Formation (football): Wikis


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In association football, the formation describes how the players in a team are positioned on the pitch. Different formations can be used depending on whether a team wishes to play more attacking or defensive football.

Formations are used in both professional and amateur football matches. In amateur matches, however, these tactics are sometimes adhered to less strictly due to the lesser severity of the occasion. Skill and discipline on behalf of the players is also needed to effectively carry out a given formation in professional football. Formations need to be chosen with the players available in mind, and some of the formations below were created to address deficits or strengths in different types of players.


Choice and uses of formations

The choice of formation is often related to the type of players available to the coach.

  • Narrow formations. Teams with a surfeit of central midfielders, or teams who attack best through the centre, may choose to adopt narrow formations such as the 4–1–2–1–2 or the 4–3–2–1 which allow teams to field up to four or five central midfielders in the team. Narrow formations however depend on the full backs (the flank players in the "4") to provide width and to advance upfield as frequently as possible to supplement the attack in wide areas.
  • Wide formations. Teams with a surfeit of forwards and wingers may choose to adopt formations such as 4–4–2, 3–5–2 and 4–3–3, which commit forwards and wingers high up the pitch. Wide formations allow the attacking team to stretch play and cause the defending team to cover more ground.

Teams may change formations during a game to aid their cause:

  • Change to attacking formations. When chasing a game for a desirable result, teams tend to sacrifice a defensive player or a midfield player for a forward in order to chase a result. An example of such a change is a change from 4–5–1 to 4–4–2.
  • Change to defensive formations. When a team is in the lead, or wishes to protect the scoreline of a game, the coach may choose to revert to a more defensive structure by removing a forward for a more defensive player. The extra player in defence or midfield adds solidity by giving the team more legs to chase opponents and recover possession.

Formations can be deceptive in analysing a particular team's style of play. For instance, a team that plays a nominally attacking 4–3–3 formation can quickly revert to a 4–5–1 if a coach instructs two of the three forwards to track back in midfield.


Formations are described using the number of players in each sector of play (not including the goalkeeper).

  • 4–4–2 refers to: four defenders (referred to as the "back four"), four midfielders, and two forwards.
  • Four-numbered (for example, tge 4–4–1–1) and five-numbered formations (for example, the midfield diamond, or 4–1–2–1–2) are also common. In 4–4–1–1, the latter "ones" refer to a playmaker and a centre forward. In 4–1–2–1–2, the "ones" refer to a defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder, respectively.

The numbering system was not present until the 4–2–4 system was developed in the 1950s.

Early days

In the football matches of the 19th century defensive football was not played, and the line-ups reflected the all-attacking nature of these games.

In the first international game, Scotland against England on 30 November 1872, England played with seven or eight forwards in a 1–1–8 or 1–2–7 formation, and Scotland with six, in a 2–2–6 formation. For England, one player would remain in defence, picking up loose balls, and one or two players would hang around midfield and kick the ball upfield for the other players to chase. The English style of play at the time was all about individual excellence and English players were renowned for their dribbling skills. Players would attempt to take the ball forward as far as possible and when they could proceed no further they would kick it ahead for someone else to chase. Scotland surprised England by actually passing the ball among its players. The Scottish outfield players were organised into pairs and each player would always attempt to pass the ball to his assigned partner. Ironically, with so much attention given to attacking play, the game ended in a 0–0 draw.

Classic formations


2–3–5 (The Pyramid)

The Pyramid Formation

The first long-term successful formation was first recorded in 1880.[1] However in "Association Football" published by Caxton in 1960, the following appears in Vol II, page 432: "Wrexham ... the first winner of the Welsh Cup in 1877 ... for the first time certainly in Wales and probably in Britain, a team played three half backs and five forwards ..."

The 2–3–5 was originally known as the "Pyramid," with the numerical formation being referenced retrospectively. By the 1890s, it was the standard formation in England and had spread all over the world. With some variations, it was used by most top level teams up to the 1940s.

For the first time, a balance between attacking and defending was reached. When defending, the two defenders (fullbacks), would watch out for the opponent's wingers (the outside players in the attacking line), while the midfielders (halfbacks) would watch for the other three forwards.

The centre halfback had a key role in both helping to organize the team's attack and marking the opponent's centre forward, supposedly one of their most dangerous players.

