One of the oldest debates in the world of football concerns football formations. Ever since football coaches and managers began to try something different from the old, established 2-3-5 formation of the modern era, the way a team lines up promotes much serious discussion.
1. The 4-4-2
4-4-2 is the most commonly used football formation and is still in use today. Why? It’s because it works quite nicely whether the focus is on attacking or defending.
The number of players in midfield and defence makes 4-4-2 difficult to penetrate, but when in possession, the 4 midfielders can support the two strikers, and if a team has quality overlapping fullbacks, they too can support the strikers with telling crosses, creating goalscoring opportunities.
The downside of 4-4-2 is that it is physically demanding for the midfield players as they must support attack and defence. Another potential weakness is when playing opponents who use a 3-5-2 set-up (see further below), midfielders can be easily outnumbered.
The 4-4-1-1 is a slight variation of this formation that uses one main centre forward and a second striker that sits just behind and operates as a striker and number 10.
2. The 4-5-1
Devised as a counter-attacking formation, one of the best exponents of the 4-5-1 set-up was the “Special One,” Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea team in the mid-2000s. When Chelsea won the EPL in 2004/5, they did so with 95 points from 29 wins, 7 draws, and 1 loss. They conceded only 15 goals.
Most 4-5-1 set ups utilise a midfield destroyer whose job is to break up the other team’s attacks and then quickly feed the ball to his forwards – a role that in Mourinho’s Chelsea was undertaken by Frank Lampard.
One of the big drawbacks with this formation is that it can be boring to watch.
3. The 4-3-3
Whereas the previous 4-5-1 formation was designed as a counter-attacking set-up, the 4-3-3 shape is more about possession. One of the earliest uses of this formation was by England in the 1966 World Cup under then-manager Alf Ramsey. His interpretation of the formation used Nobby Stiles as the defensive midfielder, leaving the likes of Alan Ball and Bobby Charlton to link and roam forward.
Ajax, under the management of Rinus Michels, also famously used 4-3-3 to great effect in 1970, winning three European Cup titles on the trot. The Netherlands international team used variants of 4-3-3, winning the World Cup in 1974 and the European Championship of 1988.
4-3-3 gave birth to Total Football with possession, zonal marking, high pressing when the other side has possession and a sharp offside trap. It also facilitates triangular passing patterns.
The disadvantages of a 4-3-3 formation include:
- Leaving too much space between fullbacks and wingers that the opposition can exploit.
- Conceding midfield when midfielders have joined the attack, then the other side takes possession.
- If supporting players don’t make runs. The centre forward becomes isolated and ineffective.
4. The 4-3-2-1
One of the more unusual formations, 4-3-2-1, thrives with a team of midfielders. The narrow Christmas tree shape offers numerical advantage in central areas, and it facilitates the team deploying it to advance rapidly using fast one-twos and triangular passing. The team that used this to greatest effect was Spain; in fact, it won them the World Cup in 2010.
Barcelona FC under Pep Guardiola and the Spanish national team used this formation skilfully, changing positions at will and denying possession to their opponents. But it was managers like Jose Mourinho who eventually killed off Tiki Taka football with defensive tactics and counter-attacking.
5. The 4-1-3-2
4-1-3-2 has been used in the modern game as it is nicely balanced, and its shape is designed to produce attacking play. Teams set up in this way can attack through both central and wide channels, and it offers a direct strike threat through the two forwards.
Basically, 4-1-3-2 is an attack-minded version of 4-4-2. It ensures attacking power while at the same time narrowing the midfield so as to reduce the risk of getting overrun in the middle of the field. When the opposition is in possession, the attacking midfielders drop back, making a compact shape. Meantime the two up front can remain high to press defenders on the ball as well as providing an outlet for their side to attack.
Due to its narrowness through the middle, it does, however, leave teams vulnerable to wide counters. It also reduces opportunities for attacking play down the wings unless the team has fast, skilful wing-backs.
