Formations and Shapes
The opening of almost every soccer match will show a bunch of numbers and players. What is this? It's the formation of the team, and it's the basic aspect of a soccer team's strategy. Soccer is an interesting game in that there aren't strict rules on the required number of players which must play each position. As a result, coaches can put together a combination of player positions called a formation or shape. A formation, also known as a shape, is the manner in which a team lines up on the pitch during a game.
Identified with either three, four, or five, numbers separated by hyphens, they will indicate how many players will be playing in what general roles. These numbers will always add up to 10, as the goalkeeper is not indicated since their position is fixed to protecting the goal.
Back to Front
Back to front means that you read a formation or shape starting with the defensive players first, then making your way up the pitch to the forwards.
These are read left to right as defensive positions to offensive positions (back to front), so a 4-3-3 would be read as four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards. If the formation has more than three numbers, the first and last numbers will respectively indicate defenders and forwards, with the middle numbers indicating more detailed midfielder roles.
Finally, you may hear shapes (most often diamond) used to describe a numerical formation. This is to provide more information on where the midfielders will be on the pitch.
A 3-5-2 formation is like a 4-4-2 formation, but it is designed to be even more midfielder-focused. With so many midfielders, this shape is great for maintaining a balanced offense and defense.
A 4-3-3 formation is a typical formation with four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards.
A 4-1-3-2 would indicate four defenders, one deeper playing midfielder, three more traditional, higher up midfielders, and two forwards.
4-4-2 Diamond Formation
A 4-4-2 diamond formations means that there will be four defenders, four midfielders lined up like the four points of a diamond in the middle of the pitch, and two forwards.
4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree Formation
The Christmas tree formation is a classic shape in soccer. It has one forward play at the very front in front of all other players and focuses on having midfielders play in an aggressive attacking position.
Back Bone of Modern Football
Football has evolved from having the most of the players playing forward, to most of the players playing as defenders or midfielders. Most formations you'll see will start with the "x" being a three or four for defenders. Occasionally, a very conservative or defensive team will have five defenders. The formation will end with the "z" number of forwards in the formation, ranging between one and three. The "y" is for midfielders, and can range from two to five in most formations.
Numbers Aren't Everything
But just because a team is playing in a certain formation doesn't mean a player is going to play a certain way. There are so many positional wrinkles to a formation, that make the exact way a team plays endless. These wrinkles can be formation specific, i.e., having players play specific ways within a formation to achieve a specific result. Sometimes, these wrinkles can be to take advantage a player's unique skills, i.e., Ngolo Kante of Chelsea being able to control so much of the midfield on his own, they can move players out of the midfield.
Most Common Formations
Most teams run different formations. Even if they are running the same formation, they are operating them differently based on the whims of the manager. Some formations are more common than others because of their style flexibility, i.e., you can play multiple styles of football from the same formation based on players and coaching styles. The 4-4-2 (one goalie, four defenders, four midfielders, two forwards) was played for decades as the base formation of National teams and elite professional teams. Now, many teams use variations of a 4-5-1, dropping a forward in favor of another midfielder.
Defenders typically play in a line parallel to the endline, closest to the goalkeeper. Most formations have 3-5 defenders along this back-line. This straight line formation is designed to prevent offensive players from getting behind defenders in an onside position. In other words, when defenders are all in a line, any offensive player who is behind them before a pass is kicked is automatically offside.
These players, like strikers, specialize in their positions. Amongst defensive players there are center backs, who play in between outside backs. Outside backs play nearest the touchlines and specialize in defending against offensive players attempting crosses.
Defensive midfielders play in the center of formations and while they, like all midfielders, play an active part in both offense and defense, they specialize in defensive skill sets and tend to play closer to the defensive back-line.
When not in possession, a team is on defense. Players who specialize in this are defenders and typically play closest to their own goaltender. They are assigned specific portions of the field, including outside backs who play nearest to the sidelines and centerbacks who play in between them.