Classic Football Formations


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The Danubian School of football is a modification of the 2–3–5 formation in which the centre forward plays in a more withdrawn position.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.

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.

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.

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.