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  • Writer's pictureMilton Ceita Da Costa

The Idea(l) of Formations, Squad Numbers & Positions

Fans and pundits alike are obsessed with formations. Some coaches and players too. But why ?

Formations are important, mainly for helping to conceptualize the initial appearance of the team on the field. But formations are no longer the be-all end-all they once were and have not been for quite some time. Teams are less rigid than before. It must be noted however, that throughout history, there have been periods in which certain nations have forgone the dogmatic devotion to formations.

Furthermore, the interpretation of the formation is much more important than the formation itself, that is the system dictates the substance and style and therefore the outcome. We have all witnessed a match on television, or now in 2020, streaming, and have seen the formation graphic appear on the screen and once the game starts we see that the players are not lined up as earlier noted. Sometimes, the tv or streaming providers got it wrong. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of team and player interpretation, particularly as the game progresses and teams and players adapt to one another.

And this is where we see styles so often clash ; interpretation. A 5-3-2 is often deemed defensive (five defenders at the back) while a 3-5-2 less so. In initial display there is little difference between the two. There is more difference in Mourinho’s steely 4-3-3 in his initial spell with Chelsea and Guardiola’s suffocating 4-3-3 at Barcelona. The same numbers, the same layout but vastly different styles. To return to the 3-5-2/5-3-2 example : the 4-4-2 diamond can resemble a 3-5-2 in possession, with the #6 dropping between the CB’s or to one side of them and the fullbacks pushing up. The #10 can drop to add a third player in the center midfield area. What do we have ? A 3-5-2. But it was not described as such initially. Furthermore, if this team does indeed translate it’s 4-4-2 diamond into a 3-5-2, it is unlikely that it will remain this way. On the contrary, it will only be done in periods, primarily when circulating the ball.

If formations were indeed so restrictive, many modern top teams would play with three at the back, because the 6 (or one of the 6’s as almost all teams now play with one or two designated deep-lying midfielders), often drops to join the back line as the fullbacks push high up the field and stay wide. Again it is not constant, it is not an ever-present, particularly out of possession but it is a strategy implemented to help play the ball out from the back, aid in switching the field of play, pushing wingers/inside forwards/wide forwards farther infield, add protection in the backline, counteract high pressing and temporarily liberate the middle of the park for various possible reasons. Liverpool is an example. Fabinho (or captain, Jordan Henderson) will take a position in the back, often right of center between Matip/Lovren/Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Alexander-Arnold and his marauding companion on the opposite flank, Andy Robertson, now have more freedom to push higher up the field as they have a stronger base behind them. They stay wide, allowing Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah to come farther infield into the half spaces to join Roberto Firmino. Liverpool however, routinely, lineup in a 4-3-3 and although it is not the 4-4-2 diamond tweaking itself into a 3-5-2, the concepts remain.

Even the traditional 4-4-2, for so long the trademark of many teams, is rarely a true 4-4-2 for an entire game. Teams often fall into this when defending because it provides two banks of four. But how different is a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 ? The wide midfielders push up and one of the strikers drops deeper. Or a 4-4-1-1, a fairly self-explanatory adaptation. Or returning to the 4-3-3, it itself has a more conservative setup in the 4-1-4-1.


There are many more examples, recent or older ; Franz Beckenbauer was a sweeper and yet had more of an attacking impact than most players stationed higher up the field... 


Heat maps and average positioning maps offer a more accurate description of players positioning within a match and thus the key to strategy : the animation and interpretation of a formation. A left fullback (Jordi Alba, for example) in certain games could appear to operate almost as a left winger but he is not placed in that position on a formation graphic.

This is not to dismiss the idea of formations but to simply reevaluate the reliance on and obsession with them. Maybe we should look more closely as how we name positions.

This writer joined an American club in 2019 as a youth coach and was told, along with the other coaches, to use numbers to refer to positions to better teach the young players the future of football. It was not an issue ; it was something he had been doing for a time now and it was similar in France where he garnered most of his coaching experience. However, the idea bothered him still.

Across the world, countries have evolved from using terms such as central attacking midfielder (CAM) to #10 or have always used numbers to differentiate positions. But even this is not universal. The classic French #6, for instance, is the #5 in Argentina and the #4 in the Netherlands. The British now refer to the deepest-lying midfielders as a #6 as well and they may have invented the sport but few would argue against the influence the Argentines and the Dutch have had in football. Which one is correct ? History does not lie and the sports’ evolution in these three countries alone provide ample reason for each country’s specific numerical appellation of each position. So, if we want to be universal, is the American way of CDM’s and CAM’s the way to go ? Perhaps not. One would not argue with Claude Makélélé, the standard-bearer of “watercarriers” and “destroyers”, being termed a defensive midfielder but naming Sergio Busquets at his and Barcelona’s peaks or Frenkie de Jong as such would be a misrepresentation at best. Olivier Giroud is a striker known less for his goalscoring and more for his target play, his linkup prowess and his defensive work. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi despite operating in traditional winger areas for much of their careers, popularized the “inside forward” role. There are many more examples, recent or older ; Franz Beckenbauer was a sweeper and yet had more of an attacking impact than most players stationed higher up the field.

So, again the question is, which is the way to go ? A universal numbering system ? Accepting cultural differences despite more globalization than ever before ? New more specific terms ? This does not provide an answer but hopefully an opening of ideas and minds.

As a coach, the use of particular words can be extremely helpful in explaining to players what their role is. And that may be one of the future avenues, where we look at roles more than at formations, numbers or positions. This is something we perhaps could and should explore further.

So next time we see a formation and make immediate conclusions or we are talking about positions or comparing players, maybe we should take a moment to ask what we are really look at and why.

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