Debate: Are You Committing Formation Fraud?

Editor’s note: Today on TSG, Kyle Martino and I discuss the merits of formation talk in broadcasting and soccer commentary. When is it okay to label someone an advanced defensive midfielder sitting in a 4-2-3-1 and when is it not? To Kyle….

Kyle Martino:

Well, the team was prepared today in a 3-2-4-1 with a 2nd cousin once removed.

Soccer is a simple game that we try to complicate all too often. The foundation of the game is a very basic concept: a team’s formation.

All sports have formations in varying designs and applications. In some sports, the formation is a rule; A rule that, when broken, brings the game to a screeching halt.

The beauty of soccer is that it is free-flowing.  It defies these complex positional rules that can disrupt the flow of most other sports.   Because soccer is, at its essence, such a simple game, many people attempt to attach a greater, broader meaning on to its mechanics.  This tendency to over analyze the beautiful game has recently led to the acceptance of a glaring inaccuracy. In the game of soccer, a formation is a simple tactical blueprint designed to create balance and structure.  The magic of the game is in a team’s ability to take this mundane blueprint and give it its own identity through creative improvisation.  The inability to label this magic has led to the creation of “faux formations” by observers of the game.

Merry Christmas...

Call me traditional, but I am a strong believer that soccer is made up of three field positions: defenders, midfielders and forwards. (Sorry goalies, I love you guys but you have been left out of formations for a reason)  I am also a strong believer that there are only a handful of authentic formations to put these field players in: 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1. (could add a few other archaic variations but if teams still play them, they can’t be saved) Someone must have been thinking when they concocted this whole soccer thing, because formations have three separate lines denoting the three different field positions. Genius, right?

Even though there are only these few formations, there are many different ways to execute them. For instance, you can play a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond in the middle where you place one of the four midfielders closer to the two forwards and another just in front of the back four. These variations are how we came up with such terms as “defensive midfielder,” “withdrawn forward,” and “attacking midfielder.” Just because a team elects to play the traditional 4-4-2 formation a different way doesn’t mean we should now call it something absurd like a 4-1-2-1-2 or other nonsensical numerical variations of the line-up. By adding another line to the Three-Line Formation you are creating a position that doesn’t exist.

Take for instance the US National Team’s recent friendly against Argentina. I read several articles leading up to this game in which people labeled the US’s formation a 4-2-3-1. What?? What on earth is that?? Oh wait, you meant a 4-5-1.  Just because two midfielders might sit more defensively while the other three are going to be operating a little higher up the field doesn’t change the fact that you are playing with FIVE midfielders. You can get as creative as you like with your mysterious formations, but whether you’re calling it a 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, 4-3-2-1, all I hear is you mispronouncing 4-5-1.

I’m not sure where and when it started, but ever since I retired I have been noticing it more and more. Maybe people were calling our formations something different while I was playing but we never noticed. One theory is that it originated here in America as a result of soccer writers converted from the other football. Years of exposure to a game with so many different formations and an endless supply of analytical jargon caused them to try to make sense out of soccer by turning it in to something they knew. Another theory is that it was all of us analysts and writers around the world who did it to give us more to talk about and make us sound smarter. Or maybe it was the coaches attempt to improve their job security and raise their salaries by making the game seem more complicated than it is.

The origin of the formation fraud may never be traced. I wish I were able to offer a better explanation for its existence in the modern game, but for the time being we will all have to continue translating these modern imposters in to their true form.

Matthew, TSG:

Stu Holden, just your garden variety advanced central defensive midfielder on the rocks with a twist...

Alright Kyle. Let me start by saying this. I have, in fact, on this very publication referred to Stu Holden as an advanced defensive midfielder. And some have actually recognized what I mean.

Cackle away.

While Kyle goes so far as to characterize the incessant use of 4’s, 3’s, 2’s and 1’ as a fraud, coming from strictly a media perspective I would suggest that “formation talk” boils down to two things: (1) a mental handicap and (2) misplaced discussion.

Chalk one Jay DeMerit up already in that I’ve never pulled on a kit in the big show. That said, as a general tenor I do believe that the 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-1-1 and whatever other formation you want to label do have one important purpose, an origination point for where to be on the field if one forgets.

