In 1880, Wrexham FC was the first team to use a soccer formation that was known to work. They played in a 2-3-5 shape.
Yes, they did play five attackers up front. I know, right?
Wrexham would play a formation called the “pyramid,” which had two defenders, three midfielders, and five attackers. The funny thing is, it worked!
Wrexham, which was recently bought by Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds, was one of the most successful clubs in the English leagues in the 1980s because of its innovative structure.
At its core, soccer is just a simple game of attacking and defending. What makes a team great is how well they outstrategize their opponents and play formations that can counter and take advantage of their weaknesses.
Today, you’d never see a team with two defenders at the back because they’d get torn to pieces.
Even though modern high-pressing teams like Liverpool and Barcelona are starting to use strategies where their players flood the other team’s half of the field, like Wrexham did,
In this article, we’ll look at the best 11v11 formations in world soccer and talk about how effective they are and when to use them.
Let’s start with an old favourite…
Different Soccer Formations And Their Strength/Weaknesses
4-4-2 – The Classic Soccer Formation
This is what a soccer formation is all about.
The 4-4-2 formation might be one of the most balanced in all of soccer. But it is also one of the most basic, and modern playing structures that let teams press higher up the field have left it behind.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s class of 1992 made this shape famous, and he used it to win a lot of trophies for Manchester United by changing it and making it work better for his team.
Ferguson used this formation to tear apart other teams. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes drove through the middle, and David Beckham sent long balls to Eric Cantona up top.
The 4-4-2 formation is a great mix of attacking and defending. Its best feature is that it gives teams four midfielders who can control the game and stop attacks in the middle of the field.
Even so, your team needs to have two central midfielders who work hard and can move from one box to the next. But the 4-4-2 formation makes the midfield more fluid, so your central ball winners can read the game and know when to attack and when to defend.
One bad thing about it is that it doesn’t give teams a lot of width, but it does let them play with two strikers. As a coach, I always like to use two forwards instead of one.
Then, you can use a target man who can win the ball by bullying defenders, hold it up, and pass it to a striker who can break through defensive lines and score goals.
Some might say that the 4-4-2 formation is too linear, but when that happens, teams can change the two-line structure and play in a diamond with a defensive midfielder and a classic number 10, or with a line of three midfielders and an attacking midfielder in front of them.
It’s a fun formation to try out and works well for teams that want to keep a strong defensive line and have a strong attack.
- Attacking and defensive.
- Two strikers.
- Very linear at its base level.
- No width.
3-4-3 – Built For High Pressing Teams
The 3-4-3 formation is one of the most popular in the Premier League because it lets teams spread out over the field.
The wingbacks are the most important parts of a 3-4-3 formation that works. Like a box-to-box midfielder, they are mostly important in the attack, but they also have to be able to defend.
If you’ve seen Liverpool play in the last two years, you’ll know that Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressure style is based on how hard Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robinson work.
The 3-4-3 formation lets teams pack the midfield with players, while the wingbacks move up the field to copy Wrexham’s 2-3-5 structure. By packing the midfield, teams can win the ball higher up the field and put pressure on the other team’s defenders.
When your wingbacks are out wide, your front three can get into dangerous positions around the penalty area.
One of my favourite strategies is to tell the forwards to stop running so that the wing-backs can pass the ball back to the strikers right on the edge of the penalty area. Then, they can play the main striker in the middle of a shot or take a shot themselves.
This is like how Antonio Conte used to set up Chelsea’s front three when the team was in a 3-4-3 formation.
Conte told Marcos Alonso to pass the ball back to Eden Hazard on the edge of the box. Hazard could then pass to Diego Costa in the middle or go on one of his trademark winding runs.
One problem with this system is that it depends a lot on fitness. When your wingbacks get tired, you only have three defenders at the back, which leaves you vulnerable. However, when your wingbacks are on, this can be one of the most dangerous systems in modern soccer.
- High press.
- Hard to defend.
- Overload the midfield.
- Spread across the pitch.
- Multiple attackers.
- Requires great communication.
