Former Bayern Munich head coach Pep Guardiola is one of the masters of tactics and formations in modern football, something he showed during his time in the Bundesliga. - © © gettyimages / Alexander Hassenstein
Former Bayern Munich head coach Pep Guardiola is one of the masters of tactics and formations in modern football, something he showed during his time in the Bundesliga. - © © gettyimages / Alexander Hassenstein

Soccer formations explained: 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 3-5-2 and more!


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?

Formation: 4-2-3-1

Don't worry, has all the answers for you.


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.

Other high-profile examples include Borussia Dortmund's title-winning sides under Jürgen Klopp in 2011 and 2012 and Germany's 2014 world champions.

One of the oldest formations still in common useTwo 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 defendingTwo 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 attacksRight 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 duoOne of the central midfielders generally remains in front of the defence while the other gets forward and contributes to attacks. - © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA

Formation: 4-4-2

- © imago

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.


Formation: 4-3-3

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.


Formation: 3-5-2

- © gettyimages / Matthias Hangst

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.

An attacking system first made popular by the dominant Ajax team of the early 1970sBack three require a combined ability to stop opposition attacks and start their own side's forays forwardTwo 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 playersThe 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 minutesAttacking 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 pitchEmphasis on front three players, and ideally one attack-minded midfielder, to get the side's goals - © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA

Formation: 3-4-3

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.

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