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What Nobody is Saying about Modern Soccer Formations

     The Christmas tree; the coat hanger; Alf’s wingless wonders.  4 4 2, 4 5 1, 5 3 1…soccer formations sound like the names of science fiction B movies or telephone numbers.  However, in this blog we are going to look at some of the most common, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each, and the kinds of players who fit well into the formation.

As we look at these, we should bear in mind that the best teams can flow seamlessly from one formation to another; shifting from (for example) 3 5 2 when on the offensive straight back to 5 4 1 when possession is lost.  Developing that tactical flexibility can be the key to a successful season.

Soccer Formation 1: The Old Campaigner – Four Four Two

Soccer Formation 4 4 2


Time was, and until the last ten years, that it was rare to see any other formation.


·        Easy to play and understand

·        Solid defensively

·        Ties up at least one opposing full back.


·        Relatively easy for a Number 10 to get between the midfield and defensive lines

·        Can lead to midfield being over-whelmed

·        Lacks width, condensing play.


·        Target man who can hold up play and bring in midfielders or flick the ball on for attacking partner.

·        At least one quick defender, since the line is likely to be flat allowing balls to be played in behind.


·        Four four one one; this allows the second striker to drop deeper, meaning that the team can become four five one on transition to defense.


Soccer Formation 2: Attack Attack Attack – Four Three Three

Soccer Formation 4 3 3


·        Very attack minded;

·        Gives great opportunity to get players wide;

·        Keeps defenses from getting forward.


·        Can lead to midfield becoming over run.

·        The back four can be exposed because of midfield numbers


·        Pace up front;

·        A front three prepared to press the ball to stop opponents building from the back.


·        Three four three – this is a less attacking form, with the full backs starting further up the pitch, but a third central defender adding security at the back.

4 3 3 is probably the formation of choice at the professional level at the moment (although, not for all by far).  This video clip shows more detail of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the system. 

Soccer Formation 3: The Modern Option – Four Two Three One

Soccer Formation 4 2 3 1

This formation is currently the favoured option of strong teams, combining defensive security with a range of attacking options.


·        Very attacking, with often four strikers and the two full backs getting forward;

·        Excellent for playing on the break.


·        Each role is quite specific and resources at the amateur level might not allow for the formation to be employed effectively.


·        Pace;

·        Positional discipline, especially from the central defensive (or ‘sitting’) midfielders as if both commit forward, the team is open to being hit on the break during transition;

·        A talented No 10 with vision and passing ability;

·        A hard working centre forward who can both hold up play and break at speed.


·        Four One Three Two – even more attacking for when the game is being chased.  Very vulnerable to counter attack, however.


Soccer Formation 4: Our Flexible Friend – Five Three Two

Soccer Formation 5 3 2

Our instinct might be that, with five defenders, this is a very defensive formation.  It can be, but if the full backs become wing backs, and are given the licence to bomb forward, it turns into a very attacking set up.


·        Flexible – can be offensive of defensive;

·        Very good for playing on the break, especially if two players are left forward.


·        Can lead to the midfield being overrun – two attackers are not enough to properly close down an opponent’s defense, allowing them to build from the back, where they may well have a surplus player;

·        Sometimes, there can be a lack of protection for the central defense as the midfield is heavily occupied.


·        Quick and able full backs.


·        Five Four One – Here one central striker helps the midfield by dropping in – however, this reduces the attacking potential of the team.

Soccer Formation 5: Parking the Bus – Four Five One

Soccer Formation 4 5 1

The ultimate defensive formation.  Perfect for holding on to a one goal lead against stronger opponents, if rather dull to watch and play in.


·        Hard to break down;

·        Jobs are clearly defined.


·        Very hard to become effective in offense.  Even during transition, the formation needs to hold in case the ball is lost once more.  Reliant on set pieces.


·        Hard working target man, plus a replacement who can do a similar job.  This player will be isolated, and required to make a lot of runs;

·        Discipline: the full backs cannot break forward.


·        Four One Four One – even more defensive with an extra defensive midfielder protecting the back four and stopping the opponents from playing between the lines.


Soccer Formation 6: Hidden Offense – The False Nine; Four Six Zero

Soccer Formation 4 6 0

This might seem like soccer for insomniacs, but is actually very attacking, and was used by the successful Spain and Barcelona teams of the late 2000s.


·        Extremely fluid;

·        Holds possession;

·        Hard to defend – because there is no specific player for the defense to mark.


·        Requires great understanding between team mates;

·        Requires exceptional technical ability to retain possession.


·        Technically strong players.


·        Five five zero, introducing wing backs for added width.

Check out our next blog on individual soccer drills that you can practice at home.




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