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Football Basics: Formations and Tactics Explained

Football Basics: Formations and Tactics

Like every other team sport, the foundation of a good performance requires scrupulous tactical planning – executed on the pitch – by the players, manager, and coaches. Football, as is evident, has defied boundaries at every step of its development, which has led to an ever-evolving series of tactics and formations deployed during a game. These – formations and tactics – are used to combat or nullify the opponent’s strengths while also providing a familiar framework for the team to execute their tasks on the pitch.

Whether it be a traditional backline comprising four defenders or the modern adaptation consisting of three defenders with two wings backs, the beautiful game has been witness to a plethora of development and experimentation on the field. The liberty in interpretation and allowance for fluidity in preparation has been vital to football’s meteoric rise and popularity over the years.

Hence, in this article, we explain the wide variety of tactics and formation employed by managers and look at their adaptations vis-à-vis modern football.

The Traditional Backline

Football Basics: Formations and Tactics
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Football formations are displayed or read starting from the backline. For instance, a traditional ‘4-4-2’ formation is said to comprise four defenders, four midfielders, and two attackers while the highly adaptive ‘4-2-3-1’ will consist of four defenders, two holding midfielders, one attacking midfielder, and three attackers.

The traditional backline will always consist of four defenders, thus, allowing for a fluid and flexible approach to games depending on the strengths and footballing philosophy employed by the team and the manager. Mentioned below, are the various formations deployed using the traditional backline as the foundation for planning and preparation.

The 4-4-2 Formation

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The 4-4-2 is the simplest and most basic formation deployed on the pitch. It provides for balance across the field while also serving as a rigid foundation to build a team upon. Widely regarded as the traditional formation, it demands immense energy and physicality from the players as it serves to execute direct-play and counter-attacking football.

The full-backs in this formation are required to be highly involved in both, attack and defence, while the two strikers upfront are traditionally reliant on service into the box with one of them expected to function as a ‘False 9’ – helping in the build-up – and the other a complementing his partner’s attributes by making runs and opening up spaces in the attacking third.

The 4-3-3 Formation

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Arguably the most attacking of formations, the 4-3-3 is highly flexible and relies heavily on the technical ability of the team. It is deployed in an attempt to provide more offence at the cost of lesser balance across the pitch. The execution of tactics within this formation is dependent on the ability and reliability of the back-four, with the centre-backs expected to play a high-line in possession and the full-backs supporting the attackers up front.

The forward players in this formation will usually interchange their position in a bid to disrupt the opposition’s organisation in defence. The midfield department is highly adaptive, with two central-midfielders a must in the line-up and the third either deployed in a disciplined or a free-roaming attacking role.

The attacking midfielder will usually be the team’s central playmaker on the pitch, while the two other midfielders are responsible for cutting passing lanes, organising when not in possession, and orchestrating the tempo throughout the game. The Formation also allows for pressing the opposition high up the pitch, thus, choking them in their own half.

The 4-2-3-1 Formation

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The modern evolution of the 4-5-1 formation, the 4-2-3-1 requires meticulous planning, brilliant technical ability, and the confidence to dominate possession within a game. This formation is heavily reliant on the midfield department, requiring either of the two central midfielders to dictate the game and transition the ball from defence to attack, while the other supports the build-up in a box-to-box role.

The four attackers upfront comprise an attacking midfielder also serving as a second striker, a lethal number nine, and two wide wingers or midfielders, requiring to attack down the flanks and support the full-backs in defence.

In this formation, the wingers deployed are usually inverted, thus, offering balance on either side of the pitch. The centre-backs usually adopt a high-line in possession, with the holding midfielder slotting in as the third centre-back while the full-backs and box-to-box midfielder support the attack.

The Back-Three

A defensive backline comprising three centre-backs was envisaged to provide more defensive stability and constant attacking penetration by the flanks, however, the modern interpretation of his formation has resulted in a highly evolved tactical set-up on the pitch since its inception. The back-three offers flexibility in vacillating between an ultra-attacking as well and an ultra-defensive approach during the game.

For instance, a 3-5-2 approach allows for the wing-backs to be more offensive and provide width on the attack, with the two strikers on the prowl to feed on service within the box. On the other hand, 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2 opens up various possibilities with the wide players stretching the opposition, thus, allowing themselves to pass between the lines or seek support on the flanks.

The 3-5-2 Formation

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The 3-5-2 offers a tremendous attacking threat in possession. This formation traditionally requires the full-backs to essentially serve as wide attacking midfielders in possessions and requires them to drop back – forming a five-man backline – in defence. The three central midfielders adopt traditional roles, with one serving as the playmaker and the other two as central midfielders.

To utilise this system efficiently, the team usually comprises energetic full-backs and two well-rounded strikers possessing the killer instinct in the box. This system is usually adopted by a possession-based team, allowing them to dominate in number across the midfield and requires the strikers to lead press on the opposition’s defence. Finally, the two wide centre-backs are required to possesses specific attributes such as pace, strength, anticipation, and aerial ability to defend spaces left behind the attacking full-backs.

The 3-4-3 Formation

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Much like the 3-5-2 formation, the 3-4-3, too, requires exquisite work rate and creativity by midfielders and the attackers up front. The formation is usually deployed to emphasize the presence of players and numbers in the midfield while allowing the three forwards to take advantage of turnovers in midfield. This allows for quick transitions and counter-attacks, thus, attacking the opposition before they settle in defence.

The 3-4-3 is a balanced form of an attacking formation requiring the wide players to perform their defensive and offensive duties diligently. When defending, the formation can also shift into a 5-4-1, offering solidity in the backline, thus, relying on a counter-attacking approach from the back.

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