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Beyond the 4-4-2: A practical guide to formations

Hello, Sounderatheart community.  Since I have been recently added as an "official" author at this site, I should probably introduce myself.  My name is Jake and I am a Sounders Supporter.  But more than that, I am a student of the game, and this is a result of what I realized a few years ago was my tactical and technical naivete of soccer.  I had grown up playing and continue to play to this day in local rec. leagues, but it was also becoming clear that what I saw on T.V. was far different from what I had been playing most of my life. 

Insufficient graphics, and announcers' seeming unwillingness to discuss tactical and positional nuance, had led me to be lost in a dizzying world of fullbacks who played like wingers, central midfielders who played like advanced center backs, forwards who played like midfielders.  Everyone, it seemed, played a 4-4-2, with two flat lines of mids and defenders with two forwards arbitrarily stuck in front of them all.  Even worse were print or internet accounts, which seemed determined to list a player with obvious attacking and goal scoring ability as an "M" and nothing else.  There had to be a method to this madness, I would tell myself, I was perfectly aware of the extreme fluidity of the game, particularly compared to "mainstream" American sports, but there had to be a way to understand this. 

So I set about educating myself.  I set about trying to really grasp what was happening out there for 90 minutes, and I found the experience to be, at times, exasperating.  The information would trickle in in scarce tidbits, and it quickly became clear that technical discussions about the game are, quite frankly, frowned upon in many quarters.  There is a tradition, English in origin, that tactics are fundamentally cynical.  To spend too much time parsing out the details of the game is intrinsically flawed.  It is about our 11 against your 11 and the rest be damned.  This attitude is, to me, the very height of bullshit. 

If you want to know the answer as to why someone like Nathan Sturgis is an automatic first XI player, the answer lies in technical nuance, not bizarre theories about lack of managerial intelligence.  If you want to know why Ljungberg failed with this team, the answer is not that he is a self-important whinger (although that very well may be the case) it is in the details of the system (soccer is full of self-important whingers, by the way).  If you want to know why Nate Jaqua is perhaps the most under-rated player on the entire roster, it's not because of his perceived awkwardness, its because he fills a role that is only noticeable in its absence. 

I started writing this piece last off-season for my own sense of understanding and for a few of my friends that weren't as well-versed in the particulars of the game.  As such, some of this may be a little remedial for those who are more well-versed in the finer points of soccer, but my goal was to write this for ALL audiences and I hope I have succeeded. I put this aside until near the end of the season, when I added numerous tweaks and considerable content, and it was decided it should be run during the off-season as the first in a series of pieces I will be contributing in the coming weeks. Please excuse the simple graphics, as plain text is just the easiest way to work without running into formatting issues.  Without any further ado:

Beyond the 4-4-2: a practical guide to formations.

Even the most casual of football followers are probably familiar with the most basic and seemingly prevalent lineup in contemporary football, the 4-4-2.  The concept is simple enough: 4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 forwards.  There will be a midfielder and defender on each flank, and 2 each in the middle.  The 2 forwards will be responsible for the entire width between them, but given the fact that the goal is in the middle, they will concentrate their efforts there.  Easy enough... and it usually ends up getting shown to us as something like this:

----x-----x----

-x---x---x---x-

-x---x---x---x-

While I'm sure everyone who watches football is comfortable with that shape, I'm here to tell you that hardly anyone plays that way.

Granted, this system DOES exist, but its also so exceedingly rare, its almost extinct.  Now, this isn't to say the 4-4-2 doesn't exist, it just rarely looks like that...

First, you have to look at the logical pairings that system presents.  There is a pairing of the two center backs, the two center mids, and the two strikers.  It makes sense you would want to find complimentary players to fulfill those positions, and it makes sense they would have slightly differing skill-sets.

In addition to that, in order to maintain balance and symmetry in your formation, it follows that the wide players would also form a sort of pairing, since you wouldn't necessarily want lose your shape by having outside midfielders play different roles from each other.  [Warning!  Asymmetrical formations do exist, and are actually quite common.  Having said that, in order to keep this piece to a reasonable length, I will not be spending much time discussing this, just know it exists!]

There are a few important concepts to keep in mind when talking about formations.  First and foremost, football is a very fluid game, by which I mean that within the very nature of the game there is tremendous freedom given to individual players to move around the pitch.  This is an aspect that I have found Americans can have a hard time with.  Big-time American sports, particularly baseball and tackle-football, are very positionally rigid.  By contrast, in soccer-football, it is not only common, but reasonably expected that a defender is going to push forward and a forward is going to drift back.