Coaches that have had success with this system in the past include Slaven Bilic and his Croatian side when they knocked out England in Euro 2008; Robert Mancini and Manchester City, when he led the sky blues to their first-ever Premier League title in 2011/12, and Jorge Jesus, manager of Sporting Benfica, who won a hatful of domestic trophies between 2009 and 2015.
6. The 5-4-1
Very much a defensive-orientated formation, 5-4-1 evolved into what is referred to as “catenaccio” – an Italian word that means “door bolt.” It was first used by Karl Rappan, the Austrian coach of the Swiss national team. However, it came more to light when the Argentinian, Helenio Herera, the coach Internazionale during the 1960′s, used it to win games by defending very small leads.
One of the five defenders would play behind the other four in what came to be known as a “sweeper.” It was his job to sweep up any loose balls behind the defence and, when the chance permitted, make buccaneering forward runs with the ball through the centre of the pitch. One of the greatest exponents of this position, which, as well as “sweeper,” was also known as “the libero,” was Germany’s Franz “The Kaiser,” Beckenbauer.
7. The 4-1-2-1-2 Diamond
4-1-2-1-2 is a modern version of the more traditional 4-4-2 set-up of ten referred to as a “diamond” formation. It revolves around 2 specialist midfield players, one of which is a dominant defensive midfielder – the other an advanced, creative playmaker. The two up-front players encourage a direct attacking emphasis, but it can be varied to a wide or narrow set-up according to the players at a team’s disposal.
The 4-1-2-1-2 formation is nicely balanced and allows the team using it to make good use of the space, particularly in wide areas. Because there are two strikers constantly present, it keeps the opponent’s defenders and can lead to lots of goalscoring opportunities. The holding midfield player in front of the back four shields the defence and also acts as the mainstay for keeping possession and initiating breakouts.
8. The 3-5-2
3-5-2 emerged in the 1980s. It was thought to be an effective solution when playing against two strikers.
It was used for the first time in international competition in 1986 by Argentina under the management of Carlos Bilardo when their two strikers were Valdano and Maradona – yes, the year of the hand of God incident when the South Americans went on to beat England 2-1 and go on to lift the World Cup trophy.
4 years later, Sebastiao Lazaroni used the same formation in Brazil’s 1990 World Cup tournament, and Terry Venables used it six years later in England’s Euro campaign.
But as well as bossing midfield and supporting and feeding strikers, 3-5-2 also has its problems when the other team is in possession. Wider open areas are left exposed in defence, and the wide midfielders are given little or no back-up.
9. The 5-3-2
This is a variation of 3-5-2 whereby the wide midfielders drop back to play as wide fullbacks. It closes down the open wide areas that are problematic with 3-5-2.
It is quite a defensive-minded set-up, but with the right quality players, it can also be used as an attacked-minded formation. Brazil, for example, used 5-3-2 when they won their fourth World Cup in 2002. Of course, they had no shortage of quality players, including Roberto Carlos (yes, he of that famous, amazing free kick), Cafu, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldo.
With the right players, a team using 5-3-2 can control possession and instigate dangerous attacks while remaining difficult to beat at the back, as Brazil were in 2002.
But 5-3-2 does have its weaknesses which include being overly defensive, being tiring both mentally and physically due to the continuous defensive demand on players, and it can lead to the middle becoming too congested when the central midfielders fall back and get in the way of the centre backs.
10. The 4-2-3-1
The 4-2-3-1 set-up provides solidarity through the middle, and when combined with flexibility up front, it allows teams using it to attack, safe in the knowledge they are not exposing themselves at the back.
With the right squad of quality players, it is easy to adapt the formation mid-match, depending on circumstances, to 4-3-3, 4-4-2, or 4-5-1.
To work well, however, 4-2-3-1 relies on having a number of creative attacking players who can work well together both on and off the ball. It also requires and great striker up front who can convert chances – players like Erling Haaland and Harry Kane.
The weaknesses with 4-2-3-1 are that midfielders must be willing to rack back when the opposition have the ball, and when the team is pegged back, the lone striker can become isolated and frustrated.
