The role of formation in tactical game analysis - an overused concept?

Hi folks!

I have a question about tactics. I’ll try to keep it simple and stupid. :wink:

Football analysis has become more and more tactical. Not just here, in the „Rasenfunk“, but everywhere we can read and hear about the „4-2-3-1s“, the „false Nines", the “holding centre-halfs” and so on.

To me, the by far most important aspect in almost every analysis seems to be the basic formation of a team: 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-2-2-2 – you name it. In analysing the game, formation is used for everything. Teams don’t just start in a certain formation, but when a shift in momentum occurs between the two teams in a match, analysts often attribute this to one coach reacting by, say, changing from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 (or what have you) to break the opponent’s dominance. It is often seen as the mark of a good coach that his teams can play several formations proficiently, and interchange fluently between them (e.g. Guardiola, Nagelsmann, Tuchel). Analysts like to refer to formations even to explain subtle changes in a player’s actions during a match. If, for instance, one of a team’s two holding midfielders suddenly starts making deeper runs into the opposition’s half of the pitch more frequently, analysts say that “the coach has changed from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1”.

So whether it’s about the basic set-up of a team, the explanation of shifts in a game, the assessment of a coach’s quality, or even the movements of individual players – nowadays, formation seems to be the key to everything that goes on in a game.

This is all well and good, and I have a great deal of fun listening to it and reading about it (for example here, in the Rasenfunk :slightly_smiling_face:), but isn’t this, strictly speaking, a misapplication of the concept of formation? To me at least, a team’s formation is just a statement about its basic setup describing how the players are positioned with respect to each other when, for example, you have to paint them onto a drawing board. Hence, a formation is a statement about the static positioning of a team, not its dynamic behaviour. To me, the formation alone (and how it shifts) doesn’t seem enough to really cover all the tactical aspects of a game down to individual players’ patterns of movement.

In my view, to really allow a comprehensive tactical analysis, information about the players’ supposed movements and how they are expected to behave in which situations of a game has to be considered, too. For example, if we lose the ball high up the pitch, what do we do in defensive transition? Do we “gegenpress" immediately? And with how many players? Is somebody supposed to occupy the opposition’s passing lines? Or do we fall back as a team and try to get back into shape? Or, when we start our build-up play, do our offensive wingers stay wide to stretch the opposition’s defense or do they cut in quickly to create an overload in midfield? Not any of this information is included in something like a “4-3-3". Instead, it appears to me that by adding more and more layers of differentiation to include dynamic aspects as well, this static, numerical system is overburdened and overstretched. Does it really make sense to say that a coach changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1 to express that he now wants one of his two holding midfielders to make deeper runs?

If I were to analyse a game (but I’m a layman!) I would draw on the concept of formation much more sparingly. I would use it to highlight, for example, whether a team has two or three centre backs, whether there are one or two holding midfielders, or whether there are one or two strikers. And instead of referring to formation to try to explain the more dynamic aspects of a game, I would say how the players move and behave offensively, defensively, and in transition during different phases of a game (as far as I’d be able to tell). I believe that switching between more and more complex subdivisions of basic formations to explain shifts in momentum during a game isn’t really the best approach to a meaningful and satisfying analysis.

Yet, as I have said, I’m just a layman with stupid ideas. So there is every opportunity that I am totally wrong. :slightly_smiling_face: Please tell me: do you see my point? Where am I wrong? What am I ignoring? Where would you agree with me?

