Formations in football are a method of positioning players on the pitch to allow a team to play according to their pre-set tactics. Different formations can be used depending on whether a team wishes to play more attacking or defensive football. Formations can be altered during a game, but this requires adaptation by the players to fit in to the new system.
Formations count the number of players in each area, beginning with the defensive line (not including the goalkeeper). It is by convention counted when the team is defending and being properly organised. The most common formations are variations of 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-2-3-2, 5-3-2 and 4-5-1.
In other cases, defenders and midfielders may join in the counter-attack, trying to outnumber or otherwise overtake the opposition by quick and intelligent movement and fast passes. Speed is an important factor both in offence and defence, as the probability of scoring decreases sharply when the opponent has managed to organise their defence.
Teams playing successful counter-attacking football will try particularly hard to dispossess the opponent's midfielders. A measure to prevent this is to play long balls from the defenders to the attackers, temporarily omitting the midfield players.
More often associated with counter-attacking football than with possession football, direct football means that players spend little time with the ball before passing. In order to achieve this, each player frequently uses only one or two touches. The direct attack is sometimes associated with the long-ball style. Long ball is the term used in association football to describe an attempt, often speculative, to distribute the ball a long distance down the field via a cross, without the intention to pass it to the feet of the receiving player. It is a technique that can be especially effective for a team with a tall striker to get in the box.
In competitive 11-a-side matches, teams are allowed to bring on up to three substitutes. The rules of the competition must state the maximum number of players allowed to be named as a substitute, which may be anywhere between three and seven. In non-competitive matches, the use of substitutes must be determined before the match begins, except in friendly international matches, where no more than six substitutes may be brought on.
The most tired players should generally be substituted, but only if their substitutes are well trained to fill in the same role, or if the formation is transformed at the same time to accommodate for the substitution.
Coaches often refrain from substituting defensive players in order not to disrupt the defensive posture of the team. Instead, they often replace ineffective attackers or unimaginative midfielders in order to freshen up the attacking posture in an attempt of scoring more goals.
For a team that is losing a game, a fresh striker can bring more benefit in circumventing an opposed defense line composed of relatively tired players. For a team that is winning a game, a fresh midfielder or a defender can bring more benefit in strengthening the defense against the opposition's attackers (who may be fresh substitutes themselves). In this situation, it is usually imaginative attacking flair players who are replaced by tough-tackling defensive midfielders or defenders.
Injured players may also need to be substituted. For each injured player who must be substituted, the team loses one more opportunity to influence things later in the game in their favor.
Substitutions can also be used as a time consuming tactic to hold a one goal lead in the last minutes.
Width and depth are both principles of offence and defence as follows:
This can also be used to mean that once a player has passed the ball he does not remain stationary but moves into a position where he can receive the ball again and give more options to the player in possession.
Another tactic on a corner is to let the best shooter stay in the back "trash" position and have the defense worried about those up front. The player taking the corner kick makes a small pass back to the trash shooter who has time and space to take a good shot.
The first defender has the main responsibility for what the opponent in possession does, seeking to obstruct dangerous passes. The first seconds after the team has lost the ball are important, as the defending team in these seconds will be poorly organised defensively. Wise first defending will contribute to the defending team managing to organise before the opponents may attack.
The first defender should usually be the player closest to the opponent holding possession, but needs to be at the defending side of him in order to do an effective job. He should keep a distance of about 2 metres, although the ideal distance will vary with each situation. The point is to pressure the opponent as much as possible without giving him a large possibility of a dribble. As a dribble isn't as dangerous when the defending team is well organised, the distance may be shorter in these cases. Analogously, the distance should be increased if the defense is poorly organised.
In certain cases, the first defender should attempt a tackle. Often, however, this will increase the probability of being dribbled and passed.
The direction in which to move towards the opponent with possession of the ball may be the shortest direction. However, it may be of value to curve the defensive run, in order to channel the opponent in a certain direction. If the defensive team is well organised, he should be channeled towards the centre of the pitch. In the case of temporarily poor defensive organisation, however, he should be channeled towards the line.
