My Football Ramble: Are formations that important?

“4-4-2 is outdated”, “3-5-2 is naturally weak against 4-3-3”, “The coach needs to play three in the midfield in order to avoid being overran in that zone”, etc. Those are the words of fans nowadays – “digital fans”, “armchairs experts”, “football hipsters”.

In their mind, football is played and decided by formations. 3-5-2 has only one man on each wing, so it is sure that the team playing this formation will always be outnumbered and overpowered in the flank zone. 4-4-2 has only two men in central midfield, which results in immediate loss against 4-3-3. 4-2-3-1 is the “flawless formation”. Teams that play a “better” formation will always win.

But is that true?

First, it must be stressed that all formations have a weakness. It is because there is none of them which can cover all the possible space. Like a big man trying to cover himself with a much smaller blanket: pull it over here and there is nothing there. It is just impossible to satisfy all. Which means all formations have certain weak spots to exploit. Why bother finding the “perfect” one?

Second, football is a lively game with players moving , not being pigeon-holed. In fact, unlimited movement is what makes football interesting. With players constantly running left, right, diagonal or vertical and exchanging positions with their teammates in four phases of play (which is a rather relative way of separating a game plan into smaller, easier to imagine stages, but still more effective than the traditional two phases “attacking” and “defending”), formations also change accordingly. A 4-4-2 in defensive phase can turn into a 3-2-1-4 in attacking when a full-back and two centre-back stay home, one side midfielder tucked in to work with two central midfielders while the other one stay wide and high; the remaining full-back would bomb forward to form another prong of attack. A team playing 4-3-3 in buildup phase can easily turn to a diamond midfield when a winger (like Juan Mata at Chelsea under Andre Villas-Boas, for example) comes inside and operates as a number 10.

Teams come out to play with a game plan, not a rigid formation. If formations can change seamlessly after mere seconds, a team certainly can compensate for the “weakness” of the “formation” they play with their collective movement and dynamism. A team playing 3-5-2 may have numerical disadvantage on the wing on paper, but by using, for example, a “pendulating back four”, it is 2 vs 2 again, and such weakness vanishes. Atletico play 4-4-2, yet they are almost never overpowered in the midfield zone – in fact, they dominate it.

Third, formation is just a way to somehow map players’positions on the pitch in a simple way by putting them into numbers and bands. 4-4-2 has three bands: two bands of four, one band of two. 4-2-3-1 has four bands. 4-1-2-1-2 (?!) has five. Of course, a map like that cannot portray the whole picture of a sport in which its players keep buzzing around. You can use it to build your strategy, but you do not simply duel with two maps.

But many people still believe that by comparing those maps they wield, a match can be automatically decided, or at least pre-determined. That is completely absurd. Matches are decided by players and actual play on the pitch, not by numbers and bands connected by a pencil.

So, is “formation” that important?

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