A Brief History of The Tactics

Association Football Tactics & Skills

There are various individual skills and team tactics needed to play effective association football (soccer). Football is in theory a very simple game, as illustrated by Kevin Keegan's famous assertion that his tactics for winning a match were to "score more goals than the opposition". However, well-organized and well-prepared teams are often seen beating teams with supposedly more skillful players, even over time. Coaching manuals and books generally cover not only individual skills but tactics as well.

In association football, the formation describes how the players in a team are positioned on the pitch. Different formations can be used depending on whether a team wishes to play more attacking or defensive football.
Formations are used in both professional and amateur football matches. In amateur matches, however, these tactics are sometimes adhered to less strictly due to the lesser significance of the occasion. Skill and discipline on behalf of the players is also needed to effectively carry out a given formation in professional football. Formations need to be chosen bearing in mind which players are available. Some of the formations below were created to address deficits or strengths in different types of players.


In the football matches of the 19th century defensive football was not played, and the line-ups reflected the all-attacking nature of these games.
In the first international game, Scotland against England on 30 November 1872, England played with seven or eight forwards in a 1–1–8 or 1–2–7 formation, and Scotland with six, in a 2–2–6 formation. For England, one player would remain in defense, picking up loose balls, and one or two players would hang around midfield and kick the ball upfield for the other players to chase. The English style of play at the time was all about individual excellence and English players were renowned for their dribbling skills. Players would attempt to take the ball forward as far as possible and only when they could proceed no further, would they kick it ahead for someone else to chase. Scotland surprised England by actually passing the ball among players. The Scottish outfield players were organized into pairs and each player would always attempt to pass the ball to his assigned partner. Ironically, with so much attention given to attacking play, the game ended in a 0–0 draw.

Classic formations

2–3–5 System (Pyramid)

The first long-term successful formation was first recorded in 1880. However, in "Association Football" published by Caxton in 1960, the following appears in Vol II, page 432: "Wrexham ... the first winner of the Welsh Cup in 1877 ... for the first time certainly in Wales and probably in Britain, a team played three half backs and five forwards ..."
The 2–3–5 was originally known as the "Pyramid", with the numerical formation being referenced retrospectively. By the 1890s, it was the standard formation in England and had spread all over the world. With some variations, it was used by most top level teams up to the 1940s.
For the first time, a balance between attacking and defending was reached. When defending, the two defenders (fullbacks), would watch out for the opponent's outside and inside forwards, while the midfielders (halfbacks) would watch for the other three forwards.
The centre halfback had a key role in both helping to organize the team's attack and marking the opponent's centre forward, supposedly one of their most dangerous players.
It was this formation which gave rise to the convention of shirt numbers.

Danubian School

The Danubian School of football is a modification of the 2–3–5 formation as played by the Austrians, Czechs, and Hungarians in the 1920s, and taken to its peak by the Austrians in the 1930s. It relied on short-passing and individual skills. This school was heavily influenced by the likes of Hugo Meisl and Jimmy Hogan, the English coach who visited Austria at the time.

Metodo System (2–3–2–3)

The Metodo was devised by Vittorio Pozzo, coach of the Italian national team in the 1930s. It was a derivation of the Danubian School. The system was based on the 2–3–5 formation, Pozzo realised that his half-backs would need some more support in order to be superior to the opponents' midfield, so he pulled two of the forwards to just in front of midfield, creating a 2–3–2–3 formation. This created a stronger defence than previous systems, as well as allowing effective counter-attacks. The Italian national team won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938 using this system. It has been argued that Pep Guardiola's Barcelona used a modern version of this formation. This formation is also similar to the standard in table football, featuring two defenders, five midfielders and three strikers (which cannot be altered as the "players" are mounted on axles).

WM System

The WM system was created in the mid-1920s by Herbert Chapman of Arsenal to counter a change in the offside law in 1925. The change had reduced the number of opposition players that attackers needed between themselves and the goal-line from three to two. This led to the introduction of a centre-back to stop the opposing centre-forward, and tried to balance defensive and offensive playing. The formation became so successful that by the late-1930s most English clubs had adopted the WM. Retrospectively, the WM has either been described as a 3–2–5 or as a 3–4–3, or more precisely a 3–2–2–3 reflecting the letters which symbolised it. The Gap in the centre of the formation between the two wing halves and the two inside forwards, allowed Arsenal to counter-attack effectively. The W-M was subsequently adapted by several English sides, but none could apply it in quite the same way Chapman had. This was mainly due to the comparative rarity of Alex James in the English game. He was one of the earliest playmakers in the history of the game, and the hub around which Chapman's Arsenal revolved.


The WW was a development of the WM created by the Hungarian coach Márton Bukovi who turned the 3–2–5 WM into a 2–3–2–3 by effectively turning the M "upside down". The lack of an effective centre-forward in his team necessitated moving this player back to midfield to create a playmaker, with a midfielder instructed to focus on defence. This created a 2–3–1–4, which morphed into a 2–3–2–3 when the team lost possession, and was described by some as a kind of genetic link between the WM and the 4–2–4. This formation was successfully used by fellow countryman Gusztáv Sebes in the Hungarian national team of the early 1950s.


The 3–3–4 formation was similar to the WW, with the notable exception of having an inside-forward (as opposed to centre-forward) deployed as a midfield schemer alongside the two wing-halves. This formation would be commonplace during the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the best exponents of the system was the Tottenham Hotspur double-winning side of 1961, which deployed a midfield of Danny Blanchflower, John White and Dave Mackay. FC Porto won the 2005–06 Portuguese national championship using this unusual formation under manager Co Adriaanse.

