Category Archive : Tactics

One of the major debates in the soccer world over the last several decades, and arguably longer than that, has been about the value of possession. When soccer first emerged as a game more than 150 years ago those playing did so for fun in their spare time on empty land whose quality as a playing surface was inconsistent at best. Quite often fields would be muddy, uneven, and very difficult to play on. This led to a brand of soccer where the best way to score would be to kick it up the field to try and have it as close to the opponent’s goal as possible. The closer you were to the opponents goal, this line of thinking went, the likelier you were to score. This also lead to lots of goals coming from crossing the ball in the air from a player out wide to a large target forward in the middle (to learn more about wingers and strikers check out the Forwards position page.) A typical goal in this style of play might also come just from the goalie punting it as far forward as he could and the striker heading it in or holding the ball up and passing it out to the winger for a crossed goal as mentioned before. For a game ostensibly about playing the ball with your feet, this version of the game had very little “football” involved. As you might imagine, possession as a concept had very little focus in this way of thinking, with the emphasis more on getting the ball as far up the field as quickly as possible.

27th February 1937: Two Preston North End players leave the pitch at half-time covered in mud, during a match against Charlton Athletic at ‘The Valley’. (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Gradually, as the game grew and players moved from amateurs to full professionals and the surfaces being played on increased in quality some coaches began experimenting with the idea of possession being something that can contribute to the team’s success. This newer line of thinking suggested that if you have the ball that opponent doesn’t and therefore it is nearly impossible for them to score. Instead of the goalie punting the ball aimlessly down the field, they might instead pass it to their center back, who could pass it to a midfielder who could pass it up to a forward, who might send it back to the midfielder if he did not have an open shot. This idea of “recycling the ball”, sending it back to your teammate instead of forcing a shot was due to a belive that more goals would come with a quality over quantity approach to shots on target. Ultimately, both styles, and a mix of styles depending on the situation, are still common today.

How a team defends plays a large role in the formation of their identity as a team. Do they play a highline (pushing their defenders high up the field to force the opposing team back) and try to quickly press and win the ball back? Or do they sit deep, absorb pressure in a bend but don’t break bunker like fashion? These are both viable options, and not the only options, available to a manager. How a team lines up defensively also plays a huge part in how they defend. If your formation has 5 defenders like a 5-3-2 you are going to defend differently than if you have 4 in a 4-4-2. To learn what those numbers mean check out the Formations page.

Most common defensive setups will have 4 defenders in what is called the “back line” this is the line of defenders in front of the goalie that must work as a unit to protect the goal. The center backs are the two interior players, described in the Defenders position page. They form the anchor around which the defense is built and quite often are the leaders of the defense since their central position allows them to best see the field and adjust their teammates according to how the other team is attacking. They are also quite often in charge of maintaining the line’s discipline. This means keeping their fellow defenders the same way up the field.

visual demonstration of an offside trap
Fulham’s Mitrovic is caught offside by an offside trap.

As you can see in the picture, the circled player (Mitrovic) is offside because he is closer to goal than the last defender (the player in red towards the bottom of the picture). If this player (his name is Andy Robinson) was a little slower getting back up to the line his fellow defenders were holding than Mitrovic would have not be ruled offside and the goal he would go on to score from this offside position would have counted. This is important because not only did his team not score here, the free kick awarded for the offside that Robinson’s quick return to the defensive line earned ultimately resulted in a goal less than a minute later as his team counterattacked quickly down the other end. To learn more about counterattacks you can check out the Possession Tactics page here.

Good defenders are able to read the game in front of them and react in such a way that they can position themselves to cut off or prevent passes before they are made. The legendary Italian defender Paolo Maldini once said “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” However, very few defenders are as good as Mr. Maldini was so quite often tackles need to be made. A standing tackle is when a player uses his body to muscle a player of the ball. This can be done legally if the contact is shoulder to shoulder and does include a hip check, a push with the arm, or other uses of excessive force as covered in our infractions page. If a player has to stretch and catch a player than they might opt for a sliding tackle. This is legal as long as the player does not point the studs of their cleats at their opponent, they get the ball, and they don’t go through their opponent to get the ball. Otherwise the tackle might be considered reckless or dangerous and could warrant a card.

Formations are how teams distribute their players on a field. They are rarely a hard and fast rule but more like an organizational structure and guideline informing how they want to play. Formations have evolved quite a bit over time, from the now comically sounding 2-1-7 of the late 1800s to the more modern 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. How a team sets their team up can say a lot about how they wish to play. Here are a few modern formations and descriptions courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Examples of Formations

The variety of formations is only limited by the number of players allowed on the pitch, so don’t be surprised to see a range of setups and strategies employed. The overarching responsibilities for each position on the field stay the same, but it is the ability to flow as a unit and show creativity that truly makes soccer a beautiful game.

There are defensive and offensive formations, and any given formation may be more or less successful, depending on the other team’s setup. You’ll notice that the number of players in a formation only adds up to 10. That’s because the formations only relate to field players and exclude the goalie.

Typically, these field players are broken out into three key zones, with the formation being set up from back to front (defense to midfield to forward). That means a 4-4-2 formation has four defensive players, four midfielders and two forwards.

Sometimes coaches will divide the three main sections further, causing formations such as a 1-4-3-2, with one sweeper, four defensive players, three mids and two forwards; or a 4-4-1-1, which has four defenders, four mids, one second striker and one striker.

U.S. Soccer tends to favor a 4-3-3 formation. Two common variations of the 4-3-3 formation are a defensive setup and an attack-minded setup, based on where the 8 lines up. Generally, the 8 is a box-to-box player, so this can rotate continually through the game to react to the run of play.


Another popular formation in soccer is the 4-4-2. This is commonly run with a diamond shape in the midfield but can also feature a flat midfield.


Keep in mind that these are just some common formations and there are several you may see or use in the game. Every coach has a different style and there are multiple ways they could choose to set up formations.