Introduction to Soccer Formations



Soccer formations represent the strategic placement of players on the field in order to accomplish an effective defense of one’s own goal, and an effective attack on the opponent’s goal, during the course of a match.  There are many factors involved in choosing a formation, the most significant of which are:  1.) the number of players to be involved in the game, usually determined by age-specific competition rules; 2.) the skills of the players on the team; and, 3.) the comfort level of the coach in teaching and applying the tactics to be used in the implementation of the formation.

The evolution of the game over the past 100 years, especially with the introduction of the Offside Law, has trended from more to fewer forwards, a more equal spacing of players on the field, greater all-around skills utilized by all players, higher levels of fitness among players, and more short passes.  In a full-sides game, 11 players are on each team.  With the goalkeeper assumed to be one of the players, there are then 10 field players.  The generally-accepted designation of a formation accounts for the 10 field players, represented by the number of back defenders, the number of midfielders, and the number of forwards (strikers), used in the formation.  Accordingly, the total number for the field positions in a formation for a full-sides game always adds up to 10.

Identified from the defensive-goal-outward, again with the position of the goalkeeper assumed, the number of back defenders is listed first, followed by the number of midfielders, and then the number of forwards.  As such, a formation with four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards would be referred to as a “4-3-3.”  Similarly, a formation with four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards would be referred to as a “4-4-2.”  Another example would be a “3-4-3” formation which utilizes three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards.  (Note:  There has been a recent trend toward some more unique formation designations. A “4-3-2-1” formation has four back defenders, three defensive midfielders, two attacking midfielders, and one striker.  Even a “4-6” formation has been used recently with four defenders and six “midfielders,” implying the lack of use of any traditional forwards.)

Games for younger age groups, which usually involve fewer than 11 players per team, still employ the same shorthand.  U. S. Soccer (the United States Soccer Federation), in its “U. S. Soccer Curriculum” recommends standardization on the following formations, based on the age groups and the number of players on the field (with the goalkeeper assumed):

U15 to U19, 11-a-side: 4-3-3 and 4-4-2

U-13 and U14, 11-a-side: 4-3-3

U-9 to U-12, 9-a-side: 3-2-3

U8, 7-a-side:  (not specified)

U7, 4-a-side:  (not specified)

U6, 3-a-side or 4-a-side: (not specified)

Age-group competitions with different numbers of field players, which may not include a goalkeeper at the lowest ages, require the coach’s discretion regarding the number of players at the general positions.  7-a-side, for example, may suggest a “2-2-2” formation; 4-a-side may suggest a “2-1” formation; 3-a-side may suggest no formation at all.  The introduction of positions and formations for very young children can be difficult, but they can also help with the transition from the “mob-ball” or “ants-to-honey” stage to team-oriented play.

The formation utilized, the specific designations of the position names within the formation, the placement of the players in that formation, and the tactics employed by the coach, are all directly linked to one another.  Coaches need to familiarize themselves with a.) soccer position names, b.) initially placing players into positions, and c.) general tactics and teamwork, in order to make a determination about which formation to use.  After this, it is critical to the success of the formation that the coach diagram and present to the team how the formation is to be implemented.

Examples:    (For a larger view, click over the image.)

soccer formations

Base 4-3-3


soccer formations

Base 4-4-2

For additional information, see Soccer Positions , Position Numbers , and Initially Placing Players in Positions

© Copyright, John C. Harves