This leads to the second important concept:  Formations are guides or suggestions.  Granted, there are coaches and players who adopt a more rigid approach to formations, but even this, comparatively, is far more ambiguous than in American sports. I prefer to think of formations as a sort of short-hand to what a team is doing tactically and personnel-wise.

And that leads to the third important concept:  it is simply not worth the time to get too caught up on nomenclature and semantics.   I have had far too many otherwise enlightening discussions about formations and tactics ruined by nit-picking over whether a player is a "winger" or a "midfielder", a "CAM" or a "deep-lying playmaker", a "center forward" or a "striker".  In football, you must look beyond the labels.  Everything is relative.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly:  Formations are neutral!  Remember this.  A "4-5-1" does not mean the formation is intrinsically conservative or defensive, just as a "3-4-3" does not mean its recklessly attacking.  Too many people make the mistake of not looking beyond the numerical formation designation.  To properly understand football you must not do this!

7 layers
Despite the fact that most formation names imply there are three layers, there are in fact a lot more.  For starters, there are attacking midfielders and defensive midfielders.  In Italy there is the concept of the trequartista (or "three quarters") which is a player who plies his trade between the midfield and forward layer.  This is not unlike the Argentinean concept of the "enganche", who was the creative spark of the team, the "playmaker" who played in front of the other midfielders.

There are also multiple layers of forwards.  There are rear forwards, usually known as "withdrawn forwards" or "2nd strikers" who usually drift back from the top-most layer, looking for space or possession of the ball. 

There are even multiple layers of defense.  In the 60's and 70's it became popular to line up an extra defender, or "sweeper" (also called a "libero" from its Italian roots) who could be said to play just behind the other defenders, providing extra cover.  In many contemporary cases, outside defenders (fullbacks) will play slightly higher than center backs.

I would define 7 layers as follows.
layer..................attack %
top forward.......100%   
rear forward......83
attack. mid........67
midfielder..........50
defens. mid.......33
fullback..............17
sweeper.............0

I don't want you to get caught up too much on the "attack %" values I have assigned, its just a guide for those more numerically inclined.

Also, these "layers" are very ambiguous, and relative to one another.  The distinction between any two layers can really be very blurry, and is often not worth getting too caught up on.  While there is a clear difference between a "50-50" midfielder and a rear forward, there isn't necessarily one between a rear forward and an attacking mid, and an attacking mid and a "50-50" mid.

Also, keep in mid that "bands" and "layers" are different.  I hope this nomenclature becomes clear as we look at formations.

So we are going to look at formations in contemporary football.  It helps to understand the game, and why certain players will be chosen over others in lineups.  And, or course, it helps to demonstrate, in a clear, graphical manner, what a team's overall, general approach to the match will be. 

First, an extremely brief history lesson:
the old 2-3-5
-x-----x-----x-
----x-----x----

---x---x---x---


----x-----x----

This was the basic formation of football for most of the early part of the 20th century.  As you can see, it consisted of 5 forwards, 3 "halfbacks" and 2 "fullbacks".  Over time, at least one (if not both) of the inside forwards (the slightly withdrawn left-center and right-center forwards) drifted back into the midfield.  The center half eventually became a center back,  which pushed the fullbacks wide (this is why the British still refer to center backs as "center halves") and eventually a 3-3-4 or 3-4-3, with a square midfield, evolved.  Eventually a 4th defender was added out of the midfield and systems like the 4-2-4 or 4-3-3 became prevalent. 

This is an extremely condensed historical summary.  If you want to know everything you could ever want to know about this history, read "Inverting the Pyramid" by Jonathan Wilson...

The 4-4-2
"traditional" 4-4-2
-----x---x-----

-x-----------x-
------x-x------

-x-----------x-
------x-x------

On many formation graphics they would have you believe there are two flat lines of 4, but for all practical purposes this is played with the outside players pushed slightly higher than the middle players, which I have reflected by placing the outside mids on the "attacking mid" layer.  The fact that fullbacks usually push higher up the pitch is reflected in them being shown a layer higher than the center backs. 

4-4-2 with CAM
(using stopper-sweeper)
-----x---x-----

-------x-------
-x-----x-----x-

-x-----x-----x-
-------x-------

In many cases, one of the team's center mids will be the "playmaker" or primary creative spark.  This player will usually push a little more forward and become a center attacking midfielder (CAM).

I'm showing this defense because it has actually become a very common formation at the youth and recreational levels here in America.  The "stopper" is the higher of the two center backs, who will take on marking assignments and be free to push forward into the midfield on the attack, or to disrupt the flow of the opposition attack.  The "sweeper" is mostly obsolete and virtually extinct at the higher levels of the sport.  For the most part, the presence of a central, defensive midfielder (CDM) has meant that the two center backs both play at the "sweeper" level. 

