The General Principles of Football Formations
Back in the day, I guess it would have been the early 90's, I was player-manager of a not-very-good Sunday League football team. I remember once trying to work out the best formation to deploy my players in. We didn't have great players, although one or two were decent, and even the lesser players had some good qualities. But how to get the best out of them was my conundrum. I'd got about fifteen sheets of notepaper scattered around with different formations on them before I hit on what I thought was the way to go. Unfortunately for me, that formation was a 4-4-3, and they don't let you do that. Apparently, it's against the rules to have eleven outfield players - someone has to go in goal. I scrapped it.
You'd be surprised though. A couple of years earlier, I'd been playing for a pub side, and in one match, just as we were about to kick-off, I saw one of our players go up to the ref and have a quiet word. The ref promptly turned to the other team, and started counting. Sure enough, they'd got an extra man on the pitch. There was some heated discussion shall we say, before they decided who was coming off!
Before I tried my hand at managing a team, every team I played in used a 4-4-2 formation. It seemed at that time that anything other than 4-4-2 was some kind of odd aberration, only to be used in dire circumstances. That changed for me as a manager when a qualified coach I knew gave me some advice on organising a defence. But that's a story for a future blog. And I'm getting ahead of myself anyway. Because what I want to talk about right now is the basics of football team formations. I've assumed you already know what the term 4-4-2 means, but this blog is meant to work from the absolute basics, right up to the really complex stuff. So maybe I should start again...
When you hear people talk about football formations, they nearly always describe them with a sequence of numbers, for example 4-4-2, or 4-3-3. These numbers are codes that refer to the ten outfield players on the pitch (everyone except the goalkeeper). The three digits refer to the number of defenders, midfielders and attackers deployed, respectively. So, for a team playing 4-4-2, you would expect to see four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards, or attacking players. But what does that even mean? How do you distinguish whether a player is a defender, a midfielder or a forward? I mean, the players run around a lot. Well, those general positions, defence, midfield and attack, correspond to regions of the football pitch that you would expect those players to spend most of their time in. So, the formation of a football team depends on how many players are based in the distinct regions of a football pitch. In other words, if you want to understand the basics of football formations, you have to understand how we divide football pitches up into tactical regions. Let's start with something simple.
Above, you can see a standard layout of a football pitch. Imagine that your team's goalkeeper is in the goal at the bottom of that illustration. Your defensive region is the part of the pitch closest to your goal. Further up the pitch is your midfield region (middle of the field, geddit?), and at the top is your attacking region. Of course, this means that your attacking region corresponds to the other team's defensive region, and vice-versa, whereas the midfield region is the same for both. But for now, we're just going to concentrate on our team.
The Basic Tactical Regions
Image 2.2 below shows a grid on the pitch delineating the three most basic tactical regions in football; three broad horizontal bands across the pitch, corresponding to defence, midfield and attack. And to listen to some people, you'd think that's all there was to it. It isn't. Not by a long stretch. Come with me on this journey.
The black horizontal lines on the above illustration are a guide only. You shouldn't assume that there is a fixed point on a football pitch at which defence turns into midfield, and another at which midfield turns into attack. The relative sizes of those spaces are fluid and shifting, depending on exactly how each team chooses to play - a subject to be covered in a later article.
Expanded Tactical Regions: Horizontal
The three basic horizontal regions of the pitch can be subdivided further, and this is reflected in certain types of tactical codes such as 4-1-4-1. Wait a minute, what? I thought tactical codes only had three numbers, like 4-4-2? What's the extra digit for? Well, the extra digits emerge when a formation places one or more players into less easily defined regions on the pitch. You might see a player that seems to spend a lot of time in a region that sometimes looks like defence, and sometimes looks like midfield. Alternatively, you might see a player who seems to be somewhere between midfield and attack. So what's going on?
Okay, brief digression - we need to talk about jargon. There is a lot of jargon and terminology in football, and a lot of it (for example the term wing-back) can't even be agreed upon by the experts. I'm going to start using bits of terminology from this point on, and I'll explain it as I go as much as possible, but please understand there is no law regarding the use of football jargon, and people can and will disagree with me and each other about the usage. The important thing is that you grasp the general meaning. Okay, back to the show.
