The Evolution of Football Formations Over the Years

Amogh Patnaik
|Published June 21, 2017

Over the years of world football, there have been perpetual debates over which is the best formation. While there have been trends with one formation prevailing over the others, there’s simply no “perfect” formation in the world. That’s because with changing crops of players in each teams, their skills and abilities vary, ensuring a different tactical approach to bring out the best from all of them. But essentially all football formations need to bring results.

This resolute unyielding race to devise the right formation has been a primary reason for the growth of the sport. Let’s dissect some of the most successful formations in the world over the years:


The Structure:

The 4-4-2 formation is a classic English formation, seeing application over long periods in English football. It comprises of four defenders (two centre backs and two full backs on either side), four midfielders (two central midfields and two wingers on the flanks) and two centre forwards.


The chief benefit of this formation lies in its simplicity. The clarity of the structure gives all players on the field clearly marked roles. The real danger of this formation lies in the pair of strikers who complement each others’ game. Playing two wide midfielders as well as two wide full backs leads to creation of width.

ALSO READ : The best football kits for the upcoming season

This makes the opponents stretch their defensive lines to counter threat posed on the wings, creating ample defensive gaps for the two strikers to pounce on. Without the ball, the four midfielders and four defenders can put eight men behind the ball, covering every blade of grass and allowing the team to defend deep within their own half.


Since there are only three lines of players in the 4-4-2 formations, it allows the opponents to find pockets of space between the lines, especially the defence and midfield. A poorly organized 4-4-2 can leave acres of space between midfield and defence and if the midfield cannot close down the passing lanes, then they’re susceptible to being ripped apart by opposition players lurking in those spaces.

Also, playing two strikers and wingers preferring playing out by the sidelines, the central midfielders can be quickly isolated against teams playing three centre midfielders.

Teams who’ve used this formation:

Manchester United under Ferguson successfully used it, with Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole forming a lethal duo upfront. During the “Invincibles” season the Gunners too heavily used this formation, as the creative genius of Dennis Bergkamp perfectly complemented the shear pace and clinical finishing of Thierry Henry. In recent times, Ranieri’s title winning Leicester City and Simone’s Atletico Madrid have successfully implemented the 4-4-2 formation.


i) The Structure:

The 4-3-3 is comprised of four defenders (two centre backs and two full backs), 3 midfielders who form a triangle and a lone striker with three forwards: one central striker and two who play on the flanks.

ii) Pros:

There’s a reason why it’s one of the most widely used formation by successful teams around the world. The three man centre midfield form a tight triangle in the middle and often fall into the roles of ‘creator-destroyer-passer’, to attack, defend and maintain possession.

These are helped by the forwards who press up high, putting constant pressure on the opposition defenders, allowing them no easy balls to the wings. This equipped with a striker who can play the role of target man and involve the players around him in the game, forms an absolutely lethal combination.

iii) Cons:

This formation requires high amount of discipline from the wide players. If the full backs aren’t up to the high amount of work-rate, this can leave the opposition wide players with large spaces to break into.

Also, enormous responsibility lies on the shoulders of the defensive midfielder. Anything less than a top defensive midfielder, who’s aerially strong, has good tackling ability, good reading of the game, accurate passing and lots of pace can leave the centre backs very exposed.

iv) Teams who’ve used this formation:

No team has used this formation better than the Barcelona side under Pep Guardiola. With Iniesta, Busquets and Xavi performing the roles of creater, destroyer and passer respectively, this formation found huge successes, winning the treble in 2008-09.

ALSO READ : The best value for money transfers of all time

In recent times, Real Madrid have used this formation in their successful campaigns under Zidane, with Modric, Casemiro and Kroos performing the aforementioned roles as Real Madrid became the first side to win two consecutive Champions League titles.


i) The Structure:

The 4-2-3-1 splits players into four bangs. There are four defenders and two defensive midfielders. The attacking unit consists of three attacking midfielders and a lone striker. The wide midfielders are fast dribblers who cut inside, while the central attacking midfielder plays the creative “No. 10” role.

ii) Pros:

This used to be a widely used formation because of its reliability and flexibility. The band of three attacking midfielders and the central striker press the opposition high up on the pitch while the two defensive midfielders allow no space between the midfield and defence, thus helping the team absorb pressure. Also, with so many players ready and available to pass the ball forwards, the striker is provided with plenty of opportunities to score.

