When we talk about defensive football (soccer) or defensive formations in football (soccer), it is usually associated with an aggressive game, without much offensive intention or with a fairly conservative approach to football.

This is partly real since these approaches focus on prioritizing the defensive phase of the game. Although it must always be borne in mind that all teams must have an offensive phase. Often, downplaying the typical aesthetic spectacle that the beautiful game has in that particular regard.

How well a team defends is about team organisation and timing of movements to close gaps, cut off the opposing game, and recovers the ball.

Next we are going to present the main defensive formations in football:

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The 3-5-2

defensive formations in football

A formation that was popularized by Carlos Bilardo when he successfully led Argentina to the 1986 FIFA World Cup. At that time, the Argentinian manager observed that most teams played with two forwards. Hence, it was not necessary to use a line of 4 defenders and with a line of 3 defenders it was enough.

Why is the 3-5-2 a Good Defensive Football (Soccer) Formation?

Of the 5 midfielders, 2 were wing backs, who gave depth to the attack. They were also very important when retreating and forming a line of 5 defenders when necessary. Of the two attackers, one had more freedom, in that case it was Maradona, while the other was a more static striker. This system is currently being used by Antonio Conte who has taken it to all the teams he has directed.

This formation transitions to a 5-3-2 or a 5-2-3 depending on the gameplan.

The 5-4-1

defensive formations in football

It is in theory one of the most defensive formations in football where many defenders gather and additionally the midfield is populated. Currently, the use of this formation is less common. However, it has some very notorious success stories such as the Red Star of Belgrade. When they managed to win the 1991 UEFA Champions League with great players such as Sinisa Mihajlovic.

Another team that achieved European glory, in this case at the national team level, was Greece at the 2004 Euro Cup. German Otto Rehhagel used the 5-4-1 formation to lift the trophy. This team prioritized the defensive facet.

Why is the 5-4-1 a Good Defensive Football (Soccer) Formation?

Mostly taking advantage of counter attacks, corners and free-kicks to score the goals required, using players with great physicality and heading.

This formation stuffs both the defence and the midfield, which makes it very difficult for the opponent to pass through. However, this creates a bit of a stagnation when it come to scoring and creating scoring opportunities.

This is because players need to be very well organised and good tactically to be able to take advantage of the mishaps which the opposing team might do.

The 5-2-1-2

5212 Football Formation

It is one of those defensive formations in football which can offer significant defensive strength, and at the same time considerable offensive power. This is exemplified by Gianpiero Gasperini’s Atalanta. While they have impressed everyone with their attacking prowess, it is important to mention that it is based on a robust defence.

Why is the 5-2-1-2 a Good Defensive Football (Soccer) Formation?

The system proposes a line of 5 defenders with two full backs supported by two midfielders with mixed characteristics; that are the ones that give freedom to the three attackers who usually have autonomy of movement. Due to its base in the old catenaccio, it is a formation that is more common to see in Italian football.

This would be very versatile when counter attacking situations. Having 3 main attacking players could open up the formation to a 3-4-3. However, this requires very aware and technical defenders to make this work.

Still though a very versatile and technically open formation to play with.

The 4-4-2

442 Football Formation

In this case, it’s all about being solid and compact, taking advantage of the two lines of 4, both in defence and midfield, to close the spaces to the rival team. The variation in this formation is in the wing midfielders since these can be, as in the case of Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid, two central midfielders or they can be players with natural winger characteristics.

Why is the 4-4-2 a Good Defensive Football (Soccer) Formation?

However, regardless of which of the two options is used, these players must make a huge physical sacrifice. This being they have the obligation to help their team’s full backs in defence by marking opposing full backs or double-marking opposing wingers.

The Argentinian’s team is the main flagship of this formation to use it as one of the most defensive formations in football. Simeone himself claims the team’s success is more down to the players than the system itself.

This is the standard base of all formations. It could be formed to any formation you’d like. However, its a bit limited due to being a bit flat. However, this formation could transition from a 5-4-1 (with a sweeper) as a defensive formation; to a 4-4-2 (midfielders to position as diamond) or a 4-2-2-2 to attack.

