15 Tactical Formations and What They're Good for

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterOctober 18, 2012

15 Tactical Formations and What They're Good for

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    Bleacher Report takes a look at some world football tactical formations—past, present and hibernating—in order to gauge how modern managers think about the game.

    We've unearthed some old-school ones, looked at once-successful systems that are now confined to the pages of history and evaluated the current trends.

    From Euro 2012 to the 1878 Welsh Cup final, we've got you covered.


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    For a bit of fun (or in some cases, a history lesson), we'll start with the first formation that was commonly accepted by the masses—the 2-3-5.

    No, you didn't misread that. Check it again—it says 2-3-5. English football aficionados were all in agreement that this was the de facto most solid formation back in 1880.

    Two at the back, five up front.

    The Wrexham Druids took it a step further during the 1878 Welsh Cup final by playing a 2-2-6, only to find out that, six years earlier, England had played a 1-2-7 against Scotland. Unreal.

    What's it good for then?

    In modern-day terms, nothing. These games were full of goals even with the old offside laws in place, but defensively, this formation is—for obvious reasons—an abomination.


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    Turning our attention to modern day, you don't get anything more typically British than the good old 4-4-2.

    Sir Alex Ferguson has long been a proponent of this formation that favours two out-and-out strikers and traditional, chalk-on-your-boots style wingers.

    It would be fair to say that this formation is dying out, as even Fergie is turning his back on it. This has contributed widely to a lack of traditional targetmen and a severe lack of classic No. 7s and No. 11s.

    A player like Antonio Valencia or John Carew is a dying breed, and the decline of the 4-4-2 is a major reason why.


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    The 4-5-1, perhaps best epitomised by Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, is a footballing lesson on how to stay compact and grind out 1-0 victories.

    Most 4-5-1s incorporate a midfield destroyer in the role of Claude Makelele, and under Mourinho, the Frenchman was complemented perfectly by Michael Essien and Frank Lampard.

    This formation is ideally set up to counterattack. The destroyer is tasked with winning the ball and then feeding the ball to his colleagues quickly.

    The full-backs remain cautious, and almost all of the attacking work is done by three or four players.


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    What's the difference between a 4-3-3 and a 4-5-1?

    On paper, not a lot, but the changes are apparent in the style of play utilised despite the same basic shape.

    The 4-3-3 is generally recognised as the shift away from counterattacking football (as seen with the 4-5-1) and toward possession-based play.

    Paulo Bento's Euro 2012 Portugal side are perfect exponents of the modern 4-3-3, and Andre Villas-Boas' work at Tottenham is developing nicely in this shape.

    In contrast to Jose Mourinho's template, the full-backs in a 4-3-3 push forward with free license, while there is no designated midfield destroyer; there is more a "sitter" (e.g. Miguel Veloso).

    The midfield trio press when off the ball and create whilst on it. The wingers are more wide forwards than anything else, suiting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo perfectly.

4-4-2 Diamond

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    The 4-4-2 diamond is a formation that's received a fair amount of attention over the last few months.

    Most recently, Manchester United used it to combat Newcastle's dominant midfield pairing of Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, while Cesare Prandelli used it with Italy during Euro 2012.

    The diamond in midfield is built to control the centre of the park and dictate the tempo of the game.

    While the player playing at the base and point of the diamond can have different roles in different systems, the two true central midfielders often "shuttle" up and down the lanes.

    It allows significant space for full-backs to bomb forward, and both Internazionale and AC Milan have used this system to great effect in the last decade.


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    The 3-5-2 is coming back, but world football aficionados aren't exactly certain why.

    The formation Roberto Mancini has put together, while tactically interesting, is fast becoming an unmitigated disaster.

    The once-solid Manchester City back line has been porous so far this season, and that's come down to the Italian's tinkering.

    The 3-5-2 allows true wing-backs to go forward with little defensive responsibility. The width and service they provide creates a large number of chances for the strikers, while the three centre-backs should feel confident in dealing with the opposing strikers.

    Many managers look to have a spare man in defence. For example, if Marcelo Bielsa comes up against a team that plays 4-4-2, he will use three at the back. Should they switch to one up front, he converts to a back four.

    Here's an in-depth look at the formation.


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    The 4-2-3-1 is the de facto best formation in world football right now.

    Euro 2012 saw a lot of teams utilise it in one way or another, as it looks for possession and control whilst remaining defensively sound.

    Joachim Low's Germany were probably the best exponents of it, as the holding duo of Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger sat deep and allowed Mesut Ozil, the No. 10, to do pretty much whatever he wanted.

