Throughout the history of football, managers have obsessed over how to concede fewer goals, all the while carrying a threat up front. It’s a tough balancing act to strike, one that only the truly great coaches can execute to perfection. The key to any tactical set-up is naturally the formation, where a manager will assemble his players in a series of carefully considered positions on the pitch before a game.
It all begins with a backline of defenders, those who, amongst other things, are tasked with keeping the ball out of the net – and the scoreline low. But how many defenders should ideally be on the pitch at any one time, and can more of them really lead to fewer goals being conceded by a team?
Most Popular Formations In Football Today?
No system or formation is truly timeless. Instead, tactics are constantly being refined to keep up with the demands of the modern game, with revolutionaries like Rinus Michels, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola showing the world fresh new ways to approach football. For instance, while variations of the 4-2-3-1 have existed since the 1950s, it is utilised in a completely different way than was previously the case. Wingers have evolved into ‘inside forwards’ and box to box midfielders have slowly morphed into ‘deep-lying playmakers’.
Spain’s starting XI for the 2010 World Cup Final:
Formation images in this article from buildlineup.com
With that being said, some formations in particular, like the 4-2-3-1, do stand the test of time in the literal sense. After all, there are only so many different combinations one can experiment with.
Here are some other popular formations that are being used to great success today:
The English classic – was good enough for Sir Alf Ramsey’s England in 1966, and countless managers since. Using a flat back four, this system has often required defensively sound full-backs (think Lee Dixon and Ashley Cole at Arsenal, or Gary Neville and Wes Brown for Manchester United).
Increasingly popular in the modern game, the 3-4-3 was the formation that allowed Chelsea to win the Premier League title under Antonio Conte in the 2016/2017 season. With an extra centre-back, managers have the choice of either using wing-backs or outright wingers in the wider positions.
Popularised by Ajax in the 1970s, the 4-4-3 is still being used by some of the most successful teams in the world today – albeit slightly differently. The addition of an extra midfielder is highly effective for possession-based teams, as we saw with Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side.
The 4-3-2-1 is generally used to utilise two conventional number 10s – or attacking midfielders. This system was most frequently used in the mid to late 1990s, and successfully so in the case of France – who won the 1998 World Cup with this formation.
The favoured formation of Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, it requires attack-minded full-backs and creative inverted forwards. Similar in many ways to the 3-4-3, it provides plenty of width on paper, and with the right players, can shut down opposition attacks.
Which Has Been The Most Successful Historically?
While the most popular formation has tended to differ depending upon which country and decade you are in, we can still spot some general trends. Between the 1960s and early 2000s, the king of formations, in Europe at least, was very much the 4-4-2.
England’s ‘Wingerless’ 4-4-2 formation at the 1966 World Cup
This isn’t to say that every team stuck to the slightly rigid concept of the 4-4-2 either: i.e., wide wingers, box to box central midfielders, and two strikers. Instead, this includes variations on Sir Alf Ramsey’s classic, such as the 4-4-2 diamond, utilised by Real Madrid and AC Milan in the early 2000s, or the 4-4-1-1, used by teams who wish to squeeze a traditional number 10 into their line-up.
A similar system was harnessed by the most defensively stubborn side in Champions League history – AC Milan in the 1993/94 season. Under Fabio Capello, the eventual tournament winners that year conceded just two goals in 12 matches, all while using a 4-4-2 formation.
AC Milan’s XI for the 1994 Champions League Final
While impressive, one can make the case that this was achieved thanks to the personnel in the backline – rather than the system they played in. AC Milan during the late 1980s and early 1990s, under the irrepressible Arrigo Sacchi, are generally considered to have been blessed with the greatest back four in football history.
Comprised of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassotti, it is hardly surprising that Milan were so watertight during this uniquely dominant era (they also conceded just 15 goals en route to winning the Serie A title in ‘94). Would it have been as effective as a back three or back five? It’s impossible to say, as the chemistry of that defensive four was paramount to the Italian club’s success.
Indeed, the 68-year history of the Champions League/European Cup perfectly demonstrates how effective the back four has consistently been through the ages. Since the beginning of the Champions League in 1992, only six of the sides that have lifted the trophy predominantly used anything other than a back four. While back threes and fives were very popular in the 1990s (many German clubs used the 5-3-2 sweeper system), the 21st century has been dominated by teams who have fielded conventional back fours. Only Bayern in 2001, and Chelsea in 2021, won the trophy while using a back three in the final.
However, it should be noted that Chelsea last season were one of the most defensively sound teams the Champions League has ever seen. The Blues conceded just four goals in 12 matches, also managing to keep a clean sheet against the free-scoring Manchester City in the eventual final.
Thomas Tuchel’s side conceded just 0.31 goals per game, making them one of the most successful defensive sides in European Cup history. Perhaps the German’s 3-4-2-1 variation could be here to stay.
How Formations Affect Goals Conceded
In hindsight, it is remarkable just how ubiquitous the 4-4-2 was in the first decade of the Premier League. Until Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea came along, the greatest sides in EPL history all used a version of the 4-4-2, showing just how wedded English football was to the formation.
In 2022, meanwhile, we see a wider range of formations being used in the Premier League, to varying degrees of success. As the table below highlights, there isn’t a clear correlation between fewer defenders on the pitch, and more goals being shipped. While Sheffield United and Newcastle United did concede a high quantity of goals playing a back three last season, Thomas Tuchel’s use of the 3-4-2-1 system helped Chelsea to become one of Europe’s very best defensive teams in 2020/21.
