American Football – Part VI; Building the System: Formations

Where most of the system is in the player instructions, the formations are designed to create and exploit match-up problems for opposing team. To this end, I have 4 “Base” formations which constitute the core of my various line ups. Well over 90% of my time on the pitch will be in these base formations. After those, I have what I refer to as 3 “Sub” formations as well as 2 “Goal line” formation. The Sub and Goal line formations are used situationally and rarely used as the starting formation when beginning a match. In total, these 9 formations create the tactical adaptability to create the mismatches my system requires.

Before I get into the specific formations, I want to touch on a few reoccurring elements within my formations and how they work in isolation.

3-man attack

The 3-man central attack is extremely effective against unsupported 4-man defenses. Without a DM to defend, the A Gap is ripe for the taking with the SS(a). The DLF(s) is used to man up with inside leverage on one CD, while the other CD is forced to stay out to defend the unrelenting attack of the AF(a). This prevents either CD from tightening up the A Gap and leaves it vulnerable to the SS(a) attacking from the 0,1 zones. Should either CD step up to challenge the SS(a), they release their respective striker to run onto a through ball. If they don’t, the SS(a) gets a free run and shot on goal. If I see a 4 man defense without a DMC, I’m looking here to create a 3v2 in a very dangerous location and then trying to isolate that match-up to prevent the opposing team from bringing in a MC or FB to help.

5-wide attack

The 5-wide attack is the alternative to the 3-man attack and used vs 3-man defenses and DMC. Without a clear path to the A Gap, I have to spread my efforts across the entire defensive line to create favorable 2v1 and 1v1 situations. With this setup, I have 3 roaming attackers (SS(a) & both WA(a)) spread across the width of the field with each looking to get into a different Gap. SS(a) take the A Gap while the WM(a) each focus on their respective B Gap, while the FB(a) take the C Gaps. The defenders are then challenged to keep up with the ball and player movement to try to cover everything at once.

Typically a break though occurs when an outside defender over or under commits to covering a C gap. When they over commit on the C Gap, they free up the B Gap. The WM(a) looks to get the ball into the B Gap and run on goal. When the CD steps up to challenge, he frees up the A Gap attacker for a through ball. If the CD tries to cover, the WM(a) gets a favorable 1v1 and can use their speed to either dribble past them for a shot, cross to a runner in the other B or A Gaps, or pass back into a shooter sitting in space in front of the A Gap. Alternatively, if the outside defender over commits on the B Gap, he will find himself in a tough 2v1 with my overlapping FB(a) getting a free run in space on the C Gap. When the FB(a) gets the ball, the outside defender needs to make a choice, either he closes down my FB(a) in the C Gap – which frees up the WM(a) in the B Gap and creates the situation outlined above – or he leaves the FB(a) to freely cross into the box where I have runners on both posts and in front of goal.

3-man midfield

The DMC(s) pair make this setup. Defensively, the DMC pair sits in front of the defensive line in the 0,1,2 Zones and cover the A,B Gaps, forcing the opposing team to either play into the C Gap on the flanks, or really work hard to get the ball through the midfield.

In attack, it all works because of the “hold position” instruction and the double pivot they create. Positioned on the edge of the 1,2 Zones, they hold position keeps them far enough back that opposing CD cannot step up to challenge them when they have the ball. In turn, this means that they have to be covered by opposing midfielders and the spacing of the DMC(s) on hold position prevents a single midfielder from covering both. But those midfielders are constantly being pulled back to cover the SS(a). The static positioning of the DMC(s) combined with the dynamic movement of the SS(a) and to a lesser extent, WM(a), forces the opposing midfielders to choose between either covering one of the DMC(s) or the movement of the SS(a). Doing either will free up the other and attempting to cover both will just lead to the midfielder being stuck between, not covering either as they pass around him. The end result is that almost always there is a free midfielder with space to receive a pass and redirect the rest of the attack. Additionally, the DMC(s) shift well laterally and support the attacks on the flanks well. They work best when outnumbering the opposing midfield, but can hold their own even if they don’t have numbers in their favor. However, they can struggle in attack vs formations featuring 2 MC and a DMC because of the opposing player’s natural positioning and the static nature of the DMC(s).

4-man midfield

Where the DMC(s) was the key to the 3 man midfield, here it is the BBM(s) pair. They take over all of the responsibilities the DMC(s) had in the 3 man midfield, but are given far more freedom to accomplish it as they can count on the DLP(d) behind them and, more often than not, a numerical advantage to cover any risk they take. They are given license to roam to extend their influence into the 0,1,2,3 zones and also allowed to get into the A,B Gaps if they see an opportunity. On defense, they can aggressively attack the ball and the ball carrier or sit in passing lanes looking for an interception. While many would emphasize maintaining the shape of the diamond, I instead go in the entirely opposite direction and allow them to move and react to the game as they see fit.

