What is The Best Soccer Formation

There are many different options when it comes to choosing the right strategy. We have seen both successful and not-so-successful tactics since the sport debuted over 150 years ago. The game has, of course, changed a lot since then. This article will focus on the eight most popular formations over the years and decide which ones are the best.

The answer is not as simple as it might seem at first glance, mainly because it’s hard to look at the 150-year-history of the sport as a cohesive entity. There were brief periods in which a certain formation was viable and then became almost unusable in, for example, ten years. In addition, soccer has constantly been evolving over the years. Therefore, we can see that there have been many significant changes in the past couple of decades. Only in the 2010s have we seen a massive influx of money. Something that made a substantial impact on the soccer world as we knew it.

Many clubs focused on bringing expensive sponsorships, securing signatures of world-class players, and splashing a vast amount of money on the infrastructure. Not many paid attention to the more strategic and “mathematical” side of the game itself. Soccer analytics wasn’t as developed 10-15 years ago as it was in, let’s say, the mid-2010s. The revolution of the team “behind the curtain” let managers and coaches decide to experiment with many different formations, and the “soccer renaissance” was at its peak.

Before we get into it, keep in mind that the formations mentioned here are archetypes, which means that there are dozens of other formations based on them. For example, two variations of 3-4-3 would be 3-4-2-1 and 3-4-1-2. Even though they are somewhat different, the only difference here is the setup of the attacking three, which does not fundamentally affect the formation.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the most popular ones and see their pros and cons. Keep in mind that some formations are more effective for particular strategies and that some might be better than others only in certain aspects.


The first one we will look at is a formation heavily popularized by Jürgen Klopp and his Liverpool side over the last five years.

The 4-3-3 is a formation with four defenders at the back and a group of 3 midfielders and three attackers that can easily transition into both the attacking and the defensive phase and potentially create an enormous threat for the opposition.

Depending on the striker’s role, the center forward player could also act as a false nine. The wingers can quickly adapt to the strategy and use the extra space created by the defenders marking the attacking team’s striker.

Besides Liverpool with the world-famous Mané-Firmino-Salah trio at the front, 4-3-3 is also popularized in modern soccer by teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid. The secret behind playing a solid 4-3-3 is having pacy and agile wingers who are good at ball control and counter-attacking and a midfield of three players who are not only good at holding the ball and creating chances but at defending as well.

Even though Liverpool’s side has been famous for utilizing its world-class fullbacks like Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold in offense, the 4-3-3 formation does not require both fullbacks to be constantly a part of the attacking phase. Despite that, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold have above-average numbers in goal contributions than almost all other players in their respective positions in major leagues. Their main concern is to stay fit and to be able to run up and down during the 90 minutes constantly.

They can easily overlap and get into solid crossing positions by supporting their midfield and linking up with wingers. The fullbacks, in this case, need to possess both attacking and defensive qualities since they can’t just focus on only one part of the field.

The manager will usually play the mid-three players in a triangle when it comes to the midfield. That means two midfielders will be more advanced, while one will have to sit deeper and have more defensive duties. The defensive midfielder or the CDM is always a physical player who is good at marking and defensive positioning. CDM sometimes even acts as a third CB – making sure to either start the attack in the attacking phase or simply break down the opposing attack by tackling or cutting passing lanes.

In this case, the offensive midfielders are good passers who are solid dribblers and don’t have to worry that much about their back since they have the CDM behind them.

The previously mentioned front three is vital to any team playing 4-3-3. That’s where Liverpool stands out. The better they understand each other in the attack, the better the team plays as a whole. If the wingers are not that fast both on and off the ball, that might give the opposition a chance to break down the opposing attack and start a potential counter-attack. However, they are usually good at crossing the ball, running behind the defense, being solid in 1-on-1 situations, and being clinical finishers.

That’s why 4-3-3 is a goal-scoring formation.


The formation that started it all – is probably the most fundamental formation of all time. It was founded, nurtured, and popularized by many different clubs around the United Kingdom over a century ago.

Even today, 4-4-2 is still used in English soccer, by mostly lower league clubs, sometimes even in a bit different form – a diamond-shaped 4-1-2-1-2.

Depending on the strategy, the formation can be somewhat fluid as well. We can often see the number 10 player playing only through the middle while one of the two strikers is covering wider areas of the field. To be more precise, depending on a player’s role, 4-4-2 is quite versatile. The central midfielders and the strikers can cover both narrow and wide positions. The number 10 has the freedom to roam through the middle, while the fullbacks can have both offensive and defensive roles.

A downside to 4-4-2 would be its lack of width. However, there are various instances in which pockets of space could be created by playing this formation, which leaves the opposing team enough room to create a chance. For example, a full-back leaving the position requires the central midfielders to stay focused and cover the open space by dropping back. If the open space is not covered, the opposing team will most likely exploit that side of the field.


The 4-4-2 of the 21st century, as some might refer to it. 4-2-3-1 consists of four defenders, two defensive central midfielders, three offensive midfielders, and one striker. Depending on the strategy, a team playing 4-2-3-1 can easily switch to a 3-at-the-back formation in the offensive phase or even to 5-at-the-back. That, of course, depends on the coach and the game plan, which applies to almost any formation mentioned here.

Why The 4-4-2 of the 21st century, you might ask? Well, the 4-4-2 being the most basic formation until 20-30 years ago, 4-2-3-1 is its contemporary counterpart used by many coaches all around the world.

The four defenders at the back allow the team to have enough width in both the attacking and the defensive phase. The two central midfielders are mostly defense-oriented, and their job is to stop the opposition, recover the ball and start the attack for their team.

