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The 3-4-2-1 formation in soccer is one of the most common formations in the world of soccer today. The formation is one of the numerous variants of the 3-4-3, which different managers have tweaked to suit their tastes and preferences—the use of the 3-4-2-1 in soccer results from managers’ increased need for tactical flexibility and innovation.
Soccer is evolving daily, and new tactical systems are emerging from all over the world. Many managers often resort to playing with a 3-4-2-1 on the pitch regardless of whatever formation they line up with at the beginning of matches. Top managers such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have sometimes settled their teams into this system when they transition from attack to defence and vice versa during games.
How is the 3-4-2-1 Formation Played?
The 3-4-2-1 soccer formation allows managers to create overloads in vital pitch areas to hand their team an advantage. On paper, the formation involves three central defenders, two wing-backs, two central midfielders, two inside forwards, and a striker.
Each role in the set-up requires players with a specific skill set for the formation to be effective. Here is a breakdown of the roles of the players in a 3-4-2-1 set-up.
To effectively use the 3-4-2-1 formation in soccer, the manager must spread three central defenders across the team’s backline. These defenders perform multiple tasks in and out of possession. In possession of the ball, they must create good passing angles for one another to beat the first line of the opposition’s press.
The right-sided central defender is ideally a right-footed player who is comfortable stepping out of his position to cover the right flank when he sniffs danger. To thrive in this position, the player must have good stamina, allowing him to move quickly to close down opposition that attacks through the right flank.
The middle central defender must be a defender capable of distributing the ball with good accuracy. This defender acts as a sweeper who rarely gets drawn into needless tackles and plays majorly on the edge of his 18-yard area. The defender must have a very good array of short and long passes in case he is needed to launch a route one attack.
The left-sided central defender has a similar role to the right-sided one. He is ideally left-footed with a good passing range and precision. He must be able to cover the left flank when the opposition chooses to attack and be pacy enough to close down opposition attacks.
In a 3-4-2-1 formation, there ought to be two wing-backs upon whom a great deal of responsibility lies. These wing-backs provide width for the team and serve as creative outlets. They provide width in the middle and final thirds of the pitch, allowing their midfielders to pick from a variety of passing options.
In addition, they are expected to feature prominently in the attack by delivering dangerous crosses for their forwards to work with. Part of their duty in a 3-4-2-1 is to remain out wide in attack while other players move into central roles.
In defence, the wing-backs are tasked with monitoring the movements of opposition wingers and full-backs, cutting them off from receiving the ball in dangerous positions and reducing their productivity as a whole. Wing-backs must have pace and stamina to enable them to move up and down the pitch with ease.
Two central midfielders
The formation usually features two central midfielders tasked with progressing the ball for the team. These midfielders take responsibility for controlling the tempo of the game and are charged with creating good passing angles to help the defenders to bring the ball out of the defence.
The midfielders also maintain a close distance with their three defenders when out of possession in order to prevent their team from getting overrun in central areas. They
must be technically secure and press-resistant to thrive in the position. One of the midfielders operates as a deep-lying playmaker whose movements on and off the ball aim to create openings and orchestrate play. The other midfielder plays in the box-to-box role, which allows him to break opposition lines with his forceful running and boundless energy.
Two inside forwards
Unlike the regular 3-4-3 formation, which uses wingers, the 3-4-2-1 in soccer uses inside forwards. These inside forwards are players who are not traditional wingers who hang out wide and cut inside or put in crosses from wide positions. They maintain a more central position, allowing the wing-backs to occupy the width of the pitch.
In addition, the inside forwards are usually not the regular wingers who like to take on opposition defenders. Their role is to link up with the striker and pick up the ball in little pockets in the half-spaces of the pitch. They are also tasked with providing goals and creating goalscoring opportunities for their striker.
The 3-4-2-1 uses one striker whose primary role is to score goals. In addition to scoring goals, the striker is usually required to link play with his inside forwards and midfielders where possible. The striker occupies the opposition defence, allowing the inside forwards to take advantage of the spaces created as a result.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Playing in a 3-4-2-1
The 3-4-2-1 formation in soccer has been the blueprint for many soccer teams today, including some of the best teams in the sport. The advantages of the formation are as follows;
- It confers defensive solidity on teams and makes it difficult to score against them.
- Its flexibility makes it very unpredictable as a manager can design his system in any manner good enough to suit his taste and what he wants from the
Depending on the game and how it goes, the manager can also tweak the formation to take advantage of opposition lapses.
- It creates the opportunity for numerous passing combinations in central attacking areas, exposing the opponent’s defensive players, which can overwhelm opposition defences.
- The presence of the wing-backs helps to contribute more goal-scoring chances in This ensures the team can have as many as five attacking threats constantly going at their opponents.
Along with its advantages, however, the 3-4-2-1 formation can be countered by a coach willing to take risks on the pitch. Here are a number of its disadvantages;
- It can leave the midfield exposed as opposition managers can opt for more bodies in the midfield area to overwhelm the two central midfielders that play in a 3-4-2-1.
- In an attack, the team may be unable to inflict much damage when faced with a team operating a low block. This usually means that the central routes to the goal are congested, leaving the wings as the only routes of attack.
- Pacey wingers can easily catch the wing-backs out of position, leading to a direct goal threat.
- The inside forwards are not always the hardest workers off the ball, and as a result, when the opposition beats the first line of their press, about three to four players are bypassed easily, leaving the team exposed at the back.
Teams that have thrived in a 3-4-2-1 formation
Naturally, teams that operate a 3-4-2-1 formation must have players with diverse skill sets that can fit into the formation. One such team in recent memory was Chelsea under the tutelage of Antonio Conte in the 2016-17 season.
Coming off a horrible season, the club started life under Conte with some wins before a bad defeat to Arsenal prompted the manager to switch things up. He converted winger Victor Moses to a right wing-back and right-back Cesar Azpilicueta to a right-sided central defender. Having both of these players in these positions, coupled with some other players such as Eden Hazard and Pedro as inside forwards and N’Golo Kante in the box-to-box role, made Conte’s team almost impossible to stop. The side went on to win the league that season, setting a new points record.
Similarly to what happened under Conte, Thomas Tuchel achieved a similar result at the same club using the same formation. The German manager played with a 3-4-2-1 from the start of his time as Chelsea manager in 2021 and led them to UEFA Champions League glory within half a season, with their defensive solidity a key feature of their play after switching to a three-man backline.
Since 2017, more teams have adopted the 3-4-2-1 formation around Europe with varying amounts of success. The formation makes teams very hard to beat as long as the personnel are right for the job.
Teams that would find it hard to thrive in a 3-4-2-1 formation
The fact that a team needs qualified personnel to enjoy the 3-4-2-1 formation has been stated many times. In the absence of such personnel, the formation may not yield its desired results. For example, former Manchester United manager Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer opted to mirror Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 formation in the 2020 FA Cup semi-final between the teams.
Because his team did not have the experience and quality to utilise Chelsea’s formation personnel-wise, they suffered a damaging defeat. There have been other instances of clubs attempting to use the 3-4-2-1 system without success, which is usually down to the players they have at their disposal.
The formation is generally different from the 3-4-1-2 soccer formation, where there are two strikers and one attacking midfielder. It is also different from the 1-4-3-1 soccer
formation or 3-4-2 soccer formation, which teams apply in a 9vs9 formation during training sessions.
The 3-4-2-1 formation in soccer is one of the thriving formations in recent years. In fact, many managers have adopted it to ensure they remain tight in defence and dangerous on the attack. As long as a team has the right players to fit each position, it is a title-winning formation different teams can take advantage of.