A football formation is a number set that describes the positions of players on the field. It determines how many players play on defense, the midfield, and the frontline. The first number always describes the defender, and so on.
For example, a formation like 4-3-3 plays with four defenders, three midfielders, and three forwards. The goalkeeper is never mentioned in a soccer formation. Most formations are described in three numbers but four- and five-rank formations are also possible.
The coach’s choice of formation is usually dictated by the type of players a team has. A coach may also change his team’s formations during a game to adapt with different situations (for example, when a goal is scored, a player is sent off by a red card, or a key player is injured). Below are the most dominant formations in football today:
4-4-2 formation (4-4-1-1 / 4-1-2-1-2)
4-4-2 is the most basic of modern football formations. It is composed of four defenders (two center-backs, two fullbacks), four midfielders (two central midfielders, two side midfielders), and two forwards.
In the 4-4-2 formation, one of the two forwards often plays outside the penalty box to bridge the midfield and frontline. This gives the team the appearance of playing a 4-4-1-1 formation.
The advantage of this formation is having an extra player that can help the striker attack without having to wait for midfield support. Another advantage of the 4-4-2 formation is width: the two side midfielders and two fullbacks allow a team to cover the space on the sides in defense and utilize it in offense.
A team can split the function of the two central midfielders: one can be assigned a deep role in defense while the other can be placed further up to push the ball in offense. This creates a diamond-shaped midfield and turns 4-4-2 into a 4-1-2-1-2 formation.
4-4-2 came to prominence in European football with A.C. Milan under legendary football manager Arrigo Sacchi. Milan utilized this formation to win three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, and three UEFA Super Cups between 1988 and 1995.
4-3-3 & 4-5-1 formations
4-3-3 sounds like a very offensive formation and 4-5-1 a very defensive one but, amusingly, both formations are basically the same. Both play with four defenders, three central midfielders, two wingers, and one striker. However, in 4-3-3 the wingers are considered as forwards while in 4-5-1 they are considered more as midfielders.
In the 4-3-3, the central midfielder in the middle is primarily assigned on defense and is positioned just in front of the back four. The other two midfielders play an all-around role: they participate in defense as well as in offense.
Wingers in the 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 have the following responsibilities: they bring the ball up to the striker, provide him crosses, or cut inside the penalty area to support the striker. When their team loses the ball, it is their task to mark the opposing fullbacks.
In this type of formation, the striker is typically good at playing with his back to the goal: he can control passes and distribute the ball to teammates or make pivot shots. Because the striker is expected to receive many crosses, teams who play 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 often field a tall striker who has a great heading ability.
Barcelona adapted a version of 4-3-3 formation in winning back-to-back La Liga championships in 2005 and 2006 as well as the UEFA Champions League title in 2006. During the same period, Chelsea used the more defensive 4-5-1 formation with coach Jose Mourinho to win back-to-back Premier League titles.
5-3-2 & 3-5-2 formations
5-3-2 and 3-5-2 are two football formations that are the same. Their only difference is how the two players on each flank are seen. In the 5-3-2, these players are considered as fullbacks while in 3-5-2 they are considered more as wingers. In practice, 3-5-2 is simply 5-3-2 in an offensive mode.
In the 5-3-2, there are five defenders (three central defenders, two defenders/wingers), three central midfielders, and two forwards. One central defender may drop back to play as sweeper to convert the 5-3-2 to a 1-4-3-2 formation.
The key players in the 5-3-2 formation are the fullbacks: their primary tasks are to defend the flanks but they also give width to a team’s offense by providing support from the sides. Since those players have to work the whole length of the pitch, they are typically versatile players with high stamina.
Of the three midfielders in the 5-3-2, one is positioned in front of the defense to perform defensive tasks. The two other midfielders play a more offensive role even if they also participate in the team’s defense. Usually, one forward plays as a striker while the other plays a supporting role.
