In football (usa: soccer) a formation explains how the players of a team are positioned on the pitch during a match. Even though players are fast-moving during a game and they are changing from defense to attack, the formation is a very useful way to communicate which part of the pitch the players are positioned. The position of a player tells you a bit about their role in the game. It indicates if he or she is positioned as a goalkeeper, defender, on the midfield or as an attacker and on which side; left, right or in the center of the pitch.

Examples of three numbers formation

The first number indicates the amount of defenders, the second are the midfielders and the last one are the forwards. This can be: 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 5-3-2 and so on.

433 example Freelance Football Analyst line-up formation tactical

More numbers formation

More variations are possible in the amount of numbers and in every line, for example midfielder can be an attacking or defensive midfielder. This means they play slightly higher on the pitch than the defenders or closer to the attackers, in comparison to the other midfielders. In the next examples, the numbers can indicate the amount of defenders, wingbacks, defensive midfielders, central midfielders, attacking midfielders, wingers and strikers.

3-3-3-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2 and so on.

Example 4-2-3-1; there are four defenders, two defensive midfielders, three attacking midfielders and one forward.

4231 formation example Freelance Football Analyst line up tactical

(Did you notice that the goalkeepers are ignored by explaining the formation? Why? The amount of goalkeepers in a formation will never change, as the rules indicate there is only one goalkeeper. To give goalkeepers a feeling they are part of the team, some coaches always who put a “1-” before every formation to indicate the goalkeeper, so in above example: 1-4-3-3)

Fluid formation

Due to players always moving around, back and forth on the pitch, formations during a game are always fluid, so there are endless variations to make. As that will add endless more numbers to the formation and it can not anymore be useful for communication purposes. So the maximum of numbers to indicate a formation mostly is most of the time four.
To be more concrete about how a team formation is, we will add arrows and lines (movements of direction a player often make) and position names like GK (goalkeeper), LWB (left wing back) and so on  (see position name list). There are also specific roles per position name, which can tell which attributes a player should possess to be effective in a particular role.

Below an image of this fluid formation example of Italy playing 4-3-3, with position names, arrows and lines:

Italy National Football Team Tactical Formation

Difference in attack or defense

The spaces between players on the pitch will normally vary a lot if a team is in attacking or are defending. In attack the players position wider than in defense. That is because in attack the space between players normally is bigger than in defense, because it’s easier to attack if you have more space and defend when the spaces between players are more narrow. In attack, the space is used to have more touches on the ball, to dribble and to get some time to aim or time a shot or pass.

Transition from attack to defense and vice versa.

There is a spare time between switching between an attacking and defensive formation. This means a team is in possession of the ball and thus attacking, but the ball is lost to the opponent. The time a team needs to get from an attacking formation to a defensive formation is called the switch from defense to attack or switch from attack to defense. There are several tactics to take the ball back from the opponent and the positioning of the players on the pitch and the formation a team plays is an important part of the chances of getting the ball back.

This can be a high pressure on the opponent’s half, with defenders high up, making the spaces narrow for the opponent to play. Or falling back to their own half and narrow the spaces there, with the attackers helping their teammates. Between these tactics there is an endless variety of possibilities.

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