soccer strategy

The best formation for 5 a-side (5v5) soccer

On my way to NYC Footy’s Friday night games in Chinatown last week I pondered to myself what would be a good question to ask players during my weekly coverage of Footy happenings.

I confess that I consider myself as a bit of a diminutive Pep - that is a tactical genius. A wannabe anyway. 

So the question that came to mind was simply - what is the best 5 a-side formation?

The response I got from most was the 1-2-1 formation. Not taking into account the goalkeeper, the 1-2-1 might otherwise be known as the diamond. The thinking with the diamond is that there is a defensive player, an attacking player, and then two players on the sides that can move up and down. These two wing players should, if they do their jobs correctly, get up to support the attacking player, and then they should get back to support the covering defender.

Without giving it much thought, this formation should work well. That is, unless the opposing team use all 4 outfield players to put the pressure on when they get the ball. If they do that well, especially on a quick counter attack, you can quickly find yourself easily outnumbered, especially should your attacking player be lazy getting back. And let’s face it, we have all been guilty of that at times. 

See, five a-side tactics/ formations only work well if all players know and carry out their responsibilities well. But since many of us just come along for a kick about, things can become unwieldy pretty fast. 

Things are thrown off even faster when substitutions are coming on and off with good regularity. In one of my games last week, my team literally got caught out as we were trying to work out positions in defense as a substitution was coming on. The question of when is a good time for a substitution might be a subject for a future article 🤔. 

Other five a-side formations might include the 2-2. That is two defensive players, and two midfield/ attacking players. Again, if people adopt their responsibilities well, this is solid enough. It feels like it should be more solid than the diamond if the team plays together as a strong unit. But playing as a unit appears to rare enough in 5-a-side.

With the diamond formation there is a bit of an obsession with wing play. Which is rather impractical when you consider how small the fields are. Wing play even in the professional game has been a dying art for some years. The main idea of wing play - in the sexy sense - is that some player with great skill and speed goes by a player on the side before ultimately whipping a ball into the box for the striker to nod in. But if you go by a player on the wing on a 5 side field, your more than likely hitting the by line. Also, I rarely see crosses of any type in 5 a-side except at corner kicks. All a defensive player has to do in 5 a side to protect against wing play is stand back a bit from the attacking player. The attacking player will be forced then to come inside and shoot or pass inside. This can still be effective, but again, it makes the focus on wingers a bit futile. 

Then there’s the ultra defensive formation, The 3-1. In practice, it should be good at preventing you conceding. But in the end I think it plays out the same at the diamond. Eventually you have to try go forward, sacrificing the wing backs in defense.

There are so many permutations that play into your success in 5-a-side. Quality of player with game understanding being the most key. An intelligent player should know the players around them, know when to cover back, and know when to step forward. Football intelligence is pretty rare actually. Some players may have the skills, some players may be great goal scorers, but that doesn’t mean they have any football intelligence. 

At the Footy Fest this past June, I played alongside an incredibly skillful and powerful player. He blew my mind with what he was capable of. But he shared little in terms of responsibility towards his team. He was your traditional glory hunter. The type of player that infuriates managers in the professional game (5-a-side managers are more forgiving…because there are none). Anyway, they are often considered to be a luxury. A famous example of the glory hunter was David Ginola. Ginola was spectacular going forward but not much use to the team at large. Some say that Cristiano Ronaldo in his heyday was this type of player. Though he got away with it because of how extraordinary his skill was in attack. 

Anyway, I went off on a little tangent there. Let’s get back to some Pep like thinking. 

What everyone is discounting here is the goalkeeper. In 5 a-side the goalkeeper should be considered almost like an outfield player. Think about the Bayern/German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. When Germany had the ball he would come far out of his box , sometimes as far as the halfway line. The whole defensive line of Germany would push far up and and press the opposing team back into their last third.. The opposition team would be so hemmed in by 10 oppressive Bavarians. They would be suffocated. Often the best an opposing team  could do was clear the ball long, in which case Neuer was often there to sweep it up with no one there to pressure him. Neuer was the classic sweeper keeper. 

In 5-a-side what you really want then is the whole outfield team attacking together as a unit, and once you lose the ball, the whole team needs to get back and pressure the opposing team to get the ball back. Barcelona under Pep were masters at this. They attacked together, but when they lost the ball, everyone bust a gut to get the ball back as fast as they could. No one abandoned that responsibility, including Messi. Opposing teams never had time to breathe against Barca. 

Peps Barca were marveled for their ability to attack, but in truth, it’s how hard they worked to get the ball back once they lost it that was their main strength. 

This plan is the most courageous in 5-a-side. But any other formation usually takes two players out of the game itself, and sometimes 3 - the goalkeeper, the holding defender, and the sit up top striker. This only allows 2 players to be flexible. The question is, why take 2 or 3 players out of the game? 

After interviewing players and pondering further, I’ve concluded that the most effective strategy is when everyone moves up together, and everyone moves back together. That includes the keeper sweeper. You must avoid getting spread out, avoid getting stretched. Short quick passes are the order of the day to unlock the opposing team.

It goes without saying that any of these formations only work if players know their responsibilities, especially when the team loses the ball.

Do you play 5-a-side? What say you?