The first known and successfully used soccer formation was adopted by Wrexham FC back in 1880, which played in a 2-3-5 shape.
That’s right; they played five attackers up top! Crazy, right!
Known as the ‘pyramid,’ Wrexham would play two defenders, three midfielders, and five attackers. And funnily enough, it worked!
Wrexham, who were recently bought by Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds, became one of the most successful clubs in the English leagues during the 80s because of this innovative structure.
Soccer at its heart is a simple game of attack and defend. What makes teams great is how they out strategize their opponents and play formations that can counter and take advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses.
Today, you’d never see a team playing two defenders at the back; you’d just get ripped to shreds.
Although modern high press teams like Liverpool or Barcelona are starting to employ tactics that see their players flood the opposition half of the pitch in a similar vein to Wrexham.
In this article, we’ll look at the best 11v11 formations in world soccer and analyze how effective these formations are and when to use them.
Let’s kick it off with a classic…
Different Soccer Formations And Their Strength/Weaknesses
4-4-2 - The Classic Soccer Formation
This is the meat and potatoes of soccer formations.
The 4-4-2 formation is perhaps one of the most well-balanced formations in world soccer. But it is also one of the most basic and has been left in the past by contemporary playing structures that allow teams to press higher up the pitch.
Made famous by Sir Alex Ferguson’s class of 92’, Ferguson won a cabinet load of trophies for Manchester United, tweaking and optimizing this shape to suit his team. With Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes driving through the midfield and David Beckham whipping long balls into Eric Cantona up top, Ferguson utilized the formation to rip apart opposition teams.
The 4-4-2 formation provides an excellent balance between attack and defense. Although it’s greatest strength is it lets teams control the play and soak up attacks in the middle of the park using its four midfielders.
Although it does require your team to have two pretty hard-working central midfielders that can transition from box-to-box. Yet, the 4-4-2 formation creates greater fluidity in midfield, allowing your central ball-winners can read the game to attack and defend when necessary.
One downside is that it doesn’t provide teams with generous width, although it does allow teams to play with two strikers. As a coach, I always prefer playing two forwards instead of one. You can then deploy a ball-winning target man who can bully defenders, hold the ball up, and offload to his line-breaking strike partner, who can sneak in-behind defensive lines to put goals away.
Some might argue that the 4-4-2 formation is too linear, but that’s when teams can switch the two-line structure up and play in a diamond configuration, with a defensive midfielder and a classic number 10, or perhaps a line of three midfielders and an attacking midfielder ahead of them.
It’s a great formation to experiment with and is great for teams looking to hold a solid defensive line while employing a prolific strike force.
3-4-3 - Built for High Pressing Teams
The 3-4-3 formation is one of the most commonly used structures in the Premier League as it allows teams to spread wide across the pitch.
The critical cogs in a working 3-4-3 formation system are its wingbacks. They form a crucial part of the attack mostly but must transition back into defend, similar to a box-to-box midfielder. If you’ve watched Liverpool play in the past two years, you’ll note how Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressure gameplay revolves around the work rate of his two wingbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robinson.
The 3-4-3 formation allows teams to overload the midfield as the wingbacks move higher up the pitch mimicking Wrexham’s 2-3-5 structure. Flooding the midfield enables teams to win the ball higher up the pitch to pressure opposition defenders.
With your wingbacks out wide, your front three can get into dangerous positions around the penalty area. One of my favorite strategies is to coach forwards to hold their runs so that wing-backs can pull the ball back to their strikers just on the edge of the penalty area. They then have the option of playing in the focal striker in the middle of having a shot themselves.
This is similar to how Antonio Conte used to structure his front three in Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation. Conte coached Marcos Alonso to pull the ball back to Eden Hazard on the edge of the box, who could then target Diego Costa in the middle, or go on one of his trademark winding runs.
