Although we all love the beautiful game, we may watch for different reasons. Some tune in as a family tradition. Others for personal or professional interest. And still others purely for the sake of entertainment. Here, today, I hope to add one more reason to your list if it’s there already: watch to learn. Specifically, to learn how a football club compiles individual contributions of skill, athleticism, intelligence, and desire, and stations those facets of the game for collective success. This is my working definition of football tactics inherent to formations.
Below, grouped by formation and sectioned by league (with a focus on the top 4 European leagues for the sake of succinctness), are my personal recommendations on sides who, at present, are employing these formations within a system of play to remarkable effect. And if we’re watching to learn, we may as well learn from the best. (Note: * = top recommendation within each group).
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund
A change at the helm for the ‘21-‘22 season has seen BVB employ a 4-4-2 Diamond as a preferred formation, arguably to maximize returns from world-class attacking youngsters at the expense of defensive solidity. 19 goals for and 13 goals against in just 7 games speaks for itself. Nonetheless, to this point, Dortmund have been showing the world an accurate depiction of the modern 4-1-2-1-2, warts and all.
EPL: EvertonEmbed from Getty Images
Surprised? Same here! But Everton’s strong league position and recent 1-1 result at Old Trafford with arguably their best players out injured all justifies their inclusion in this list. Playing a cool 4-4-1-1, “The Toffees” are a balanced, disciplined outfit who only look like getting better as the season goes on.
La Liga: VillarrealEmbed from Getty Images
Don’t let Villareal’s current league position deter you; this Spanish side intends to compete with the best. A successful Europa League title run last season has seen European commitment increased to Champions League status for the year, where results have also been mixed so far. While not using the 4-4-2 quite as often as last season, Villarreal is still a team worth the watch.
Serie A: JuventusEmbed from Getty Images
A slow start in the league has left every Juventus fixture riddled with angst. But, even with this constant pressure, their most recent performances have been more refined, or at least more effective. Still primarily utilizing a straightforward 4-4-2 set-up, Juventus are an absolute must-watch for anyone studying the formation’s merits and pitfalls.
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich
They had to pop up somewhere here didn’t they? In a world riddled with makeshift 4-2-3-1’s, Bayern’s version is at the very top. A side whose potential is limited only by the ticking game clock, Bayern look perpetually dominant, even in defeat. While other names on this list pick the 4-2-3-1 for its defensive stability, Bayern demonstrate its incisive, creative merits with incredible consistency. It’s good to be the king.
EPL: Manchester UnitedEmbed from Getty Images
Perhaps the antithesis of the above, Man U’s incredible potential has thus far been shackled by inconsistency. Sticking to a star-studded 4-2-3-1 for the moment, Manchester United are still a fun watch, especially for the neutral. Add a little more identity and this side could really compete this season, both domestically and in European competition.
La Liga: Real Sociedad
It may be a bit harsh to call the two-time title winners and recent Copa del Rey Champions La Liga’s designated dark horse, but that seems to be the part Real Sociedad are happy to play for the moment. Currently third with an eye to better last season’s fifth place finish, this roster of increasingly recognizable names may soon outgrow that role.
Serie A: AC MilanEmbed from Getty Images
One of many Serie A title contenders for this season, Milan are an excellent example of a 4-2-3-1 with devastating counterattacking capabilities. Building upon strong results from prior seasons, AC Milan look like a team with both an excellent tactical identity and ability to tailor their approach to each opponent. As long as their squad depth can support their ambitions, this side remains capable of greatness.
Bundesliga: Bayer LeverkusenEmbed from Getty Images
A change in manager hasn’t necessarily led to a change in formation for the German side, but my goodness have the results indicated progress. Currently second in the league with their only loss being a controversial and contested home match against Borussia Dortmund, this young, talented side are up for the fight. Built on counterattacking prowess, it will be interesting to see just how high Leverkusen’s ceiling can reach this season.
In all honesty, Liverpool is always worth the watch. Rehabilitated and reinvigorated, the Reds are back to their very best, sitting second in the league and currently on an undefeated run. For those looking to see a high-press, high-energy 4-3-3 in action, it doesn’t get much better than Klopp’s team.
La Liga: Real MadridEmbed from Getty Images
Perhaps a team in transition, or at least preparing for a natural changing of the guard, Real Madrid haven’t let their standards of performance dip. And despite being on the receiving end of some shock upsets, they are still in a strong position across all competitions. In addition to playing attractive football, they make the 4-3-3 look seamless, with each and every player perfectly understanding their role.
Serie A: NapoliEmbed from Getty Images
At the time of writing, Napoli have won every game they’ve played in Serie A, scoring 18 goals with just 3 conceded in 7 matches. This absolutely stunning start to the season is their reward for tactical astuteness, technical ability, and good old-fashioned will to win. And while no Champions League this season mars their watchability, their league form has been the main course anyways.
