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Systems of Play – How misleading are they? Tactical Analysis

Systems of Play – ‘Governs the way players act individually and together with others on the pitch’

Are systems of play (formations) misleading? Do they show a true representation of what happens during the 90 minutes? Do they even matter?

These are questions I ask myself every day. Running alongside my coaching and scouting, I also work as a football analyst. The role requires me to observe and create a report of the opposition highlighting key players, pattern of plays, transitions, set pieces and most notably, formations. Some coaches work for hours on the training ground perfecting (or attempting to perfect) the system they feel is most suited to the group of players he has at his disposal. Players who have worked under Roy Hodgson have commented on the stop-start sessions he delivers, tirelessly perfecting shape and formations for the weekend fixture. See link

Do we place too much emphasis on the way a team set up? Do formations give us a true picture of what happens when a team attacks and defends? The issue with systems is that it’s the players who make the system, not the other way around. Lets take Barcelona for example. There famed 4-3-3 formation only works because the players have the technical ability, game knowledge and system understanding both when attacking and defending. If they didn’t possess these key skills, the system would not make up for this.

But are systems misleading? Do they show how a team sets up throughout the full 90 minutes? Whenever you read a match day programme, watch the game live on TV or even listen on the radio, the systems presented are only of when they are in possession i.e. Attacking. This is only 50% of the systems use – when in attack. What about when a team is defending? Do they stay in the same formation? How often do you see SKY showing formations for both when attacking and defending? Having observed games at all levels, it’s clear that most teams have two types of system that they adopt whenever the ball changes hands (transition to attack or defence).

Lets now have a look in more detail of how systems change throughout a game. Below is examples of systems used at all levels of football from amateur to professional. I have highlighted how a system can easily be miss-interpreted, and how one formation can quickly be adjusted into something completely different depending on who has the ball.

It’s important to say that these are just some of the ways that teams may alter there formation when changing from attack to defence (transition). I’m attempting to highlight the switches in styles that may occur within a game.

*Note; Some positions will change depending on position of the ball and area of the pitch. The images attempt to show a basic overview of the system.


The 4-1-2-3 has been used by some or Europe’s top clubs with most notably Chelsea (in previous years) utilising the systems attacking opportunities. Below is an example set up when the team are in possession. Players in the front 3 are high and wide, giving great options to penetrate and create goalscoring opportunities. There is cover and balance from the two central midfield players, however they will also join in on attacks when possible. The holding midfield players offers constant support to the back 4.

The image below shows how the system can quickly change into a 4-1-4-1 when a team loses possession of the ball. The wide players drop in to make midfield compact and balanced, with a holding central midfield player offering support in front of the back 4. The lone striker drops slightly giving good balance and support behind the ball.


The 4-1-3-2 formation is very similar to the system above, however it now gives sides a greater presence in the middle third, allowing opportunities to be created a little deeper. It still offers two strikers who can make runs into the channels for a delivery into the box or to play more centrally and combine. The holding midfield player gives support to the back 4 if the ball does change hands.

When losing possession we can now see how the system changes into a much more defensive style. The formation may revert into a 4-4-1-1 with the three attacking players dropping deeper making a flat midfield 4. One of the strikers also drops off stopping any passing lanes into midfield and sweeping across the higher-middle third.


The 4-3-3 system is synonymous with the great Ajax side and now the even greater Barcelona side. This system is a very attack-orientated offering 3 attackers to play against usually a back 4. Sides utilising this formation will play with quick, skilful attackers to create opportunities to score. The midfield 3 should be both technically comfortable to play, but also disciplined to track back and defend (as you will see below) when needed.

The image below shows how a side may change when they lose possession in a 4-3-3. However, Barcelona who use this system don’t change into the formation below (4-5-1) as they put real emphasis on winning possession quickly, and leaving as many options available as possible to attack quickly.

The wide players in the front 3 may drop in, creating a compact, flat midfield 5 in front of the back 4. The 4-5-1 is a very defensive formation and is a great option to get men behind the ball.


Some may argue that the 4-4-1-1 is simply a 4-4-2. However, usually a 4-4-2 will consist of 2 flat strikers playing high up the pitch. In a 4-4-1-1, one striker drops off into midfield (between the lines) to turn and receive – usually the number 10. The emphasis on this 4-4-1-1 is the width and height from the two wide midfield players when in possession. Some teams i.e. Bolton for example play with a flat 4-4-2 giving potential width from the wingers, but no real opportunity to play high (i.e. diagonal switch, quick crosses into the box, combination play with front 2 etc)

The transition from attack to defence may now warrant teams to drop into a flat 4-4-1-1. The wide players drop in giving support to the full backs. The number 10 (who drops off) may drop even deeper to screen in front of the midfield 4, stopping any passing lanes into players feet.

I hope you have enjoyed reading the article. As stated above, the images are simply reference points to show how a team may set up in that specific formation. The players within the system (i.e. back 4) will change position in relation to where the ball is, and what formation the other side are playing.

Follow Matt on Twitter – @Matt_K1991

Article originally published on http://www.eliteacademysoccercoaching.co.uk/

Matthew Kirkwood
Matthew Kirkwoodhttp://www.eliteacademysoccercoaching.co.uk
21 year old football coach/scout. I run my own coaching website (eliteacademysoccercoaching.co.uk) as well as using twitter to talk all things football (@Matt_K1991).
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