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The EPLtalk Beginner’s Guide to Tactics

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Following on from the Gaffer’s suggestion for articles to use as resources one of the key elements of a Football match are the Tactics each team employs. Unfortunately for converts the terminology can be impenetrable – 4-4-2 & 4-3-3 are just random numbers and with two teams lining up it can be hard to understand how it all works.

Football is the Beautiful game, just watch Berbatov’s second at the weekend for an example. However the aesthetic beauty is underlined by the strategic theme running through the game throughout. In Football, Managers are the top authority at a football club on a day-to-day basis and very rarely are results blamed on the coaching staff or the Chairman. One of the key tasks of the football manager is to select the tactics heading into each encounter. Here i will run down the choices that lie before him, the strengths and weaknesses of a formation so the next time you settle down for a match and see the teams line up you can confidently point out how you expect the match to fare.

NB: This is a long one folks.

First and foremost how do you read tactics, well you read them from the back forwards. That is to say a 4-4-2 has 4 men in defence 2 men in the centre 2 men at the sides. The same goes for the midfield and ‘up front’ are the 2 strikers. If we were to complicate it slightly a 4-1-4-1 would indicate that a striker has been sacrificed for a player between the midfield and defence. Though this would often just be referred to as a 4-5-1 but it gets you thinking about where the players are on the pitch.

Noted tactical writer Jonathan Wilson once said:

“The history of tactics is the history of the manipulation of space”

It is that key word, ‘space’, that relates to football. With the ball at his feet in space most football players will be a danger to the opposition be it a winger with the time to pick out that inch perfect cross (David Beckham), or be it the creative midfielder who only needs one pass to decimate a defence (Xavi or Xabi your choice) or even dare you let a striker turn into space and run at a defence (Drogba). Tactics are chosen to prevent and create those opportunities, here is an (incomplete) list of the main categories.

4 Man Defences:

4-4-2: The missionary position of Football, the 4-4-2 has been around for a very long time. The key thing it brings is stability, a 4-4-2 is reliable in that you can cover the entire pitch twice. Centre backs are comfortably paired beside each other without having to drift out to each wing or to midfield unless in an emergency. The wingers have a defined role to take on the opposition full back and to follow him when he goes forward, for the full back the inverse applies. When two teams line up in a 4-4-2 the game is usually decided by who has the better players, space can be created between the two lines the 4 and the 4 for a midfielder to drift into and pick out one of his forwards or a winger to beat his man and deliver the devastating cross to either of the two strikers. The problem with 4-4-2 is it’s history, Managers have had years to work around it and it is by no means the dominant formation it once was. England have been criticised for their reliance on the 4-4-2 as most of their continental brethren have more ‘sophisticated’ systems (See Tottenham’s destruction in the first half in Switzerland). However a well implemented 4-4-2 can still be the most effective tactic on the given day (see England’s destruction of Bulgaria then Switzerland themselves).

4-5-1: The most prevalent defensive formation. The 4-5-1 is built around the idea that if you have a large amount of players in midfield you can stop the opposition playing and it often works. By clogging up the middle of the park with players the ability for the more creative or pacey players to find space is hampered. In these situations the team is trying to not lose, by staying organised (ie not leaving your position) you can frustrate even the very best team and if you get a few chances on a counter attack – getting the ball forward quickly as the other team is out of position – you may even steal a victory. It is the seal of a quality manager if he can work his team around this formation to pick up wins regardless of this tactic, something Rafa Benitez failed to do.

4-3-3: Ostensibly a more attacking formation you remove one man from Midfield to add to the strikers. However in reality it often works out that you have 3 players in central midfield one striker and 2 wingers. Technically you have 5 players in midfield but this is not to be confused with the 4-5-1. 4-3-3 and it’s variations are the tactic de jour. Seeing one striker toil away against two defenders has seen striker’s goals declining but an increase in goals scored by the wingers who leave their wing and move inside, that is towards goal rather than the corner flag, where they hope to get a shot away. The key proponent of this role is Leo Messi. He plays on the right of Barcelona’s front ‘three’ but as a left-footed player he moves towards goal on his stronger foot. An example of a modern 4-3-3 is Blackpool’s formation last year and this, apparently based on an Italian team Foggia’s rise in the early nineties who also depended on attacking to keep the opposition off balance.

The 4-3-3 also provides flexibility as you can change your roles easier when you are not in possession. Under Jose Mourinho when Chelsea lost the ball their ‘wingers’ would come back alongside their central midfielders and create the 4-5-1 mentioned above. This allowed Chelsea to be both attacking and extremely defensive but required a lot of their wingers.

