When fans talk about football and how their team is playing on the pitch, the conversation normally starts with formations. It forms as the basis of any discussion that leads to football on the pitch.
But what if we raised the point, that as football has evolved the formations on the pitch has started to matter less and less as the game’s gone on. Gone are the days of fullbacks (side halves/side backs at the time), sticking to their position with one primary role which was protecting their CBs.
Let’s take a look at how the use of these formations have changed and what makes them redundant in modern football.
Formations showcase starting positions for players in modern football in contrast to them actually sticking to those formations throughout the 90 minutes in a game. It allows the manager to drill roles that each formation requires to function other than have them standing stationary like mannequins.
- Attacking Phase
- Defensive Phase
Now, these phases can mean different things in regards to which team you’re watching. A team like Liverpool aims to create through their extremely high press, while Barcelona would more likely suffocate you with possession and pressure (Messi helps). We’ll take a look at how some teams set up in which formations to influence games; keeping each phase in mind.
In attacking phases, teams operating in different formations than the ones which we see on screen. This is done through the manager assigning roles within these formations to get the best out of their players and to help control the games better. Remember, more control would equal more chances.
The screen grab above show Real Madrid during one of their attacking phases. Here you can see both Varane and Ramos (we assume) are on the half way line squeezing space for the opposition to operate. This allows the central midfielders Kroos, Casemiro and Modric to provide both passing options and ball progressions through carrying.
The fullbacks are positioned higher up the pitch providing width, with the front three encouraged to interchange and create marking issues for the opposition. This is Real Madrid in their 4-3-3 formation, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
Here Madrid is more akin to a 2-1-4-3 formation while attacking the opposition. This way they’re forcing teams on the back foot allowing themselves the time to pick them apart. Not exactly a consistent 4-3-3 on the pitch now is it.
What’s important here are the roles that are assigned to the players. Let’s take the example of Bayern Munich under Hansi Flick. They’ve given their young fullback Alphonso Davies the platform to use his explosive pace to good effect. Therefore, he isn’t your conventional fullback when Bayern are attacking as he almost plays as a wide player providing width
These are the roles of modern fullbacks, and the role Hansi Flick has provided his player to get the best out of them. All the formations do in an attacking sense is to provide the players with a starting position to implement the roles that their coach wants from them. Through this teams are able to exploit oppositions in a number of ways; ranging from a counter-attacking set up with a mid-block or through passing them to death.
Just like the attacking phase, teams that are set up in formations defend differently as well. So which team better to give these examples out to than Atletico Madrid. Diego Simeone has become a master at nullifying opposition for his team’s benefit. It has allowed Atletico Madrid to become a force not just in Spain but in Europe.
Atletico defends very narrowly in a 4-4-2 shape in contrast to how they start the game. Saul and Correa are excellent when it comes to implementing instructions, and they are usually deployed out wide to help the fullbacks deal with opposition wide players. They help in creating a bank of 4 in midfield to cover the length of the pitch.
Simeone’s men are tasked to suffocate opposition, stopping the ball from penetrating the middle third of the pitch and forcing their opponents out wide while praying on any lapse of concentration.
Teams deviate less from the original formation as there is less risk involved when defending for long periods. Its more about concentration and making sure that all the team is well set up defensively to handle any kind of opposition threat; ranging from counter attacks to crosses into the box.
Again, roles are important here as well. Atletico task one of their two forward (Felix) to drop back and join the midfield as an extra man for more defensive cover, while as we explained before, Saul and Correa cover the wide areas.
Style Impacts Formation?
We can see that the team style impacts how most teams will react in the game. Liverpool for example, are high pressers of the ball. Their chances are created through them suffocating the opposition through their relentless pressing and pouncing on mistakes.
This shows in their average position on the pitch. Here’s a pressing map of the Premier League leaders showcasing where they are most aggressive and it’s no surprise to see the results.
Their average pressing is significantly higher in the final third than it is anywhere else on the pitch, which is also close to 10% higher than the league average. From this, we can deduce that Liverpool push up when they attack to limit the space provided to attackers and the midfielders to pick them apart when pressing.
Mane and Salah are given the license to roam in the middle and final third of the pitch plus due to their insane athleticism, the two wide men are aggressive pressers in their own right. Same is the case for all of Liverpool’s midfielders who are clearly tasked to take the ball off the opposition as quickly as possible.
Hence, them deviating from their usual 4-3-3 formation to press and its made them one of the best sides in the world cause of the roles that Klopp has created for his players and their own quality that has shined through.
Now we can safely deduce that formations, in the grand scheme of things, don’t matter in the modern game. They serve the purpose of teaching the players their starting positions and roles.
Sadly, they’ve been reduced to being used on video games to understand football sides on the basis of levels. When it comes to the actual game, they’re an afterthought; providing the platform for a bigger aspect in the modern game.
Until Next Time