4–2–4 System

The 4–2–4 formation attempts to combine a strong attack with a strong defence, and was conceived as a reaction to WM's stiffness. It could also be considered a further development of the WW. The 4–2–4 was the first formation to be described using numbers.

While the initial developments leading to the 4–2–4 were devised by Márton Bukovi, the credit for creating the 4–2–4 lies with two different people: Flávio Costa, the Brazilian national coach in the early 1950s, as well as another Hungarian Béla Guttman. These tactics seemed to be developed independently, with the Brazilians discussing these ideas while the Hungarians seemed to be putting them into motion. The fully developed 4–2–4 was only "perfected" in Brazil, however, in the late 1950s.

Costa published his ideas, the "diagonal system", in the Brazilian newspaper O Cruzeiro, using schematics as the ones used here and, for the first time ever, the formation description by numbers as used in this article. The "diagonal system" was another precursor of the 4–2–4 and was created to spur improvisation in players.

Guttmann himself moved to Brazil later in the 1950s to help develop these tactical ideas using the experience of Hungarian coaches.

The 4–2–4 formation made use of the players' increasing levels of skill and fitness, aiming to effectively use six defenders and six forwards, with the midfielders performing both tasks. The fourth defender increased the number of defensive players but mostly allowed them to be closer together, thus enabling effective cooperation among them, the point being that a stronger defence would allow an even stronger attack.

The relatively empty midfield relied on defenders that should now be able not only to steal the ball, but also hold it, pass it or even run with it and start an attack. So this formation required that all players, including defenders, are somehow skilful and with initiative, making it a perfect fit for the Brazilian player's mind. The 4–2–4 needed a high level of tactical awareness, as having only two midfielders could lead to defensive problems. The system was also fluid enough to allow the formation to change throughout play.
4–2–4 was first used with success at club level in Brazil by Palmeiras and Santos, and was used by Brazil in their wins at 1958 World Cup and 1970 World Cup, both featuring Pelé, and Mário Zagallo, the latter of which played in 1958 and coached in 1970. The formation was quickly adopted throughout the world after the Brazilian success.

Common Modern Formations

The following formations are used in modern football. The formations are flexible allowing tailoring to the needs of a team, as well as to the players available. Variations of any given formation include changes in positioning of players, as well as replacement of a traditional defender by a sweeper.


This formation was the most common in football in the 1990s and early 2000s, so well known that it has even inspired a magazine title, FourFourTwo. The midfielders are required to work hard to support both the defence and the attack: typically one of the central midfielders is expected to go upfield as often as possible to support the forward pair, while the other will play a "holding role", shielding the defence; the two wide midfield players must move up the flanks to the goal line in attacks and yet also protect the fullback wide defenders. On the European level, the major example of a team using a 4–4–2 formation was Milan, trained by Arrigo Sacchi and later Fabio Capello, which won three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, and three UEFA Super Cups between 1988 and 1995.

Under Milan's example, it became very popular in Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
More recently, commentators have noted that at the highest level, the 4–4–2 is being phased out in favour of formations such as the 4–2–3–1. In 2010, none of the winners of the Spanish, English and Italian leagues, as well as the Champions League, relied on the 4–4–2. Following England's elimination at the 2010 World Cup by a 4–2–3–1 Germany side, England National Team coach Fabio Capello (who was notably successful with the 4–4–2 at Milan in the 1990s) was criticised for playing an "increasingly outdated" 4–4–2 formation.


A variation of 4–4–2 with one of the strikers playing "in the hole", or as a "second striker", slightly behind their partner. The second striker is generally a more creative player, the playmaker, who can drop into midfield to pick up the ball before running with it or passing to teammates. Interpretations of 4–4–1–1 can be slightly muddled, as some might say that the extent to which a forward has dropped off and separated himself from the other can be debated.


The 4–3–3 was a development of the 4–2–4, and was played by the Brazilian national team in the 1962 World Cup. The extra player in midfield allows a stronger defence, and the midfield could be staggered for different effects. The three midfielders normally play closely together to protect the defence, and move laterally across the field as a coordinated unit. The three forwards split across the field to spread the attack, and may be expected to mark the opposition full-backs as opposed to doubling back to assist their own full-backs, as do the wide midfielders in a 4–4–2. When used from the start of a game, this formation is widely regarded as encouraging expansive play, and should not be confused with the practice of modifying a 4–4–2 by bringing on an extra forward to replace a midfield player when behind in the latter stages of a game.

A staggered 4–3–3 involving a defensive midfielder (usually numbered four or six) and two attacking midfielders (numbered eight and ten) was commonplace in Italy, Argentina, and Uruguay during the 1960s and 1970s. The Italian variety of 4–3–3 was simply a modification of WM, by converting one of the two wing-halves to a libero (sweeper), whereas the Argentine and Uruguayan formations were derived from 2–3–5 and retained the notional attacking centre-half. The national team which made this famous was the Dutch team of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, even though the team won neither.
In club football, the team that brought this formation to the forefront was the famous Ajax team of the early 1970s, which won three European Cups with Johan Cruyff, and Zdenek Zeman with Foggia in Italy during the late 1980s, where he completely revitalised the movement supporting this formation. It was also the formation with which Norwegian manager Nils Arne Eggen won 15 Norwegian league titles.
Most teams using this formation now use the specialist defensive midfielder and Barcelona are the most famous recent example.


