Formations in football provide a general positioning of all players on the field of play except the goalkeeper. Typically, formations are denoted by three or four numbers separated by hyphens. These numbers represent the number of players in each row from closest to the goalkeeper to further out.
The type of formation deployed by a team depends on various factors like the abilities of players at disposal, the type of opposition or the preference of the team's manager. Formations are generally fluid and can be changed mid-match depending on the match situation.
Like the game of football itself, formations have evolved over the years. In the early years (19th century), defensive football was an unknown entity, and teams used to line up with up to seven or eight forwards.
Over time, football formations have become more sophisticated, with greater emphasis being placed on defence. On that note, let us have a look at the three most popular formations in football today.
Three most popular formations in modern-day football:
#1: The 4-3-3 formation
The 4-3-3 is one of the most radical formations in football primarily because the system relies upon three forward players staying on top and providing depth and width in attack.
Until very recently, the 4-3-3 was not a very widely used formation. In English football, the 4-4-2 was used more often.
In a 4-3-3 formation, the emphasis is first placed on attack; other aspects of the game become secondary. A team lining up in a 4-3-3 means business, and it primarily looks to win by trying to outscore their opponents.
This formation relies heavily on the attacking prowess of the two wide wingers. They not only provide width upfront but also act as passing options if and when the midfield gets too congested. By switching play to the flanks, teams ensure that they still retain possession and carry on the attack from a different route.
What makes the 4-3-3 formation unique is the wide range of attacking tweaks that can be made to it. For instance, a centre-forward can be deployed as a false nine to confuse the opposition's centre-backs.
Today, the 4-3-3 is the most widely used formation by teams who look to play stylish, attacking football. In fact, it has become the go-to formation for ambitious teams.
Apart from Barcelona, other teams such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Ajax and others have found massive success using this formation. Real Madrid won three Champions League titles on the trot. Liverpool similarly owe their European and Premier League success to this system, thanks to their terrific trio of Sadio Mane (LWF), Roberto Firmino (CF) -Mohamed Salah (LWF).
However, there is a weakness in the 4-3-3 formation: this formation has room for only one midfield destroyer.
In other words, only one central defensive midfielder can be accommodated in a 4-3-3 formation. This may leave teams vulnerable to counter attacks unless t players of the ilk of Casemiro, Claude Makelele or Sergio Busquets in their ranks, players who are probably the best in this position.
Also, funnily enough, the 4-3-3 makes a team's attacking intentions absolutely clear because it is a system that makes a statement of swagger and intent.
However, the 4-3-3 tends to make the defending team more careful. Often they try to sit back and soak up the pressure. The 4-3-3 is a system that thrives on exploiting spaces at the back, and so, defending teams often try not to leave gaps in behind by 'parking the bus'.
It is a term coined after Jose Mourinho's masterclass against Barcelona in the 2010 UEFA Champions League semifinal second leg when he was in charge of Internazionale.
Thus the 4-3-3 can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a great attacking, stylish system. But on the other, it also makes the opposition more wary and careful in defence, making the task of the attacking team more difficult.
However, the benefits of the 4-3-3 far outweigh its weaknesses. In many ways, the 4-3-3 is the best formation in modern-day football.
It offers the opportunity to widen the pitch to exploit spaces on the flanks. It does not suffer from a rigidity of structure, which is the case with many other formations. The 4-3-3 also offers a plethora of opportunities for attacking combinations and extensive wing play.
As modern midfields become more congested, it is even more necessary for teams to find an outlet out wide; this is where the 4-3-3 formation works at its best. It is a system that provides the perfect balance between width and narrow build-up play. It is also suitable for short, build-up play and quick counter-attacking football.
While the 4-3-3 can be used to play with a possession-oriented mindset, it can also be used for a more direct, counter-attacking approach.
In a nutshell, the 4-3-3 formation is here to stay. And it will get more popular as midfields become more congested. It gets even better when fullbacks join the party in attack. The 4-3-3 is definitely the most popular formation in football right now.
# 2: The 4-2-3-1 formation
The 4-2-3-1 may appear to be a rigid formation at first glance, but it is the perfect one for a midfield-heavy approach.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is one of the first managers who demonstrated the true efficacy of the 4-2-3-1 formation.
During Borussia Dortmund's best years in the early 2010s, Jurgen Klopp deployed two defensive midfielders in the form of Sebastian Kehl and Sven Bender. Mario Gotze or at times Ilkay Gundogan became the key central attacking midfielder. Marco Reus or Kevin Grosskreutz operated from the left-midfield while Jakub Błaszczykowski came in from the right.
However, Klopp could only perfect the 4-2-3-1 formation after the arrival of Polish striker Robert Lewandowski from Lech Poznan in 2010. That is because this system depends upon a lone striker to provide a central attacking thrust.
This lone striker must be strong on the ball to ward off opposition players before the other attackers from midfield can join him in attack.
The biggest advantage of playing the 4-2-3-1 formation is the flexibility it offers. This formation, when applied correctly, acts like a good cushion that absorbs pressure and throws it back at the opposition in the form of a counter-attack. Bayer Leverkusen used this sponge tactic effectively during the days of Michael Ballack in the Bay Arena.
Despite its benefits, one major drawback of the 4-2-3-1 formation is that often the only striker in the team tends to become isolated. Moreover, he has to ensure that he is able to hold off the ball from prying defenders before his teammates from midfield can join him.
Another weakness of this formation is that it allows for only one 'natural' forward, meaning that often the team has to rely on its midfield to get attacking jobs done. In this regard, the central attacking midfielder (CAM) often has to assume heavy goal-scoring responsibilities.