One of the most remarkable team that played with this formation is 2002 World Cup champion Brazil, which played an offensive 5-3-2, relying on its able fullbacks Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
4-3-2-1 formation (the “Christmas tree”)
The 4-3-2-1 is a narrow football formation played with four defenders (two fullbacks, two center-backs), three central midfielders, two attacking midfielders, and one striker. Because of its pointed shape on the blackboard, 4-3-2-1 is dubbed the “Christmas tree” formation.
Defense in the 4-3-2-1 is the same with other flat back four formations, except that the defense on the flanks is left solely to the fullbacks. Like in the 5-3-2 and 4-3-3, one player on central midfield is assigned a defensive role while the other two are more offense-oriented.
Unlike the 4-5-1, the two attacking midfielders focus more on the middle instead of the wings. However, a coach can give more width to its offense by letting the fullbacks work the whole length of the pitch.
Carlos Ancelloti, as coach of AC Milan, implemented the 4-3-2-1 formation in winning two Champions League titles (2003 & 2007).
4-2-3-1 & 4-2-1-3 formation
The 4-2-3-1 is a football formation made up of four defenders, two central midfielders, three advanced midfielders (one playmaker, two wingers), and a striker. When people consider the wingers in the 4-2-3-1 as forwards, this formation is listed as 4-2-1-3. However, 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-1-3 are essentially the same.
The two central midfielders in this formation are primarily defensive and so they are often called “holding midfielders”. Ahead of them are the wingers, who usually work very near the touchline to spread out opposition defense and provide crosses to the striker.
The playmaker is the key player in this formation, being the one who controls the team’s offense. He is typically the most skillful, creative, and tactically aware player of a team. Usually, he is not assigned to a fixed position and is free to play on any part of the football field (parts of a football field).
This formation has the big advantage of having both a playmaker, who coordinates the attack, and wingers, who give width to the offense.
The 4-2-3-1 formation was the basic formation of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was used by more than half of the 32 teams in that tournament and was the formation of three of the four semi-finalists: Germany, Spain, and Netherlands.
Other football formations
The evolution of football strategies and tactics brought about the birth of numerous new formations. Below are some unorthodox football formations:
3-4-3 formation (3-3-1-3)
3-4-3 is a football formation popularized by Barcelona and AC Milan in the 1990s, which evolved from the 4-3-3. It looks very offensive, with only three players left to defend in front of the goal. However, the midfield and the backline can work closely together on defense, especially when the ball is near their goal.
A popular three-forward formation similar to the 3-4-3 is 3-3-1-3, which was used by the Dutch total football team of the 1970s and West Germany in the 1972 World Cup.
3-4-2-1 is a football formation that is played with three defenders, four midfielders (two center midfielders, two side midfielders), two attacking midfielders, and one striker. It is similar to a 3-4-3 except that the wingers are replaced by as attacking midfielders instead.
3-6-1 is a football formation with three defenders, six midfielders (two defensive midfielders, two wide midfielders, two offensive midfielders), and one striker. This unusual formation is often used when a team is leading to constrain play to the midfield. 3-6-1 can easily be converted into a more balanced 4-4-2 formation by dropping back one midfielder in defense and putting one midfielder on the frontline.
1-4-3-2 is a football formation that became popular with Italy’s catenaccio system in the 1960s. It is typically played with one sweeper, four defenders (two center-backs, two fullbacks), three central midfielders, and two strikers.
When used with the catenaccio tactic, players often lie deep in their own half playing defense primarily and waiting for good opportunities to counter-attack. The key player in the formation is the sweeper, who provides an additional line of defense behind the center-backs.
4-6-0 is a football formation that assigns no dedicated striker. It is similar to a 4-3-3 or the classic football formation 4-2-4, except that there are actually no forwards since the frontline is withdrawn deep into the midfield. 4-6-0 can also be described as a 4-3-3-0 formation.
This formation was dubbed by Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira as the “formation of the future” and was used by Manchester United to become 2008 UEFA Champions League winner.