9 Best Soccer Formations – Your Ultimate Guide

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Here are 9 of the best soccer formations. As a current player who has played in many of these formations, I’m excited to share the inner workings with you.

I spent days researching the current tactics of these formations so that you have access to the most recent information on the best formations in soccer.

Most formations seem confusing and overly complicated. I set out to provide simple descriptions and clear tactics for each formation. 

There are so many different formations out there, so in this article, we break down the best formations that apply to the modern game.

Here are the formations:

#1: 4-3-3 Formation
#2: 4-4-2 Formation
#3: 3-5-2 Formation
#4: 3-4-3 Formation
#5: 4-2-3-1 Formation
#6: 4-1-2-1-2 Formation (4-4-2 diamond)
#7: 4-2-2-2 Formation (4-4-2 box)
#8: 4-3-2-1 Formation
#9: 4-3-1-2 Formation (4-3-3 with a false nine)

Keep reading to gain insightful knowledge to each formation and better understand the tactics behind the beautiful game. 

#1: 4-3-3 Formation

This formation was popularized by Pep Guardiola, the manager of Barcelona from 2008 to 2012. Barcelona under Pep has been labeled by many as the greatest team in the history of the sport. From winning their domestic league and cups to winning the UEFA Champions League, they quite literally won everything a team could win. The 4-3-3 enabled Pep’s team to play a style of soccer called “Tiki Taka” which can be interpreted as taking the ball and passing the ball. The formation creates triangles all around the field. If executed properly, passing lanes will be open because of the angles that the 4-3-3 provides. This formation consists of four defenders, one defensive midfielder, two attacking midfielders, and three forwards.

Strengths:

  • Allows for a team to transition quickly
  • Promotes an attacking style of play, possession of the ball, and winning the ball back quickly
  • Teams are able to attack down the wings and play through the middle

Weaknesses:

  • Requires a midfield trio that can take care of the ball and manage the game
  • Team cardio must be exceptional to execute this formation well

#2: 4-4-2 Formation

The 4-4-2 is the most traditional formation in Soccer. This formation has been a staple for teams looking to protect their goal while still creating chances to score. Sir Alex Fergusen perfected this formation with Manchester United during their supreme reign in the Premier League. This formation has a solid defensive structure that is wide and stretched vertically with four defenders, four midfielders (flat), and two forwards.

Strengths:

  • Promotes a more direct play style that can counterattack defenses in a split-second
  • Difficult to break through this defense due to the coverage that the shape provides

Weaknesses:

  • Teams can be fatigued by the direct play and lack of ball possession that comes with this formation
  • Normally outnumbered in the midfield making it hard to possess the ball

#3: 3-5-2 Formation

From Tomas Tuchel at Chelsea to Antonio Conte at Juventus, the 3-5-2 has acted as a versatile formation that can be utilized for a high press and contained defending. When a defense is content with sitting back, the two wingers drop back to form a 5-3-2. In the attack, the wingers are an important piece by attacking down the wings, getting to the goal line, and sending in crosses to overwhelm the opposing team. With the wingers, teams can have up to 8 players going forward. The formation consists of three defenders, three midfielders, two wingers, and two forwards.

Strengths:

  • As versatile as a 4-3-3
  • Suits many different play styles
  • Strength in numbers in the attack and defense

Weaknesses:

  • If caught out of transition, the team is exposed
  • More advanced tactically
  • Reliant on highly skilled wingers

#4: 3-4-3 Formation

In recent years, top teams in the Premier League have utilized this formation, including Chelsea and Arsenal. Tactically, it is similar to the 3-5-2 but promotes different play styles. Although attacking down the wings is a great option, these lanes can be more congested with the two wide forwards. This encourages a possession-oriented play style like the 4-3-3 that can also cause a threat down the middle of the field. This formation has three defenders, two midfielders, two wingers, and three forwards.

