• A Brief History of Football Formations

    Published Wednesday 03 May 2023 12:08pm

    11 min read

    The formation of a football team is the shape they take up during attacking and defending passages of play. A formation varies greatly on a manager’s preferred tactical style and at the highest level, the regular interchange of formations and unorthodox player placements almost feels like a game of chess. The conventional formations we see in the modern day are as a result of many decades of refinement where, as the game developed and previous systems became obsolete, progressive managers came up with new ideas on how to best capitalise on the weaknesses of their opposition. Naturally, some of the formations used in the past are – by today’s standards – pretty silly.

By WherestheMatch Team

Rugby’s Influence on Football Formations

With football evolving from an early form of rugby, it’s only natural that the two sports have a lot in common. Many of the early formations in use within football were pretty much rugby formations with a goalkeeper and a slightly deeper-lying forward (or a defender as some like to refer to them). As time passed and more rules were introduced to create a greater divide between the sports, football managers began to create line-ups that were far more balanced across the midfield and defence.

The First Formation – The 1-1-8 (1860)

Even the most attack-minded modern manager would be considered conservative by 1860s standards where if you played more than two defenders, you would be considered a park-the-bus advocate and your name would be slandered on whatever the 1860s version of Twitter was.

Comprising of an eight-player attack, the 1-1-8 might as well be a rugby formation with defending clearly not quite being the focus. Surprisingly enough, 0-0 draws weren’t all that uncommon since the virtues of passing hadn’t quite been realised yet meaning that a match consisted of forward players taking turns to try and dribble through the opposition team. In the first ever international football match held in 1872 between England and Scotland, the Scots lined up with a 2-2-6 while the English rocked the more conventional 1-1-8. The Scottish tried to catch the English off guard by doing the unthinkable and actually passing the ball. The English however, weren’t fazed by their wizardry and the match would go on to end 0-0. It would be another couple of decades before a team would come to realise the benefits of playing the passing game.

A Focus on Balance – The 2-3-5 (1880)

Now in the late 1800s, football managers began to realise the importance of a more balanced system. The 2-3-5 was thought to have been first popularised by Wrexham in Wales who used the formation to great success in winning the Welsh Cup of 1877. Rather than attack, attack, attack, the focus of the 2-3-5 was domination of the field with the three-man midfield being able to cover far more ground than the now outdated 1-1-8. You could also argue that this formation was the inception of full-fledged football tactics as rather than simply looking to outscore the opposition, teams would look to negate the quality of the opposing attackers with midfielders covering the central forwards and the two wing-backs being responsible for those out-wide.

Many of the ideas first implemented within the 2-3-5 are still in use today, even if the shape itself is seldom utilised in the modern game.

Introduction of The Offside Rule – The 3-2-2-3 or ‘WM’ (1920)

The attack-heavy formations of the 1800s became far less practical with a crucial amendment to the offside rules in 1925. Previously, a player would need to receive the ball in a position with three opposition players (including the goalkeeper) ahead of them in order to be onside; bit of a challenge if you’re facing a team playing only a single defender, hence why most teams tried to dribble rather than pass the ball. In the early 1900s, this was changed to two players rather than three (still including the goalkeeper) meaning teams that were utilising only one or two defenders were now incredibly susceptible to counterattacks and passing plays. This led to the introduction of several new formations including the 3-2-2-3, or as it was called due to the way it looked on team sheets, the ‘WM’.  

Arsenal were the ones to prove the effectiveness of this new formation with this new style leading them to FA Cup glory in 1930 and a first-place finish in the what was at the time known as the First Division (Now the Premier League). The popularity of the ‘WM’ formation became widespread across the English Football Pyramid in 1933 with Arsenal going on to score a record number of goals for the season. As an interesting sidenote, Arsenal would also capitalise on the changes to the offside rule to introduce the first example of an offside trap – a strategy where the defence would move further up the field in order to try and trap the opposition forwards in an offside position.

While it’s rarely used in the traditional style anymore, there are multiple modern variations of the ‘WM’ formation. You may see it most commonly used as a converted 4-3-3 when a defender steps into midfield (as seen with Manchester City under Pep Guardiola), or as a 3-4-3 when the full-backs advance in line with the striker (as seen with Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel). One of the main reasons as to why teams no longer use the 3-2-2-3 in its base form is due to how versatile it needs players to be on account of them shifting across multiple positions throughout the span of a match.  

