There’s no such thing in soccer as a foregone conclusion; a team of underdogs, well drilled and following a plan, can and often do beat teams of superior strength.
A group that can hold to a formation and restricts a stronger opponent starts to grow in confidence as the match progresses, and the stronger team begins to doubt itself.
Of course, it helps when the underdogs play out of their skin, but every weekend you’ll find that team who, on paper, should be getting a sound beating, defy the odds and either win or hold out for a draw.
It’s the manager’s job to put their players in the right frame of mind; the team spends the week practicing defensive play, and set-pieces become vital, as does the team’s formation. The correct formation can keep a team in the right shape to withstand the expected pressure from a stronger team.
What formations prove effective against stronger teams? A big part of a formation’s success depends on the players available; you can’t play with wing-backs if your team hasn’t got any. A lone target striker is a great asset, but what if your striker is 5 feet 6” and weighs 120 pounds?
Today, we’ll look at four of the best formations a team can employ when facing a stronger team; with the right players and a cohesive unit, they can keep even the strongest opponents at bay.
The 4-2-3-1 formation is one of the most widely used in modern soccer, but with a bit of tweaking, it can prove to be very effective against stronger teams.
With a four-person defense, your team has a solid base from which to defend against a stronger opponent, but the midfield pair can make the difference.
Rather than the more attacking version of this formation, which employs two central midfielders, the 4-2-3-1 defensive midfield formation pulls back the two midfielders.
Acting as a screen for the defense, the two defensive midfielders add numbers to the middle of the pitch and look to cut off attacking threats.
The other advantage of this formation is that while an opposing team may be technically superior, they still have to guard against your team scoring on the counter-attack.
The three attacking midfielders, usually comprising of two wingers and an attacking midfielder or false 9, means that even the strongest opponents have to keep players in defense.
They say that the best form of defense is to attack, and while this formation certainly has an attacking threat, the forward players are focused on keeping an opponent in their own half.
A well-drilled team that covers its defense, blocks off attacking players, and then feeds the ball forward to wingers who can supply the lone striker can prove deadly against a stronger team.
- Most teams have players that can play in the required positions.
- Offers an attacking threat.
- Defensive midfielders can strengthen a defense.
- Pacy wingers can wreak havoc.
- It needs discipline to maintain.
- Defensive midfielders must maintain their position.
- It leaves space in midfield; opponents can bypass the attackers and swamp the defense.
One of the safest ways for a team to combat an opponent of superior skill is to stay compact and reduce the space available.
The 4-1-4-1 formation is excellent for keeping players close together, with the spaces between the defense and midfield compacted and easily defended.
A four-person defense offers the goalkeeper a defensive screen that, while not impenetrable, is at least harder to bypass.
The defensive midfielder sits as an anchor just in front of the center-backs, trying to break up through balls and mark any attacking midfielders that may be lurking.
It’s essential for the defensive midfielder not to be pulled too far out of position because the four-person midfield will also sit quite deep, forming an additional bank of players who are trying to stop a more potent team from dictating the play.
If you’re playing against an excellent team, the defensive lines start dropping even deeper, which gives your team a much higher chance of keeping the opponents at bay.
While that’s a good thing, it does mean that you’re surrendering possession and mobility. A great team can pass the ball around at will, trying to pull players out of position.
If a team employing the 4-1-4-1 isn’t tactically rigid, openings will appear, and the game soon becomes a rout. This is a tremendous defensive formation when playing against stronger teams, but your chances of scoring are minimal. A lone striker, a long way from any support, needs a lot of luck to get a scoring opportunity.
- Easy to learn the formation.
- Flat lines of defense and midfield offer stability.
- The defensive midfielder can roam freely to cover their defenders.
- A static flat defense can be crippled by through balls.
- The offside trap has to be perfect.
- Very little attacking threat allows the opponent to push forwards.
Unlike the 4-1-4-1 formation, the 5-3-2 wing-back formation does offer your team a more attacking outlet. This formation employs three center-backs, all of who need to be good in the air, quick, and work well as a team.
The two wing-backs can either tuck inside to become inverted wing-backs and add an additional defensive cover, or they can be a way for a team to use the wings as a counter-attacking outlet.
The wing-backs are the key to this formation; they must be adaptable enough to tuck in and provide cover quickly but quick enough to be given the ball and move forwards with the ball.
A three-person midfield is the first line of defense, and the central midfielders need to harry the opposition to try and get the ball back.
If possession is won, the wing-backs can bomb past on the wing and provide crosses to the two strikers. If control is lost, the midfield, and the wing-backs, retreat and cut off any space.
This formation is a superb combination of defensive solidity and counter-attacking threat. Still, it does need players who are positionally sound and fit enough to move up and down the field for 90 minutes.
Used properly, the 5-3-2 wing-back formation can stifle a stronger team while forcing them back to defend their own area.
- Wing-backs offer a serious threat.
- Three central defenders offer cover from through balls.
- Two strikers force opponents to defend deep.
- When used well, it provides superb offensive and defensive cover.
- Easy to lose shape.
- Difficult to master.
- Wing-backs need to be incredibly fit.
- Out of possession, if the players don’t pull back, there’s no cover for the defense.
The 4-3-3 formation is the most versatile and widely used formation around, and when used against a much stronger team can be highly effective.
This tactic can quickly interchange between a flat 4-3-3 formation and a more defensive shape where two of the midfielders drop into defensive midfield, and two strikers can drop into midfield.
The 4-3-3 can quickly and easily become a 4-2-3-1, with two defensive midfielders covering the defense, two of the attacking players dropping into a wide midfield position, and a lone striker upfront.
Out of possession against a strong team, the 4-3-3 swaps to a 4-2-3-1, and several players pull back into a more defensive unit.
Back in possession, the team can quickly push players forward again, and the tactic reverts to a more noticeable 4-3-3.
An advantage of this tactic is that it forces the opponent to be wary of being counter-attacked, making them less likely to push everyone forward. This makes it one of the best formations for counter-attacks.
The disadvantage is that while it’s a superb tactic, it takes time to get it right.
If the team employing the 4-3-3 isn’t quick enough to convert to the 4-2-3-1 and pull players back to help out the defense, your team can quickly become overrun by a strong team.
Being nearly on time isn’t enough; if the midfield doesn’t drop deep or the two wide attackers don’t pull back into midfield, it’s over.
- The multi-faceted formation allows defense and attack.
- Allows a team with versatile players to cover multiple areas and roles.
- Commonly used tactic.
- The team can quickly withdraw into defensive positions.
- Teams need to be tactically astute.
- Difficult to learn and easy to lose control.
- It can leave the wings exposed.
- Midfield three need to move quickly into defensive positions.
Tactics, formations, and players; managers have been trying to find the perfect formula for over a century. But in reality, there is no ideal formation, only excellent intentions. Against a stronger team, the above formations can and do prove effective.
But at the end of the day, it’s the players that matter. A weaker team that’s well-drilled and confident in their abilities, no matter how able they really are, can hold out and even defeat a stronger opponent.
A formation is only a formation when the players stick to it. A strong and talented team can pull apart a weaker team, destroying any plans or formations. It’s up to the players to know their roles, concentrate for the entire game, and try to turn the tables on their opponents.