Football tactics and formations explained: the most common systems – and how to beat them
A rock, paper, scissors guide to the most familiar tactics and formations 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 witnessed 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 defensive-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.
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.
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.
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 getting 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.
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, there are few strikers in the world capable of performing the role when faced with elite-level defenders.
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 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.
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.
At times, it can seem as though every club on Earth has adopted the 4-2-3-1 as their formation of choice. It is most certainly the system of choice for an enormous number of today's top-tier clubs, with Premier League teams now seemingly in love with a formation that has been visible in Spain and Germany for many years.
Passing the ball through triangles is more effective at breaking down opponents than passing in straight lines, which is where 4-2-3-1 comes into its own. The position of the central midfield two in relation to the more advanced three is custom built for the generation of these passing options, ridding yourself of the problem of reductive 'straight' or 'lateral' play offered by 'flat' systems such as 4-4-2.
It's also difficult to become overrun in midfield using a 4-2-3-1 given that there's great flexibility when it comes to the advanced players being able to drop into deep wide or central areas. Further, the number of potential attacking players means that it's possible for one of these players to drop deeper without losing your offensive threat should a sudden chance present itself on the counter-attack.
Additionally, with so many players ready and available to pass the ball forwards, the striker in this formation is typically provided plenty of chances to score.
Sheer physical exertion can sometimes be a problem for teams using a 4-2-3-1. In order to generate some misdirection and create confusion throughout a defence, it's common for attacks to begin from a very deep position. Sometimes, attacks begin through Daley Blind from the core of defence.
Therefore, there is real pressure on the attacking players to play with a high enough tempo to move from one end of the pitch to the other without allowing an opponent's midfielders and full-backs time enough to recover their ideal positions. As has been so aptly demonstrated by the teams of Marcelo Bielsa (who, granted, doesn't always play a 4-2-3-1), this consistent physical strain can lead to tired and sub-optimal players towards the back end of a season.
There is also a lot of responsibility on the attacking wide players to drop back with speed into defence when an opponent is able to pass the ball out of defence. This has caused some friction between certain players and managers, such as Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, for example, as the two disagreed on how individuals should act during the attacking and defensive phases. Ronaldo doesn't like the limitations that defending puts on his attacking options, whereas Mourinho wanted Ronaldo to submit to the needs of the team and defend when necessary.
Which formation does it trump?
4-4-2: The potential to use passing triangles to work your through a flat midfield can make a poorly coached 4-4-2 look, quite simply, pathetic. On the other side of the coin, the flat midfield structure of a 4-4-2 means it's difficult to break through the multi-layered design of a 4-2-3-1.
4-5-1 (+ 4-1-4-1)
With its emphasis on packing the midfield to both keep possession and make it hard for opponents to pass through you, the 4-5-1 is frequently the formation of choice for teams looking to avoid defeat in knockout competitions.
What it gains in defensive solidarity and tempo management it loses in attacking threat, however. Launching surprise, unconventional attacks is difficult under this system, especially when the wide midfielders are primarily deployed as extra cover out wide as opposed to being forward threats.
4-1-4-1 can be seen as a variation on the 4-5-1. However, the system is generally part of the three-in-central-midfield family of formations that is so popular in today's game.
With so many bodies in the centre of the pitch, adopters of the 4-5-1 tend to find themselves enjoying an enormous amount of possession. In some instances you'll even see teams dropping their striker deep when they're trying to get the ball back, essentially playing a 4-6-0 and making it incredibly difficult for an opponent to penetrate the lines.
Offensive adaptability is equally possible, too. By pushing the two wide midfielders higher up the pitch it's relatively simple to move to something closer to a 4-3-3 without having to make substitutions. Often, then, you'll see a team deploying 4-3-3 at the start of a game, only to revert to a 4-5-1 as soon as they take the lead.
As it's so easy to alter the mentality of the wide players without ever losing your central defensive structure, it's common to see teams in knockout competitions tying themselves to some version of 4-5-1.
Given the focus on controlling the midfield, there is often a tendency for the lone strikers in a 4-5-1 to become isolated. Midfielders are not always as ready to burst forward and support their striker in the way they would if playing a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. As a result, chasing games from this formation can represent a genuine challenge and you'll often see a complete reshuffle should a 4-5-1 team concede the first goal.
Depending on the style of 4-5-1 being implemented, counter-attacks can be difficult to execute. The striker, being on his own, must make every effort to hold up play in order to allow his midfielders the time to advance and influence passing sequences. That delay allows defenders to recover, thus limiting the counter-attacking threat.
Which formation does it trump?
4-3-3: The 4-5-1's three-person central midfield matches nicely against the edition seen in a 4-3-3, while the orthodox wide midfielders offer extra protection against the opponent's attacking wide options.
While most popular in Italy, the 3-5-2 has enjoyed something on a mini-renaissance. You must have wing-backs who are incredibly fit and tactically aware in order to have any chance of making the system work.
If you want to stop the counter-attack, then you'd be wise to consider the 3-5-2. The three defenders should be able to, between them, handle any combination of an opponent's strikers and No.10, while the wing-backs are well positioned to intercept opposing wide players before they can advance too far.
Defensive structure is aided by a central midfield who tends to sit quite deep in order to help cover the wing-backs should the need arise.
However, the 3-5-2 is just as effective as a launch pad for the counter-attack as it is as a weapon against it. The three midfielders and two wing-backs offer plenty of potential attacking variety for the opposition defence to worry about, while playing two strikers means it's possible for the frontline to create and score chances with minimal assistance – particularly if the ball arrives at their feet early in a counter-attack.
The complexity of the formation, particularly when it comes to covering team-mates and beginning attacks, demands not only a certain kind of player but a certain blend of players. The back three must include at least one player who is a proficient passer, while the other two must be incredible adept at man-to-man marking and disciplined positionally.
It's possible to play a zonal defensive marking system in a 3-5-2, but doing so requires players with a superb sense of positioning and the speed to track opponents as they inevitably wander in and out of zones looking for gaps between defenders. For this reason, it's not uncommon to see a player typically considered a midfielder to fill one of the three backline positions.
Which formation does it trump?
4-5-1: Not only does the 3-5-2 match the midfield numbers of the 4-5-1, the fact that they're playing against just one lone striker means there's opportunity for one of the back three to push forwards slightly and provide extra midfield support when in possession.
WATCHPremier League live stream 2019/20: how to watch every game from anywhere in the world
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Get FourFourTwo Newsletter
The best features, fun and footballing quizzes, straight to your inbox every week.
By Conor Pope
By Conor Pope