The 4-1-4-1 is a relatively recent organic development and actually stems from either the 4-3-3 formation or from the 4-2-3-1 formation. In many ways, it is the formation’s next tactical evolution in an era defined by a paradigm of soccer stressing possession as a defensive strategy.
Most notably Spain used this in the final of Euro 2008 to great effect in containing a powerful German side, while since that date Germany has dabbled in the formation to both great delight and great sorrow at times.
The formation itself is predicated on maintaining the all-important midfield triangle that is so key in both the 4-2-3-1 and in the 4-3-3. From the 4-2-3-1, the formation comes about by pushing a holding midfielder into an advanced position, while in the 4-3-3 it requires the wide players to be true 2-way players rather than the wingers.
The true power in this formation is tactical flexibility in that with single swaps of players, the 4-1-4-1 can immediately transition into either of the other two formations or even into a 4-4-2 formation if needed. This allows the team to react quickly and effectively to changes made by opposition sides.
This soccer formation almost look like an easily breakable formation seeing that lonely midfielder that can be easily overpowered in counters. That’s why before opting for it the coach should be aware of its requirement.
4-1-4-1 Formation strengths
With a flat-back four protected by a specialised holding midfielder and four midfielders lying in front of them, the 4-1-4-1 can be very hard to score against.
With so many bodies in the centre of the pitch, adopters of the 4-1-4-1 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.
While many think the 4-1-4-1 is a defensive formation, it actually allows you to fit two attack-minded midfielders or number 10s into the central roles.
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 4-1-4-1 as soon as they take the lead.
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 4-1-4-1.
Thanks to its tactical versatility, the 4-1-4-1 can easily transform into a number of different formations. This helps to keep your opponents guessing and allows you to more easily adapt to and overcome their tactics
4-1-4-1 formation weaknesses
Given the focus on controlling the midfield, there is often a tendency for the lone strikers in a 4-1-4-1 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 4-1-4-1 team concede the first goal.
If the midfield players aren’t encouraged to get forward then the striker can become too isolated and this makes it hard to fashion goalscoring opportunities
Depending on the style of 4-1-4-1 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.
Although it doesn’t look too complicated at first sight, the 4-1-4-1 demands a bit more tactical understanding and flexibility from the players than other formations – if you want to make the most of it that is.
4-1-4-1 formation Requirements
Playing with this football system requires the team to be able and fluid playing with one holding midfielder as he is the centre piece that moves enables the team to perform.
Many players have assumed this position and we can use Bastien Shweinstiger as one of the best that shined in this role under Pep in his spell at Bayern Munich.
The holding midfielder need to be able to read the play and cover for other midfielders as they tend to move up the field attacking more often. This movement leaved the CDM the duty to cover the space and it’s humanly impossible to do it based on physical abilities alone so he should be using his brain more to position himself or he’ll be done for by the end of the first 45 minutes.
The CDM has to work and coordinate with the centre-backs. The centre-backs should always be aware of the CDM and communicate well to avoid walking on each other’s feet. Most of the time the central mid drops between the two defenders so they should be able to play in a back three formation.
Hard-working and disciplined wide midfielders who provide the main support to the lone striker up front. They should be creative and offensive-minded but also track back and help out their fullback.
Just like other modern football formations, modern fullbacks are required. It means that the two should be comfortable with the ball and extremely fit to run up and down their side for the full 90 minutes.
As we have seen, the 4-1-4-1 can be a great formation to use whether you want to attack or defend – it all depends on the personnel you select and the way you set up your team.
In the Euro 2008 semi-final against Russia, using a 4-4-2 variant, Spain’s David Villa went down injured forcing the team to make a vital change, and one that cemented their victory as they marched on Russia to a final 3-0 score line, before defeating a strong German squad 1-0 in the final. The replacement of David Villa with Cesc Fabregas forced the Spain team into the 4-1-4-1 and the dominating presence of Senna, Xavi and Fabregas allowed Iniesta and Silva to drift inside and out causing fits for both of their opponents. The key in this was the solidity of that midfield trio.
In addition to it being a defensively solid and at the same time attacking formation, the 4-1-4-1 also offers you a lot of tactical flexibility and fluidity thanks to the holding midfielder who sits in front of the defence.
A popular formation with Pep Guardiola, the 4-1-4-1 definitely can be a great success with the right coach, players and playing style.