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4 Best Formations For Defensive Teams 

Modern soccer formations need to be fluid enough for teams to change from defense to attack instantly. A team that is too rigid will often find itself unable to adapt to opposing teams as they go through the gears. 

There are times, though, when a team simply has to concede that they’re playing a more dangerous team and select a formation that’s much more defensively solid.

It might not be fun to watch, and the fans can quickly start to voice their displeasure, but a pragmatic team can see the value in putting everyone behind the ball. 

We often forget that the primary goal of any competition is not to lose. Winning is preferable, but taking a valuable point against a superior team can be the difference between survival and relegation. So with that in mind, today, we’re going to look at four ideal formations for defensive teams. 

4. 4-4-2 Formation 

The classic 4-4-2 formation has been a staple of British soccer teams for decades, though it’s less common than it used to be.

What the 4-4-2 formation offers are comfort and stability, many teams have the players available to perform in the roles required, and the overload of defenders and midfield players offers real security. 

Having your flat defensive line, especially one that sits extremely deep to counter through balls, gives the goalkeeper much more cover. The flat midfield line usually avoids attacking wingers, preferring two wide midfielders instead. 

The wide midfielders can drop much deeper to help out the full-backs, and the two central midfield players can try and break up attacks before the opponents reach the defensive line.

The two central midfielders will drop deeper into defensive midfield positions in a serious defensive period, and there are suddenly eight players lined up to block attacks. 

Having two strikers isn’t as attacking as you might think, especially when the 4-4-2 is used defensively; one striker drops deeper towards the midfield to pick up the ball, while the target forward is used to hold up the ball. 


  • Players are comfortable with the formation.
  • A deep midfield protects defenses. 
  • Clubs often have the right players for the formation. 


  • As the midfield and attack drop deep, goal threats are fewer. 
  • Intricate passing teams can carve a flat defense apart. 
  • Strikers can become isolated. 

3. 4-1-4-1 Formation 

When a team is trying to hold on to a lead or just trying to keep an opponent at bay, the 4-1-4-1 formation is an excellent choice. Swapping out one of the strikers and replacing them with a defensive midfielder adds even greater solidity than the 4-4-2. 

The key players are the defensive midfielder and the remaining striker, as both have pivotal roles to play. The defensive midfielder is the team’s anchor, protecting the defense and being a conduit between the midfield.

Allowing the midfield to stay rigid and hopefully break up attacks, the DM act as a shield; any players making it past the midfield are immediately hunted down. 

The remaining striker isn’t just expected to have an easy game up front; they need to harry opposing defenders, trying to win the ball back and making a nuisance of themselves. Holding the ball up is vital, so a storing striker that’s good in the air is worth their weight in gold. 

The 4-1-4-1 formation is compact and defensively excellent and allows teams to pass the ball over short distances and try to keep the opposition chasing the game. Seeing out a last 20 minutes of a game using this tactic can stifle the opposition and get a team valuable points. 


  • Defensively excellent. 
  • Defensive midfield offers cover while providing an outlet for defense.
  • Can utilize players of limited skills. 


  • A lone striker can become isolated. 
  • Attracts attacking teams into pushing forwards.

2. 5-3-2 Defensive Midfielder 

A shift from a four-person defense, this 5-3-2 formation utilizes a defensive midfielder for even greater protection. With a five-person defense comprising three central defenders and two wingbacks, this is a great formation for teams that are heavy in the defense department. 

A team that needs to keep players happy and playing can make use of this defensive formation, and the wingbacks can also offer an attacking outlet. As defensive formations go, the 5-3-2 formation is one of the best around, especially with a defensive midfielder in for added protection. 

With quick wingbacks able to bomb up and down the wings, the three defenders and defensive midfielder make up a compact unit that’s difficult to break down. The two holding midfielders can sit tight, trying to break up attacks, but can also move forwards to help the strikers when possession has been won. 

Unlike many defensive formations, the 5-3-2 with a defensive midfielder is a solid counter-attacking option, and used well, it can be devastatingly effective.

As opposing teams drive forwards in search of a goal, the wingback can be used as an outlet, and can be deep into the opposing half before anyone can react. 


  • Makes use of teams with lots of defenders. 
  • Incredibly versatile. 
  • A defensive midfielder offers added protection. 
  • Three defenders are compact. 
  • Offensively sound counter-attacking tactic. 


  • It can be tiring on wingbacks, who need to defend deep and also start attacks.
  • Three defenders need to be tactically aware; the offside trap can be a killer here.
  • Teams short of wingbacks or central defenders can struggle to fill positions. 

1. 5-4-1 Formation 

Defending for 90 minutes might not be sexy soccer, but it can be just as important not to lose as it is to win. The 5-4-1 formation allows a team to flood the defense with players while having

enough of a midfield to keep opponents busy. Your four-man midfield is key here; with the ball, they need to be a threat going forward while still being able to quickly close down space when defending. 

A lone striker, preferably a target forward, keeps the opposing defense on guard while trying to chase down long balls and holding up the ball. If your team has a great target player, getting the ball to them and then having the midfield charge forwards to help in attack can quickly turn a game. 

A five-man defense might sound like overkill in this situation, but the three central defenders offer solidity, and the two fullback players can move further upfield and cross from deeper positions.

With the ball, the five-man defense can fluidly shift accordingly; without possession, they immediately fall back into position. 


  • Overloads the defensive positions; attackers need to go in force to have a chance.
  • A flat midfield can move up or down the pitch to help in either attacking of defensive phases. 
  • Fullbacks can add depth in midfield, while a midfielder drops into defensive midfield.
  • Can lead to a lot of possession, albeit within your own half. 


  • The lone striker becomes isolated if fullbacks are trapped in defensive positions.
  • Players need to be adept at passing in confined spaces. 
  • Teams need discipline; the fullbacks have to drop back when needed, as does the midfield. 
  • When recovering possession near your own penalty area, there can be a lack of forward options. 


There’s no right or wrong defensive tactic; it all depends on the players available, along with their skills. A well-drilled team can withstand a superior attacking team indefinitely as long as the players are ready for anything.

It’s often a moment of brilliance or a stroke of bad luck that can scarcely be believed that changes the game. 

Five-player defense, three-player, or even a two-player back line can prove effective if the players are all on the same wavelength. A team that’s used to playing alongside one another will be even more defensively sound. There are also several drills that teams can practice to tighten up the defense.