Most Popular Soccer Formations

The right soccer formation can make or break a team’s success. Too attacking, and you risk leaving defenders out to dry. Too defensive, and there is not enough creativity to push for a goal. You may not always keep a clean sheet, either. All teams are different, though. So, the formation must play to the team’s strengths. While there have been a range of formations across the history of soccer, including the 1-1-8 formation of the late 1800s, there are several that stand out as the most popular soccer formations. 


The 4-4-2 formation will be familiar to English fans, and it was the go-to setup for many years until continental trends revolutionized the game. The classic formation involves four at the back, four in midfield, and two forward players, usually in a Big Man, Little Man setup. It is a balanced formation that relies on old-fashioned wing play and requires the central midfielders working in a box-to-box role. It is also flexible, as you can shift the central midfielders into advanced and deeper positions, creating the 4-4-2 Wide Diamond (also known as a 4-1-2-1-2, or pulling the wingers more central for a compact Diamond style. 

Play Style – Balanced 

Notable Example – Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 


The 4-2-3-1 formation has been an option for a variety of elite managers over the past decade. It keeps the same back four style as the 4-4-2, while the midfield and attack sees a significant difference. This formation uses a double-pivot, using two defensive midfielders and positioning the rest of the midfield higher up the pitch in Attacking Midfield roles. This element is vital, as it helps to support the lone striker from becoming isolated. Likewise, the de facto six-at-the-back approach prevents teams from becoming overrun in midfield, and puts two players in the line of fire before the defense has a risk of being breached, although the wide Attacking midfielders will need to offer Full Back support at times. 

Play Style – Balanced

Notable Example – Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid 


This formation is arguably the most popular of the current styles, and it was adopted following the success of Pep’s Tiki-Taka Barcelona during his tenure. Here, the onus is on the three front players, with wide wingers responsible for cutting inside to score, or to feed the striker. As the wingers cut inside, the full backs are expected to push up to offer further support, while two central midfielders will also provide assists. It comes with some risks, as there is often too much focus on attack, leaving defenses exposed, but with the right players, it can be a highly successful formation. 

Play Style – Attacking 

Notable Example  – Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona 


The 4-4-1-1 shares many similarities with the 4-4-2 formation. Rather than use the tried-and-tested Big Man Little Man approach, there is a single lone striker with an attacking midfielder (or trequartista) who plays in a supportive role behind to open up space. The most obvious example of this is Tim Cahill. However, Dennis Bergkamp also found success in this position, and he had a Premier League trophy to show for it, too. Because of the creative element, the midfielders are not under as much pressure, allowing them to focus on other demands. 

Play Style – Balanced

Notable Example – David Moyes’ Everton


If you want to overload the opposition with as many attacking players as is sensible, the 4-2-2-2 formation is the way to go. Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City used this formation with plenty of success during his time in charge as it gives the front four the ability to move fluidly through the final third, exploiting gaps in the opposition’s defense. While this may seem as attacking as you can get, two central midfielders provides protection for the back line, although full-backs can take advantage of open space to push forward and support the attacking players, forcing the opponent to deal with six attacking players. 

Play Style – Attacking 

Notable Example – Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City 


A 3-4-3 formation was the primary approach chosen by Antonio Conte during his stint at Chelsea, building on the 3-5-2 formation he used as Juventus manager. This formation shifts away from the classic four-at-the-back approach and relies on the wing backs to make the pitch as wide as possible. This enables the central midfielders to make the most of the space and feed the three attacking players (one striker, two wide forwards). It is ideal for teams that love keeping possession, which is why you see Manchester City use it sometimes, and it can easily overwhelm both three- and four-man defenses with the number of attacking players pushing forward. As there are three players at the back, there is less risk of a counter attack. 

Play Style – Attacking 

Notable Example – Antonio Conte’s Chelsea


The 3-5-2 formation is primarily a defensive choice, and many lower-table managers opt for it to minimize the damage. However, as the wing backs replace wide midfielders or wingers, it can also find success as an attacking formation if the players are suitable. The general idea is similar to 3-4-3, but the central midfielders remain in a defensive position, allowing two strikers, advanced midfielder, and the wing backs to push forward and create chances. Even with five players pushing forward, there are still five outfield players there to protect the goal, and this allows teams playing 3-5-2 to throttle the space in the midfield, making it the perfect counter against any teams that prefer possessions-based football. 

Play Style – Defensive 

Notable Example – Cesare Prandelli’s Italy

All formations have their positive aspects. But this depends on the player’s ability and the quality or play style of the opposition. This is why you see teams play with different formations home and away, as they will want to maximize the damage they can inflict, or stifle and frustrate the opponent. Formation popularity also tends to follow trends, with one formation being in vogue as teams attempt to replicate the success of bigger teams. Although the results vary. While these may be the most popular formations right now, that could all change in a few years, just as we have seen a shift from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1, and now to 4-3-3.