Since it's inception, football has been as much about tactics as talent, so how and why teams adopt certain formations?

You know how it goes, you'll be about to "compete" for your Sunday league team. You've lost your last ten games and although you enjoy the games, you wish something could change. Suddenly, your "manager" (a local, bored plumber) rushes in, announcing that he has uncovered the secret to guaranteed success. A new formation.


The character in this scene is neither the first nor the last to feel he has discovered the path to endless football glory. Since the early days of football, with the pig's bladder ball, to the post-war days when men were men, to the eighties with those awful haircuts and shorts to the present day, football managers have been striving for the equation with all the answers. Just like in many professions: science, business, architecture, do you want to be that bit better than the crowd you follow? Or do you wish to do something different, take the plunge and try to mould the entire game to your image?
 
In the earliest days of organised football, formations had an almost scattergun approach, reflecting the all-out attack intention of the games played in that era. Of course, in the days before England, Scotland and Wales set up professional leagues, the majority of games were played between the home nations. Reports suggest that in a game played in 1872, England adopted something like a 1-2-7 formation, with Scotland playing a typically more defensive 2-2-6 line up. Unbelievably, the game finished 0-0, as the (excuse the adjective) plucky Scots utilised effective teamwork to overcome the more individualistic English. That wasn't an attempt to stir up nationalistic fervour, it actually happened. That said, only Scotland could play six strikers against one defender and still not score. 

1870's. Innovation: Lots and lots of strikers.
The first "proper" formations began to emerge as the game became more professionalised. Preston North End, the first winners of the English league title in 1889, also won the FA Cup that year after perfecting the 2-3-5 formation. This system was slightly more defensive than the formations of their rivals (seems strange that two defenders is seen as defensive). That side had a number of Scottish players and the more "Scottish" style of short passing and teamwork allowed the Preston team to finish the season unbeaten, earning the tag "The Invincibles". However, as with most things in football, and indeed life, things changed as managers found a way round the 2-3-5 set-up.

Late 19th century. Pyramid formation. Innovation: Stronger midfield, centre-half provides "pivot" between defence and attack.

In the 1920's, former Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman made the next innovation, allowing his Arsenal side to become champions of England. A change in the offside rule in the 1920's made goal scoring easier and defending more dangerous. As a result, Chapman withdrew two forwards from the classic "pyramid" system of previous years to form the "WM" formation, or a 3-2-2-3. This change in formation led Arsenal to five English League and two FA Cup triumphs between 1931 and 1939. Internationally, Italy also made tactical innovations to the 2-3-5 system. Their system, known as "Il Metodo" or "The Method" involved a 2-3-2-3 formation, with an emphasis on counter-attacking play. This formation enabled Italy to win the World Cup in 1934 and 1938, although allegations of fixing and player threats continue to tarnish these triumphs. Nevertheless, I will sidestep this easy opportunity to denounce Mussolini, as I have more formations to describe!

1930's England. Chapman's "W-M" formation. Innovation: Stronger midfield, better balance between defence and attack.

1930's Italy. "Il Metodo". Innovation: Change to offside law means less defenders but more midfield.

The 1950's saw further slight tweaks to the incumbent formations used by teams around the world. In particular, the great Hungarian side of the 1950's continued to utilise a number of strikers, but with most of the front-line swapping places. The formation used by the Hungarians was a 3-2-1-4 formation, and it often led to high-scoring victories for a side including the great Ferenc Puskas. In this era, Hungary pulled off a number of stunning wins, such as beating England 3-6 at Wembley and beating West Germany 8-3 at the 1954 World Cup, despite going on to surrender a 2-0 lead in the final to that same West German side. The international matches of the 1950's were often high-scoring games, with 140 goals at the 1954 World Cup, with an average of over five goals a game.

1950's Hungary. 3-2-1-4 formation. Innovation: Swapping strikers to confuse defensive markers, deep-lying striker to help midfield.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before a manager or two discovered that the key to success would be a solid defence. It sounds strange to say that Brazil were the first to adopt a more defensive formation, but they used it to their advantage. Employing a 4-2-4 formation, Brazil went on to win three of the next four World Cups, with Garrincha, Jairzinho and Pele prominent in those famous Brazilian sides. A key innovation of these formations, however, was what many see as the advent of the attacking full-back. This system enabled more defensive solidity whilst ensuring freedom for the front four. One could argue that this tactical innovation contributed much to Pele's apparent peerless greatness in the 1960's.