One downside of this system is it relies heavily on fitness. Once your wingbacks get tired, it leaves you exposed with three defenders at the back, but when your wingbacks are firing, this system can be one of the most lethal in modern soccer.
4-3-3 - The Counter-Attacking Formation
Made famous by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, the 4-3-3 formation epitomizes the tiki-taka Catalonian brand of soccer.
Ultimately I suggest using this playing structure if you’re playing on firm pitches and are looking to play some fast passing soccer. The 4-3-3 formation opens up more channels for teams simply because of how players are situated on the pitch.
Pep used to coach Barcelona to play in triangles to keep possession of the ball. For example, if Xavi received the ball in the center of the pitch, he would always have two other options, perhaps from Sergio Busquets or David Alaba to who he could release the ball. It’s a wonderfully fast brand of soccer to watch when played right.
But because you’re only playing three in midfield, it leaves a lot of exposure to your defense and requires teams to be a little more restrictive in their positional roles. For the 4-3-3 formation, you could play an attacking shape in midfield with a defensive midfielder and a box-to-box midfielder tucked in behind an attacking midfielder who can get forward to support the forwards.
Now with three strikers up top, you have a lot of options on how to attack teams. If you’re playing against perhaps a 3-4-3 formation, spread your wingers wide to stretch your opposition defense and play balls into a target man in the middle. For that reason, it is a great formation that can be used to trump a classic 4-4-2.
Or maybe if you’re playing against three defenders, you might bring your wingers in more narrow to receive through balls from your attacking midfielder to break defensive lines.
Ultimately the 4-3-3 formation allows teams to go on the offensive, but it only works if you have a solid back four and a roaming defensive midfielder like N’Golo Kante or Idrissa Gueye.
4-5-1 (4-1-4-1) - Flood The Midfield
Flooding the midfield is an age-old soccer tactic, one which many modern managers use to stop teams from advancing on their goal.
Although we don’t see this formation too much at the higher levels, it is an excellent option for teams looking to shore up their defense with multiple midfielders who can intercept attacks and shut down space in the center of the field.
One great feature about 4-5-1 is the flexibility you have to maneuver and set your team up on the pitch however you want. You could play in a defensive-V shape, with a holding midfielder sitting deep with two attacking midfielders and two wingers flanking them, or even perhaps in a linear 4-1-4-1 structure.
It’s also effortless to transition into a 4-3-3 playing style if you feel you’re pushing for a goal late on. You can simply move your wingers higher up the pitch to link up with your lone striker while your remaining three midfielders sit and control the play.
Although this formation plugs holes around the pitch and can be very difficult to attack against, in my opinion, it leaves you with very little attacking presence with a lone striker up top.
The majority of teams will also play a bulky, heavy-duty ball winner as their center forward in this line-up, but I’d advise you not to. Playing with a lone striker, it’s always good to have a pacey striker who can get in behind defenders, have a shot, think Fernando Torres in his prime, or maybe a Robert Lewandowski.
When it comes to playing defensive, apart from park-the-bus formations that play five at the back, this set-up will directly counter a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3, helping you to quell pressure in midfield and win the ball high in the midfield.
4-2-3-1 - The Best Formation To Maintain Possession
Back in 2012, every team on the planet was experimenting with this formation. But perhaps the team which benefitted the most was Joachim Low’s Germany.
The formation gives coaches the freedom to unleash five attackers on their opposition through the use of two holding midfielders, one of which is likely to cover ground shutting down attackers and playing a defensive role. Meanwhile, the second holding midfielder takes up a ballplaying midfielder role, providing the transition between defense and attack.
Germany used a combination of Sami Khedira and Bastion Schweinsteiger to achieve this defensive yet transitional game plan. While Khedira would do most leg work, Schweinsteiger could still shut down attackers and provide the link between the midfield and attackers.
With an attacking trequartista, a striker, and two wingers, up top, there are infinite attacking options in this formation. I would instruct teams to vary how their wingers play. Stretching defenders at the back can pull players out of position, but playing a narrow strike force can overload the back three. Both are great ways you can trouble defenders and score great goals.
