Strategize: Excerpt from my new book on soccer tactics available on


Playing Multiple Formations

Making In-Game Adjustments

Developing A Tactical Soccer Mind

Taking A Look At Soccer’s Tactical History

A Quick History of Soccer Tactics

In order to put together a tactical game plan it is important to have some understanding of soccer’s tactical past. The sophisticated tactics of today didn’t just pop up over night, there is a long history behind the evolution of the soccer tactics. It would benefit every coach that is serious about becoming a better to study the history of soccer tactics. Studying soccer’s tactical past will provide you with an appreciation and understanding of how the game has progressed to where it is now in modern times. Researching the great coaches from the earlier days of soccer will expand your strategic mind, help piece together your tactical ideas, increase your Coaching IQ and make you a better teacher of the game. Below is a brief outline of some of the significant tactical breakthroughs throughout the history of the game.

Soccer’s Tactical Developments

1) England versus Scotland: Lets start our soccer history tactical timeline in 1872 when England went to play Scotland in the first international soccer match. England played an attacking 1-2-7 formation against Scotland’s passing style using a 2-2-6. England used 7 forwards in an attempt to overwhelm Scotland in attack. The Scottish countered with an extra man on defense and focused on playing their passing game in an attempt to keep the ball away from England. The result was a 0-0 draw.

2) Welsh Cup Final: Up until this point the passing game using the 2-2-6 was the popular formation. However in 1878 Wrexham would change the way formations were looked at. Wrexham dropped a center forward to center half making a new formation, the 2-3-5. Using 6 forwards was proving to be to much, as players were getting in each other’s way and not contributing enough. The new 2-3-5 proved to be an overall better balanced system from defense to attack.

3) “Zonal Marking” was invented by the Brazilian Coach Zeze Moreira in the 1950’s. Up until this point “Man-to-Man-Marking” was the only way defense was played. Zonal defending would be the way of future in terms of defending.

4) The emergence of the W-M formation came about after the offside rule had changed. The W-M formation was essentially a 3-2-2-3. Herbert Chapman founded the W-M formation at Arsenal in the 1920’s and it remained popular until the 1958 World Cup when Brazil showed the world that the back “4” could be effective. The added player in the back made it difficult for opponents switching the ball across the field to find their open wingers. The wingers were accustomed to the channels being free, but now with the extra defender there was no space out wide to play in. The outside backs in the “back 4” were also able to attack down the channels while still having ample cover behind them with the two central defenders. The Brazilians actually played a hybrid system in 1958, but many still called it a 4-2-4. The main point is that they did employ a flat back four successfully for the first time in the 1958 World Cup..

5) The 1960’s saw Russian Coach Viktor Maslov introduce the idea of pressing and aggressively pressuring the opponents. This was a big jump forward in the development of modern soccer tactics.  Maslov’s teams were very fit and hounded opponents as they tried to win the ball back by pressing. After Maslov, Coach Valeriy Lobanovskyyi worked on advancing the efficiency of pressing along with other Coaches like Rinus Michels from Ajax FC.

6) The next major change that emerged in the 1960’s was called “Catenaccio”. Catenaccio was made famous by Coach Rocca at AC Milan and Helenia Herrera at Inter Milan. The system was based upon defensive organization that involved dropping a defender to play as a “sweeper back” behind three defenders (L & R Fullbacks & Stopper Back). The actual invention of the sweeper back came in the 1930s in Switzerland with Karl Rappan introducing the “Sweeper”. The “Sweeper” was never responsible for marking a man, instead the sweeper was responsible for sweeping up all the danger, helping the other three defenders and directing the defense from a dropped-off deeper position. Because the Sweeper Back dropped off deeper, it made breaking down the back four even more difficult for the attacking team. Later in the development of “Catenaccio” a center midfielder was dropped deeper to screen the back four and add even more defensive cover, making the formation even harder to penetrate. The system proved very successful with AC Milan and Inter Milan as they won many titles in Italy and the European Cup. However, in 1967 an attacking minded Celtic team beat Inter and successfully broke down the “Catenaccio” system convincingly to win the European Cup. The Celtic victory confirmed beliefs that an attacking style of play could still overcome the defensive style of the Catenaccio! Many soccer fans and coaches relished the fact that the so-called “negative” tactics of “Catenaccio” were beaten by the exciting attacking play of Celtic. There was a new energy about the possibilities of attacking soccer after that 1967 final.