It was this formation which gave rise to the convention of shirt numbers[2] but can appear confused when applied to the classic 4–4–2 line up, i.e.:

  • 01 – Goalkeeper
  • 02 – Right back
  • 03 – Left back
  • 04 – Centre midfielder (more defensive-minded) / right half
  • 05 – Centre back / Centre half
  • 06 – Centre back ('Libero') / left half
  • 07 – Right winger / outside right or Outside forward
  • 08 – Centre midfielder (more attacking-minded) / inside right or Inside forward
  • 09 – Centre forward
  • 10 – Offensive midfielder (playmaker) / Second striker / inside left or Inside forward
  • 11 – Left winger / outside left or Outside forward

The Danubian School

The Danubian School of football is a modification of the 2–3–5 formation as played by the Austrians, Czechs, and Hungarians in the 1920s, and taken to its peak by the Austrians in the 1930s. It relied on short-passing and individual skills.


Metodo Formation

The Metodo was devised by Vittorio Pozzo, coach of the Italian national team in the 1930s.[3] It was a derivation of the Danubian School. The system was based on the 2–3–5 formation, Pozzo realized that his halfbacks would need some more support in order to be superior to the opponents' midfield, so he pulled two of the forwards to just in front of midfield, creating a 2–3–2–3 formation. This created a stronger defence than previous systems, as well as allowing effective counterattacks. The Italian national team won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938 using this system.

The WM

WM Formation

The WM system was created in the mid-1920s by Herbert Chapman of Arsenal to counter a change in the offside law in 1925. The change had reduced the number of opposition players that attackers needed between themselves and the goal-line from three to two. This led to the introduction of a centre-back to stop the opposing centre-forward, and tried to balance defensive and offensive playing. The formation became so successful that by the late-1930s most English clubs had adopted the WM. Retrospectively, the WM has either been described as a 3–2–5 or as a 3–4–3, or more precisely a 3–2–2–3 reflecting the letters which symbolised it.

The WW

The WW was a development of the WM created by the Hungarian coach Márton Bukovi who turned the 3–2–5 WM "upside down".[4] The lack of an effective centre-forward in his team necessitated moving this player back to midfield to create a playmaker, with a midfielder instructed to focus on defence. This created a 3–2–1–4, which morphed into a 3–2–3–2 when the team lost possession, and was described by some as a kind of genetic link between the WM and the 4–2–4. This formation was successfully used by fellow countryman Gusztáv Sebes in the Hungarian national team of the early 1950s.


The 3–3–4 formation was similar to the WW, with the notable exception of having an inside-forward (as opposed to centre-forward) deployed as a midfield schemer alongside the two wing-halves. This formation would be commonplace during the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the best exponents of the system was the Tottenham Hotspur double-winning side of 1961, which deployed a midfield of Danny Blanchflower, John White and Dave Mackay. FC Porto won the 2005–06 Portuguese national championship using this unusual formation under manager Co Adriaanse.


"4–2–4" redirects here, for the Whyte notation article on locomotives see 4-2-4 (locomotive).
The 4–2–4 formation

The 4–2–4 formation attempts to combine a strong attack with a strong defence, and was conceived as a reaction to WM's stiffness. It could also be considered a further development of the WW. The 4–2–4 was the first formation to be described using numbers.

While the initial developments leading to the 4–2–4 were devised by Márton Bukovi, the credit for creating the 4–2–4 lies with two different people: Flávio Costa, the Brazilian national coach in the early 1950s, as well as another Hungarian Béla Guttman. These tactics seemed to be developed independently, with the Brazilians discussing these ideas while the Hungarians seemed to be putting them into motion.[5] [4][6] The fully developed 4–2–4 was only "perfected" in Brazil, however, in the late 1950s.

Costa published his ideas, the "diagonal system," in the Brazilian newspaper O Cruzeiro, using schematics as the ones used here and, for the first time ever, the formation description by numbers as used in this article.[5] The "diagonal system" was another precursor of the 4–2–4 and was created to spur improvisation in players.

Guttmann himself moved to Brazil later in the 1950s to help develop these tactical ideas using the experience of Hungarian coaches.

The 4–2–4 formation made use of the increasing players skills and fitness, aiming to effectively use six defenders and six forwards, with the midfielders performing both tasks. The fourth defender increased the number of defensive players but mostly allowed them to be closer together, thus enabling effective cooperation among them, the point being that a stronger defence would allow an even stronger attack.

The relatively empty midfield relied on defenders that should now be able not only to steal the ball, but also hold it, pass it or even run with it and start an attack. So this formation required that all players, including defenders, are somehow skillful and with initiative, making it a perfect fit for the Brazilian player's mind. The 4–2–4 needed a high level of tactical awareness, as having only two midfielders could lead to defensive problems. The system was also fluid enough to allow the formation to change throughout play.

