Should You Change Your Formation Because of the Opposition?

By Philip Cauchi

Question - Should I change my formation and/or style of play if we are playing against a team that is stronger than us? Same question for if we are playing a team that is not as good as us. Should I push more players forward, defend deeper, etc?

The level of our opponents has a great impact on how we perform during the game. It is thus extremely important for us to be well prepared for what we will encounter during the match. Analysing our strengths and weaknesses and comparing them with those of the opponent helps us to plan detailed training sessions in preparation to hide our weaknesses and exploit our strengths, and to also limit the strengths of the opponents and capitalise on their weaknesses.

Our standard system of play and style of play should be the starting point in our planning. We should as much as possible not deviate from it, although we have to be flexible enough to adapt and stand up for the circumstances. If we play a team who is weaker than us there is a high probability that we will dominate the game. On the other hand if we play a stronger team the chances are that we will spend most of the time defending. These two different contexts impose different demands on our team. Against the weaker team we will have more of the ball possession and thus aim to play in the opponents’ half in order to create goal-scoring opportunities.

Against the stronger team we will work hard to prevent conceding goals. For these two different demands we have to prepare on how we will approach the game (game plan) and make the necessary adjustments to our system of play if needed. We would just make small adjustments and not turn the whole system around as this has a high risk of confusing our players and lowers the level of communication.

The players might be given a different role for that particular match. As an example, if we usually dominate the game and play using a 1-4-4-2 system of play, against a weaker team we can still make use of this system but push the defensive line higher up the pitch and have the midfielders make more forward runs into the box and the full backs perform more overlaps. In other words against weaker teams we will play with a wider team shape using the same system while having more of the possession.

Against higher ranked teams we might use the same system but be more compact and narrower. We will defend more and play direct on the counter attack from deeper positions to exploit the space the opponents leave behind their back line. Hence, we will play more on the counter. The 1-4-4-2 system can be adjusted to limit the spaces between the lines with a defensive midfielder playing behind the two central midfielders and only one operating forward thus playing in a 1-4-1-4-1 system.

The style will definitely be affected when playing much higher ranked teams. Imagine that we play in the fourth tier of the league system and we have been drawn to play the league leaders of the first tier in the domestic cup. If in our league we usually dominate the game, we cannot expect to play in the same way against this team. We will have to prepare on working more on the defensive phase and make the necessary adjustments to limit the space and time for the opponents.

High level professional teams keep both their style and usually also their system of play constant as they have the right level of the players required and also as it is their club identity. Teams of a lower quality especially amateur teams might not have the required level of players to play in a constant style. They will be required to adapt if they play stronger opponents. However to be able to properly adapt, the right players must be chosen for the team to keep a high level of communication.

By Philip Cauchi

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