By John Reddan
4-4-2, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 4-5-1.
do coaches choose a particular system? What factors go into their choice? Should systems change during the season, during a game? Before discussing these questions let's back up: What the heck is a system of play and what are all those numbers about?
Generally speaking, a system of play refers to the number of defenders, midfielders and forwards a team uses in a game. The numbers go from the back to the front, so a 4-4-2 means four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards.
The history of systems or formations is a little too lengthy to go into here. However, system choices and the logic behind them is an ongoing discussion among coaches and soccer enthusiasts.
What dictates a coach's choice of system to play?
Most importantly, a coach reviews the personnel available to determine a system that she or he believes will work best for a particular group of players. There are three key considerations: Overall and individual skill level, athleticism, and speed. As those elements are broken down and assessed, a system that best fits the strengths and weaknesses of the team can then be chosen. The system is then tweaked further as coaches create "their' way of playing within a particular system. For example, in a 4-4-2, players in defense may be very skilled on the ball as well as good defenders, so the coach may ask those defenders to get into the attack quite a bit, overlapping their midfield teammates. Within the same system, the defenders may be good defenders, but with limited ball handling capability, so they are asked to "stay home" more often and play into those ahead of them to carry out the attack.
Another factor may be what the opposition brings to the table. If they are strong in the midfield, we may want to put five there. Do they have special players in certain areas we need to be aware of, and if so, do we need to adjust our system to counter those players — i.e. more defenders, more midfielders, deeper positioning in back, etc.? Are the opponents faster? Are they aggressive, or do they sit back and wait for us to make a mistake and counter attack? These are additional factors that may play a part in the coach's system decision.
Coaching Director John Reddan
What are additional factors dictating systems? How about weather for starters, with lots of wind in the face. Perhaps there should be an additional defender or one midfielder who hangs back a bit more. With the wind at our back, should we emphasize the attack with more forwards? What's the score of the game? Are we up a goal? Down a goal? How much time is left in the half? The game? Do we need a result to get promoted or to stave off relegation?
These are many of the questions that may play a part in what system a coach decides to utilize for a game. Most often, once a system is established, it is small adjustments within the system that may have a desired effect on a particular situation rather than wholesale changes. Big changes may bring about results in a particular game, but may also serve to confuse our teams' players if done too often. Some examples of small changes might include central defenders pushing higher toward midfield in order to cramp the space, especially if the other team is good at possession, or pushing one forward playing higher toward the other team's goal than the other forward because the opponent plays with a deep last defender, etc.
Of course, with every system there are weaknesses, and with every adjustment we may make there is the potential to create positives in one area while leaving ourselves vulnerable in others. It's these risk-reward factors and the assessment/placement of personnel that make the decision-making as a coach challenging and fun.
The game itself is pretty simple: ten outfield players and one goalkeeper. The players, regardless of the system, need to be able to run, pass, receive, shoot, cross, head, tackle, make saves and work as a unit if there is going to be any form of success. If players can't perform these basics, no system will transform them into a team that consistently wins games. A system takes the given talent and helps accentuate the positives while covering the weaknesses.