4-4-2 with CDM
(rendering stopper obsolete)
-----x---x-----

-x-----------x-
-------x-------
-------x-------
-x-----------x-
------x-x------

The central defensive midfielder (CDM) became a very important player in the 90's and by the turn of the century, in many cases, he became one of the most important players in football.  This may be the key defensive player on the team, whose job it is to disrupt the other teams' flow and win the ball, passing it off to the wings or attacking mids.  He will also drop very deep and become almost an auxiliary center back, playing a role very close to the "stopper" mentioned above. 

The story of the growth of the CDM, or "holding" midfielder is really deserving of its own article, but the cliff notes version is that it is the logical response to countering opposing CAM's or withdrawn forwards (and we'll get into withdrawn forwards in just a bit here).  It has reached a level where the role has become indispensable, and you'll be hard-pressed to find systems in contemporary football which don't include one.

4-4-2 "diamond"
(aka 4-diamond-2)
----x-----x----

-------x-------
---x-------x---
-------x-------
-x-----------x-
------x-x------

What's important to note about this formation is that the outside mids are not "wingers", and overall it means a narrower midfield.  Fullbacks are usually expected to push forward and help provide width.  A hallmark of this system is the importance of the CAM/playmaker, who plays in support of the two strikers and pulls the strings to the team's attack.  He is often a gifted all-around attacker who will need to able to make pinpoint passes, as well as dribble, make runs, and possess a good long-range shot.

In all these formations I show two strikers playing up top.  Whether you want to call these players strikers, forwards, center forwards, or whatever else is largely a matter of semantics.  At the end of the day, they are basically referred to as "strike partnerships," and like any partnership, the two players are going to need to have complimentary abilities.

At some point, however, it became clear that a logical pairing was to put a "target man" or "center forward" type with more of a "playmaker" type.  This may have started with Argentina using Diego Maradona, their "#10" as the second striker in the 3-5-2 they used to win the 1986 World Cup.  At any rate, it was natural that this "2nd striker" was going to "drop off" and pull back into the rear forward layer, or even back into the midfield, and play "in behind" the other striker.  This spot has also come to be called "the hole", as in "Fredy Montero will play in 'the hole' behind Blaise Nkufo".  This is a reference to the space that is naturally created behind the strikers and between the outside mids in most 4-4-2 applications.

In many cases, 2nd strikers just became CAM's, or CAM's pushed high enough to almost become 2nd strikers.  Whatever the evolutionary path, a lot of people started calling it a "4-5-1".  The only problem is, 4-5-1 doesn't begin to tell the story, as it simply ignores the distinct banding of the midfield employed in such formations, as well as making the formation sound defensive, which can be very misleading.  "4-5-1" leaves out a lot of nuance and detail.

The best way to break down the 4-5-1 is to identify the midfield bands.  This is where 4-or more-band systems come into play, and it can all be a bit confusing, especially when a particular "band" can encompass more than one "layer", but that's also why I'm providing graphics to make it all easier to follow.

Far and away the most common formation in the world today is the 4-2-3-1, or some close derivative or interpretation thereof.  It is, in fact, a direct derivative of the 4-4-2.

To explain it all, it helps to follow the evolutionary pattern.  

4-4-2 with "2nd striker" (4-4-1-1)
------x--------
---------x-----
-x-----------x-
-----x---x-----

-x-----------x-
------x-x------

Keep in mind, what we are seeing, with the "traditional" 4-4-2, the 4-4-2 w/ CDM, and the 4-4-1-1 is the definite split of the midfield into attacking and more defensive layers.  In fact, as these become more pronounced, we begin to see the formation taking on the properties of having 4 attackers - the 2 strikers and 2 outside mids - and essentially 6 defenders, with the center mids possibly closer to being "50-50" players.  I show the 4-4-1-1 above with both central mids at the "standard" level, but you are more likely to see one, or both, of these be CDMs.

We're pretty damn close to the 4-2-3-1 here, the distinction being minimal and the line completely blurry.  The way I have shown the strikers is quite arbitrary: If the higher striker prefers the left then the 2nd striker will shift a bit right, or vice versa.  Or they may both play more or less central, with the top forward a "target man" staying more central and the 2nd striker in a free role, roaming more side to side.  As is often the case any more, the "2nd" striker has become a hybrid of a striker and a "playmaker" type, and will drift back into the midfield more often to find not only the ball but space.  In many, cases, particularly the latter, I'm inclined to just call it the 4-2-3-1.
 