A variation of the 4–3–3 wherein a striker gives way to a central attacking midfielder. This formation was adopted by Massimiliano Allegri for the 2010–11 Serie A season for Milan. The formation focuses on the attacking midfielder moving play through the centre with the strikers on either side. It is a much narrower setup in comparison to the 4–3–3 and is usually incredibly dependent on the "1" to create chances.

4–4–2 diamond or 4–1–2–1–2

The 4–4–2 diamond (also described as 4–1–2–1–2) staggers the midfield. The width in the team has to come from the full-backs pushing forward. The defensive midfielder is sometimes used as a deep lying playmaker. Its most famous example was Carlo Ancelotti's Milan, which won the 2003 UEFA Champions League Final and made Milan runners-up in 2005. Milan was obliged to adopt this formation so as to field talented central midfielder Andrea Pirlo, in a period when the position of offensive midfielder was occupied by Rui Costa and later Kaká. This tactic was gradually abandoned by Milan after Andriy Shevchenko's departure in 2006, progressively adopting a "Christmas Tree" formation.


The 4–1–3–2 is a variation of the 4–1–2–1–2 and features a strong and talented defensive center midfielder. This allows the remaining three midfielders to play farther forward and more aggressively, and also allows them to pass back to their defensive mid when setting up a play or recovering from a counterattack. The 4–1–3–2 gives a strong presence in the forward middle of the pitch and is considered to be an attacking formation. Opposing teams with fast wingers and strong passing abilities can try to overwhelm the 4–1–3–2 with fast attacks on the wings of the pitch before the three offensive midfielders can fall back to help their defensive line.Valeriy Lobanovskiy is one of the most famous exponents of the formation, using it with Dinamo Kyiv, winning three European trophies in the process. Another example of the 4–1–3–2 in use was the English national team at the 1966 FIFA World Cup, managed by Alf Ramsey.

4–3–2–1 (the "Christmas Tree" formation)

The 4–3–2–1, commonly described as the "Christmas Tree" formation, has another forward brought on for a midfielder to play "in the hole", so leaving two forwards slightly behind the most forward striker.

Terry Venables and Christian Gross used this formation during their time in charge of Tottenham Hotspur. Since then the formation has lost its popularity in England. It is however most known for being the formation Carlo Ancelotti utilized on and off during his time as a coach of Milan.

In this approach, the middle of the three central midfielders act as a playmaker while one of the attacking midfielders plays in a free role. However, it is also common for the three midfielders to be energetic shuttlers, providing for the individual talent of the two attacking midfielders ahead.The "Christmas Tree" formation is considered a relatively narrow formation and depends on full-backs to provide presence in wide areas. The formation is also relatively fluid. During open play, one of the side central midfielders may drift to the flank to add additional presence.


This formation has three central defenders (possibly with one acting as a sweeper.) This system is heavily reliant on the wing-backs providing width for the team. The two wide full-backs act as wing-backs. It is their job to work their flank along the full length of the pitch, supporting both the defence and the attack.

5–3–2 with Sweeper or 1-4-3-2

A variant of the 5–3–2, this involves a more withdrawn sweeper, who may join the midfield, and more advanced full-backs.


Using a 3–4–3, the midfielders are expected to split their time between attacking and defending. Having only three dedicated defenders means that if the opposing team breaks through the midfield, they will have a greater chance to score than with a more conventional defensive configuration, such as 4–5–1 or 4–4–2. However, the three forwards allow for a greater concentration on attack. This formation is used by more offensive-minded teams. The formation was famously used by Liverpool under Rafael Benitez during the second half of the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final to come back from a three goal deficit.


This formation is similar to 5–3–2 except that the two wingmen are oriented more towards the attack. Because of this, the central midfielder tends to remain further back in order to help prevent counter-attacks. It differs from the classical 3–5–2 of the WW by having a non-staggered midfield. It was used for the first time at international level by the Argentine coach Carlos Bilardo. Terry Venables notably used this formation (along with a 4–1–2–1–2) during England's campaign in Euro 96, with Gareth Southgate or Paul Ince acting as defensive midfielder. Many teams also use a central attacking midfielder and two defensive midfielders, so the midfielders form a W formation. Sebastião Lazaroni used this formation for Brazil during the unsuccessful participation to the 1990 FIFA World CupCesare Prandelli used this formation for the Italian national team in the UEFA Euro 2012 Group C game against Spain, with some commentators seeing Daniele De Rossi as a sweeper.



This uncommon modern formation focuses on ball possession in the midfield. In fact, it is very rare to see it as an initial formation, as it is more useful for maintaining a lead or tie score. Its more common variants are 3–4–2–1 or 3–4–3 diamond, which use two wingbacks. The lone forward must be tactically gifted, not only because he or she focuses on scoring but also on playing the ball back towards the own goal to assist with back passes to his teammates. Once the team is leading the game, there is an even stronger tactical focus on ball control, short passes and running down the clock. On the other hand, when the team is losing, at least one of the playmakers will more frequently play in the edge of the area to add depth to the attack. Guus Hiddink is one of the few coaches who has used this formation, recently for Australia during the 2006 FIFA World Cup.



