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In recent years, we have seen managers develop several innovative systems and formations to gain a tactical edge over their competitors. One such formation is the 4-1-4-1 soccer formation. This formation offers excellent flexibility and adaptability and can give teams a great advantage when using it correctly.
Fans and aspiring managers have asked, “Is 4-1-4-1 a good formation?” “How do we play a 4-1-4-1?” “What are the advantages a 4-1-4-1 gives to my team?” This article will explain 4-1-4-1 soccer tactics and how to play a 4-1-4-1 soccer formation.
4-1-4-1 Tactical Setup
The 4-1-4-1 formation is a variant of many different formations, such as the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 systems. The 4-1-4-1 system gives a team a solid defensive set-up that would be difficult to breach while maintaining an excellent attacking presence.
The main focus of this formation is to give the team a strong defense that allows the rest of the team to do their jobs in the attack. The formation plays with four spaced lines so that each line is never far from the others. This is to deny the opposition any chances from central areas.
As a result, the 4-1-4-1 formation consists of four defenders, one defensive midfield anchor, four midfielders, and one striker.
4-1-4-1 Defense Setup
The 4-1-4-1 formation consists of four defenders, two of whom play in central defence while the other two serve as full-backs.
Since the widespread adaptation of the Total Football model of Johan Cruyff in modern-day football, it is essential to note that most players have more than one role to play on the team and must be adaptable to suit any role.
In the case of a 4-1-4-1, the defenders must be ready to transition into a back three when the manager instructs. The central defenders, especially, must be able to implement this transition as soon as required. Their role is to keep the opposition strikers at bay and, in addition to this, help their team with their build-up play in the game. To be effective at both, the central defenders must be technically proficient when they have the ball at their feet and can pick out the right passes from deep.
The full-backs have particular roles depending on the manager’s instructions to his team. Sometimes, managers require full-backs to maintain width for their team, like Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira did for Leicester City when they played the formation. Other times, the manager may have a different idea about how his full-backs ought to function on the pitch during games. For example, former Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa used to set his side up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with his full-backs playing narrow and his wide midfielders keeping his side’s width. As a result, the likes of Luke Ayling and Egzjan Alioski made those underlapping runs that often led to confusion and controlled chaos for the opposition defenders.
4-1-4-1 Midfield Setup
The midfield arrangement in the 4-1-4-1 is fascinating because the team’s success is often determined in this area of the pitch. The formation requires a single pivot or anchor playing in defensive midfield. This anchor is one of the most essential players in the formation as he gives the team license to transition to a different formation seamlessly.
Furthermore, he must be an intelligent tackler and hardworking midfielder who can clean up anything and everything in front of his defence. Also, he must be comfortable dropping into the central defensive position to build up play and allow the full-backs to push higher up the pitch on both sides. In addition, the player must be able to follow his team when they move up the pitch, maintaining a safe distance that allows him to sweep up any loose balls before they become dangerous.
Players like Wilfred Ndidi and Kalvin Phillips have excelled in the Premier League for Leicester City and Leeds United, respectively.
Further forward, there is a second line of four midfielders responsible for controlling the game’s tempo and creating goalscoring openings for their team. This four-man midfield typically comprises two wide midfielders or wingers, a central midfielder, and an attacking midfielder or second striker.
Players like Rodrigo Moreno and Ayoze Perez have excelled in the role as one of the two players in the middle of the four-man arrangement. This four-man unit can easily create overloads in critical regions of the pitch when required and is also expected to drop deeper to help the defence when the need arises. In the attack, one of the central players is expected to step up and press the opposition defenders when they have the ball, along with his team’s striker. As a result, the other three players would close down the possible passing options to force them to lose possession.
4-1-4-1 Attack Setup
When playing a 4-1-4-1 system, the team has only one striker upfront. The striker in this system shoulders all or most of his team’s goalscoring burden in their games. The striker must be mobile and a willing runner who can run down the channels. Also, the striker must have the physical strength to hold up the ball until his teammates arrive around him.
In addition to his ability to hold onto the ball, he must be able to play under pressure and be unselfish in his play. A perfect example of a striker for this system is Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, who has thrived and scored many goals playing in the system.
4-1-4-1 Formation Strengths
When properly utilised, the 4-1-4-1 formation gives teams an advantage over the opposition because of the tendency to have good numbers in defence and attack. Some of the strengths of the formation are highlighted below:
Protection From Counterattacks
The solid defensive arrangement makes it easy to protect the team against opposition counterattacks. The four-man midfield serves as a net to close down the opposition in their own half before they enter dangerous positions.
The formation allows the team to be balanced at both ends of the pitch, defensively and offensively. The full-backs and wide midfielders ensure that the team is always balanced when they move up and down the pitch. The central players also keep the team’s shape in transition by staying in position.
The 4-1-4-1 formation can be tweaked in various ways to adjust to whatever the opposition brings. In attack, the formation can be turned into a 3-4-2-1, 4-3-3, 4-1-3-2, or 4-1-2-3, depending on the manager’s preference. In defence, the four-man midfield can get into a compact shape and drop back to form a 4-5-1 formation to protect their team in the midfield area.
Stable Pressing Structure
A team that plays with a 4-1-4-1 system can be set up to have a stable pressing structure that gives them an excellent counter-pressing strategy with their one-to-one system. The striker and another central player press the two central defenders while the rest of the players block out the passing routes to cut possible routes out of defence.
4-1-4-1 Formation Weaknesses
Just as the formation has its strengths, it has some notable weaknesses which can be exposed by capable opposition. Here are some of the weaknesses of the formation;
Constant Pressing Can Wear Players Out
The formation requires players to press as a unit consistently, and the players need to do so not to lose their structure and get caught out by the opposition team. As a result, the players can get tired quite early during their games.
Requires an Expert Anchor
For a 4-1-4-1 formation to thrive, the team needs to have an expert defensive midfielder playing the holding role. This defensive midfielder must know where, when, and how to move to avoid exposing his team, or the formation could lose its fluidity. Teams that play the 4-1-4-1 formation, such as Leicester City and Leeds United, have significantly struggled in the absence of their starting defensive midfielders.
Striker May Be Isolated
When faced with a team with superior technical players, it is quite a distinct possibility that the striker in a 4-1-4-1 system may be left isolated, creating a disjointed attack that would not be able to create quality chances and score goals.
Due to the type of pressing structure that the 4-1-4-1 employs, it can be quite easy to beat the press of a team that uses the formation. Once the first two lines of the press are bypassed, the entire backline is left exposed, and oppositions could score easily.
Teams That Use the 4-1-4-1 Formation
Many teams that use the 4-1-4-1 formation normally do so in transition, with managers like Pep Guardiola and Brendan Rodgers employing the formation regularly. Being an offshoot of the 4-4-2, it is easier for Leicester City to play with this formation, having previously used 4-4-2. Leeds United were also known to use the formation occasionally when Marcelo Bielsa was their manager. Spain won the European Championship in 2008 mainly using the formation on the international stage, as did Germany in 2014 with the FIFA World Cup.
The 4-1-4-1 formation gives a balance many other formations do not give to teams. Its use in the game’s defensive and attacking phase is determined by the kind of manager and his tactical approach. In addition, its flexibility makes it one of the most attractive formations for many managers as it can transform into several other formations.