The next tactic (though it looks complicated) is just a variation on this theme.

4-2-3-1: The main tactic played by elite football teams at both club and international level. This formation is at it’s core a variation on a 4-3-3. The 2 are two defensive midfielders the 3 are the wingers – who come inside like above – and an attacking midfielder who is freed from the defensive duty a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 imposes on him. Think Wesley Sneijder for Inter or Mesut Ozil for Germany when you think of this player. The problem is that when this formation meets another the game can get narrow as no team has true width and the left and right backs cannot go forward as they are met with the two wingers on each side of the -3- in that formation. This has led increasingly to left and right backs who are now just converted centre-backs. However against the 4-4-2 this formation is a killer. The attacking midfielder is free to range between the two lines of 4 and the opposition is nullified in attack by the two defensive midfielders. If a midfielder is brought back to cover the attacking midfielder this creates space for one of the two defensive midfielders to influence the game. Currently Chelsea at full-strength or Barcelona are the best at this style of play. Xavi and Iniesta are more skilful but Essien and Lampard are more powerful it would be quite the clash if these teams met at full strength in Europe this year.

3 Men Defences:

As mentioned on this blog not long ago the 3 man defence is something rarely seen these days. It was a useful tactic in the late seventies and early eighties but has died out recently bar the few teams who had the specialist players necessary to make it work (Cafu).

3-5-2 – Whilst it is written like that the tactic is actually 3 centre halves two ‘wing-backs’ who sit between defense and midfield and 3 centre midfielders. The key to this tactic are those ‘wing-backs’ the only players who give natural width to the team. This tactic required these players to attack and defend which often meant running the length of the pitch in both directions in quick succession. It is due to the scarcity of those sorts of players in today’s quicker game that these formations have died out. Last used successfully by Roma under Capello and Celtic under Martin O’Neill, an attempt to use the same formation when he returned to England did not work out. Players with the engine’s of Ashley Cole and Gareth Bale may be able to make this formation work once more but it would be a risky move to try and revitalise this one.

3-4-3 – This is a very attacking formation as the midfield already has natural width meaning that the 3 at the top is actually 3 strikers. It is very rare to see this formation but a variation on it was evident when Chile played at the World Cup. Chile were one of the most exciting teams at the tournament as their formation meant that they were consistently overnumbering their opposition in their half. This made it very difficult for teams to build attacks as they were constantly under pressure. If it were not for their wastefulness Chile would’ve garnered more attention in their opening game against Honduras. It was unfortunate that they met Brazil first in the kncok-out rounds but their insistance on attacking football was admirable.

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  1. Matt T.

    September 22, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Good work. Now explain the offside rule as clearly. 🙂

  2. David the Yank

    September 22, 2010 at 11:51 am

    I don’t agree that 4-5-1 (usually now played 4-2-3-1) has to be a defensive formation. If played well, the two holders can allow the two full backs to get further up the pitch and into the action. When Chelsea uses Essien & Mikel as holders, it allows Ashley Cole to be the furthest player up the field as he does *not* have to always track back with the opponent’s right wing. If he can’t get back (and he usually is fast enough to do so), Chelsea still have four players in defensive position. So it all depends on how 4-2-3-1 is played. It can be played with wings *and* wingbacks, or it can be played with 3 central midfield types and the only wide players are the fullbacks. (Yes, I know Chelsea claim to play 4-3-3, but a strong 4-2-3-1 should look like 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 defensively, but it should look like 4-2-4 or even 2-2-6 offensively!

  3. lessa

    September 22, 2010 at 11:20 am

    I think there should’ve been a distinction between the 4-4-2 traditionally employed in England (with two lines of four men) and the 4-4-2 played by teams such as Brazil, in which the 4 midfielders are not lined up (usually playing with 2 defensive midfielders playing behind the 2 attacking midfielders).

  4. Jon

    September 22, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Hey Chris,

    Great effort and good explanation of formations. I am with Rick above though, in that the better title would be Introduction to Football Formations or Tactical Aspects of Formations. As Rick points out and you recognize, tactics are a much larger area than just the formation one chooses. Usually when I captain our team in games, I look at the opposing side and their players, formation, and past approaches to our games to come up with a tactical plan. While that plan includes selecting a formation, it focusses to a much greater extent on the actual approach we will use in the game.

    You could and should write a follow-up article that focusses on Tactical Strategies in a game. For example, if you have speedy attackers and their defenders are slow or shaky in the air, you might consider long-ball plays to spring the attacker. If the opposition is a fast passing team with good control central midfielders, you will want to keep the defence compact. I often instruct players not to close spaces down until the other side of the central circle so we are sure our formation is compact, and then once we get the ball we go to wide men and pace up front to counter-attack. And so on. These are tactics, of which formation is only a part.