Late 1950's Brazil. 4-2-4 formation. Innovation: Narrower midfield allows for attacking full-backs and more defensive set-up. Width the key.           

Approaching the 1970's, the game was long overdue new ideas to combat the successful 4-2-4 formation. However, what the Dutch side brought to World football in 1974 was something totally unprecedented. Adopting the ideas of the great Ajax sides of the early 1970's, who went two straight seasons with a 100% home record, as well as winning multiple Dutch and European titles, Dutch coach Rinus Michels implemented "Total Football". This system, well, wasn't a system. In possession of the ball, distributors of the ball would move to a new position to ensure the structure of the teams shape. In this side, any player could play as a defender, midfielder or a striker. The jewel in the crown of this side was Johan Cruyff, father of the famous ex-Manchester United player Jordi Cruyff. Johan would go on to inspire the Dutch to two straight World Cup finals, although Holland would win neither. The likes of this formation has rarely been seen since, although one could argue that the current Spanish and Barcelona sides employ a type of "Total Football", with no set formation.

1970's Holland. "Total football" Innovation: See for yourself, constant state of flux between players, always moving, all capable in any position.

In the 1970's, in constant competition with this formation was the more functional, more efficient, more...well...German style employed by the great Bayern Munich and German sides of the mid 1970's. Utilising the extraordinary talents of Franz Beckenbauer, playing at sweeper, these sides played a sort of 4-3-2-1 formation. In this system, Beckenbauer was the lynchpin, often operating as sweeper but very occasionally venturing up field to contribute to attacks. That said, when your team has players like Gerd Muller and Karl Heinz Rummenigge, you hardly need help up front. Despite the neutrals choice being the Dutch "Total Football" method, the Germans were able to succeed against the Dutch thanks to this formation and the great Bayern Munich side of the late 1970's ruled Europe as a result.

1970's Germany/Bayern Munich. 4-3-1-2 formation. Innovation: Implementation of sweeper. Beckenbauer is a bit of a freak, incredible stamina allows him to dominate matches. 

Unfortunately for many, the 1980's saw the efficient continue to triumph over the effervescent. If I were to ask you to name two players from the 1982 World Cup, the chances are you would say Zico and Socrates, two players with such amazing skill that it seems incredible that they never won a World Cup. And yet, they didn't. Italy won the 1982 World Cup, thanks in part to their implementation of the "Catenaccio" ("door-bolt") system, which emphasised the importance of a strong defence. Using a sort of 1-3-3-3 system, Catenaccio more often than not had a sweeper. Unlike the great Franz Beckenbauer ten years earlier, sweepers in this system were purely defensive, picking up loose balls and being almost a "spare" player. This system is now almost synonymous with current Italian footballing culture and ideology, that "if you don't concede, you can't lose." In this system, counter-attacking was a potent weapon, allowing Paolo Rossi to top-score at the 1982 World Cup, while Dino Zoff as goalkeeper and Franco Baresi at centre-back helped Italy keep clean-sheet after clean-sheet.

1982 Italy. "Catenaccio" Innovation: Defensive sweeper, packed midfield. Good defensive solidity but ability  to counter-attack.

In contrast, the Brazil side of 1982 will go down as glorious failures. Despite an abundance of talent, their natural flair was overwhelmed by Italy in 1982, in a game which would decide a place in the semi-final. Despite what one could argue was a superior team, Brazil's 4-2-2-2 system was defeated. This system continued the emphasis of an attacking full-back, whilst encouraging ingenuity in midfield, with Zico and Socrates often brilliant. However, sometimes in football, being astute trumps being attacking.

1982 Brazil. 4-2-2-2 formation. Innovation: Attacking full-backs persist, but strong attacking midfielders allow for greater creativity.

However, even Italy couldn't rule forever. The 1980's saw multiple tactical innovations, including the Argentina team of 1986. Despite employing a 3-5-2 formation, I won't attribute their success to this. I will attribute to Diego Maradona who almost single-handedly (excuse the tired pun) won the tournament for his country.

