Breaking Down the 10 Most Popular Formations in World Football

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterNovember 21, 2012

Breaking Down the 10 Most Popular Formations in World Football

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    Bleacher Report is here to bring you the comprehensive breakdown of the 10 most popular formations in world football, ranging from Pep Guardiola's experiments to Jose Mourinho's bread and butter.

    Across Serie A, the English Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga this season, we've seen real variation in how managers want to set their teams up.

    But what's the difference between a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3, why does a three-man defensive system fail, and why is the 4-4-2 becoming extinct?


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    The 4-4-2 had been the bread and butter of English football for more than a decade until recent trends diminished its effectiveness.

    The formation sees two traditional banks of four play horizontally to supplement two out-and-out strikers.

    Traditionally, the striking partnership has been that of a big man-small man combination (a la Kevin Keegan and John Toshack), but recently that partnership has become far more dynamic.

    The 4-4-2 carries a genuine direct threat by using two proper wingers who hug the touchline, beat their man and fire in a cross. It's imperative the team fills the box to meet the cross, or else it's just a cheap way of giving up possession.

    The central midfielders are box-to-box players who work hard in both attacking and defensive phases.

    Example: Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United

    Ideal players: Antonio Valencia, Steve Sidwell, John Carew


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    What do you do if you don't have two recognised strikers but wish to retain the basic shape of the 4-4-2? Play a 4-4-1-1, of course.

    The formation sacrifices one pure striker in favour of a creator (trequartista)someone who can drop back from the forward line and find space to receive the ball and dictate proceedings.

    The rest of the peripherals are largely similar to the 4-4-2, but it's slightly easier playing central midfield—you don't have to be quite so explosive due to the presence of the trequartista.

    Example: David Moyes' Everton

    Ideal players: Stevan Jovetic, Tim Cahill, Dennis Bergkamp, Juan Roman Riquelme

4-4-2 (Diamond)

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    The midfield diamond variation of the 4-4-2 is an interesting concept. It seemingly evolved from Vanderlei Luxemburgo's magical quadrilateral formation and employs some continental aspects of the game.

    The midfield is incredibly narrow, although the two central shuttlers have room to manoeuvre and roam.

    The wing-backs bomb forward at will to keep the pitch wide and will often play byline to byline, giving the midfielders a chance to find space in the middle of the park and form neat passing triangles. If you don't stretch the pitch in this formation, you're doomed in the centre.

    The deepest midfielder's role changes with every coach. Some prefer a destroyer in the Claude Makelele role, while some prefer an Andrea Pirlo-esque "regista" (deep-lying playmaker).

    Example: No top club uses it consistently at the moment. Massimiliano Allegri's AC Milan, Antonio Conte's Juventus and Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United have all dabbled with it in the past 12 months.

    Ideal players: Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo, Tom Cleverley, Yoann Gourcuff


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    The 4-3-3 is quickly emerging as one of the most dynamic and effective formations in world football.

    It takes into account every important aspect of the game and remains incredibly flexible on the field.

    With a 4-3-3, you can choose to play on the counter-attack, dominate possession, work the ball through the middle or ask the full-backs to overlap the wingers. Its versatility makes it a popular choice as coaches don't have to make sweeping changes in order to adapt mid-game.

    The key area (highlighted) is the central midfield. One player will typically drop a little deeper and initiate attacks after receiving the ball from his defence, while the other two are all-action personnel somewhat akin to the box-to-box types found in a 4-4-2.

    Wingers have the choice to hug the touchline or cut inside.

    Example: Paulo Bento's Portugal, Fernando Santos' Greece, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona

    Ideal players: Leon Britton, Joao Moutinho, Arjen Robben, Fabio Coentrao, Andres Iniesta


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    You might find yourself wondering what the difference is between a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3, especially after looking at two very similar diagrams.

    There isn't a substantial shape change between the two. Both formations encompass a back four, one holding midfielder, two wingers and a lone striker. The difference comes when setting player roles and establishing what one can and cannot do.

    The 4-5-1 is seen as defensive due to the limitations it places on players. The midfield, as a whole, is far less busy and stays compact, while the anchoring midfielder's only job is to break up play.

    The lone striker does a lot of work and has a tough job holding the ball up long enough for his teammates to come forward and join him, while the full-backs are more conservative than in a 4-3-3.

    Example: Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, Tony Pulis' Stoke City

    Ideal players: Claude Makelele, Didier Drogba


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    The 4-2-3-1 is the de facto best formation in modern football. It mixes attacking potency with defensive solidarity and featured heavily throughout the 2010 FIFA World Cup and also Euro 2012.

    The full-backs are similar to the ones found in a 4-3-3—explosive, fast and adventurous.

    The midfield is key, as you'll find a holding pivot employed to dominate possession and feed the key attacking outlets in the team.

    The area highlighted on the diagram is the key offensive piece—the "enganche"—who links play, terrorises defenders and drops into pockets of space.

    Following the emphasis on ball retention, inverted wingers are generally preferred to traditional, chalk-on-your-boots ones.

    Example: Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands, Joachim Low's Germany

    Ideal players: Ramires, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil, Juan Mata


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    At this point, we shift toward the increasingly popular three-man defensive system.

    The 3-4-3 is probably the easiest three-man system to make the transition to, as it still retains some positional play similar to the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2.

    Three centre-backs supply a culture shock for those used to playing in a four-man line, as they become responsible for larger areas of the pitch and receive encouragement to advance into midfield with the ball.

    This formation, like any three-man system, relies on the wing-backs.

    The wide men have to keep the pitch vast so the midfielders can find space and stretch the opposition, while they're also responsible for direct runs and overlaps to drag their team forward.

    Example: Roberto Martinez's Wigan Athletic, Miroslav Blazevic's Croatia

    Ideal players: Daniel Agger, Jean Beausejour, Erik Lamela


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    The 3-5-2 is spreading to the English Premier League after taking over Serie A earlier this calendar year.

    It places even more of an emphasis on the wing-backs than the 3-4-3 does, as there's no winger in front of them to carry the load on the flanks. It's an exhausting job, and if you fail to win your battle, your team is in trouble.

    The midfield is variable in this system. You can play with a regista and two shuttlers, or two standard central medianos combined with a trequartista.

    We saw an absolute masterclass in this formation recently as Antonio Conte defeated Roberto Di Matteo in a costly tactical duel.

    Example: Antonio Conte's Juventus, Roberto Mancini's Manchester City, Cesare Prandelli's Euro 2012 Italy

    Ideal players: Emanuele Giaccherini, Yaya Toure, Cafu


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    Walter Mazzarri deserves credit for sparking the aforementioned 3-5-2 revolution in Serie A.

    It appears he was thoroughly disappointed when it caught on though, as he's modified his strategy at Napoli this season to make a 3-5-1-1.

    It doesn't seem that different, but somehow it really is. The move was almost forced on him in a way, as the departing Ezequiel Lavezzi left a gaping hole to fill.

    The formation gets the best out of Marek Hamsik "in the hole" behind the striker while retaining width through Christian Maggio and Carlos Zuniga.

    Example: Walter Mazzarri's Napoli, Vincenzo Montella's Fiorentina

    Ideal players: Marek Hamsik, Riccardo Montolivo, Mauricio Isla

Wild Card: 2-3-5

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    In football, you never know.

    Pep Guardiola set up a 2-3-5 last season against Getafe, and who's to suggest this radical formation won't be taken on by a few more teams? That's all it takes.

    It's an absolutely ridiculous formation to look at on paper, but it actually worked (via