Soccer Formations: A Complete Guide


Post title over image of soccer field

Soccer formations are fundamental to how a coach will position the players on a soccer team during a game. Having played in multiple teams over many years, I have experienced most of the formations. I want to explain to you everything you need to know about the use of formations in soccer.

The most common soccer formations you will see used are:

  • 4–4–2 formation
  • 4–3–3 formation
  • 4-2-3-1 formation
  • 5–3–2 formation
  • 3-5-2 formation
  • 4-5-1 formation
  • 4–3–2–1 formation
  • 5-4-1 formation
  • 3–4–3 formation

If you’re a coach looking for your team’s best formation, this guide is for you. If you are an interested soccer fan, this guide is for you. Anyone with an interest in soccer must understand formations.

In this guide, I’ll explain what soccer formations are all about and how they started. Then we’ll look at some of the most commonly used formations for different size soccer games (not just 11v11). I’ll also give you an overview of each formation and its advantages.

To finish, we’ll look at what soccer formation you should choose if you’re a coach or involved in choosing soccer formations in any way.

Let’s get started!

Soccer Formations Explained

The first thing we need to look at is a quick overview of what a soccer formation is.

Soccer formations are the structure that every soccer team is based around on the soccer field, and teams have used them for well over a hundred years.

The first soccer formations were used all the way back in England in 1880. Wrexham, the team to utilize the first formation, set up their players in a 2-3-5 formation. This formation was so popular teams all around the world used it for the next few decades.

If you’ve ever seen a soccer team drawn out on paper, or displayed on TV before a game, then you will have seen a soccer formation.

The image below shows you an example of a popular formation.

5-4-1 soccer formation
A 5-4-1 soccer formation

Soccer formations depict the position of players on a soccer field. A formation lists the exact number of players in each area of the soccer field.

Imagine for a second that you split a soccer field into three equal sections – the defense, the midfield, and the forwards.

main positions in soccer

A formation would list the number of players in each area of the field.

How To Read Soccer Formations

To fully understand soccer formations, you need to know how to read them.

A line of numbers is useless unless you know what they mean, right?!

The two ways you will most often see soccer formations displayed are:

  1. As a series of numbers written down, such as 4-4-2, or 5-4-1, for example.
  2. Or on an image of a soccer field similar to how they are in the image above.

When you see a soccer formation visually displayed similar to the image above, it’s reasonably straightforward to understand what the image is showing you.

The illustration of the soccer pitch beneath the player’s position on that field helps you visualize the players’ position on the pitch.

Understanding a soccer formation that someone has written down as a series of numbers can seem a little more complicated at first but becomes simple after it’s explained.

Reading a soccer formation written as a series of numbers starts by reading the number of defenders in the formation and ends with the number of forwards.

First, read the number of defenders on the team, then the players in the middle of the field, and finally, read the number of players playing upfront.

Have a look at this image below for some examples of this.

a visual explanation of Soccer formations
How to read soccer formations

So, for example:

  • In a 4-4-2 formation, there are 4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 forwards
  • In a 5-4-1 formation, there would be 5 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 1 forward.
  • And in a 4-2-3-1 formation, there would be 4 defenders, 2 defensive midfielders, 3 attacking midfielders, and 1 forward

You’ll also be able to see from the third example in the above image (4-2-3-1) that the way formations are laid out isn’t limited to only three areas of the field.

The players on a team can be broken down into four, or occasionally five, areas if necessary.

Soccer Formations Don’t Include the Goalie

Another essential fact to be aware of is that soccer formations, such as those we’ve looked at so far, don’t include the goalkeeper.

The first number in the series refers to the number of defenders, and the goalie is omitted.

The reason for this is simple.

There is only ever one goalie on a team.

The rules of soccer only permit one goalie per team for the duration of a game. Because this never changes, it would be a waste of space to place the number 1 at the beginning of every formation.

It’s always assumed that there is a goalie on the team even if the formation doesn’t specifically show that. This is also why the numbers in the formation only ever add up to 10 (at least in a 11v11 game!)

Different Formations for Different Size Teams

Although you will almost always see 11v11 formations during professional or adult level soccer, these are not the only size of a soccer game played.

At high school, club, and youth level soccer, you may see teams play 9v9, 7v7, or even 6v6.

When games are played with a smaller number of players than is usually at a professional level, it requires a different formation of players.