4–5–1 is a defensive formation; however, if the two midfield wingers play a more attacking role, it can be likened to 4–3–3. The formation can be used to grind out 0–0 draws or preserve a lead, as the packing of the centre midfield makes it difficult for the opposition to build-up play. Because of the "closeness" of the midfield, the opposing team's forwards will often be starved of possession. Due to the lone striker, however, the centre of the midfield does have the responsibility of pushing forward as well. The defensive midfielder will often control the pace of the game. Dick Advocaat used the very same formation for the Russian national team twice in the UEFA Euro 2012 Group A tournament: first time in the game against Poland, and second time against Greece.



This formation is widely used by Spanish, French and German sides. While it seems defensive to the eye, it is quite a flexible formation, as both the wide players and the full-backs join the attack. In defense, this formation is similar to either the 4–5–1 or 4–4–1–1. It is used to maintain possession of the ball and stopping opponent attacks by controlling the midfield area of the field. The lone striker may be very tall and strong to hold the ball up as his midfielders and full-backs join him in attack. The striker could also be very fast. In these cases, the opponent's defense will be forced to fall back early, thereby leaving space for the offensive central midfielder. This formation is used especially when a playmaker is to be highlighted.

At the international level, this formation is used by the French national team, the Dutch national team and the German national team in an asymmetric shape, and often with strikers as wide midfielders or inverted wingers. The formation is also currently used by Brazil as an alternative to the 4–2–4 formation of late 1950s to 1970. Implemented similarly to how original 4–2–4 was used back then, use of this formation in this manner is very offensive, creating a six-man attack and a six-man defense tactical layout. The front four attackers are arranged as a pair of wide forwards and a playmaker forward who play in support of a lone striker. Mário Zagallo also considers the Brazil 1970 football team he coached as pioneers of 4–2–3–1.

In recent years with full-backs having ever more increasing attacking roles, the wide players (be they deep lying forwards, inverted wingers, attacking wide midfielders) have been tasked with the defensive responsibility to track and pin down the opposition full-backs.


A highly unconventional formation, the 4–6–0 is an evolution of the 4–2–3–1 in which the centre forward is exchanged for a player who normally plays as a trequartista (that is, in the 'hole'). Suggested as a possible formation for the future of football, the formation sacrifices an out-and-out striker for the tactical advantage of a mobile front four attacking from a position that the opposition defenders cannot mark without being pulled out of position.Owing to the intelligence and pace required by the front four attackers to create and attack any space left by the opposition defenders, however, the formation requires a very skilful and well-drilled front four. Due to these high requirements from the attackers, and the novelty of playing without a proper goalscorer, the formation has been adopted by very few teams, and rarely consistently. As with the development of many formations, the origins and originators are uncertain, but arguably the first reference to a professional team adopting a similar formation is Anghel Iordănescu's Romania in the 1994 World Cup Round of 16, when Romania won 3–2 against Argentina. The first team to adopt the formation systematically was Luciano Spalletti's Roma side during the 2005–06 Serie A season, mostly out of necessity as his "strikerless" formation, and then notably by Alex Ferguson's Manchester United side in the 2007–08 Premier League season (who won the Premier League and Champions League that season). The formation was unsuccessfully used by Craig Levein's Scotland vs Czech Republic to widespread condemnation. At UEFA Euro 2012, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque used the 4–6–0 for his side's 1–1 group stage draw versus Italy and their 4–0 win versus Italy in the final of the tournament.



This is a particularly defensive formation, with an isolated forward and a packed defence. Again, however, a couple of attacking fullbacks can make this formation resemble something like a 3–6–1. One of the most famous cases of its use is the Greek National Team.



The 1–6–3 formation was first utilised by Japan at the behest of General Yoshijirō Umezu in 1936. Famously, Japan defeated the heavily favoured Swedish team 3–2 at the 1936 Olympics with the unorthodox 1–6–3 formation, before going down 0–8 to Italy. The formation was dubbed the "kamikaze" formation sometime in the 1960s when former US national team player Walter Bahr used it for a limited number of games as coach of the Philadelphia Spartans to garner greater media and fan attention for the struggling franchise.


4–2–2–2 (Magic Rectangle)

Often referred to as the "Magic Rectangle" or "Magic Square". It's been used in France in the 80s and a whole generation, for Brazil with Telê Santana, Carlos Alberto Parreira and Vanderlei Luxemburgo, by Arturo Salah and Manuel Pellegrini in Chile and Francisco Maturana in Colombia. The "Magic Rectangle" is formed by combining two box-to-box midfielders with two deep-lying ("hanging") forwards across the midfield. This provides a balance in the distribution of possible moves and adds a dynamic quality to midfield play. This formation was used by former Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini and met with considerable praise. Pellegrini had also used this formation whilst at Villarreal. The formation is closely related to a 4–2–4 previously used by Fernando Riera, Pellegrini's mentor, and that can be traced back to Chile in 1962 who (may have) adopted it from the Frenchman Albert Batteux at the Stade de Reims of 50s. Also before in the Real Madrid, this formation was most infamously used by Wanderley Luxemburgo during his failed stint at Real Madrid in the latter part of the 2004–05 season and throughout the 2005–06 season. This formation has been described as being "deeply flawed" and "suicidal". Luxemburgo is not the only one to use this although it had been used earlier by Brazil in the early 1980s. At first Telê Santana, then Carlos Alberto Parreira and Vanderlei Luxemburgo proposed basing the "Magic Rectangle" on the work of the wing backs. The rectangle becomes a 3–4–3 on the attack because one of the wing backs moves downfield. In another sense, the Colombian 4–2–2–2 is closely related to the 4–4–2 diamond of Brazil, style different from the French-Chilean trend and is based on the complementation of a box-to box with 10 classic. Emphasizing the triangulation but especially in the surprise of attack, The 4–2–2–2 formation consists of the standard defensive four (right back, two centre backs, and left back), with two centre midfielders, two support strikers, and two out and out strikers. Similar to the 4–6–0, the formation requires a particularly alert and mobile front four to work successfully. The formation has also been used on occasion by the Brazilian national team, notably in the 1998 FIFA World Cup final.



