Formations and systems in football

The core of football tactics is the formation of the team. In football (soccer) the formations are classified in names consisting of numbers that represent defenders, midfielders and attackers (the goalkeeper is unnecessary to involve in this tactical aspect). Here are some of the most utilized formations in football presented in a historical overview.

painting with football players

Formations are simplified ways to describe a team’s positional tactic schematically. As Jonathan Wilson writes in Inverting the Pyramid: "designations of formations can at times seem a little arbitrary. Just how far behind the main striker does the second striker have to play for 4–4–2 to become 4–4–1–1? And how advanced do the wide midfielders have to be for that to become a 4–2–3–1?"  


You probably never guess the existence of this formation in serious circumstances. It was a while ago, though, more exactly in the 19th century in the pre-modern era of football.

To use only one defense player and one midfielder and put the rest on attack seems crazy today, but the matches looked different at the current time with minimal passing in sideways and instead full attack with much dribbling going on.

The reason for all that dribbling was not just because football in these days lacked sophistication, but more due to the fact that the offside rule was completely different from what it is today. Until 1925, the rules prescribed that a player was not allowed to be ahead of the ball (in some respects more similar to ice hockey than modern football), and as a result had to dribble it forwards.


In the 1890s, 2-3-5 became popular as a more balanced tactical formation. It would become standard for a long time and was used by all teams in the first World Cup. The transition from 1-1-8 to 2-3-5 did not happen over a day, though. Other formations, like 1-2-7 for example, had been taken into practice in between.

With the popularity of the set-up, a standardization followed with numbers linked to the position on the field:

2-3-5 formation football field with numbers


One of the first side steps from the well-established 2-3-5 was the "W-M" (the attacking cluster are W-formated and the defending cluster are M-formated), or 3-2-2-3. The innovator was the great football theoretician Graham Chapman during his time as manager for Arsenal in the early 1930s.

W-M formation football field


After the change of the offside rule in 1925, both attacking and defending strategies would transform and new playing systems as a result emerged. The altered offside rule would benefit the attacking side so a third defender was more often taken into consideration (another formation used at this period was 3-4-4), but it was obviously still with an emphasis on attack.

Ahead of the three defenders and two midfielders there was a five-man offense. The offense was organized with one center forward flanked by double wings on both sides. Among the most successful team with this formation was Arsenal.


Instead of the usual defender-midfielder-forward configuration, the so-called Metodo system brought a formation with four units into practice. This formation was used by Italy and helped the team to win the 1934 and 1938 World Cups.



This formation was a product from Brazil. It was first tested in the national league in Brazil and later in the World Cup in 1958 which Brazil won. It should be mentioned that the 4-2-4 was not a Brazilian novelty, but it was the Brazilians that made most success with it – they would use it again in the 1970 World Cup with supreme result.


This modern way of organizing the team was used by England in the 1966 World Cup as an alternative to their 4-1-3-2. It was the first formation ever without wing forwards.

4-3-3 formation football field


This formation with five defending players was developed by the famous Inter coach Helenio Herrera. The 5-4-1 system was focused on defense, but also allowed counter attacks.

Both Italian clubs and the Italian national team had success with 5-4-1, including the World Cup silver medal won in 1970.


The 4-4-2 formation was a development of the 4-3-3 utilized by Swedish clubs like IFK Gothenburg and Malmo FF which led to some international successes for these teams.

4-4-2 formation football field

The playing system included factors of collective strategy and with players working over a big part of the field. Lots of teams around the world are using the 4-4-2 formation today and it is especially preferred in British top football.


In contrast to the 4-4-2 formation, 3-5-2 would put more emphasis on individual skills. West Germany won the World Cup in 1990 practicing this formation and it is often used in football of today.

3-5-2 formation football field

The positions of the players could be arranged in different ways, one alternative is with an offensive midfielder behind the forwards as the picture above suggests.


In front of the four defenders and the lonely forward, there are two defensive and three offensive midfielders.

This formation is used by tons of clubs in elite football and are for example the most used system in the Spanish La Liga.

No tactic formation is the "best"

No formation is optimal in all situations. What is best depends on different circumstances. The formation should for example be based on the opponent and the players the manager has to his disposal.


The National Encyclopedia
Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics (2013)
Chris Anderson and David Sally, The Numbers Game (2013)
Image source:
Thomas MM Hemy's painting "Sunderland v. Aston Villa 1895"