We have dug out our white board to explain the most commonly used formations in football so that you can sound like a tactical mastermind. Trying to figure out what a 'holding midfielder' actually holds (if anything)? Don't know a 'flat back four' from a 'three at the back'? Been wondering what a 'wing-back' is and were too afraid to ask?
Don't worry, bundesliga.com has all the answers for you.
- One of the most common formations in the modern game
- Lone striker, with creative No.10 or second striker slightly deeper and flanked by two wide men
- Two holding midfielders provide extra stability in a 'double pivot' system, which enables one to sit deep in front of the centre-backs and the other to get forward
- Full-backs push high up the pitch to contribute to attacking play, overlapping the wingers to get crosses into the box
- System favours triangular passing and allows teams to build attacks from deep
- Requires high-energy movement (especially from full-backs) and forward players getting back to defend when the team loses possession
- Can be adapted to 4-1-4-1 with just one defensive midfielder to provide a more attacking variation
Best Bundesliga example: Bayern Munich
The 4-2-3-1 has become a standard formation not just in Germany, but at elite-level football clubs the world over. Surely the most striking Bundesliga example of recent years was Jupp Heynckes' all-conquering side of 2012/13, who swept aside allcomers to win a historic treble.
Inverted wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery caused havoc out wide – ably assisted by full-backs Philipp Lahm and David Alaba – and scored no fewer than 24 goals between them in all competitions. Heynckes had three effective strikers at his disposal: Mario Mandzukic (22 goals), Mario Gomez (19) and Claudio Pizarro (13), while versatile forward Thomas Müller outdid them all from a No.10 position or further out wide (23).
Watch: Bayern Munich, treble winners 2012/13
Toni Kroos was the outstanding creative player in midfield, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Luiz Gustavo took it in turns mopping up in front of the defence as the Bavarians conceded just 18 goals in 34 games, storming to the Bundesliga crown by 25 points and going on to triumph in the UEFA Champions League and DFB Cup.
- One of the oldest formations still in common use
- Two lines of four defenders and four midfielders make it one of the most stable formations. Teams using different systems sometimes revert to 4-4-2 when defending
- Two strikers, meaning there is an extra outlet in attack and more for opposition defences to deal with. At least one of the frontmen will be adept at shielding the ball and holding up play so that other players can get forward and join in with attacks
- Right and left midfielders provide width and are again supported by the full-backs, with all expected to provide crosses into the box for the strike duo
- One of the central midfielders generally remains in front of the defence while the other gets forward and contributes to attacks.
Best Bundesliga example: RB Leipzig
With shades of Wolfsburg's full-throttle title winners of 2009, Leipzig burst onto the Bundesliga scene in 2016/17, employing football's most timeless formation to devastating effect on their way to second place – not bad for a maiden top-flight campaign! Ralph Hasenhüttl's side were able to rely on the lightning-quick pace of forward Timo Werner, who notched no fewer than 21 goals in the Bundesliga.
Wingers Marcel Sabitzer and Emil Forsberg also did their fair share from out wide, with both scoring eight goals and the latter providing a league-high 19 assists. Crucially, Hasenhüttl found stability in the middle as he had any two of Naby Keita, Diego Demme and Stefan Ilsanker anchoring the midfield, with the former also chipping in with eight goals. That balance was reflected in the stats as Leipzig finished ahead of Dortmund with the Bundesliga's third-best attack and third-best defence.
- A formation that has enjoyed great success since the all-conquering Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach sides of the 1970s
- Three midfielders enable a team to dominate the middle of the pitch, especially against opponents with just two central midfielders
- Three forwards give a wider range of options in attack and force opposition full-backs to stay in defence
- Requires technical players with quick feet and excellent passing skills
- The system usually includes one defensive midfielder and two 'box-to-box' midfielders who help to build attacks
- The central striker must be capable of holding up the ball to bring his fellow forwards into play
Best Bundesliga example: Borussia Mönchengladbach
The Foals have been fans of this set-up since the days of Lucien Favre at Borussia-Park when Marco Reus, Mike Hanke and Juan Arango ran riot as a complementary front three. The rampaging trio spearheading their charge is now Thorgan Hazard, Alassane Plea and Lars Stindl, and the results could potentially be even better under Dieter Hecking.
