Over the years, football at every level has seen trends in 11-a-side formations. These trends are known to completely change the game as opponents adapt their own strategies to counteract the newest football formations, until the game itself is somewhat adapted.
Familiarise yourself with the most popular 11-a-side football formations, learn how to use them to guide strategies during games and increase your chances of scoring goals with our top five 11-a-side football formations. Once you’ve read through the strengths and weaknesses of each formation, you can also download our free formation templates which can be printed and brought to practices
11-a-side football formation rules
Before any 11-a-side football squad walks onto the pitch, formations have been meticulously planned and practiced until every player can confidently and seamlessly swap between them to meet the demands of that specific game. In doing this, and in building up these formations in the first instance, all squads follow a set of useful rules and considerations which are well worth remembering in your own practices.
Unbreachable defence: Almost all 11-a-side football formations start with a defensive base of either 3 or 4 players. When first transferring from 9-a-side to 11-a-side football, players will likely be used to a three player defensive structure and may even already belong to a highly functional team that could be thrown off by the introduction of an additional player. Despite this, between the wider field that is significantly harder to cover with just three defenders and the opponent’s likely play of exploiting this, it’s safer to start training in an 11-a-side formation that has a four player defence. Of course, once this has been practiced and players are familiar with formations such as the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2, coaches can start to re-introduce three player defence formations such as the 3-5-2 and the 3-4-3.
Flexible midfield: The most changeable role on the pitch, midfielders need to have the ability to swap mid stride and adapt their positioning to best lend support to the dedicated attackers and defenders.
Coordinated attack: A strong attacking formation in football means the difference between scoring goals and passively defending and allowing the end result to be a goalless game. For teams with incredibly talented attackers and strikers, running an attack-heavy formation can be the best way to create goal scoring opportunities.
Play to your strengths: As with anything, football formations will only take you so far. Just because one team swears by a 3-4-3 formation does not not mean it will provide the same results for any other team. The most likely scenario here would be that they have a highly talented and coordinated team of three back defenders but, unless your team shares that same skill, another formation may suit you and bring out the best of your players. Overall, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your team before selecting your best formations.
Top 5 11-a-side football formations
Keeping in mind the four primary considerations of selecting formations, it’s time to take a look at the top five 11-a-side football formations. Each of these formations should be tried and practiced by your team, any one of them could provide you with the edge needed to win a game.
The 4-3-3 formation provides extensive freedom and fluidity, especially for the three midfielders who can alternate between a flat line formation and a triangle position in order to increase their mobility. In the triangular formation in particular, the three midfielders are free to split into defensive and offensive roles, usually with one anchored defence midfielder. This split provides the security needed for the front two midfielders to fill a more attacking position while the anchor supports the four primary defenders.
While mobility is high for the midfielders, in 11-a-side football, this is a relatively weak defensive structure. The downsides of this weakness however are somewhat counteracted by the goal scoring opportunities that having three dedicated attackers creates. Covering the width of the pitch in a wide attack formation, each of the three attackers are perfectly placed to work together to push into a striking position.
A key benefit of the 4-3-3 formation is the strong defensive team covering the back field. When the three-player midfield falls into a triangular formation, the anchor defence is free to form an additional layer of protection from the opposing attackers by coordinating with the two centre backs.
Extra Tip: Ensure your three-player midfield is stocked with confident, experienced players that can comfortably play across the field according to need. This should allow the team to counter the middle weakness of the 4-3-3 formation and mount a strong attacking force that could potentially create goal-scoring opportunities.
Not unlike the 4-3-3 formation, the 4-4-1-1 has the base block of a four player dedicated defence in the back field. From here, the weaker midfield is given additional support with a four player section instead of just three. The consequence of this player reallocation is, of course, the less strong attacking force of just two. These attackers are broken up into a centre forward and a striker who work together to score but, unless the opposition take on a weak defensive structure, this is unlikely to result in goals.
Instead of using the 4-4-1-1 (or 4-4-2) formations with an attacking intent, utilise it to counter strong attacking oppositions. With an eight player strong back and midfield, opposition attacks are unlikely to be successful and, once possession has been regained, you can try to punch through their scrambled defences with the attacker and striker.
If your team has a strong and talented group of players who have midfield experience, the 4-2-3-1 formation has a lot of potential.
With five midfielders separated into two defensive midfielders, two wingers and one centered attacking midfielder, a wide net is cast over the pitch which makes preventing the opposition from breaking through the defenses easier. On top of this, if your midfielders are able to make lightning-fast transitions there are also plenty of opportunities to gain and then keep possession of the ball, bringing you one step closer to those all-important goals.
As successful as this formation can be when properly practiced and deployed in games, there are pitfalls to it. For example, much of the success of this formation relies on the attacking midfielder’s ability to cover the ground needed to support attacking plays. If they cannot hold this position, a large area of free field opens up into which the opposition is likely to push, resulting in a loss of possession with fewer chances to regain it. Overall, if you’re confident in the ability of your midfielders, then this is a worthwhile formation to use in games but shouldn't be used without the skills to support it.
One of the first formations to popularise the three back defense structure that has become an increasingly popular choice for football teams in England, the 3-4-3 is built up of a three back defense, three attackers in a triangle structure and a flat four-player midfield section.
The overwhelming strength of the 3-4-3 formation is its attacking potential. With three players up front, and four midfielders providing enough field coverage to assist with any pushes for goals, there are a wide variety of plays to be made with this formation. Simultaneously, the even coverage across the field means that, should the opposing team have possession of the ball and attempt to score, those same midfielders can fall back into a defensive position to provide aid to the three backs.
As with any midfielder-heavy formation, the 3-4-3 11-a-side football formation requires an incredible level of stamina and skill from those working in the midfield. Without the ability of these players to switch seamlessly between attacking and defensive support, this is not a worthwhile formation to use.
A good option for teams that find they need a little additional defensive support when using the 3-4-3 formation, the 3-5-2 formation makes a small change of player allocation of one additional attacker swapping to midfield. This change transforms the field into a defence heavy structure, with the midfielders set out in a flat four formation and one remaining attacking midfielder, with the two strikers out front.
While the two strikers of the 3-5-2 formation provide good field coverage and widen the scope for goal-scoring opportunities, the fallback of this is the poor coverage behind them. Forming workable attacking triangles is vital to maintaining ball possession when challenged by opposing defenders and, with the majority of the midfielders positioned further back, this support is harder to give while ensuring that strong defence is maintained.
Download our free 11-a-side football formation templates
Start training effectively by incorporating the most popular 11-a-side football formations into your sessions. With our free to download formation templates, which can be printed off and brought to practice or even handed out to your players so they can study them at home, your team will have five new 11-a-side game plans with which to improve their plays