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The Newly Oriented OBserver’s (NOOB’s) Guide to Soccer, Pt. 2

May 28, 2010

You may have read my previous posts and wondered why I keep blathering on so much about formations, and this is a perfectly valid question. In reality it doesn’t matter quite as much as I would have you believe, but that isn’t to say formations aren’t important. A formation is basically the instructions a manager gives his team on where to play, and what to do.

The base formation in today’s game is a 4-4-2. To clarify, you always read formations from the back to the front as you go from the left to the right. So a 4-4-2 means 4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 forwards. This is what a majority of teams play these days, and has been the most popular formation since the 1966 World Cup when England won playing a 4-4-2. The other two formations you will see a lot of are the 4-3-3 and the 4-5-1. These three formations are what modern soccer is based off of, and any other formations you see simply boil down to a combination of them. For example the 4-2-3-1 is a hybrid between the 4-3-3 and the 4-5-1, giving you the advantages of both formations.

4-2-3-1 Formation

4-2-3-1 Formation

So why should you care what the team lines up in? Well it gives you a pretty good idea of what they are going to do. The 4-4-2 is typically what a non-adventuresome team plays, with a lot of options for attack and defense. A 4-5-1 is set up to put more bodies in the midfield and make passing more difficult for the other team in an attempt to stop attacks before they start. Typically teams look to counter attack out of this formation, and it is typically used when a less talented team is playing a more talented team they are afraid of getting steam rolled. The 4-3-3 is a very offensive formation that typically utilizes an expansive passing game, where the tempo of the game is dictated by the 3 midfielders poking and prodding the defense. These are all generalizations, however. Where players are playing on the field doesn’t matter as much as the instructions their coach gives them about what to do in that position. In this way, a 4-3-3 can be very defensive (like Chelsea under Jose Mourinho), or a 4-5-1 can be very offensive. This all sounds very counter-intuitive, but once you have watched a match or two it begins to make sense.

It can be tricky to tell what formation a team is in, though. Throughout play the shape changes and shifts. Sometimes this is a tactical thing, something the coach has built in to the formation. This is the case with Brazil and Mexico, who use different shapes when they are in possession of the ball and when the other team is in possession of the ball. Sometimes, this is an error from an individual player. A player playing wide on the left wing may come in to challenge in the center of the park, leaving space that can be exploited by the right back of the opposing team. In this case the team has lost its shape through a mistake. Either way, formations are very fluid, and it is rare that you will be able to see the exact positioning of everyone when the ball is in play, but that’s just soccer.

That brings us to the principals of offense and defense in football. Even as a NOOB you should understand that the main purpose of the offense is to score goals, and the main purpose of the defense is to stop goals from being scored. After you understand that, the first thing you should try to understand is space.The offense almost always wants to find a player in space, and the defense always wants to close down space. Why? Well it is simple. A player with space has time on the ball, meaning he can take a touch, look up, see his options, dribble a bit, then pass unhurriedly. If a player receives a ball with a player on his back, you will most frequently see him immediately return the ball back to the player who passed it (especially common between midfielders and defenders, as defenders typically have more space). This often gets lots of groans from NOOBS, but now at least, I hope you understand the reasoning behind it. It is extremely difficult to turn with the ball if there is a defender on your back. It is much more desirable to get the ball facing the goal you are going after, for obvious reasons. It costs a team very little to try again in an area with more space.

The next important issue is where the space opens up on the pitch. This goes back to formations. You want certain players (the full backs and wingers) to get the ball in space more frequently. These players are selected (generally) for their pace and crossing ability. If they beat their man, it shifts the defense, opening up space elsewhere. So a soccer match is in some ways a constant battle for space.

As we have discussed, both dribbling and passing can open up space, but how does a player decide which to do? Well, it comes down to the player. Every player has his own set of strengths and weaknesses, and also their own outlook about how the game should be played. Each player is doing a cost-benefit analysis (not that they call it this) in their head as to whether a pass, a dribble, or a shot provides the best chance for a goal. For some players, a dribble is the first thing that pops to mind (Ronaldinho), for others it is a pass (Xavi). There is not necessarily a right or wrong instinct, just becuase a pass or a dribble was unsuccessful doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad idea. It may have been the best option available.

Now there are two ways to attack, and two ways to defend (well, actually there are more… but we are trying to keep things simple). The first way to attack is through a slow build up, constantly passing the ball around the pitch and searching for weaknesses in the defense. In this mode, you are looking for passes that stretch the defense and make them open up, providing the offense with gaps to exploit. Perhaps the best example of this in recent times is Spain. The constantly pass back and forth, always searching for weaknesses in the opposing teams defense. This offense is predicated on maintaining possession of the ball.

The second way to attack is counter attacking. This is largely self-explanatory, but I like listening to myself talk (or type?), so I’ll explain it anyways. In counter attacking, your defense soaks up offensive pressure. This brings greater numbers of the opposing team into attack, creating space behind them. When the defense gets the ball, the players spring forward quickly, the ball is to a player in space (typically a striker who has dropped deep), and the team now on offense tries to exploit their numerical advantage.

In the same way, there are two types of defending. One is an intense pressing game. In this style, defense comes first from the strikers, who push up and force the defenders to play balls quickly. Then the midfield closes down space, making passes difficult to complete. Even if the pass is completed, the receiver is being pressured and so has to either use some skill or make a swift pass to try and buy time. This is an effective defense because it tries to eliminate space and time on the ball.

Bad Defense

Not a good defensive strategy

The second method of defense is to sit back in a defensive shell for (Particularly for outclassed sides). In this method, the back four sit in a line with the midfield four (I’m assuming a 4-4-2 here) sitting in a line in front of them, dealing with players as they appear. They pressure the ball, but aren’t as frenetic and don’t press as high as the “pressing” defense described above.

This concludes the second installment of our NOOBs Guide to Soccer. We still haven’t covered everything, so if you are still lost, don’t fret. We will be back to explain some of the more advanced issues in our next post. But for now let me remind you that if you are just reading, and aren’t watching, then you are missing the point. We are writing these to help you watch a soccer match with a more critical eye, and hopefully to be able to derive some pleasure out of the experience. Next time you watch a match, you will be able to identify why a player may have made a pass, or better yet (because who doesn’t love being an armchair… midfielder?) you will be able to tell which pass a player should have made. In the slightly less interesting games (any game Greece is playing in), you can understand and appreciate just how beautiful and skillful keeping a clean sheet against a more talented opponent is.


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