The 3–3–1–3 was formed of a modification to the Dutch 4–3–3 system Ajax had developed. Coaches like Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruyff brought it to even further attacking extremes and the system eventually found its way to FC Barcelona, where players such as Andrés Iniesta and Xavi were reared into 3–3–1–3's philosophy. It demands intense pressing high up the pitch especially from the forwards, and also an extremely high defensive line, basically playing the whole game inside the opponents' half. It requires incredible technical precision and rapid ball circulation since one slip or dispossession can result in a vulnerable counter-attack situation. Cruyff's variant relied on a flatter and wider midfield, but van Gaal used an offensive midfielder and midfield diamond to link up with the front three more effectively. Marcelo Bielsa has used the system with some success with Argentina's and Chile's national teams and is currently one of the few high-profile managers to use the system in competition today. Diego Simeone had also tried it occasionally at River Plate.


The Triple Three-One system is very attacking formation and its compact nature is ideally suited for midfield domination and ball possession. It means a coach can field more attacking players and add extra strength through the spine of the team. The attacking three are usually two Wing-Backs or wide Midfielders with the central player of the three occupying a Central Attacking Midfield (CAM) or Second Striker role behind the Centre Forward. The Midfield three consists of two Centre Midfielders (CM) ahead of one Central Defensive Midfielder (CDM) or alternatively one CM and two CDM's. The defensive three can consist of 3 Centre Backs (CB) or one CB with a Full Back either side.
The 3–3–3–1 formation was used by Marcelo Bielsa's Chile in the 2010 World Cup, with three centre backs coupled with two wingbacks and a holding player, although a variation is the practical hour glass, using three wide players, a narrow three, a wide three and a centre-forward.


The somewhat unconventional 4–2–1–3 formation was developed by José Mourinho during his time at Internazionale including in the 2010 UEFA Champions League Final. By using captain Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso in holding midfield positions, he was able to push more players to attack. Wesley Sneijder filled the attacking midfield role and the front three operated as three strikers, rather than having a striker and one player on each wing. Using this formation, Mourinho won The Treble with Inter in only his second season in charge of the club.

As the system becomes more developed and flexible, small groups can be identified to work together in more efficient ways by giving them more specific and different roles within the same lines, and numbers like 4–2–1–3, 4–1–2–3 and even 4–2–2–2 occur.

Many of the current systems have three different formations in each third, defending, middle, and attacking. The goal is to outnumber the other team in all parts of the field but to not completely wear out all the players on the team using it before the full ninety minutes are up. So the one single number is confusing as it may not actually look like a 4–2–1–3 when a team is defending or trying to gain possession. In a positive attack it may look exactly like a 4–2–1–3.


Incomplete formations

When a player is sent-off (i.e. after being shown a red card or taken off the field due to injury or tactical reasons), the teams generally fall back to defensive formations such as 4–4–1 or 5–3–1. Only when facing a negative result will a team with ten players plays in a risky attacking formation such as 4–3–2 or even 4–2–3. When more than one player is missing from the team the common formations are generally disbanded in favour of either maximum concentration on defence, or maximum concentration on attack.


Catenaccio or The Chain is a tactical system in football with a strong emphasis on defence. In Italian, catenaccio means "door-bolt", which implies a highly organized and effective backline defence focused on nullifying opponents' attacks and preventing goal-scoring opportunities.


The system was made famous by the Franco-Argentine trainer Helenio Herera of Internazionale in the 1960s who used it to grind out small-score wins, such as 1–0 or 2–1, over opponents in their games.

The Catenaccio was influenced by the verrou system invented by Austrian coach Karl Rappan. As coach of Switzerland in the 1930s and 1940s, Rappan played a defensive sweeper called the verrouilleur, who was highly defensive and was positioned just ahead of the goalkeeper. In the 1950s, Nereo Rocco's Padova pioneered the system in Italy where it would be used again by the Internazionale team of the early 1960s.

Rappan's verrou system, proposed in 1932, when he was coach of Servette, was implemented with four fixed defenders, playing a strict man-to-man marking system, plus a playmaker in the middle of the field who played the ball together with two midfield wings.

Rocco's tactic, often referred to as the "real" Catenaccio, was shown first in 1947 with Triestina: the most common mode of operation was a 1–3–3–3 formation with a strictly defensive team approach. With catenaccio, Triestina finished the Serie A tournament in a surprising second place. Some variations include 1–4–4–1 and 1–4–3–2 formations.

The key innovation of Catenaccio was the introduction of the role of a libero ("free") defender, also called "sweeper", who was positioned behind a line of three defenders. The sweeper's role was to recover loose balls, nullify the opponent's striker and double-mark when necessary. Another important innovation was the counter-attack, mainly based on long passes from the defense.