Again, having not played I still believe, I can witness not a 4-5-1 at times—but a band of two defenders ahead of the centerbacks, followed by a band of 3 players.

Yes, they’re all midfielders, however, and to use an example relevant to this publication, I do believe against Argentina that Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley were tasked with being just aft of Maurice Edu, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Now, where I think formation talks goes south is when it’s used for much more than this.  My mind cringes when I hear reporters or read commenters’ exclaim, “the US should have played ‘x’ formation against ‘y’ opponent.”

At the end of the day and this is where I dovetail with Kyle’s commentary, soccer is all game about players moving in time and space with a relationship to the ball—either the player and his team are possessing it or they’re not.

Everything else is in relationship to this.

So a steadfast assessment that team ‘z’ should exclusively adhere to a certain format for its players is blasphemous. To use the Holden example, my label of Stu was to suggest that, for Bolton, Stu had the responsibility within Owen’s Coyle’s system to mark the first attacker in his zone. The label “advanced defensive midfielder” descriptive but also less about positioning.

Likewise, last week, when Chelsea succumbed to Manchester United in the Champion’s League there was a consistent commentary about how Carlo Ancellotti magnanimously deployed a 4-3-2-1 formation, a formation reminiscent of some of his battles with Alex Ferguson when he was at Milan.

No matter how you cut it, Frank Lampard isnt a wide know what we mean by wide!

What was really more interesting was why Ancelotti decided to sacrifice width and have Frank Lampard—he of the lack of post-up play and run-at skills—as a left forward nonetheless.

It wasn’t necessarily “the formation” that failed—though that’s what got a lot of play—it was the players deployed incorrectly (in our opinion.)

Too often—and I think this is what Kyle is getting at—formations are used as a crutch or an “ah-ha moment” of commentary when in fact, the premium placed on them as a discussion point is too high.

Case in point, this legacy scouting report of Jose Mourinho on Newcastle when he was at Porto. Formation discussion, yes, but used as an addendum to what is in fact happening.

29 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dth on 2011/04/18 at 9:54 PM

    I was reading this essay and found it surprisingly relevant to this post:

    Anyway, complexity in language is only useful insofar as it helps reveal additional meaning in a reasonably friendly, non-clunky way. Some of the obsession over formations can take it too far: as we learned against Argentina, just because you’re playing the [particular formation that was played that shall remain nameless for sake of avoiding argument] doesn’t mean that it will turn Maurice Edu into a playmaker. The role is as important as the formation, in other words. But I’m not sure radically simplifying the language to which all five-midfielder formations are called 4-5-1s is very helpful: no matter what players you’ve got on the field, a 4-3-2-1 is going to play different than a 4-2-3-1 is going to play different than a 4-1-4-1.


  2. Posted by gonzobiology on 2011/04/18 at 11:16 PM

    Kyle: To use a simple example that’s relevant to the USNT, what about the Empty Bucket? Sure, you can call it a “4-4-2 with two defensive midfielders in front of the centerbacks,” but isn’t it easier to just say “4-2-2-2.” They mean the same thing.

    The expansion of lines happened because soccer has consistently moved away from the “orthodox” 4-4-2 with 3 bands of players going across the field. The formations in reality are more dynamic and fluid than they’ve ever been, and the growth in usage of “4-2-3-1″s and “4-2-1-2-1″s etc are simply reactions to that.

    The idea of the numbers representing “defender, midfielder, or forward” is too simplistic for me. There are so many tweeners out there today, who drift in between midfield and forward (Dempsey being the best US example) that it seems silly to limit the numbers to their positional category on the roster.


  3. Posted by kaya on 2011/04/19 at 12:08 AM

    I had to laugh at the “all I hear is you mispronouncing 4-5-1.”
    I def think it comes from the the same gene sequence found in american DNA that loves NFL/NBA replays with the “dry erase board” video overlay to explain how effective the tackle/pick/etc just was.


