Unlike other sports where surprises are less common or viable, in football, that a considerably inferior team in theory can defeat a stronger or superior team becomes a lot more common when you have one-off matches, where almost anything can happen and it becomes a little more unlikely in two-game qualifiers and it is much more difficult for a small team to win a long championship, like a league. This is what we are going to look at, exemplifying with real cases and the best football formations against a stronger team;
Using the 4-4-2
This tactic is not only common as one of the football formation against a stronger team but it is also one of the most popular in the world of football. One of the main advantages offered by this tactic for the case we are considering is that it allows two lines of 4 to be formed, both in defence and in midfield, which, if used well, can close the spaces to the opposing team.
In the defensive aspect and considering that the rival can use some of the most common formations in current football such as 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, where there is only one natural striker, the 4-4- 2 allows one of the centre backs to make a personal mark on the striker and the other centre back to be free to back him up if necessary. There you would have the full backs marking the opposing wingers and the wingers doing likewise to the full backs of the aforementioned bigger team.
In attack, the wingers would support the two strikers and perhaps one of the midfielders can reach an offensive position in addition to the support of one of the full backs. A disadvantage of 4-4-2 is that since there is no advanced playmaker playing as a liaison between midfield and the forwards, that work falls on one of the central midfielders so that area of the field can be very unprotected, especially at the moment of a counter attack.
Leicester City’s Premier League Miracle
The 2015-16 Premier League champion Leicester City, one of the biggest surprises in football history, used this formation. Importantly, predictions prior to the start of the season indicated that Leicester was not going to finish in qualifying positions for European competitions and also faced world powers such as Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United. In that season, manager Claudio Ranieri, took advantage of the speed of his strikers, Shinji Okazaki and especially, that of Jamie Vardy, to attack through long passes and counter attacks. In the midfield, Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kanté had a role that was more focused on recovery so their positioning was more static and took advantage of the pace and danger that winger Riyad Mahrez gave. Currently, José Bordalás’ Getafe is another representative of this football formation against a stronger team, being one of the surprises in the UEFA Europa League, eliminating the powerful Ajax.
Using the 5-4-1
Possibly the most defensive tactic in this list of football formations against a stronger team, used by the Greece national team when they won the 2004 UEFA Euro Cup and by the Costa Rica national team in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, where they managed to reach the quarterfinals, best historical performance of that country and with the particularity that they did not lose any game (having faced Uruguay, Greece, England and Italy) since they were eliminated on penalties by the Netherlands.
In this case, the idea is to populate the defence and the midfield and use counter attacks as the main offensive medium. At no time the team is left unprotected in defence since the projections towards attack are covered by the teammates, either a midfielder or a wing back. The main disadvantage of using this tactic is that you will have few opportunities to create goal chances and if they are not taken advantage of, it becomes very difficult to achieve victory. Hence, the teams that use this type of strategy tend to strengthen themselves in the set pieces, in order to have a relatively regular medium with which they score goals.
Using the 4-2-3-1
The case of this formation allows a certain flexibility depending on what the team requires since it can become a 4-4-1-1 if the wingers are delayed, helping in the defensive side of things, or it can become a 4-2-1-3 when you want to go deeper into attack. Several examples of success with this formation can be cited that have caused surprises in the world of football.
One that can be considered a mixed success of this formation against superior rivals was that of Bayer Leverkusen of 2002, who reached the final of the 2002 UEFA Champions League while defeating the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool in the process. In that 4-2-3-1, the midfielders gave a lot of versatility because players like Ze Roberto or Bernd Schneider could occupy positions as wing midfielders fulfilling the offensive and defensive functions that manager Klaus Toppmöller asked of them in addition to being able to centralize their position if necessary.
One of the central midfielders was Michael Ballack who had a box to box role who assisted in the creative side of things and Yıldıray Baştürk bombing forwards to the opposition’s box. Another example, a bit more current, is that of Diego Martínez’s Granada CF, a small club in Spain that Martínez himself helped achieve promotion and in his first season in La Liga, he reached seventh place and qualified for the first time the UEFA Europa League.
Using the 5-2-1-2
Recently applied by Gian Piero Gasperini at Atalanta and during much of his career as a manager, this is an interesting football formation against a stronger team, which in the case of Atalanta himself has been very useful both in his Serie A season where they finished third above teams such as AC Milan, Napoli, Lazio and Roma in addition to reaching the quarter-finals in the UEFA Champions League, being eliminated by Paris Saint Germain with a last-minute goal.
The formation consists of a back 5 with wing backs bombing forward to the opposition’s box, as reflected in the 10 goals of the German left wing-back Robin Gosens. Of the 2 central midfielders, one has more defensive functions and is responsible for covering the spaces left by teammates, while the other is more offensive. The player who plays behind the 2 strikers, usually Josip Ilicic, has a lot of freedom, being able to go down to the midfield to get more in touch with the ball when necessary as well as reach the rival box to score goals. In fact, the Slovenian, without playing the last part of the season due to personal problems, managed to be the top goal scorer of the team with 21 goals.
In attack, a combination of a classic striker is used, with Duvan Zapata or Luis Muriel usually being the main options, with a second striker who usually plays alternating the different areas of the offensive front, which is usually Alejandro Gómez, leader in assists in Serie A with 16. It is important to mention that, despite not having the budget and one of the best squads of the league, Atalanta scored 98 goals in Serie A, 17 goals above second in that ranking (Inter) and 22 goals above of the champion, Juventus.
Using the 3-4-3
Finally, to close this list of the best football formations against a stronger team, we have one used by Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo with Wolverhampton, which has helped him achieve a creditable seventh place in the Premier League in the 2019-20 season, considering the level and budget handled by the teams in that league.
Although it is a similar approach to that explained in 5-2-1-2, Wolves do not focus as much on the offensive aspect as it is the case of Atalanta, but rather they take advantage of this 3-4-3 to build a stronger defence and take advantage of the speed of their wingers, the good short and long passes of the midfielders and the finishing of Raúl Jiménez to perform dangerous counter attacks and use their defensive strength to maintain the results. Hence, the Wolverhampton games had few goals because they are a team that receive few goals but they also tend to score very few.
From the list of football formations against a stronger team, it can be concluded that the way to face more powerful teams can vary depending on many factors such as the manager’s idea, the characteristics of the players, etc. In the examples cited throughout the list, teams were taken that not only outperformed stronger teams in a one-off match but also did so against several during a season that achieved unexpected positions or trophies, some with a greater focus on defence and others being much more risky in attack.