Soccer Systems and Formations

Soccer Systems and Formations

Much is made about systems and formations in football; in fact, it has become somewhat of an obsession with certain observers of the game. So, how important are formations and what impact can they have on how the game is played?

Drawing basketball strategyA system or formation basically refers to what shape a team will adopt during a game. Of course, the concept is not rigid, as players will have to constantly move to different areas of the pitch depending on each phase of play and how the game is playing out. But the term generally refers to the basic default shape of the team.

Formations are usually written in the following format: 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1 etc. With the numbers representing (from left to right) the number of players in defence, midfield and attack. In some countries, such as Italy, the goalkeeper is considered and important part of the system and is often included in the written version of the formation, for example, 1-4-4-2.

The earliest formations in football

one-year-academyIn the early days of football in England, the 2-3-5 system was the most commonly used. The formation was known as Pyramid of Cambridge and was named after the University where it was employed by the student football team.

This system was born from the days when the offside law was very different to the rule we know today. Back then, a player was offside if he received the ball and was ahead of the third-last defender. This made it difficult to pass the ball forward fluidly, so players would often dribble long distances with the ball to force defenders backwards before passing to their teammates.

This system remained virtually unchanged until the 1930s by which point, the offside rule had been changed to allow just two defenders between the attacker receiving the ball and the goal.

Radical changes

training-coaches-spainAt this point, two further systems emerged. The first was known as The Metodo and was developed by Italian national team Coach Vittorio Pozzo along with Austrian national team coach Hugo Meisl. The two men were friends as well as rivals and often shared their revolutionary ideas. The second formation was known as The System and was introduced by Arsenal Coach Herbert Chapman.

The Metodo was essentially a 2-3-2-3 formation and was known as the WW due to the shape it formed on the field. Using this system, Pozzo led Italy to back-to-back World Cup victories in 1934 and 1938. Former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola is thought to be a fan of this system and has used adapted versions of it at both clubs.

The System used by Chapman was a 3-4-3 formation known as the WM, once again because of the shape it formed on the pitch. During his time at Arsenal, Chapman won the FA Cup (1922) and two league titles (1931 and 1933).

Further evolution

Sevilla AcademyAfter Pozzo and Chapman’s success, formations developed even further with different shapes being used depending on whether a team was in or out of possession. These morphing formations were made popular by the successful Hungarian teams of the 1950s under coaches such as Márton Bukovi and Gusztáv Sebes.

The 3-3-4 was popular for a while in the 1960s and was used to great success by English team Tottenham Hotspur. However, it was the 4-2-4 that became established as the system of choice throughout the 1950s and 1960s thanks to the success of the Brazilian national team.

The modern era

In the 1970s, the 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 5-3-2 and 4-3-3 systems began to take hold and most modern coaches now use formations which are based on these patterns of play. Of course, there are many exceptions and variations still used throughout the world.

The importance of the system

8611590784_01edeb108e_zThe importance or effectiveness of different systems is often cause for debate. Many coaches stick rigidly to a particular philosophy in order to implement their preferred style of play. However, other coaches will adapt their formations to suit the players that they have at their disposal or to counteract the threat of their opposition.

One thing that is commonly agreed upon is that all systems rely on efficiency to be effective. Without accurate passing, good ball control, intelligent movement and productivity in front of goal, no system can be considered better than another.

Teams that sit back and soak up pressure using a 4-4-2 system must be organised, disciplined and able to break quickly and effectively. They might get less opportunities to score, so when a chance does arise, they must be clinical and ruthless.

Teams that favour a system that covets possession such as a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 will only succeed if they can convert that possession into goals. This means having individuals who can unlock defences with a killer pass or conjure up a piece of individual brilliance.


All formations have their place in the game and all systems can bring success if implemented effectively. The clashes between different systems and philosophies is one of the things that makes football such a fascinating sport to watch.

For example, in the 2015-16 Spanish top flight campaign, three teams (Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid) with very systems were in contention for the league title right up until the final round of matches. Two of those sides also met in the final of the Champions League.

Whatever system in employed, it is down the coach to implement it effectively on the pitch through correct training, precise planning and thorough preparation. And everyone must be committed to the cause.

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