Classic Football Formations

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The Pyramid Formation

The 2–3–5 was originally known as the “Pyramid”, with the numerical formation being referenced retrospectively. By the 1890s, it was the standard formation in England and had spread all over the world. With some variations, it was used by most top level teams up to the 1940s.

For the first time, a balance between attacking and defending was reached. When defending, the two defenders (full-backs), would zonally mark the opponent forwards (mainly the central trio), while the midfielders (halfbacks) would fill the gaps (usually marking the opposing wingers or inside forwards).

The centre halfback had a key role in both helping to organise the team’s attack and marking the opponent’s centre forward, supposedly one of their most dangerous players. It was this formation which gave rise to the convention of shirt numbers.

Danubian School
The Danubian School of football is a modification of the 2–3–5 formation in which the centre forward plays in a more withdrawn position. As played by the Austrians, Czechs, and Hungarians in the 1920s, it was taken to its peak by the Austrians in the 1930s. It relied on short-passing and individual skills. This school was heavily influenced by the likes of Hugo Meisl and Jimmy Hogan, the English coach who visited Austria at the time.

Metodo Formation
The Metodo was devised by Vittorio Pozzo, coach of the Italian national team in the 1930s. It was a derivation of the Danubian School. The system was based on the 2–3–5 formation, Pozzo realised that his half-backs would need some more support in order to be superior to the opponents’ midfield, so he pulled two of the forwards to just in front of midfield, creating a 2–3–2–3 formation. This created a stronger defence than previous systems, as well as allowing effective counter-attacks. The Italian national team won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938 using this system. It has been argued that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona used a modern version of this formation. This formation is also similar to the standard in table football, featuring two defenders, five midfielders and three strikers (which cannot be altered as the “players” are mounted on axles).

WM Formation
The WM system was created in the mid-1920s by Herbert Chapman of Arsenal to counter a change in the offside law in 1925. The change had reduced the number of opposition players that attackers needed between themselves and the goal-line from three to two. This led to the introduction of a centre-back to stop the opposing centre-forward, and tried to balance defensive and offensive playing. The formation became so successful that by the late-1930s most English clubs had adopted the WM. Retrospectively, the WM has either been described as a 3–2–5 or as a 3–4–3, or more precisely a 3–2–2–3 reflecting the letters which symbolised it. The gap in the centre of the formation between the two wing halves and the two inside forwards allowed Arsenal to counter-attack effectively. The W-M was subsequently adapted by several English sides, but none could apply it in quite the same way Chapman had. This was mainly due to the comparative rarity of Alex James in the English game. He was one of the earliest playmakers in the history of the game, and the hub around which Chapman’s Arsenal revolved.

WW
The WW was a development of the WM created by the Hungarian coach Márton Bukovi who turned the 3–2–5 WM into a 2–3–2–3 by effectively turning the M “upside down”. The lack of an effective centre-forward in his team necessitated moving this player back to midfield to create a playmaker, with a midfielder instructed to focus on defence. This created a 2–3–1–4, which morphed into a 2–3–2–3 when the team lost possession, and was described by some as a kind of genetic link between the WM and the 4–2–4. This formation was successfully used by fellow countryman Gusztáv Sebes in the Hungarian national team of the early 1950s.

3–3–4
The 3–3–4 formation was similar to the WW, with the notable exception of having an inside-forward (as opposed to centre-forward) deployed as a midfield schemer alongside the two wing-halves. This formation would be commonplace during the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the best exponents of the system was the Tottenham Hotspur double-winning side of 1961, which deployed a midfield of Danny Blanchflower, John White and Dave Mackay. FC Porto won the 2005–06 Portuguese national championship using this unusual formation under manager Co Adriaanse.

4-2-4
The 4–2–4 formation attempts to combine a strong attack with a strong defence, and was conceived as a reaction to WM’s stiffness. It could also be considered a further development of the WW. The 4–2–4 was the first formation to be described using numbers.

While the initial developments leading to the 4–2–4 were devised by Márton Bukovi, the credit for creating the 4–2–4 lies with two different people: Flávio Costa, the Brazilian national coach in the early 1950s, as well as another Hungarian Béla Guttman. These tactics seemed to be developed independently, with the Brazilians discussing these ideas while the Hungarians seemed to be putting them into motion. The fully developed 4–2–4 was only “perfected” in Brazil, however, in the late 1950s.

The 4–2–4 formation made use of the players’ increasing levels of skill and fitness, aiming to effectively use six defenders and six forwards, with the midfielders performing both tasks. The fourth defender increased the number of defensive players but mostly allowed them to be closer together, thus enabling effective cooperation among them, the point being that a stronger defence would allow an even stronger attack.

The relatively empty midfield relied on defenders that should now be able not only to steal the ball, but also hold it, pass it or even run with it and start an attack. So this formation required that all players, including defenders, are somehow skilful and with initiative, making it a perfect fit for the Brazilian player’s mind. The 4–2–4 needed a high level of tactical awareness, as having only two midfielders could lead to defensive problems. The system was also fluid enough to allow the formation to change throughout play.