Teams who conceded the most goals in the 2020/21 Premier League season
|Team||Goals conceded||Position in table||Formation used most|
|Southampton||68||15th||4-4-2 (double pivot)|
Teams who conceded the fewest goals in the 2020/21 Premier League season
|Team||Goals conceded||Position in table||Formation used most|
Perhaps a more representative tournament to assess in this regard is the World Cup, where tactical innovation has proven to be crucial since the very inception of the competition. Interestingly enough, we also see how the back four has generally been favoured by World champions over the past 30 years.
Three World Cup winners have conceded just two goals during a tournament since it first began: France (1998), Spain (2010), and Italy (2006). All of them favoured formations that included a back four, with Spain and Italy both using slightly different versions of the 4-2-3-1.
What’s even more fascinating, is that previous World Cup winners who used either a back three or a back five generally let in quite a few goals. Italy in 1982 conceded six goals from seven games on their way to lifting the Jules Rimet trophy, having used a 5-1-3-1 formation for most of their games. Similarly, Argentina and West Germany, who won the next two World Cups, both conceded five goals each while playing in 5-3-2 formations.
The biggest tactical difference between Spain in 2010 and West Germany in 1990 is that the ‘sweeper’ defender, who would historically play behind the backline, has now evolved into the ‘anchor’ midfielder. The rise of number 6s like Sergio Busquets has seemingly had the effect of improving a side’s defensive record – as we’ll explore later in this piece.
Do Teams With Worse Defenders Tend To Play With More Of Them?
A manager fielding five defenders have historically been viewed as a sign that they don’t exactly trust their players completely. In the 2016/17 season, Antonio Conte famously started out at Chelsea with a 4-2-3-1 formation, one reliant on the shielding capabilities of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in midfield.
In September of the Italian’s first season at Stamford Bridge, that system looked to be failing. A draw with Swansea, followed by defeat against Liverpool, precipitated a huge tactical shift that would reinvigorate Chelsea’s floundering campaign. Out went the tried and tested 4-2-3-1, and in came the seldom-used (in the Premier League anyhow) 3-4-3 formation. Three centre-backs gave the attacking full-backs full licence to get forward and build up play. It proved to be a masterstroke from the former Juventus boss, who led Chelsea to the Premier League title.
But why did it work? For some, the answer was clear. Three centre-backs meant that the erratic, yet talented David Luiz didn’t have to play in a two. This allowed the Brazilian to step out of the back three on occasion, knowing that he still had ample backup behind him. It was a revolutionary change that was bred out of a fundamental distrust in one of his defenders, and it led to extraordinary success. If Conte had a prime pairing of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho at his disposal that season, such a change surely wouldn’t have been required.
Chelsea 2016/17 under Antonio Conte:
Why Is A Back Four Most Effective?
In football, the go-to formations have tended to involve a back-four as a starting point. This has definitely been the case over the past 20 years or so, with a handful of exceptions. Chiefly, this is because of the trade-off that every manager must make when setting up a side tactically. A back three can be left exposed on the counterattack, while a back five will often hamstring a team offensively, with width hard to come by.
In this sense, a back four has generally proved to be the happy medium. If a manager requires more defensive solidity, they can play with two holding midfielders, or perhaps restrict the forward runs of the full-backs. Vice Versa, those same full-backs can be turned into attacking wing-backs if the head coach wishes to play more aggressively and on the front foot.
The Importance Of The DM
In football, staying defensively solid isn’t merely down to the backline. On the contrary, one of the most significant developments in the 21st century has been the rise of the defensive midfielder. They have always existed in the game under various guises, whether as a sweeper or a more defensively minded box-to-box midfielder. But the dedicated ‘anchor man’ or ‘destroyer’ is something that first emerged in the early 2000s.
The pioneer in this regard is very much Claude Makelele – a man who was so effective as a defensive midfielder that he invented a new position of his own. While at Real Madrid and Chelsea, he mastered the so-called “Makelele Role’, shielding the back four expertly, while also being able to distribute the ball well when in possession from deep. With a player like the Frenchman in your side, you seldom need to play a back five or three. This is because you effectively deploy a world-class defender in your midfield, one that can even act as a third centre-back without the ball.
To put it plainly, Makelele revolutionised football as we know it. With him in the side, Chelsea in 04/05 set the record for the fewest goals conceded in a Premier League season (15). That record still stands to his very day.
Chelsea’s starting XI 2004/05 season:
In the modern game, every successful team that plays a back four has a classy ‘anchor man’ to rely on. Liverpool has Fabinho, Real Madrid have Casemiro, and Manchester City possess Rodri. European champions Chelsea are bolstered by the man many regards as Makelele’s heir – N’Golo Kante.
As we’ve demonstrated, the number of goals a team concedes can never entirely be put down to the formation they choose to play. So many factors can lead to a team conceding a goal, the most obvious example being the quality of the defenders on the pitch.
While some teams have improved markedly after scrapping a back four, it is also true that the world’s best sides continue to benefit from variations of the 4-3-3 system. For clubs like Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, a world-class holding midfielder, and exceptional centre-backs allow them to flourish while playing a back four. By contrast, for managers who don’t necessarily trust the quality of their defenders, or who perhaps lack a solid holding midfielder, a back five will always remain an attractive option.