4-3-3 – The Counter-Attacking Formation
The Barcelona team led by Pep Guardiola made the 4-3-3 formation famous, and it is the best example of the tiki-taka style of soccer.
In the end, I think this is the best way to play soccer if you’re on a firm field and want to pass the ball quickly. Because of where the players are on the field, the 4-3-3 formation gives teams more ways to move the ball.
Pep used to tell Barcelona to keep the ball by playing in triangles. For instance, if Xavi got the ball in the middle of the field, he would always have two other options, like Sergio Busquets or David Alaba, to pass the ball to. When played right, this type of soccer is very fast and fun to watch.
But when you only have three players in the midfield, it leaves your defence open to a lot of danger and forces teams to be a little more strict with their roles.
For the 4-3-3 formation, you could play an attacking shape in midfield with a defensive midfielder and a box-to-box midfielder tucked in behind an attacking midfielder who can get forward to help the forwards.
Now that you have three strikers up top, there are a lot of ways to attack the other team. If you’re playing against, say, a 3-4-3 formation, spread your wingers out to make the defence of your opponent longer and play balls to a target man in the middle. Because of this, it is a great formation that can beat a traditional 4-4-2.
Or, if you’re playing against three defenders, you might move your wingers closer to the middle so they can receive through balls from your attacking midfielder. This will help you break through the defence.
In the end, the 4-3-3 formation lets teams go on the attack, but it only works if you have a strong back four and a roaming defensive midfielder like N’Golo Kante or Idrissa Gueye.
- Provides a variety of attacking options.
- Fast passing soccer.
- Attractive soccer.
- High press.
- Requires your midfielders to be very skilled and have good ball control.
- It can be a very fatiguing formation, particularly for full-backs.
4-5-1 (4-1-4-1) – Flood The Midfield
Flooding the midfield is an old soccer strategy that many managers still use to stop their opponents from getting closer to their goal.
Even though this formation isn’t very common at the higher levels, it’s a great choice for teams that want to strengthen their defence with multiple midfielders who can stop attacks and close off space in the middle of the field.
The fact that you can move and set up your team on the field however you want is a great thing about 4-5-1.
You could play in a defensive V shape with a holding midfielder sitting deep and two attacking midfielders and two wingers on either side, or you could play in a linear 4-1-4-1 structure.
It’s also easy to switch to a 4-3-3 style of play if you’re trying to score late in the game. You can just move your wingers higher up the field to link up with your lone striker while your other three midfielders sit and control the game.
Even though this formation fills in holes around the field and makes it hard to attack, I don’t think it’s the best way to play if you only have one striker up front.
Most teams will also put a big, strong ball winner in the centre forward position, but this is not something I would recommend.
When playing as a lone striker, it’s always good to have a fast striker who can get behind defenders and shoot. Think Fernando Torres in his prime, or maybe Robert Lewandowski.
When it comes to playing defence, this set-up will directly counter a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3. This will help you stop pressure in midfield and win the ball high in the midfield.
- Great defensively.
- Counters 4-3-3.
- Flood the midfield.
- Win the ball back high in the pitch.
- The formation reduces space on the pitch for your opposition.
- It also provides limited attacking options.
- The lone striker is isolated up top.
4-2-3-1 – The Best Formation To Maintain Possession
Back in 2012, every team in the world tried out this formation. But Joachim Low’s Germany might have been the team that gained the most.
With two holding midfielders, coaches can send five attackers against the other team. One of the holding midfielders is likely to cover a lot of ground to stop attackers and play a defensive role.
The second holding midfielder, on the other hand, plays as a ball-playing midfielder and helps move the team from defence to offence.
Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger worked together to help Germany play in a way that was both defensive and transitional. Even though Khedira would do most of the leg work, Schweinsteiger could still stop attackers and connect the midfield to the attackers.
With a trequartista, a striker, and two wingers up top, this formation gives you a lot of ways to attack. I’d tell teams to have their wingers play in different ways.
Stretching defenders in the back can pull players out of position, but playing a narrow strike force can overload the back three. Both are great ways to make defenders nervous and score goals.