Between The Lines
So, when you see a player on a football pitch who doesn't seem to neatly fit into one of the basic regions, it means they are playing in the hole, (in the hole between defence and midfield, or in the hole between midfield and attack) or between the lines which means exactly the same thing. Another image, below, shows how we can further subdivide the horizontal regions.
What About Width?
As well as horizontal regions, the football pitch can be divided into three basic vertical regions. See the image below.
You can probably guess what's coming next. While those three vertical regions are often talked about when discussing football tactics as though they are the only vertical regions, the truth is they can be subdivided further. See image 2.5 below.
As you might be able to anticipate, the reason we introduce the inside channels to the vertical regions is that they are sometimes home to players specifically occupying these channels during a match. However, in real terms, the inside channels are usually only occupied by more attacking players these days, although this was not always the case historically.
Bringing It Together
To really understand the tactical regions on a football pitch, you need to combine both the horizontal and vertical divisions, as these show how the regions correspond the positions that footballers can take up on the pitch as part of a tactical plan. It is the deployment of players into these positions that makes up a formation. See image 2.6, below.
Now, for clarity's sake, I must reiterate: the black lines on the illustration should not be taken as if they were carved in stone (or even turf). Depending on how teams choose to play, the areas corresponding to defence, midfield, attack, the wide regions, and inside regions, can expand or shrink as players move around. In fact, depending on how teams try make their players play higher or lower, or wider or narrower, on the pitch, players who are supposed to be playing in the hole might find there is simply no such hole available, or they might find themselves in huge amounts of space that they can exploit. This is part of the fluid beauty of the game, and will be discussed more in future articles. But for now, the diagram should give you a gist of the types of tactical regions available in which players can be deployed.
More Questions Than Answers...
From here, we start to see the first inklings of how it can get a little complicated. As you know, you can only have ten outfield players on your team. But looking at image 2.6, above, you can see there are thirteen possible tactical regions. Not only that, but it is possible to deploy more than one player in a given region. There are no laws that say how many players you can deploy in any given tactical region. In theory, you could put nine players in your central defence region, and put the tenth player on his own in the central attack region... but I wouldn't expect to win too many matches doing that. It's unlikely you'll see teams deploy only one player in the central defence region (except in the most dire circumstances), and it's almost as unlikely that you'll see more than three players in the central defence region.
Generally speaking, you'll usually expect to see between three and five players in the basic defensive region, between two and six in the basic midfield region, and between one and four in the basic attack region... as long as the total adds up to ten. This is at the root of the dilemma faced by any football coach or manager when trying to decide what formation to play. If you go with three players in your defence, but your opponent goes with four attackers, that could leave you a bit vulnerable in defence. It's a balancing act.
So how exactly can you deploy players to make up a formation?
Possible Player Positions 1: Defence
Image 2.7, below, shows the commonly recognised positions within the basic defensive region. A manager must decide how many players to deploy in defence, and which of the potential positions will be filled. For simplicity, I will stop using the black lines as a grid over images of the pitch now, but you should bear those regions in mind.
Some notes about these potential defensive positions. Firstly, in the wide left and wide right areas; it is rare to see two players deployed on the same wide area of defence, although it has been seen occasionally. Secondly, that shirt on its own in the middle at the bottom does not represent a goalkeeper. That's showing a position often referred to as a sweeper, or sometimes as a libero or spare man. Although I've not shown it on this image, it is theoretically possible to deploy more than one sweeper, but I have only heard of that happening once, and in my opinion it is such a rare occurrence I don't see the need to show it here, The sweeper will be discussed in detail in a later article. - for now, just go with it.
Possible Player Positions 2: Midfield
You can see in image 2.8, above, I've shown the possibility of having up to three players in the defensive hole. This is not something you will see often, but it shouldn't come as a shock if you think you see it in a match - particularly in light of something I call blurred lines, which I discuss shortly.
Possible Player Positions 3: Attack
Again, you can see in image 2.9, above, that I've shown a potential three positions in the attacking hole. Unlikely, but something that can happen, particularly in light of those blurred lines I mentioned.
Staying with image 2.9, and those three positions in the attacking hole, some people will insist those positions are actually part of the midfield rather than the attacking region. This highlights both the fluidity of the tactical regions I mentioned earlier, and also the persistent differences of opinion amongst even the most seasoned football professionals and experts. When included as part of the midfield, those positions are often referred to as attacking midfielders, This is where a can of worms opens. Some people will also include the wide left and wide right positions as part of midfield as well, probably calling them wingers. The lines might be seeming well and truly blurred now, but it gets even more complex...
