Why Are Formations So Important In Football Tactics?

Choosing A Formation is the first and most essential Step of Setting up football tactics.

Think of a football pitch as a chess board.

In chess, each piece has its own abilities. In football, each player has his own set of skills (technique).

In order to make the most out of those abilities and turn them into their side’s advantage, a manager has to exploit the space created by the opposition’s setting.


What comes First? Formation or Tactics?

In order to create their tactics, managers have to choose a line-up. Does it necessarily mean they pick the line up first?

Not at all.

Any given manager has his own vision of how football should be played. A defensive minded coach will need to put more players on his own half than a manager that likes to press high and focuses on attacking.

Some managers are flexible regarding formations while others stick to one formation that they think offers the most.

Jose Mourinho for example, has used over the course of his career various formations (from 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and even 3-5-2 at Manchester United). Being a flexible coach, Mourinho changes his game plan depending on various parameters (such as opposition, players available, goal advantage if there is any etc…).

However, his philosophy and style could still be felt no matter what shape he chooses for his side. A result oriented approach, fluid shape yet very compact defensive block. and quick counters to surprise the opposition.

José Mourinho will most likely choose his tactics first, then set up a formation accordingly. Thus picking player positions based on the following question:

How can I position My Players To Get the most out of their abilities?


As opposed to the Portuguese, Antonio Conte is the kind of coach who will try to make players fit into his style and tactics. Known for always playing with three defenders, Conte will stick to his plan and make players adapt to new positions if needed.

When he first arrived at Inter, he experimented converting Ivan Perisic into a wing back. When it failed, he tried him as a striker before deciding to loan him out, as Perisic could not fulfill the role Conte instructed him. This is an illustration of how Conte picks his players depending on how they fit his tactics and not the other way around.

Conte’s preferred line up 3-5-2

It is worth mentioning that even the most confident coaches tend to tweak their tactics from time to time.

At Chelsea, Antonio Conte switched to a 3-4-3, to let Hazard and Willian exploit space higher up the pitch. Also with the arrival of Eriksen at Inter, Conte could once again modify slightly his tactics to exploit the danish to the maximum by playing him in a position he is suited to. Inter could play a 3-4-1-2, with Christian Eriksen right behind Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku.

One can notice that Conte will tend to only adapt his tactics to an outstanding player (Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen in this case). However, Conte makes sure to keep his core philosophy in place.

What does that mean?

Whether he switches to a 3-4-3 or a -3-4-1-2, the defensive shape of his side remains the same. 3 defenders that are instructed to stay behind and drift wide when in possession, 2 wing backs that are asked to run up and down their respective flanks and carry the ball to the opposing final third while also coming deep to defend.


Team Shape: Fluid VS Structured

A football tactics isnt a static formation. A player will drift away (or not) from his position depending on his coach’s instructions with regards to different phases of play. Football formations are dynamic and change according to 3 phases of play:

  1. Possession phases: when the team has control of the ball and tries to find weaknesses of their opponents. Movement behavior changes depending on the width played, the level of tempo etc..
  2. Defensive phases: when the team does not have the ball and is defending their goal. Player movement changes according to parameters like level of defensive block, pressing intensity etc..
  3. Transitional phases: situations where the team either just lost or recovered the ball
    1. Lost ball: players will either leave their positions and press instantly for the ball or regain their position and try to form a compact block.
    2. Recovered ball: depending once again on their instructions, players will either go forward as quickly as possible or pass back to lower the rhythm and regain a structured shape.

How to Create a Formation That Suits your Team?

Depending on various parameters, a manager will try to select the best formation that will suit every aspect of the style he wants his team to display. A few things to take into consideration when picking a formation:

  • Depth:
    • In order to play a balanced formation, a manager has to make sure each player on his starting squad can be replaced by at least one of the players on the bench. In case of injuries, change of plans or other unexpected events.
  • Player abilities:
    • Using the right players in the right positions, results in an increase of the likelihood that said players will perform at their best level. Using a player, that only knows how to play on the left side, as a right winger/fullback would be a waste of potential for both team and player.
  • Attacking and defensive contribution:
    • Often overlooked by football fans, this aspect plays a major role in tactics and player selection for managers. Players with a focus on either attack or defense will need to be positioned at different and appropriate pitch level.
    • An aggressive player would be more useful if positioned in a lower position to break opposing attacks while a pacey, dynamic player would fit more on the wings as he would find space to exploit.
    • Important to note that some coaches would play an aggressive player higher up the pitch to increase the pressure. Again, each coach sees football in his own way.

The Same formation Does Not Mean The Same Tactics

It might seem a little obvious but many football fans tend to confuse both.

> Two teams can play the same formation but completely different tactics.

  • Team 1:
    • The way they are set makes it that their striker will focus on the final third; as the number 10 plays in an advanced role and covers the link-up part.
    • As a result, both wingers won’t need to cut in as the space is already occupied.
    • By staying more on the wings both fullbacks will have to play lower to avoid walking over their respective wingers’ steps.

Another example of a completely different form of 4-3-3 would be Motta’s 2-7-2 formation.

One might not see exact shapes while watching a game. The players and the coach however, know exactly where each one is supposed to be. Another reason people are unable to see clear formations in-game, is because of positioning mistakes made by the defenders and the dynamic nature of football tactics nowadays.

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6 thoughts on “Why Are Formations So Important In Football Tactics?

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