The Roland Blog: Systems of Play


Tactics, formations, high press, tiki-taka … if soccer is “The Simplest Game,” when did it get so complex? Seth Roland, the men’s soccer coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., strips away the buzzwords and misconceptions in a new feature for Empire of Soccer.


image_handler“So, what do you play?”


4-3-3 ?

4-4-2 ?

“Oh, what about three backs like Antonio Conte plays at Chelsea … what do you think of that?”

That’s a question posed to most coaches by recruits, parents, reporters and your average fan. It gives the questioner a model in which to try and understand how a particular team plays.  

If the coach says he plays a 4-2-3-1, you might conjure images of Real Madrid under José Mourinho.

The 4-3-3 should immediately bring to mind Barcelona.

The Los Angeles Galaxy under Bruce Arena did a pretty good job of winning championships with a 4-4-2 system of play.

And, yes, three backs has been implemented successfully by Conte as coach (manager) of Italy in the 2016 Euros, and by Chelsea in its current Premier League season in England, where it is in first place.

O.K., so now that you know the system of play, here’s the catch:

It’s not so important what you label your formation — it’s important how your players perform within the system … what roles they each have to play.


Photograph by

Bruce Arena/Photograph by

For instance, Arena’s Galaxy played a 4-4-2 with “tucked-in” wide midfielders who played a significant role in possession with the other midfielders in the middle of the park, and allowed the wing backs to get forward to be the guys who added width to the team’s play and often were the one’s serving crosses into the box.

The 4-4-2 played by England in the 1990 World Cup, however, kept the wide midfielders wide getting up and down the field serving crosses, while the wing backs stayed mainly “at home” and played mostly defense.

How about this … when does a 4-3-3 not look like a 4-3-3?

Most teams that play a 4-3-3 in attack look much more like a 4-5-1 in defense with the wingers withdrawing to wide midfielder spots defensively. … Barcelona would be one of the exceptions, but, well, only one team can play like Barcelona.

Catching on? The lesson is that the system of play provides a framework of how the team might line up, but it’s the qualities of the players, the strengths and weaknesses of the players, that ultimately determines what that particular system will look like.

Here’s another: Does a coach squeeze the players into a system, or does he decide on a formation based on the pool of players he has?

Would some coaches have taken the Netherlands’ 1974 World Cup team, the one that developed the fabulously inventive and exciting Clockwork Orange approach to fútbol, and try to restrict it positionally? Probably yes because there was no model for how the Dutch played in the history of soccer.

The free-flowing soccer that the Dutch played in 1974 was an evolution and conclusion of the brilliant individual and versatile talents of so many of the Dutch players. It took geniuses like Johan Cruyff and Manager Rinus Michels to have the vision of how to synthesize such a lethal and effective whirling, attacking, pressuring team.  

Another manager might have been far more stereotyped in how he positioned his players. Although, at the same time, it would be naïve to assume that the Dutch played in an undisciplined manner. In fact, a conversation with Michels confirmed that the players had disciplined roles within their team structure, but within that structure they were given freedom to create, attack and pressure defensively.

One of things that makes coaching interesting is that while Conte coaches Chelsea to play a counterattacking, three-back system, Pep Guardiola might decide to coach the same team within a 4-3-3 structure. Mourinho, perhaps a 4-2-3-1 formation.

So, at the professional level, a manager can go out and buy players to suit his favorite system of play. Most club coaches, youth coaches and high-school coaches should adapt their system to the qualities — the strengths and weaknesses — of their individual players.

Don’t try to play a 4-3-3 if you don’t have players who are comfortable attacking up top from wide positions and can take opponents on 1 v 1. Adapt to a different system— maybe a 4-4-2.

This can go on all day, but it’s one of things that makes coaching so much fun — trying to find the system that best suits the qualities of your players.

Do you have a soccer-related question for Coach Roland? Send it along to