Grundsätzlich stimme ich dir zu. Formationen alleine reichen nicht, um die taktische Idee eines Teams zu beschreiben. Pep Guardiola meinte einmal, dass Formationen nur “Telefonnummern” seien und dementsprechend eine eher geringe Relevanz haben. Ich denke, dass Guardiola hier bewusst übertreibt, um darauf hinzuweisen, dass man in der taktischen Analyse weitergehen muss, als nur auf die Formationen zu schauen.
Für mich ist die Formationen trotzdem insofern wichtig, als dass sie ein erstes Bild davon gibt, wie sich die beiden Mannschaften ungefähr auf dem Platz staffeln. Davon ausgehend muss die taktische Analyse aber auch weiter gehen. In der Spielanalyse unterscheidet man die 4 Phasen des Spiels, die Louis van Gaal einst aufstellte. Die 4 Phasen sind aufgeteilt in Spiel mit dem Ball, Spiel gegen den Ball, Umschalten nach Ballgewinn und Umschalten nach Ballverlust. Nach diesen Phasen richten sich zumeist auch die Spielanalysten in den Vereinen.
Jede der Phasen kann natürlich nochmal genauer unterteilt werden. Im Spiel mit dem Ball unterscheidet man zwischen dem Aufbauspiel, dem Übergangspiel und dem Herausspielen von Torchancen, also gewissermaßen, wie die verschiedenen Ketten überspielt werden sollen.
Im Spiel gegen den Ball wird zunächst zwischen der Pressinghöhe unterschieden, also wo man mit dem Pressing startet. Weiterhin ist entscheidend, wohin man den Gegner lenkt (nach außen oder nach innen), welche Pressing Trigger und Pressing Traps es gibt und wie man Deckungsschatten setzt. Außerdem lässt sich darauf schauen, ob es Mannorientierungen gibt.
Im Umschaltspiel nach Ballgewinn wird geschaut, ob man schnell vertikal spielt oder erstmal den Ballbesitz sichert. Im Umschaltspiel nach Ballverlust wird zwischen einem Gegenpressing und einem Zurückfallen unterschieden. Beim Gegenpressing kann man auch nochmal unterscheiden, welche Art des Gegenpressings vorliegt.
Zusätzlich zu diesen mannschaftstaktischen Aspekten muss auf individualtaktische Aspekte geschaut werden. Schlussendlich macht es einfach einen Unterschied, ob man Messi oder Robben auf dem Flügel hat, da diese sich komplett anders verhalten.
Wichtig ist, dass die wichtigsten taktischen Duelle auf dem Platz beschrieben werden. Dabei kann man vor allem auf den Matchplan eingehen. So ist besonders das Duell zwischen Spielaufbau und Pressing immer sehr wichtig.

Hi @Albulipe, you’re right and you’re wrong here. The formation is a simplifying concept that has two big advantages. It’s quick to say and it’s widely used. When you say that Team A plays 4-1-4-1 it says a lot with very few words. But there are lots of aspects that get neglected, i.e. the movement of the players, if teams attack through the centre or along the sideline, etc.
I don’t think somebody does a complete tactical analysis only with the number system. But it is an easy start that helps the readers get into your analysis - or it is a simple and quick solution if you do a live commentary and want to explain it in a sentence. When you visit sites like Spielverlagerung.de, you will find that only a small part of the text is dedicated to the numbers but you will find them anyway.

Another example: If you start with chemistry in school they tell you that an oxygen atom has 8 electrons. This is simple and perfectly right - but you won’t find nuclear scientist that talk only on this level. But as a part of an argument you could still hear that.

In unserer deutschen Sprache kommt hinzu, dass wir für einige Positionen einfach keinen passenden Term haben, um die Aufgaben/das Verhalten eines Spielers treffend und kurz zu beschreiben. Da bietet das Englische viel mehr Spielraum. Beispiel: Außenverteidiger. Mir fällt spontan kein anderer Begriff ein. Wohingegen “Full Back”, “Wing Back”, “Inverted Wing Back”, “Complete Wing Back” bereits in einem Term verrät, wie eine Position gespielt/interpretiert wird.

Daher denke ich, dass die häufige Beschränkung auf simple Formationen, die man meist bereits bei der Aufstellung vorm Anstoß als Zuseher ablesen kann, gerade massenmedial die sauberste und einfachste Lösung darstellt.

Noch dazu müsste man ja unterscheiden, welche Formation defensiv und offensiv gespielt wird. Für mich persönlich verrät die Formation allenfalls, wie viele Spieler eines bestimmten “Spielfeldbereichs” in der Startelf stehen.

Bei einem 4-2-3-1 weiß ich dann: Aha, vermutlich beginnt die Mannschaft mit zwei eher zurückgezogenen zentralen Mittelfeldspielern. Ganz unabhängig davon, wie sich das real auflöst. Ob der eine eher 8er ist oder doch beide als 6er fungieren.

Es ist ja doch mehr als offensichtlich und eigentlich selbsterklärend, dass eine taktische Analyse nur wirklich stattfinden kann, wenn man sich von der Grundformation löst und das Ganze weiterdenkt. Ich würde dadurch auf jeden Fall zustimmen, dass die Formations-Diskussion “overused” ist. Wobei natürlich immer der Rahmen, in welchem diskutiert wird, entscheidend ist.