Formations

4-4-2 Diamond

Being the most standard of all my formations, this seems like a great place to start. Featuring a 4-man midfield and a 3-man attack, its creates a numerical advantage in two key areas of the pitch. These advantages make it easy to create overloads and double-teams. In return, I only have a single player on each flank, making me vulnerable to the same out wide. In attack, The strikers each look to win a 1v1 with an opposing CD, freeing up the BBM(s) and SS(a) to attack the A & B Gaps. The FB(a) try to prevent the opposing wide defenders from assisting with the B Gap or covering the strikers and punish them with runs and crosses from the C Gap if they do. Defensively, the team looks to clog the central areas and hope that with support from the BBM(s), the FB(a) can hold the flanks.

I often use this formation to counter the 4-2-3-1. The 3-man attack applies aggressive pressure A Gap pressure with a 3v2 and the BBM(s) and FB(a) occupy the opposing midfielders and wide defenders, isolating them from assisting. Defensively, the biggest threat is the opposing wide attackers and getting caught in transition, but even if it does, the DLP(d) stays deep with the CD(d) and even in the worst case, 4v3 on the break, situation, my 3 players are all centrally located to potentially stop a cross or shot. Once the defense gets set, the back 4 has the width and numbers to defend well against the 3 wide attackers and the DLP(d) can form a bracket with a CD to double-team either the striker or AMC. The 3 BBM(s) and SS(a) gets a good matchup with the opposing midfield due to the man advantage and it frees up somebody to go wide or back to assist the defensive line or flanks if needed.

4-4-2 Hybrid

Featuring a 3 man midfield and 5 wide attack, this formation resembles a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. This formation is my most balanced formation and is my go to when nothing else working or I meet an exotic formation that I don’t know how to handle. I build my roster around trying to get my best 11 players into this formation.

Offensively, it aggressively attacks Gaps. The static DLF(s) sits right in the middle of the attack, which makes it significantly harder for opposing teams to defend the movement of the 5 wide attack. If the opposing CDs do not shift in unison to cover the movement, they can free him up for a shot on goal or feed a through-ball to a WM(a) or SS(a) rushing through the gap. His central location also helps ensure he has inside leverage against whatever CD is covering him to make him more effective in the passing game. Defensively, the back 4 have considerable width and the DMC(s) pair offer plenty of cover and depth to the defense through the middle. Particularly the 2 DMC(s) in the middle are tough to play through as they like to bracket advanced attackers in transition with the CD(d) and then step up to aggressively defend the 0,1,2 zones in defense.

4-6-0

This is a strikerless formation combining the 5 wide attack with the 4 man midfield. This formation completely overloads the middle third from sideline to sideline to control action in the other 2 thirds. Defensively, it gets compact and defends in depth by keeping all 10 players behind the ball. This creates numerical advantages to ensure that there are always players in the passing lanes, even if somebody steps up to apply pressure. This allows the team to very effectively defend teams, even if they are significantly more talented.

Where the 4-4-2 Hybrid attacked Gaps, the 4-6-0 attacks the 0,1,2,3 zones in front and behind the LOS. In transition, he team springs up the field resembling a 4-1-2-3 and can put together some aggressive passing sequences without much effort thanks to the compact nature and close support created with the 5 aggressive roaming players moving forward. But while the formation moves through the middle third with ease, it can get struggle turning that into goals and sometimes even just getting the ball to a shooter. The formation lacks a true scorer and can find itself getting bullied by opposing defenders if they are allowed to set their line. For this reason, the team really needs space either in front or behind the LOS to take advantage of, and if given that space, can keep defenders guessing all game.

I find this formation is best used in situations where I am going up against a significantly better team, a team who is going to either very aggressively press, defend very deep, or against 3 CD formations. Up against significantly better teams, the formation brings numbers in defense and midfield allowing me to prevent the opposing team from getting and advancing the ball through both defense and possession, largely nullify the opposing attack. This leaves my team to focus on the task of trying to get that goal or two to get the upset. Versus extremely aggressive or defensive approaches, teams will find that this formation will exploit the space the other team leaves undefended. And with so many players and depth, anybody trying to get the ball forward aggressively against me (whether via attack or counter) is going to find it very tough as I am not giving up any space for them to work. Last, 3 CD formations shrink the A,B Gaps my players are normally looking to exploit. Rather than play into their strength, I play in front or behind it trying to work the zones. This also has the added benefit of giving me an even greater numerical advantage on defense as they are guaranteed to have at least a 3 player disadvantage moving forward.

5-3-2

This is the last of my base formations. It uses a 3 man attack and 3 man midfield and combines it with a 3 man backline to specifically counter the 4-4-2 formation. This gives me a man advantage at every level in the center of the pitch. In defense, the back 3 combine with the 2 DMC(s) in front to bracket both opposing strikers in, making it difficult for the opposing team to finish their attacks. In the midfield, the 3v2 ensures that there is always a free player in space in transition and in the 0,1,2 zones on attack. The 3 man attack can outnumber the 2 CD and get a free player into the A Gap with regularity. And n order to further isolate the CD from the rest of the defense, I use wide midfielders to control the flank. This is because the W(s) aggressively attack the C Gap and the opposing wide players are less apt to leave them in space vs the space they will give to an attacking fullback. This often results in 2v1 against my W(s), which is a bad matchup for the W(s) but is ideal for the team as it allows my central attack to proceed without interference from the wide players.