What’s great about this formation is its 3D shape. Unlike linear formations like 4-4-2, players have better passing options a full 360° around them.
Although this formation does require teams to play at a higher tempo, it is built for touch and go football, which means players have to react quickly to follow the play and open themselves up to teammates to keep the attack moving.
Yet it is one of the most well-used formations in soccer and is probably one of the best structures you can use to overwhelm 4-4-2 and 4-4-3 teams by flooding their midfield’s and cutting down their passing options from the center of the park.
3-5-2 - The Counter-Attack Stopper
A defensive alteration on the classic 3-4-3 formation, the 3-5-2 formation is the favorite Italian managers like Roberto Mancini. Manchini used this formation to close out games in Manchester City’s first Premier League title-winning season.
In this structure, three mobile center-halves will take up the defensive responsibilities at the pitch’s back. Two wing backs will swing back and forth up and down the pitch, tracking wide players, while the back three are supported by a midfield trio that will provide a second line of defense higher up the pitch.
Often teams will play with one defensive midfielder and two attacking midfielders, which can add support to the two strikers up top. With this double layer of defense, teams can rescue the ball higher up the pitch, turn teams on the back foot, and play the ball out wide to their advancing wingbacks, who can float threatening balls into the box.
This is a pretty complex formation, and I wouldn’t recommend using it for teams who haven’t played together for long. It requires players to read the game more than any other position to know when to drop back or when to cover their teammate who is pressing.
Defenders also need to be proficient passers to move the ball away from the danger zone, but they can rely a little more on the central midfielders to come back and transition the ball upfield.
You will have seen this 3-5-2 formation used before by Juventus, who utilized the wizard Andrea Pirlo in a regista position. Pirlo could pick the ball up from defense and provide that transitional link-up to his attackers, swinging some beautiful passes out left and right. This 3-5-2 formation works exceptionally well if you can find a ball playing regista to suck in defenders and unleash killer balls around the pitch.
4-4-1-1 - Attacking Depth
A slight alteration to your typical 4-4-2 formation adds a little more depth and allows you to play a slightly different type of striker.
With four at the back and 4 in midfield, the focus is on the support striker who drops off the defense, similar to how a false nine might play. It’s almost like playing an attacking midfielder, which moves forwards to receive the second ball from usually the beast of a forward who takes up the target man center forward role.
Manchester United perfected this striking format with Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney. Fellaini would be brought on to save the game and would link up with Rooney, who could collect and score from wherever he felt like it on the pitch. He was some player.
Anyway, if you watched Rooney in his last few seasons for United or even Everton, he was given the freedom to occupy whatever part of the pitch he felt he needed to. That’s the beauty of this position; it gives the false nine flexibility to move around the pitch, support his midfielders in defense but attack when needed.
If you have a player in your team who can read the game well, I recommend you try this formation as having a roaming attacker popping up to make tackles and score goals makes it seem like you’ve got 12 men on the pitch!
5-3-2 - Park The Bus
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were often criticized for playing this ultra-defensive formation away from home to nick cheeky wins against the top six clubs.
Like a 3-5-2 shape, the 5-3-2 formation welcomes teams to come and attack and looks to soak up the opposition’s pressure. In this structure, the wingbacks won’t look to get forward as much as a 3-5-2 structure, but they will move up to play alongside the central midfielders and play balls into the box when in possession.
This formation is all about defense and is best to be played if you’re under the cosh in a game or are perhaps an underdog in the match. Relegation experts like Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have used this formation to frustrate teams in the past and wait for them to make a simple error and capitalize on that mistake.
It is ugly football, and that’s why I would never instruct my team to play in such a formation, but it can help teams close out games.
Top Tips To Help You Pick The Best Formation For Your Team
Here are a few top tips to help you pick the best formation to help your team score goals and keep clean sheets.