In Herrera's version in the 1960s, four man-marking defenders were tightly assigned to each opposing attacker while an extra sweeper would pick up any loose ball that escaped the coverage of the defenders. The emphasis of this system in Italian football spawned the rise of many top Italian defenders who became known for their hard-tackling, ruthless defending. Defenders such as Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea in the 1970s, Giuseppe Bergomi and Franco Baresi in the 1980s, the famous all-Italian Milan defensive four of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti of the 1990s and 2006 World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta and many others in 2000s formed the backbone of the Italian national team and also played vital roles in the success of their respective Series A clubs.

Zona Mista
Total Football, invented by Rinus Michels in the 1970s, rendered Herrera's version of Catenaccio rather obsolete. In Total Football, no player is fixed in his nominal role; anyone can assume in the field the duties of an attacker, a midfielder or a defender, depending on the play. Man-marking alone was insufficient to cope with this fluid system. Coaches began to create a new tactical system that mixed man-marking with zonal defense. In 1972, Michels' Ajax defeated Herrera's Inter 2–0 in the European Cup final and Dutch newspapers announced the "destruction of Catenaccio" at the hands of Total Football. In 1973, Ajax crushed Cesare Maldini's Milan 6–0 for the European Super Cup in a match in which the defensive Milan system was destroyed by Ajax.

In pure zonal defense, every midfielder and defender is given a particular zone on the field to cover. When a player moves outside his zone, his teammate expands his zone to cover the unmarked area. However, Catenaccio philosophy called for double-marking when dealing with strong players. Zona Mista (Italian for "mixed zone") was created by Enzo Bearzot combining the strength of zonal marking with that of Catenaccio.

In Zona Mista (or Il gioco all'Italiana: "The Game in the Italian style"), there are four defenders. A sweeper is free to roam and assist other defenders. A fullback plays in both defensive and advanced position, typically on the left flank. The two stoppers, who started then to be called "center back", mark their zones. In the midfield, there are defensive midfielder, centre midfielder and the playmaker (the number 10) and a winger who covers typically the right flank and sometimes acts as an additional striker. Zona Mista employs two-prong attack. A centre forward plays upfront. A second striker plays wide to the left (a derivation of Catenaccio's left winger) and drift inside to act as a striker or to cover the playmaker when the playmaker drops into a defensive position.

Zona Mista came to dominate Italian football in the late 1970s and early 1980s and reached its height with the Italian national team in their victory in the 1982 FIFA World Cup. Classy and skillful Gaetano Scirea was the libero, Fulvio Collovati and tough tackling Claudio Gentile the centre backs, Antonio Cabrini the left wingback. Gabriele Oriali played as a holding midfielder, Marco Tardelli centre midfielder and Giancarlo Antognoni as playmaker.

The popularity of Zona Mista, however, eventually led to its undoing as Italian teams became predictable. Hamburg would expose the predictability of this style against Juventus in the 1983 European Cup Final and took control of the game accordingly.

Catenaccio Today

Real Catenaccio is no longer used in the modern football world. Two major characteristics of this style – the man-to-man marking and the libero ("free") position – are no longer in use. Highly defensive structures with little attacking intent is often labeled as Catenaccio, but deviates from the original design of the system. Modern teams have all moved away from man-marking defensive schemes in favor of zonal marking systems. Moreover, the sweeper or libero position has virtually disappeared from the modern game since the 1980s because teams favored deploying the extra man in another area of the pitch.

Many journalists and coaches have called that style of play a brilliant counterattacking style.
Catenaccio is often thought to be commonplace in Italian football; however, it is actually used infrequently by Italian Serie A teams, who instead prefer to apply balanced tactics and formations, mostly 4–3–3 or 3–5–2, The Italian national football team with manager Cesare Prandelli also used the 3-5-2 in their first clashes of UEFA Euro 2012 Group C and then switched to the their 'standard' 4–4–2 formation UEFA Euro 2012 final. Italy's previous coaches, Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, used the Catenaccio at international level, and both failed to reach the top. Italy, under Maldini, lost on penalties at the 1998 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals, while Trapattoni lost early in the second round at 2002 FIFA World Cup and lost at the UEFA Euro 2004 during the first round.
However, Catenaccio has also had its share of success stories. Trapattoni himself successfully employed it in securing a Portuguese Liga title with Benfica in 2005. German coach Otto Rehhagel also used a similarly defensive approach for his Greece national football team in UEFA Euro 2004, going on to win the tournament despite his team being heavy underdogs. Dino Zoff also put Catenaccio to good use for Italy, securing a place in the UEFA Euro 2000 final, which Italy only lost on the "golden goal" rule to France. Likewise, Azeglio Vicini led Italy to the 1990 FIFA World Cup semifinal thanks to small wins in six hard-fought defensive games in which Italy produced little but risked even less, totaling only 7 goals for and none against. Italy would then lose a tight semifinal to Argentina, due in no small part to a similar strategy from Carlos Bilardo, who then went on to lose the final to a much more offensive-minded Germany led by Franz Beckenbauer.

Similarly, when Italy was reduced to 10 men in the 50th minute of the 2006 FIFA World Cup 2nd round match against Australia, coach Marcello Lippi changed the Italian's formation to a defensive orientation which caused the British newspaper The Guardian to note that "the timidity of Italy's approach had made it seem that Helenio Herrera, the high priest of Catenaccio, had taken possession of the soul of Marcello Lippi." It should be noted, however, that the ten-man team was playing with a 4–3–2 scheme, just a midfielder away from the regular 4–4–2.
After the 2006 World Cup, the media picked up the fact that modern international football is becoming increasingly defensive: the number of goals scored in that World Cup was only 147 (an average of 2.297 per match), and the Golden Boot winner Miroslav Klose only scored five goals as opposed to the eight of the previous winner, Ronaldo. Additionally, the 2006 World Cup was the first not to feature any forwards in its official top-three "Best Players".

