Formation (association football)

Programme for an 1887 game between Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday. The players are arranged in 2–3–5 formation.

In association football, the formation describes how the players in a team generally position themselves on the pitch. Association football is a fluid and fast-moving game, and (with the exception of the goalkeeper) a player's position in a formation does not define their role as rigidly as for, for instance, a rugby player, nor are there episodes in play where players must expressly line up in formation (as in gridiron football). Nevertheless, a player's position in a formation generally defines whether a player has a mostly defensive or attacking role, and whether they tend to play towards one side of the pitch or centrally.

Formations are typically described by three or four numbers, which denote how many players are in each row of the formation from the most defensive to the most forward. For example, the popular "4–5–1" formation has four defenders, five midfielders, and a single forward. Different formations can be used depending on whether a team wishes to play more attacking or defensive football, and a team may switch formations between or during games for tactical reasons.

The choice of formation is typically made by a team's manager or head coach. Skill and discipline on the part of the players is needed to implement a given formation effectively in professional football. Formations need to be chosen bearing in mind which players are available. Some formations were created to address deficits or strengths in different types of players.

In the early days of football, most team members would play in attacking roles, whereas modern formations almost always have more defenders than forwards.


Formations are described by categorising the players (not including the goalkeeper) according to their positioning along (not across) the pitch, with the more defensive players given first. For example, 4–4–2 means four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards.

Traditionally, those within the same category (for example the four midfielders in a 4–4–2) would generally play as a fairly flat line across the pitch, with those out wide often playing in a slightly more advanced position. In many modern formations, this is not the case, which has led to some analysts splitting the categories in two separate bands, leading to four- or even five-numbered formations. A common example is 4–2–1–3, where the midfielders are split into two defensive and one offensive player; as such, this formation can be considered a type of 4–3–3. An example of a five-numbered formation would be 4–1–2–1–2, where the midfield consists of a defensive midfielder, two central midfielders and an offensive midfielder; this is sometimes considered to be a kind of 4–4–2 (specifically a 4–4–2 diamond, referring to the lozenge shape formed by the four midfielders).

The numbering system was not present until the 4–2–4 system was developed in the 1950s.

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