  4. Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/04/19 at 5:32 AM

    Aaaaaaaah! A breath of fresh air from Kyle Martino. I thought I was the only one who didn’t get the increasing obsession with getting all the -2’s and -4’s and -1’s right before game time. IMO, the only really major positional shift that’s occurred in the last 30 yrs is the Makelele #6 DMF role that France rode to glory in the 90’s and all successful European teams now must have to protect the back 4 and start the attack. You could make a case for the CB being a newish invention but Beckenbauer/Matthaeus revolutionized it 40 yrs ago. Offensive flow dictates roles but you’re generally still playing wide players (wings) and forwards/strikers.
    In the end, the game still comes down to who makes plays, creates chances and defends their turf better.
    And The ManCrush only deepens for John Harkes’ eventual replacement.


  5. Posted by Jake C on 2011/04/19 at 5:39 AM

    Bob Bradley’s clipboard would be offended at all of this “deriding formation talk” nonsense. I really feel like he’s got it drawn up and says to the guys “if you deviate from this spot I’ll kill you.”


  6. Posted by BobBradley's Clipboard on 2011/04/19 at 5:58 AM

    Thanks for laying out the 4-1-1…2-3. Wait how many is that?
    For those who doubt my ominousness, what do you think really happened to Jose Torres? Have you actually “seen” him play for Pachuca or whatever his teams called?


  7. Posted by Damon on 2011/04/19 at 7:22 AM

    I’m pretty sure that the nuance of the formations was driven in large part from the increasingly complex video games out there. I can just use myself as an example… I haven’t ever followed soccer much at all but a friend turned me on to the video game and the strategy from playing that has made me dramatically more interested in watching soccer. (and knowing more about the EPL teams and players sure hasn’t hurt)

    But personally it means something different to me if you tell me a team is in a 4-2-3-1 vs a 4-4-1-1 vs a 4-4-2. I have my own personal preferences for formations and how I think that they would best work in theory with different personnel.

    That said… I do think that the future of soccer will be more free flowing. In football there are positions for a reason (5 guys are ineligible to go downfield). In baseball there are positions for a reason (Pitcher, Catcher, and Shortstop all have very good reasons for standing where they do. But in Basketball and Soccer its just about trying to find players who work in sync together and the ideal “formation” is probably very flexible where different players push the advantage when possible and others will drop back situationally.


    • Posted by kaya on 2011/04/19 at 9:27 AM

      I can see this accentuating demand, if you will, but idk if the typical fan is playing video games. I’d be interested in seeing a poll on the subject, tbh. In any case, I’d add that I miss having time to play video games (and watching more than one match a week for that matter), it really adds another dimension to watching the games when you’ve had your John Malcovich moment with the entire team… LOL.


      • Posted by Damon on 2011/04/19 at 11:07 AM

        I don’t think the casual fans are the ones that started talking about nuances of formations. I think it would be the hardcore people who did so who would play the game and then sound knowledgeable when talking to their friends about it.

        Personally I think the same thing happened with football. As madden got more popular and more complex the people started thinking about the specifics of the Cover 2 vs the Cover 3 defense. The games exposed them to the advanced thinking where before people would just watch the game and the nuance wasn’t important. Fans have gotten smarter as they have been exposed to more information and I do think that video games have been a big factor in that.


        • Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/04/19 at 11:57 AM

          I’ve played the game for 30+ yrs and for the last 15 yrs with HS and college coaches as teammates. I can honestly say that in all the post-game beer fueled discussions with guys who’ve played, the nuances of formation rarely come up. You talk about who marked who out of the game and who beat their guy (or guys) consistently. You reference performance but hardly ever tactics.
          The formation discussions IMO have come from newer, younger fans and the video game point makes a lot of sense.


  8. Posted by Berniebernier on 2011/04/19 at 7:44 AM

    This is an interesting topic. I have to admit that I was very guilty at one point about obsessing about formation and minor differences. I have since seen the light.

    For example how big of a difference is there between the US in their traditional 4-4-2 with Clint as the second striker coming back into the midfield and the US in a 4-2-3-1 with Clint in the “hole”. The difference is not enough for my untrained eye.