4–2–4 was first used with success at club level in Brazil by Palmeiras and Santos, and was used by Brazil in their wins at 1958 World Cup and 1970 World Cup, both featuring Pelé, and Mário Zagallo, the latter of which played in 1958 and coached in 1970. The formation was quickly adopted throughout the world after the Brazilian success.

Total Football

Total Football (Dutch: totaalvoetbal) is the label given to an influential tactical theory of football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. It was pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax from 1965 to 1973, and further used by the Netherlands National Football Team in the 1974 FIFA World Cup. It was invented by Rinus Michels, who was the coach of both Ajax and the Netherlands national team at the time.

In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team’s intended organisational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can successively play an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in a nominal position is the goalkeeper.

Total Football’s tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them.

During this era Ajax played some of their finest football ever, achieving home wins (46–0–0) for two full seasons (1971–72 and 1972–73), just one defeat in the whole of the 1971–72 season, and celebrating four titles in 1972 (the Netherlands national league, KNVB Cup, European Cup and Intercontinental Cup).

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The foundations for Total Football were laid by Jack Reynolds, who was the manager of Ajax from 1915–1925, 1928–1940, and 1945–1947. An early form of Total Football was also developed by the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s, the Magical Magyars, who were managed by Gusztáv Sebes and were especially inspired by the experienced coaching of Jimmy Hogan.

Rinus Michels, who played under Reynolds, became manager of Ajax himself in 1965 and refined the concept into what is known today as “Total Football” (Totaalvoetbal in Dutch), using it in his training for the Ajax squad and the Netherlands national team in the 1970s. It was further refined by new Ajax manager Stefan Kovacs, after Michels left Ajax for Barcelona in 1971. Dutch forward Johan Cruyff was the system’s most famous exponent.

Although Cruyff was fielded as centre forward, he wandered all over the pitch, popping up wherever he could do most damage to the opposing team. This resulted in a need for a dynamic system like Total Football. Cruyff’s teammates adapted themselves flexibly around his movements, regularly switching positions so that the tactical roles in the team were always filled.

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Space and the creation of it were central to the concept of Total Football. Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff explained how the team that won the European Cup in 1971, 1972, and 1973 worked it to their advantage: “We discussed space the whole time. Johan Cruyff always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move.”

The constant switching of positions that became known as Total Football only came about because of this spatial awareness. “It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch,” said Hulshoff. The system developed organically and collaboratively: it was not down to coach Rinus Michels, his successor Stefan Kovacs or Cruyff alone. Cruyff summed up his (Total Football) philosophy: “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.”

The 1972 European Cup final proved to be Total Football’s finest hour. After Ajax’s 2–0 victory over Internazionale, newspapers around Europe reported the “death of Catenaccio.” The Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad declared: “The Inter system undermined. Defensive football is destroyed.”

Michels was appointed for the 1974 FIFA World Cup campaign by the KNVB. Most of the 1974 team were made up of players from Ajax and Feyenoord. However, Rob Rensenbrink was an outsider, having played for clubs in neighboring Belgium, and was unfamiliar with Total Football, although he was selected and adapted well. During the tournament, the Netherlands coasted through their first and second round matches, defeating Argentina (4–0), East Germany (2–0) and Brazil (2–0) to set up a meeting with hosts West Germany.

In the 1974 final, Cruyff kicked off and the ball was passed around Oranje thirteen times before returning to Cruyff, who then went on a rush that eluded Berti Vogts and ended when he was fouled by Uli Hoeneß. The referee awarded the penalty and teammate Johan Neeskens scored from the spot kick to give the Netherlands a 1–0 lead with 80 seconds of play elapsed, and the Germans not even touching the ball. Cruyff’s playmaking influence was stifled in the second half of the match by the effective marking of Berti Vogts, while Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, and Wolfgang Overath dominated midfield, enabling West Germany to win 2–1.

The ill-fated Austrian “Wunderteam” of the 1930s is also credited in some circles as being the first national team to play Total Football. It is no coincidence that Ernst Happel, a talented Austrian player in the 1940s and 1950s, was coach in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He introduced a tougher style of play at ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord. Happel managed the Netherlands national team in the 1978 World Cup, where they again finished as runners-up. Hungary also had a big role in laying down the tactical fundaments of Total Football in the 1950s, dominating international football with the remarkable Golden Team which included legends like captain Ferenc Puskás.

The term Total Football is often misused to describe any attacking football. In its purest form, Total Football is proactive, not counter-attacking, based on positional interchange and hard pressing. FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team play a style of football known as “tiki-taka” that has roots in the philosophy of Total Football’s greatest icon Johan Cruyff, who was manager of Barcelona from 1988 to 1996.

Catenaccio

Catenaccio  or The Chain is a tactical system in football with a strong emphasis on defence. In Italian, catenaccio means “door-bolt”, which implies a highly organized and effective backline defense focused on nullifying opponents’ attacks and preventing goal-scoring opportunities.

