Formations are described as the number of players in each area from the defensive line (not including the goalkeeper). For example 4-4-2 describes the formation as having: 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 forwards. Conventionally, the formation can be described with 3 numbers, although 4-numbered (e.g. 4-4-1-1) and 5-numbered formations (e.g. 4-1-2-1-2) can be used. The numbering system was not present until the 4-2-4 system was developed in the 1950s.
The choice of formation is often related to other tactical choices, such as the choice of playing style. Formations can be deceptive in analysing a particular team's style of play, e.g. one team could play 4-4-2 and work defensively, whereas their opposition using the same formation could play much more attacking football.
Formations can be altered during a game, but this requires adaptations of the players to fit in to the new system. This can be due to a team wishing to change their offensive or defensive strategy, or even due to the loss of a player. Some formations also lend themselves to dynamically changing as players move up and down the field, e.g., the Brazilian 4-2-4 could effectively become a 2-4-4 during a match.
Formations are used in both professional and amateur football matches. However, in amateur matches 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.
In the first international game, Scotland v. England on 30 November 1872, England played with seven or eight forwards in (1-1-8 or 1-2-7) and Scotland with six (2-2-6). 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. Paradoxically, with so much attention given to attacking play, the game ended with a 0-0 draw.
The first long-term successful formation was first recorded in 1880. 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 Britain 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.
Teams that used this formation
Teams that used this formation
The Metodo was devised by Vittorio Pozzo, coach of the Italian national team in the 1930s . 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 2 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 WWThe WW was a development of the WM created by the Hungarian coach Márton Bukovi who turned the 3-2-5 WM "upside down" . 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 3-5-2 (also described as a 3-3-4), and was described by some as an early version of the 4-2-4. This formation was successfully used by fellow countryman Gusztáv Sebes in the Hungarian national team of the early 1950s.
3-3-4The 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 David Mackay. FC Porto won the 2005-06 Portuguese national championship using this unusual formation (coach: Co Adriaanse).
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 . However the fully developed 4-2-4 was only 'perfected' in Brazil 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 . The "diagonal system" was another precursor of the 4-2-4 and was created to spur improvisation in players.
Guttman 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 6 defenders and 6 forwards, with the midfielders performing both tasks. The 4th 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 defense 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 2 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 Zagallo who played in the first and coached the second. The formation was quickly adopted throughout the world after the Brazilian success.
Teams that used this formation
Common modern formationsThe 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.
4-4-2 diamond or 4-1-2-1-2
4-3-2-1 (the 'Christmas Tree' formation)
5-3-2 with Sweeper or 1-4-3-2
4-6-0A 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, 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. However, owing to the intelligence and pace required by the front four attackers to create and attack any space left by the opposition defenders, the formation requires a very skilful 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 Luciano Spalletti's Roma side during the 2005-06 Serie A season (mostly out of necessity) as his "strikerless formation, 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).
5-4-1This is a particularly defensive formation, with an isolated forward and a packed defense. Again however, a couple of attacking fullbacks can make this formation resemble something like a 3-4-3.
Incomplete formationsWhen 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 (e.g. 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 defense, or maximum concentration on attack.
Future formationsThe thinking about the future of football formations is that, with the increase in fitness of players, the normal, symmetrical formation is out of date. Variety is needed in teams; so a pacey, direct winger might be deployed with a slower, more creative player on the other flank. An example can be seen with the Argentina national team playing "one armed" with Juan Riquelme attacking from the left, or the Manchester United F.C. team of the 1990s with Ryan Giggs making attacking runs from one wing with David Beckham playing crosses from deeper on the other. This is now evident again in the Manchester United squad as Cristiano Ronaldo makes attacking runs and Ryan Giggs provides the crosses.