Obviously, that same 2v1 is a huge liability in defense. For starters, I man-mark my W(s) to the opposing wide midfielders to prevent them from getting stuck trying to switch off between the wide midfielder and fullback in defense. If there is an attacking fullback, then I roll my AF(a) to the side with the attacking fullback and have him set to man-mark that fullback. While none of this creates a great 1v1 in my favor, the simple fact of having a defender marked closely to the opposing wide players will dissuade the opposing team from trying to pass to them. But they will still get beat often and the real flank defense is the stout central defense. When the opposing team tries to attack through the wings before my attacking players can get back to cover, then the CD to the side will step up to at least slow down the attacking winger and force the ball back inside where I still have both strikers bracketed. This time is all my speedy wingers need to get back to their man, and often results in an inception as they force the ball into the double teamed striker. Similarly, when the opposing wide players beat their men and try to get a cross in, they are met with a significant number disadvantage in the box.

The bigger problem is when the 4-4-2 opts to push both FB forward. I can man mark out with the DLF(s) or SS(a) but do that really pulls them out of positions that I need them to be in for my transitions. (As opposed to the AF(a) who is significantly less involved in my transitions.) Instead, I look to my 4-4-2 Left/Right sub formations.

  • 4-4-2 Left/Right

 

This is my first sub formation(s) and is an asymmetrical answer to create a powerful attack on the A Gap and strong-side (side with the WM(a)) B Gap and/or defensively respond to a strong flank attack brought on by the opposing team. Like the 3 man attack that makes its base, it is best used vs a back 4 without a DMC, but adds a WM(a) to get into the B Gap in addition to the pressure on the A Gap. This puts the CD defending the strong-side in a very difficult situation as they are stuck defending the DLF(s) who is sitting in front of them as well as the SS(a) and WM(a) that are trying to run on either side of them. Meanwhile, the AF(a) runs off the weak-side CD and my strong side FB(a) runs off the opposing strong side FB to isolate the strong side CD from any potential help. If the opposing weakside FB is causing problems when I’m defending, then man-marking the AF(a) against him is an easy solution. Its a relatively easy sub formation to get into for any base formation except for the 4-6-0. It is also a useful formation if I do not have both wide-midfielders available but still need a B Gap attack and will occasionally be used as a starting formation in that circumstance.

4-5-1

The other sub formation is a 4-5-1. It uses the 5 wide attack but alters the 3 man midfield slightly to provide an additional player that can attack the 0,1,2 zones and A,B Gap at the expense of one of the DMC(s) and the double pivot. This formation doesn’t offer much of an advantage defensively and because of spacing can allow attackers to work up the field between the central and wide midfielders relatively easily. However, with the 3 central midfielders stacked this way, it does become easy to cut the field in half and trap the ball against the sideline in defense. It is not as effective in protecting the middle but does have some use. This is likely one of my least used formations, but is an easy sub from either the 4-4-2 Hybrid or 4-6-0 and can be very helpful in getting that last little something to break down a stubborn side.

5-5-0

This goal line formation is likely my least used. In my opinion, the best way to protect a lead is to score again, so I am loathed to go back into this formation. Normally I would rather opt for a 4-4-2 Hybrid or 4-6-0 or stick with what had already been working. But sometimes you get that improbable lead and you need to close out those last few minutes and make that defensive stand. In such a case, I park this bus. It works well. The 5 man backline tightens up all the gaps and the 2 DMC(s) keep attackers out of the 0,1,2,3 zones. Meanwhile, 2 players on each flank ensure that the C Gap the 3,4,5 zones aren’t given away easily. With all the Gaps and zones covered redundantly, there really isn’t much space for anything other than a lucky long shot. Offensively it has all the struggles of the 4-6-0, and also lacks all of the movement and support it has. Still, it does have the entire 5 wide attack and the 3 man midfield so it does have all the parts and is just dangerous enough to allow you some time on the ball and give you a creditable counterattacking threat.

2-6-2

At the entire opposite end of the spectrum is this top heavy throwback, which takes the 4-4-2 diamond but trades the fullbacks for wingers and hopes lady luck is in our favor. The attack is simple enough, overload the A Gap with the 3 Man attack, isolate the opposing fullbacks 1v1 in the C Gap in a match-up that should be favorable to my wingers, and the pull until the B Gaps rip open for my BBM(s) to run into.

Defensively, it relies on prayer more than strategy or tactics. Still, the midfield is packed, making playing over the top the best option but even then, I do have a few players back who are good at jumping for those high balls. And when that gets through, and it will, the back 2 are supported by a DLP(d) and they can typically at least get in the way of 1 or 2 players to slow down the opposing attack long enough that somebody might be able to block or tackle the ball off. During all of this, the opposing team has come back out of their end and given me plenty of space to attack back into. This tactic essentially turns the game from an organized sport into a free-for-all ripe with opportunities for lucky bounces, schoolyard shenanigans, and heroic players making impossible plays. It is an edge of your seat roller coaster, but it can and does save games.

1 thought on “American Football – Part VI; Building the System: Formations

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: