It’s all in the Numbers: Soccer Formations

by Adam Heskett | Last updated

“Every disadvantage had got its advantage.”

– Johan Cruyff, legendary Dutch player

Ten Players. You have ten teammates (plus a goalkeeper). With those ten people, you can have countless formations when placing players in the attacking third, middle third, and defensive third. So many, in fact, that to list them all and each of their benefits and weaknesses would become an anthology onto itself.  Some are obviously poor choices reserved for unbridled children playing in an impromtu game like sending all ten players to the forward to attack the goal (note: never happens), or on the flip side, keeping all ten players in the backfield (also, never happens). This article will stick with the more common formations you’ll run into on a game-by-game basis.

4-4-2 (4 Defenders, 4 Midfielders, 2 Forwards)

The most popular formation in soccer today because of its pure balance of defence and offence without giving away too much of each. This formation opens up Midfielders to become additional attackers to the two Forwards or fall back quickly to add an extra layer of defence.  The Forwards work best if one is a good runner while the other is a good receiver. The four Defenders provides the freedom to use Offside Traps in stopping attackers and communication is the key for success in this formation.  In all positions, cooperation is necessary.

4-3-3 (4 Defenders, 3 Midfielders, 3 Forwards)

A classic formation that led many teams to several World Cups back in the 60’s and 70’s. Today, it is not seen as much but still used. This is also a great formation to teach beginners as it is so easy to grasp. Typically, the three Midfielders will play closer together and serve as utility players. They can work as a unit with the four Defenders behind them or provide extra support to the Forwards. The additional Forward increases the scoring options when attacking.

3-5-2 (3 Defenders, 5 Midfielders, 2 Forwards)

The most modern formation made popular by West Germany in the 1990’s. The five Midfielders are the anchors of this formation. They serve as a daunting unit to see barrelling down the field with the two Forwards to get to the goal, or they can become an impenetrable wall on defence. The defenders main responsibility is to remain conservative and limit the risks because in the event an attacker passes midfield, you only have two other defenders with you.  The Forwards must be quick, clever, and great dribblers. Anything short of that will limit your chances on goal.

3-6-1 (3 Defenders, 6 Midfielders, 1 Forward)

Very common amongst German teams but can be absolutely catastrophic in a match if not executed perfectly. The central idea around this formation is to clog up the middle while keeping your opponent guessing on exactly how many attackers you’ll be sending at them.  This formation is dependent hugely upon the stamina of the Midfielders. They will be running a lot and covering more ground. If the stamina begins the wane, your opponents will be able to blow by midfield as if it wasn’t there. If this becomes the case, it’s best to take a different tact and change formations.

4-5-1 (4 Defenders, 5 Midfielders, 1 Forward)

You may come across this formation by a losing team in the waning moments of a game, or by a winning team trying to conserve a lead when they no longer need a goal. It is mainly weighted on defence and rarely results in any scoring opportunities. A team who uses this formation has usually gone into automatic mode just to kill off minutes. It is also extremely boring to watch as a spectator as no chances are taken that make this game so exciting to watch.

5-2-2-1 (5 Defenders, 2 Midfielders, 2 Forwards, 1 Striker)

This complex formation utilizes floating midfielders and forwards. The two forwards and striker can support the two Midfielders on defence, or the Midfielders can move up and become a five man front of attack. The success of this formation all hangs on the crucial realization of the forward’s and the striker’s defensive responsibilities. Too often on many formations, forwards thoughts of defence don’t go beyond “the midfielders will get that”.

No matter the formation, there is always another formation that will exploit its weaknesses. On an average game, a coach will shift between formations to keep the opposing team guessing but, by being aware of these six, you will be prepared for most of them.

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