The second defender is for security if the first defender is passed. In that case, he takes over as first defender, and ideally one of the third defenders takes over as second defender. The team should be organised in a manner to make this transition as fast as possible. The typical ideal distance between the second and first defender is about six metres, but this will vary strongly from situation to situation. The most important factor is the opponent's speed. If he's moving fast, the distance should be longer. If he's standing still, the second and first defender may in some cases join forces and work as two first defenders.
The job of the third defender is to provide deep cover. He is generally in a stand-off position relative to the first and second defenders and tries to view the "big picture", keeping watch for new opponents moving up, and covering vulnerable gaps if the first and second defenders are bypassed. The sweeper role is sometimes conceived as that of a third defender, but every defensive player not immediately engaging the ball has the obligation to adjust his positioning to guard against dangerous situations and to plug vulnerable gaps. While the role of first and second defenders are rather similar, the third defenders' role is very different in zone defense and man-to-man defense. Also, their organisation will vary with formation.
In zone defense, second and third defenders and midfielders are organised in two lines, in the transverse direction of the field, thus organising a defender line and a midfielder line, the midfielder line working as an "outer shield" for the defenders. The lines should be as straight as possible, although the first defender and in some cases the second defender may rush out of it to pressure the opponent with the ball. A straight line of defenders may prevent spaces behind some of them due to the offside rule. Also, even in zone defense, some opponents, for example those moving into dangerous space, may temporarily need to be marked. The man-to-man defense ideology holds that almost all opponents need to be marked at all times, although they will have to keep an eye on zone considerations as well, and usually a sweeper will be given a free defensive role. In practice, however, every defense will be a mix of zone defense and a man-to-man defense, although often with heavy leanings towards one or the other.
The number of players in the defender and midfielder lines is given by the number of football formations. Some formations use midfield anchors to stop attacks between the two lines. Attackers usually also play a role in pressurising defenders, in order to give them less time to find good passing alternatives.
The lines should be shifted sideways depending where the ball is. The third defenders should keep a sensible distance to each other, depending on the width the opponent's attacking players are distributed in.
The distance between the defender line and the midfielder line should be kept constant at about 15 metres. However, the defensive line should back up and thus increase this distance, stand off, when there is no pressure on the opponent in possession, as this increases the possibility of a through ball. With tough pressure on the opponent, the distance may be reduced to below 15 metres. Also, as opponents move in close to the penalty area, the defending team will be forced to move their midfielders ever closer to their defenders.
When organised, the defending team will offer no resistance until the attacking team has advanced to a certain height on the pitch. The pressure height, or at which depth the midfielders should start acting as first and second defenders, depends on a lot of factors. For example, as higher pressure is more tiring, it demands players with good stamina. In general, a defensive-minded team will tend to stay lower, thus diminishing defensive risks as opponents get less space. This however, also gives them a longer way to the goal in the event of a break and counter-attack, making the long through ball a typical alternative.
The weakness of the man to man defence is depth when fresh attackers move up. The man to man defence also allows defenders to be drawn out of position, opening gaps for other attackers in vulnerable areas. This was Italy's fatal weakness in the 1970 Final, according to some analysts. To overcome this problem with depth, the man to man defense may use a 'sweeper', who is a central defender and has a free role, i.e. has not been assigned a player to mark. He sometimes takes up a position slightly behind the other defenders, as his defensive role often is to 'sweep up' any attacks that break through the defence and as such he adds valuable depth to the defensive unit. Usually the sweeper will be the controller of the defence. They will determine where the back line should be at any given time. Zone defense does not require a sweeper role, and as many teams have changed their tactics to this, sweepers are today rare.
At free-kicks from shot range, a wall of defensive players is lined up. How many players should participate in the wall will depend on the angle and distance from the goal, and on the opponent's assumed shooting skills. The wall usually covers one end of the goal. The goalkeeper will be positioned nearer the other end of the goal, both because he then can see the ball when it's shot, and because it is more difficult for attackers to hit a powerful shot on target at the end that the wall covers.