You can’t use a formation that requires 10 outfield players if you only have 5 outfield players on the field!

In this next section, I will show you the three most commonly used formations for a range of different size soccer teams. I’ll also list the pros and cons of each.

Because it is commonplace, especially at youth soccer level, to field a team of only 6, 7, or 9 players, I’m going to cover not only 11v11 soccer formations, but 9v9, 7v7, and 6v6 formations.

11v11 Soccer Formations

11v11 soccer formations are the most common formations you will see in soccer. Every professional soccer team is made up of 11 players and uses formations that include 10 outfield players.

Although there are numerous formations a team can use, there are three formations that you will see more than others.

  • 4-3-3
  • 4-2-3-1
  • and 4-4-2

Let’s look at each of these 11v11 soccer formations now.

4-3-3 Formation

The first 11v11 formation I want to show you is the 4-3-3 formation.

illustration of 4-3-3 soccer formation
4-3-3 Soccer Formation

In this formation, the players are positioned with four in defense, three in midfield, and three forwards.

This formation was initially made famous by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team between 2008 and 2012 and is now used by teams worldwide.

During this period, Barcelona dominated world soccer with their incredibly high levels of possession during a game and their fast, free-flowing passing.

Since then, many teams have adopted this formation because it is so effective for controlling games.

4-3-3 is perfect for teams that contain fast, skillful players or teams that are learning how to improve at retaining possession of the ball as it creates lots of space to play.

One thing that any team that is going to adopt this formation needs to be aware of is the demands it places on the midfielders.

The midfield is relatively narrow in this setup, so the midfielders have to work hard to cover all areas of the field. This is especially important at the sides of the field as a team can be left exposed in these areas if they’re not careful.

Overall, the 4-3-3 formation offers lots of attacking options and room for creativity to a team. When used well, it can enable a team to control a game from start to finish.

Pros of 4-3-3

  • Attack based formation
  • Perfect for counter-attacks
  • Great for learning how to keep possession
  • Allows space for creativity
  • It gives full-backs space to shine

Cons of 4-3-3

  • Requires a high level of stamina
  • Can leave the sides of the field empty
  • Possession based tactic require a high level of skill from players

4-2-3-1 Formation

The 4-2-3-1 formation is the best 11v11 soccer formation. It creates multiple passing angles for players, it is flexible, and the setup makes it easy for players to transition to other formations. The 4-2-3-1 formation also covers all areas of the soccer field.

illustration of 4-2-3-1 soccer formation
4-2-3-1 Soccer Formation

The 4-2-3-1 is by far my favorite soccer formation to use as a coach or be part of as a player.

In this formation, the players are positioned with four in defense, two in defensive midfield, three in attacking midfield, and one forward.

Its main advantage is that it offers so many options for movement, passing angles, and fluidity of transition for players.

Having four rows of players rather than the more traditional 3 provides the players with more space to move into and more angles to pass the ball to other players on their team.

It also offers the significant advantage that it is simple to transition to other formations such as 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 when needed during a game.

One requirement of this formation is a creative attacking midfielder. In many ways, the 4-2-3-1 formation is only as effective as this player is. They are the focal point of the formation, and the most influential periods of play will revolve around this player.

This formation has become increasingly popular over the last few years and for many good reasons. It is a practical and creative formation.

Pros of 4-2-3-1

  • Strong midfield
  • Forwards and defenders supported
  • Flexible when needed
  • Can be defensive or offensive

Cons of 4-2-3-1

  • Heavily reliant on attacking midfielder
  • Space between full-backs and wingers
  • Requires defensive midfielders to cover a lot of ground

4-4-2 Formation

The 4-4-2 formation is one of the most long-standing and most often used formations in 11v11 soccer.

illustration of 4-4-2 soccer formation
4-4-2 Soccer Formation

It is considered a classic formation and has been a mainstay of soccer teams for years.

In this formation, the players are positioned with four in defense, four in midfield, and two forwards.

Having the players positioned this way provides a strong line of defense and midfield. To get near the goal, the opposition has to get past two solid rows of players defending their goal. This can be intimidating for any team.

The 4-4-2 formation also allows for two players in the central attacking positions.

One of these players will often play slightly further back than the others and take on a different attacking role acting as more of a playmaker and a link between the midfield and forwards. (Find out more about that in my article – Striker Vs. Forward: What’s the Difference?)

