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Soccer School: Formations Matter

Overhead Shot of Players at Allianz Field

Annnnd we’re back! It’s 2024, and I’m happy to report that I am no longer groveling for my job. My New Year’s resolution is twofold, actually. First, I must continue to endear myself to the audience, and, in turn, earn the unofficial title of “The People’s Gaffer.” The second part of the resolution is to lead my U11 girls soccer team through the spring season by means of complete domination. 

I’m talking 10-0 at halftime, and we’re still going to press high in the second half. But we’ve got a few months until then. For now, let’s just get to today’s lesson. 

Why Should I Care?

I’m sure that at some point in your playing career, you were annoyed by your coach’s insistence about the importance of formations. “But Coach, does it even really matter?!” You’re starting to sound like the girls on my team; they never want to listen to me. But when it comes to picking the right formation, there’s plenty to listen to. The way a team sets up dictates what they’re able to do together. If you lean into the strengths of the players in your squad and develop a sound game plan to use against your opponent, your formation often picks itself.

When playing against a high-powered attacking team, you’ll want to put more of your players in the defensive third. If you come up against an unbreakable defense, you’ll want to shift players forward and wide to stretch the opposition. Spread the field if you want to move the opponent; fill up the middle if you want to make their lives difficult. Shape often changes depending on what your team wants to accomplish, making it difficult to pin one down as the formation to rule them all. 

Just a few minutes playing around on EA FC can teach you a lot about the wide world of soccer formations, but a little more context never hurts. In Major League Soccer’s 2023 season, seven different shapes were first choice for at least one of the league’s 29 teams; let’s break each of them down. 

Bread and Butter, Baby: 4-4-2 and 4-3-3

Some things never go out of style, even if they aren’t necessarily the most stylish options around. If you’ve ever played soccer, you’re probably familiar with the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations. These are some of the easiest setups to understand, giving each player a clear role and, with the right pieces in place, giving your team a solid, balanced foundation to build from. 

Ah, 4-4-2, the first formation I ever played! The likes of DC United, RSL, and Nashville dabbled in this realm last season, with mixed results. Two flat banks of four defenders and four midfielders ensure that the team has proper width, but at the cost of the kind of depth that helps stretch the field for passing. Oftentimes, team’s playing a 4-4-2 use long passes over the opposing defense to find speedy forwards, relying on counter attacks to hit the back of the net. If you think in terms of natural passing options, this setup is semi-limited, but it can be hard to break down due to its well-defined shape and emphasis on defense.

Jim Curtin’s Philadelphia Union has made the 4-1-2-1-2 their own with their talented group of players, but it’s not as complicated as it seems. It’s essentially a fancy version of a 4-4-2, with a midfield diamond instead of wide players. Two box-to-box midfielders sit in between an attacking and a defensive midfielder. Other than that, the two up top and four in the back mirror its predecessor.  

After mastering the 4-4-2, my first move was to the 4-3-3. This formation adds a level of complexity, with three central midfielders working together in what can feel like limited space at first. If they can’t divvy up the space well enough, the whole team is doomed. If they get the spacing and passing right, though, the right midfield triangle can turn this formation into a deadly combination of fluid passing and seamless transition play.

Much like the 4-4-2, the 4-3-3 uses four defenders across the back, but the similarities end there. Instead of right and left midfielders, the 4-3-3 employs wingers, whose job is to stay higher up the pitch and create chances from the wide areas of the attacking third. A single striker waits in the middle to finish, while the midfield three is expected to cover ground from box to box. Five MLS teams preferred this formation last year, including MLS Cup finalists LAFC. Oh yeah, the World Cup winners used this one in 2022 as well, for what it’s worth. 

Tried, True, and Familiar to You: 4-2-3-1

By far the most common setup in the league, the 4-2-3-1 was the primary option for 16 teams in 2023, including our beloved Loons. 16! I don’t know who was first, but someone’s homework was pretty popular. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose, so I guess we’re just a really complimentary bunch. 

This setup is designed to break down the roles of a traditional 4-3-3 a bit more, adding in an additional line of positions to signify each player’s job. The back four remains consistent with the formations we’ve already addressed, but the two defensive midfielders sitting in front of them signal a change from our previous analysis. Think Wil Trapp and Kervin Arriaga: they get forward from time to time, but their primary duties are to protect the back line, win the ball, and connect the field with passes. 

In front of them is a line of three attacking midfielders. The central player—in MNUFC’s case, Rey—is typically the most creative player on the team, with great vision and technical ability. They aren’t expected to do much defending, as long as their contributions to the attack make them valuable enough to keep in the squad. The players on the right and left play a hybrid role that combines the style of a wide midfielder with that of a winger. They offer width when needed, come back to defend as needed, and generally cover a whole lot of ground in 90 minutes. 

That leaves the striker up top, whose primary objective is to stay forward, create opportunities through passing and movement, and finish things off with a goal. Check out Teemu Pukki’s masterclass against the Galaxy for a perfect demonstration of how to play the striker position.

Less is More, Especially on Defense: Three-Backs

Now, my personal favorite and the reigning MLS Cup-winning strategy: the glorious three-back. Who needs four people staying back when you can get the job done with three? Instead of two center backs and two fullbacks, this formation uses three center backs. But the real magic is in the wingbacks. 

Unlike traditional outside backs, wingbacks are given license to bomb up and down the flanks, often contributing heavily to their team’s attacking efforts. They operate more like midfielders than defenders, and they’re expected to cover as much ground as a midfielder during each game. Both Cincinnati and Columbus utilized this style last season, though the setup in the spine of the team was a bit different for each of the Ohio squads. Columbus’ 3-4-2-1 had two holding midfielders, Nagbe and Morris, with two attacking midfielders directly in front of them. The wingbacks provided the width, while the midfielders connected the field and kept the team organized. 

Cincinnati took a slightly different approach (3-4-1-2), using two strikers in front of MLS MVP Luciano Acosta. With an attacking midfielder like that, you can afford to give them a little extra space to work their magic. Meanwhile, Vancouver’s 3-1-4-2 combined some of the elements of a 4-1-2-1-2 with the more traditional three-back systems, creating an exciting on-field product that went criminally underappreciated this season.

Whether you choose my favorite 3-5-2 or any of the strategies mentioned above, using three in the back can help your team possess the ball and dictate the pace of the game. By efficiently spreading players out across the entire field, you make the most of the space you have at your disposal, though you open yourself up to some risks in the back. But you can’t win if you don’t score, and since both of Major League Soccer’s yearly trophies were won by this strategy, I’d say it’s worth the risk. 

So, what do you think? Clear as mud, right? Don’t worry, it’s not too confusing once you start watching some of these formations in real time. 

Formation. Formation. It doesn’t even sound like a real word to me anymore. What is that called? Semantic satiation? Try saying that five times fast. Then say formation again to check and see if it’s no longer satiated.  If that doesn’t work, you might have to seek out Queen Bey for help. 

Visuals are usually better for this topic, but I’m self conscious, and I don’t feel comfortable sharing my drawings with you. I’m used to just arranging a bunch of cones on the ground to show the girls what I’m talking about, but I seem to lose their attention pretty quickly once the cones come out. I didn’t want you to fall into the same pattern; I need you to at least pretend to pay attention to these articles so I can keep my New Year’s resolution intact. C’mon, Loons, let’s get in formation.