This formation is great because it has a 3D shape. The players have better passing options all around them, unlike in linear formations like 4-4-2.
Even though this formation requires teams to play faster, it is designed for “touch and go” football, which means players have to react quickly to follow the play and make themselves available to teammates to keep the attack going.
Still, it is one of the most common soccer formations and probably one of the best ways to beat 4-4-2 and 4-4-3 teams by clogging up their midfields and making it hard for them to pass from the middle of the field.
- Provides width.
- Rigid defensive midfield partnership.
- Multiple attacking options.
- Provides greater passing chances.
- Easy transition between defense and attack.
- Fatiguing formation.
- Wingbacks are required to work harder to defend
3-5-2 – The Counter-Attack Stopper
The 3-5-2 formation is the favourite of Italian managers like Roberto Mancini. It is a defensive change to the classic 3-4-3 formation. When Manchester City won the Premier League title for the first time, Mancini used this formation to close out games.
In this formation, three mobile center-backs will be in charge of defence at the back of the field.
Two wingbacks will move back and forth up and down the field to track wide players. A midfield trio will provide a second line of defence higher up the field, supporting the back three.
Teams often have one defensive midfielder and two attacking midfielders. This gives the two strikers more help. With this double layer of defence, teams can get the ball back higher up the field, put the other team on the back foot, and play the ball out wide to their advancing wingbacks, who can send dangerous balls into the box.
This formation is pretty complicated, so I wouldn’t use it with a team that hasn’t played together for long. More than any other position, it requires players to read the game to know when to drop back or cover a teammate who is pressing.
Defenders also need to be good passers to move the ball away from the danger zone, but they can rely more on the central midfielders to come back and move the ball upfield.
You’ve probably seen Juventus use this 3-5-2 formation before, with Andrea Pirlo in the right back position. Pirlo could take the ball from his defenders and pass it to his attackers to help them move up the field.
He could do this by sending some beautiful passes to the left and right. This 3-5-2 formation works very well if you can find a regista who is good with the ball and can draw in defenders and send killer balls all over the field.
- Great to combat counter attacks.
- It can also be a great counter-attacking formation.
- Defensive minded.
- Covers all areas of the pitch.
- Provides support to the back three.
- It can be used to trump 4-5-1 formations.
- A somewhat defensive formation.
- A very complex tactic to play requires good footballing knowledge.
4-4-1-1 – Attacking Dept
A small change to the usual 4-4-2 formation gives you a little more depth and lets you play a slightly different kind of striker.
With four defenders and four midfielders, the support striker who drops off the defence is the focal point.This is similar to how a false nine might play.
It’s almost like playing an attacking midfielder, who moves forward to get the second ball from the target man, the centre forward, who is usually a “beast” of a forward.
Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney helped Manchester United perfect this style of attack. Fellaini would come on to save the game. He would link up with Rooney, who could then pass to him and score from anywhere on the field. He was quite a guy.
Anyway, if you watched Rooney play for United or Everton in his last few seasons, he was free to play wherever he thought he needed to. This position is great because it gives the false nine the freedom to move around the field, help his midfielders defend, and attack when necessary.
If you have a player on your team who is good at reading the game, I think you should try this formation. When a roaming attacker pops up to make tackles and score goals, it looks like you have 12 men on the field.
- Attacking flexibility.
- Robust defense.
- Easy to transition between defense and attack.
- Dual striking options.
- Again this is a very linear structure.
- Center forward can become isolated quickly.
5-3-2 – Park The Bus
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team was often criticized for playing this very defensive formation against the top six clubs when they were away from home.
Like a 3-5-2 shape, a 5-3-2 formation invites the other team to attack and tries to take the pressure when they do.
In this formation, the wingbacks won’t try to get forward as much as they would in a 3-5-2 formation. Instead, they’ll move up to play with the central midfielders and send balls into the box when they have the ball.
This formation is all about defence, so it’s best to use it when you’re under pressure or if you’re the underdog.