Another advantage of the 4-4-2 formation is how the players can quickly cover all the areas of the field and move forward and back as needed. Whereas some formations are relatively narrow, the 4-4-2 effectively covers the field from side to side.

Although this formation is used less and less in its original form, you still see it used as a 4-4-1-1, and it’s perfect for more recreational 11v11 soccer games.

Pros of 4-4-2

  • Provides a strong defensive bank
  • Effectively covers the width of the field
  • Reduces space for the opposition attackers
  • Good for teams that struggle to keep possession

Cons of 4-4-2

  • Teams can be overrun in midfield
  • Can be too defensive
  • Requires a lot from central midfielders

9v9 Soccer Formations

9v9 soccer formations are commonly used in youth soccer, starting at the U11 stage through the U13’s. 9v9 is the perfect size soccer game to prepare youth players for the next soccer stage – 11v11.

This is a great size formation to begin to get players in this age range used to playing in soccer games with more people. They can start to experience what it feels like to play on a larger pitch with more players than they may have before.

As with all size teams, there are various formations that a team could use, but I’ll show you the three most common formations now, including the best formation for 9v9.

3-2-3 Formation

The 3-2-3 formation is the best 9v9 soccer formation. It provides strength in defense and attack as well as giving options out wide. The 3-2-3 formation also efficiently covers all areas of the soccer field.

Illustration of 3-2-3 Soccer Formation
3-2-3 Soccer Formation

In this formation, the players are positioned with three in defense, two in midfield, and three in the offense.

The 3-2-3 formation is easily one of the most popular formations for 9v9 as the players are evenly spread over the field, ensuring that a player is near the ball at all times.

The way the players are positioned also offers lots of angles for passing and moving the ball around the field.

The gaps on the wings give room for either the full-backs or left and right-sided forwards to fill that space depending on the game’s flow.

Every team should become comfortable playing this formation. It is a solid, dependable option that is simple but incredibly effective.

Pros of 3-2-3

  • Players effectively cover the field
  • Strong in defense and attack
  • Great for possession and passing

Cons of 3-2-3

  • Wingers must have a high level of stamina
  • Full backs and wide forwards are expected to cover a lot of ground

3-3-2 Formation

A formation of 3-3-2 is another typical formation you will see teams utilize when playing 9v9.

Illustration of 3-3-2 Soccer Formation
3-3-2 Soccer Formation

In this formation, the players are positioned with three in defense, three in midfield, and two in the offense.

Playing 9v9 is a great size game as there are enough players to play with two in the position of offense rather than only one player, as is standard with smaller size soccer games.

With this size formation, you are also maintaining the strength of the defensive and midfield while increasing the strength of the attack.

The hope is that this extra player translates into more goals for the team!

Pros of 3-3-2

  • Strong defense
  • Effectively covers wide areas
  • Maintains two attacking players at all times

Cons of 3-3-2

  • One of the more rigid formations
  • Midfield can become overwhelmed without support
  • Forwards need to work hard to not become isolated

2-3-3 Formation

The 2-3-3 is the more attack-minded formation in this list of 9v9 formations.
In this formation, the players are positioned with two in defense, three in midfield, and three in the offense.

Illustration of 2-3-3 Soccer Formation
2-3-3 Soccer Formation

You only have to look at the formation to see that it is heavily weighted towards the attack. But 2-3-3 can be the perfect 9v9 formation if you expect to be the stronger team on the field and dominate the game.

However, it is vital to be aware of the need for players to track back and support the defense when necessary.

With only two players allocated to the back of the field, it would be easy for the other team to overrun the defense. The midfielders must be aware of this.

To provide even more dynamics to the set-up, a coach can play one of the forwards further ahead of the other forwards in a 2-3-2-1 formation.

Pros of 2-3-3

  • Attacking focused
  • Potential to dominate midfield and attack
  • Strong out wide

Cons of 2-3-3

  • The defense can be overwhelmed
  • Midfielders must track back
  • Defenders must be confident and communicate clearly

7v7 Soccer Formations

Teams most often use 7v7 soccer formations at the U9 and U10 stages of youth soccer. These formations are designed to adequately cover the soccer field while leaving room for creativity from the players.

7v7 games are typically played on smaller soccer fields so that players don’t have so much of the field to cover.

