Formations can win or lose a game. I love to study the set-up of teams, to see how I would manage it. I look at it like putting your chess pieces in the right places so that you can capitalize when needed. A poor formation can leave you at the mercy of the opponents, but a good one will make you kings.
Which soccer formation is the best for 11 vs 11? The best formation will vary from team to team. Some other questions need to be answered first, like who is your main threat or star player? Organizing a team around your best players will put you in good stead. Utilizing the energy and pace of wide players is very effective. Play to your strengths.
The main aspect when playing soccer is that you need to be compact in defense and open in the attack. When you defend with a tight unit of players you leave less space for the opponents to create problems for you. The opposite is applied when attacking, if you can stretch the opponents out, you will create gaps that will lead to attacks.
- Formations – Positions – Systems: Considerations
- 4-4-2 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
- 4-4-2 Player Zones
- 4-4-2 Defensive Positions
- 4-4-2 Attacking Positions
- 4-4-2 Problem Areas
- 4-3-3 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
- 4-3-3 Player Zones
- 4-3-3 Defensive Positions
- 4-3-3 Attacking Positions
- 4-3-3 Problem Areas
- 4-1-4-1 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
- 4-2-3-1 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
- 3-5-2 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
- Free PDF Download: Over 12’s 11 v 11 Formations – Infographic – Tactics Field
- Related Questions
Before we look at formations, for those that are newer to the game here is a diagram of a soccer field, to show what is what.
Soccer field infographic
Formations – Positions – Systems: Considerations
Choosing your formation to play will depend on the following key points. Getting the best out of your players is the intention when picking your system.
A common saying in soccer is to build a team around your best player. Wherever that player is playing, who do they work with the best? Players often have a favorite player to play with when playing – this may be because of a knowledge of what they can do and where they will be. A trust factor.
If your best player is a midfielder that can play a ball 60 yards into the corner, have a winger that is willing to run into space.
An opponent will look for weaknesses in your team and any good coach will make changes in the game to utilize your weak point. Be sure to minimize the risk by pairing players up who combine well.
You might have a central defender who is good at heading the ball but is slow. Players who play next to each other ideally complement one another with their attributes.
Having pace is always a good trait for a team. Whether it is the full-back in recovery or a winger taking on a player, it can be an influential aspect. That said, you don’t necessarily need pace if you have players like Iniesta and Xavi, who can control the ball and pass with accuracy.
A player with pace is best placed in a position that will be dangerous. Have them in a position where they will more often face a 1-on-1 situation.
Tiki Taka is widely known for its combination play. That is short, quick passing with one or two touches, played a speed that hard to close down and intercept.
When players are in their positions, they will not only be combining with those directly next to them but those on a diagonal. So a full-back will be linking with a central midfielder. Forming combinations can be highly effective, you ideally need to play in triangles.
A player ideally will have two options when to pass the ball – this is the triangle. Players waiting for a pass will be constantly moving to create an opportunity to pass. When the ball is passed there will be a new triangle of players that should be on the move away from their markers.
In a 5-3-2 formation, the full-backs are expected to work the full length of the field. They can become isolated. It is important when picking players to play there that they have the right attributes. They need a good ‘engine’ to get up and down.
The same applies to a lone striker, they need support, from other players or with a quality pass. The striker will often be playing against two defenders, so they either need to have the pace to get behind or they need to be able to hold up the ball.
4-4-2 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
Traditional 4-4-2 formation
- Widely known
- Straight lines
4-4-2 is a formation that has been widely used over the decades. It is used less now or there are variations like the diamond. The formation can be exposed if the formation is too flat with straight lines, which leave gaps between the defense and midfield. It can be effective as all the players are confident of where their teammates are on the field.
It is a good base formation, but it must be adapted so that it is not too predictable.
4-4-2 Player Zones
Areas of play for each player
The fullback on each side will cover up to the opponent’s penalty box and sometimes beyond if they are attacking. Likewise, the winger will go back to their own box and are sometimes required to drop deeper.