Relegation experts like Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have used this formation in the past to frustrate teams and wait for them to make a simple mistake so they can take advantage of it.
It’s an ugly way to play football, which is why I’d never tell my team to play that way, but it can help teams win close games.
- Great defensive formation.
- Can stop counter-attacks.
- Soaks up pressure.
- Provides limited attacking options.
- Very dull football to watch!
Top Tips To Help You Pick The Best Formation For Your Team
Here are some top tips to help you choose the best formation for your team to score goals and keep clean sheets.
Pick Your Formation Based On Your Team.
You should always play to your strengths, no matter how you like to play or who you have on your team.
Say you have three fast forwards. You should play a 4-3-3 formation to make the most of their speed up front. Also, if you have a strong target man who can bully defenders and pass the ball to other attackers, you might do better with a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation.
The midfield is the most important part of the field, so don’t forget about it. Most formations benefit from having a box-to-box midfielder.
If you have an attacking midfielder or false nine who wants to score goals, you might want to play in a way that lets them go forward without having to worry about going back to defend.
In the end, you should decide what formation to play based on who you have on your team and what kind of team you’re playing. But always focus on what you do well.
Rotate Your Tea
Change it up a lot. Try out players in different positions to see what you can do on the field. If you need to, a wingback might be able to play as a winger, or your defensive midfielder might be able to move up the field to help attack.
Try out different ways to play the game that will keep your opponents guessing. It’s not smart for a manager to stick to just one formation for the whole season, and it’s also not possible.
Teams will figure you out quickly and use your stubbornness as a coach against you. During the season, you’ll also get hurt, and if you can’t change the formation of your team, it will be very hard to deal with those injuries.
Keep your team fresh and full of energy by switching out your midfielders and wingbacks, who will get tired faster than the other players on your team.
Keep Things Simple
At its most basic level, soccer is a simple game. It’s just about how to attack and defend.
The more complicated you make it, the worse it will be for your team, so my best advice is to master the basics before trying to become the next Pep Guardiola.
Formations like 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 are great ways to play and break down the other team, but they are hard to coach and very complicated when players are moving toward the goal and leaving space. If you’re starting a new team or coaching in the youth leagues, I wouldn’t start with this formation.
The easiest thing to do is to play a 4-4-2. This might be the most solid way to play football in the world, since each player has a specific role and the midfield can move around a bit.
It’s not too hard to understand, but it works and is a good formation to use if you’re playing against better teams or only have three midfielders.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Best Defensive Formation In Soccer?
It depends on the kind of team you are playing. Managers always use “parking the bus” (5-3-2) when they want to end a game and take the pressure off late.
But 3-5-2 might also be one of the best defensive formations if you want to pack the midfield and stop attacks higher up the field.
What’s The Best Formation To Counter A 4-3-3?
The 4-5-1 is the best way to stop a 4-3-3 formation. The 4-3-3’s central players can be countered by three midfielders sitting in the middle.
Managers can tell wingers and wingbacks to close down space in the midfield or go after the three forwards. It’s a tough formation to play against, so make sure to keep switching up your team.
What Formation Is Best To Score Goals?
This depends on the types of players you have who can attack. In the end, you have to choose a way to attack that works well with your strikers.
For example, if your forwards are fast, you might play a 4-5-1 or 3-4-3 formation that lets you rush the other team’s box quickly. You could play in a 4-4-2 shape if you have a target man and/or a pure goal scorer.
The Final Whistle
Since the days of 2-3-5, soccer has changed a lot.
From 4-4-2 to five at the back, modern managers have shaped the game into this tactical chessboard.
But it’s important for coaches to get their strategies right because one wrong move could ruin a team’s chances of winning a game.
My best advice for picking your next 11 is to start with the simple things. Place players on the field so that they can use their strengths to keep the ball and move it into open space when needed.
Playing players out of their natural roles is a surefire way to give up goals, so my other top tip is to talk to players, find out what their strengths are, and try to fit them into a structure they can play well in.
Once you have a basic team formation, try different things with your team, be creative, and most importantly, keep switching out your players!