Formations: A rambling take on why they're (sometimes) useful

Formations: A rambling take on why they're (sometimes) useful


A bit late, this one, but you do know what they say about being a day late and a dollar short. Anyhow, given that I'm constantly talking in formations, I thought it may be nice to give my approach to written formations (of the 4-4-2 sort) and the like. A bit ramble, as always.

Let's start from the very beginning. Formations — especially as they are written — are, if I do say, not the only thing to a side's tactical approach. Indeed, they are perilously close to being entirely meaningless, but we insist on using them. Why? They don't approach what's done in a match, how sides set out to perform tasks, and anything above a general sense of positioning on the pitch. The same position in two systems are often resemble each other very little.

It should be said that a formation — say, a diamond 4-4-2, or a wide 4-3-3 — is meaningless without further elaboration. When we add tactics (as defined in the interminably excellent Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson: a combination of form and style), we start to understand what's happening on the pitch during a match. It also doesn't describe what's happening at any one instant — we cannot, unfortunately, easily take the derivative of a formation at any given moment: football calculus, as it were.

It's a description of what happens overall: the general themes of a club, of a match, of a specific set of players — when used properly, of course. And so it is that we use it broadly and happily, and sometimes, some go quite overboard. I may or may not be one of those.

I am operating under the assumption that you, dear reader, understand the basics, but because I'm overly pedantic, I am inclined to go over them anyway.

When we talk about a 4-4-2, we're talking quite broadly about four defenders, four midfielders, and two strikers. The goalkeeper is of course given a miss, though I'm not entirely sure why — perhaps it is because their general position is very limited, though you might have very different types of goalkeepers available to tactical examination. (They're typically grouped into goalkeepers and sweeper-keepers, who more routinely come further out of their box.)

But simply calling it a 4-4-2 doesn't really define too much — particularly when we're dealing with the midfield. In a traditional sort of 4-4-2, you might have relatively limited wingers or defensively minded wide midfielders. It simply refers to a band of four midfielders, all within relative proximity to each other. But what of a 4-4-2 which employs three defensively minded midfielders and one very attacking midfielder, perhaps floating just behind the strikers?

This is why more "bands" are added into the diagram. From here, we might call it a 4-3-1-2, with the single "1" being the floating midfielder. This still doesn't describe anything, but it's a step in the right direction. It can, however, venture further. Say two of those three defensive midfielders play a bit wider and further forward than a deep holding midfielder placed just in front of the defense?

We'll call this one a 4-1-2-1-2. This is often the description handed to Real Salt Lake when a diamond 4-4-2  is not descriptive enough. Let's take it further. One of those strikers drops into deep positions but remains generally ahead of the floating midfielder. The other striker pushes as far forward as conceivably possible. If we decide we'd like to include that in our diagram, we've gone too far: A 4-1-2-1-1-1? We've lost all sense of description here. It's a cruel balancing act. Indeed, I might describe RSL as playing a 2-2-1-2-1-1-1 if I were feeling entirely sadistic or masochistic or some such, but I shan't. Not today.

So, yes, formations: meaningless. That is, until you add more to the discussion — is this obvious? Well, probably. But I thought, given my reluctance to accept the "RSL played a 4-1-4-1" narrative stemming from Friday, my stance on formations should be made a bit more clear. If I've done that, then it was entirely by accident, but that, of course, is another story.

As a final note, if anyone can tell what formation is being used in the photo, I'll give you a shiny nickel. Cheers.