When watching soccer on TV I often hear the commentators say stuff like, "They've come out in a 3-5-2, not their usual 4-4-2 in the hopes of ..." or "they've got so-and-so acting as 'false 9' today." How could I recognize these strategies myself?
The easiest way is to watch the pregame show. Usually about 5-10 minutes before kickoff they will show the two teams and their formation on the field. This can also be a good way to familiarize yourself with different players.
If you miss the pregame show and are just watching the run of play, it can be tougher, but still possible. Formations are always described defense-to-offense (excepting the goalkeeper). So a 4-4-2 means 4 defensive players, 4 midfielders and 2 attackers.
The number of defenders and the number of attackers are usually the easiest to identify. Look for the defense to hold an offside line and see how many there are to get an estimate of the defensive line. When the ball is back in the defensive half, see how many players are staying up near the midfield line to get the number of attackers. Subtract those two from 10 and you'll get the number of midfielders.
This is not completely accurate, as people will play where needed during the normal run of play, but it will at least get you an idea.
Secondarily, you should also pay attention to the style of play and who's passing to who. If a team has a lot of possession, you can usually tell who is playing in the same line by where the passes are going. If player A and B send a lot of passes laterally to each other, and sometimes backwards to player C, then A and B are probably midfielders and C is probably a defender. Again, not 100% accurate, but can give you an idea.
The last thing to do is familiarize yourself with some common formations and how they are different from one another. For example, a 4-5-1 can look very similar to a 4-3-3 but the style of play is much more on the attack in a 4-3-3 and more on the counterattack in a 4-5-1.
Here's a good site that lists a bunch of formations (some common, some not so common) and how they're typically used:
For me every formation can be traced back to one of the two basic formations: 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. All the other formations are just another interpretation of player roles here, or just another way of setting the players (for instance, playing with a defensive midfielder instead of a attacking midfielder).
This in my opinion makes a lot more sense since a team always has to react on situations during the match. An example: Real Madrid mostly plays a almost classis 4-3-3 formation, with Marcelo as their left full-back. In the Primera Division, Real is almost always the better team, resulting in a lot of possesion, so Marcelo can stand much deeper (almost playing as a midfielder or even a winger). But when Real is playing against Barcelona, we mostly see Barca in possesion, so Marcelo has to think defensively more and thus will stand less deep than when having much possesion. You see that in this case, the formation in possesion can almost be described as being a 3-4-3 formation, while not being in possesion yields a 4-3-3 formation.
The main difference between 4-3-3 and 4-2-2 is the number of strikers. Where 4-3-3 in most cases uses one striker and two wingers (nowadays mostly cutting inside), 4-2-2 uses 2 strikers.
I will give an example using the 4-4-2 formation and transform it to a 3-5-2:
Here we see the standard 4-4-2 formation. We see that the midfielders are all close to the center of the field, so only the Wing Backs occupy the wings. This formation is useful for 2 different tactics:
- A tactic where short passing is the main cause. Especially useful for teams without tall strikers.
- A tactic where the long ball is played to very tall strikers. This tactic is played a lot by the more fysical teams. This is why this tactic is quite popular in the English Premier League.
Now, if we want to transform this 4-4-2 to a standard 3-5-2 we only have to move some players. First, and most important, one of the Center Backs is re-positioned as a Defensive Midfielder. This causes a big gap in the center of the field, which is catched by moving your Full-Backs closer to the center (they're actually becomming normal backs now). The last problem that has to be catched now is the center midfield, which is to heavily occupied. We catch this by moving the 2 Central Midfielders to the wings. Now our standard 3-5-2 is created:
This is just an example. You could for instance also transform a classic 4-3-3 into a 4-2-3-1 formation. (e.g. moving your wingers back a bit, and play with a attacking midfielder).
So, in the end we can actually state that a real formation doesn't exist, it all is about the overall tactics and players that are used in the tactics. The only way to really learn how a team plays is watch it often.