In the early days of football, formations were an altogether different base than the ones that we know today. Where all-out attack was very much the order of the day and it was not unusual to see teams line up in the 2-2-6 or even a 1-2-7. As the game became more professionalised, the first proper formations started to emerge. Preston won the first English league title playing the 2-3-5 pyramid formation which employs two centre-half to provide a pivot between defence and attack. They finished the season unbeaten and won the FA Cup becoming the original invincibles.
Herbert Chapman in the Arsenal team of the 1920s put the next great tactical shift with a change of the offside law. Which meant that you only needed two instead of three players between the attacker and the goal during the game making it much easier to score. To combat the new law, Chapman made the incredibly defensive move of moving back two of the five forwards in the pyramid and adding a third defender or fullback creating the WM formation that won Arsenal 5 League titles in eight years. Managers around the world continued tweaking formations into the 1950s.
Pre Modern Football Formations
The Hungarian national team was perhaps the most striking example of successful tactical innovation. Using a high number of strikers, the mighty maker’s greatest trick was having these forwards swap places to confuse the opposition. They favoured a 3-2-1-4 and achieved a number of notable high-scoring victories including the infamous 6-3 over England at Wembley and the 8-3 against West Germany at the 1954 World Cup. The free scoring hedonism of the 50s couldn’t last forever and teams started employing a bit more defensive solidity in pursuit of success.
Strangely Brazil became the pioneers of this more defensive mentality. But they won three out of four World Cups between 1958 and 1970 playing a 4-2-4. Of course, having players like Garrincha, Jairzinho, and Pele to carry it out. But the innovative use of attacking fullbacks made them more solid at the back and gave the front players more freedom.
By the 1970s new strategies were desperately needed to overcome the 4-2-4. What the Dutch came up with was truly spectacular as Ajax and the Dutch national team played what they like to call ‘total football’, a formation that wasn’t really a formation at all. Starting as roughly a 4-3-3, any player could play in any position so long as the team’s overall shape was maintained. This revolutionary style would take the tiny nation of Holland to two consecutive World Cup finals although they famously lost both.
Despite the innovative brilliance of the Dutch, it was the more prosaic structured West Germany and Bayern Munich teams that were ultimately more successful in the late 1970s. The trend for more defensively minded play continued into the 80s with Italy winning the 1982 World Cup with their famous ‘Catenaccio’ or door bolt style which roughly translates to a 1-3-3-3 with a deep line purely defensive sweeper is the key. The philosophy is you can’t lose if you don’t concede. From this defensive base, the Italians made devastating use of the counter-attack and ‘Catenaccio’ is still associated with the Italian teams of today.
Modern Football Formations
Moving into the 1990s and beyond, no one team or style could be said to have been dominant until the late 2000s when Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and the Spanish national team swept all before them. The fact that it’s hard to pin down, perhaps explains the success of this formation if you can even call it. Pep’s Barca started out playing a 4-3-3 but this was always fluid. Throughout his time they often played without any traditional strikers at all. The key features of Pep’s side were many in variation but were predominantly built on the principles of hard work. With high intensity pressing to win the ball back quickly, attack as a form of defence, massive amounts of possession limiting the opposition’s chances to score, and the relentless passion that became famous as tiki-taka.
Barcelona won an unbelievable 14 trophies from 19 competitions entered under Guardiola and Spain won two European Championships and a World Cup employing a similar philosophy. Since that, several teams have enjoyed success playing a variety of different ways including Jürgen Klopp’s heavy metal football at Dortmund, Jupp Heynckes balanced approach to Bayern, Ancelotti’s counter-attacking with Real Madrid, and then Barca’s resurgence under Luis Enrique playing more direct and utilizing the talents of their peerless front three Messi Neymar and Suarez.