11. The 3-2-4-1
Modern football in the EPL is all about the speed of transition, changing defence to attack and changing team shape as quickly as possible to accommodate it. 3-2-4-1 is the perfect answer. If you’d like to read more about 3-2-4-1 and how Manchester City have utilised using John Stones as a sort of Kaiser-like “libero”, check out the www.passion4fm.com website.
12. The Classic 2-3-5
On the way to the 2-3-5 formation that teams used in the early days of the pro era, teams dabbled with 1-2-7 and 2-2-6.
As the 2-3-5 formation became accepted as the norm, the numbering of the positions was established.
When the offside rule was amended in 1925, it prompted managers and coaches to experiment with other formations to accommodate and take advantage of the new rule.
13. The W-M Formation
The so-called “W-M” formation was the first divergence from the classic 2-3-5. It saw the inside right and left positions fall back from the front line to form an attacking W-shaped formation with the centre forward and the two wingers. It also saw the centre half drop back to join the left and right backs forming a defensive M-shaped formation. The W-M formation was also referred to as 3-2-5.
The football brain behind this adaptation was Herbert Chapman, and he introduced this type of formation during his stint as Arsenal’s manager between 1925 and 1934.
Many national teams that took part in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil also adopted the W-M formation; not, however, Uruguay, who won the tournament a result that came as something of a shock to the hosts.
They had built the Maracana, then the biggest football stadium in the world, to celebrate what they hoped would be Brazil’s first World Cup. It was not to be. Brazil’s subsequent record of lifting the trophy 5 times, a feat so far unequalled, began in 1958 when a 17-year-old Pele burst onto the world football stage.
14. The 2-3-2-3
This formation was referred to as the Metodo system. It was devised by Vittorio Pozzo, the man who is revered for making Italian football a force to be reckoned with. He was appointed manager of the Azzurri (the Italian national men’s football team) in 1929. He managed the national side through the Second World War years and finally retired in 1948.
It was while in England watching Manchester United that Pozzo picked up the idea of two fullbacks and a playmaker centre-half, which led to his Metodo system.
All in all, Pozzo, with his Metodo system, oversaw 63 wins, 17 draws, and 15 losses – an Italian national record. It also played a huge part in Italy’s two World Cup triumphs in 1934 and 1938.
15. The 4-2-4
The 4-2-4 formation is basically defensive and was used against attacking teams. Strange then that this formation was best demonstrated by the Brazilian national team. However, they had some amazing players, including their attacking fullbacks.
The 4-2-4 formation was an attempt to get away from the stiffness of the W-M system and create both a strong attack and defence. First stage developments were thought out by Márton Bukovi, the Hungarian footballer and manager, but the final credits go to another Hungarian, Béla Guttman, and Brazilian national team coach, Flavio Costa.
It was Costa who used it to best effect, first in league football and then when Brazil won the first World Cup in 1958. He resorted to it again in 1970 when Brazil won their third World Cup.
The potential weakness of 4-2-4 is that the two midfielders can be easily overrun.
1-1-8 – in the Pre-modern Football Era
Did you know there was once a 1-1-8 formation? Crazy though it sounds today, it’s true. It‘s how teams lined up back in the 19th century in what is referred to as the pre-modern era of the game.
Back in those early footballing times, passing the ball was almost unheard of. It was a case of if you had the ball at your feet, you tried to dribble your way to scoring a goal. It was all out attack.
But it wasn’t just football philosophy. It was down to the early offside rule introduced in 1863, which stated that a player on the side in possession wasn’t allowed to be positioned ahead of the ball. So, the only way of moving forward was dibbling.
There was one other formation with a slight difference, and that was 2-1-7. It was practised by teams associated with the Old Etonians but was still very dribbling-orientated.
How Manchester City Deployed in 2022/23
Manchester City are undoubtedly the team of the moment, both at home and internationally. Their European treble confirms it. Here is how they have lined up in all matches in the 2022/2023 season.
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Today’s football teams often use a variety of formations during a season (as can be seen from the table above), sometimes even changing mid-match if things are going awry or an injury necessitates it.
One thing is for sure. The debate about football team formations, which is best and why, will rage on forever.