One aspect of soccer that causes a great deal of debate and confusion is that of formations. A formation is the basic way in which the outfield players of a team line up in a match, and it is designed to make the most of the team's strengths, and/or to combat the threats which the other team may pose.
We are going to take a look at how formations became such an integral part of the game, explain some of the most common formations, and in particular look at the 4-3-3 formation to highlight what its benefits are.
Soccer formations are normally described with the use of numbers, and there tends to be three of them, which represent the defense, the midfield, and the forward line. That being said there are some formations which use up to 5 numbers. The numbers should always add up to ten which is the number of outfield players in a team. The goalkeeper is not included in the formation for the very obvious reason that the goalkeeper's position on the field is only ever going to be inside the penalty area.
Examples of how formations can be described by numbers are 4-2-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2 or 4-5-1; however, some of them have been given names too such as the 'diamond' and 'Christmas tree' formations. The diamond is a rather complex 4-1-2-1-2 formation, and the Christmas tree is 4-3-2-1.
If you imagine the shape of a Christmas tree going from wide at the bottom to narrow at the top and compare it to how that formation of players would look on the soccer field like you will understand why it gets that name.
If we were able to travel in a time machine back to the 19th century and watch an early soccer match, the way in which players lined up for a match would be unrecognizable to us. In those days the emphasis was on simply scoring as many goals as you could and hoping that the other team scored fewer. The concept of trying to stop your opponents scoring hadn't really become a tactic, and that is why back then a typical formation for a soccer team would be 2-2-6, 1-2-7, or even 1-1-8.
The first formation which really gave any thought to a defensive strategy was known as the pyramid, and it had players line up in a 2-3-5 formation. This was used by many teams up to and including the 1930s, with the most noteworthy being the Uruguayan international team, who won the Olympic Games soccer tournaments in 1924 and 1928, and the first ever FIFA World Cup in 1930.
The fact is, a soccer coach could send out their team out to play in virtually any formation they wish. The laws of soccer do not stipulate any formations which must be used, nor any that are prohibited. All they state is that one player must be the goalkeeper and that the other ten are outfield players. As mentioned previously, it is with these ten players that the coach must determine the team's formation.
In modern soccer, there is often as much emphasis on the coaching of teams to defend their own goal, as there is on attacking the opponent’s goal. Some coaches have built a reputation as being excellent defensive coaches, and others as coaches whose teams play a very attacking style. Here is where you will see the formation based upon how the coach believes they should play, either on a regular basis or in a particular match.
For example, it is sometimes obvious that a team has come to 'shut up shop' and has lined up in a formation that is extremely defensive and designed to not concede any goals. This may occur when their opponents are obviously superior to them. The formation used might be 4-5-1 or 5-4-1. with a great deal of emphasis on the midfield players to defend but also having to try and support the lone striker whenever they have an attack.
While some formations have fallen out of favor over the years, and some innovative ones have been introduced, there are a few which have stood the test of time and can be considered the default formations for many teams.
The first is the 4-4-2 formation which may not be as popular as it once was but is still regarded as an excellent formation when a coach wishes to have a solid foundation in terms of defense, but an equally potent formation going forward. Defensively it means the opposing team has to get past two banks of four players, and when in attack it can mean as many as six players in the opponent's penalty box.
A more modern formation is 3-4-3, where the two wide midfielders, known as wing-backs, operate along the entire length of the field. This way they can supplement the defense when opponents attack but also double up as attacking wingers when the team is going forward. This formation also provides a very robust defensive unit in the center, where attackers come up against three center-backs instead of the normal two.
Another set-up which uses three center-backs is the 3-5-2 formation. Here the two wing backs have greater freedom to attack, as the central midfield player of the three has a duty to provide defensive cover, and this is why they are often known as the 'holding' midfielder.
It is often said that a 4-3-3- formation is the one that gives a soccer team the greatest balance and the best equilibrium between defense and attack. It came to prominence with the outstanding Brazil team of the 1960s, which of course included the man who is arguably the greatest player who ever lived, Pele.
The benefit of the 4-4-3 formation is that the midfield operates as a unit, and the positioning of those players provide cover across the park when defending, and support in the center and on the wings for the forwards. Those forwards are also expected to operate across the width of the field, with the idea being that it splits the defense, thus leaving gaps for attacking midfielders to exploit.
Some of the world's top soccer coaches have used 4-3-3 to great effect, most noticeably Pep Guardiola when he coached FC Barcelona, and Jose Mourinho during his two spells as Chelsea's coach.