4-2-3-1
-------x-------

--x----x----x--

-----x---x-----
-x-----------x-
------x-x------

This is the "classic" representation of the 4-2-3-1.  A lone striker or target man supported by three attcking mids and/or withdrawn forwards, two holding mids, and a standard back 4.  This has become the "de-facto" default formation for football the world over, replacing the 4-4-2 for the most part.

It's vitally important to remember that the difference between any one layer and the next is indistinct, and moving any one player one layer doesn't change much in the grand scheme of things.  If  the CAM is really a "2nd striker" it is still, essentially, a 4-2-3-1.  There just isn't always a big difference between an "attacking mid" and a "rear forward". 

What defines the 4-2-3-1 every bit as much as the shape of the 4 "attackers" -- as mentioned earlier -- is the two CDMs, or holding midfielders.  This is the logical evolution of the "traditional" 4-4-2: as outside mids became more attacking, central mids became more defending.  However, even though these holding mids play relatively deep, they aren't always primarily defensive players, which is something I'll get into a bit later.  The other thing you'll notice is the "W" shape in the middle of the formation, which is conducive to the passing triangles that are so fundamental to the game.  This is a system that lends itself to playing possession football. 

In all my graphics, I'm overlooking one relevant caveat, which is that formations don't need to be symmetrical.  In fact, asymmetrical formations go back to Brazil in the 1950's, who would run what amounted to a 4-3-3 that was really a lopsided 4-2-4.  At any rate, This is an element I'm going to overlook, mainly to keep this piece shorter than novel length.  I will highlight one example, given the fact that almost every team of significance in the 2010 World Cup ran some version or take on a 4-2-3-1, and not all of them were symmetrical:
"lopsided" 4-2-3-1
-------x-------
---x-----------
-------x---x---
----x----------
---------x---x-
-x-------------
------x-x------

I show this just as an example, this certainly isn't the only way to present a "lopsided" formation, and it looks like a jumbled mess at first but if you look closely enough you can still see the bands of the 4-2-3-1.  Starting from the top you have a "lone striker", in the band of 3 behind him the left wing is pushing up and in, to become more of a "2nd striker".  Of the two holding mids, one is pushing a little higher and left to compensate for that space (I've shown him in the "standard" mid depth as a result).  On this team, the right back likes to attack, which I have demonstrated by placing him on the defensive mid layer, showing him as a "wingback", and this is all balanced out by the second holding mid, playing at true defensive mid depth, playing a little more to the right. 

4-3-2-1 "Christmas Tree"
-------x-------

-----x---x-----
---x---x---x---

-x-----------x-
------x-x------

This is a bit of an oddball formation which is best thought to have evolved from a 4-4-2 with a CAM/playmaker, or a 4-diamond-2 formation (the fact I show the band of 3 as all being at the "50-50" level is only done for simplicity and clarity of the graphic).  In these instances, what has essentially happened is a 2nd striker has dropped off far enough to join the playmaker/CAM in the "hole" behind the lone striker, or the 2nd striker is simply replaced with a second CAM.  In either case, one of the two will usually be in a "free" role, meaning he has license to roam (horizontally mainly, but also vertically).
This has also been used at Milan, and in their system the middle of the 3 rearward mids will act as a playmaker, referred to as a "deep lying playmaker" (a role exemplified by Andrea Pirlo of Milan and Italy), and usually joined by two more defensive minded, if not true "holding" mids.

This system isn't one you would want to employ if you had strong wide midfield or attacking players, although if you must you could take an asymmetrical approach, with a more attacking wide midfielder on one side balanced by a more defensive mid on the other, along with a fullback who likes to press high up the pitch.  At any rate, this is considered a very narrow approach, and fullbacks are asked to provide width to the attack.  There is fluidity in this, as in all, formations, and one of the side midfielders can always push wide if need be, and the "free" attacking mid will roam wide when feasible; but there are generally no specified wide midfield roles in the system.

This is actually a good time to expand on the "deep-lying playmaker" role, as this has also popped up in the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 systems which use holding midfield pairings.  Just like any other pairing, you would reasonably expect the two players occupying those spots to not have identical skill-sets, but instead be able to compliment each others abilities, and in this sense, we have often seen one of the two central, rearward midfielders develop into a "playmaker".  In the 2006 World Cup final match between Italy's 4-4-1-1 and France's very pure 4-2-3-1, both sides used a "deep lying playmaker" (Pirlo for Italy, Patrick Viera for France) alongside purely defensive midfielders (in fact, two of the best, Gattuso for Italy and Makelele for France).  Germany, in their 4-2-3-1 used in South Africa, actually used two players with decent attacking moxie in that role (Schweinsteiger and Khedira), a demonstration of their attacking verve out of the system.  Holland, on the other hand, used two very defensive players in De Jong and van Bommel, a pair who's negativity was seen to help mar the final against Spain, who themselves deploy Xabi Alonso, a gifted playmaker in his own right, out of the holding midfield band of two. 

