by James Willis

“It would seem France have finally clicked. The tactics are fascinating. When starting plays, it’s like this: the two centre-backs with Pogba sitting just in front of them to pick up all the balls, and even dropping in a back three in case of pressure. Then there’s the two more dynamic midfielders, Matuidi slightly to the left and Sissoko to the right, with the fullbacks on the same level with them in a line of four. Then there’s Payet wandering around to connect lines and find space, and then Giroud and Griezmann moving off each other like two electrons. But it changes a lot depending on the type of play, as I type this I see them as a straight 4-4-2 when defending.”

It’s the 3rd of July and France are facing Eng Iceland in their Euro 2016 quarter final. A late evening at the Stade de France and everyone has gathered to watch two of the tournament’s most popular teams with two completely contrasting styles. The buzzing, electric play of France facing off against the regimented, organised play of Iceland.

I’ve never put a lot of faith in the way that media outlets display a team’s starting formation, and while joining in with some opinionated chat on the tactical battle going on in this knockout match, it dawns on me; formations are fast becoming an outdated concept in elite football.

Pogba, Matuidi and Sissoko are all given their roles and responsibilities as a three in midfield, but these will change and adapt as the match evolves. All three will have different jobs to do in each of the three phases of play; defence, transition, and attack. While they may have been given specific areas of the pitch in which they are responsible for performing those jobs, simplifying this down to a basic formation fails to give credit to the complexity of a football match.

Iceland, by comparison, were successfully stifling their opponents by what we can understand as a rigid formation. They regularly played with a simple 4-4-2, with each player knowing exactly where to move according to where the ball was on the pitch. It was as though they’d done it thousands of times. This is in stark comparison to a French side that were able to dart around the pitch like a small colony of eleven honey bees.

This isn’t just France though, in fact it’s increasingly common among top level footballers and teams. Dimitri Payet often translates this energy into his play for West Ham, frequently popping up in various areas of the final third and sometimes even dropping back in heavily defensive efforts.

Full backs can often plant themselves in the middle or final thirds during attacking efforts and are often caught chasing back during defensive efforts. Is it then fair to display them in a formation lining up alongside centre backs, who spend their time in a more reserved role in front of the keeper.

All-around strikers are no longer the conventional poachers that we once saw more commonly, either. Strikers with a larger build may be called upon to play deeper and hold up play in the transition phase but then required to break forward once they’ve laid it off. Should a winger have cut inside the pitch, these strikers will often be caught out on the flanks, filling the now vacant role. Perhaps allowing an overlapping run from an attacking minded full back. All of this is completely in contrast to the formations that we see presented to us before every match.

When watching a match analytically, my favoured approach is to break the pitch down into 30 blocks. Three defensive areas and three attacking areas, each of which split again into a central channel, the half spaces and the wide spaces. I label these wide left 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, half left 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, central 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, half right 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and wide right 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.


This allows me to identify which areas of the pitch a player will operate in, throughout various phases of the game. Most interestingly, it becomes easier to identify a player’s various roles in the game, when you can identify which job they’re performing in which block of the pitch. Many fans and coaches will have their own unique methods of analysing player performance across various roles, positions and situations.

While formations do still have a place in the sport, this is diminishing further with each new tactical innovation we see. This, I believe, is the new football. The football in which the simplicity of the “formation” has become marginalised by comparison to the fluidity that we’re now familiar with.