The 4-2-3-1 can also be a 'slow' formation from the perspective of quick, speedy attacks.
The 4-2-3-1 formation is best suited for teams who want to man their midfield in order to outnumber opponents in that department. It should be used by teams who have a strong centre-forward such as Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, Romelu Lukaku or Luis Suarez. It is from an ideal formation, though, if someone like Marcos Rashford is entrusted to lead the attack.
Despite the prominence and popularity of the 4-3-3 formation, the 4-2-3-1 is a good alternative for teams looking to add width to their game without sacrificing depth in the middle. Additionally, this formation uses two defensive midfielders, also called defensive pivots (unlike the 4-3-3), which means additional protection for the centre-backs.
The 4-2-3-1 formation also allows teams who may not possess quick attackers a chance to hold on to their own for most of a game. It offers a more conservative approach, allowing mid-budget teams to take on fancier, more illustrious opponents.
While the 4-3-3 is mainly preferred by elite clubs who have a lot of spending potential (think Neymar, Cavani, Mbappe), the 4-2-3-1 is the formation for the pragmatist; it is a system that offers a good balance between attack and defence.
The 4-2-3-1 could definitely be more widely used in the upcoming seasons.
#3: The 4-4-2 Diamond Formation
In its essence, the 4-4-2 diamond formation is actually a 4-1-2-1-2 when broken down. It comes in two versions: a narrow version and a wider variant.
The 4-4-2 Diamond is a great formation for teams who have two good centre-forwards and wish to use both the players together. It allows for a team to retain their shape in the middle of the park, with the attacking midfielder in the middle feeding incisive through passes to his forward colleagues.
The 4-4-2 diamond formation is also suitable for teams who like to play possession-oriented football. It is an ideal formation for short passing, extensive build-up play and tiki-taka.
It is a formation that relies on the technical ability of the players who employ it. In other words, the 4-4-2 diamond formation is best suited for quick, short passing football.
Employing this formation in a La Liga match against Villareal, Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann became the two central forwards (2), with Lionel Messi becoming the attacking midfielder or the (1) behind the (2). It could also be changed with Griezmann and Messi becoming the central strikers and Puig playing the attacking midfield role once donned by Andres Iniesta.
Arturo Vidal and one of Riqui Puig and Ivan Rakitic donned the (2) in the middle while Sergio Busquets became the (1) defensive midfielder in front of the defenders, the back (4). Together it made up Barcelona's 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-4-2 diamond formation.
The 4-4-2 Diamond or 4-1-2-1-2 is a flexible formation in the sense that it can easily be turned into a 4-2-2-2 formation if one of the holding midfielders decides to become an extra defensive midfielder.
Many pundits consider the 4-4-2 Diamond to be an obsolete formation, but there are reasons to believe that this formation is still very much in vogue. As recently as in 2014, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool employed this formation and might have won the Premier League title, had it not been for their catastrophic 3-3 draw against Crystal Palace.
For all its benefits, the chief problem with the 4-4-2 diamond formation is its narrow approach. There is no option available for wing-play, and therefore the '4-4-2 Diamond Wide' formation had to be created in which the two holding midfielders would operate from a wider position to provide more width in the middle of the pitch.
In this formation, the width in midfield is not as potent as in the forward spaces. Therefore, the two centre-forwards often have to operate from a wider starting position to 'stretch' the opposition defence. That makes the 4-4-2 Diamond a narrow, rigid formation, and thus easily predictable.
To counter the 4-4-2 Diamond, defending teams just have to pack the middle of the pitch with numbers. With a little bit of discipline, luck and defensive shape, the attacks from a 4-4-2 Diamond can be effectively nullified.
Despite its obvious narrowness, the 4-4-2 Diamond is a very attractive formation for teams like Barcelona who are confident on the ball. This formation allows two centre-forwards to operate together.
In the Uruguayan national team, the deadly duo of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez upfront, thrives most in this formation, although manager Oscar Tabarez tends to prefer the 4-2-2-2 variant.
The biggest strength of the 4-4-2 Diamond is that it makes a team well packed in all the departments. It has a solid backline of four defenders.
It allows for a four-man midfield as well, therefore allowing the team to territorially dominate sides with three-man midfields. Furthermore, the presence of two centre-forwards mean more muscle upfront. One can hardly go wrong with this formation.
The 4-4-2 Diamond could be used by many teams in the upcoming season.
What makes these three formations so popular?
The abovementioned formations are popular simply because they have been able to deliver results.
The 2019-20 season saw an increase in the use of the 4-3-3 formation. The 4-3-3 is the most popular one in La Liga, and similarly, the 4-4-2 Diamond is in wide use there as well. The 4-2-3-1 is a formation that is highly beneficial for mid-budget teams.
In the Premier League, most 'big' teams, including Liverpool, play the 4-3-3. Chelsea are planning to make improvements to their forward line. So, they have roped in Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, who will be probably be partnered with Callum Hudson-Odoi in the 2020-21 season. In fact, during the days of Eden Hazard, the Blues liked the 4-3-3.
There are instances when teams have to adjust and change their preferred formations. This season, Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer changed between the 4-4-2, the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3, depending on the team he was facing and the squad he had available.
Although we do not have a crystal ball before us here, we reckon that the 4-3-3, the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-4-2 diamond formations will continue to be the most used ones in the 2020-21 season in the major leagues across Europe.
Judging by the tactical trends in the current footballing landscape, especially in the 2019-20 season, the 4-3-3 is the clear winner. However, the other two are not too far behind.