Before we move on to the 4-3-3 branch, there is one more version of the 4-5-1:
4-1-4-1
-------x-------

-x----x-x----x-

-------x-------
-x-----------x-
------x-x------

The essentials of this system are the "standard" back 4, a single CDM (the "1" band" in midfield) and a "lone striker" up top.  I have shown the midfield "4" band as all attacking mids, mainly for simplicity and to demonstrate the basic shape.  There are different interpretations and this isn't necessarily the case, as usually managers aren't going to commit that many attack-minded players.  There are also situations where the line between this and the 4-4-1-1 become very blurred.

While all modern formations ultimately originated from the 2-3-5, there was a branch distinct from the 4-4-2.  As I stated above, the first 4-3-3's were really asymmetrical 4-2-4's, but a symmetrical version eventually popped up.  Any more, however, with the 4-4-2 changing shape into a single forward system, the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 have begun to blend together.

The 4-3-3
-------x-------
-x-----------x-

--x----x----x--

-x-----x-----x-
-------x-------

When the Dutch invented "total football", the idea that players were interchangeable, and all 10 players attack and defend as one, this is how they did it.  Of course, in the 70's, the "libero" was still en vogue, and was often used in the 4-3-3, so I show it here. 

An important aspect of the Dutch system was that it employed Johan Cruyff at center forward.  Cruyff was a one-of-a-kind talent who could play anywhere on the pitch, and in the "total football" system had license to roam wherever he saw fit, which included retreating back into the midfield, or even defense, to marshall the attack.  Given this type of playmaker center forward, one can envision the wings pushing in to compensate and this shifting into more of a 4-4-2.

4-3-3 (4-1-2-3)
-------x-------
--x---------x--

-----x---x-----
-------x-------
-x-----------x-
------x-x------

In contemporary football, the CDM is all-important, so the "classic" 4-3-3 has been adapted to accommodate him, and as a result the outside mids have been scrapped for two central mids, generally playing at "standard" depth.  Despite the "50-50" midfield positioning, extremely talented attacking players such as Frank Lampard at Chelsea and Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal have been deployed in this spot.  Again, there is often little distinction between withdrawn forwards and attacking mids, so this may very well present itself as more of a 4-5-1 with the distinct "V" shape across the 3 midfield layers.

4-3-3 (4-2-1-3)
-------x-------
--x---------x--
-------x-------

-----x---x-----
-x-----------x-
------x-x------

Basically a 4-3-3 with 2 holding mids, which generally means you push the third central mid up to become a CAM.
This formation is important for Sounders fans to understand, as it not only has evolved from the 4-3-3, but represents an evolutionary confluence, as this has also evolved from the 4-4-2 via the 4-2-3-1.  To get here from there you push your "wingers" up to become forwards (playing at the rear forward band) and keep your CAM in place, or pull your withdrawn striker back to the CAM spot.  Sigi Schmidt used this system for a few weeks of the 2010 season starting in May, as a tweak of the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 he had been using.
Note the "attacking diamond" at the top of the formation, which I consider the hallmark of this system.

Three at the back.
There are a variety of ways to arrive at the idea of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3.  One may be strategic, a team running a 4-4-2 based system may be behind and pull a defender for a more attacking player.  Another may be that fullbacks may as well push all the way up and become midfielders, keeping in mind the "sweeper" or "libero" systems of the 70's -- which often employed essentially 5 defenders -- and the idea that attacking wing play was fading. It could even evolve out of a 4-3-3, pushing a fullback up, and perhaps even a forward back.

The 3-5-2 is actually quite complex, and can mean a lot of different things, particularly given the many ways to arrange the midfield 5.  For the most part, the 3-5-2 involves 3 center backs, although that nomenclature can be a bit misleading.  Originally,  it meant 2 marking center backs and a sweeper or libero, but that position has basically disappeared.  Any more your back three are still referred to as "center backs" but this is mainly is due to the fact that the left and right play narrower and further back than the fullbacks in a 4-back system. 

For the most part, contemporary 3-5-2 systems almost always use wingbacks, which are defensive midfielders in wide positions. They can be very similar to fullbacks, so it really could just as well be called a 5-3-2. 