Watch: Mönchengladbach teach Bayern a lesson
Effective through the middle in Stindl's injury-enforced absence, Plea's switch to the left did not blunt the side's cutting edge with Gladbach registering more than two goals a game on average in the first 11 matches of the 2018/19 season.
Jonas Hofmann and Florian Neuhaus plough forward to create an overwhelming attacking force while full-backs Michael Lang and Oscar Wendt provide width and options going forward in addition to their 'day jobs' at the back. In front of the defence, Tobias Strobl has excelled in snuffing out the danger, and goalkeeper Yann Sommer has stopped virtually everything thrown at him.
- A formation that has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, favoured by upcoming young coaches such as Julian Nagelsmann and Domenico Tedesco
- Three centre-backs, three midfielders and two wing-backs, which theoretically provides greater defensive stability and more options in attack
- A demanding system requiring tactical discipline and intelligence
- The centre-backs must have excellent positioning, aerial presence and the ability to play out from the back, especially against teams who press high up the pitch
- The wing-backs are also crucial. They must be tactically aware and extremely fit, driving forward to contribute to attacks but also sprinting back to defend if necessary.
- The three-man defence makes it easier to neutralise opponents' counter-attacks
- Can easily be adapted to a 5-3-2 in which the wing-backs take up a chiefly defensive role, notably when their team does not have possession of the ball
Best Bundesliga example: Hoffenheim
The Sinsheim outfit have perfected the system that took them to a best-ever third-place finish in 2017/18. Captain Kevin Vogt, at the heart of the back three, was key with his positioning and ability to play the ball out of defence crucial to the side with and without the ball. While Kevin Akpoguma, Havard Nordtveit, Benjamin Hübner and Ermin Bicakcic provided sturdy options for Nagelsmann alongside Vogt, Pavel Kaderabek and Nico Schulz revelled in the wing-back role that gave them just as much licence to spring forward as demanded of them to get back and defend when the ball was lost.
They found themselves more often on the front foot though as only champions Bayern Munich outdid the team's tally of 66 goals. Mark Uth provided 14 of those as part of a productive front two with Andrej Kramaric (13 goals). On-loan Bayern man Serge Gnabry chipped in too (10 goals) with the likes of Florian Grillitsch, Lukas Rupp and Steven Zuber providing the energy and ball-winning grit in midfield to complement the guile of Kerim Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri.
- An attacking system first made popular by the dominant Ajax team of the early 1970s
- Back three require a combined ability to stop opposition attacks and start their own side's forays forward
- Two central midfielders operate either as a 'double pivot' or in a 'diamond' formation with one 'sitting' to protect the defence when the other provides support to the attacking players
- The two wing-backs — like with the 3-5-2 system — need to contribute as much going forward as they do defending, making them key to this system. They must cover a lot of ground at speed and throughout the 90 minutes
- Attacking trio are usually employed across the front of the formation and are required to press opposition defenders to hinder their distribution and — hopefully — win back possession quickly and high up the pitch
- Emphasis on front three players, and ideally one attack-minded midfielder, to get the side's goals
Best Bundesliga example: Eintracht Frankfurt
Only early 2018/19 season pacesetters Borussia Dortmund scored more Bundesliga goals before the November international break than Adi Hütter's high-flying Eagles. Ante Rebic's return to fitness gave Hütter the option of playing his first-choice front three with the Croatia international joining Luka Jovic in playing either side of Sebastien Haller, whose physique and selflessness has made the Frenchman an extremely effective focal point in attack, and the three had a hand in all but two of their team's 26 goals in the first 11 matches of the league season.
The support at both ends of the pitch from wide positions provided by Filip Kostic and Danny Da Costa was invaluable with Gelson Fernandes and Jonathan de Guzman solid in central midfield — affording the back three a shield — as well as possessing more than sufficient ability to use the ball efficiently and effectively.
The use of Makoto Hasebe, a hardworking midfielder by trade, as one of the three defenders upgraded distribution from the back with the likes of David Abraham and Evan N'Dicka an able supporting cast while Kevin Trapp was a reliable last line of defence.