The system was made famous by the Argentine trainer Helenio Herrera of Internazionale in the 1960s who used it to grind out small-score wins, such as 1–0 or 2–1, over opponents in their games.

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Catenaccio was influenced by the verrou (also “doorbolt/chain” in French) system invented by Austrian coach Karl Rappan. As coach of Switzerland in the 1930s and 1940s, Rappan played a defensive sweeper called the verrouilleur, that was highly defensive and was positioned just ahead of the goalkeeper. In the 1950s, Nereo Rocco’s Padova pioneered the system in Italy where it would be used again by the Internazionale team of the early 1960s.

Rappan’s verrou system, proposed in 1932, when he was coach of Servette, was implemented with four fixed defenders, playing a strict man-to-man marking system, plus a playmaker in the middle of the field who played the ball together with two midfield wings.

Rocco’s tactic, often referred to as the “real” Catenaccio, was shown first in 1947 with Triestina: the most common mode of operation was a 1–3–3–3 formation with a strictly defensive team approach. With catenaccio, Triestina finished the Serie A tournament in a surprising second place. Some variations include 1–4–4–1 and 1–4–3–2 formations.

The key innovation of Catenaccio was the introduction of the role of a libero (“free”) defender, also called “sweeper”, who was positioned behind a line of three defenders. The sweeper’s role was to recover loose balls, nullify the opponent’s striker and double-mark when necessary. Another important innovation was the counter-attack, mainly based on long passes from the defence.

In Herrera’s version in the 1960s, four man-marking defenders were tightly assigned to each opposing attacker while an extra sweeper would pick up any loose ball that escaped the coverage of the defenders. The emphasis of this system in Italian football spawned the rise of many top Italian defenders who became known for their hard-tackling, ruthless defending. However, despite the defensive connotations, Herrera claimed shortly before his death that the system was more attacking than people remembered, saying ‘the problem is that most of the people who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my Catenaccio included. I had Picchi as a sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full back to score as many goals as a forward.’

Total Football, invented by Rinus Michels in the 1970s, rendered Herrera’s version of Catenaccio rather obsolete in club football. In Total Football, no player is fixed in his nominal role; anyone can assume in the field the duties of an attacker, a midfielder or a defender, depending on the play. Man-marking alone was insufficient to cope with this fluid system. Coaches began to create a new tactical system that mixed man-marking with zonal defense. In 1972, Michels’ Ajax defeated Inter 2–0 in the European Cup final and Dutch newspapers announced the “destruction of Catenaccio” at the hands of Total Football. In 1973, Ajax crushed Cesare Maldini’s Milan 6–0 for the European Super Cup in a match in which the defensive Milan system was destroyed by Ajax.

“Pure” Catenaccio is no longer used in the modern football tactics. Two major characteristics of this style – the man-to-man marking and the libero (“free”) position – are no longer in use. Highly defensive structures with little attacking intent are often labelled as Catenaccio, but deviates from the original design of the system. Moreover, the sweeper or libero position has virtually disappeared from the modern game since the 1980s because teams favoured deploying the extra man in another area of the pitch.

Catenaccio is often thought to be commonplace in Italian football; but is now used infrequently by Italian Serie A teams, who instead prefer to apply balanced tactics and formations, mostly 4–3–3 or 3–5–2, The Italian national football team with manager Cesare Prandelli also used the 3-5-2 in their first clashes of UEFA Euro 2012 Group C and then switched to the their ‘standard’ 4–4–2 formation UEFA Euro 2012 final. Italy’s previous coaches, Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, used the Catenaccio at international level, and both failed to reach the top. Italy, under Maldini, lost on penalties at the 1998 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals, while Trapattoni lost early in the second round at 2002 FIFA World Cup and lost at the UEFA Euro 2004 during the first round.

However, Catenaccio has also had its share of success stories. Trapattoni himself successfully employed it in securing a Portuguese Liga title with Benfica in 2005. German coach Otto Rehhagel also used a similarly defensive approach for his Greece national football team in UEFA Euro 2004, going on to win the tournament despite his team being heavy underdogs. Dino Zoff also put Catenaccio to good use for Italy, securing a place in the UEFA Euro 2000 final, which Italy only lost on the golden goal rule to France. Likewise, Azeglio Vicini led Italy to the 1990 FIFA World Cup semifinal thanks to small wins in six hard-fought defensive games in which Italy produced little but risked even less, totaling only 7 goals for and none against. Italy would then lose a tight semifinal to Argentina, due in no small part to a similar strategy from Carlos Bilardo, who then went on to lose the final to a much more offensive-minded Germany led by Franz Beckenbauer.

Similarly, when Italy was reduced to 10 men in the 50th minute of the 2006 FIFA World Cup 2nd round match against Australia, coach Marcello Lippi changed the Italian’s formation to a defensive orientation which caused the British newspaper The Guardian to note that “the timidity of Italy’s approach had made it seem that Helenio Herrera, the high priest of Catenaccio, had taken possession of the soul of Marcello Lippi.” It should be noted, however, that the ten-man team was playing with a 4–3–2 scheme, just a midfielder away from the regular 4–4–2.