3-5-2 (5-3-2)
-----x---x-----

-------x-------
----x-----x----
-x-----------x-

---x---x---x---

Keep in mind that in a 3-5-2, or a 5-3-2, system, the wingbacks or fullbacks are expected to cover wide areas defensively and contribute width to the attack, which doesn't end up being remarkably dissimilar to the way fullbacks are often used in a 4-4-2-derived system. In most cases, at least one of the central mids will be a playmaker and push a little higher up the pitch.

The 3-5-2 has an interesting history, and keeps popping up, to this day, even when many assume its dead and/or obsolete.

3-5-2 "Argentina"
-------x-------
-------x-------

-x---x---x---x-
-------x-------

---x---x---x---

Argentina used this to win the 1986 World Cup.  One important thing to keep in mind is that one of the strikers, Diego Maradona, was a "#10" and would've been the equivalent of the contemporary "2nd striker" playing off the other forward a bit.  Another aspect of this is that the wide midfielders play a more attacking role, but this is somewhat balanced by the presence of a CDM.  Two of the center backs would be markers, and the third a "sweeper".

3-5-2 "German"
-----x---x-----

-------x-------
----x-----x----
-x-----------x-
-----x---x-----
-------x-------

Germany won the 1990 World Cup and 1996 Euros with this system.  This uses a "sweeper" and two marking center backs.  In the midfield, the wide players are responsible for helping out on the defensive flanks, and are thus shown as wingbacks.  One of your central mids will be a "playmaker" and probably push a little more forward.  Keep in mind that this was developed in 1986 by Germany manager Franz Beckenbauer, who was a uniquely gifted player who could be used anywhere on the pitch, sometimes as a "sweeper" who had an important role in pushing forward and starting the attack, somewhat like a "playmaker" lined up extremely deep.  If you keep that in mind, and sort of squint, you can see a somewhat "standard" back 4 (all a layer higher than usual) with the "sweeper" a really, really, deep-lying CDM.

The 3-4-3:
In a 3-4-3 system outside mids are generally positioned as wingbacks, as in a 3-5-2.   One way to get to the 3-4-3 is if the CAM from the 3-5-2/5-3-2 (pictured above) has pushed high enough to be considered a withdrawn forward.

One could also arrive at the 3-4-3 from a 4-3-3 by pulling a defender for a midfielder, such as a team might switch to late in a match to shift to a more attacking set.  For instance, taking the 4-2-1-3 from above, pull a fullback for another midfielder and have the 3 remaining defenders adjust.  In this case, the 2 holding midfielders may be expected to help cover wide defensive areas. 

However, a 3-4-3 is for more likely to resemble something like this:
3-4-3/5-4-1
-------x-------
--x---------x--

-----x---x-----
-x-----------x-

---x---x---x---

If your wingbacks play deep enough to be considered fullbacks, then you have 5 at the back, and if your wingers play deep enough to be midfielders, then you have a 5-4-1.  The way I have it shown above is a 3-4-3, but you can see how easily it shifts from one to the other. 

It is here that we are reminded of an important lesson when it comes to formations: look beyond the labels.  A 4-5-1 may sound dourly defensive, and a 3-4-3 may sound aggressively attacking, but in all likelihood the two will be all but indistinguishable from each other, and a team with a 3-4-3 may field nearly identical personnel to a team running a 5-4-1.

the "neo-W-W"
-------x-------
--x---------x--

-----x---x-----
-x-----------x-
-------x-------
-----x---x-----

The "W-W' was a pre-WWII formation, used by, among others, Italy to win the '34 and '38 World Cups, and was an adaptation of the old 2-3-5.  Best described as a 2-3-2-3, it has seemingly re-emerged, particularly at Barcelona, as an adaptation of 4-3-3 systems.  Here's how it works.  Fullbacks are pushed very high, becoming effectively wingbacks.  The CDM drops very deep, essentially to become a "stopper" or 3rd center back slightly in front of the two others.  For all intents and purposes, the defense becomes split into a band of 2 and 3.  Up top you have the usual three forwards, and in the middle two CM's.

This can be a formation which switches between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3, while being neither at once.  It is 3 defenders or 4 defenders, but actually neither.  You won't necessarily see this formation listed on team sheets or lineup graphics, but it certainly exists during the run of play. 

Again, for the most part, with 3 at the back, outside mids are expected to cover wide defensively, allowing the 3 at the back to play a little more narrow.

An exception to this is if a team has pulled a defender for a forward to look for a late equalizer or winner.  In these desperate situations, the back 3 will be largely left to fend for themselves and the mids will stay attacking.  Lets say a team shifts to this out of a 4-2-3-1:
----x----x----

---x---x---x---

-----x---x-----

---x---x---x---

In this case, a fullback has been pulled for a second striker, and the back line has shifted accordingly...  Be warned, however, as this rarely exists in nature.  In all likelihood, a CDM will drop back a bit and play as a center back, usually slightly forward of the other CB, so they are arranged in the "sweeper-stopper" pairing. 