4-2-4 was first used with success at club level in Brazil by Palmeiras and Santos, and was used by Brazil in their wins at 1958 World Cup and 1970 World Cup, both featuring Pelé, and Mário Zagallo, the latter of which played in 1958 and coached in 1970. The formation was quickly adopted throughout the world after the Brazilian success.

Common modern formations

The following formations are used in modern football. The formations are flexible allowing tailoring to the needs of a team, as well as to the players available. Variations of any given formation include changes in positioning of players, as well as replacement of a traditional defender by a sweeper.


4–3–3 formation

The 4–3–3 was a development of the 4–2–4, and was played by the Brazilian national team in the 1962 World Cup. The extra player in midfield allows a stronger defence, and the midfield could be staggered for different effects. The three midfielders normally play closely together to protect the defence, and move laterally across the field as a coordinated unit. The three forwards split across the field to spread the attack, and may be expected to mark the opposition full-backs as opposed to doubling back to assist their own full-backs, as do the wide midfielders in a 4–4–2. When used from the start of a game, this formation is widely regarded as encouraging expansive play, and should not be confused with the practice of modifying a 4–4–2 by bringing on an extra forward to replace a midfield player when behind in the latter stages of a game.

A staggered 4–3–3 involving a defensive midfielder (usually numbered four or six) and two attacking midfielders (numbered eight and ten) was commonplace in Italy, Argentina, and Uruguay during the 1960s and 1970s. The Italian variety of 4–3–3 was simply a modification of WM, by converting one of the two wing-halves to a libero (sweeper), whereas the Argentine and Uruguayan formations were derived from 2–3–5 and retained the notional attacking centre-half. The national team which made this famous was the Dutch team of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, even though the team won neither.

In club football, the team that brought this formation to the forefront was the famous Ajax Amsterdam team of the early 1970s, which won three European Cups with Johan Cruyff. Most teams using this formation now use the specialist defensive midfielder; FC Barcelona is the most famous recent example.[7]

At the 2006 World Cup, Spain and the Netherlands both played a variation of 4–3–3 without wingers. The three strikers would interchange positions and run the channels like a regular striker would.


4–4–2 formation

This adaptable formation is the most common in football today, so well known that it has even inspired a magazine title, FourFourTwo. The midfielders are required to work hard to support both the defence and the attack: typically one of the central midfielders is expected to go upfield as often as possible to support the forward pair, while the other will play a "holding role," shielding the defence; the two wide midfield players must move up the flanks to the goal line in attacks and yet also protect the fullback wide defenders. It is a very popular formation in Britain especially.[8][9] On the European level, the major example of a team using a 4–4–2 formation was Milan, trained by Arrigo Sacchi and later Fabio Capello, which won three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, and three UEFA Super Cups between 1988 and 1995.[10] Under Milan's exemple, it became very popular in Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990.

4–4–2 diamond or 4–1–2–1–2

4–4–2 diamond formation

The 4–4–2 diamond (also described as 4–1–2–1–2) staggers the midfield. The width in the team has to come from the full-backs pushing forward. The defensive midfielder is sometimes used as a deep lying playmaker. Its most famous example was Carlo Ancelotti's Milan, which won the 2003 UEFA Champions League Final and made Milan runners-up in 2005. Milan was obliged to adopt this formation so to field talented central midfielder Andrea Pirlo, in a period when the position of offensive midfielder was occupied by Rui Costa and later Kaká.[11] This tactic was gradually abandoned by Milan after Andriy Shevchenko's departure in 2006, progressively adopting a "Christmas Tree" formation.


4–4–1–1 formation

A variation of 4-4-2 with one of the strikers playing "in the hole," or as a "second striker," slightly behind their partner. The second striker is generally a more creative player, the playmaker.[12]

4–3–2–1 (the "Christmas Tree" formation)

4-3-2-1 Formation

The 4–3–2–1, commonly described as the "Christmas Tree" formation, has another forward brought on for a midfielder to play "in the hole," so leaving two forwards slightly behind the most forward striker. Terry Venables first brought in this system throughout England's UEFA Euro 1996 campaign.

Glenn Hoddle then used this formation during his time in charge of the England national football team. Since then the formation has lost its popularity in England. It is however most known for being the formation Carlo Ancelotti utilized on and off during his time as a coach of Milan.

In this approach, the middle of the three central midfielders act as a playmaker while one of the attacking midfielders plays in a free role.

The "Christmas Tree" formation is considered a relatively narrow formation and depends on full-backs to provide presence in wide areas. The formation is also relatively fluid. During open play, one of the side central midfielders may drift to the flank to add additional presence.