At corner kicks, and at free-kicks or throw-ins that are likely to become a cross, most teams use man-on-man marking, even those which otherwise play zone defense. Each player is given an opponent to mark, in advanced football they usually have been assigned an opponent before the match. Substituting at the time of a defensive set piece is regarded as unwise, as play may be started before the substitute has come into marking position.
A few teams use the tactic of gathering defenders on one line on corner kicks and similar situations, in effect giving them the responsibility for zones instead of particular opponents.
In the case of a penalty kick, no defending players except the goalkeeper are allowed within the penalty area or within ten yards of the penalty spot. A significant number of players should, however, be placed right outside the penalty area, alert to advance into the area and clear any deflection. For this purpose, sometimes the attacking team will nominate two players to run at the goal from either side of the penalty spot; timing their run so that they only enter the penalty area once the kick has been taken will hopefully give them the first opportunity at gathering the ball if it is saved by the goalkeeper. This tactic is rarely seen, however, since the likelihood of the ball being saved and then falling into the path of the attacking player is small. A particular tactic that can be used by the goalkeeper involves trying to distract the penalty taker by drawing his concentration away from striking the ball cleanly. Such tactics normally involve moving one's body, or body parts, in an extravagant manner, or through verbal comments. Famous examples of where this worked successfully include Bruce Grobbelaar in the 1984 European Cup final, and Jerzy Dudek in the 2005 Champions league final.
Clearing is when the player in possession of the ball is pressed hard, often near his own goal, and chooses to shoot the ball away with low precision simply in order to get out of a dangerous situation. When opponent pressure is extremely high, the ball is often cleared to a corner kick or to a throw-in. Clearing long, but into opponent control, may give the defence time and the opportunity to organize, including setting up the correct formation and pressure height. If the attack was high up the field, such as in or near the penalty area, defenders will thus quickly push out, and attackers will then be forced to retreat in order to avoid offside in the next move. Clearing may be combined with an attempt to hit a long pass or a long through ball. Players high up in the field who are pressed hard, and who are eager to avoid a counter-attack, may in some instances combine clearing with a shot.
A team composed of good passers and mobile players with good positioning skills may more often try to avoid clearing, as their skills make it easier to make shorter passes and thus retaining possession until they get out of a difficult situation.
Retaining possession in this way may also be regarded as a longer-term way of defending, as the opposing team cannot attack when they don't have the ball. With the ball, the team applying this tactic can simply pass the ball between each other - as in the possession football style, but with little or no intention of building up an attack, thus decreasing the risk of a break.
The major benefits of this tactic is that the team is in complete control over its opponents. Meanwhile, by knocking the ball around, opponents playing the pressing game can easily tire. And should an opportunity suddenly arise, defence may be quickly switched to attack. A major downfall is that because the accuracy of passes needs to be high, short passes between the players are required. This significantly narrows the gap between the attack, midfield and defence (usually, the latter is forced to push up). So if the opponent gains possession, a long ball could effectively open up the defence. Similarly, if it is the attack and midfield that need to drop back, the team will have little chances of counter-attacking even if possession is won back.
Beating a defence using width and depth. Astute use of the principles of width and depth led to the final goal of the 1970 World Cup, considered by many to be the best combined team effort in Cup history. Almost all the players of Brazil touched the ball in this effort that penetrated one of the tightest defenses ever seen, the famous Italian catenaccio "padlock" defence. The Italians used four defenders, plus a sweeper, Pierluigi Cera, behind the "back four". They relied on a counterattacking game, deploying 3 midfielders, and 2 strikers, and closely marked opponents man to man.
This tight system however involved a "collapsing" approach that while packing the Italian penalty area and denying the Brazilian forwards much space, left relatively large gaps in midfield. See "Standing Off" defensive discussion above. Brazil's superb skills exploited this weakness, showing especially that any defence (whether man to man, zone or other variants) can be beaten using the principles of both width and depth. The weakness of the man to man system was also exposed. Italian left back Fachetti dedicated himself to winger Jairzinho, shadowing him tightly wherever he went. Jair cunningly moved off the right flank, opening gaps for others to follow as can be seen below. See "Switching the attack" and "Swapping wing men" above for discussion of this aspect of offensive tactics.