Some people insist on referring to player positions on the pitch by using terms that are actually more suited to the a particular style of play rather than a position. Take the previously mentioned term attacking midfielder. It is possible to have a player in central midfield who has a very attacking style of play; regularly running, or passing the ball, forward into attacking areas, and who might have a weakness when it comes to getting back into a defensive position when needed. You might hear pundits on TV refer to such a player as an attacking midfielder, even though his position in the match is clearly based in central midfield. This does foster confusion when contrasted with a player who is actually playing in the attacking hole, but working hard to support midfield rather than exclusively supporting the attack. I mean, does that make him a defensive-attacking midfielder (whatever that monstrosity might be)? Even more confusing is when a player can play either of those roles, and is deployed differently in different matches, and people can't agree on what his position is because they don't pay enough attention to the actual match in front of them! Players such as Tottenham Hotspur star Dele Alli regularly play both centre midfield and in the attacking hole - sometimes changing from one to the other in the same match as the tactical plan is adjusted. People not watching closely, and with a limited understanding of tactics, will get rather confuddled by this.
The same problem occurs at the other end of the pitch, too. Some people insist on calling a player in the defensive hole a defensive midfielder. And then some people might refer to a player positioned in central midfield who has a more defensive approach to his game also as a defensive midfielder. The thing is, a player in the defensive hole might have a very attacking style of play, either through his ability to spot and execute great attacking passes, or an ability to make telling runs into attacking areas from his deep position, or both. When listening to anyone talk about footballers' positions, it is important to try to distinguish whether they are talking about actual positions or playing style. And bear in mind that even the very best pundits will disagree, and are not immune to completely misinterpreting the instructions the instructions given to players by their managers simply because they have made faulty inferences from what they are watching.
Football management simulation games can be helpful in trying to understand football tactics, as they allow you to move players around in a formation, and give them different instructions. But they are also among the worst offenders at applying misleading labels to positions and styles of player. Furthermore, the match engine used in the games is unlikely to realistically depict the behaviour of real footballers. So approach these games with caution, even when the developers claim to be advised by professionals within the game; the advice or guidance of football professionals still has to be filtered through the designs of the game developer. Furthermore, for every opinion in football, there is always at least one competing opinion, so you don't necessarily know if the best professionals have advised on the game. Distrust anyone who claims to have the definitive opinion in football - including me.
Formations On TV
You can't always rely on those helpful TV graphics for analysis of football positions, either. A while ago, my team Sheffield Wednesday were on TV, and we were deploying a youngster who has come through the academy, by the name of Matt Penney. Penney plays on the left, either as a full-back, wing-back or winger. He does like to get forward. But the TV graphic showed the lad as a left-sided striker. (He definitely did not play as a striker in that match!)
More Blurred Lines
Another example of lines being blurred comes with certain strikers. Striker is another name for a forward playing in a central attacking position. Depending on who you listen to, a striker is a certain type of centre-forward, who plays a certain way, but that will be covered in a future article. To explain further, I want to go back to Tottenham Hotspur.
Professional football clubs use sophisticated data analysis software to track the performance and movement of their players in a match. Happily for us, TV pundits now use similar software in their analysis, and sometimes they produce fascinating graphics for us. Harry Kane of the aforementioned Tottenham Hotspur is a brilliant centre-forward. After one televised match I saw Kane play in, a pundit produced a graphic showing Kane's average position on the pitch throughout the ninety minutes. It was amazing. I had noticed during the match that Kane seemed to be roaming into deep positions on the pitch, and the graphic confirmed it. Kane had spent a significant amount of time in a position well into midfield, slightly to the left. Does that mean Kane was a midfielder in that match? It could be argued yes, but a more accurate answer would be no. So what was actually going on? Although Kane had dropped very deep into midfield areas in that match (something he does regularly, actually, although it was particularly evident on this occasion), his intent was that of a centre-forward. He roamed into midfield from the position of centre-forward to link play in midfield, with the intention of then roaming back to centre-forward to get a goal. This is a key point in understanding formations and positions in football; players run around. So is it even realistic to talk about positions for players (and thus formations) if they are so mobile, and move around so much?