Wenn sich Formate wie der Rasenfunk darauf beschränken würden, zu sagen: “Team X hat von 4-3-3 auf 4-2-3-1 in der zweiten Hälfte umgestellt”, dann würde ich antworten: “Ja, und?” Beim Live-Kommentar auf den ÖR würde ich mich irgendwie damit zufrieden geben und keine tiefere Analyse erwarten.

Yes, I know all that. That this kind of game analysis that considers all the aspects you mention doesn’t happen, is exactly my point.

@Chryshie, @dirk45: I agree with you that a formation is a simple and somewhat concise shorthand that makes a good starting point for deeper analysis and usually contains further formation-unrelated tactical clues, too.

This is fine. I like brevity, I like shorthand (even though the length of my postings usually doesn’t suggest that :wink:). Conveying as much information as possible in very few words, i.e. being efficient with language, is an art in of of itself. My only little gripe is that in game analysis, the language of the numerical code that underlies formation is overused and has come to convey a whole lot of other, formation-unrelated things as well. It often seems to me that the “formation language” has become the go-to-guy to explain almost anything and everything that happens on the pitch at the expense of a more differentiated analysis that also includes information about player movements etc. - even here in the Rasenfunk! (objection, @Chryshie!) Often, Max and his guests resort to the language of x-x-x(-x) to explain a variety of tactical aspects that are, strictly speaking, unrelated to a formation (e.g. dynamic aspects).

I don’t expect the Rasenfunk to become a spoken version of spielverlagerung.de or zonalmarking.net. Sites like this have turned game analysis into almost a religion with the act of analysing a game being a little bit like a Latin Sunday mass replete with it’s own arcane rituals, invocations, and intricate language. I’m sure that even most coaches would have a hard time rediscovering everything Spielverlagerung says they have done in their work. :wink:

As far as the linguistic differences between English and German are concerned, I don’t quite agree with you. It seems to me that there should be German equivalents for most or all of the common English football terms. You mention the “Außenverteidiger”? In English, this is the full-back; a wing-back, on the other hand, is not another word for “Außenverteidiger”, but the name for the wide players in a 5-x-x or a x-5-x formation. Let me complete the list: an “Innenverteidiger” is a centre-back, a “Number 6” a holding midfielder, sometimes also called centre-half (although “centre-half” is also often used as a synonym for centre-back, which might raise confusion); a “Number 8” an offensive midfielder, a “Number 10” is a playmaker; a “Number 9” a central striker; and an “Außenstürmer” is a winger.

I.e.:
Außenverteidiger = Full-back
Innenverteidiger = Centre-back
5-x-x / x-5-x flank players = Wing-backs
6er = holding / defensive midfielder; Centre-half
8er = attacking / offensive midfielder
10er = playmaker
9er = (central) striker
Außenstürmer = Winger

And as far as qualifiers like “inverted” are concerned, I don’t see why English should be any more powerful than German here. Can you give me examples other than those you’ve mentioned?

Well, to be honest, I get my knowledge about roles from “Football Manager”, which I indeed consider an almost authority when it comes to describing a formation or tactics :smiley:
If I have a look on the German equivalents, I never heard someone using these terms. Maybe it’s a misconception, maybe also the English terms are rarely used by English speaking tactic experts.

My preferred example is the Box-to-Box midfielder, which we just adopt into the German language. On the contrary there is the “Raumdeuter” which the English adopted.

After all this is really just a minor issue.

Actually I absolutely agree with you, that using the numerical formation in order to explain tactics is rarely a proper way to really tell what happened on the pitch. But I again like to object:

It might be true that Max and his guests refer to the formation and formation changes, but they elaborate on them and feeding their analysis with further explanations. What did this or that player do on the pitch, what impact did the formation change have on the game.

And it’s really not true that the Rasenfunk

by overusing numbers.

I think with numerical formations it’s almost the same like it is with comparing players by their market value. It gives you an approximate idea how much worth a player (or actually his contract) is, but basically it is not sufficient at all to say anything about his real qualities and value. And formations may work in a similar way.

How would you describe briefly tactical events to an audience that is not solely interested in deep tactial analysis (Rasenfunk vs Spielverlagerung). Maybe you would end up saying “Team X played with 3 central midfielders. One behaved like this, the other like that”. Basically that’s what Rasenfunk is doing most of time. And if you introduce this section by naming the initial numerical formation. Well, what difference does it make?

What do you mean? Which German terms have you never heard? Außenverteidiger? A number 6 (8…)? Or am I misunderstanding you?