iii) Weaknesses:

On the flipside, if the midfield is forced back due to pressure, the formation compresses to a 4-5-1, leaving the striker as a lone figure, isolated with very little support. Also, if the wide midfielders fail to track back, the opposition midfielders are presented with the chance to overload the defence, quite similar to the problems faced by the 4-3-3 formation.

iv) Teams who’ve used this formation:

Chelsea used this formation successfully during their successful Premier League campaign in 2014-15, with Matic and Fabregas providing a solid midfield combination of strength and creativity.  Arsenal have also used this formation extensively in the past, especially in the 2014-15 season, when the midfield duo of Cazorla and Coquelin sparked a resurgence in Arsenal’s campaign.


i) The Structure:

The 3-5-2 features three centre-backs, a pair of wing backs, three central midfielders and two strikers. The three man central midfield usually form a triangle behind the forward line, thus continuing to field two strikers like the traditional 4-4-2 while still providing a three man central midfield, thus preventing the midfield from being outnumbered.

ii) Pros:

A 3-man backline is very strong against central attacks and thus help in reducing the involvement of the opposition’s central striker in their attacks. Forwards are high up the pitch, constantly putting pressure on the opposition defence. Constantly overlapping wingbacks ensure large number of options in attacking positions.

If the central midfielders are equipped with high working rate and good distribution, then the ability of the team to dominate the midfield increases.

iii) Cons:

As is evident from the formation, the wingbacks need to be fast and athletic, to cover the length of the field. The two centre midfielders must have good understanding between them, having the discipline to join the attacks one at a time. Also a narrow back can be vulnerable to wide attacks or switch of play if the wingbacks are unable to track back on a regular basis.

iv) Teams who’ve used this formation:

Juventus used this formation very successfully in the 2016/17 season, making it to the finals of the Champions League as well as winning the league. Higuain and Dybala paired to give nightmares to opposition defenders while Dani Alves thrived at the right wing back position, constantly being involved in attacks.

Chelsea won the league with this formation, owing to the workrate of their two central midfielders – Kante and Matic, as well as the wingbacks Moses and Alonso being a constant menace with their pace.

The rise of 3-5-2 and the decline of 4-2-3-1:

 Till a few years ago it seemed like every club in the world, from relegation battlers to title challengers, was using the 4-2-3-1 formation. In the 2015/16 season, Premier League clubs used it 50.79% of the time, while in the 2016/17 season it was used only 36.6% of the time.

Among the top 6 clubs in the Premier League, only Arsenal and Tottenham were using this formation, with Tottenham switching to 3-4-3 midway through the season, and Arsenal too implementing a 3 man defence in the later stages.

The 4-2-3-1 relies around a creative “No.10” player, who’s given the creative freedom to dictate the gameplay. But of late, this has changed. Players are becoming more technically gifted, goalkeepers are now required to be good with their feet, central backs are needed to be composed in possession and defensive midfielders have to be deep lying playmakers as well as destroyers, thus increasing the significance of every player contributing defensively. This leaves no room for luxury players playing in the free “No.10” role.

This has led to the resurrection of the 3-5-2 formation. Back three formations were popular 1970’s and 80’s, as a method to counter to the popular 4-4-2 formation. The three centre backs ensured two defenders diligently marking the two strikers, leaving a defender to distribute possession from their own half while also having a spare man in the situation of a counter.

Antonio Conte brought this formation back in 2011-12 season for Juventus, leading them to the Serie A title, after finishing 7th in the previous season. He has carried forward that formation at Chelsea, leading them to the title in his very first season, after the switch to 3 man defence after the 3-0 drubbing at the Emirates to London rivals Arsenal sparked a resurgence in their campaign.

As mentioned previously, a fluid functioning 3-5-2 is a manager’s dream. It gives you the benefit of playing two strikers as well as the defensive stability of a three man defence. The main roles in this formation are of the wingbacks, who need to be equally effective in attacking and defensive phases of play. This, equipped with a strong central midfield makes it a pretty much a tactically flawless formation against all oppositions.

While 3-5-2 may be the most successful formation in the current world football scenario, past trends suggest that the idea of a “perfect” formation is constantly subject to change, and we can expect this formation to be no different.

Share this article

About the author