Soccer formation or System of Play describes how a team is organized on the field. In 11 v. 11 there are ten available positions besides the goalkeeper. These positions are arranged into three basic groups, defenders, midfielders, forwards (attackers/strikers). How they are arranged can vary greatly. But typically:
- 3-5 defenders
- 3-5 midfielders
- 1-3 forwards
Some of the more common formations are (D-M-F) 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5 (2-3)-1, 3-5-2. Typically there are central defenders, outside defenders, central midfielders, outside midfielders, and central strikers. Central defender roles are fairly well defined and don’t change much with the formation. Outside defender roles may change to be more or less attack minded depending on the system. Outside midfield roles are fairly similar while the central midfield roles can change depending on the system. They can be holding/defensive, attacking right behind the strikers, or in a flat formation.
It is quite common for teams to settle on a main formation. It is typically the result of the coach’s preference, the team’s abilities, and the competitive environment. Getting to used to one formation and learning all the positions is essential and good practice. I have always advocated that this is only the foundation. Once individuals and a team have learned the building block formation, they need to learn other formations. Which means for key individuals they have to learn how to interpret their positions differently. Alternatively, you may have different players on the field depending on their suitability for a particular system.
Why do I advocate this flexibility? Because different competition or a different opponent may require a different game plan. It is best to have more than one weapon in your arsenal and be prepared to use it when required. Ideally you can decide before a game as part of your last practice and final game preparation and have the players ready. Sometimes it is necessary to adjust during a game. For example you may have started with a defensive 4-5-1 and recognize that the opponent isn’t as strong as you thought, and in fact is also defensive minded. You want to score goals and win so you may shift to a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2. This should only require a quick communication with the team, and perhaps a substitution to implement.
What does it take? A lot of practice and a high level of game intelligence by players. Most people are good at doing one thing really well, and other things at acceptable levels. Especially in competitive soccer teams have to be able to “do” several formations really well. It’s easier than it sounds.
That’s why you hear TV announcers make special mention when they think a coach has made an in-game formation change. It is special. The one coach that insists on his teams being super flexible is Pep Guardiola, former Barcelona and current Munich coach.
We have a very good book that explains the essentials of most formations, from 11 v 11 to 6 v 6. It shows how to react to opponents and how one formation stacks up against another. An essential coaching reference.