Total Football

"Total Football" is the label given to an influential tactical theory of association football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. It was pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax from 1969 to 1973, and further used by the Netherlands National Football Team in the 1974 FIFA World Cup. It was invented by Rinus Michels, a famous Dutch football trainer/coach (who was the coach of both Ajax and the Netherlands national team at the time).

In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team's intended organisational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in a nominal position is the goalkeeper.

Total Football's tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them.

During this era Ajax played some of their finest football ever, achieving home wins (46–0–0) for two full seasons (1971–72 and 1972–73), just one defeat in the whole of the 1971–72 season, and celebrating five titles in 1972 (the Netherlands national league, KNVB Cup, European Cup, European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup).



The foundations for Total Football were laid by Hungary which revolutionized the sport in the 1950s, laying the tactical fundamentals of Total Football and dominating international football with the remarkable Golden Team. Jack Reynolds, who was the manager of Ajax from 1915–1925, 1928–1940, and 1945–1947 first witnessed this system and refined the tactical procedures and first wrote of the fluidity of this style.

Rinus Michels, who played under Reynolds, later went on to become manager of Ajax himself and refined the concept into what is known today as "Total Football" , using it in his training for the Ajax squad and the Netherlands national team in the 1970s. It was further refined by Stefan Kovacs after Michels left for Barcelona. Dutch forward Johan Cruyff was the system's most famous exponent.

Although Cruyff was fielded as centre forward, he wandered all over the pitch, popping up wherever he could do most damage to the opposing team. This resulted in a need for a dynamic system like Total Football. Cruyff's teammates adapted themselves flexibly around his movements, regularly switching positions so that the tactical roles in the team were always filled.

Space and the creation of it were central to the concept of Total Football. Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff explained how the team that won the European Cup in 1971, 1972, and 1973 worked it to their advantage: "We discussed space the whole time. Johan Cruyff always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move."

The constant switching of positions that became known as Total Football only came about because of this spatial awareness. "It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch," said Hulshoff. The system developed organically and collaboratively: it was not down to coach Rinus Michels, his successor Stefan Kovacs or Cruyff alone. Cruyff summed up his (Total Football) philosophy: "Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing."

The 1972 European Cup final proved to be Total Football's finest hour. After Ajax's 2–0 victory over Internazionale, newspapers around Europe reported the "death of Catenaccio." The Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad declared: "The Inter system undermined. Defensive football is destroyed."

Michels was appointed for the 1974 FIFA World Cup campaign by the KNVB. Most of the 1974 team were made up of players from Ajax and Feyenoord. However, Rob Rensenbrink was an outsider, having played for clubs in neighboring Belgium, and was unfamiliar with Total Football, although he was selected and adapted well. During the tournament, the Netherlands coasted through their first and second round matches, defeating Argentina (4–0), East Germany (2–0) and Brazil (2–0) to set up a meeting with hosts West Germany.

In the 1974 final, Cruyff kicked off and the ball was passed around Oranje thirteen times before returning to Cruyff, who then went on a rush that eluded Berti Vogts and ended when he was fouled by Uli Hoeneß. The referee awarded the penalty and teammate Johan Neeskens scored from the spot kick to give the Netherlands a 1–0 lead with 80 seconds of play elapsed, and the Germans not even touching the ball. Cruyff's playmaking influence was stifled in the second half of the match by the effective marking of Berti Vogts, while Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, and Wolfgang Overath dominated midfield, enabling West Germany to win 2–1.

The ill-fated Austrian "Wunderteam" of the 1930s is also credited in some circles as being the first national team to play Total Football. It is no coincidence that Ernst Happel, a talented Austrian player in the 1940s and 1950s, was coach in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He introduced a tougher style of play at ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord. Happel managed the Netherlands national team in the 1978 World Cup, where they again finished as runners-up. Hungary also had a big role in laying down the tactical fundamentals of Total Football in the 1950s, dominating international football with the remarkable Golden Team which included legends like captain Ferenc Puskás.

Current use

The term Total Football is often misused to describe any attacking football. In its purest form, Total Football is proactive, not counter-attacking, based on positional interchange and hard pressing. FC Barcelona, Arsenal FC, Athletic Club de Bilbao, AFC Ajax and the Spanish national team play a style of football known as "tiki-taka" that has its roots in Total Football. What later would become known as tiki-taka developed and evolved from the football style propagated by Johan Cruyff during his tenure as manager of Barcelona from 1988 to 1995, This developed and upgraded system has more recently been employed by the Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012-winning Spanish teams of Luis Aragonés and Vicente del Bosque, as well as by FC Barcelona under then manager Pep Guardiola. Tiki-taka differs from Total Football in that it puts greater emphasis on ball circulation and passing rather than on positional interchange of players.

