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

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?


The system that Jose Mourinho found so much success with during his first spell at Chelsea is still popular today with some of the world's greatest clubs. It benefits teams made up of players who are incredibly skilled passers of the ball, allowing them to express themselves within a system that prioritises intelligent ball movement as a means to creating scoring opportunities.


Playing three players in midfield allows for domination of midfield possession against teams playing just two in the middle

By playing two very advanced wide forwards you give yourself the opportunity to nullify the threat posed by an opponent's full-backs. So long as your wide forwards stay in very advanced positions, it becomes too risky for the full-backs to push up, thereby limiting attacking options against you.

Playing three players in midfield, one being defensively minded and the other two taking an all-round 'box-to-box' role, allows for domination of midfield possession against teams playing just two in the middle. This can also give license to the full-backs to get forward as they are safe in the knowledge that their midfield is going to keep possession long enough for them to join the attack without the regular threat of conceding too many counter-attacking opportunities.

Jordi Alba

Alba is allowed to stretch his legs at Barça

The system is easily altered to a more defensive 4-1-4-1 for those instances in which a team must adapt to soak up heavy pressure.


To implement a 4-3-3 with maximum success you must possess players who are capable of thinking quickly in terms of positioning and distribution.

Enormous responsibility is placed on the central striker to take regular possession of the ball and bring his attacking team-mates into the game from their wide starting positions. While this is more than achievable with the right players (think Didier Drogba and Luis Suarez), there are few strikers in the world capable of performing the role when faced with elite-level defenders.


Ball-winning midfielders like Makelele are crucial in the 4-3-3 formation

Similarly, teams that have found success with this formation have tended to field world-class defensive midfielders. Claude Makelele, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets... all of these players are (or have been) capable of shielding their defence by themselves when their central midfield partners push forward to help attacking movements through the centre of the pitch.

If team-mates find themselves unable to rely on both their striker and defensive midfielder to create and stop chances respectively, the whole system tends to break down through a lack of trust.

Who uses it?

Roma, Barcelona, Celta Vigo, Chelsea (2004-2006).

Which formation does it trump?

4-4-2: The extra man in the centre of midfield can overwhelm a 4-4-2 middle two, while the wide attacking players are always ready to take advantage of a 4-4-2's full-backs pressing high up the pitch.

4-4-2 • 4-3-3 • 4-2-3-1 • 4-5-1 • 3-5-2