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4 Best Formations For Possession 

Tactics and formations are incredibly important in the modern game. A team that has the advantage of attacking threat, possession, and defensive solidity is often in a better position than the opponent. 

While some formations are suited to counter-attacking, and others are often a gung-ho attempt at a last-gasp equalizer, teams need to find a balance between attack and defense. A formation where every player sits behind the ball can often be counter-intuitive. 

Inviting an opposing team to attack for 90 minutes means confidence drains, and if the opponent does break through, you’re in trouble.

Today we will be taking a look at the four best formations for keeping possession of the ball; having the ball if half of the battle, you can either attack or defend, and best of all, your opponent can’t score a goal. 

1. 4-3-3 Formation 

Favored by teams with a high degree of technical skill, the 4-3-3 formation has a lot going for it when it comes to keeping possession of the ball. The 4-3-3 is also great for winning back control high up the pitch, thanks to the three attacking players. 

Firstly, the back four has the defensive structure to be able to keep attackers at bay and usually has a numbers superiority, so the team can feel more secure when going forwards with the ball. In midfield, the three midfielders usually consist of one defensive-minded player and two box-to-box midfielders. 

The defensive midfielder is a crucial component here; they not only patrol in front of the defense, but they are also the link in possession. Defenders have a safe way to distribute the ball forwards without losing possession as the DM (Defensive Midfielder) can take the ball and distribute it to the midfielders who can drive forwards with the ball. 

The two additional midfielders can carry the ball forwards and bolster the middle of the park; having the three midfielders can often be a numerical advantage. Allowing better passing angles, more players to close down opponents with the ball, and having control of the midfield is a huge advantage. 

Just as important as retrieving possession is where the possession is won back. Getting the ball back on the edge of your own penalty area may be a big relief, but it’s also dangerous; it’s much better to win the ball back at the edge of the opponent’s penalty area.

The two wingers and the lone center forward are expected to harry opponents for the ball; winning possession as high upfield as possible allows for greater possession, more goalscoring opportunities, and puts the opposing side under immense pressure. 


  • Offensive and defensive stability 
  • Overloads the midfield 
  • The best tactic for regaining possession upfield 
  • Many top teams use the formation 


  • Teams need to know their role inside out 
  • If the team doesn’t close down, the formation fails dramatically 
  • If the opponent closes down the CF and wingers, the attacking threat is lessened 

2. 4-4-2 Formation 

The classic 4-4-2 formation has been a staple of the English leagues for decades; from youth soccer to the top divisions, players have long been used to this traditional formation. And while it may be a little dated, there are still several reasons why the 4-4-2 formation still has its uses. 

4-4-2 formations consist of a flat back four, a flat midfield four that includes two wingers who are expected to provide crosses, and two attacking players.

The two forwards are often a center forward or target man and a false 9 that can drop deeper for the ball; it’s a simple tactic to use, it’s an easy formation to train, and it can help less gifted players by covering their weaknesses. 

Having the formation relatively compact, with the strikers and midfield dropping deeper, allows for a more defensive unit and helps the team retain possession of the ball. With four defenders keeping the opponents at bay, the wingers are expected to stick to the wings as a way for the team to relieve pressure on themselves. 

The two midfielders can either drop into a defensive midfield role to bolster the numbers or, once in possession, move forwards to support the center forwards. The 4-4-2 is a solid formation that’s great for possession, the ball can move along the lines, with several ways out if an opponent closes down the ball. 


  • Easy to understand 
  • Defensively sound
  • By dropping deep, it can shut out opposing teams’ space 
  • The ball can be moved quickly to the wings for attacking threat as well as to relieve pressure on the defense 


  • A good team can simply play over or through the lines 
  • Flat back four is prone to having the offside trap broken 
  • Rarely used at the top level 

3. 4-2-3-1 Formation 

An incredibly powerful tactic, the 4-2-3-1 formation has been widely used by some of the most creative teams of recent years. The benefit of this formation is an overload of players in the center of the pitch, which allows teams to dominate possession and create many more chances than their opponents. 

Suited to a team with technically proficient players, the 4-2-3-1 is an intricate formation that allows players to pass the ball freely amongst themselves. The creation of passing angles and triangles where a player has multiple passing options means that retaining possession and being able to move the ball upfield safely is much easier. 

The two defensive midfielders in this formation cover the back four and offer themselves as a passing option to the defenders; the defensive midfield can also move higher up the pitch to join with the three attacking midfielders, overloading the center of the park and creating passing avenues. 

This formation is all about movement and possession; it’s quite a narrow tactic to employ, so a team without the ball suddenly finds itself bunched together with nowhere to go. An opposing team that can keep the ball away from the group using the 4-2-3-1 can make use of the wings to move quickly into attack. 


  • When used correctly, this formation is extremely powerful 
  • Technically proficient players can carve teams apart 
  • Very offensive while also retaining possession 
  • Defensive midfield allows for greater defensive cohesion.


  • Without the ball, can be prone to wingers counterattacking 
  • Hard to use with players of lesser skill 
  • Compacts players close together in midfield; losing the ball causes issues if defensive midfielders are too high up the pitch. 

4. 4-1-4-1 Formation 

The 4-1-4-1 formation is probably the most defensive formation on our list, as it’s built for keeping your opponent as far away from goal as possible. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing, because while you’ve got 10 players behind the ball, it does mean 90 minutes of relentless defense. 

With your four defenders keeping a deep line, there’s limited space for attacking teams to find a way through. And with the four midfielders, often utilizing two wide midfielders rather than attacking wingers, your team has several options when it comes to passing the ball. 

The key deficiency with the 4-1-4-1 formation is the fact that with just one lone striker in the team, that player has to be world-class at holding up the ball until help arrives.

It’s fairly easy to pass the ball, and retain possession, while moving the ball between defense and midfield, but once the decision to attack is made, there’s really only one player to go to. 

If a team is technically inferior to the opposition, but has a hulking great target forward, then this formation can reap serious rewards.

You’re defensively solid, have passing options to the midfield that allows for a lot of possession, and if the target striker can bring the midfielders into play in an attacking phase, there’s a chance to grab a goal and hold on for the win. 


  • Defensively solid formation 
  • A well-drilled unit of players can defeat a technically better team 
  • Suits a team with a big target forward 
  • Can be used in a game where the clean sheet is everything 


  • This formation can be as exciting as watching paint dry 
  • If you do concede a goal, it’s hard to turn things around; the team isn’t set up to chase games
  • Restricts attacking play, reduces chances of a goal, so a clean sheet has to be the focus 


The perfect formation doesn’t exist, but a good manager or coach can utilize the players at their disposal and find a formation that can win games. Possession is everything, without the ball a team can’t function, so the above tactics do allow for a team to have the ball more than the opponent. 

The trick is to make the most of that possession; moving the ball around in your own half soon gets boring, your team has to be able to get the ball into the danger area and cause problems for your opponents. 

Another cliche for you, the best defense is a good offense, is also true when it comes to possession-based soccer formations; by attacking with the ball, your team can create and score goals, while still keeping the ball away from your rivals.