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File photo credit: Samuel Lim

By Lim Weiyang

If you're a spectator without a deep understanding of football, you may find the only interesting part to be the dazzling dribbles or the moment the ball flies into the net. Some detractors laugh at the fact that this sport revolves around 22 fully grown men chasing around a single ball on a football field. 

But there is actually a lot more to soccer than that. And one of the ways to better appreciate and understand the game either as a spectator or a player, is through understanding the common football formations and why they are used.

What are football formations?

A football formation is set-up usually by the team's manager or coach so players in the team act in an organised way and know their roles and positions in the team. Football is a team game after all, so if the team functions as one cohesive unit with a shared plan and understanding of the team's tactics, they will have a significant advantage over a team that is unable to do so.

It is important to have a structured formation, to maximise efficiency and chances for success. Which football formation is used is always determined by the strengths and weaknesses of the players in a given team. Beyond that simplistic reasoning for having a formation, these formations also represent an idea, or the “style” of the team. 

How do you read football formations?

Football formations are written and formulated in the order of the defenders to the forwards. So “4-4-2” would mean 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 forwards. “4-5-1” would mean 4 defenders, 5 midfielders and 1 forward and so on. 

In soccer, formations can be very varied and diverse. For example. the same 4-4-2 formation would function very differently in an attacking and a defensive style. For the sake of simplicity, I will only go over three of the most common formations without any of its variations. 

The 4-4-2 formation


The 4-4-2 is the most basic formation that is deployed by football teams throughout the world. It is a very balanced formation and players are spread out well across the field. However, this formation is very physically taxing, especially if the full backs attack as well because they would have to track back to defend after an offensive. 

It can pack a huge offensive punch and the centre forward would normally be a sturdy player who can hold up the ball and create havoc in the defensive line. Upfront, he can be paired by a striker who is typically small and agile. A fast player that can quickly run behind the opposition to score goals or create opportunities for himself.

The 4-4-2 is widely used as a counter-attacking and more direct style of play. Some of the requirements for such a formation to work well offensively are speedy wingers and a bulky forward.

The 4-3-3 formation

The 4-3-3 formation is extremely offensive and relies heavily on passing. The main idea of the 4-3-3 formation is not balance but offense. It only works when the 4 defenders are really good and confident. 

The forward 3 will consistently rotate amongst themselves so defenders would not get “used” to their playstyle. The 3 in the middle of the field would be the ones doing overlaps, one-two passing and sparking off the offense. 

In this formation, typically the 6 midfielders and forwards tend to interchange among themselves a fair bit with the exception of 1 midfielder and 1 forward. A lone midfielder is typically the most creative player on the team who acts as a play-maker. He is the one dictating which flank the team will carry out their attack on or if they should just go straight down the middle. 

The midfielders also have the responsibility of making a lot of tackles before the opponents enter their defence. The forward in the middle would be the striker who is always on the prowl to beat the offside trap or ready to pounce and score from a simple tap in. 

The 4-5-1 formation

4-5-1 is a formation that relies heavily on its midfield to dictate and win the game. This strategy can be used in 2 ways, one as a mainstay and the other as a counteractive formation. 

When weaker teams play strong teams that use 4-4-2, one of the only ways to beat them is to control the midfield. They “over-crowd” the midfield with 5 players which will impede the opposition from setting up play and running forward. A 5 men mid-field set up is typically very reliant on control more than anything. 

If 4-4-2 relies on speed and 4-3-3 relies on passing, then the hallmark of this formation is patience. Getting the ball in midfield and controlling it there as you have so many players. Frustrating the opponent till an opportunity presents itself. Also, it causes opponents to tire as they chase your players around midfield. In the Barclays Premier League, you can look no further than Arsenal to get a good idea of this type for formation in motion. 

Understanding football formations will enhance your experience as a spectator. You could admire the disciplined play by an underrated player or cringe at the egotistical play of a flamboyant star player - one who abandoned his position for a shot at glory but ended up harming his team instead. 

If you're able to appreciate the finer details of the game through the understanding of formations, you will ultimately have a more enjoyable experience as a spectator.

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