How Football Formations and Player Positions Have Evolved
Often one of the most debated subjects in football and certainly something that takes up a significant part of a coaches manual, with numerous crossings-out, scribbles and multiple arrows, football formations and the roles within these can take on a series of interpretations.
Football is the most simple, yet at the same time, can be one of the most complicated sports in the world, depending on what level it is taken to and this is often determined by coaches and as a result the level at which a coach thinks and understands every tactical and technical facet of the game.
Team formations and player positions matter in betting as the chances of a player scoring, assisting, having shots on target, getting booked, etc., are all heavily influenced by where they are on the pitch. Gone are the days when you could tell where a player would play from their shirt number or the basic line up, for example, these days so called 'forwards' are often seen playing on the wing or on the edge of midfield. Therefore, understanding the evolution of team formations and player positions can be extremely useful in finding the right bets to place.
What decides a football formation?
There are many factors that coaches take into account when deciding a football formation. Some coaches have their own particular and idealistic playing style that suits a certain shape and, as a result, will gradually mould the players that he has at his disposal into this, or identify new ones; especially if he is at a club that has the required financial resources.
Another variable is often the players themselves and as a result, it is sometimes a coaches’ job to play to the strengths of his squad and set the formation around that. This is seen as the most common and pragmatic method, particularly for coaches who are at clubs that do not have a big budget.
Available personnel can also have a factor on how a football formation is decided and this refers to injuries and also suspensions. Sometimes coaches are required to work with what they have and this can impact how a team sets itself up.
Opposition can also have an influence on formations as well and it is sometimes the case that a coach will identify their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and set their team up to best take advantage of that. If an opponent poses a greater attacking threat, a coach might set their team up in a formation that is more defensive and use the relevant players to subdue this. However, this is not always the case; some coaches stick to their philosophy regardless of the strength of their opposition, in the hope that over time, they will gradually master it therefore sacrificing short term pain for long term gain.
Breakdown of the traditional player positions
In a traditional sense, on a football pitch, positions are usually defined from the numbers one to 11, although, there are some players who prefer other shirt numbers, though let’s look at a breakdown of each position and role.
The goalkeeper role, though over the last few years, some coaches have had a preference on signing goalkeepers who are comfortable with the ball at their feet and as such, the ‘sweeper-keeper’ role was defined. Some examples include Victor Valdes (Barcelona), Ederson (Manchester City), Alisson Becker (Liverpool), and Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich).
Effectively the right back, especially in the traditional 4-4-2, this role has become more attacking in some formations such as a 4-3-3, providing natural width, while in a 3-4-3 system the player is essentially a right wing back. Classic examples of a right back in a 4-4-2 in recent times include Gary Neville (Manchester United), while in a 4-3-3, Paulo Ferreira (Chelsea) is a textbook case.
Essentially the same as the ‘number 2’ role, but on the left. Examples in recent times would be Ashley Cole (Arsenal; 4-4-2) and Jordi Alba (Barcelona; 4-3-3).
Effectively a central midfielder, in a 4-3-3, this is a position which has become more defined and specialist in recent years, as the defensive midfielder. This takes on many nuances in terms of the role, according to how the team play and the attributes of the player. It could be an anchorman (Nemanja Matic - Manchester United), deep-lying playmaker (Andrea Pirlo - AC Milan) and ball-winning midfielder (N’Golo Kante - Leicester City).
The position of centre back has changed a lot over the years in terms of the role and you have many different examples. For coaches who like their teams to have defenders who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, this has transitioned in a ball-playing centre back, such as Ruben Dias (Manchester City) and a no-nonsense centre back like John Terry (Chelsea).
During the nineties, the role of sweeper was quite in-vogue, particularly in Italian football and you saw such players as Paulo Maldini (AC Milan) often take on this role. The main characteristics of this type of defender is their pace and anticipation.
