What Is A Soccer System And How Is It Different From A Formation?

soccer system

Running around the field with your head cut off wondering what soccer system your team is playing?

If you're truly a student of the game you should know how to play in all different types of systems and formations not just one. At the next level you may be thrown into a new system you have to learn quickly and having the knowledge or playing in a similar system before can be a massive advantage.

Learn all the different types of soccer systems, tactics, formations and everything else it takes to have and develop a high soccer IQ. Ever wondered how there are different systems in other sports but never were quite sure about the ones in soccer?

Welllll wonder no more because learning these systems will be as easy as scoring your first goal, sorry goalies.

What Is A Soccer System Exactly?

soccer system

A great soccer system or philosophy in soccer is based on a uniform systematic style of play (attacking and defending) that have a set of guidelines and rules that are instilled within a team.

Before your eyes roll back into your head, a soccer system is basically a defined set of guidelines a team follows on both sides of the ball based on a coach’s philosophy. There are both offensive and defensive systems that vary from coach to coach and from team to team.

But no matter which system you learn or teach each has specific fundamentals, laws and critical details that make each unique and special from the rest.

Whether they are successful or not is up to the ones that create and implement it, these systems are also constantly being adjusted, morphed and even created so knowing them is great but keeping an open mind to how they may grow is even better.

List Of Most Popular Types Of Systems In Soccer


  • Keeping the ball with the purpose to overload and eventually exploit the defending team.
  • Also used as a philosophy for defending as it is used to keep your team from defending due to the large amounts of time with the ball.
  • Teams like Barcelona, Man City, Napoli, Leeds and many more use this soccer system.
  • This being the most popular and widely talked about soccer system there are many debates about its effectiveness, if you're looking for a deeper read about it feel free to read the article The Problem With Possession.


  • Stop messing around and get the ball as fast from point A to point B and if that doesn't work look to win the second ball and keep playing directly forward.
  • Teams like Liverpool, Manchester United and Crystal Palace are examples of very direct style playing teams.


  • Don't roam around but stay true to your position on the pitch.
  • Do your job on your side of the field and play within it's parameters, possession or direct not important do whatever comes your way.

Total Football

  • The Dutch invented this which embodies the idea of free flowing football or portionless football where everyone looks to occupy the necessary space in attack and not necessarily the one of their position.
  • This is your Barcelona's, Brazil's and Spain's of the world.

Counter Attack

  • Think of a counter puncher boxer, you punch and punch and punch and when the moment is right they strike back with a devastating knockout.
  • Welcome to Tottenham, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid and all their success.

Low Press

  • This is a defensive system that is typically close to your own goal, certainly in your own half compacting the space making it difficult for opponents and also feeds into a counter attacking system offensively.

High Pressure

  • A defensive soccer system that is high in the opponents half looking to force turnovers in dangerous areas to create scoring opportunities for the defensive team.

Why Does A Team Or Coach Have A System?

soccer system

Interesting question, well you could just go out on the field with no sense of where to be and what to do and see how that goes for ya (turn away, this isn’t’ going to be pretty).

Having guidelines and expectations in place for each player in each position not only tests their soccer talent but soccer brain. When a player gets a list of things you want them to do within a system and you rate them based on it then the player takes a sense of pride in his/her job.

Then you can measure their progress based on the guidelines of the system you’ve put in place and see if they have been producing and developing the way you want. Much like a class in school some players will get it and others won’t. Those players who are students of the game will learn the hard way that soccer is a game of intelligence and adapting to a given situation.

In short, a coach has a system to discipline, organize and bring the best out of his team.

Top 5 Things That Make An Effective Soccer System

1. Players Belief In The System

  • You can have the best system in the world with all the rotations, responsibilities and roles you want but if the players on the field don't believe or have the will to carry it out it's worth nothing.
  • It's like having a Ferrari and not knowing how to turn it on, getting the qualities of your players to fit into the system and them believe in it is worth more than any of the X's and O's you can draw up.

2. Clearly Defined Roles & Responsibilities

  • Knowing the system as a whole is important but knowing your exactly job and role within the system is just as important.
  • Knowing your role both defensively and offensively within a system and know how to carry it out is an important element in having a highly functioning system in soccer.

3. Consistent Themes & Common Rules For Success

  • For a system to work well players need to not only know their individual roles but also what the teams rules and principles of success are in different areas of the field.
  • For example in the final third a team will always serve the ball (notifying players in the box to expect it) or we only build from the keeper in the defensive third if we have a numbers advantage of two or more.
  • These types of guiding light principles help a team be on the same page and build the chemistry needed to be an elite team.

