4-1-4-1 Formation – The Ultimate Coaching Guide
While the 4-1-4-1 formation used to primarily be seen as defensive in nature, managers such as Pep Guardiola have seen it transformed into one of the most exciting, attacking, and fluid formations out there.
This is in large part because the holding midfielder shields and protects your defence which gives the rest of the midfielders more freedom to attack.
The formation should, in theory, be defensively sound thanks to the flat-back four and defensive-minded midfielder in front of them.
It can also easily change into a 4-5-1 or even a 5-4-1 if you want to sit back and protect a lead or shore up the defence.
As you can see, the 4-1-4-1 affords you a great deal of tactical flexibility and fluidity in terms of how you line up and this makes it a very useful formation, particularly if you have the appropriate personnel for it.
If you’re lacking a clinical striker, however, or the right player in the holding role, then you may be better off experimenting with another setup.
To give you a better idea of whether the 4-1-4-1 suits your team, let's now take a look at what is needed to play the formation as well as some of its strengths and weaknesses.
After that, we'll then examine each position and look at how to defend and attack using the 4-1-4-1 formation.
• In this formation, the role of the deep-lying midfielder is key. They need to be able to read the play, cover the other midfielders, and sniff out any danger before it arises.
• The system also demands a clinical striker who is quick, can hold the ball up, and bring others into play. As they will be quite isolated at times, this player needs to put the ball in the back of the net more often than not.
• The centrebacks should be able to communicate well and work effectively with the holding midfielder who they should encourage not to drop too deep. If the manager also wants the formation to turn into a 3-4-3 from time to time then these centrebacks should also feel at ease playing in a back three.
• Fullbacks who are comfortable on the ball and can advance up the pitch to help the wide midfielders attack.
• Centre midfielders who work well as both a two and a three, are comfortable in possession and can both attack and defend with ease. They should have good stamina and conditioning, understand their roles and know when to drop back and when to push up.
• 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.
• The team needs to understand exactly how to play with a holding midfielder and have good positioning and communication skills so that this player doesn't get in the way of the centrebacks.
• They should understand that the team will struggle to create much in the way of chances unless the two center midfielders and the two wide players adequately support the lone striker.
• With time, practice and coaching, the team can develop a lot of tactical flexibility so that the formation can easily turn into a 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1, 5-4-1 or 3-4-3.
Strengths of the 4-1-4-1 Formation
1. Defensively Strong
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.
2. Fluid and Flexible
One of its key strengths is that the deep-lying midfielder can sit back and not only allow the four midfielders to push up the pitch, but the fullbacks as well.
3. Allows for Two Attack-Minded Centre Midfielders
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.
4. Can Be Both Defensive and Offensive
As you can see, teams playing 4-1-4-1 can be both solid at the back and dangerous in attack, depending on the players you select, the instructions you give the team, and how the match is going.
5. Keeps Your Opponents Guessing
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.
Weaknesses of the 4-1-4-1 Formation:
1. Requires a Specialist Holding Midfielder
If this deep-lying midfielder doesn't know how to play the role then the flexibility, fluidity and defensive solidity of the formation disappears.
2. