The offensive game, focused on reaching the rival’s box to create chances and score goals. It creates a pleasant viewing for the spectator and is a path that some managers consider the appropriate one. Others, having a more romantic perspective, see it as the correct way to practice this sport. Although historically there have been attacking formations in football much more offensive than those that we are going to explain below, they are tactics that have been in disuse, which used 4, 5 or 6 strikers. Our list focuses on the attacking formations in football that are applied today. Here are the 10 most outstanding formations:
Possibly the attacking formation in football most related to this type of game, due to the ancestry it has from Dutch football and particularly with Total Football. Following the success of Guardiola’s FC Barcelona, the 4-3-3 began to have a new golden age. In addition, managers such as Ten Hag at Ajax, and Klopp at Liverpool, are exponents of this formation.
The formation has a classic line of 4 defenders with 2 full backs that they usually use offensively simultaneously, taking advantage of the fact that one of the midfielders, the deep lying playmaker, is delayed to help in defence. This midfielder is usually the link between defence and midfield. The other 2 midfielders have mixed characteristics to support the 2 wingers who play open in attack. One of the variants that are usually included is to use inside forwards instead of wingers. That is, placing a left-footed player on the right and vice versa, so that he is well-placed for the shot.
A particular case that took the 4-3-3 to the extreme in terms of attacking formations in football, was Zdenek Zeman. He was a manager who spent most of his career in Italy. He was always known to deploy teams that were very offensive that scored many goals but also conceded many.
This formation, widely used at the beginning of the century, was, in part, the “culprit” of the disappearance of the classic enganche. The enganche is a player who occupies the space between midfielders and strikers. Recently, the Portuguese manager Jorge Jesus used the 4-4-2 with the Brazilian club Flamengo. With this formation he won the 2019 Copa Libertadores along with all the local tournaments in a period of one year. In the Rio de Janeiro club, Jesus lined-up a line of 4 defenders who supported Diego Alves. This was a section of the team with a lot of experience, meaning they could interpret when to go up to attack and when to maintain position.
In midfield, one of them had a more defensive and recovery-based role. This role gave attacking freedom to Gerson, De Arrascaeta and Everton Ribeiro who enabled 2 strikers.. This 4-4-2 can be considered one of the most attacking formations in football thanks to the solidity of the players with defensive responsibilities that allow the attackers to have the peace of mind to fulfil in the offensive facet.
Another of the most common attacking formations in football, which has been used by managers like Mauricio Pochettino in his last spell at Tottenham or by Hans-Dieter Flick at Bayern Munich, champion of the 2020 UEFA Champions League. Along with the line of 4 defenders, there are 2 midfielders with similar characteristics to those mentioned in a 4-4-2. In the next line of the team, there are 3 players who can be 2 wingers and an advanced playmaker. A great example is that of Bayern Munich with Gnabry, Perisic and Muller. Another variation of it, is the use of 3 advanced playmakers as in the case of Tottenham, where Eriksen played along Dele and Lamela. The striker is usually a classic forward as we can see in the aforementioned teams with Lewandowski and Kane.
This formation is less common than the rest of those mentioned in this list of attacking formations in football. However, we get a recent example of its successful use in Europe. More specifically, in Real Madrid a couple of years ago, when Zidane was lining a back four with 2 centre backs who know how to build up the attack like Varane and Sergio Ramos, the Spaniard is a specialist in the offensive facet. The full backs, Carvajal and Marcelo, also with a marked offensive vocation.
In front of the defence was Casemiro, who had a defensive midfielder function that made him the most important player in the scheme since he was the one who covered the spaces left by the rest of his teammates. In midfield, Toni Kroos had a more static position next to Modric who was the one who supported the most in attack and Isco behind the strikers who were Cristiano Ronaldo, who had freedom of movement and Benzema.
It is one of the least used on the list, although very useful for goal-scoring. In essence, it is very similar to a 4-4-2. The only difference being that 2 of the midfielders are advanced playmakers who play behind the strikers. They tend to play in a more centralized way, which leaves the sides free for the full backs. In 2006, the Brazil national team used this formation with Roberto Carlos and Cafú as full backs. Attacking-wise, Ronaldinho and Kaká as advanced playmakers, and Ronaldo with Adriano in attack.
It is one of those attacking formations in football that are markedly related to a particular manager, in this case with Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentinian who currently coaches Leeds United, recently promoted to the Premier League. With the 3-3-3-1, Bielsa takes advantage of the numerical superiority in most areas of the pitch. It allows a rapid recovery of the ball and in turn gives his players more passing options. Meaning that it favours his idea of a fast, vertical game.
Arsenal’s new manager, Mikel Arteta, has implemented this system as the tactic he has used with the Gunners. In their back three, one of them is Tierney, whose natural position is that of left back, which allows the team to change from a back four or a back five. Additionally, the Scottish player takes advantage when the left wing back, who is usually Kolasinac or Maitland-Niles, centralizes his position, which allows him to go up on that side of the pitch. This along with the backward movement of one of the midfielders, allows an element of surprise without modifying the 3-4-3.
In attack, they play 3 forwards whose main characteristic is speed, such as Aubameyang, Pepe or the recently signed Willian. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has also used this formation at times at Manchester United as well as Rudi Garcia at Olympique Lyon.
Although it looks like a defensive formation, this is one of the attacking formations in football. This formation has a big supporter in current Lazio manager, Simone Inzaghi. The Italian manager uses a scheme where the back three remains fixed with 2 relatively static wing backs. The Serbian Milinkovic-Savic plays a very important role as a Box to Box midfielder. Further forward, Luiz Alberto plays an advanced playmaker supporting Joaquín Correa who plays freely behind sole striker, Ciro Immobile. With this formation, Lazio was the third team that scored the most goals in the last season of Serie A, above champions Juventus.
Also known as the Christmas tree, it is a formation that AC Milan used at the beginning of the century. It that has also remained within the rich tactical world of modern Italian football. Currently, Maurizio Sarri has been the one who has used it most frequently at the highest level of European football. Sarri uses a line of 4 more advanced than usual with a deep lying playmaker. This player is the one who dictates the team times (Jorginho in his time at Napoli and Chelsea). Having a populated midfield allows the team to have many touches and retain possession, as the Italian manager prefers.
This is a very interesting case that is difficult to locate within an attacking formation, mainly because what Julian Nagelsmann does. He adapts his tactical scheme to the rival. His team manages to go from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-3 and then to a 4-4-2, within the same game and without making any substitutions. This means that each player must be prepared to play in various positions. It is reminiscent of what Total Football in the Netherlands was in 1974. Nagelsmann’s team counteracts the rival attack, and at the same time develops fast-paced football.
It is impossible to choose a formation as the most offensive or the most appropriate to play offensive football. This will depend on the idea of the manager and the players they have, as well as other factors such as the competition where it is played. There are always nuances that end up changing the perception of a certain attacking formation in football. At the end of the day, it’s as Alfio Basile, former Argentina and Boca Juniors manager, says: “I place the players correctly in the formation but then the match starts and they move.”