The evolution of soccer is not linear. Residues from the past sometimes rise again despite being deemed outmoded and elements never to be thought of as vanishing suddenly begin to fade. The evolution of soccer happens in waves.
During the last two decades – in some countries even longer – the center of creativity on a soccer pitch was actually not to be found in the center but on the margins. This era saw the widespread use of the 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and 4-2-3-1 formations which all used two or three central midfielders concentrating on keeping the team’s balance between defense and attack intact. In addition to the central midfielders, two full backs provided defensive reassurance out wide. The central midfielders and the full backs meant a relatively free attacking role for the two wingers. The central midfielders even made it possible for the team to attack with one full back at the time (or, for some teams, even with both full backs simultaneously) provided that his defensive duties were respected. Both these facts – free wingers and attacking full backs – emphasize that the team’s attacking threat and center of creativity were to be found out wide.
Some of the most prominent examples of this trend were:
• FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi a few years back when he had his base out right and with Dani Alves providing both defensive coverage for and attacking threat together with Messi,
• Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs who ran up and down the left side for the most part of his career with Denis Irwin or Phil Neville occupying the left back position behind him,
• Cristiano Ronaldo in both Manchester United and Real Madrid who teamed up with Patrice Evra and Fabio Coentrao from his position on the left wing, and, finally,
• Neymar in today’s Barcelona team who has Jordi Alba as support.
However, certain coaches and teams choosing to recycle the 3-5-2, 5-3-2, and the 3-4-3 formations that were the preferred formations of the 1970s and 1980s are now challenging this trend. Antonio Conte has been doing it with his Juventus team for a few years. Brendan Rogers at Liverpool has experimented with three defenders. And during the recently held World Cup in Brazil, several teams used 5-3-2, among them Mexico and Holland. Holland’s coach Louis van Gaal, who has just taken over the hot seat at Manchester United, is set to continue with the formation at Old Trafford.
We often hear coaches say that the formation is not that important, that it is just numbers. Van Gaal himself has said that what matters most is his philosophy – a philosophy associated with “Total Football” demanding multifunctional players and emphasizing speed, technical skills, and tactical intelligence. The formation matters less to Van Gaal who has employed 4-3-3 at Ajax, 2-3-2-3 at Barcelona, and 4-4-2 at AZ Alkmaar. Van Gaal’s formational flexibility stems from his desire to adapt to the players at his disposal. It may be true that for Van Gaal philosophy matters most and formation less, but it is not true – neither for Van Gaal nor for any other coach – that the formation is not important and that it is just a numbers game.