    I agree with you that understanding formations is important as a first step for beginners before the more advanced tactical discussion, but you might want to make clear in the title and introduction that you are addressing formations only.



  5. Earl Reed

    September 22, 2010 at 9:03 am

    I think including the link to the Zonal Marking website is very helpful. What it seems to me is that it can be difficult to pin down formations beside the backs/midfielders/forwards count. There is so much ebb and flow for the best clubs that when attacking or defending. And many times the final tally has less to do with the formations but rather with a particularly skillful play by a player on the pitch.

    I could explain the different American football defensive formations, but I think that might get me banned from this site! Chris…the one major difference is that a team in the NFL can substitute as often as they like, so formations are much easier to adjust throughout the game than in soccer where you can only sub three players.

  6. Rick

    September 21, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Guys … formations and tactics are not the same things. Formation is a tactic.

    This passage …

    First and foremost how do you read tactics, well you read them from the back forwards. That is to say a 4-4-2 has 4 men in defence 2 men in the centre 2 men at the sides.

    … doesn’t make much sense. You’re confounding formation with tactics.

    • Chris McQuade

      September 22, 2010 at 3:18 am

      You’re right in that all Formations are a tactic But Tactics are not all formations because they can include long-ball, counter-attack, Tiki-taka.

      For a beginner though seeing how the teams line up is the starting point for understanding. If a 4-3-3 meets a 4-5-1 you’re pretty sure one team is out to win the match and that the game will get bogged down in midfield. There are tactics around how to get past this but this is just a fundamental overview of the players on the pitch.

      To use an American Football term – you could see the teams line up in the shotgun and the nickel package. I’m going to need to know where the strengths and weaknesses of each lie before i think about play-fakes, screens and other such detailed tactics.

  7. coachie ballgames

    September 21, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    excellent primer, would definitely like to see more of this.

  8. Bruce

    September 21, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Oh no! Anything but the 3-6-1!

  9. IanCransonsKnees

    September 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    No, no, no, no, no!

    Sorenson boot’s it upfield for the big black centre forward to hold up,

    the big black centre forward passes it to the midfielders,

    the midfielders either pass it back to the defenders to the wingers,

    if it’s back to the defenders they pass it back to Sorenson or boot it back upfield to the big black centre forward,

    if the midfielders pass it to the wingers they either do something tricky and cross it in for the big black centre forward to get his head on (usually directing it wide or over the bar),

    or they play for a throw in,

    then Rory Delap dries the ball on a towel, throws it in a full 352 metres and the big black centre forward scores a goal against a keeper who is flapping or getting kicked or held down (whichever lie Arsene Wenger prefers) by Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross.

    Hey presto, 1-0 Stoke City!

    Come on you rip roaring potters!

    The gospel according to Tony Pulis.

    • Chris McQuade

      September 21, 2010 at 3:05 pm

      Yeah but they need a decoy so you think that Jones won’t get the ball. His name is Jonathan Walters he is the 2 in a completely unnecessary 4-4-2

      • IanCransonsKnees

        September 21, 2010 at 3:12 pm

        Spot on! I forgot to mention the player that runs and runs and runs and runs and runs. We don’t really know what else he does. Though that isn’t to say their efforts are unappreciated or that they’re not skillful.

        Additionally this isn’t meant as a piss take of your article (which I think is excellent and could only have appeared in such loving detail on an American website, we tend to prefer to discuss which player is banging which other player’s girlfriend) I just thought it’d be a good example of tactics specific to an individual team.

        • Chris McQuade

          September 21, 2010 at 3:15 pm

          Well Stoke are odd in the fact they stick doggedly to 4-4-2 even when they don’t have the players for it. Matty Etherington is a valuable player at Stoke, an old-fashioned english winger one might say.

          As for the Article – thank you – i think it’s necessary on an American site as the formations are engrained into we Europeans as we watch football growing up for a convert i imagine it’s as baffling as a Nickel defense formation is to me.

  10. jason

    September 21, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    can you add the 3-6-1? I know that exists too.

    • Chris McQuade

      September 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm

      I’ve never heard of it, if you can think of a team who play(ed) it please do say.

      • The Gaffer

        September 21, 2010 at 3:22 pm

        Miami Fusion, my local team (dearly departed), played a 3-6-1 for many games during their inaugural 1998 season with Carlos Valderrama right in the middle as a playmaker.

        The Gaffer

      • baron marius

        September 23, 2010 at 11:54 pm


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