Fluidity And Formation
If you're linking the ideas together so far, you'll hopefully have worked out that the reason for talking about a formation in football at all is simply to help with planning and understanding. But yes, there is a huge amount of fluidity in the game that sees players roam away from the regions of the pitch in which they are supposedly deployed. However, it doesn't make sense for all positions on the pitch to be able to roam around willy-nilly. Particularly, for example, central defenders. Generally, central defenders require great positional discipline to defend properly (although, as always, there are exceptions). Another position that requires positional discipline is something often called the Makelele position, a specialist position in the defensive hole that will be covered in a later article. For the more fluid positions, it still makes sense to think of them as being located in one one of the tactical areas of the pitch, as this is a starting point for the tactical plan devised by the team manager. In other words, to really understand football formations, you also have to understand what the individual player positions are, and how the varying specialist roles within those positions actually work. Allow me to point to two examples to explain.
Example Specialist Role 1: The Box-To-Box Midfielder
On any graphic showing a football formation, a box-to-box midfielder will be shown as deployed in the central midfield region. However, the clue is in the name. The box-to-box midfielder will play pretty much all over the pitch, using great stamina and energy to run from one penalty box to another for the whole match. While data analysis might show his average position somewhere around the central midfield region, this would not be an accurate reflection of what a box-to-box midfielder does, or where he goes, in a match. But if you're trying to show a graphical representation of a formation, you have to put him somewhere, so central midfield it is.
Example Specialist Role 2: The False 9
A False 9 is ostensibly a centre-forward who, similarly to the Harry Kane example earlier, drops deep into midfield. However, the intent of the False 9 (arguably - remember, opinions differ) is to confuse the opposition defence; to draw them out of position, force them to answer difficult questions about who, if anyone, should mark him, and ultimately to create both space and chances for other players moving into attacking positions. It is a matter of debate whether the False 9 should be included in midfield or attack for the purposes of a formation, and it might be that the only way to satisfactorily settle that debate would be on a game by game basis, depending on the overall tactical plan for the team. Generally speaking though, the False 9 role is fulfilled by players who are recognised as centre-forwards. As a False 9, ex-England star Wayne Rooney became so proficient at dropping into midfield that he was sometimes used as an actual midfielder later in his career. Sometimes it was unclear whether Rooney was an attack-minded midfielder in a 4-5-1 formation, or a False 9 in a 4-4-2.
There are many other player positions and roles that blur the lines of a formation. The two examples above are just a taster, as today we are talking about the generalities of formations, and the player positions will be explored in detail in later articles. The reason for including these examples now is just to underline how football formations should be seen as, at least potentially, very fluid... Depending of course on how liberal or prescriptive the manager is with his instructions to the team and to the individual players, and also depending on how much maverick behaviour a given player engages in during a match - issues which, again, will be covered in later articles.
Okay, at the top of this article I led you to believe I would be talking about formations. But we've gone from talking about the various positions players can be deployed on a pitch to how those positions can arguably be in different regions to what you'd expect, and how some players are so fluid in their play that it can be difficult to decide which region they are actually in! Not only that, I haven't actually shown you one example of an actual full formation yet! But don't worry, this is not because I don't know what I'm doing. It was all necessary, and these seeming digressions are part of a theme that will recur through the blog: All elements of football tactics are interlinked. My plan with this blog - to explore and discuss individual aspects of football tactics one by one, is ambitious, and not completely possible. You can't meaningfully talk about one aspect of tactics, for example formations, without reference to other aspects, for example individual players' styles of play (such as defensive midfielders). Not forgetting, either, the tactical instructions given by the manager (is that midfield player in the attacking hole actually playing as a False 9 this week, for example).
FOOTBALL TACTICS -
One bloke's journey through the mire of football tactics - from the most basic concepts to the most mind-boggling complexities.
As you read this blog, you'll see I use the male pronoun pretty much all the time. I'd hate it if anyone thought this was gender bias on my part. I passionately believe in equality for all people, regardless of gender, race or background. And I support females in football - my daughter plays for a well-known local team, actually. So why do I use the male pronoun? It's partly because I can't find a gender-neutral pronoun I'm happy with - I refuse to use they or them for the singular. And constantly typing (and reading) he/she is annoying. So I fall back on he and him because I identify as male and it comes natural. I hope that's okay.