    With the insurance of two holding midfielders, the full-backs are given license to roam. Philipp Lahm needed no second invitation.

    France, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic and Ukraine are just some of the sides partial to this formation.


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    What's the difference between a 4-1-4-1 and the 4-5-1 then?

    As you can see, if you look at these formations exclusively on paper, the lines start to become blurry.

    Typically speaking, this formation requires one holding player and four attack-minded midfielders playing horizontally across the pitch.

    Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this formation (or the successful variants of it) is the forward, who would frequently drop into a midfield role to find and create space for others.

    Luciano Spalletti's AS Roma of 2006-07 are a wonderful example of this system, and there is perhaps no better false nine than Francesco Totti.


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    The 4-4-1-1 and the 4-4-2 are like cousins. They're closely related, yet several differences exist between them.

    This formation is one of the most flexible in world football and can be used to counter almost any specific threat the opposition provides.

    It's essentially four at the back, a flat-four midfield, one support striker and one out-and-out striker. Modern football has seen managers twist this formation in directions previously unheard of, though, and some of its uses are fascinating.

    Slaven Bilic used Mario Mandzukic in a "suffoco" role for Croatia during Euro 2012 to nullify the threat of Andrea Pirlo, while Michel Gonzalez used Ivan Rakitic in the same way for Sevilla's 1-0 victory over Real Madrid this season.

    The spare "1" can also be used to drop off and aid the retention of the ball like Wayne Rooney did last season for Manchester United, or it can even be used as a Marouane Fellaini-esque supplementary target man.


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    Another variation of three at the back is the 3-4-3 formation Roberto Martinez is using with Wigan at the moment.

    His back three is the same as Roberto Mancini's at Manchester City, so the differences come in the forward line.

    Martinez uses one central striker in the mould of a targetman flanked by two wingers eager to come inside.

    An interesting part of the Spaniard's philosophy is to not burden the central midfielders with the playmaking role, instead opting to give it to one of the wide forwards. This is usually Shaun Maloney.

    Other teams are using this formation, too, as it becomes a little more common.

4-4-2 Narrow

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    A stranger, more archaic version of the 4-4-2 is to bring the wingers inside and use a platform of four horizontal central midfielders.

    I don't know of any clubs or international sides that use this formation to date (if you know any, please comment), but the shape is synonymous with the England side of 1992.

    David Platt, Paul Ince, David Batty and Paul Gascoigne all needed to be in the same team, so then-manager Graham Taylor used this formation to incorporate all of the talent.


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    We haven't seen a libero in a long, long time, but I'm not ruling out its return.

    Pep Guardiola has been applauded for tactical innovation, yet most of his brilliance came from working backward through the footballing timeline and bringing things back into fashion.

    Franz Beckenbauer was a notable libero, of course, but my focus is on the 1973 Ajax team.

    It was Barry Hulshoff who played the sweeping playmaker role for this team, though many don't know that, as they can't see past Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol.

    This 1-3-3-3 was free-flowing, attack-minded and beautiful to watch. The way football is headed right now, it's not inexcusable to believe the libero could return.

4-4-2 Diamond (Wide)

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    The other variant of the 4-4-2 diamond shape is to play with wide players rather than an abundance of central midfielders.

    The wide midfielders are not true wingers due to their deeper starting position and, thus, carry a certain level of defensive responsibility.

    The full-backs are conservative, but the formation still retains the offensive threat of two strikers.

    Pro Vercelli of the Italian Serie B sometimes use this system, but it's rarely seen across top-level football.


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    The 4-3-1-2, also known as the Christmas tree formation, is a system that Max Allegri used last season at AC Milan and that Carlo Ancelotti used during his time with Chelsea.

    It involves three true central midfielders, although one takes up a role approaching a defensive destroyer, supplementing an advanced playmaker.

    Two strikers are retained and the full-backs claim license to push forward. Antonio Nocerino was close to fulfilling a holding role for the Rossoneri last season, but you'd also see him arriving late in the opponent's penalty area.

    There really isn't a lot stopping this formation from morphing into a 4-4-2 diamond.


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    Vanderlei Luxemburgo is famous for failing to install his 4-2-2-2, or "magical quadrilateral," template at Real Madrid, but it suited Brazil in the 1982 World Cup just fine.

    As you can imagine, this formation is built on a strong central core, so the familiar questions regarding width often crop up.

    Brazil used full-backs Junior and Leandro to roam an entire flank each while Falcao and Cerezo held the fort from a midfield holding role.

    Full-backs are becoming more and more explosive—is a return to this formation in one or two coaches' thinking?


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