Strengths:

  • Promotes a style of play that wears out defenses
  • Creates a sustained attacking threat

Weaknesses:

  • Susceptible to the counterattack
  • Midfield is open defensively and can be exploited

#5: 4-2-3-1 Formation

The 4-2-3-1 is the most modern formation in recent years due to its balanced attack and defensive shape. This formation is similar to a 4-3-3 with notable differences in the midfield trio having two defensive midfielders rather than one. The two wingers sit back in line with the attacking midfielder which creates this defensive pyramid shape that can be difficult to break through the lines. 

Strengths:

  • Great defensive structure
  • Maintains an attacking threat as well

Weaknesses:

  • Requires a true number nine (a central forward who can hold the ball and have physical dominance over the center backs) which allows for the team to join the attack
  • It can be more difficult to create a lot of shot opportunities

#6: 4-1-2-1-2 Formation (4-4-2 diamond) 

This formation is a variation of the 4-4-2 but instead of having a flat line of midfielders and wingers, they form a diamond. Inter Milan is known for experimenting with this formation in the past. Although it’s not the most common formation, managers find this formation appealing because of its unique shape that can counter other common formations. There are four defenders, two midfielders (a defensive and attacking midfielder stacked on top of each other), two wingers that are tucked in, and two forwards.

Strengths:

  • Allows for possession and more direct play styles
  • Overload in the midfield making it difficult for the other team to possess

Weaknesses:

  • The only option for width is to use the fullbacks which can leave holes in the formation when attacking
  • Requires a back four with good touch and passing abilities

#7: 4-2-2-2 Formation (4-4-2 box)

This formation has had a recent spike in popularity. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have switched to this formation when needed. The formation creates new problems for defenses that aren’t entirely clear how to solve yet. For example, this formation uses the goalkeeper as a field player when building out of the back to force teams to choose the way in which they mark the other team. If the goalkeeper has the ball and the fullbacks push up, then this forces the opposition to choose between marking the midfielders or center backs. The goalkeeper can find the open pass or bypass to the fullbacks who move higher up the field. With proper organization and movements, this formation can be a problem for defenses. There are four defenders, two defensive midfielders, two attacking midfielders, and two forwards. 

Strengths:

  • Creates new passing lanes
  • Recently reintroduced, can create unsolved problems for defenses

Weaknesses:

  • Tactically advanced
  • Lacks width, unless fullbacks push up
  • The goalkeeper needs to be comfortable with the ball and a skilled passer

#8: 4-3-2-1 Formation

The 4-3-2-1 is a defensive formation. The triangular shape provides a structure that makes it impenetrable. Teams rarely line up in this formation, but when they do it’s typically teams that are going against a much stronger team and are fighting for a low-scoring game. With four defenders, three defensive midfielders, two attacking midfielders, and one forward this shape is great for holding the opposing teams to low scoring. 

Strengths:

  • Tight defensive shape
  • Hard to play through the middle of this formation

Weaknesses:

  • Hard to score goals
  • Allows the other team to possess the ball

#9: 4-3-1-2 Formation (4-3-3 with a false nine)

This formation is nearly identical to the 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-4-2 diamond formation. The difference is how teams play using these different formations. With the 4-3-1-2 the false nine is going to hold up play when receiving the ball and lays it off to a midfielder so that the midfield can play it in behind runners. Whereas in the 4-4-2 diamond, the top of the diamond is the playmaker who receives the ball in more open space looking for combinations and different runs being made behind. So despite these small differences, they are very similar in structure. There are four defenders, three midfielders, one false nine, and two wingers/forwards.

Strengths:

  • Can play through the opposing team’s defense easier because the false nine draws a center back out of position
  • Good for short combination play

Weaknesses:

  • Requires a strong number nine that has a good touch and can hold the ball for the team
  • Can become predictable throughout the duration of the game

What to do next?

Understanding positions in soccer is essential to executing different formations. Check out our guide to all positions in soccer.

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Author
Ethan is the owner of Skillful Soccer and has over 20 years of playing experience. He is currently a collegiate soccer player and is thrilled to share his insights for all things related to soccer.

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