5–3–2 formation

This formation has three central defenders (possibly with one acting as a sweeper.) This system is heavily reliant on the wing-backs providing width for the team. The two wide full-backs act as wing-backs. It is their job to work their flank along the full length of the pitch, supporting both the defence and the attack.[13]

5–3–2 with sweeper or 1–4–3–2

5-3-2 Sweeper Formation

A variant of the above, this involves a more withdrawn sweeper, who may join the midfield, and more advanced full-backs.


3–4–3 formation

Using a 3–4–3, the midfielders expected to split their time between attacking and defending. Having only three dedicated defenders means that if the opposing team breaks through the midfield, they will have a greater chance to score than with a more conventional defensive configuration, such as 4–5–1 or 4–4–2. However, the three forwards allow for a greater concentration on attack. This formation is used by more offensive-minded teams.


3–5–2 formation

This formation is similar to 5–3–2 except that the two wingmen are oriented more towards the attack. Because of this, the central midfielder tends to remain further back in order to help prevent counter-attacks. It differs from the classical 3–5–2 of the WW by having a non-staggered midfield. It was used for the first time at international level by the Argentinian coach Carlos Salvador Bilardo.[14] Many teams also use a central attacking midfielder and two defensive midfielders, so the midfielders form a W formation.


3-6-1 Formation

This uncommon but modern formation obviously focuses in the ball possession in the midfield. In fact, it is very rare to see it as an initial formation, as it is better used to keep results. Its more common variants are 3–4–2–1 or 3–4–3 diamond, which use two wingbacks. The lone forward must be tactically gifted, because he is not only focused in scoring, but to play back to the goal to assist with back passes to his teammates. Once the team is leading the game, the tactics focuses even more in ball control, short passes and time wasting. On the other hand, when the team is losing, at least one of the playmakers will play more often in the edge of the area to add depth to the attack. Guus Hiddink is one of the few coaches who has used this formation when coaching Australia in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.


4–5–1 formation

4–5–1 is a defensive formation; however, if the two midfield wingers play a more attacking role, it can be likened to 4–3–3. The formation can be used to grind out 0–0 draws or preserve a lead, as the packing of the centre midfield makes it difficult for the opposition to build-up play. Because of the "closeness" of the midfield, the opposing team's forwards will often be starved of possession. Due to the lone striker, however, the centre of the midfield does have the responsibility of pushing forward as well. The defensive midfielder will often control the pace of the game.[15]


4–2–3–1 formation

This formation is widely used by Spanish and French sides. It is a defensive formation which is quite flexible, as both the side midfielders and the fullbacks may join the attack, usually on the counter. In defence, this formation is similar to the 4–5–1. It is used to maintain possession of the ball and stopping opponent attacks by controlling the midfield area of the field. The lone striker may be very tall and strong to hold the ball up as his midfielders and fullbacks join him in attack. The striker could also be very fast. In these cases, the opponent's defence will be forced to fall back early, thereby leaving space for the offensive central midfielder. This formation is used especially when a playmaker is to be highlighted.

This formation is also currently used by Brazil as an alternative to the 4–2–4 formation of late 1950s to 1970. Implemented similarly to how original 4–2–4 was used back then, use of this formation in this manner is very offensive, creating a 6-man attack and a six-man defence tactical layout. The front 4 attackers are composed as wide forwards and playmaker forward in support of a target striker in front.


A highly unconventional formation, the 4–6–0 is an evolution of the 4–2–3–1 in which the centre forward is exchanged for a player who normally plays as a trequartista (that is, in the 'hole'). Suggested as a possible formation for the future of football,[16] the formation sacrifices an out-and-out striker for the tactical advantage of a mobile front four attacking from a position that the opposition defenders cannot mark without being pulled out of position.[17] Owing to the intelligence and pace required by the front four attackers to create and attack any space left by the opposition defenders, however, the formation requires a very skillful and well-drilled front four. Due to these high requirements from the attackers, and the novelty of playing without a proper goalscorer, the formation has been adopted by very few teams, and rarely consistently. The formation was first professionally adopted by Anghel Iordănescu, in the 1994 World Cup Round of 16, when Romania won 3–2 against Argentina.[18] The formation was first professionally adopted by Luciano Spalletti's Roma side during the 2005–06 Serie A season, mostly out of necessity, as his "strikerless" formation,[19] and then notably by Alex Ferguson's Manchester United side in the 2007–08 Premier League season (who won the Premier League and Champions League that season).[20]


This is a particularly defensive formation, with an isolated forward and a packed defence. Again, however, a couple of attacking fullbacks can make this formation resemble something like a 3–4–3.


