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Formation notation has jumped the shark

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It’s time to stop being so nitpicky.

Soccer: International Friendly Men's Soccer-Venezuela at USA Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

I have to get something off my chest. I’m becoming increasingly annoyed at the way we – soccer journalists, bloggers, pundits, fans, etc. – talk about formations, especially when it comes to the traditional #-#-#-# nomenclature we so heavily rely upon.

Soccer is a game, at its core, where men and women run around and chase after a ball that is being kicked around the field. That’s it. When the sport was officially founded after its separation from rugby, it was a brutal and ruthless game that was still played – tactically – along the same lines as rugby. Players would gather in packs and they’d dribble the ball as far as they could to the other side of the field in the hopes they’d get close enough that they could have a shot on goal. They’d accomplish this by running in a single file line. The player in front would have the ball, and just before he was tackled, he’d drop the ball off to the player behind him and the line would continue moving forward. It was a vicious game.

As time as passed by and influential people left their mark on the game, tactics refined to the point where we now have a new soccer lexicon. Registas, inside forwards, nines, false nines, sixes, ramdeuters and trequartistas – the list goes on and on. However inane we find these words that describe various player roles, at least they serve as a decent description of a player’s role on the pitch. These words allow us to talk about the game, tactically, in a way that is coherent and not overly cumbersome.

But when we move away from player roles and talk about the way teams are supposed to function, we use formations. 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, etc. And this is the part that really annoys me, because we argue about these classifications of formations as if, well, it matters. I’m not saying a team’s shape doesn’t matter – in fact, I think it’s one of the most important tactical foundations of the game. What doesn’t matter is the way we notate the formations, and subsequently argue who’s “right” about the “best” formation to use for a team.

I blame the EA Sports FIFA video game franchise. I really do. Don’t get me wrong, I love to play FIFA, but it has skewed the way many people discuss tactics. I hit a boiling point in this regard this weekend prior to the USA vs. Venezuela friendly when I heard the U.S. lineup referred to as a 4-1-3-2. This is dumb. It implies that you’re playing with two central midfielders — one playing more defensive (the “1”) and one in a more supporting role (the central player of the “3”). This is a 4-4-2. This is the way Alex Ferguson deployed Manchester United for years, with a “sitter” (defensive minded who protected the CBs) and a “runner” (a player who chased the ball more and supported the forwards). Why are we now suddenly calling this a 4-1-3-2? An inferiority complex, that’s why. No ambitious, forward thinking soccer intellectual wants to say that their team plays a 4-4-2. A 4-4-2 is synonymous with long ball, ugly English soccer that could only be appreciated by the unwashed masses. A highly educated, progressive fan couldn’t possibly support such an elementary way of playing!

One of my favorite videos about soccer tactics on YouTube is the way the late Johann Cruyff once explained how easily the soccer lexicon can be misconstrued with his interpretation of a diamond formation.

Basically, stop it with the 4-1-3-2 nonsense. It’s not a thing.