The zones are the simplest forms and are easy for the players to operate in. The system allows for the wingers to attack the goal and the fullbacks to overlap. Normally one of the two center midfielders will be more attacking than the other.
4-4-2 Defensive Positions
Defensive areas of 4-4-2
The defensive shape covers a good area that will be attacked and is good for all-round protection. The full-backs will work with the wingers and the center back that are near them to close the gaps.
If the strikers stay in the position shown there will be danger behind them and when a team breaks there will be nobody further forward. In many cases, the strikers will go centrally, one further forward as an outlet and the other blocking penetration through the center of the midfield.
4-4-2 Attacking Positions
Having attacking fullbacks is an advantage in this position. If they have one of the following attributes, great pace and can cross or beat a player. Ideally, they will have all three, but it is very rare. If they don’t carry out one of these it will limit the attack and become predictable.
The midfielders have an important role to play and in this scenario, one sits back while the other is advanced. It is possible to play side by side but they will have to be good communicators to switch roles of making runs into the box. Having two strikers in the box will always cause problems and it is important that they make short and unpredictable runs.
4-4-2 Problem Areas
Areas for concern
The problem with a standard 4-4-2 is the flat rows of defender and midfielders. Good opponents will find the space in between the lines. To avoid this, the team can play very compact, with the defender and midfielder closer together, allowing no space for a player to play between the lines.
Another way around the problem of the gaps is to change the positions when on the defense. One of the strikers can drop into the center of the field which stops the ball being played through the middle – this also gives security to the midfield.
4-3-3 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
Typical 4-3-3 formation
- Forward 3
- 3 center midfielders
- Lone striker
- Midfield can be stretched
- Wingers to cover distance
4-3-3 is either second or first most popular formation, depending on the league. It is famously used by Barcelona very effectively – it helps to have world-class players. If you have the right players is can be very attacking and cause the opposition problems with three attacking in unison.
The midfield will be required to cover the attacking more often than not when a counter-attack is against you. For the system to work best you need hardworking midfielders, wingers that can beat players and a strong striker.
4-3-3 Player Zones
Areas of play for the players
The back four is the same as with any four, although because the wingers are further forward, they are expected to cover more ground to support the midfield and attack. The center midfielder is the defensive player, there to stop any attack getting to the defense. The two other midfielders will cover from box to box, so they need to be athletic. They also need to cover the space behind the winger, so it will pull the midfield out of shape.
The wingers have a license to go inside to find the space – this is where it’s effective. The striker will be playing against two defenders most of the time, so he/she needs to be strong, hold-up the ball and bring the wingers into play.
4-3-3 Defensive Positions
Positions when defending
The positions will apply when the team is under pressure. Sometimes the wingers will not be back on the counter-attack, leaving the defense more exposed. The back four will cover the penalty box, with the midfielder shielding them. The 4-3-3 better when compared to a 4-4-2 in this situation, with the central midfielder blocking the vital central area.
The striker will disrupt the defenders from playing the ball and even though it is a defensive shape, the striker needs to continuously provide an outlet for when the ball is retained. This can be done by moving out wide, dropping a little deeper or waiting for a ball over the top.
4-3-3 Attacking Positions
Vitally the striker will be in the center of the goal – the place where it is easiest to score and where he/she can cause the most problems. The best thing about this formation is that the players are attacking different areas, which will make finding the gaps in the defense easier.
If the fullbacks can make runs around the back of the winger along the line, they can pull players out of position and be in a space where the ball can be crossed effectively. As always with any formation, runs from the midfield need to made for a chance to be created. The center midfielder will be there to ‘recycle’ the ball back to the attackers,
4-3-3 Problem Areas
As mentioned earlier, if the wingers are out of position, it can leave the fullback exposed, causing a one-on-one. This problem can also pull the wide midfielder out of position to cover – which should be temporary until the shape is regained.
The area in front of the midfield, which does not seem too dangerous, but could be against players who can pick a pass, is the space behind the striker and in front of the midfield. The striker will have to get back closer to the midfield to reduce the space allowed.