And although you will most often see this size of team at youth soccer level, there are occasions where an adult team may use 7-a-side soccer and use one of these formations.

2-3-1 Formation

The most common setup you will see used in a 7v7 soccer game is a formation of 2-3-1.

Illustration of 2-3-1 Soccer Formation
2-3-1 Soccer Formation

The 2-3-1 formation is the best 7v7 soccer formation. It provides options in defense and attack as well as covering the field out wide. The 2-3-1 formation also efficiently encompasses all areas of the soccer field.

In this formation, the players are positioned with two in defense, three in midfield, and one in the offense.

With the players in these positions, the midfield is the strongest part of the team. Having a majority of players in this area is essential as the center of the soccer field is where most of the action happens. Because of this, most teams want to dominate this area during a game.

Having three players in midfield gives the team enough numbers for one or two to drop back and support the defense when needed and the freedom for one or two players to move forward and help the offense when appropriate.

Pros of 2-3-1

  • Strong in defense
  • Strong out wide
  • Wingers can support defense of forwards

Cons of 2-3-1

  • Striker can become isolated
  • Midfielders need high level of stamina
  • Defense is reliant on support from midfield

3-1-2 Formation

The 3-1-2 formation is not a formation you will see very often during a 7v7 soccer game but is one that a tactically aware team should consider using.

Illustration of 3-1-2 Soccer Formation
3-1-2 Soccer Formation

In this formation, the players are positioned with three in defense, one in midfield, and two in the offense.

The main advantage of this formation is that it offers a strong defensive foundation that doesn’t neglect the attacking options.

As you can probably see, the risk of this formation is in the midfield, where only one player is positioned.

To make sure the opposition doesn’t overrun the midfield, the defenders and forwards must continuously be aware of how the game is unfolding and provide support for the midfield as required.

If a team can do this effectively, they can dominate a game in defense, attack, and midfield.

Pros of 3-1-2

  • Strong in defense and attack
  • Opportunity to develop tactical awareness in players
  • Encourages lots of movement and positional fluidity from players

Cons of 3-1-2

  • Midfield can be over run
  • Players can quickly find themselves out of position

3-2-1 Formation

The 3-2-1 soccer formation is the most defensive 7v7 formation in this list.
In this formation, the players are positioned with three in defense, two in midfield, and one in the offense.

Illustration of 3-2-1 Soccer Formation
3-2-1 Soccer Formation

Having a three-person defense gives a team a substantial barrier to prevent the opposition players from getting through. And it can be made even stronger if the midfielder players drop back when necessary.

Having three players in defense also gives one or two players the opportunity to step forward into midfield during an attacking phase of the game.

Either the central defender can step up into central defense, or the full-backs can step up to the wings.

Having a defensive formation doesn’t mean the opportunity to attack is lost. It merely requires clear communication throughout the team as different players push forward into various positions as needed.

Pros of 3-2-1

  • Defensively strong
  • Options to transition to alternative formations during play
  • Team can control a game

Cons of 3-2-1

  • Striker can become isolated
  • Potential lack of width
  • Defense can be left exposed during a counter attack

6v6 Soccer Formations

6v6 soccer is often fast and exciting to watch. There is a lot of end-to-end play, and players have to be fit and willing to work hard.

Since there are fewer players during a 6v6 game, most formations focus on coving the center of the field. If a team can control this area, they can build a strong base to move into the rest of the field.

Each of the following formations are commonly used in 6-a-side games, and all have their advantages and disadvantages.

2-2-1 Formation

The most commonly used formation you’ll see used in a 6v6 soccer game is a 2-2-1 setup.

2-2-1 Soccer Formation
2-2-1 Soccer Formation

The 2-2-1 formation is the best 6v6 soccer formation. It provides a strong defense and midfield while dominating the center of the field. The 2-2-1 formation also covers all areas of the soccer field.

In this formation, the players are positioned with two in defense, two in midfield, and one in the offense.

A 2-2-1 formation allows a team to maintain a strong defense and midfield while still having a focal point for the offense.

Although in a 6v6 soccer game, the field’s size is usually smaller than a 11v11 field, there is still plenty of space for each player to cover. Having the players positioned in this formation allows them to cover the field effectively.

Neither the defensive nor midfield players must get pulled out wide as they will leave a gaping hole through the middle.