Italian defence pulled left in quick sequence. Brazilian midfielder Clodoaldo began the move with a weaving dribble out to the left flank, that beat 3 men and essentially pulled the Italian defence in that direction. A fatal gap was thus eventually opened up for the run of fullback Carlos Alberto on the right. Clodoaldo eased the ball to the mustachioed Rivelino moving up on the left. Rivelino quickly played the ball forward to Jairzinho, who crossed the field to appear on the left flank.
Movement in center "freezes" Italian defence. Almost without pause the powerful Jairzinho began a weaving run. Fachetti played Jair well, backing off the ball, and squeezing him inside where it was more crowded. Good defenders will "channel" (see discussion above) an attacker into areas with less space. So far, all seemed safe for Italy. Fachetti covered well, as did the other Italian defenders. There were 2 extra men as insurance in the back as Jair began his run. Depth is also a principle of defence, and the sweeper system (or other arrangements) provides such.
As Jair accelerated, the ever dangerous striker Tostao began a sprint up the middle, drawing his defender with him, diverting the Italian defence and making more room for Jair. Younger players should note the movement off the ball by Brazil. Increasingly squeezed inside, Jair's run nevertheless drew the defence to him and he eased the ball to Pele in the center. Always dangerous, Pele paused and shaped to make a dribble.
Overlapping defender exploits principle of depth to cap the move. For the Italian defence, there was still no cause for undue alarm. Pele seemed well covered, and there was still the sweeper at the back as insurance behind the defence. Nevertheless, Pele's feint, combined with the previous moves, kept Italian focus frozen in the middle, attracting the attention of three men, and he casually slipped the ball right- to Carlos Alberto who was thundering up from the rear, totally unmarked.
Pele played the ball well ahead of Alberto, using space intelligently, so that the fast fullback ran on and shot without pausing, in full stride, smashing the ball into the Italian net. So effective was Brazil's use of width, that no Italian defender is even within reasonable striking distance of Alberto until the last moment. The principle of width stretched and drew the Italian defence. The principle of depth -fresh men moving up from the rear- allowed Brazil to exploit the gaps created by width.
Penetration in attack- the forward or through pass: To the soccer player, the penetration pass is one of the first methods learned in attack, whether it be the simple "kick and chase" of the youth leagues, or the exquisite through-balls by today's world class stars. Penetration by pass is the quickest method of advancing the ball towards the enemy goal. When well executed, it can yield spectacular results. Penetration in attack however requires more than mere passing. Players without the ball must move into space, and must time their runs so as not to be caught offside.
Envelopment in attack: the central cross. Attacking an opposing side from the flanks using crosses from the wings is among the oldest and most effective soccer tactics. An attack from the flanks leverages width, stretching an opposing defence, to create gaps in the goal area for exploitation. While the direction of the lateral cross is not as straightforward as the through-ball, both types of passes serve to split an enemy defence, in view of striking at the vital central area of the goal. This example, the legendary confrontation between keeper Gordon Banks of England and Pele of Brazil, captures the two types of attack in one snapshot. It also serves to illustrate the difficulties in defending against both types of passes.
Two pass types - one great defensive save. The powerful running of Brazil's right winger Jairzinho set the stage, with initial direction by captain Carlos Alberto. Sprinting down the flank, Jairzinho pounced on an excellent through pass from Alberto, accelerated past Cooper the English back, and lofted a high arcing cross to Pele in the center. Pele headed down powerfully and was already raising his arms in triumph when Banks leaped to his right "like a salmon over a fall" Pele said later, and somehow flailed the bouncing ball over the crossbar, saving a sure goal. The Brazilian forward said it was the greatest save he had ever seen, and many would agree.
Offensively, this play demonstrates how both types of passes can divide and stretch a defence. Jairzinho's running and cross was set up by an excellent forward pass, and his center to Pele capped a move that should have resulted in a goal, were it not for the extraordinary skill of English keeper, Gordon Banks. Offside traps are one way to defend against both pass types, but the ultimate solution is defensive depth and sound goalkeeping.