The offensive players have some defensive tasks, but their primary concern is to focus on creativity and passing play. If they are relatively familiar with each other’s playstyle, they could easily rotate between the wings and create space in the opposing defense.

The striker here is the most crucial offensive role since the whole purpose of the three players behind is to create chances for the forward by linking up the play or providing crosses.

4-2-3-1 is reasonably balanced, which is why many coaches opt for this one. It’s not heavily offensive nor heavily defensive. As a result, 4-2-3-1 is a formation that everyone who follows modern soccer should be familiar with.


A more defensive option, 4-5-1, relies on its five midfielders. The whole idea is to have more control over the center of the field and close down the opposition as much as possible. While 4-5-1 has one central defensive midfielder whose sole focus is to help the defense, the two central midfielders that are a bit more in front are somewhat versatile. Their task is to assist in the offensive phase and help the CDM (central defensive midfielders) and the defenders in the backline.

Depending on the strategy, outside midfielders might be more focused on balancing the central part of the field rather than the more offensive tasks. The striker will most likely come up against up to 4 opposing defenders, so the constant crossing and cutting inside might not be as effective as it might seem at first glance.

4-5-1 is mainly used by teams trying to keep the current score and potentially avoid conceding. For example, imagine a bottom-table side playing against a top-tier club in a certain domestic competition – Norwich City vs. Manchester City.

The tightly-knit formation that is 4-5-1 is usually effective since it doesn’t leave much space for the opposing attacking players. It’s either focusing on potentially keeping that 1 point in a tight 0:0 match or scoring a leading goal in a late part of a game against the league leaders. The team playing this formation will primarily focus on counter-attacking and defending with 9 or 10 players.


A formation popularized by, at the time, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte – 3-4-3 helped the London club dominate the 2016-17 Premier League campaign. 

The idea of playing 3-4-3 is to focus on the attacking and the defensive phase by having somewhat fluid wingbacks who are good at both offensive and defensive tasks. Not only that, but the two central midfielders are both effective as defensively- and offensively-oriented players.

3-4-3 can easily transition into a 5-4-1 when the team is not in possession and entirely focuses on defending. But, on the other hand, the fluidity of the formation also lets the team attack with more players than in a formation like, let’s say, the aforementioned 4-2-3-1.

By having a fluid squad, the opposition might be confused from time to time. The defending team will probably have difficulties in marking certain zones or players, which will then help the team playing 3-4-3 find space and create chances.

The central part of the field will, in this case, be stacked, which will help the team by breaking down the opposing team’s strategy.

The main issue with the formation, though, are two things:

  1. It’s a physically demanding formation – this means that the players will face difficulties playing every game at the same level. They need to go up and down the field constantly. The reason why Chelsea was dominating at the time was because of N’Golo Kante – the CDM who is a proper powerhouse.
  1. Not everyone can adapt to it – you might have world-class players who dominate certain positions, but they cannot perform well in several areas. So you need to focus on having a roster that can provide players who are maybe not top-tier but who are solid in playing both, let’s say, a full-back, an outside midfielder, and a winger.

You probably get the idea why 3-4-3 is not used as often as some of its more famous counterparts like 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2. You just need to have a good roster and a proper coach to utilize its potential fully.


3-5-2 is a formation that is quite similar to the previously mentioned 3-4-3 with a couple of minor differences. The idea here is to constantly outnumber the opposition, whether in the offensive or the defensive phase.

By having two central midfielders, one offensive midfielder, and two strikers, 3-5-2 gives a bit more control in the midfield. For example, the 3-4-3 relies on two central midfielders, two wingers, and one striker. That means that 3-4-3 uses three attackers, while 3-5-2 uses only two. In this case, the central attacking midfielder could provide more help in the defensive phase than, for example, the two offensively-oriented wingers in 3-4-3.

Everyone else on the field has to be somewhat versatile and fit to play in 3-5-2 as well. If your wingbacks cannot run up and down the field for the whole 90 minutes, the strategy collapses. That’s because the wingbacks are the team’s powerhouses – the most critical positions on the field. There aren’t many other formations that heavily rely on a single position as much as 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 do.


As strange as it might seem, there are instances in which specific teams play with formations that include only two players at the back. A reasonably old formation, 2-3-5, was first introduced in the 1880s. At the time, a soccer match in which teams played with only two classic defenders and five attackers guaranteed plenty of goals.

Having only two defensive players was swiftly abandoned almost a hundred years ago. But then, people realized how easy it was to concede, and the soccer world started to focus more on the defensive strategy.


We can’t have a comprehensive list of the best soccer formations without mentioning a strategy that deploys five players at the back.

Even though formations requiring five defenders are not as popular and effective as the ones mentioned above, we can still see some pretty unique strategies worldwide that deploy 5-3-2.

5-3-2 mostly resembles 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 since it heavily relies on wingbacks and their importance on the sides of the field. The three central midfielders give a somewhat stronger defensive line and better control of the midfield.

The power in numbers makes the difference here, and unlike many standard formations, it requires specific players. That’s why 5-3-2 mainly works in a controlled environment and is, so to speak, a niche formation.


As we mentioned initially, it’s pretty hard to pick only one formation and call it the best soccer formation ever. With that in mind, we believe every soccer team should master three formations: 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and 3-4-3 (and its variation in the form of 3-5-2).

Imagine a team that can easily transition from, let’s say, 3-5-2 into 4-3-3 while still keeping its composure. That team will most likely dominate the match and become a threat to any squad anywhere in the world.

Feel free to make this guide your starting point to an already reasonably complex world of soccer formations and strategies, and good luck in learning more and more about the beautiful game.