    Another great example is that I was at the Argentina game. From my seat (close to the middle of the field but in the second deck) it looked as if in the second half the US was playing a 4-2-3-1 with Agudelo in the hole (as he was coming back to the Donovan/Dempsey band to link up and start the attack). All of the news outlets said 4-4-2. Now the front 4 were pretty fluid but I am fairly sure we weren’t seeing something totally different.

    On the other hand calling a formation a 4-2-3-1 versus a 4-5-1 provides the viewer with more information (assuming that information is accurate) as I now know that we are playing two guys more defensively and three more offensively than vice versa (maybe I should know that just by the names on the jersey).

    To say that Chelsea and Barca play the same formation (4-3-3) seems to be an “incorrect statement” because the roles of the middle 3 are so different. If one wants to call them both a 4-3-3 and differentiate between roles or try to diferentiate by saying one is a 4-2-1-3 and one is a 4-1-2-3 seems a little bit of tomato tomato.

    What drives me crazy is the TV starting line-ups that seem to bear no resemblence to where the guy is playing or what formation the team is playing. I am convinced that they only have a “traditional” 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 template.


    • Posted by dth on 2011/04/19 at 7:57 AM

      yeah, TV starting line-ups are probably the worst offender of what Martino’s talking about. The Chicago-Portland game last week featured Chicago in a 4-4-2 even though they had a very weird back four, and I’m thinking “that diagram doesn’t capture what Chicago’s doing.”


      • Posted by scott47a on 2011/04/20 at 11:55 AM

        I think coaches purposefully give the TV guys bad information. You see players you know are defenders listed as strikers, for example, or a team with five midfielders supposedly playing five at the back.

        The best announcers immediately notice it and call it out as incorrect. But too many MLS announcers, in particular, just read off the chart presented by the coaches to the graphics guy as if it means something.


  9. Posted by Papabear on 2011/04/19 at 8:33 AM

    I get your point, but obsessing over how people refer to formations is…well, as pointless as people who obsess over minor details of the formations and fail to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of the game. It just gives a little more information on the roles players are expected to fill. It’s a marginally useful shorthand that can give a brief summary of what to expect from a team I might not be familiar with.


    • Posted by kaya on 2011/04/19 at 10:30 AM

      I’d rather hear/read someone just say 4-5-1 and say what the roles are than be conversant in said shorthand.


    • Posted by away goals on 2011/04/19 at 1:18 PM

      I’m with papabear. If you say a team is running a 4231, that tells me a little more than if you say 451.

      Even the 442/451/352 designations recognized by mr martino are arbitrary. Ashley cole is in the same “line” as john terry, yet he often finds himself level with anelka and drogba in the attacking third.

      Pretty much the only accurate representation of a formation is a heat map.


  10. Posted by crow on 2011/04/19 at 4:00 PM

    Formations are completely irrelevent. 🙂 Case in point- I was playing a 11 on 11 co-op game on FIFA 11 and my team was Brazil. Two of my teammates were controlling Juan and Maicon and they were playing so advanced they kept getting caught offside. I think we still won 11-3 essentially playing a 0-2-2-6. 🙂


    • Posted by crow on 2011/04/19 at 7:10 PM

      I was just thinking What if Bob Bradley used a 0-2-2-6 at the Gold Cup with the C Team called in. What would it look like?






  11. Posted by dth on 2011/04/19 at 8:23 PM

    OT, but Galaxy’s Leonardo out for year:

    Their next CB option is AJ DeLaGarza or Sean Franklin. Hmm…good thing for LA that they expanded the playoffs.


  12. Posted by yes, i read zonalmarking on 2011/04/19 at 9:55 PM

    1)Maybe the nuance of formation is lost on Americans. I remember reading an article here where an Italian coach stated that it was impossible to talk tactics with American players, cuz their eyes would glaze over.

    2) Also, perhaps the USA depth chart lacks depth to the extent that we only have 11 good players and we’ll find a formation to get them on the pitch. If we had 8 good midfielders that each brought a different skillset and style to the table, it might matter more how and where they were used.