The Modern Classic – 4-3-3 (1950)

Post 1920, football started to look similar to how we see it today; no more overcrowded attacks and much more of a focus on possession play. The 4-3-3 was originally introduced as a counter to the 3-2-2-3 ‘WM’ formation where more cohesive units allowed teams to set the tempo of the match while utilising defenders as overlapping wingbacks to create overloads in the wide positions. Additionally, this shape gives the wide forwards more space to either go wide or cut inside – something that gives the attack an added element of unpredictability. The 4-3-3 lives or dies based on the quality of it’s three midfielders and if they are unable to sufficiently link defence to attack, the whole team will likely get overrun in the centre of the park. While the 4-3-3 is a far more balanced formation than many of the others used previously, it’s still an offensive formation and one that could leave the team exposed should both fullbacks decide to overlap at the same time.

The Barcelona team that won the sextuple under Guardiola, the Champions League winning Ajax side under Van Gaal, the Premier League winning Liverpool under Klopp, and many more of Footballs’ most successful teams were users of the 4-3-3. England themselves found great success in the 1966 World Cup when they went all the way switching between the 4-3-3 and their more commonly used 4-1-3-2.

Finally, Some Defending – 5-4-1 and 4-4-2 (1970)

After over a century of formations that ran with the ideology of ‘they can’t outscore us if we outscore them first’, the footballing world finally realised the importance of solid defensive foundations toward the end of the 20th century. It was the Italians that first introduced 5-back formations with Inter Milan under Helenio Herrera favouring this style. Three Serie A titles and two European Cups later, the 5-4-1 became the standard formation used in the Italian league as well as within the national team. While 5-back formations are still very much in use in the modern day, they have a slightly negative reputation for being too defensive and promoting anti-football. You wouldn’t have to look very far to find a team that sets up with a 5-at-the-back formation playing for a 0-0 draw from the very first minute against a more technically gifted side.

Another formation that emerged in the 1970s was the 4-4-2, where tucking the wide forwards of a 4-2-4 into midfield led to a far more balanced side overall. While not as offensively potent as the 4-3-3, the 4-4-2 consists of two blocks of four which allows the using team to outnumber the traditional midfield three. The job of the strikers in a 4-4-2 is to keep opposing centre backs occupied whilst midfield runners would carry out penetrative runs into the spaces left behind. The wider defenders and midfielders are expected to deliver crosses into the box while dropping back and providing support during defensive passages of play.

The 4-4-2 strikes up a nice balance between defence and attack with many modern managers adopting this style to a great deal of success. Most common examples include Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid.

Whole Lot of Midfield – 4-2-3-1 (2010)

A favourite of Gareth Southgate with England, Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich, and Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur, the 4-2-3-1 is a formation adapted around the modern game. The 4-2-3-1 was created with inspiration from the 4-4-2 where many teams opted for one of the strikers to be slightly more deep-lying. This culminated in a formation with an extra player in midfield as well as the splitting of the unit into two blocks.

How much possession is too much possession? Well, teams that make use of the 4-2-3-1 usually have a great deal of possession seeing as most of the line-up is playing in midfield. An attacking midfielder, two defensive midfielders, and a wide midfielder each side of the pitch ensures that there are aways plenty of passing option available whilst also making the team incredibly challenging to break through centrally. By utilising overlapping fullbacks, these teams can also pose a threat out wide. Running with a single striker, however, can somewhat limit the attacking capability of this formation and if there isn’t a steady stream of creativity from midfield, scoring goals may be a struggle.

Changing Formations on The Go

It may seem like a slightly stupid thing to point out, but teams can change formations mid-game. Funnily enough, this didn’t actually occur to anyone until about the 1950s when Gusztáv Sebes, manager of the Hungarian national team started tinkering with several different formations to select the most effective depending on the situation. Variable formations are the new norm with many of the world’s top managers being able to comfortably play several different shapes adapting for efficiency rather than comfort.

With football formations becoming more fluid than ever before, we can expect to see all sorts of weird and wonderful line-ups being fielded as teams look to capitalise on any advantage to edge the competition.