11v11 Soccer Formations : Adapting Your Game

It is known that 11v11 soccer formations can vary during a game because of the score or other situations such as injuries or opponent’s strategies. Coaches plan ahead different formations that can help them win games; sometimes coaches must go all-in, and sometimes coaches just need to protect the 1-0 lead.

Players and coaches that are aware of these formations can make better decisions before and during a game. Understanding the system that a coaches uses improves the performance of a team. When all players know their role on the field, they are more likely to succeed and win games.

I will present the most common soccer formations in three categories: Defensive, Offensive, and Conservative. By sharing my thoughts and experience on 11v11 soccer formations, I hope that the next soccer match that you watch makes more sense and you are able to determine what formation the teams use. Let’s get started.

Defensive Formations (Gotta Defend!)

When it comes to a defensive formation, we can most likely think about the traditional Italy national squad with 5 players in the back. In the recent 2018 Russia World Cup, we were able to see that most teams played with 5 defenders, at some point. Typical defensive formations for 11 v 11 would include:

  • 5 – 3 – 2 : This formation would give a team great protection by the sidelines. With 5 in the back, coaches have 3 central backs that can shift to the sides to stop the opponent’s wingers. Having 2 forwards, coaches can still counterattack and get some numbers on the attacking third.

    5-3-2 soccer formation

  • 5 – 4 – 1 : Very similar to a 5-3-2 formation but with fewer players to counterattack. Having 4 midfielders provide a second wall of players that can easily cover the width of the field. The only forward is the “target player” and he is responsible to hold the ball and play “big” so that more teammates can move up to attack.

    5-4-1 soccer formation

  • 4 – 5 – 1 : With a formation like this one, a team can control the midfield and be closer to score goals. With a traditional line of 4 in the back and 5 midfielders, this formation is my favorite one when I have to defend a 1 – 0 lead against a good team. the 3 center midfielders can outnumber the opponent and then quickly open up the field with the wingers or the target player.

    4-5-1 soccer formation

Offensive Formations (Gotta Attack!)

Most top teams use offensive formations against teams that play with defensive formation. Even though these formations may change during a game, they can lead to numerous opportunities to score. The following two 11v11 soccer formations are:

  • 4 – 3 – 3 : The 3 forwards allow the team to keep the pressure on the attacking third, and especially on the left back and right back of the opponent. With 4 players in the back, teams can still manage to be solid and compact when defending. This formation requires that the 3 midfielders stay together to not lose the midfield and possession of the ball.

    4-3-3 soccer formation

  • 3 – 4 – 3 : Sometimes coaches just have to take the risk! Playing with 3 in the back is the imminent move after getting scored against on a must-win game. When a team uses this formation, they typically keep fast players in the back to prevent any counterattack of the opposite team. On a different situation, this 11v11 formation can be modified to a 3 – 1 – 3 – 3, where the “1” player has the role of a stopper on the midfield line.

    3-4-3 soccer formation

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Conservative Formations

The conservative formations that I’m going to list next can be categorized as either defensive or offensive formations because they are very similar to the previously mentioned formations. The reason why I consider them “conservative” has to do with keeping the traditional 4 in the back and attack with one or two forwards.

  • 4 – 1 – 3 – 2 : 4 in the back, a holding midfielder, 3 midfielders that can freely move up, and 2 forwards in charge of putting pressure on the opponent’s defensive line.

    4-1-3-2 soccer formation

  • 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 : 4 in the back, two holding midfielders, 3 attacking midfielders, and a target player.

    4-2-3-1 soccer formation

  • 4 – 4 – 2 : 4 in the back, 4 midfielders, and two forwards. The MOST traditional 11v11 soccer formation.

    4-4-2 soccer formation

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  • 4 – 1 – 4 – 1 : 4 in the back, a holding midfielder, a line of 4 midfielders, and a target player.

    4-1-4-1 soccer formation

Once again, these formations can be seen as either a defensive or offensive formation. The “holding midfielder” position can make it seem as a defensive formation but it all depends where is this player on the field (first-third, mid-third, or attacking-third).

Adjusting Formations

Soccer is one of the most unexpected sports and therefore adjusting formations is usually inevitable. During the first minutes of a game, coaches “study” the opponent team and have to make decisions whether the chosen formation is the appropriate one given the circumstances. As mentioned before, there are situations in a game that can lead to changing formations and that is normal; it doesn’t mean that a coach was wrong about the starting formation. In fact, it shows that the coach understands the game and realizes that the original plan must be modified.

Some coaches have their DNA formation and they stick to it! At the professional level, most coaches are known for their formation and style that go with them wherever they go. There is obviously nothing wrong with this philosophy and they have found “the right formation” for their coaching style and it works for them. However, when the need to win a game kicks in, ALL coaches consider an extra attacking player.

Finishing Strong and Focused!

No matter what formation a team has, all players should be familiar with more than one formation. Soccer has become a very strategical sport and coaches are looking into different ways they can place their players on the field to benefit the team. Towards the end of a game, formations usually become very crucial because the team that needs to score moves to a more offensive formation, meanwhile the team that is trying to hold the lead becomes more defensive.