    3) If you can’t tell the difference between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-2-1, you’re about to lose a soccer game – unless your team is just better. Good tactics won’t help Vanuatu qualify for the World Cup, but they can make a difference between two similarly matched teams. There is more to tactics than just formation, but it is a factor.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/04/20 at 12:48 AM

      Best part about the previous comment, that Zonal Marking has linked multiple times to our work here at TSG.


    • Posted by Jake C. on 2011/04/20 at 10:45 AM

      Responses to your points I’m getting from BBsCB (see above comments):
      1. The nuance of formation is NEVER lost on BB. It’s sometimes lost on really good players (e.g. Barcelona).
      2. Have you SEEN how much I’ve put into organizing the U.S. midfield. Watch that flawless midfield line against Argentina–before they got ripped apart by Messi, you know.
      3.Logic failure. I can’t process that comment. That relates more to mentality, and mentality isn’t the clipboard department.


  13. Posted by Kevin on 2011/04/20 at 7:15 PM

    While I do agree that people look into formations too far, me being guilty of this, I disagree that we complicate them by saying things such as 4-1-2-1-2. It’s just a little more specific. No it’s not a new formation. Nobody ever said it was. But when you say 4-4-2 you could play that so many different ways. It just helps keep the conversation running smoother, and coaches instruct with less confusion. The game has never been exact which is why formations can fluctuate in a game to appear to be a 2-5-3 when it’s really just a 4-4-2 with heavy attacking. It can also resemble a 5-4-1.


  14. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/04/22 at 9:27 AM

    Just because you can broadly pigeon-hole a player as either a defender, midfielder or forward, doesn’t mean that all formations are a 3 band formation. I have never heard something so stupid. Kyle Martino has lost a lot of respect and football-cred from me.

    Question: Rooney usually plays as a second or withdrawn striker. When he plays in the middle of the 3 in a 4-2-3-1, is he all of a sudden a midfielder? Kyle Martino seems to think so. Never really liked his input on Soccer Sunday anyway. Will likely just ignore him now.


    • Posted by Jake C on 2011/04/22 at 1:54 PM

      Doesn’t your last question validate kyle’s point? The way I read him, you’re committing the fraud by positing that Rooney will play a certain role in said midfield, as we all know he’s a goalscorer. Not the best example, as ferguson has played him out wide as well.

      Either way, that sounds a variation of the 4-5-1 or 4-4-2. Rooney is in the formation, sure, but that cat has to be unleashed.


      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/04/22 at 2:32 PM

        I don’t think I have validated his point at all. If a five ‘in the middle’ a broken up in a 2 and a 3, or 4 and 1, isn’t that two bands right there?

        I think you need to look at a tradition 3 band 4-5-1 vs a modern, say a post 1997 one. You will see that players’ positions are much different. Watch a game from the 70s and then come back and tell me the game hasn’t changed positionally, and that 4 band formations are a myth.

        Also surprised nobody has mentioned the bigger playing area since the amendment to the offside law.


        • Posted by Jake C on 2011/04/22 at 3:13 PM

          I think you’re right about the difference in how those players function on the pitch. I could also divide the field vertically, as a wide midfielder functions differently than a central midfielder.

          I defer to your knowledge of soccer formations pre-97, but your remark on the larger playing area may help to make a point. You can decide whether I’m agreeing with you. Certain players have certain skillsets, and that suits them to certain positions in the modern game. That’s why we all know what Rooney will be doing if he’s listed as a midfieler; the boy’s a striker and he’ll play like one. What I got from kyle’s piece is that, as a player, you of course listen to what your coach tells you to do, but at the end of the day you should go on the field and do what you do; that is, play to your strengths. Deviate from this (ahem, Mo Edu as a CAM) and you’re in trouble. I don’t think Kyle is saying that there aren’t multiple roles in the midfield, but he’s saying you don’t pay much attention to them when you’re on the pitch.


  15. I don’t agree at all with Martino. He has a right to his opinion, but can we please stop acting as if he has the market cornered on “correct answers” All teams have 11 on the field, but saying that formations are ONLY one of three options just doesn’t hold water. Sorry…disappointed is an understatement. 10 minutes of my life I will never get back. Ughhh.


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