It is quite reasonable to ask what would happen if a team decides they want their wide midfielders to be attacking wingers, rather than wingbacks.  Looking at the 3-5-2/5-3-2 from above, if you push your wingbacks up, and have you central mids pull back, you would end up with something like the 3-2-3-2 above.  But like I said, this is really only a theoretical formation.  If there is one thing to take away from the 3-at-the-back formation in contemporary football, it is that back 3 will be supported by wingbacks, in all but the rarest of situations.

In the early 2000's a variant of the 3-5-2 popped up among a handful of top teams in international competition.
3-5-2 (3-4-1-2)
-----x---x-----

-------x-------

-x----x-x----x-

---x---x---x---

This system had its heyday in the 2002 World Cup, as both finalists, Germany and Brazil, used it.  The USA even shifted to this, with some effect, after the group stage to defeat Mexico and narrowly bow out to Germany in the quarterfinals.  The USA, particularly, found themselves able to shift from a 6-2-2 when defending to a 3-4-3 on attack using this formation.

The two central midfielders in the band of 4 would be akin to the holding midfield pair in the 4-2-3-1, and its reasonable to expect the pairing would be a purely defensive mid with a deep-lying playmaker.  In the case of the USA side in 2002, this was Pablo Mastreoni -- virtually an auxiliary center back -- and John O'Brien as more of the playmaker.

"Others"
there are a few more, somewhat oddball formations, which despite being rare are nonetheless worth discussing.  These have the habit of showing up in World Cups, as they are approaches often employed by national team coaches, although they are also seen at the club level occasionally.

What these all have in common are "lone strikers" (or center forwards -- as compared to 2-striker partnerships) and 3 defenders, with defensive mids helping out.  As with all 3-defender systems, you can expect wingbacks, although this isn't necessarily always the case.

3-3-1-3
-------x-------
--x---------x--
-------x-------

--x----x----x--

---x---x---x---

This was used by Chile in 2010, and in their system, the wingbacks were quite aggressive and attacking, leaving the CDM to help out the back 3.  This can also be said to be closely related to the 3-6-1 systems below, although it can also be considered a cousin of the 3-4-3, with the 4 midfielders possibly forming more of a "diamond" in the middle, as in the Chilean system..

3-3-3-1 (3-6-1)
-------x-------

--x----x----x--

-x-----x-----x-

---x---x---x--

This was the gem which Steve Sampson switched the USA to just before '98 (it didn't work).  I also detected this out of North Korea, although they ran what was nominally a 3-5-2/5-3-2 system, when you pack it in, as they did against Brazil, it can be a 6-3-1 with two layers of defenders 

This was used by Guus Hiddink with Australia on '06, and in reality it shifted between the 3-4-2-1 shown below and the 3-3-1-3 from above, depending on how high the wingers played and whether or not the CAM shifted to a more defensive role.

3-4-2-1(3-6-1)
-------x-------

-----x---x-----

-x----x-x----x-

---x---x---x---

As a generalization, these systems will be used by managers who feel their sides may be overmatched technically, and are looking to hold possession or just control a match defensively.  This, in part, explains why we see them employed by national teams.  They can be effective, and in the case of Chile, with the right personnel can actually be attack-minded.

Finally, there is one, last, last, very last adaption to look at,  Jumping back to our back-4 systems, and primarily the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 family tree, there are times that we see teams switch to the so-called "striker-less" formation:
---------------
------x--x-----
-x-----------x-

-----x---x-----
-x-----------x-
------x-x------

Sometimes dubbed the "4-6-0" this can be misleading, as it does use forwards, just no top forward.  Essentially it uses two withdrawn forwards or "2nd strikers" and could even be said to have 4 forwards if the wings have pushed high enough.  If a team has no viable "target man" or simply is more concerned with possession than forcing the ball into the final third, this can be advantageous.  I contend this is essentially what the Sounders ended up with when they were without Jaqua or Nkufo, and tried to play Montero as a center forward and Ljungberg as CAM/2nd striker.

Also, if a team is running the 4-3-3/4-2-1-3 system, and replaces their center forward with a withdrawn forward, you could arrive at something similar. 

