Not registered? Click here.

0207 501 8555

When you can’t play 4-4-2 – Tactics for 5-a-side

Posted by admin on 9th September 2015

Words by Nick Frith


The referee’s whistle blows for full time. Your team all stare at the ground, sweating and struggling to breathe, whilst the opposition celebrate with high fives and fist bumps. Another match gone but it’s the same old story. Your striker blames the goalkeeper, who is pointing his finger at the defence. The defenders claim the striker is lazy, and so it goes on. Everyone is quick to point out the teams’ problems, but no one has a solution. You’ll arrive next week, walk onto the pitch, look at each other and ask ‘Right, who’s playing where?’ – cue another embarrassing defeat.

Sound familiar? Getting your tactical set up right doesn’t take much effort, and can turn your side’s fortunes around in an instance. With just 4 outfield players to position it’s a fairly simple process, you just have to make sure the whole team knows what you’re trying to do.

Step 1 – Formation

Tactics board

1-2-1 – The Diamond

This is the most commonly used, and usually most effective, tactic. The basic set-up involves one holding defender – your sweeper or last man. The 2 midfielders need to be able to switch from defending to attack. Lastly you’ll need a striker who can lead the line. The diamond is the basis for most other formations, as with a little flexibility it can become a 3-0-1, 2-1-1 or a 1-0-3!

3-0-1 – The Wall

A defensive formation, which is really just a 1-2-1 with the midfielders dropping in as full backs. If disciplined, a 3 man defence can be hard to break down – but where will the goals come from? May be worth considering after taking an early lead against strong opposition, or if you’re quick on the counter attack.

2-1-1 – The Pyramid

This is the main alternative to the 1-2-1. Two defenders adds extra stability, but they must communicate well as one pushes forward to support the attack. If not, both may find themselves out of position and exposed to the oppositions counter attack. Can work well if communication is good – the midfield man can even slide back into defence to allow both centre backs to move forward.

2-0-2 – The Box

Two at the back and two up top can mean plenty of goals scored and few conceded, but there is always a risk of both the strike force and defence becoming isolated, with no one responsible for winning the ball back once the opposition are in possession. If the team is disciplined they can move to a 2-2-0 without the ball, and 0-2-2 with it. A lazy striker or defender who is poor on the ball can make it hard work!

Step 2 – Positioning      

Now the tricky bit – who plays where? Obviously the fella with the yellow boots wants to play upfront, but if he isn’t willing to chase the ball down then it doesn’t matter how many stepovers he can do, he’s no use to you playing as a striker! Getting the pieces of the jigsaw in the right place is important, and there are certain qualities which are needed for each position:

Striker – The skills required in attack are quite obvious; can hold the ball up, has quick feet and is a great finisher. Just as important, however, is his work in defence. Whilst the other 3 sit deep, the number 9 must continue to close the ball down, requiring stamina and bloody-mindedness!

Midfielders – The key here is the ability to get yourself up and down the pitch quickly. Converting from defence to attack and vice-versa is key to the players in the midfield roles. Just as important is the tactical awareness to know when to charge forward or to sit back, conserving energy for the right moment! Skills wise, being able to dribble well and have an excellent first touch in tight spots can be very useful.

Defence – Potentially where your best player should play. Must have the discipline to remain positioned at the back, and be able to read the game and snuff out any of the opponents attacks. When in possession, distribution is key. An excellent passing game will really help the team going forward, as will loud and clear communication.

If you’re struggling to work out who should play where, then Arsene Wenger proposed an interesting way to decide in a recent interview with FourFourTwo magazine. Instead of looking at each player’s skills, he suggests looking at their personality. If a member of your team is ‘quiet and efficient, even a little aloof’ then play them up top. The more ‘gregarious and outgoing are made for midfield’ and in defence you want ‘more aggressive ones…who like to take from others’. Jimmy Bullard in midfield and Vinnie Jones at the back then, by the sound of things!

Step 3 – Style

No matter how good you think you are, the chances are you’re not going to be able to play Barcelona tika-taka football. Having said that, Middlesbrough managed to score this goal last season so there’s hope for everyone.

The best bet for you, and probably for any 5-a-side team, is a direct, counter-attacking style, with a couple of passes followed by shooting as soon as possible, turning defence into attack in seconds and not allowing your opposition to organise themselves. If you’re facing a disciplined defensive team this will be the best tactic as well – trying to pass the ball round and draw teams out of position isn’t as easy as it seems. You can also adapt your style of play to the players at your disposal; if you’ve got pace to burn defend very deep and draw teams onto you before pouring forward on the counter attack, or if your striker holds up the ball well let him sit high up the pitch and stretch the opposition. The important thing is to decide on a plan, then stick to it!


Setting your team up correctly can make a huge difference. Just a few weeks of organisation and sticking to a plan can see even some of the worst sides turn their seasons around. So choose a plan, select your roles and follow through on the pitch. It may take a few weeks to get used to, but it will make a difference! lastly, but crucially, get your team a permanent goalkeeper – it’ll allow you to keep the same structure all game, and gives the team a solid and dependable base to build from. We estimate that that a solid keeper can be worth up to 10 points a season!

Having said all of that, don’t forgot the wise words of one of greatest managers of all time, Brian Clough: ‘Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes’.

I guess I’ll leave it there.