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Football tactics explained: the most common formations – and how to beat them

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4-5-1 (+ 4-1-4-1)

With its emphasis on packing the midfield to both keep possession and make it hard for opponents to pass through you, the 4-5-1 is frequently the formation of choice for teams looking to avoid defeat in knockout competitions.

What 4-5-1 gains in defensive solidarity and tempo management it loses in attacking threat

What it gains in defensive solidarity and tempo management it loses in attacking threat, however. Launching surprise, unconventional attacks is difficult under this system, especially when the wide midfielders are primarily deployed as extra cover out wide as opposed to being forward threats.

4-1-4-1 can be seen as a variation on the 4-5-1. However, the system is generally part of the three-in-central-midfield family of formations that is so popular in today's game.

Strengths

With so many bodies in the centre of the pitch, adopters of the 4-5-1 tend to find themselves enjoying an enormous amount of possession. In some instances you'll even see teams dropping their striker deep when they're trying to get the ball back, essentially playing a 4-6-0 and making it incredibly difficult for an opponent to penetrate the lines.

Offensive adaptability is equally possible, too. By pushing the two wide  midfielders higher up the pitch it's relatively simple to move to something closer to a 4-3-3 without having to make substitutions. Often, then, you'll see a team deploying 4-3-3 at the start of a game, only to revert to a 4-5-1 as soon as they take the lead.

Alex Neil

Norwich manager Alex Neil is hoping solidity can help his side to Premier League safety

As it's so easy to alter the mentality of the wide players without ever losing your central defensive structure, it's common to see teams in knockout competitions tying themselves to some version of 4-5-1.

Weaknesses

Given the focus on controlling the midfield, there is often a tendency for the lone strikers in a 4-5-1 to become isolated. Midfielders are not always as ready to burst forward and support their striker in the way they would if playing a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. As a result, chasing games from this formation can represent a genuine challenge and you'll often see a complete reshuffle should a 4-5-1 team concede the first goal.

Chasing games from this formation can represent a genuine challenge and you'll often see a complete reshuffle should a 4-5-1 team concede the first goal

Depending on the style of 4-5-1 being implemented, counter-attacks can be difficult to execute. The striker, being on his own, must make every effort to hold up play in order to allow his midfielders the time to advance and influence passing sequences. That delay allows defenders to recover, thus limiting the counter-attacking threat.

Who uses it?

Sunderland, Norwich (occasionally). 

Which formation does it trump?

4-3-3: The 4-5-1's three-person central midfield matches nicely against the edition seen in a 4-3-3, while the orthodox wide midfielders offer extra protection against the opponent's attacking wide options.

4-4-2 • 4-3-3 • 4-2-3-1 • 4-5-1 • 3-5-2