7) 1966 England World Cup Win: England played essentially a 4-4-2 Diamond without the typical wingers in the 1966 Cup. The wingers were tucked inside forming a more narrow diamond shape at midfield. The English displayed solid defending with the ability to get forward from the fullback position. They also created a numerical advantage in the center of the field using the diamond, which they successfully used to their advantage to possess the ball. That England team won the World Cup without out using the classic outward wingers. This was a major change in soccer at the time.

8) 1970 World Cup: Brazil played the beautiful game with the world’s best player Pele. The skill level shown by the “The Boy’s of Brazil” was second to none. It was proof that world needed to catch up with Brazils unbelievable skill level or devise tactics that could nullify their skill!

9)1974 “Total Football” or “Clockwork Orange”: This famous team coached by Rinus Michels lined up using a 4-3-3 formation. However, the Dutch 4-3-3 was no ordinary 4-3-3. The players were capable of interchanging positions at anytime without missing a beat (the left back had the same skill set as the left winger). The Dutch were capable of penetrating by passing or dribbling using their vast skillsets to breakdown opposing defenses. They also instituted their own form of pressing in the 1974 World Cup that made it difficult for other teams to possess the ball. It is safe to say that the 1974 Dutch National Team changed soccer forever with the concept of “Total Football”. The idea of “Total Football” is partially responsible for the ideas connected to the “False #9” or 4-6-0 formation that Spain and Barcelona used recently to great success.

10) AC Milan with Arrigo Sacchi: Sacchi made the flat back four and zonal marking in a 4-4-2 formation into a science. His teams of the late 80’s and early 90’s were some of the best of all time. They perfected the use of space and positioning in their defensive tactics. Milan would often condense the field to 30-40 yards in length by pushing their back line up so high. The opposing teams had trouble adapting to the smaller space and expert coordination of Milan’s offside trap. Sacchi claimed his players were not the most athletic, but because they worked together as a one unit, took up excellent defending positions and created numerical advantages in the area of the field the ball was, they were extremely effective. Coach Sacchi proved that even with the new rule, which prevented keepers from picking up a back pass with their hands, that the sweeper back system was no longer needed. Sacchi showed how a flat back four could be used with great success at the highest level.  He was truly one of the greatest tacticians of all time and laid the foundation for much of the modern soccer tactics you see being used today. His teams positioning, pressing and counter attacking abilities were ahead of their time. Sacchi like Mourinho was a teacher and never played professional soccer, but his methods of teaching the game were fantastic. I still use many of the ideas Sacchi developed over 20 years ago. If I had only one coach I could study it would be Arrigo Sacchi.

11) The emergence of the 4:2:3:1 formation in the 2000’s: At one point in the 2000’s all but one team in the French First Division was using this formation. The 4:2:3:1 is broken into well-organized layers. Positions are defined and the responsibilities of each player in the system is clear and concise. This system allowed teams to be solid defensively and yet have great flexibility going forward in attack. The 4-2-3-1 can be coached and played a number of different ways. The inter-changing of positions and the various movement patterns of the 4-2-3-1 makes the system extremely effective, difficult to play against and hard to predict going forward. The formation signaled a shift into the popularity of using a five-man midfield.

12) The False #9 of Spain & Barcelona: Essentially Barcelona and Spain both played games using a 4-6-0 formation. The striker or #9 could be any of the midfield players at anytime depending on who wanted to come forward. Watching Spain use this system in the European Championships was amazing. To my knowledge the 4-6-0 had never been done before Barcelona and Spain used it. Spain left Italy and all the other teams in the Euro’s scratching their heads.   No team could come up with an answer to this system. The high quality of the players of Barcelona and Spain were of course the magic ingredient to the success of the system. Any ordinary team would struggle playing a 4-6-0.

13) The Future: What will the future hold in terms of the development of new soccer tactics? Roberto Mancini the old Manchester City Manager along with other top coaches believe, most of the change in the near future will come from the player development side. More technical, smarter, fitter and better mentally prepared players are being produced at top soccer academies all over the world. Perhaps even a rule change by FIFA to go along with more sophisticated players could spur the development of new tactics? Who knows, maybe some coaching genius will surprise us all with something we never saw coming! All we can do is keep trying to get better!