Also a centre back; while the majority of teams play with two central defenders, some also play with three and as such, it is often the case that they have a mixture of roles incorporated into a three man defence.
Occupying the right sided attacking right berth of the pitch traditionally, in a 4-4-2, the ‘number 7’ is responsible for supporting the strikers with crosses (David Beckham; Manchester United), as well as helping out his right back. In recent years, many teams have switched to 4-3-3 and as a result, the ‘number 7’ would be on the right of an attacking three. We have also seen the deployment of left-footed right wingers in recent times, as more of an inside forward role, their main trait being to cut inside and create space for their overlapping right back, (Raphina; Leeds United).
This can also be described as a raumdeuter for a particular type of player, with this role requiring very little defensive work, but who is a specialist at finding small pockets of space in the channel (Pedro; Barcelona).
Another position that has many different roles assigned to it, this position, especially in a 4-3-3 is commonly utilised as a box-to-box midfielder whose job it would be to contribute both defensively and in attack and possess a more ‘all-round-game’. Michael Essien (Chelsea) would be a classic example of this kind of role. Sometimes, teams play with two ‘number 8’ roles, espeically if they have the personnel and Chelsea with Frank Lampard alongside Essien could be the closest example of this.
However, this can also take on the role of attacking midfielder as well, especially if they have the talent to make this work. Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), could effectively be described as this type of role, though we delve deeper into Iniesta’s precise role further down.
In a classic 4-4-2, this is perhaps the most famous position and effectively is an ‘out and out goalscorer’. The ‘number 9’ would be blessed with pace and was clinical in one-on-one situations, with the Brazilian Ronaldo perhaps the most famous. However, in recent years as teams have started to play with one central striker, this position has taken on many different roles. One being the target man, who would be a significant aerial threat such as Peter Crouch (Liverpool). Another role assigned to this position in the 4-3-3 system would be the ‘false 9’ who is responsible for dropping deeper, being hard to mark and creating space in behind.
There is a major element of unpredictability about this role and a great example of this could be Roberto Firmino (Liverpool). Some teams play with a pressing forward who constantly harries defenders and chases down balls, but who is also good at finishing; Jamie Vardy at his peak (Leicester City), would be a good example of this.
Perhaps the advanced forward role in the 4-3-3 system is now the most common. This type of ‘number 9’, effectively is fast with good finishing ability and lingers on the opposition’s last man. Classic examples of these players can include Samuel Eto’o (Barcelona), Anthony Martial (Manchester United) and Sergio Aguero (Manchester City).
The complete forward is few and far between these days; one that can effectively combine all of these different technical roles, though Erling Braut Haaland (Borussia Dortmund), is showing signs that he is a carbon copy of what this role is all about. It could also be argued that Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid and Chelsea), was a highly effective complete forward.
In a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 the ‘number 10’ position would be tasked as being both a creator and goalscorer. Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp would be a perfect example of this type of player in the 4-4-2 system that they played and would often drop deep to find space. In Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation during Jose Mourinho’s second reign, both Oscar and Juan Mata were deployed here, with the role becoming more technical; essentially they were advanced playmakers.
In a 4-3-3, the ‘number 10’, is effectively the most attack-minded central midfielder and for teams who do not play with two ‘number 8’ roles, this usually takes on the name of advanced playmaker (Pablo Hernandez; Leeds United), trequartista (Kaka; AC Milan), or even second striker (Francesco Totti; AS Roma).
Essentially a carbon copy of the ‘number 7’, though traditionally on the left hand side of an attacking berth. Featuring exactly the same roles, over the years in a 4-4-2, a classic example would be Ryan Giggs (Manchester United), while in a 4-3-3 Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich) could be described as a highly effective ‘number 11’, though in the ‘inverted winger’ role.
