough-tackling enforcer is essential, otherwise you risk being overrun. The rest of the formation’s layout means you should, in effect, always have an extra man in the final third compared to your opponent.

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What to avoid: Wide players with a ‘high’ Attacking Work Rate (check the Squad menu in tactics if you need to check for yourself). FIFA’s version of three-at-the-back is less defensive-minded and can make you prone to a counter-attack, so you'll want to avoid these types of wingers. For proper wing-backs, you’ll want a formation with five defenders – try 5-2-1-2 for similar results.

Player instructions and game plans: This formation lives and dies on your CDM controlling the tempo and – crucially – not venturing too far from their position. Set their Attacking Support to ‘Stay Back While Attacking’ and Defensive Position to ‘Cover Centre’. 

For extra protection in defence, set one (or both) wingers to ‘Come Back in Defence’ under Defensive Support. Utilising one striker as a False 9 by combining the False 9 Attacking Runs instruction with ‘Drift Wide’ Support Runs can also cause havoc.

4-2-3-1 (Wide)


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For… those who like to adapt.

A classic formation returns. FIFA 21 is filled with full-backs being left on their backsides thanks to the increased effectiveness of dribbling one-on-one. EA may yet still balance it in future updates, but for now, make use of your wide players with 4-2-3-1 Wide – which just gets the edge over its Narrow counterpart.

Things to consider: 4-2-3-1 Wide works so well because it has the potential to transform into other tide-turning tactics, depending on your Player Instructions. Don’t be afraid to experiment – turn things into a lopsided 4-3-3 to overload one side of the pitch, or tighten things up to what is effectively a 4-4-1-1 if you want to see out a narrow lead. 

What to avoid: Slow wingers. Anything below 70 pace shouldn't be in your squad. The two wingers have to be the focal point of your attacks – especially as you’re only playing one striker. A lethargic wide player, particularly one with low stamina, isn’t going to cut it here.

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Player instructions and game plans: Your two CDMs don't need to sit back all game. Utilise one as a pivot by adding the following instructions: Defensive Behaviour: Balanced; Attacking Support: Get Forward; Interceptions: Aggressive. Be prepared to substitute if necessary. They won’t often last the full 90, but it’s well worth it for the penetrating runs from midfield. The AI are far more on the ball in that regard this year - pun absolutely intended.

4-3-3 (Holding)


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For… getting back to basics.

4-3-3 is the best formation for practically everyone. If you haven’t kicked a (virtual) ball in anger in years or a dyed-in-the-wool FIFA fanatic, it gives you everything you would want from a formation. There’s a solid base in midfield, potential for counter-attacks on the wing, and a solid base at the back. But with five different variations on offer, which is the best? Here’s why you should follow Arsenal’s lead and rely on Holding…

Things to consider: There’s a reason why the Holding version of 4-3-3 is the one to go for. ‘Flat’ can lead to a bunched-up, leggy midfield if you have two (or more) similar players with stamina-sapping work rates; Defend is far too negative and leaves you with few options up the pitch; the False 9 option is tempting but FIFA hasn’t quite figured out how to translate that specialist role into the game; Attack will leave your defence far too exposed. Holding is a happy medium – the defensive midfielder shields everything, and you’re free to play in the knowledge that you won’t be caught out too often.

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What to avoid: Of all the formations on offer, 4-3-3 Holding is one of the few that works straight out of the box with minimal fuss. It can be tempting to tinker, though you don’t actually need to here. Avoid messing with what works and keep things (mostly) as is, with just one trip to the menus required.

Player instructions and game plans: Under the Tactics tab, switch the team’s Defensive Style to ‘Drop Back’. Whether you’re playing Barcelona or Bolton, this will ensure you’ll be incredibly hard to break down, drawing your opponents on while leaving them susceptible to a lightning-fast break. If you're looking to keep tactics to a minimum, this is the formation for you.



(Image credit: EA)

For… beating your opponents into the middle of next week.

Wide forwards in previous FIFA games were an odd beast. Not quite wingers, not quite strikers, they operated in the sort of half-space between training cone and semi-useful; good on occasion, but you could never quite get the best out of them. It’s pleasing to report that the ‘2’ in 4-3-2-1 is actually a viable option this year, mirroring real-world trends as the likes of Son Heung-min and Mohamed Salah terrorise Premier League defences week in, week out.

Things to consider: If your opponent has rapid wide players themselves, it might be worth ensuring your full-backs have high Acceleration, Agility and Reaction attributes. Without those, they could be beaten all ends up for 90 minutes – and your forwards aren’t likely to trudge back to help a beleaguered full-back.

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What to avoid: Don’t play conservative. 1) It’s a video game. You’re not Tony Pulis. 2) This formation is designed for you to win 4-3, not 1-0. If you concede, it’s not the end of the world. Rest easy in the knowledge that you’re likely to find space as the game wears on thanks to your midfield passers having (at worst) four options available at any given time in the centre of the park. 

Player instructions and game plans: Back to the Tactics tab for this one. If you want to go full-on gegenpressing, you can mimic Jurgen Klopp’s tactics by selecting ‘Pressure on Heavy Touch’ under the Defensive Style category. Whack up the ‘Depth’ option to an 8/10 and you’re golden. The opposing dugout won’t know what’s hit them. 



(Image credit: EA)

For… unleashing your inner Cafu.

Playing five at the back isn’t the boring and game-spoiling system it used to be. Now, thanks to wing-backs actually playing like, you know, wing-backs, it’s actually one of the best formations in FIFA 21.

Things to consider: Have at least one striker who is big and physical, and ideally has a deft first touch. Playing with your back to goal is a necessity in a 5-2-1-2, so barring some extreme marauding from your wing-backs, having a target man to play off allows another striker and the CAM to run into the box from deep.

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What to avoid: Wing-backs with ‘Low’ set for either Attacking or Defensive work-rates, as well as those with a Stamina rating below 75. They'll have plenty of work to do throughout the 90 minutes. 

Player instructions and game plans: The essentials: both wing-backs should have ‘Join The Attack’ turned on most of the time; Width in the Tactics screen must also be set to at least 7/10, otherwise things will get too muddled in the middle of the park. After that, enjoy.

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