4-1-4-1 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
The 4-1-4-1 formation is a variation on the traditional 4-4-2, with a player placed behind the midfield instead of having two strikers. This formation gives the team more security but can restrict the attacking play.
4-1-4-1 Player Zones
In the zones for the formation, we can see that the central midfielder here is key to protecting the middle of the goal. They are also responsible for starting the attacks – sometimes referred to as the quarterback of soccer.
4-1-4-1 Defensive Positions
This formation gives a solid defense for the team. All the key areas are covered in the center and the wings have extra protection because the midfielders can go wide with the security of the central midfielder.
4-1-4-1 Attacking Positions
The positions of the players now are similar to what was shown in the 4-4-2 attack. Again the central midfielder is key here to switching the ball and recycling the play.
4-1-4-1 Problem Areas
As the formation is tight and defensive, there are few problem areas. Being in a defensive shape like this can invite problems if your team cannot break. To break it needs running wingers and a strong striker who is able to hold up the ball and bring others into play.
4-2-3-1 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
4-2-3-1 can be a defensive formation or an attacking one. The flexibility of this system makes it a favorite of mine. If the central midfielder dropped back on occasion, the other two midfielders could advance and give the opponent more to think about.
4-2-3-1 Player Zones
In many ways, it is similar to a 4-3-3. The wingers are key to making advances – this can be interchanged with the attacking midfielder when they support the striker.
4-2-3-1 Defensive Positions
In the defensive positions, the formation becomes like a 4-5-1, with that added security of the central midfielder that blocks the most important area of play. Solid in defense and attack – but this all depends on the recovery of the players.
4-2-3-1 Attacking Positions
The two central midfielders will need a good partnership, communicating well to alternate advances forward, being careful not to expose the two defenders. Movement is key as with any formation – a variation of runs with clinical passes.
4-2-3-1 Problem Areas
Set against a 4-4-2 formation the players are in good positions, but as with any formation, one-on-ones can be created easily. Bigger problems will occur when faced with a 4-3-3 because two players will be playing centrally where there are gaps.
3-5-2 Formation – Positions: Diagrams
The role fo the fullbacks/wingers is crucial in a 3-5-2 formation. They need to be defenders and attackers with a ‘good engine’, able to cover the whole of the flank. There are few famous wingbacks that have played the role successfully, but players like Roberto Carlos and Daniel Alves have shown how to.
3-5-2 Player Zones
The fullbacks give the team width and the opposition doesn’t know whether their fullback should be the marker or the winger. The formation stretches the opponents across the field making it difficult.
3-5-2 Defensive Positions
In defense the team is transformed into a 5-3-2 – this makes it hard to break down and it gives the team two strikers to play the ball out to. Similar problems to the 4-4-2 can occur as the players are lined up in front of each other – it is best to have the line in front covering the gaps behind.
3-5-2 Attacking Positions
Attacking with two strikers is always dangerous and if the fullbacks are good at crossing the ball, it can lead to chances. The three center backs can be wasted if left in this position, so it is ideal for the middle player to step forward as a temporary midfielder.
3-5-2 Problem Areas
Problems can be created against it if the fullbacks do not get back into position in the corners. If this happens, it pulls the center backs out of position and gaps are created. Two or three runs by players can pull players out of position, which creates gaps.
The best way to pick a formation is to focus on your best players. How can I get the most of the star? Where would they be most effective? As always in soccer, hard work and movement are essential for any formation to work.
Free PDF Download: Over 12’s 11 v 11 Formations – Infographic – Tactics Field
What soccer formation is best for attacking? The most common attacking formation is 4-3-3 which allows three attacking players, as used by Barcelona and Liverpool.
What is the most effective soccer formation? The most effective formation is one that plays to the strength of your players and the weakness of your opponents. The Champions League winners over recent years have used a 4-3-3.
How do you choose a soccer formation? Put your best players in their favorite position and cover any weak areas. Begin a match cautiously and after the first ten minutes advance with runs and dribbling.