Evolution of football formations
Manchester United 4-4-2 Blueprint
It has often been the case over the last few decades, that some formations have come back into ‘vogue’. For a long time, especially throughout the nineties and early 2000s, it was Manchester United, who essentially set the precedent for playing an attacking 4-4-2 under Sir Alex Ferguson. As a result, they used traditional wingers who could dribble and cross (David Beckham and Ryan Giggs), a creative midfielder player who would dictate play (Paul Scholes) and a more defensive midfielder who would protect the defence (Roy Keane).
All of these players, fundamentally, were good with the ball at their feet and had a high level of fitness which were key traits. They also had a very effective strike partnership in Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, both were fast, had a good understanding and were usually clinical in one-on-one situations.
Another team who successfully emulated this system were Man Utd’s biggest league rivals (at the time), Arsenal, who had very similar players, though arguably with more technique. A midfield of Robert Pires and Frederick Ljungberg on the wings, with Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva as all action central players fed a lethal strike duo of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. This was part of the team who went a whole Premier League season unbeaten and became known of course, as ‘The Invincibles’.
When Jose Mourinho arrived at Chelsea, it was he who almost pioneered what seemed like a completely different style in the Premier League. Having had much success with his 4-3-3 formation at Porto, he adopted this at Chelsea with highly effective results.
Bringing in his own players to help make this work, this relied on tricky attacking wide players and Arjen Robben and Damien Duff provided the kind of outlets for this. It was the central, lone striker though; Didier Drogba who was arguably pivotal to this working. Possessing all of the traits of a modern centre forward, the Ivorian wasn’t only strong, fast and a handful for defenders, he was also devastating in front of goal.
Perhaps the most important player in this system was the central midfielder in the first line of three. Solely a defensive screen, it was this players job to break up opposition play in the final third, prevent through balls to strikers, win the ball from opposing attacking midfielders and play a simple pass to start the attack. Claude Makelele, effectively made this role his own and it was one that had never been seen before in the English top flight.
With the more creative Lampard and often either Tiago or Eidur Gudjohnsen ahead of him it was their duty to assist, though mainly to address more attacking matters of play.
Barcelona’s 4-3-3 Revolution
Almost at the same time, Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard, had adopted the same system, though with more of an attacking emphasis and certainly (on paper at least), with more quality. A front three consisting of Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Ludovic Guily, was backed up with a trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Deco; at the time Xavi fulfilling the role of a more ‘cultured’ defensive midfielder.
Effectively, this set the wheels in motion for Pep Guardiola. When he graduated to first team coach, there was already an idea formulating in terms of how he saw his ‘ideal Barcelona’. By this point Lionel Messi had exploded onto the world footballing stage and while he was for all intents of purposes of the press box a left winger, the truth is that Guardiola afforded each of his attacking trio (David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez) the license to roam and interchange at will.
This only became more lethal when they upgraded to Luis Suarez and Neymar. By this point, Xavi had moved further forward aligning with Iniesta while fellow academy graduate Sergio Busquets had matured into one of the most effective, defensive midfielders in the world.
Compared to how Makelele played this role though, there was a lot more to Busquet’s game, especially from a technical perspective. He could thread a pass, read the pattern of play, comfortably step across to cover either full back and was assured with the ball at his feet. Such was the nature of Barcelona’s style of play (especially under Guardiola), Busquets had a lot more time on the ball as well.
Xavi and Iniesta were effectively midfield metronomes and the way in which each of the front five were on the same wavelength was staggering. Messi would make a run inside, Suarez would simultaneously swap and one of either of Xavi and Iniesta could play Messi in through on goal. That level of telepathy is something we may never see again in football.
Spanish pragmatist Rafael Benitez, having arrived from a successful era at Valencia took the 4-3-3 and tweaked it, which accommodated what has become known as a ‘double-pivot’ and he had almost tailormade players to utilise in this 4-2-3-1 system.
In Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, they had the perfect blend of tenacity and artistry. The latter possessing a similar range of passing and vision to Scholes and the ability to read the game in a similar way to Busquets. Argentine Mascherano though was vital to the way in which Liverpool played. Similar to Makelele, he was highly effective at breaking up play and finding a simple pass and became one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, albeit in a double pivot.