Styles of play

Counter-attacking football

The aim of this type of football is to catch the opponent on the "break". When they give away possession in midfield or attack, opposing players will tend to be further up the field than usual and may not be able to quickly adjust to a defensive mindset. Counter-attacking football may involve leaving one or two strikers near the half-way line in the hope that a through ball can be played to catch the opponent off guard. This parallels the long through ball tactic explained below. In the example, an attack by the black team has broken down and ended up in the hands of the white goalie. By kicking a long through ball for the furthermost white player (left up there in the hope of this situation - this is the "break" mentioned above), the player has a chance of scoring as he should have evaded the defense if he is fast enough.

In other cases, defenders and midfielders may join in the counter-attack, trying to outnumber or otherwise overtake the opposition by quick and intelligent movement and fast passes. Speed is an important factor both in offense and defense, as the probability of scoring decreases sharply when the opponent has managed to organize their defense. Chelsea under Jose Mourinho perfected this style of play, and even later, after the manager had long left the team ranks, a strong counter-attack was conclusion to a fortress of a defense. This gameplay was even utilised in 2012 Champions League Semi-Final against Barcelona, in which Chelsea would "park a bus" at the goalpost, and have a lone striker in the form Drogba or Ramires lead the counter-attack which saw them lift the title that year. This type of game was displayed well by the quick, counter-attacking play of Germany in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and heavily utilized by Jose Mourinho's record-breaking Real Madrid in the 2011-12 La Liga.

Possession football

Teams that aim to retain control of the ball over longer periods of time, in the process making a large percentage of passes that give low risk of losing the ball, are said to play possession football. Utilizing this tactic demands players skilful in ball control and precise passing. If successful, it will tire opposing players because they have to run and tackle more. A style of possession football originating from Spain is "tiki-taka", where a large number of primarily short passes are deployed by multiple players of the team before culminating in a definitive strike on the opposing team's goal. It was effectively employed by the UEFA Euro 2008, 2010 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2012 champions Spain, managed by Luis Aragonés and Vicente del Bosque respectively, and the 2008-09 FC Barcelona side managed by Josep Guardiola.

Direct football

More often associated with counter-attacking football than with possession football, direct football means that players spend little time with the ball before passing. In order to achieve this, each player frequently uses only one or two touches. The direct attack is sometimes associated with the long-ball style. Long ball is the term used in association football to describe an attempt, often speculative, to distribute the ball a long distance down the field via a cross, without the intention to pass it to the feet of the receiving player; this technique is especially effective for teams with a tall striker. The Germany national football team and several very well known European club teams play direct football, such as Chelsea FC, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Benfica, Porto and Olympiacos. Despite direct football's contrast to possession football, teams often employ a combination of these styles to get the most out of both tactical philosophies.

Individual skills

Example of individual skill: Brazilian striker Pele moving at speed under pressure, lets a pass run past his opponent, circling around to shoot first time on the other side for a near miss. Official FIFA Technical Reports called the move "audaciously executed, and called for immense skill, timing, judgment and speed."
The importance of a skill depends to an extent on the player's position on the field. Overall, football skills can be divided into four main areas, namely outfield technical, physical, mental and goalkeeping technical abilities.

Technical skills

Physical skills

Mental skills

As the last line of defence, goalkeepers must be able to make quick, athletic saves. Here, the skill of England's Gordon Banks robs Brazil's Pele of a good scoring opportunity in their legendary confrontation. Mexico, 1970

  • Intelligence (game understanding)
  • Vision (ability to see build-up play ahead to others or ability to see a pass or awareness of players around you)
  • Composure (ability to control the game at any critical situation in the match)
  • Leadership (able to guide the youngsters in the field and be able to motivate and inspire others)
  • Communication (can be considered a mental ability)
  • Decision-making (determine in advance what to do)

Goalkeeping skills

  • Jumping (can be considered a physical ability)
  • Agility (can be considered a physical ability)
  • Balance (can be considered a physical ability)
  • Communication (can be considered a mental ability)
  • Goal kicker (can be considered a physical ability)
  • Handling (can be considered a technical ability)
  • Positioning
  • Reflexes (can be considered a mental ability)
  • Throwing (can be considered a physical ability)
  • One on ones


  1. I m a mere fan not that technical actually. I simply love football as it simply look time saving then any other match of one day or five long days and every minute a new excitement is there. For more updates I also take help from the  latest sport news in case I miss some important match.

  2. Who invented modern 4-4-2 formation. Did Germany use this formation and was it successful

    1. Sorry for late reply, according to the article, it seems Arrigo Sacchi invented modern 4-4-2 formation.

  3. Hi, Dearman.
    In recent investigations, I realized that Pyramid system had a zonal marking system, not really some defensive player looking for a specific forward, like in man-marking tactic.
    Before the change in the offside rule, the attaccking quintet, started their action almost in a flat line, close to middle line of the pitch.
    So, the rivals defend with two lines (first the halfback line-3 men, then fullback line-2 men)
    And without much interchange in forwards positions, it was usual that each forward playing in his (outside/inside/central) channel face the opposing halfback first, and after surpassing him, the correspondent back of his side, as last resort.
    Of course, halves not stayed in midfield zone, leaving fullbacks alone, they turn back to defense, when halfback were beaten firstly.

  4. Anonymous9/02/2021

    This is a very good article but would deserved more schemas with arrows.. to better illustrate the tactics and the expected moves of the player.

  5. Anonymous2/25/2022

    It would be nice also to have the greatest player to fit the tactics

  6. Anonymous4/09/2022

    Boris arkadiev, Viktor Maslov should be mentionned in my opinion... and the story of modern formation could be devloped and completed I guess.