Strategies, Philosophies and Principles Over Formation

By Jimmy Shan

I am amazed by the amount of times I hear people talk about the 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3 as if they are different formations, they are the same! Deployed differently depending upon PLAYERS (quality, strengths, and weakness) and COACHING beliefs!

Teach the 4-4-2 and you will teach a central striker to drop in (4-4-1-1, 4-3-3), teach a 4-3-3 and you will teach a midfielder to break beyond (4- 4-2) and your midfielders to play on different lines (4-4-1-1) teach a 4-4-1-1 and you’ll teach your striker in the hole to stretch first (4-4-2). At any given moment depending on your strategies / beliefs you will enter a mix of all formations.

Roy Hodgson has recently raised lots of debate over the use of the 4-4-2 system in the National side, the recent performance v Belgium had Graham Taylor saying this “England’s rigid 4-4-2 formation concerns me. We need to have more flexibility. We didn’t see the wide men come in, they stayed there. Against the very, very good national sides we would definitely be in trouble playing this way”

I totally agree with Graham Taylor and I read the script after the opening two minutes as to how the England team would play with all 11 players sat in their own half, opting to defend deep and attack through possible counters. However if you observed WBA under Hodgson playing this system it was very different. The wide players would come in off the line, full backs provided width while front players would come short into pockets to receive, the ‘front’ 4 would often rotate thus confirming my opening statement.

It is apparent Roy Hodgson is gearing towards playing a shape and game style to deny and not to discover, maintaining a solid base and an approach that seems to err on the side of caution. Yes Roy’s shape appears to be a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 however you will see his defending / out of possession philosophy and strategy as opposed to his favourite shape. WBA played 4-3-3 on numerous occasions last season, however the roles and responsibilities without the ball were no different to how England are playing now. Of course game plans and opposition will dictate how much ball possession you have, when, where, why and how you engage the press etc.

Observe a Roy Hodgson coaching session he will get his wide players to stretch, a front man spinning another front man in the ‘hole’, take an aerial photo of this and players would be arranged in a 4-3-3 formation.

I am a believer in playing the game with attacking and creative finesse based upon possession dominance, all 11 players should be OUTSTANDING ball managers and have an ability to manage the ball in and under any circumstance against strong resistance. Alongside this (quote Brendan Rodgers) players / team should always play with tactical discipline, and have a clear identifiable defending strategy.

There is no doubt the offensive side of the game is based on CREATIVITY, the defensive side of the game more SCIENTIFIC.

I have recently been asked what formation I plan to play next season to which I replied no set formation. I don’t want to get bogged down with a specific formation, yes certain players may be given set roles and responsibilities, in particular set roles and responsibilities when offering security behind the ball when we are attacking. My teaching will be based around attacking / defending strategies and philosophies, players will be encouraged to make independent decisions and play / position themselves in areas related to our philosophy thus enabling an array of formations and ultimate flexibility.

Of course my team will take up a 4-3-3 shape, 4-4-2 shape, 4-4-1-1, 3-3-4 shape I just intend this to happen a thousand times per game, dictated by PLAYERS making effective DECISIONS!








4 thoughts on “Strategies, Philosophies and Principles Over Formation

  1. Hi Jimmy. What an exciting article you have sent in. You are absolutely correct that systems need to be ‘flexible’ and this requires individual talent. I have said for many years that all positions in a team should be made up with players who were TALENTED mid-field players. It was interesting to see that Spain opened their EURO campaign without a recognized front player. This idea will increase in use as movement and skill, as exampled by the Spanish, permeates into other forward-looking football nations. WE. OF COURSE, WILL CONTINUE WITH ‘BRICK OUTHOUSES’ AT THE BACK, IN MID-FIELD AND UP FRONT AS A NECESSARY PART OF OUR TACTICAL REQUIREMENTS !!! Good luck with your efforts to take our game forward.

    • Hi John, Great point re all positions being made up of players who were midfielders! Is there a way of achieving this within the current Youth structure? Within the game formats surely teaching players the full range of technical / tactical requirements at the u9 – u12 age bands would surely help towards achieving this? And installing a rule whereby each week / month they experience playing in a new third of the pitch? The question and debate would be I suppose is when do you pigeon hole players into ‘set’ positions?
      I had a similar discussion with Sam Wilkinson re position specific sessions and placing players into ‘set’ positions. We agreed that in the age phase I work in this type of session is of real importance (in terms of players completing technical and tactical repetition) for a player to improve the necessary attributes they will face in their prominent position. HOWEVER to achieve the flexibility I wish to have in my team sessions must have loose rules / zones in order to achieve interchange / rotation.
      Let’s hope we move away from those Brick outhouses and let’s hope anyone who reads my article don’t come and watch my team boom it up the pitch, play for regains and hear me yell ‘turn them round’ ha ha!

  2. Hello Jimmy, I think things are slowly changing for the better, especially in the youth academy system. Most teams now (u9 – u13) will play a game of four quarters rather than 2 halves. All outfield players will play at least one quarter in defense, midfield and attack. I believe the idea is to get players comfortable in all positions and all areas of the pitch, and to also get them playing the same type of football where ever they are on the pitch. Hopefully this will lead to a more intelligent type of player who thinks his way out of a situation rather than resorting to hoof ball.

    However I have no idea at what age they then start to move players into more fixed positions

  3. Brilliant posts BUT as an armchair ‘lay’ fan can I add some points?
    Firstly, I may be mistaken but the Dutch have tried this system in their youth coaching for pretty much the last 40 years…. Despite having only two professional tiers(introduced in 1956 and only modified as late as 1971) they have still managed to produce streams of capable footballers comfortable in a variety of positions. Admittedly the majority of their most celebrated players have been ‘midfielders’ to the detriment of other positions; very notable exceptions of course (I do not really need to mention)! If we compare their overall performance to the other national football powers they must be consistently punching above their weight. Surely they have been doing something really right. How is it that English football has taken so long to come round to this way of thinking?! After all ‘we’ produced Martin Peters – the forerunner of the modern footballer….
    Secondly, the British and the Scandinavians must be the only countries still wedded to that old philosophy. West Germany now Germany were always in my opinion a ‘hybrid’ of Northern and Southern Europe but they too have moved towards a more fluid system incorporating multi-talented team players. We can no longer accuse them of being cynical, rigid and tactically ugly. They still lack the flair and grace of the Spaniards but have developed a settled, balanced playing style.
    Thirdly, can anyone challenge the assumption that offensive play is CREATIVE and defensive play is more SCIENTIFIC. I do not believe that their should be such a dichotomy. Do not get me wrong; I am not advocating David Luiz style defending but more ‘science’ upfront would help a lot of teams not just England!

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