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Why are football formations important? What is the difference between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3? This week, takes a look at how teams line up and how formations affect a game. The report has a transcript below and explanations of key vocabulary (in bold) can be found at the foot of the post.

Back when I was playing football for my school way back in the 1970s things were so much simpler. Before each game the teacher read out the names of the players along with a number that represented a position: Number 1 was the goalkeeper, 2 and 3 were the full backs (left and right), while 5 and 6 were the centre halves – the biggest and toughest school kids usually had the privilege of playing there. Numbers 7 and 11 played out wide; while numbers 8 and 10 were in the midfield, number 10 being a much-coveted shirt as we all knew that the best player in the team wore number 10 – think Pele, Maradona and of course Glenn Hoddle! That left number 9 as the striker, the centre forward, the goal scorer. We never questioned these positions, tactics or the formation that the teacher sent us out to play in – in fact, I am not sure we even knew that this particular formation had a name, though, particularly after the 1966 World Cup win, it has become synonymous with the English game: 4-4-2.

Of course, there have been a multitude of tactical formations throughout football’s long history. When England played Scotland in the first ever international in 1872 the English played with 1 defender, two midfielders and 7 forwards – 1-2-7, while the Scottish team decided that they would take advantage of the space on the pitch and pass the ball rather than relying on dribbling and force and so they played a more ‘reserved’ 2-2-6. Fifty or so years later the game had expanded across the globe and this lead to variations in how the game should be played. In England the 3-2-2-3 system (or W-M) was common but in Central Europe and specifically in Hungary a more fluid 3-2-3-2 model was used one that crushed England 6-3 and 7-1 in a set of friendlies during the mid-1950s. In the following decade Italian sides dominated the recently-created European Cup with a defensive system known as catenaccio (literally meaning the door bolt) that played an extra defender behind the back four. This player was known as a sweeper or libero and made it extremely difficult for the opposing side to break them down. Perhaps it was the rigidity and discipline of the catenaccio system that lead to the anarchic and some might say chaotic ideals of Total Football – a theory of football which Dutch coach Rinus Michels suggested came about as ‘football makes itself on the pitch’. Players simply moved around the pitch to cover or to attack as the need arose creating a fluid nature to the game.

Since then more defensive formations have been used with 4-5-1 fairly prevalent in Europe during the early part of this century – the extra man in midfield became known as the ‘holding midfielder‘ as he tended to sit in front of the back four in order to allow other, more creative, players to attack. 4-2-3-1 is another variation of this system except that it has two holding midfielders – something that France employed in their 1998 World Cup win. What about today? How will this decade be remembered for? Many teams, particularly at international level, turn out in a 4-1-2-2-1 formation but with players being fitter, faster and stronger than before the emphasis is very much on fluidity and flexibility and so often teams may employ a variety of formations during the same game. Maybe that 4-4-2 system was simple after all.


the privilege: The honour

a much-coveted shirt: A shirt that everyone wants

become synonymous with : Is linked with

crushed: Thrashed, beat easily

the back four: The defensive unit, the 4 defenders

anarchic: No real plan

prevalent: Common, widespread
Check out our glossary of footballing phrases here
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Learn English Through Football

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Football GlossaryEpisode 132