What Are the Best Soccer Formations?

best-soccer-formations

What are the best soccer formations? Patience, young Padawan, for you have much to learn. And if there were one single best soccer formation, the world would surely stop turning. We wouldn’t see so many variations and experimentations, births, deaths and re-births. In short, evolution itself would end.

A long time ago (1872), in the first international game between Scotland and England at Partick, England lined up in a 1-2-7, Scotland a 2-2-6. How times have changed.

Since then, coaches have played an elaborate game of cat and mouse, striving for numerical advantage in decisive areas of the pitch, looking for clever ways to exploit space and opposition weaknesses and get the most out of the specific attributes of their best players.

As far as more recent trends go, I present a selection of formations that have been stress-tested at most levels of soccer. This will be a living resource and updated every season because it’s the only way for it to remain relevant. Bookmark the page, if you like.

Before we start, the key thing to remember is that your players are indivisible from your formation (unless you’re playing 5-a-side). So your task is not to find a template that you like the tactical or philosophical look of and then crowbar you players into that shape. Instead, it’s about organizing the players you have into a formation that gets the best out of them AND weakens the opposition.

When, for example, a 4-4-2 lines up against a 4-3-3, you can expect the 4-3-3- to have more possession because they have an extra midfielder, but the flipside is that they will be more vulnerable to attacks from wide areas. Therefore the team playing 4-4-2 needs to have fast, dangerous players out wide, or they’re going to struggle. It’s important to know that it’s as much about what happens when you don’t have the ball as when you do.

In presenting you the best soccer formations, the main thread will be which  best suit which player attributes. It’s the only place to start your decision.

4-4-2

The Big Daddy of soccer formations. The Grand Master Default. The Go To. It’s simple, easy to understand and execute, particularly at youth level, either as a ‘flat four’ midfield or a ‘diamond’,  pairing a defensive-minded destroyer with a more attacking-minded player in behind the strikers. A diamond can also be described as 4-1-2-1-2. 

This is a great choice when you’ve got players who can play in wide positions and make the pitch big. It suits good crossers of the ball, taking advantage of the wider gaps generated in the opposition’s defensive line. And on a very simple level, it’s arguably easier to score with two strikers than with one.

4-4-2-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

You’ll need two central midfielders who are extremely fit and capable of attacking as well as defending. You’ll also need to be wary when coming up against teams playing a three-man central midfield. When this happens, one of your strikers will need to be prepared to drop back into midfield and help out. 

For some historical context, in the 1998-1999 season, Manchester United won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League playing a 4-4-2. However their 2-3 defeat to Real Madrid – who lined up in a 4-2-3-1 – at Old Trafford the following season persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson that the formation had had its day in elite European competition.

4-3-3

In one of my favourite comedian-meets-megastar videos, British funny man Lloyd Griffith tells Lionel Messi that he intends to use a 4-4-2  formation in his FIFA 16 Team of the Year. Messi smirks, and tells Griffith that what he really means is 4-3-3. This formation wants control of the midfield and fluidity in attack.

 

4-3-3-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

In a 4-3-3, by stretching or shrinking the distance between players, teams strive to make the pitch as big as possible when in possession of the ball, and as small as possible when not. The wingers need to have pace and shooting ability, while the FC can be either a powerful target man, or a ‘False 9’ like Lionel Messi, who drops deeper in the pitch to generate space for the wingers to exploit.

Sometimes, the roles of the central midfielders are assigned as destroyer, passer and creator. The best example of this is Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team in the 2008-2009 season. Sergio Busquets the Creator, Xavi Hernández the Passer and Andrés Iniesta the Creator.

This is the formation of Luis Enrique’s Barcelona, but it can also be employed by amateur sides, providing they have good fitness. The problem with this formation is that teams who aren’t good at keeping possession are vulnerable to counter attacks.

Use against: 4-4-2

4-2-3-1

The first difference to point out is that unlike 4-4-2 and 4-3-2, a 4-2-3-1 has four rows of players, rather than three. A 4-2-3-1 allows teams to absorb pressure comfortable and then launch forward aggressively. It’s got balance and flexibility.

The defensive unit, which is made up of two Centre Backs (DC) and  two Defensive Midfielders (DM)s, is often referred to as the ‘double pivot’. Once the ball is won thanks to the double pivot, the full backs (DL and DR) can bomb down the wings and know that they are covered by the DMs. They’ll often look to cut inside and combine with the No. 10 Attacking Midfielder (AC), nominally the most creative player on the team who is comfortable both dribbling and passing quickly.

4-2-3-1-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

The 4-2-3-1 comes unstuck when the opposition full backs push high up the pitch, pinning the wingers back into their own half and rendering the formation a 4-5-1 with an isolated striker. You also need to make sure your wingers track back. If they don’t, opposition wide players can easily overload your defence.

You’ll notice that in the Barcelona of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, the Catalans have three players who can beat a defender on their own.

Use against: 4-4-2

3-5-2

If you’re worried that your defence is weak and you’ve got two players in your team who can run all day long, a 3-5-2 might work for you. Your wide men need to be comfortable with 50m sprints over and over again, effectively operating as wide defenders, midfielders and forwards.

With the option to quickly switch from a more defensive 5-3-2 to the attacking version 3-5-2 when you gain possession, you will almost always have a numerical advantage in midfield, especially when you’re playing against 4-4-2.

3-5-2-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

Culturally, this is a formation favored by the Italians, who pride themselves on defensive excellence. The DM at the base of the midfield tends to sit quite deep. This is because any adventurous runs from the ML or MR will need cover. The formation also lends itself, when necessary, to the long forward ball to the two FCs.