About everything else you say I actually find myself in total agreement with you. :+1: As far as the use of formations in mass media for a general audience is concerned, we have been agreeing all along; and concerning the Rasenfunk you have convinced me. Fun fact: I have yet to listen to the segment about tactics with Tobi Escher. Now I’m doubly curious… :wink:

Ihr habt die wesentlichen Punkte dieser - zugegeben etwas alten Diskussion - schon beschrieben, einen möchte ich aber in Bezug auf den Rasenfunk hervorheben: Visualisierung.

Fußball kämpft seit jeher in seiner Berichterstattung damit, dass ein komplexes Spiel via gesprochenes oder geschriebenes Wort im Kopf des Publikums, das nicht im Stadion ist, visualisiert werden muss. Ganz zu Beginn teilte man das Spielfeld in Quadranten (Spieler XY passt von A3 in D4), bald etablierten sich sprachliche Muster (Außen, innen, Defensive, Offensive), die so wie das Spiel selbst immer mehr in seine Einzelheiten ziseliert wurde, selbst auch komplexer wurden (Halbraum, Angriffsdrittel, Zone 14, etc.).

Durch die Verwissenschaftlichung des Sports wird auch die Aufgabe immer größer, diese Visualisierung möglich zu machen, ohne in eine Geheimsprache zu wechseln, die nicht mehr alle verstehen. Und hier kommen die Telefonnummern ins Spiel: Wer sich mit Fußball auch nur ein bisschen auseinandersetzt, hat bei 4-3-3, 4-4-2 und 4-2-3-1 sofort etwas vor Auge. Man kann Formationen nicht ignorieren, da uns jede Startelf, jede Topelf so präsentiert wird.

Dementsprechend wichtig sind sie zur Visualisierung. Und zwar auch im übertragenen Sinn: Ich kann auch darüber sprechen, wie die Angreifer anlaufen oder dass im Ballbesitz ein Flügel überladen wird und dabei die Formation verwenden, obwohl sie eigentlich nur sekundär eine Rolle dabei spielt. Einfach weil dann die Vorstellungshürde geringer ist. Es macht de facto ja auch bei den meisten taktischen Maßgaben einen Unterschied, aus welcher Formation heraus sie angewandt werden.

Deshalb sind Formationen im Sprechen/Schreiben über Fußball wichtig, auch wenn man Dinge beschreibt, die nicht nur mit Raumaufteilung und Positionsspiel zu tun haben. Es ist der kleinste gemeinsame Nenner wenn ich jemandem beschreiben will wie ein Spiel taktisch ablief.

1 Like

Hi Max,

Nice of you to join in. I beg to differ. The discussion about formation is not old, its timeless. There’s joy in it over and over again. :wink:

More to the point: I agree with you that the phone number (as you so aptly call it) is a useful tool for visualising what’s happening on the pitch.

In principle, this is no problem whatsoever. Ultimately, in human language, every sequence of characters is nothing more than a linguistic code to denote a certain aspect of reality. So depending on what we as a collective have come to agree on, “4-2-3-1” could mean anything.

If however, as you correctly imply it does, any given “phone number” does not simply describe the relative on-pitch position of players with respect to one another, but also other aspects like movement patterns, behaviour in transition and so on, this has to be generally known to be commonly understandable.

And this is the crux of the matter because I’m not sure it is.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that there are the seeds of a great show for you here. Or maybe an article.

What are the most common formations? What do they generally say about a game? What does the formation notation as it is used today imply about game dynamics etc.? So if an analyst uses “4-2-3-1” to describe what he sees happening in a game, what does he mean?

And if you, @GNetzer, use a cerain formation in the Rasenfunk, what do you mean and imply?

Do I see a ‘Solo-Kurzpass’ here? :wink:

Das meinte ich nicht. Denn das sagt die Formation nicht. Aber ich brauche die Formation um zu wissen, wie dann ein Überladen des Flügels oder ein Anlaufen des Aufbaus aussehen könnte. Wenn ich sage “die haben im 4-2-3-1 dann den Innenverteidiger erst kurz vor der Mittellinie angelaufen”, dann sehen die Leute im besten Fall einen einzelnen Stürmer nach vorne schieben und alle anderen warten hinten. Es ist nur der Ausgangspunkt, nicht mehr und nicht weniger.

Für eine Sendung ist das nichts. Viel zu nerdig, viel zu meta. Da liegen weitaus wichtigere Themen auf der Straße.

Ok, understood. Allow me a follow up question then, please.

