Although we live in a highly tactical, analytical age with more variety in formations than ever before, at the end of the day, a team can win playing any formation. There isn’t necessarily any formation that is superior to another and any time someone seems to have broken the system and revolutionized the game with a formation, someone else will come along and counter-act it in a completely new way. That being said, some of the best teams in the modern era have perfected certain systems of play and utilized their formation in a way that led to widescale success. Here is an examination of some of the best teams in the past few years and how their formation led to their success.
EMMA HAYES’ CHELSEA: 3-5-2
Emma Hayes has been known to go about her business more meticulously than just about anyone else. The Chelsea Women’s manager has also been known to change up her formation several times in a single match. However, one thing that remained constant as Chelsea Women won the double back in 2017-18 was the team’s impeccable 3-5-2 formation. The versatile Maren Mjele played in the middle of the back-three alongside trailblazers Mille Bright and Magdalena Eriksson while Ji So-Yun played an instrumental role in the middle of the pitch. Drew Spence meanwhile played at the point of the diamond and the unstoppable duo of Fran Kirby and Ramona Bacchman caused havoc all season long up top. The formation was perfect for getting the best out of Chelsea’s key players. They utilized two key ways of playing throughout 2017-18, both of which proved effective. The first way was for the centre backs to play it wide to the fullbacks – Hannah Blundell and Jonna Andersson – and then up quick to Fran Kirby or Ramona Bachmann, giving them all the time in the world to showcase their talent and cause havoc for the opposition. Their other key method of playing was through the middle where Mjele and Ji were seemingly always on the ball and would dictate the tempo of the game. They’d attack through the middle with the help of Drew Spence and then send it through for the speed-demons up top in Kirby and Bachmann. With many other teams playing in a 4-4-2 system, Hayes’ Chelsea always had a numerical advantage in the midfield where Drew Spence and Ji So-Yun would do wonderfully well to take advantage.
Emma Hayes credits constant dialogue and constant communication between herself and the players as one of the key reasons why her Chelsea team were so successful in 2017-18. But undoubtedly, her 3-5-2 formation that allowed every single one of her stars to fit into the team perfectly was a massive reason for their success as well.
Other Examples: Eintracht Frankfurt, Lazio, Wolverhampton Wanderers.
PEP’S BAYERN MUNICH: 4-1-4-1
Pep Guardiola was known for tinkering and tampering with traditional formations in his time with Bayern Munich. At times he even looked like he was bringing back the old WW formation (2-3-2-3). But by far his most commonly used, and most successful formation came with the 4-1-4-1, which has grown in popularity since the Spaniard’s time in the Bundesliga. The 4-1-4-1 is rooted in possession, but also relies on having tactically flexible and physically fit players who can occupy more than one role at a time. It also has a heavy reliance on the pivot – the 1 after the back four. Some teams might struggle with this formation as a result, but Bayern Munich never had a problem with it given that they had players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Philipp Lahm at their disposal. By Schweinsteiger or Lahm/Martinez having such a massive task, it was crucial that Bayern kept possession to minimize the amount of lateral shifting that the pivot would have to do. The more talented central/attacking midfielders then had more of a free-role, allowing them to get the best out of what they did well, such as create chances. When Bayern lost possession, it was often high up the pitch and they often allowed themselves to regroup through tactical fouling; something also seen heavily in Guardiola’s early days at Manchester City. Through use of this formation and other tactical nuances Guardiola employed, the Spaniard achieved a remarkable win percentage of 75% during his time in Bavaria. The 4-1-4-1 formation remains one of the most commonly used systems in world football today and it is likely directly related to Pep Guardiola’s success with the formation at Bayern Munich for three years.
READ MORE: 4-3-3 vs. 4-1-4-1: Tactical Flexibility
Other Examples: Pep’s Manchester City, Pellegrini’s West Ham.
KLOPP’S LIVERPOOL: 4-3-3
Jurgen Klopp has revolutionized Liverpool back into one of Europe’s most dominant outfits since his arrival back in 2015. With an astonishing win percentage of 76%, this season has been the German’s very best at the Kop and a major reason why has been his fluid 4-3-3 formation. Ajax and Barcelona have used this formation throughout their existence and are the more traditional examples, but Klopp’s use of the formation as a function of high-pressing, counter-attacking football has been highly commendable. Ajax and Barcelona use the 4-3-3 to create numerical advantages in midfield and create natural triangles everywhere on the pitch, easily keeping possession. Although Klopp’s men have kept 58% of the possession this season, they haven’t always utilized the 4-3-3 in that manner and have instead used it to create numerical advantages when defending in a high press, before quickly springing on the counter-attack and capitalizing on the opposition’s mistakes. It allows players like Mo Salah and Sadio Mane to not have to do a whole lot of defending, while also allowing Roberto Firmino to do all the defending he wants! The 4-3-3 really is just one of the most fluid formations out there and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are an example of a team utilizing a popular system of play in a completely different way than it was initially created to exploit.
Other Examples: Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid.
