Understanding the Basics of Tactics

How to Fake Having a Large Soccer IQ

I realized that many fans of Legion or FC Birmingham may be new fans of the sport and so when I talk about “zonal marking”, “half spaces”, and all these other things that make me sound like I either have a PhD or played Football Manager, they may not understand. While there is a full treasure trove of tactical talk, I want to do the basics that you can see in any match.

The “Formation”

When you hear about teams playing a formation, it sounds like a string of numbers. For Legion, we typically play in the “4-2-3-1”. This is read “backline (defense)” to front, NOT INCLUDING THE KEEPER.

You can see it labeled with the blue line being the “backline”, the purple line is the “holding midfield”, the red is the “attacking midfield”, and the yellow circle is the striker. In the back, is the GK who is not counted.

What are the “jobs” of these roles?

Well, this is a hard thing to really describe and there’s a lot of nuance when it comes to “roles” vs what players are capable of. The easiest way to learn who “breaks” the rules is to understand what those rules are, generally. These usually come in 4 phases of play:

  • In Attack
  • Transition to Attack
  • Transition to Defense
  • In Defense

We won’t be talking about the “transition” side too much in this article, because again, it is based on player ability a little bit more than “roles.”

The Backline

The thing that you think of first with the “backline” is the defensive side, so that is where we will start.

These three zones exist in one big zone, the “defensive third.” The defensive third is exactly what it sounds like, it’s where the teams start to actively defend the direct shot. While every team in that “middle third” and even “attacking third” are defending the move to the scoring opportunity, the defensive third is where teams really engage the ball carrier as a threat to score. The fullbacks tend to stay in the wider areas, while the center backs stay in the, well, center.

In the attack is where you see the center backs come up to the halfway line. Outside of just allowing the attack to recycle, it is also because the offside call is caused by the backline OR the halfway line. The fullbacks tend to stay in this box that is entirely in the “attacking third.” When one fullback goes up higher in the box, the other tends to sit back a little so the attack does not get caught up too far and does not allow an easy counter attack.

The Holding Midfield

In general, the holding midfield has a strange role. They are truly holding up the play, holding the shape, and holding the possession. It’s easier to see it in action than on graphic, but I’ll try my best.

The holding midfield can move as wide as the touchline, but generally we see them occupy this area that holds between the defensive third and the central third. In the defense, the Holding Midfielders float between being a third or fourth center back or even as high as where most central or attacking midfielder would occupy. The best way to think about this in defense is that they “hold” space that was vacated by another player, for whatever reason.

We see in the attack that the holding midfield once again “holds” the areas between the central and attacking part of the field. The holding midfielders can move in to the attack as an absolute press to get a goal, or they can sit as far back as being a third or fourth center back to be buffer between the attack and backline.

Attacking Midfield

The attacking midfield can exist as deep as our holding midfielders or as high as our strikers. They can go as wide as a full back, or as central as a center back/holding midfield.

In the defense, we can see how the left and right midfielders (in Legion’s case, they’re called Left and Right Wingers) tend to sit behind the central attacking midfielder, can sit in the space with the fullbacks, or even the same space as the holding midfielders. They can float in these spaces pretty freely as they are needed. The Central Attack Midfielder can sit back pretty deep, especially if they’re more defensively skilled. You also see them sitting on top of the halfway line as a way to quickly spark a counter attack as a pseudo-striker.

In the attack, the midfielders become secondary strikers, but they also become secondary holding midfielders. What are the roles? Well, your left and right midfielders (also can be called left and right wingers, not a super important distinction for this article’s purpose) when out wide where the fullbacks were, we usually see the players “cross” the ball in. When in the box, we see those players either take a shot or make on final pass to the shooter. The central midfielders can become the primary striker, depending on the situation, or can sit at the top of the box like your stereotypical point guard in basketball. They are the primary passer, but they aren’t afraid to take a shot from range.

The Striker

The striker is the easiest player to talk about. We all know their roles, even if you’re a new fan. Be a pest, score goals.

This is the first player have seen exist outside of the “box.” The striker is meant to float, stay centralize, but essentially roam throughout the circle. That roaming is to pull defenders into poor positions, to cut off passing lanes, or to just find free areas to create a counter attack.

This same idea of floating around to score is the same idea as before. The striker wants to find and exploit space. It’s not as ridged as the other positions, but their goal is to find or create space for the striker to score or assist the goal. It’s all about goal contributions as a striker.

What Does it Look Like In Context?

Now that you know about all of that, here’s the fun part. It doesn’t really matter. Let’s talk about that 4-2-3-1 that Birmingham Legion FC love to play in. Does that really matter? What happens in context?

Well, let’s play a game. What formation is this? We are in the defensive zone, defending an attack. What is this formation?

You thought about it? Looking at everything I taught you? Count from the back, don’t count the keeper? Looking at who is in line with who? Well, if you said it’s a 4-4-1-1-, you’re correct.

This is how about 50% of you perceived that formation. But what about the other 50%? I’m willing to wager that you still saw the 4-2-3-1, which is also correct.

Does it really matter how you saw it? Not really. They are functionally the same, especially if you want to look at the graphic with every single over view of a graphic on the pitch.

Go ahead and prepare yourself for what will look like a visual atrocity.

Okay, if this is overwhelming, just scroll back up and look at each individual role. You begin to see these zones a lot more clearly. Luckily for everybody, you don’t have to see the game like this. You can just look at the players playing certain positions and know:

  • Center Backs are in the center, backline
  • Full Backs are out wide, backline
  • Holding Midfielders are in the center, defensive midfield
  • Left/Right Midfielders are out wide, central midfield
  • Center Attacking Midfielders are in the center, central midfield
  • Strikers roam their circle, central midfield

See, it’s not as scary as that one graphic may make it look.

Are you ready for the attack? Well, too bad. We’re going right in.

Okay, don’t freak out. Don’t forget your training, Young Padawan. Look back up at the roles, look at those zones that these players exist it. Let’s remove those nasty squares and circles.

Not so bad, right? What formation would you call that? Well, there really isn’t an “easy” formation. You can call it a 2-1-3-3-1, but frankly, that’s gross to think about and doesn’t really make sense. What I want you to see is the structure. If you want to see a more “real” example of the attack (which is really what it would look like trying to win the ball back), here you go.

You will see this 4-1-1-4 (or simplified as a 4-2-4) all the time for Legion, especially in the attack. There’s a lot nuance that happens to get to this point, and concepts like “pressing”, “pivots”, “zonal marking”, etc., etc.


If you want to know the basics of roles, this is a one stop shop. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about tactics, but this is where you can step your game up. This is also where you can watch matches and see who is breaking these rules that I laid out for you. Usually when players break these rules, it’s because [talent>position]. Our own Jonny Dean was the expert at breaking every single rule known to being a fullback, which earned himself a promotion to the MLS.

If you see a player break these rules, just ask yourself, “why?” Chances are you’ll figure it out before you ever have to ask somebody else.

One response to “Understanding the Basics of Tactics”

  1. […] couple of days ago, I released an article on the Basics of Tactics and Formations (and how they don’t matter). Well, I mentioned how the formation doesn’t really matter, especially for Legion. There are […]


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