The 1–6–3 formation was first utilized by Japan at the behest of General Yoshijiro Umezu in 1936. Famously, Japan defeated the heavily favored Swedish team 3–2 at the 1936 Olympics with the unorthodox 1–6–3 formation, before going down 8–0 to Italy. The formation was dubbed the "kamikaze" formation sometime in the 1960s when former US national team player Walter Bahr used it for a limited number of games as coach of the Philadelphia Spartans to garner greater media and fan attention for the struggling franchise.[21]


Often referred to as the "Magic Rectangle," this formation was used most infamously used by Wanderley Luxemburgo during his failed stint at Real Madrid in the latter part of the 2004–05 season and throughout the 2005–06 season. Although this formation was branded "deeply flawed"[22] and "suicidal"[23], Luxemburgo is considered the pioneer of this formation (although it had been used earlier by Brazil in the early 1980s[24][25]), and it is currently being used by Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini to much appreciation and positive feedback. [26] Pellegrini had also used this formation whilst at Villarreal. The formation is closely related to the 4–2–4 and 4–4–2 diamond. It consists of the standard defensive four (right back, two centre backs, and left back), with two centre midfielders, two support strikers, and two out and out strikers.[27] Similar to the 4–6–0, the formation requires a particularly alert and mobile front four to work successfully. The formation has also been used on occasion by the Brazilian national team[25][28][29], notably in the 1998 FIFA World Cup final[30].


The 3–3–1–3 was formed of a modification to the Dutch 4–3–3 system Ajax had developed. Coaches like Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruyff brought it to even further attacking extremes and the system evenutally found its way to FC Barcelona, where players such as Cesc Fàbregas, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi were reared into 3–3–1–3's philosophy. It demands intense pressing high up the pitch especially from the forwards, and also an extremely high defensive line – basically playing the whole game inside the opponents' half. It requires incredible technical precision and rapid ball circulation since one slip or dispossession can result in a vulnerable counter-attack situation. Cruyff's variant relied on a flatter and wider midfield, but van Gaal used an offensive midfielder and midfield diamond to link up with the front three more effectively. Marcelo Bielsa has used the system with some success with Argentina's and Chile's national teams and is currently one of the only high-profile managers to use the system in competition today. Diego Simeone had also tried it occasionally at River Plate.

Incomplete formations

When a player is sent-off (after being shown a red card), the teams generally fall back to defensive formations such as 4–4–1 or 5–3–1. Only when a draw is not an option (for example, in a playoff or knockout match) will a team with ten players play in a risky attacking formation such as 4–3–2 or even 4–2–3. When more than one player is missing from the team the common formations are generally disbanded in favour of either maximum concentration on defence, or maximum concentration on attack.

See also


  1. ^ Murphy, Brenden. From Sheffield with Love. SportsBooks Limited. pp. 83. ISBN 978 1 899807 56 7. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Knowledge Unlimited (November 15, 2000)". Guardian. 2000-11-15.,1563,398055,00.html. Retrieved 2006-07-10. 
  4. ^ a b "Gusztáv Sebes (biography)". FIFA. Retrieved 2006-07-10. 
  5. ^ a b Walter Lutz (2000-09-11). "The 4-2-4 system takes Brazil to two World Cup victories". FIFA.,1219,16310,00.html?articleid=16310#. Retrieved 2006-07-10. 
  6. ^ "Sebes' gift to football". UEFA. 2003-11-21. Retrieved 2006-07-10. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ [1]
  11. ^ [2]
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Wilson, Jonathan (2008-11-19). "The Question: is 3-5-2 dead?". Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved 2008-11-19. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "The end of forward thinking". 2008-06-08. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  17. ^ "Gramsci's Kingdom:Football, Politics, The World: July 2008". 2008-07-10. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  18. ^ "ROMANIA - ARGENTINA 3-2 Match report". 
  19. ^ "Chelsea and Roman Abramovich may be drawn to Luciano Spalletti's style at Roma". 2008-06-05. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  20. ^ "Roaming Roma find follower in Sir Alex Ferguson". London. 2008-03-31. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  21. ^ Radnedge, Keir; Robson, Bobby. [2007] The Complete Encyclopedia of Soccer.
  22. ^ Real Madrid manager madness: Spurs flop Juande Ramos becomes 10th in 10 years
  23. ^ Curses, wallies and the return of the Russian linesman
  24. ^
  25. ^ a b
  26. ^ I Like Pellegrini's 4-2-2-2 formation - Real Madrid Star Kaka
  27. ^ 4-2-2-2
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^

External links


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