KOVAC’S BAYERN vs. FAVRE’S DORTMUND: 4-2-3-1
The Bundesliga title race has been one of the most exciting in years. The two teams at the top of the table in Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich play in a completely different manner, yet play the exact same system of play, making this an even more intriguing title battle. Although both had bumpy spells at some point during the 2018-19 campaign, they’ve both flourished through the use of a 4-2-3-1. For the most part, Borussia Dortmund use the formation to play counter attacking football. Delaney and Witsel are often tasked with winning the ball in central midfield, where they then quickly look to create for their their front four. From there Guerreiro, Reus, Sancho and Gotze often exchange intricate passes before they find their opening and pounce. Key to the way BVB play the 4-2-3-1 is waiting for the right moment to attack and waiting for the right moment to pick out the perfect pass. They look to overload one area of the field before switching play and getting their other talented winger involved. If it doesn’t work out the fullbacks or Delaney/Witsel are always quick to win the ball back and allow the front four to play their intricate, one-touch football all over again. With 72 goals scored so far this season in 30 league matches, this has undoubtedly been an effective strategy for Favre’s side. But how about Kovac?
Bayern Munich under Niko Kovac utilize the 4-2-3-1 to allow Thiago Alcantara more time in possession and more time to dictate everything that happens. When Martinez partners the Spanish midfielder, Alcantara can roam around more, particularly when he has the ball at his feet. When Goretzka partners Alcantara, its the German who has the more free role to roam and Alcantara who is required to hold his position more. While maintaining Bayern’s possession-based methodology, this has also eased the pressure on Bayern’s aging back-four by allowing for a double pivot in defense, rather than just one in that a 4-1-4-1 would allow for. It’s also gotten the best out of Thomas Muller again, who has had a successful season playing as the number ten. This is in contrast to Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1 when there was no natural number ten. Niko Kovac’s side might just win the Bundesliga title this season and the 4-2-3-1 has been essential to everything he’s done in his first season in charge.
Other Examples: Mourinho’s Manchester United, Marco Silva’s Everton
SIMEONE’S ATLETICO: 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1
Atletico Madrid concede less goals than just about any other team on the planet. This is despite not even being a possession-based team. Simeone’s side are just so defensively organized and the 4-4-2 has allowed Simeone to create a team of defensive beasts. He’s turned almost every single player he’s ever encountered into a jack of all trades and routinely plays his midfielders or forwards out of position. But importantly, his 4-4-2 system just works so well for his team’s style of play. Simple and basic it may be, it’s so tough to break down when teams like Atletico or France’s World Cup winning squad hold their shape. With two banks of four and disciplined outfielders there is little room for penetration. Meanwhile with two strikers, the formation can be particularly deadly on the break. This is the reason why Antonie Griezmann, a counter-attacking genius, has always flourished in this system. Clubs like Watford and Burnley have produced copycat versions of Simeone’s rugged and tough to break down Atletico Madrid team and have also seen success with it. Both of the aforementioned teams utilized the formation to get into the Europa League; Burnley in 2017-18 and Watford this season. In the post 4-4-2 era, Simeone is a massive reason why this formation is still so heavily used around the world and as long as he’s at Atletico Madrid, La Liga will always have a three-horse title race rather than just the traditional two-horse race of years past.
Other Examples: Wolfsburg Women, Ranieri’s Leicester City, Deschamps’ France.
CONTE’S CHELSEA: 3-4-3
Before Antonio Conte’s arrival in the Premier League, back-three’s were something of a rarity. So when the Italian manager arrived at Stamford Bridge, he didn’t even use his trusted formation and instead tried to adapt to Premier League football. Needless to say, it didn’t work and by the time October rolled around, Chelsea had transformed into a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 formation. This system proved to be the most effective thing Chelsea have probably ever produced and it allowed them to smash Premier League records all over. That historic 2016-17 season under Conte transformed Marcos Alonso into the best attacking left-back in world football, Cesar Azpilicueta into one of the league’s best centre-backs and Victor Moses into a genuinely great footballer for the first time in his career. It also got the best out of David Luiz, who probably has more characteristics that correspond with the definition of a sweeper than any footballer since Beckenbauer.
Kante realized that Matic and Kante could cover enough ground in central areas all on their own and whilst other teams were packing the midfield, Chelsea had plenty of room in wide areas for Moses and Alonso to exploit. At times in 2016-17, Chelsea’s opposition had to defend against two sets of wingers and this attacking overload just became far too much to handle. With the pace and power of their front three, accompanied by their solid base in behind, Chelsea really were unstoppable. In defense they shifted easily into a 5-4-1 and the duo of Kante/Matic played an essential role in starting the attacks when possession was won back. This 3-4-3 under Antonio Conte should forever go down as the greatest example of a formation leading a team to victory. As a result, it rightly deserves to be one of the most closely examined systems for the rest of time.
Other Examples: Benitez’s Newcastle United, Wolverhampton Wanderers.
So there it is! How some of the best teams in the world have utilized formations to gain an advantage over their opposition. Obviously any formation is dependent on the players that one has at their disposal, but it also relies on the manager’s tactical awareness of how to get the best out of their players using a specific system. Conte and Guardiola are prime examples of adapting their formations to suit the players they have in their squad and should be used as the prime examples for anyone looking to use a formation as a method of counter-acting the strengths of their opposition over the course of a season.