Previously, I wrote about how your style of play is the most important factor in determining how your team plays, and that your system (or formation) doesn’t make much difference. However, once your team begins to understand and consistently, successfully implement your style of play, making adjustments to your system can create slight variations to your style’s effectiveness.
There are two primary ways that systems affect style:
1. Player mentality
2. Dynamics of movement
One of the biggest affects a formation has is simply based on how people view it. By playing with 5 backs, people will automatically think of the system as a defensive one, whereas playing with 4 forwards will get people into an attacking mentality. This is why some coaches will decide to call it a 4-5-1 instead of a 4-3-3. When you look at these two formations (Figure 1), they are almost identical (just a difference in positioning of the wingers by a few yards), and when implemented in a match, they pretty much play exactly the same way. However, by determining that you have five midfielders instead of three (and one forward instead of three), your players will be in less of an attacking mindset.
This also affects individual players. Using the above example, the two wingers are the most affected by the change. In calling the system a 4-3-3, these wingers will view themselves as pure attackers and may not hold themselves as accountable defensively. If you call it a 4-5-1, they will see themselves as midfielders and recognize that they should be getting back and have more of a defensive obligation.
Depending on the players on your team, this can also have a positive or negative effect on their enthusiasm. For instance, I once played with someone who, for some reason, didn’t think highly of playing as a striker. He was one of the best players I ever played with and, in both my and our coach’s opinion, was best suited as a striker. But for some reason, he felt this was a demotion of sorts (perhaps he felt strikers didn’t have as much responsibility or didn’t touch the ball as much). Therefore, instead of playing a 4-4-2, our coach called it a 4-4-1-1, saying that this player was an attacking midfielder (playing the number 10 role – the first “1”). Our coach had us playing a certain style and gave specific instructions to this player that, for all intents and purposes, made him a striker. But in this player’s mind, he was a midfielder, so he was happy and enjoyed his football. Had our coach called this player a striker in a 4-4-2 (as he did originally), this player would have become distraught.
The idea of changing the name of the formation or the positions within it to affect the outlook of our players may seem like an obvious one, but it is subtle details like this that can make a huge difference.
Dynamics of Movement
From a more tactical perspective, systems affect style very subtly by changing the dynamics and patterns through which our players run. In our previous post about style, we illustrated how a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 playing the same style will look almost identical. We used the two images below:
As you can see, based on where the right back has the ball, the rest of our players move into supporting positions that create very similar pictures in both formations. These illustrations show where we want our players to be when the right back is ready to play the ball. They do not illustrate the movement that these players took to get there. And that is where these systems differ. Take a look at Figure 2 and 3 below.
These show the differences in movement by our players. In a 4-3-3, the number 9 (target forward) simply slides across to provide a second high option, leaving space for the number 10 (attacking midfielder) to make a run forward in behind him. This differs from the 4-4-2 in which the number 9 checks to the ball (taking the place of what would be the number 8 in a 4-3-3) and the number 10 stays high, acting as both a second high option for the number 2 and a possible runner forward. We also see a big difference in the number 8’s role. In the 4-3-3, he makes just a small adjustment to provide a close, forward option for the number 2, but in the 4-4-2, he slides across the field acting as more of a 3rd attacker who can make a run forward in behind the number 10.
As I will always preach, your style is number one. It is the most important in determining how your team plays. The above concepts are almost meaningless if your team cannot execute a cohesive style of play. But once they can, considering the system through which you execute your style of play can make the subtle differences needed to produce the desired result of a match.