Having five men in midfield is excellent if you’re playing a side that likes to play on the counter attack, but generally this is a complex formation that requires more mental than physical resilience. Players are constantly having to cover for teammates and one of your DCs needs to be a very competent passer indeed. 

Use against: 4-5-1

4-5-1

This is a very defensive formation. Packing the midfield can give you lots of possession and makes it difficult for the opposition to play through you. You’ll often see this formation from teams in cup competitions who want to take the game to extra time or penalties. If the striker drops into midfield, you’ll have yourself a 4-6-0.

The defenders are there to defend and nothing else, while two of the midfielders can organize themselves to form the double pivot you’ll recognise from a 4-2-3-1. Alternatively, you can play with one holding midfielder whose sole purpose is to break up play. With the opportunity for quick, direct balls forward, the 4-5-1 lends itself well to hitting teams on the counter attack. 

4-5-1-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

Going forward, you’ve got the two wide men and the lone striker. If he’s quick, then it’s about winning the ball ball in the middle and playing him through. If he’s not, the rest of the formation needs to move up the pitch to offer him support.

Punters often point out that teams playing 4-3-3 will revert to a 4-5-1 when they’re in the lead and want to close the game out. This is achieved with your two wingers playing a bit deeper.

Use against: 4-3-3

3-4-3

At the time of writing, this is football’s most fashionable formation. It’s also one of the most elusive, with variations of the basic structure revealing themselves as 5-2-3s or even 5-4-1s, depending on attacking and defensive transitions.

Followers of the EPL may be familiar with Eden Hazard’s change in fortunes at Chelsea under Italian manager Antonio Conte. Freed from the defensive shackles of playing in a classic 4-2-3-1, Hazard flourished in a free-roaming attacking position on the left. Chelsea bought the Spanish specialist wing back Marcos Alonso from Fiorentina, one suspects, for just this purpose and with dramatic results.

3-4-3-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

Playing three at the back means two proactive outside DCs either side of a spare man who’s there to mop up any residual mess. The pair on the outside (at Chelsea, this is Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill) will track and scrap and even come into midfield to intercept. The middle man, a role currently played by the Brazilian Sideshow Bob, David Luiz, will block, challenge for headers and make clearances.

Playing a three-man defence against a front three is a brave tactic however, especially when the opposition forwards are quick, confident players. Also, against a team that plays one up front, an extra spare man at the back runs the risk of being overmanned in midfield.

Don’t use against: 4-5-1

3-4-2-1

I’m biased here. It’s the formation my team uses, having switched from the 4-3-3 we used last season. The switch came mainly because we were conceding too many goals. It was also to do with the emergence of an incredibly strong, but not especially mobile CF. Our most dangerous players are attacking midfielders, so this formation allows them to play off the FC and spend their time and energy closer to the goal.

The defense is built on two wide DCs and a central defensive anchor. Then there’s a midfield line of four, followed by three attacking players who need to stay very close together. If you consider that the anchor plays a little deeper than his flanking CBs and that the FBs can push ahead of the two CMs, this effectively gives any team that plays this formation seven – yes, seven – passing lines (including the goalkeeper).

3-4-2-1-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

So it’s a formation that suits a team that likes to keep the ball and move up the pitch together as a unit. It favours patience over pace and positioning over pressing. Our gameplan generally rests on forcing the opposition to move the ball to the wing backs, luring the wing back into playing down the line and then cutting off all options when the winger is forced to play the ball infield. The plan basically breaks down if the CF and AMs are lazy and let the opposition shift the ball across the back. You have been warned.

Use against: 4-2-3-1

5-2-3 / 5-4-1

As a recent tactical development, this concludes the soccer formation catalogue. This hybrid formation was conceived by Werder Bremen in Germany as a means to counteract the the false full back and reverse pyramid attacking shapes conceived by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. It was later adopted by other Bundesliga teams and Juventus in the Champions League. 

With five defenders at the back, it’s very difficult to stretch a team further across the pitch and open up gaps. It’s incredibly flexible, because, as the brilliant Hungarian analyst  István Beregi has pointed out, even if one of the full backs (DL or DR) moves up to press, there are still four defenders at the back, so defensive integrity is maintained.

5-2-3-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

5-4-1-formation (What's The Best Soccer Formation?)

Ironically, despite its emergence as a counter measure at the very highest level of the game, 5-2-3  / 5-4-1 can be employed successfully at youth level. From the goalkeeper, players can be instructed to always play short and move the ball out to the wings, encouraging possession, an appreciation of width and the opportunity to move up the pitch together.

Use against: Pep Guardiola

Soccer Formation Philosophy

A philosophical endnote. When Arrigo Sacchi – who twice won the European Cup with AC Milan – was briefly appointed Real Madrid’s Sporting Director in 2004, he bemoaned a shift to reactionary soccer. He didn’t like that because Zinedine Zidane, Raúl and Luis Figo didn’t track back, it was necessary to put Claude Makélélé in as a ball winner in front of the back four.

“That’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which, actually, is the point of tactics: to achieve this mulitplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have [Claude]Makélélé, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, though of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s all about specialists.”

Sacchi achieved success in the late 80s and early 90s playing a compact 4-4-2 that pressed hard in a system that demanded 25 meters from CF to CB when his side didn’t have possession. For Sacchi, this collective precision was paramount. It was about the universality of the system, where the greatness was about the sum of its parts and not the individual strengths of the players.

To make a modern comparison, the first meeting between Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich and Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund was described by tactics expert Michael Cox:

“Ancelotti played a lopsided system designed entirely to get his best players in their favoured positions, a formation which arguably lacked balance. Tuchel, on the other hand, played a system with key players out of position to suit the tactical demands of the game. Ancelotti is players-first, Tuchel is system-first.”

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