The 4-3-3

433 Defensive Football Formation

This formation is often related to offensive and spectacular football. However. it depends on the players that are used within said system. More speecifically, on the characteristics of the 3 midfielders. For example, in 2011, in a match between Real Madrid (coached by Jose Mourinho) and FC Barcelona (coached by Pep Guardiola), both teams used a 4-3-3 formation.

Why is the 4-3-3 a Good Defensive Football (Soccer) Formation?

One of Los Blancos’ midfielders was Pepe, a central defender, with Xabi Alonso, a classic deep lying playmaker and Khedira, a box-to-box. On the other hand, the Catalonian club used Busquets, a deep lying playmaker. Whilst Xavi was deployedas  a central midfielder and Andres Iniesta, as an advanced playmaker. The intention of the Portuguese manager was to use Pepe, personally marking Messi. As well as to help recover balls in the midfield, that would allow counter attacks to start.

Furthermore, this could be facilitated by transitioning to a 4-3-3 deep lying formation. This means that you’d have 2 CDMs and the 2 wingers falling to join the midfield essentially creating a 4-2-3-1.

Expanding on the 4-5-1 & 4-2-3-1

4231 Football formation

It is one of the most used formations today. The connotation of the team’s game, varies depending on the players and the idea that the manager wants to implement. One of the current top representatives of this formation, is Rafa Benítez.

During his long career as a manager, has been characterised by forming teams that concede few goals. In the case of the Spanish manager, seeks that one of the full backs has more offensive characteristics. This enable one to attack, whilst the other remains back, forming a “line of 3” with the 2 centre backs.

The 4-3-1-2

4312 football formation

Among the defensive formations in football there is another of those formations that can be taken as offensive or defensive. Similarly to others, it depends on the characteristics of the players and the idea implemented. Carlo Ancelotti was one of the main supporters of this formation with his AC Milan side.

That midfield had mixed characteristics that allowed it to help offensively and defensively. This formation was used by Marcelo Lippi in Juventus and especially in the Italy national team that became world champions in 2006.

Why is the 4-3-1-2 a Good Defensive Football (Soccer) Formation?

Having essentially 4 defenders and 3 defensive midfielders closes as much gaps as possible against the opposing team. This however, would need to have the attacking midfielder running up and down, tiring the no.10 quite a lot.

Having said that, it is quite versatile when it come to attacking. Having good full backs would help a lot as this formation could become a 2-3-3-1 when attacking(I know this sound strange however, it does pay off when it works out).

The 5-3-2 & The 5-2-3

If you’re winning a game and you’d like to save the win, this is the way to go. Both formations offer similar coverage in defence and similar in offence.

Why are the 5-2-3/5-3-2 Good Defensive Football (Soccer) Formations?

These offer great suffocating coverage. By stuffing the defence and the midfield with players, this limits the option of passing for the opposing team. These formations are usually transitioned to when winning a game and you’d like to protect the result.

Furthermore, these formations offer great cover when attacking as you could exploit counter attacks. This is mainly possible if you’ve got great wingbacks (when using a 5-3-2), however, if you’ve got good ball playing defenders, counter attacks using these formations are key to attacking.

What is the Greatest Defensive Formation in Football (Soccer)?

This is highly situational. If you’re starting the game against a strong team we would start with a 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 (defensive).

If you need to attack but you need to be a bit protective, use the 4-3-3.

If you need to protect the score we’d go with a 5-2-3 as you could counter attack in a very versatile manner.

Conclusion

With this list, we mentioned the 11 main defensive formations in football. It can be concluded that the formation itself does not indicate how defensive a tactic is. The approach you give to the tactic is what will really define whether the team will play offensively or defensively.

On the other hand, beyond the perception that is usually had of the teams that prioritize protecting their goal. The reality is that when these strategies are applied correctly, very good results are given and in some cases, historical.

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