Since the 1990's, one could argue that no team has dominated international or club football (until very recently). There are many reasons for this, such as the lack of truly game-changing player such a Cruyff, Beckenbauer or Maradona. The continuing growth of tactical analysis led to something of a stalemate in terms of formation innovation. As mentioned previously, the 3-5-2 saw something of a return to the old-days of more radical formations, as a number of teams used it to varying success. For example, in 2002, Brazil swept aside all before them to win the World Cup, playing beautiful football, with a formation which resembles the 3-5-2, but was more of a 3-4-3 or even a 2-5-3. Brazil have never benefitted from brilliant centre-backs (e.g. Roque Junior), which is probably why three were used in 2002. In this system, Edmilson often pushed up to become a third central midfielder, joining Gilberto Silva and Kleberson, both of whom came to England with greatly varying success. Myn self-allocated word-count and my Manchester United allegiances means that the less said about Kleberson, the better. Anyway, this Brazil side also had arguably the two best attacking full-backs ever, with Cafu and Roberto Carlos making characteristic raids down the flanks. This formation, with a number of players often playing deep, gave the freedom for Brazil to fully utilise three brilliant attackers. Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo had an amazing tournament and terrorised defenders, particularly so knowing that they were shorn of their defensive duties.

2002 Brazil team. 3-4-3 formation. Innovation: Wing-backs prominent but advent of two "holding" midfielders to provide front three with less defensive responsibility.

Moving forward a few years, the next dominant formation in European football was arguably the 4-1-2-3 formation. Although other teams have used this formation, I will cite the Chelsea side of the mid 2000's as an example. This was a truly exceptional side, using Claude Makelele in a role which has since been named after him...by Chelsea fans, a role Chelsea have struggled to find a suitable replacement in. Under Jose Mourinho, this side possessed not just a fantastic defence but also top-class wingers. This side dominated the Premier League in 2005 and 2006 and arguably should have won the Champions League at least once during the mid 2000's. The Barcelona side of 2005 were described by many as world-beaters, but were deservedly beaten by Chelsea that year in a brilliant Champions League tie.

2005 and 2006 Chelsea team. 4-1-2-3 formation. Innovation: "Makelele role" whilst utilising good wingers to combat attacking full-backs.

Since then, innovation has been difficult to find. But maybe the current Barcelona team are proving this wrong. At first glance, they appear to play a simple 4-3-3 formation. However, at second glance, this is not strictly true. Many have tried (including Manchester United) to work out this system and failed, so God knows what I make of it, but it is almost a 4-6-0 formation, with no strikers. Instead, while deep-lying midfielder Sergio Busquets sits deep, full-backs Adriano/Abidal/Maxwell and Dani Alves push forward while Xavi and Iniesta move around to play the ball wherever the hell they please. Upfront, Messi then rips everyone to shreds. And that's about it. 

Current Barcelona team. 3-3-4/4-3-3/4-6-0?! Innovation: Flux up front, constant changing allows Xavi and Iniesta to dictate.

Up front, one can see the freedom afforded to Barcelona's strikers/attacking midfielders.

This Barcelona (and to a slightly lesser extent, Spain) team may dominate world football for the foreseeable future. So what will be the next innovation? How do you stop them? Jose Mourinho has had some success recently, notably with his Inter Milan team in 2010, which defeated the Catalan side. However, some, including me, would credit his 4-2-3-1 formation with being former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez's brainchild. At Liverpool, Benitez overcame the limitations of his best eleven players through this formation, and now Mourinho is trying to do the same. His Real Madrid team are top of La Liga and look likely to win the league title, whether they see off Barcelona in a Champions League final which appears a formality is another matter.

Inter Milan Champions League final 2010. 4-2-3-1 formationTwo holding midfielders allows greater freedom for front four, although the "3" still track back. If Mourinho doesn't have the answer, then what chance to do we have?

But that's the point of the article, I bet in the early 1930's, everyone thought overcoming Chapman's 3-2-2-3 system was impossible, and look how tactically naive that looks now! After a period of tactical "optimisation", Barcelona are leading the way in terms of innovation, and it is up to us to catch up. Football is cyclical, Barcelona will not dominate forever, and someone will eventually find the formation to make it so. Not me though, I have no idea. Enjoy the pretty pictures though.

What do you guys think? What will be the next innovation? And how can the world stop Barca?