Using the two-man combination. The 2-man combination pass, variously called the wall pass, the "one-two", the "give and go" and other local names, is among the simplest yet most powerful team techniques in soccer. It requires a fair level of individual skill to pull off, yet this should not stop coaches from introducing it early in the higher youth leagues, nor should players from these leagues neglect it in favor of the all too easy "kick and chase". There are two ways to execute it: (a) pass and run to space for the return pass without pausing or (b) pass then pause briefly to gauge opposing reaction before running into an open spot for the return. In tight conditions, the first method is better, while the second can be used where there is a bit more space to operate.
Power of the two-man combination: Holland vs Brazil, 1974. Simple as it is, the 2-man move can penetrate the teeth of the densest, most negative opposition. Peru brought it to a high art on the World Cup stage in 1970, under their coach Didi, Brazil's former midfield general of 1958 and 1962. Time after time Peruvian forwards like Cubillas, Gallardo, and Sotil put a central combination on the floor that sliced through the opposition and created countless dangerous situations. The Dutch team of 1974 were also disciples of the two-man combination. The diagram here shows the first Dutch goal in the 1974 game that crushed Brazil's repeat championship hopes - product of an exchange between Neeskens and Cruyff. This one actually worked. A two-man move also set up the second goal for Cruyff in the game. Contrast with the "hand" of Maradona below.
Potential of the two-man combination: Maradona's "hand" goal- 1986. The example shown below, the first goal of Diego Maradona against England in 1986, is used to illustrate the potential of the move. Argentina utilized it frequently, being ideally suited to their crisp, quick, short passing style. As he had often done during the game, Maradona initiated the sequence with a quick dribbling run into the packed central area. Surrounded, he began a 2-man combo pass - slipping the ball to Valdano on the right, and then moving up for the reply. Valdano pivoted and attempted to return, but conditions were too tight. Hodge, the English midfielder, intercepted and rather dangerously, attempted to tap the ball back to his keeper, Shilton. The rest is well known. Maradona and Shilton raced towards the floating ball, which connected with Maradona's (human) hand, past Shilton, into the goal. While much controversy still surrounds the goal, Maradona's run illustrates how even the tightest conditions can be pried open with the two-man exchange. It also illustrates how the simple two-man combination can create countless dangerous situations and force opponents into making errors.
Effectiveness of three-man strike teams. The three-man move is another very effective weapon in the attacking arsenal. It is distinguished from simple passing between players in that the initiator of the move finishes it with a shot on goal or a well-placed pass leading to a shot. It is thus a collaboration of three distinct players. Famous three-man strike teams are legendary in soccer, from the earliest days, through the famous Hungarian sides of the 1950s, to the "clockwork orange" of the Dutch masters in the 1970s, through the German, Italian, French, Argentinian, Brazilian and other teams of the contemporary era. The three-man package can be more effective than the two-man combo because it gives more attacking options and causes more confusion in the defence. The initial pass cannot be quickly cut off as in the 2-man maneuver which really has only one option. Typically the second pass in the 3-man move lures and diverts defenders on to false ground. This gives the initiator of the sequence time to run into an advantageous position. Triple player collaborations of course do not operate in isolation- they have other supporting players- but the tight 3-man exchange still remains a fundamental pillar of successful attacking play.