This system afforded captain Steven Gerrard the freedom to adopt more of an advanced attacking role and with Alonso behind plus Fernando Torres in front as a mobile lone striker, this became one of the most potent synergistic combinations in the league at the time. Arguably, they lacked the right kind of players to effectively fullfill the wide areas, however, Luis Garcia with his low centre of gravity and dribbling ability was a great foil as an inverted wide player, able to come inside onto his stronger foot.
Same formations but different roles
There are of course, a number of teams that play the same formations, however, have different roles within these; often defined by the type of personnel that they have at their disposal. This can also be dictated by the coaches’ preference though.
It is important when betting to no just look at the formation on paper but to try to understand how and where players are going to operate in reality. Doing this can lead to more sucess when betting, for example, if a player is sitting deeper in midfield they be more likely to be carded, if they are more advanced they may be more likely to assist a goal, etc. Bookies often do not even know exactly where a player will line-up so understanding this yourself can help when looking for an edge.
In a 4-3-3, for example, one team could have a midfield trio that has one deeper player in a ball-winning-midfield role, whose responsibility it is to simply win the ball and then play the easiest pass, in a similar way to which Makelele would. Or, another team, while visually it might seem like the same role in terms of how they appear in a starting line-up, this player may have the role of a regista, who will have a lot of pace and can press the opposition’s attacking midfield line high and fast.
A regista is also afforded a lot more creative freedom to dictate play from deep and identify creative outlets for transitional plays on the counter-attack. A perfect example of this type of player who appears to be developing into this kind of role is Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips, under mercurial manager Marcelo Bielsa.
Further forward, there are many different roles that are showcased by a number of teams who utilise the 4-3-3 formation. Under Jurgen Klopp, Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane have essentially been a combination of inverted winger and advanced forward, drifting in between the channels and central players, playing predominantly off the last man. Combining with Roberto Firmino who has become highly adept in a ‘false 9’ role, dropping deep into pockets of space, the trio formed a blistering combination in their 2019/20 title-winning season.
Inverted wingers in a 4-3-3 have effectively become ‘the norm’ now for teams who play this system, relying on natural width from high energy full backs with crossing ability; Liverpool being a prime example of this with Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
There are now very few traditional, world-class ‘number 9s’ in modern football ala Michael Owen and the Brazilian Ronaldo, who play off the last man, using pace and an instinctive one-on-one ability; arguably Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) is perhaps the last one of his ilk, though at the age of 33 is in the twilight years of his career and a shadow of his former ability. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), is another close comparison, though similarly, at 32 is showing signs that he could soon fade.
It could be argued that Erling Braut Haaland of Borussia Dortmund is the closest that you can find in terms of ability at this level to a traditional ‘number 9’; known as a ‘complete forward’ these days in the coaches’ manual, due to their all-round technical ability.
Perhaps the most intriguing role in recent years though is that of the ‘number 8’, who typically occupies a midfield position, slightly ahead of the defensive midfielder in a three-man block. This position can take on multiple roles.
The most common of which is the ‘box-to-box’ midfielder, which has become arguably the most effective when deployed in a 4-3-3 due to the natural equilibrium that this provides. Teams who adopt this role, do so with a player who is high in energy, can press, tackle, find space, shoot, and can dictate play; previously this was known more as an ‘all-round-midfielder’; in a similar vein to Vieira in Arsenal’s 4-4-2 system. A prime example of this type of player would be when Paul Pogba played this to its greatest effect while at Juventus, while Lampard under Mourinho at Chelsea wasn’t far off this type of role.
