Formations. What are they? What do they mean? Why so many numbers? And so forth. As part of a series I’m going to be doing on this blog explaining some of the ins and outs of soccer to new fans, let’s take a look at formations. (Thanks to Tom in my email for posing this question!)


So. A formation is how the 10 field players on a team line up. (The goalkeeper is your freebie, as he or she will always be in goal. Easy to remember!) There are a ton of different kinds of formations, and in the end, players travel all over the pitch during the, at times, chaos that is a soccer match. So it’s more of a guideline that shows how a team wants to play – more attacking or defensive, mainly.

First off, you’ll notice the formations are numbered. As seen below (big up to

While players’ shirt numbers have become, like many sports, just that player’s favorite number or whatnot, some numbers still hold special meaning, and it can be traced back to how teams used to line up on the pitch, when the shirt number equaled a player’s specific position. Here’s the basic breakdown:

No. 1 goalkeeper

No. 2 right-back

No. 4 right-side center-back

No. 5 left-side center-back

No. 3 left-back

No. 6 holding (or defensive) midfielder

No. 8 central midfielder

No. 10 attacking midfielder (or playmaker)

No. 7 right-side winger

No. 9 forward (or striker)

No. 11 left-side winger

Many starting goalkeepers still wear No. 1, and many strikers still wear No. 9. No. 10 is probably the most coveted number because of all the greats who have worn it (Diego Maradona, Pele, Lionel Messi, etc.). So, if you ever hear a coach refer to a player being more of a No. 6, he’s saying that player is more of a defensive midfielder. Or if he calls a player his No. 10, that means that player is his playmaker. 

OK, now that we’ve got the basic positions out of the way, let’s get into different formations.

Here's your basic formation. The standard and the favorite, the 4-4-2.



In this lineup, you’ve got Alvbage as the goalkeeper. The “back four” or “back line” are the defenders, so Davis at left-back, Taylor and Demidov at center-back and K. Venegas at right-back. The next four are your midfield, with Ibarra at left wing, and J. Venegas at right wing. Schuller and Molino as your center midfielders. And finally, your top two are your forwards, Danladi and Ramirez.

The 4-4-2 is a fairly balanced formation, four defenders, four midfielders, two forwards. Some attacking power with the defense to back it.

A 4-3-3, like the formation I used to describe the one through 11 numbers above, is a more attacking formation than the 4-4-2.

There are numerous different kinds of formations. It would be crazy to try and detail every one. But essentially, teams want to balance their formation against their opponents. So, if team A usually used a formation with just three defenders, like a 3-5-2, but its opponent had a three-forward system, like a 4-3-3, then team A would probably consider adjusting so it had at least one extra defender to its opponents’ forwards. 

The formation Minnesota United FC fans should be most up to speed with is the 4-2-3-1. It’s what coach Adrian Heath generally likes to play. Here is an example:



This formation is more of a modern development and gives teams four lines to cover the field with instead of three. The good thing about this formation is it's very flexible in-game. The wingers, Ibarra and J. Venegas, are a very important part of this formation and can push forward into the attack to make it like a 4-3-3 or drop back into the defense, to make it more like a 4-4-2. Also, those two defensive midfielders, Schuller and Warner in this case, form this kind of defensive block with the center-backs, Taylor and Demidov, giving the attacking players more ability to push forward because of the defensive support behind them. However, this formation is harder on the left-back and right-back, Davis and K. Venegas, as they don’t have as much support from their teammates. So those players need to be very strong defenders.

I got a good reminder from @PeterOfTheOtas to link this book for you guys, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics by Jonathan Wilson. If you are super into formations or just really want to know more about the hundreds of years of different lineups, it’s a great read.

Those are your basics on formations. If you have more questions or anything to add, tweet, email or comment. And stay tuned for more coverage of your basics!

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