Picking the best football formation for your club is pretty easy, right? We all have an idea of how we’d like our manager to set out the team, and we probably think we know better than them.
Football formations are continually changing as tactics get more and more refined. The age-old 4-4-2 has been the mainstay of English football for years, and only in the last few decades has it begun to evolve into new shapes.
Still, there are plenty of teams – especially in the lower divisions – that rely on 4-4-2 as the bedrock to their success.
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In this guide we’ll take you through the best formations in football. This isn’t a definitive guide of every formation, just a pointer to which five set-ups are most commonly used today. We’re not going to give you eye-watering analytical insight into why one formation is better than another. After all, a formation is only as good as the players deployed to play it – and this is something football betting fans should take note of when they research games ahead of placing their bets.
So, let’s dive in to what fans consider are the best formations football has to offer.
Best Football Formations
4-4-2 – Manchester United
The classic football formation, 4-4-2 was the common set-up in the UK for decades. However, it is now considered too rigid for the modern game, as the defence and midfield can become very ‘flat’. Having two centre-forwards helps if they can hold the ball up, and 4-4-2 is generally a formation for more physical sides. Alternatives can be 4-4-1-1, where one of the forwards drops back to aid the midfield, 4-1-4-1, or even 4-2-2-2.
Manchester United’s treble-winning team in 1999 perfected the 4-4-2. They made use of the flanks and delivered great service into the box, had a mean central midfield, and a robust defensive line. Chelsea in 2004 pushed the formation away from its rigidity when Claude Makelele dropped deep to protect the midfield, allowing for the other central midfielder to push forward more.
4-3-3 – Liverpool
This formation had been used for years on the continent but English teams were slow to catch up on it. The worry was that you sacrifice midfield presence for greater attacking power, and that scared conservative managers. However, the 4-3-3 is ideal for teams that need extra defensive cover when out of possession, as the two wingers can drop back into the midfield.
Liverpool’s famous front three of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling delivered the goods in this system. But it needed Steven Gerrard to cover a lot of ground in the midfield to make up for the reduced defensive cover. Barcelona also used it during their peak in the late 2000s/early 2010s.
4-1-4-1 – Leeds
Using a defensive midfielder both as an enforcer and distributor effectively gives you two players in one. Marcelo Bielsa mastered this when Leeds United manager, playing Kalvin Phillips in front of the defence, with a four-man midfield ahead of him. Philips was able to shut down opposition attacks and spread the ball fast out wide, to where Leeds could sting.
The tactic requires a fit and willing midfield that will help muck in alongside the sole anchorman, and then support the single forward up top.
4-2-3-1 – England
Gareth Southgate has a more cautious approach to 4-1-4-1, by pulling another midfielder in to cover centrally but giving the rest more attacking license. With Declan Rice and one other midfielder sitting tight, the aim is to deploy England’s rapid forwards to carry the ball to the box, where Harry Kane awaits.
The system works very well against similarly-matched sides because defensively England are fairly solid. The shortcoming arises when England face a deep-lying opponent but Southgate opts not to release one of his defensive midfielders.
3-5-2 – England Women
England started out playing 4-4-2 under Serena Weigman but by the 2023 Women’s World Cup had switched to a 3-5-2. The aim is to overlap on the flanks to draw attacking wing-backs Lucy Bronze and Rachel Daly into the game. Likewise, the pair could fall back and help defend.
Defensively the system works. England suffered only their second ever defeat under Weigman in the World Cup final to Spain. The system also helps the attack that now doesn’t have a big poacher in Ellen White to hit.
What is the best formation in football?
There is no perfect formation in football, which is why the game is so exciting and great to bet on. A team is usually successful because they implement their game plan, rather than because they are badly set up. Football is consistently evolving and, when one formation or style becomes vogue, teams either adopt it or adapt. So, whether it’s hoof ball or tiki-taka, it can be just as effective.
Football formations and betting
When it comes to the best formation football betting fans are usually split between attacking and defensive set-ups. While some form of 4-3-3 has been the vogue for the past 15 years or so, managers tend to reshuffle their pack depending on whether they need more defensive options or want to attack.
And this plays into football betting. Backing the underdogs that set out with an attacking 4-1-4-1 formation could be risky as they may become exposed when gunning forward, and be vulnerable to the counter.
Likewise, big favourites that set up in a 3-5-2 system – like the Lionesses often now do – is likely to shorten their odds of winning a match, and certainly alter the total goals markets. It’s always worth checking both formations ahead of a game and seeing how the teams will match up, before placing your bet.