These players are very few and far between in modern-day football now, though we have seen Bielsa at Leeds during the 2020/21 Premier League season develop Northern Irishman Stuart Dallas into a textbook ‘box-to-box’ midfielder. His statistics tell the story. With an average passing success rate per game of 83.7 percent, a 61 percent tackle success rate and a 40 percent shot success rate, he also scored eight goals across 38 appearances. A prime example of an effective ‘box-to-box’ role in the ‘number 8’ position.
However, you can also have the role of the Mezzala, in the ‘number 8’ position, whose responsibilities are somewhat different. They play further up the pitch, operating in between the central and the wider areas, though, not as advanced as the three in the attack. Perhaps the closest that we have seen in recent years to this type of player is Iniesta at times, under Guardiola at Barcelona; he would typically dictate from slightly higher up the pitch than Xavi who was more of a ‘deep-lying-playmaker’, in the transition.
This can have a huge effect on formations. We have seen examples in the past where if two or three players can play in more than one role effectively, then they have the freedom to interchange at will, using their own reading and understanding of the game. Guardiola was a huge proponent of this, certainly while at Barcelona; essentially wanting every one of his players capable of being able to play three or more positions of their segment of the pitch.
While this was perhaps more effectively on display in the attacking third, with Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Iniesta, [Jordi] Alba and Dani Alves (the latter two almost playing as wingers) constantly causing havoc, we also witnessed this further back. Busquets could comfortably drop in at centre back or full back to cover, while Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique were equally adept filling in at full back or in the ‘Busquets role’ during certain plays of a game.
For this to work effectively though, every player has to be operating on an extremely high level, possess a highly developed footballing brain when it comes to the occupation of space and the reading of the game and be very good technically on the ball.
Similar instances where we have seen this work very well, at least in the attacking third is when Manchester United had the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez who wreaked havoc for defenders on a weekly basis. Effectively all capable of playing in each of the advanced positions, this was essentially a very fluid attack.
Arsenal in the ‘Invincible’ era, despite still playing 4-4-2, were similar with Henry, Pires and Ljungberg, which often saw Bergkamp dropping deep into a ‘number 10’ (second striker) role to pull strings and afford space for one of the wingers to slide into a striker role during the attacking transition. Similarly, Henry also used to drift left, to create space and utilise his right foot to maximum effect, with Pires making direct runs into the penalty area to draw the defender.
Cultural Identity Differences
What can be associated to different formations, and especially over the last couple of decades is the differences in how football is played in different countries, which we have seen with various national teams in many international tournaments.
Perhaps what cannot be forgotten, is that the Dutch started what became known as ‘Total Football’, in the 1980s which was based on the philosophy that every player should be capable of playing in every position; Guardiola honed and harnessed this approach.
It was the Dutch who effectively trademarked the 4-3-3 system as we know it and they became known as one of the most technically gifted footballing nations in the world. Ajax, especially produced a conveyor belt of highly gifted technical talent on a regular basis; each player well drilled with the characteristics to fullfill a number of different positions.
Spain adopted this approach during the mid-nineties and it is no coincidence that from the early 2000s we saw Spanish clubs starting to dominate European club competitions. Putting a considerable amount of energy and investment into technical coaching from an early age, meant that by players reached their twenties, they were some of the most technically gifted from around Europe.
This saw England sit up and take notice as early as the 2008 European Championship when they noticed the quality at which the Spanish national side were playing with. Until then, a lot of emphasis in England had been more on the physical, direct nature of the game, with less finesse, however, this saw a shakeup by the Football Association and a concentration on developing technical skills at coaching academies from an early age, with less of an emphasis on the ‘win at all costs’ approach.
Arguably, since the early 2000s, the way in which football is played has taken a major leap forward, particularly in terms of innovation, masterminded by luminaries such as Guardiola and his mentor Bielsa.
Every generation a new breed of coach seems to intelligently revolutionise one or more facets of the game at the highest level and finds ways of winning with the maximum efficiency.
There is no doubt that the game will continue to change in the future, which could well see formations as we know them adapt or radical shake-ups of older systems and roles. Watch this space.