In your opinion, the way it is used, is formation in football a ‘parsimonious concept’? In other words, are there just enough different formation notations out there to describe everything they are meant to describe, not any fewer, not any more?

To me as a layman it sometimes seems as if there were just a few too many, shall we say? :wink:(Not to mention their implied statements about dynamic aspects I have already brought up.)

Es sind genügend Formationen allgemein bekannt, man muss sie aber einordnen. 4-4-2 mit Raute oder mit flacher Sechs sind zwei unterschiedliche Paar Schuhe. Aber meiner Erfahrung nach verstehen Leute 4-4-2 mit Raute besser als 4-1-2-1-2.

Thanks. Interesting that you should bring up the 4-4-2 diamond, because that is exactly one of those formations that I would consider to contain quite a bit more information than just relative player positioning on the field.

Isn’t it usually the case that when you say ‘4-4-2 diamond’, you also say crowded midfield, trying to force the opponent to the flanks, limiting his options in the centre, high running volume for your own midfield players because they have to shift back and forth from left to right etc.?

Das ist der Vorteil des 4-4-2. Dafür auch weite Wege auf die Außen und nach Ballverlust nur ein Sechser als Absicherung. Ich sehe das eher wie eine Pro- und Contra-Liste der Formation an sich, die sich dann mit der Formation des Gegner und den Fähigkeiten einzelner Spieler kombiniert. Das ist wie ein Zauberwürfel mit vielen Komponenten.

I agree wholeheartedly. What we both are saying underlines my initial point exactly. There is much more to a formation than just static positioning.

When a coach learns that the other side is going to play in a 4-4-2 diamond, he instantly knows a lot more about how, in all likelihood, the opponent is going to play than just their basic on-pitch formation.

Yesterday evening, I finally got around to listening to the RR tactics episode with Tobi Escher.

Almost right at the start you asked him something about noteworthy tactical adaptations that the BL teams made during the season, beginning with Bayern and Dortmund. Tobi said that, interestingly enough, it were exactly these two teams who settled on a specific “system” early on (both on a 4-2-3-1) and didn’t make a lot of changes thereafter.

Immediately I thought: "Oh no, here we go again. Hardly five minutes into the show and already basic formations are referred to as “systems.”

I can’t tell you how relieved I was when only little later Tobi pointed out the crucial difference between formations and “philosophies” and “systems”, which were completely independent of a basic formation. :joy:

By the way, I’m not always the greatest fan of Tobi Escher’s contributions when he appears as a regular guest on the Schlusskonferenz, but his analysis in this RR segment was truly excellent (as was the talk overall). Credit to you both.

Allow me a remark on the issue of crosses. :wink: Could it be that, specifically in evaluating high crosses, you overvalue the aspect of ball retention/concession at the expense of gaining ground?

Let’s say a player drives a high cross from midfield into the opponent’s penalty area or final third. In doing so, strictly speaking he doesn’t cede the ball directly to the opponent, he rather creates a probabilistic situation where one of two things can happen:

Either, one of his teammates gets to the ball first and is able to head or strike it onto the opponent’s goal (or lay it off to a teammate), or a player from the other team gets to the ball first and may try to clear or control it.

Importantly, if the latter alternative materialises, we are talking about a mostly uncontrolled situation where the ball is essentially free.

Thus, the crossing team either has an attempt on goal or the ball is free and both teams have a chance of winning the ball.

With this chance being probably higher for the attacking team - most likely there is at least some degree of control in the cross - you end up with a situation where the attacking team has (a) covered a lot of ground in one simple move, (b) possibly an attempt on goal from a dangerous distance, and © a good chance of reclaiming the ball when it becomes free.

Thus, you could make the decent argument that, on balance, it might be statistically rational for the attacking team to deliver a lot of crosses during a game as a means of (at worst) gaining easy ground, especially from lost or unattractive positions without a promising alterantive in hand, or when they have the better skilled players who are more likely to win the second ball than the opponent’s players, or both.

Ok, now I have completely derailed this entire conversation. :joy: Err… what again were we talking about?

But just sayin '… :wink: I can never resist the temptation to irk you just a little bit.

Kurzer Einwurf meinerseits: Super interessante Diskussion. Muss ich mir bei Gelegenheit mal in Ruhe durchlesen. Lesezeichen ist gesetzt. :wink:

Excellent. Glad you like it. I’m looking forward to your thoughts (if you should find the time :wink:).