As managers are unable to get on the field themselves, the formation is a vital way for them to enforce their vision on the players. The type of formation selected by the manager reflects the sort of football you can expect them to play, so understanding what the most commonly used formations signify is key to understanding football.
4-4-2 (Four Four Two) Formation
The most common and adaptable formation in modern football, the weakness of 4-4-2 is the gaps between the central defenders, midfielders and the strikers. As such, a huge burden is placed on the central midfield to augment defense and attack.
Precisely because of this all-round contribution, the wings play a vital role in spurring on attacks and supporting the strikers. This was evident in the approach of Manchester United and Arsenal during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The former utilised David Beckham and Gary Neville’s ability to deliver crosses from deep positions (as well as Beckham’s abilities from set-pieces), while the latter relied heavily on the goalscoring contributions both of right-winger Freddie Ljungberg and left-winger Robert Pires.
However, the two sides’ contrasting attitudes in central midfield reflects the subtle variations in the 4-4-2. Whereas Manchester United’s first-choice midfield of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane married a powerful but diminutive mixture of a goal-scoring attacking midfielder and a box-to-box tough-tackler, Arsenal emphasised a tall, powerful combination with their own tough-tackling box-to-box midfielder, Patrick Vieira, and a strict holding midfielder in Gilberto Silva.
4-5-1 (Four Five One) Formation
A formation which has grown in popularity in recent times, the 4-5-1 is fundamentally defensive, but can be tweaked to provide more of an offensive threat. The essential qualities of the 4-5-1 are a three-man central midfield and a lone striker, typically a target man. By packing the midfield, a technically strong passing side will come unstuck and provide opportunities for counter-attacking football. When on the attack, the 4-5-1 is heavily dependent on the wingers supporting the lone striker.
Perhaps the best illustration of 4-5-1 in full flow is Jose Mourinho’s system. Both as manager of FC Porto and Chelsea, Mourinho founded his sides on strong defensive line-ups and an excellent holding midfielder, while the attack relied on a hard-working front man and a goal-scorer in midfield. At Chelsea, his defensive stalwarts were the captain and central defender John Terry and the holding midfielder Claude Makélélé. Alongside the Frenchman, Frank Lampard provided the bulk of goals from central midfield, ably supported by Joe Cole and Arjen Robben on the wings and Didier Drogba’s efforts up front. The side was extremely successful, picking up back-to-back Premiership titles in 2005 and 2006, building on Mourinho’s previous achievement at Porto in winning the 2004 Champions League trophy.
4-3-3 (Four Three Three) Formation
In some ways, the 4-3-3 is covered in the description of the 4-5-1. However, whereas the 4-5-1 starts with the wingers supporting the central midfielders, the 4-3-3 encourages the wingers to act as true forwards and the formation generally emphasises attack more than defense.
This theory was put into action by Frank Rijkaard as manager of Barcelona. Faced with the problem of how to accommodate Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi, as well as a host of central midfielders, Rijkaard adopted a 4-3-3. The triangle up front of the aforementioned players was supported by a creative and defensive midfield backbone of the playmaker Xavi, the holding midfielder Edmilson and either Andrés Iniesta or Thiago Motta as an all-rounder. The side was hugely successful, picking up back-to-back La Liga titles in 2005 and 2006 and the Champions League trophy in 2006.
The ‘Diamond Formation’ (4-3-1-2 - Four Three One Two)
The diamond in the formation refers to the midfield, with an attacking midfielder and a holding midfielder employed and flanked by two wingers, who move in-field slightly to shore up the gaps in the centre. To cover for the lack of width in the side, the full-backs become wingbacks and start slightly higher up the pitch.
The diamond formation is typically associated with the World Cup-winning English national team in 1966, christened the ‘wingless wonders’. In recent times though, the employment of the diamond usually revolves around a single player. The Argentinian national side in the 2006 World Cup held an extremely fluid diamond formation which gave Juan Roman Riquelme space to instigate attacks, while AC Milan under Carlo Ancelotti in 2004 used the diamond to assist the Brazilian playmaker Kaká.
5-3-2 (Five Three Two) Formation
In theory, the 5-3-2 is a purely defensive-minded line-up. The three central defenders provide extra resoluteness, while the three in midfield are all located around the centre circle. There is also a notable gap between midfield and attack, and the wing-play is the sole responsibility of the fullbacks.
However, the most famous modern practitioners of this system, the 1990s West German national side, were no slouches in front of goal. On their way to the World Cup in 1990, they scored an exceptional 15 goals, with the midfielder Lothar Matthäus notching 4 on his own. As a result, the 5-3-2 is something of a tactical enigma, though rarely seen today.