Players and coaches that understand the role of each player on all 11v11 soccer formations have the advantage to adapt and adjust based on how the game is going. Furthermore, younger players can benefit tremendously from understanding how formations work and the different types because they would be one step ahead of other players in this amazing sport.

10 thoughts on “11v11 Soccer Formations : Adapting Your Game

  1. Well, I know more about soccer now after reading your post then I have my whole life! Unfortunately my kids never got into playing soccer, which is a shame because I live by the National Sports Center in Minnesota where they hold the USA Cup International Youth Tournament. I wish I could print out your images as a little book and set them by the television for me. I might try to check out soccer game next time I find one on television just to see if I can figure out these formations. It’s nice to be given a basic understanding of the purpose of these formations. I appreciate your sharing the information. I guess, are these formations the same for adult and youth soccer? If I were to go watch the kids at the USA Cup would I be able to  understand the formations from what you presented here? Thank you!

    • Hi Lynne, 

      I’m so glad that you learn something about soccer from my post. It’s so cool that you live close to where the USA Cup International Youth Tournament is held. Now, these formations are for 11v11, which means that there are 11 players on each team. Most team with players 12-13 years of age and older play with these formations. Younger players may have only 6-9 players at the time on the field, therefore you can’t have formations like 4-4-2 because you don’t have enough players. In those cases they play, 3-3-2 or something like that.

      By the way, I give you copyrights permission to screenshot my images and print them out 🙂 Thank you for stopping by.

  2. Thank you very much for posting these cool formations. I had no idea soccer was so intricate with strategic formations of offense and defense. I always thought players were just assigned to sections of the field and nothing more. Boy do I feel sheepish.

    I am digging the 4 – 5 – 1  formation too. Being a good chess player this reminds of chess tactics. Control the middle and as much of the board as possible. It’s pretty much hugging the opponents last defense so tightly.

    I love the layout and style of your website too. The pictorials of formation explained just fit so perfectly with the a background images and the drop down menus.

    • That’s right my friend, soccer is getting more and more strategic from formations to plays. 

      Chess? I just remembered my friend from my childhood that used to beat me at chess in less than 5 moves. I was like: “dude, can we actually play?” Because I always felt like he won the game even before we started playing. I used to say: “it’s not fair bro”. He taught me one strategy but he never let me use it against him. Thanks for the comment!!!

      I appreciate your kind words about my website overall. It just encourages me!

  3. I love soccer. Although I don’t actually play the game, I really enjoy watching. Being on a different time zone is no reason for me to miss watching my favorite teams do their thing. At most times, I stay up late at night or wake up in the wee hours just so I won’t miss the game.

    However, there are still some mechanics of the game that I do not fully understand, especially the 11v11 formations. I do not get why the players move in such and such directions. So thank you so much for a clear explanation. I must say, this is one of the easiest to understand explanations I ever read about the defensive and offensive formations in the game of soccer. I did not even know there’s such a thing called “conservative” formation.

    By the way, you mentioned about coaches having their DNA formation and stick to it, are players allowed to suddenly change their formation or game strategy without prior consultation with their coach? I mean, if the team ends up winning, I’m sure their coach won’t mind. But when they lose because they did not stick to their game plan, who gets the blame???

    • The conservative formation is more my terminology, which means that you are not attacking with all you have, you are keeping a decent amount of player defending your goal.

      WHAT A GREAT QUESTION!!! Some players change their roles on the field at times and coaches sometimes let them play for a bit. Most likely, the typical “sudden change” is when a team is losing and they move up to attack. In that case, a defender may want to move up as an attacker and, as a coach, I must say that it is totally fine. It usually happens towards the end of the game.

      Who gets the blame? Again, for “sudden change” in positions, the situation is most likely 1) a game about to end, 2) losing the game or 3) need to score a goal. I would personally blame anyone in that case because we are pretty much playing all-in at that time.

      Thank you so much for such a great comment! Check out my other posts 🙂

  4. As someone who grew up playing soccer and had the honor to play in the US, Mexico, and Europe, the formations you listed are spot on. In reference to your 4-4-2 formation, that is widely used in developmental leagues, as it is a medium base for anyone new or intermediate to the game. I love the 4-2-3-1 formation, as your mobile midfielders can help the attack on a moments notice or fall back to defend with ease. I love how you have a section on adjusting formations, as the game does change instantaneously and can require you to shift between an attacking formation or defensive one. Great insight into the importance of formations and the adaptability that is required shifting between them.

    • Thank you very much! I really appreciate the detailed comment and your kind words.I love that 4-2-3-1 formation as well. I’m SO honored to have an experienced soccer player on my website! Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Soccer is one of the most outstanding and followed sports, where the strategic offensive and defense formations are of relevant importance. Your presentation is great. The images serve as a reference for any beginner or expert. But I think the coach is the one to decide the strategic formation, right? Now I know some about soccer. Congrats for this thorough explanation, and thank you.

    • You are right Maria. The coach must decide the strategic formation depending on the team that he/she is playing against. The way the game goes and the score also determines the formation; the coach is to read the game and determine if he needs to be more “aggressive” with the formation.

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad that you enjoyed this post 🙂

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