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The EPLtalk Beginner’s Guide to Tactics

5 Men Defences:
5-4-1: The ultimate in defensive football, recently displayed by Rangers at Old Trafford. When the teams were displayed it was obvious how this game was going to go. Rarely used in modern football except in a game where you want to keep the score respectable or are playing for the draw.

I hope the above has been useful to you as a new football fan, as an old hand it may be a bit rudamentary. However if this has wheted your appetite to discover more about tactics better writers than me are covering it in great detail. The always excellent Zonal Marking will break down interesting games from over the weekend to show how a single player or change can influence the game, similarly if the game was a bore you can see why. If you are so disposed that you want to read an entire book about football, Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid” is the bible of modern football tactics.

Finally, it is important to understand that tactics are not everything sometimes it takes a Berbatov or Ben Arfa strike to determine a game. Though don’t discount it either, Jose Mourinho didn’t get to where he was based on “always” having the best players at his disposal: his success at Porto was based on defence. Mourinho has usually bought the players to suit his system and not the other way around, Inters unbelievable display at the Camp Nou after Busquets’ cheating will go down in History as one of the greatest losses in Inter Milan’s history. Aesthically it was horrible as Inter kicked the ball away with no intent to play but tactically? It was beautiful.

NB: If there is the appetite for it I could expand on most of the above. Just use the comments section below.
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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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