However, it doesn't help to spend too much time worrying about the difference between "top forwards" and "rear forwards" positionally, as the differences are really more often the result of the more intangible notion of playing style, rather than physical positioning on the pitch.  Another example of this once again lies with the Sounders:  Nkufo and Montero operate in a manner which I would very much call a "target man" and "2nd striker"/playmaker combo, and yet Nkufo can often be seen retreating back into the midfield.  And with this example comes yet another crucial reminder of the main lesson when studying formations: football is such a fluid game, that formations can often be little more than "guides" to offer a shorthand version of a team's tactics and personnel. 

a note on channels:
I haven't spent too much time on the width of players with my simple graphics, but this is an important distinction.  I would define the pitch by 6 horizontal "channels," meaning that on a standard width pitch, each "channel" is about 12 +/- yards wide. 

wide - left - center- center- right - wide

or more relative and "loose" way of looking at it:
-----outside------center------outside-----

(Keep in mid that by my definition the two "center" channels are a combined 20-25 or so yards wide, which is actually a lot of space (the 6 yard box is 20 yards wide, and often used as a gauge for CB's to stay in position).  Also keep in mind that the width of the penalty area is 44 yards wide.  On a standard pitch there will be about 15 yards, give or take, from the penalty area to the touch line, which roughly translates to what I am calling the "wide" channels.)

This nomenclature is utterly arbitrary, and admittedly confusing.  I avoid using "wing" because a "winger" may play at "left" width instead of "wide" width. 

There is also of course a 7th channel to some extent which is a "middle" channel which overlaps both center channels, which one central player would occupy.  This comes into play if there are an odd number of players in a layer.

There are absolutely no hard and fast rules, however.  For instance, a CDM pairing in a 4-2-3-1 may very well split the field in such a way as to occupy the "right" and "left" channels by default, and if one must go "wide" the the other would push into the "center".

Outside or "wing" players (outside mids or fullbacks) may very well spend their time in both or either the "right/left" channel or the "wide" channels.

notes on positional nomenclature:
The "playmaker" is an important notion in football tactics, and as usual the definitions of this position can widely vary depending on who you ask.  The origins are in the "#10", who in the old 2-3-5 formations was an "inside forward" who dropped off the top layer to be a distributor and fill the gap between the midfielders and the forwards.  The "#10" has become to denote a team's creative sparkplug, and while in some cases this has meant a center forward, more often in the modern game it is a playmaker out of the midifeld.  In other cases the #10 is simply a team's acknowledged leader or captain, although usually still a central midfielder.  Claudio Reyna wore the #10 shirt for the USA team but was mostly a holding midfielder.  At any rate, "playmaker" in contemporary parlance is almost always an attacking midfielder who acts as, for lack of a better description, the "quarterback" of a team's attack.

Is there a difference between a "wing" player and an "outside" player and a "wide" player?  Yes and no.  "Wingers" were traditionally the-outside-most forwards in the old 2-3-5 formations.  Any more, you essentially never see wide attackers play in the "top forward" layer, because there isn't really a point in having someone play that high AND wide.  So are midfielders "wingers"?  Well, as I've mentioned, the distinction between attacking mids and withdrawn forwards is minimal in most cases, so, really, for all practical purposes, yes.  However, I wouldn't call a midfielder playing at "standard" depth a "winger", but instead a "wide" player.  For instance, in the 4-diamond-2, the right and left mids are very much NOT wingers.  In fact, the nature of the "diamond" dictates a comparatively narrow midfield, and as such those mids don't play particularly wide at all (I told you this is arbitrary and potentially confusing).  I think that to call someone a "winger" in the contemporary sense denotes that they line up somewhere on the outside and are at least 67% attacking.

Of course, outside mids who play at the defensive mid layer are referred to as "wingbacks" as compared to "fullbacks" who play in the defensive layers.

And, on the subject of Fullbacks.  "Fullback" refers to an outside back in the back-4 system, as compared to the center back.  When you say "fullback" you are specifically referring to the right or left back, and NOT the center backs.

As for other central players, its all relative.  In the case of CDM pairings or striker pairings, they may very well be referred to as "central players" but, in the way that the pair works together to split the field, may not necessarily line up strictly centrally. 

Also, very importantly, for the purposes of this piece, I'm using "holding mid" and "CDM" (Central Defensive Midfielder) virtually interchangeably.  There is a slight distinction, as its more natural to think of a single player as a "CDM" and a pairing as "Holding mids" but this is far from a hard and fast rule. 

To keep things simple, I'm not going to spend time on parsing out the distinction between a CAM, "trequartista", "enganche", or a "sweeper" and "libero" and other such things.  There are people who will explain that these are different concepts from different backgrounds whose meanings don't necessarily overlap.  Football has a very rich, very global history.  Certain concepts or styles have arisen in different places which are quite similar to each other.  This is meant to be a relatively simple and brief guide to formations, and as such am not inclined to delve into such discussions.

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