Bundesliga: FC Union Berlin
The 3-5-2’s relatively limited popularity in the German league sees The Iron Ones make the list. Far from unearned, FC Union Berlin qualified for the inaugural Europa Conference League and currently sit seventh in the Bundesliga this year with only one loss.
If you haven’t seen Brentford play this season, treat yourself and do so. Employing an energetic 3-5-2, Brentford play with a fervor catalyzed by their recent promotion from the Championship. A unique directorial backstory coupled with early points taken off top sides makes Brentford an exhilarating watch, and the epitome of a good 3-5-2 team.
La Liga: Atletico MadridEmbed from Getty Images
With a recent, all-too-comfortable 2-0 win over Barcelona, the ‘20-‘21 La Liga victors appear to be on the right path toward defending their title. Playing a ‘safety first’ 3-5-2 that actually looks like a classic sweeper/stopper 4-4-2 (and, consequently, is often more accurately recorded as a 3-1-4-2), Atletico are saturated with top talent from front to back. A sampling of La Liga, or modern football in general, is incomplete without this side in the mix. The best part of all? Simeone only made this switch away from the 4-4-2 last year (after over a decade deploying it), and the team have reaped the benefits since.
Serie A: Inter MilanEmbed from Getty Images
Despite losing multiple key members of their Scudetto winning side, Inter are still a tough team to beat. Boasting a backline built on 1v1 heroics and an attack that plays both possession-based and counterattacking football to great effect, Inter narrowly missed the nod as quintessential flag-bearers, but remain a top team to watch for those interested in seeing the 3-5-2 in action.
3-4-3 / 3-4-2-1
Bundesliga: RB LeipzigEmbed from Getty Images
While thus far regularly using the 4-2-3-1 this season, RB Leipzig have recently been one of the most adaptable teams in the Bundesliga (if not the world) when it comes to switching formations. And with some disappointing results to start the season triggering a return to a three back system, Leipzig would likely still be the German team to watch for in a 3-4-3, even if based a bit more on the past than present.
Well-drilled, disciplined, and deadly on the counter, Chelsea are without a doubt the team to watch for a 3-4-3 tutorial (played as a 3-4-2-1). Regardless of opponent or competition, every player at every position knows what is expected of them and works in the best interest of the team as a whole. With a collective mindset like that, does formation even matter?
See more -> Thomas Tuchel – Chelsea – Tactical Analysis
La Liga: BarcelonaEmbed from Getty Images
Big stretch here, but for a good reason… back three systems are of limited popularity in the Spanish league. Barcelona, along with Atletico, have been one of the few powerhouses to utilize them in recent seasons. So sure, tune in to Barcelona… but don’t be surprised if you see a different set up, perhaps one more popular amongst the Barca faithful and powers that be.
Serie A: Atalanta
If Chelsea’s 3-4-3 is a matte iron helmet, Atalanta’s is a shining silver sword. Attack-minded perhaps to a fault, the Italian side has been both a talent factory and top four mainstay in recent times. Given their extensive fixture commitments and positive start in the Champions League, Atalanta are a great and accessible side to watch when studying the practical applications of the 3-4-3 formation.
So there it is! The flag-bearers of football formations in October 2021. Be sure to check out more Formation related articles, and follow on Twitter @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
You might also enjoy…
After turning a few heads during his loan spell at West Bromwich Albion last season, Conor Gallagher has turned several heads in 2021-22, with his stunning displays for Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace. Gallagher fits into Vieira’s 4-3-3 like a fever dream, and has become the most important player in a normally Zaha-reliant set-up. So with that, today we take a look at why Conor Gallagher has been so effective for Crystal Palace, after his first 19 appearances for the Eagles. Here is our latest tactical analysis.
This past weekend, Juventus squared up against fellow Serie A heavyweights, AC Milan, at San Siro for a much-anticipated clash of top-four hopefuls. Despite its potential, the match played out as a midseason stalemate, with players from both sides looking a little listless. But past the lack of goals (or shots on goal in the case of Juventus), the more measured pace of play offers one distinct advantage to viewers: a clear view of formational repositioning based on phase of play. In other words, a game model at work.
Sadio Mane may not have as much versatility in skillset as Firmino and Salah, but his talent levels are supreme. Out of all the candidates, Emmanuel Dennis might be the closest clone. The Nigerian forward is just sheer speed and scoring power, which, without underselling all of this, is Mane to a tee. Then you have Rafael Leao, who is so much more skillful than the Senegalese, but lacks the exact trait we would most want to find in a future Mane replacement (better scoring and shooting accuracy). So with that, we have to go with…