4. Coachable Players

  • A big part of a system is reviewing your performance on tape and in the practice area and if you aren't willing to take the critical feedback to improve your performance then your success in the system will never grow.
  • Be a player who is willing to have thick skin and take feedback both positive and negative in attempt to grow your game, none of us have all the answers or play a perfect game so listen and learn.

5. An Accountable All Knowing Coach

  • It's not enough to have it just taught or explained once to you but a coach who is all knowing is constantly pushing you and letting you know if you're not doing your job.
  • You could know the system and your role within it but without a coach who is constantly adjusting and pushing you to improve you will always stay at just that same level.
  • Oh and a couple Messi’s and Ronaldo's wouldn’t hurt either.

Top 5 Things That Make An Ineffective Soccer System

1. No Structure

  • Great players on a field without any structure is like the most beautiful house without a proper frame, inevitably it will just collapse.
  • Having a formation in attack and defence along with principles during certain situations in the game with clear objectives and outcomes play an important role in getting the best out of your talented team.

2. General Non-Specific Principles

  • No player likes when a coach yells random thoughts from their head all game long without giving it any meaning based on the system and the objective of your position and team.
  • Having clear objectives and principles allows the player, coach and team to be all synchronized on the same page fo what success is supposed to look like.

3. Not Catered To Players Strengths

  • Picking a system that best suits the quality of your players is the difference between hitting your potential as a team and being constantly frustrated match after match.
  • If you have a team full of strong defenders who aren't very attack minded playing a counter attacking system may suit them because of their defensive strengths and trying to keep the ball and possess it may not suit them.
  • Figure out the physical, technical and tactical attributes of your team and go from there.

4. Not Effective

  • Something just isn't working and it may be the system you've chosen or have created yourself.
  • Sometimes you need to know when to throw in the towel and try something else for size.
  • Even if everything on paper matches up sometimes trying new things will lead to new solutions for your players and your team.

5. Unrealistic Expectations

  • Sure we would all love to play like Barcelona but what is actually the potential of the players we have to play the system that best suits them.
  • So having realistic expectations of how a team is capable of playing is important or you'll always be part of a team that never feels like they are playing well.

What Types Of Soccer Systems Do The Pro’s Use?

Different systems have different formations and schools of thought behind them at every level. Professional sides use a wide variety of different systems on both sides of the ball and have been a staple for their success over the years.

The most talked about system these days is the Spanish and Barcelona system and mindset.

Possession, possession, possession is the name of the game along with highly technically gifted center mid like players in every position. This coupled with a high pressure; high line ferocious defending style when off the ball has been a deadly combination in recent time.

Other famous tactics that are well respected in modern football is the Italian zonal defence that has gained them success over the years and most notably a word cup not long ago. This system is a more defensive system with high emphasis on counter attack and help defence.

Whose system is next to change the way we view football? Maybe San Marino will take over with their “lose at any cost” tactic (cheap shot I know).

Why Are There So Many Different Systems?

That’s like asking why there are so many different cars, bikes or shirts to buy. Everybody has their own style and everybody likes doing things their own way. That’s what makes soccer systems so great and sometimes so dangerous.

You’ve got all your versions of defensive systems from the Italians to the Greeks and attacking systems from the Invincibles to the Dutch and everything in between. One thing holds true no matter which system you play, it comes down to execution and focus.

Should A Team Know More Than One?

I’ve always believed that a one trick pony never lasts. With that said I still feel any great team must have a system and style of play that’s their own and that they’ve broken down to a science but should also be flexible.

Ever met somebody stuck in their ways and never willing to change? People and systems like that can get left behind with the times.

Every team is different and certain games ask different questions and where one tool may work for one type of job, it may not for another. With that in mind having a diverse tool shed gives you the ability to counter act any move.

Now which tool to use is a different question all together, I’ll let you figure that one out Fergie.

What’s The Best Soccer System To Use?

Oh my young friend if I knew that answer then you’d see me coaching the Brazilian and Spanish National teams at the same time. The best soccer system is the one that makes your team greater than its individual parts and exceeds the talent of the players combined.

What’s that supposed to mean?

What it means is that your system of play gives the players a higher belief in what they are doing. It’s instilling in them that if they take care of their individual job the greater good will be accomplished and the teams goal will be met.