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Soccer Systems of Play

Something I observed watching Euro 2016 has carried into the beginning of the newly started European soccer seasons. It is commentators discussing a “new” formation, one with three central defenders and two wide players who both function as wide defenders and midfielders. It was noted about Italy’s play, about Germany moving to it for some games, and now about Bayern Munich experimenting with it.

In my opinion there is nothing new about this – I coached a 3-5-2 system twenty years ago at competitive youth and university levels. That’s not the only system I used, I coached many depending on the team’s ability, the competition, and even demands within a game.

So why is it hailed as something new? Maybe because those commenting are not aware of systems of play in general and/or their history. This leads me to offer a brief review, back to the basics so to speak. We do offer a book that reviews all major formations (21 of them) used including coaching tips and how to respond to the opposing team. Check it out , click: Soccer Formations

Other than the goalkeeper, there are three main functions in a soccer team:

  1. Defense (D)
  2. Midfield (M)
  3. Attack (A)

Each function has main objectives and occupies certain areas on the field.


The main objective of defenders is to prevent the opposing forwards from scoring. They need to be fast, good at reading the play, and good at tackling. Once defenders win possession of the ball, they are also responsible to initiate the transition to attack. Defenders do not stay in their own half, or defending third, all the time. They move up with the play but generally are behind all other players and between the opposing attackers and their own goalkeeper. In some formation the outside defenders are also asked to provide extra width and variability to the attack and hence make runs up the sides leading to crosses.


Midfielders are the engine of the team. They typically have defensive responsibilities, particularly in the center of the field. They are generally responsible to receive balls from defenders and transition play from defending to attacking. Outside midfielders provide width and crosses, central midfielders can provide additional goal scoring power. Midfielders need endurance, speed, ball control, excellent passing, good shooting technique, and quick decision making abilities.


Attackers tend to be goal scoring and/or crossing specialists. They need to be fast, posess 1v1 moves, have excellent shooting and heading power and technique.

There are a few tactical variations to the above themes to throw the opponents off-balance. Outside midfielders pulling to the middle to create extra scoring threats, for example.

So we have three basic functions and 10 players to fill them. What all formations attempt to achieve is a combination of balance and an element of surprise for the opponent.

Distributing the 10 players as evenly as possible across the field lead to the very early, and still practiced 4-3-3 formation. I should explain that the numbering system starts with the number of defenders (D) – midfielders (M) – Attackers (A). Why put the extra player on defense in a 4-3-3 as opposed on offense in a 3-3-4? Originally because teams were first and foremost interested in not getting scored on and hence designated one more defender than the opponent had attackers. In this 4-3-3 there was a right defender, two central defenders, a left defender; a right/central/left midfielder, and a right/central/left attacker. Tactics were simple, the right defender was responsible to contain the opposing left attacker, midfielders neutralized each other, etc.

Then somebody wanted to break out of the traditional system and thought of a 4-4-2 system. The 2 attackers were central, i.e. one more than in the 4-3-3. The outside midfielders had to run up the wings to provide crosses, and the outside defenders had to cover for them. A variation had outside defenders overlapping and midfielders providing defensive coverage.

Without explaining the entire history of soccer formations suffice it to say that based on the need of 10 players to cover the entire field, the following holds true 99.9% of the time:

Defenders: 3-5

Midfielders: 3-5

Attackers: 1-3

Examples are 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 5-3-2, 5-4-1. Don’t be misled by the very popular 4-2-3-1. It is really a 4-5-1 but the five midfielders are described as 2-3 to show that two have defensive roles (known as holding midfielders) and three have more offensive roles.

Typically the defenders play in a flat formation (lined up horizontally). The attackers tend to be variable up front, making all sorts of diagonal runs to get through the defense without getting into off-side positions. The midfield is most interesting in how it may be constructed. Midfielders can play in a flat line, a diamond formation, a 2-3, a 3-2, 1-3, 3-1, etc. It all depends on the overarching game philosophy and tactics of the team.

So, 3 central defenders are nothing new. All it is is the resurgence of the 3-5-2 system.



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