Pros of 2-2-1

  • Strong, compact defense and midfield
  • Easy for the striker to drop back and support the midfield

Cons of 2-2-1

  • Striker can become isolated
  • Lack of width

2-1-2 Formation

The 2-1-2 formation is the most attacking-minded in this list.

Illustration of 2-1-2 Soccer Formation
2-1-2 Soccer Formation

In this formation, the players are positioned with two in defense, one in midfield, and two in the offense.

Having two players upfront provides a team with a lot of options when on the attack.

The obvious counterargument to this is that this formation can leave a team weak in defense.

Unless the attacking player is willing to track back and support the rest of the team, then this can be a dangerous set-up. But with the right players, this formation can dominate a game and allow a team to score a lot of goals.

Pros of 2-1-2

  • Offers strength and options in attack
  • Balanced in defense and upfront

Cons of 2-1-2

  • Relies on a capable midfielder
  • Potential lack of width in a team
  • Depends on attacking players tracking back as needed

1-3-1 Formation

The 1-3-1 formation in 6v6 a-side soccer is all about dominating in midfield.

Illustration of 1-3-1 Soccer Formation
1-3-1 Soccer Formation

In this formation, the players are positioned with one in defense, three in midfield, and one in the offense.

The most significant advantage of this formation is the freedom for players to adapt and change positions depending on the game’s flow.

With one player designated to stay in defense and another in the offense, the wide players can support move up and down the wings as needed.

If the team is attacking, then they can move up the field and create a 1-1-3 formation, and if they are defending, they can track back and make a 3-1-1 formation.

They can go wherever they are most needed.

The 1-3-1 can be an incredibly dynamic formation.

Pros of 1-3-1

  • Strong midfield
  • Fluid and easy to transition formations throughout a game
  • Can be firm in defense or attack depending on the flow of the game

Cons of 1-3-1

  • Requires a lot of movement from the wingers
  • Either defense or attack can be isolated
  • Wingers must have a high level of fitness

How To Choose a Soccer Formation

Now you understand what soccer formations are and the different options available, we need to look at how you choose your team’s best option.

Choosing the best soccer formation can be the difference between your team dominating a game or spending the entire time chasing the opposition.

There are four essential questions to ask when choosing a soccer formation:

  • What players do I have?
  • Who is the opposition?
  • What do I want the outcome of the game to be?
  • Where do I want y players to improve?

Understand the Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Players

Every team is different.

Some teams have a lot of great forwards, while some may have better defensive players. Whatever the makeup of your team is, you should focus on playing to your strengths.

As we have seen, every soccer formation offers different advantages and disadvantages. Choose a formation that plays to the strengths of the players you have available.

Research the Qualities of Your Opponents

The next thing you should be considering when choosing a formation is the strengths and weaknesses of the team you are about to face.

Maybe you’re playing a team at the top of the league, or perhaps it’s a team that is struggling.

If you see an opportunity in front of you to dominate in attack, then you should narrow your focus to a more attacking formation.

If, however, you are about to play a team that is dominant in attack, you may want to consider choosing a more defensive formation to lessen the impact of their forward players.

Decide What You Want the Outcome of the Game To Be

Another area to consider is what you are hoping to achieve from this game.

Some coaches approach a game with the aim of not losing, while others may want to win at all costs.

Although it may seem unusual to want any outcome other than a win, there are many reasons for this.

  • Your team may be struggling, and you just want to protect the defense
  • You may be far ahead in the league, and you want your team to improve defensively rather than focus on winning
  • or maybe your team just needs a draw to qualify for the next round of a tournament

What is your desired outcome?

Determine the Areas You Want To See Improvement in Your Team

The last question to ask yourself is what is most beneficial in the long run for your players.

This probably applies more to youth soccer coaches. They are often more focused on a game as an opportunity for player development instead of just being focused on the result. But this does also apply at other levels of soccer.

Different formations offer the opportunity for players to develop in different areas.

Some formations encourage players to move a lot, while some others are more rigid. Some formations improve defense skills, while some encourage lots of attacking moves.

Choose a formation that develops players in the areas most needed.

Next Steps

Having covered all these areas of soccer formations, you are ready to look ahead.

My recommendation is to either focus on increasing your understand of soccer positions through either one of my articles:

Or for help with choosing where to put specific players within a formation, have a look at one of these following articles:

Ben

Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Sign up to the yoursoccerhome.com newsletter here or check out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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