Pick Your Formation Based On Your Team.
Depending on your style of play or the type of players you have available, you should always play to your strengths.
Let’s say you have three pacey forwards; you’d be better off playing a 4-3-3 formation to maximize your speed up top. Likewise, if you have a brutish target man who can bully defenders and lay balls off to fellow attackers, you might benefit from playing 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1.
Don’t forget about your midfield, as this is the most critical area of the pitch. Having a box-to-box midfielder is a great asset for most formations. If you have a goal-minded attacking midfielder or false nine, perhaps you should play in a shape that allows them to get forward without worrying about getting back to defend.
Ultimately your decision to play a formation should be based on who you have available in your squad and what sort of opposition you’re coming up against. But always remember to play to your strengths!
Rotate Your Team
Switch it up often. Try players out in different positions and get a feel for what options you have on the pitch. You might find a wingback can drop into a winger role if you need them to, or your defensive midfielder can transition higher up the field in attack.
Experiment with different playing structures that will keep your opposition on their toes. It’s poor managerial play to stick to just one formation all season, and it’s unrealistic too. Teams will suss you out quickly and capitalize on your stubborn coaching play. You’ll also pick up injuries during the season, and if you’re not able to rotate your squad into a new formation, you’ll seriously struggle to adapt to those injuries.
Keep your team fresh and full of energy by rotating them often and changing up your midfielders and wingbacks, who will fatigue faster than the other players on your team.
Keep Things Simple
Soccer is a straightforward game at its base level. It’s merely about attack vs. defense.
The more you complicate that, the more your team will struggle, so my top tip is just to get the basics right before you try to become the next Pep Guardiola.
Formations like 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 are great ways to play and break down your opposition but are very complicated and challenging to coach when filling in space left by players advancing on the goal. If you’re starting with a new team or are coaching in the junior leagues, I would advise against starting out with this formation.
Instead, the simple option is to play a 4-4-2. This is perhaps the most solid playing structure in world football where each player has a designated role in the side and allows for a little fluidity in midfield. It isn’t too complicated, but it works and is a great formation to play if you’re playing against teams better than you or are only playing three midfielders.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best defensive formation in soccer?
It depends on what sort of team you’re playing against. Parking the bus with 5-3-2 is always a go-to for managers looking to close out a game and soak up pressure late on. But if you’re trying to flood the midfield and stop attacks higher up the pitch, then 3-5-2 might also be one of the best defensive formations.
What’s the best formation to counter a 4-3-3?
The 4-5-1 offers the most robust opposition to a 4-3-3 shape. With three midfielders able to sit in the middle to counter the 4-3-3’s central players, managers can instruct wingers and wingbacks to close down space in the midfield or chase down the three forwards. It’s a pretty fatiguing formation to play against so remember to keep rotating your team!
What formation is best to score goals?
This revolves around what sort of attacking players you have. Ultimately you have to pick an attacking formation that compliments your strikers. For example, if you have pacey forwards, then perhaps play a 4-5-1 formation or 3-4-3 that allows you to flood the opposition box quickly. If you’ve got a target man and or out and out goalscorer, you could play in a 4-4-2 shape.
The Final Whistle
Soccer has changed a lot since the days of 2-3-5.
From 4-4-2 to five at the back, modern managers have sculpted the game into this tactical chessboard.
But it’s imperative coaches get their tactics right as one misplaced component could be fatal to any team’s hopes of winning a match.
My top tip when picking your next 11 is to get the simple things right first. Position players to their strengths on the pitch so that at the base level, they can keep possession and move the ball into space when needed.
Positionally playing players out of their natural roles is a sure-fire way to conceded goals, so my other top tip is to talk to players, find out what their strengths are, and try to fit them into a structure they can play well in.
Once you have a base formation settled, try experimenting with your team, get creative, and above all, keep rotating your players!
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