Brazil vs Uruguay 1970- strike package: Jairzinho - Pele - Tostao. The example below, is drawn from one of the most famous strike teams- Pele, Tostao and Jairzinho. This goal, against Uruguay in the 1970 semi-final, captures the power of the move. The fast winger Jairzinho set the stage- dribbling down the right flank before finding Pele ahead. Tightly marked, and with his back to the goal, Pele immediately played a beautiful back-heel to Tostao. The baby-faced center-forward drew the defence to him with a short dribble before finding Jairzinho again on the wing. This exchange of passes gave Jairzinho a lead on other defenders and he made the most of it- accelerating down the wing, selling a dummy on Uruguayan defender Matosas, and muscling him aside as he approached the enemy goal. Uruguayan keeper Mazurkiewicz came off his line but it was simply too late, as Jairzinho slotted the ball into the net. Of note in this sequence is the attacking space created by the tight exchanges between Jair, Pele and Tostao. Even the Uruguayans, playing one of the most densely packed, negative defences seen in a World Cup could not stop it. Jairzinho is surrounded by enemy defenders when the sequence starts, but at the end, he only has one to deal with. Also of note is the unselfish passing of Brazilian striker Tostao, with his skill creating countless openings for his teammates throughout the 1970 tournament.
The quick counterattack requires intelligent running, exhaustive physical effort and good passing and dribbling skill. The diagram below shows a classic counterattack in the epic 1970, World Cup game -- England versus Germany. Two passes, separated by a brief dribble yielded a goal. English midfielder Alan Mullery started the move at almost the center of the field with a crucial pass, floating a long ball over three Germans, out to the right flank.
It was collected by Newton, a defender moving up form a deep position, and it quickly put him in excellent attacking position with few opponents to check his progress. Newton advanced on a short dribble, before producing a low, outstanding diagonal cross that found Mullery who had sprinted into the goalmouth. Mullery finished what he had started, by ramming the ball home past the German keeper Maier. Tactically this goal combines the power of the long pass with that of the two-man combination, and indeed, before his pass to Newton, Mullery had exchanged passes with Francis Lee before setting off on his final combination run.
Free kicks and dead-ball restarts come into play following a foul or other infraction. Offensive players attempt numerous tricks to beat the defenders, who often form a solid wall of players directly in front of the goal. Attackers may attempt to blast the ball through the defensive wall, or curl it over or around using spin.
Indirect free-kicks must be touched by another player before any shot is taken, and can throw a defence into confusion when taken quickly, or in unexpected directions. The third goal of Brazil's 1970 World Cup victory over Italy illustrates the method. Brazil's midfield general Gerson Nunes approached rapidly and lofted the dead ball in a high arc almost from the midfield line. It found Pele perfectly positioned near the Italian goal. The Brazilian headed down softly and accurately, straight into the path of the onrushing winger Jairzinho, who virtually walked the ball into the net. Italy's catenaccio defence was caught out of position here, not only failing to neutralize Pele, but providing little cover to stop Jairzinho. A rapid, daring set-piece kick will often accomplish this unbalancing of defences.
Direct free-kicks are a key part of attacking in soccer, and can lead to many goals. Numerous feints and ruses are tried to fool the opposition, including having attackers join the "wall." A successful free kick from the 1970 World Cup- Brazil vs Czechoslovakia, illustrates how the technique works. Brazilian forwards Jairzinho and Tostao cunningly joined the end of the defensice wall as the Czechs set it up. As Pele backed off and feinted as if to take the kick, both Jair and Tostao began to move off, creating space. Roberto Revelino ghosted in from the side to shoot powerfully into the gap for a goal.
Moving into free space is one of the most critical skills that soccer players must develop. Standing around to admire one's handiwork is unproductive effort. Attacking players must move off the ball into space to give an advance the maximum chance of success. Passes to space are feasible when there is intelligent movement of players to receive the ball and do something constructive with it. All the great players show an ability to find open gaps and seams in a defence- positioning themselves to receive a pass. Smart use of space also causes confusion in a defence as multiple attacking options throw opponents off balance.
The diagram shown illustrates a very productive use of movement off the ball into space at the World Cup level, leading to a goal. Midfielder Bonhof made a long diagonal run out to the right side of the field, that put him clear of the Dutch opposition. He was quickly found by Juergen Grabowski, and Bonhof ran on untouched deep into the Dutch half, building up speed. He beat Dutch defender Haan and centered to Gerd Muller, who pounced on the cross to slam it home for the German victory. Moving diagonally is one of the best offensive movements, whether at the near or far posts, or out to the wings further back in midfield. Diagonal movement creates added space to maneuver, compared to simply running straight ahead.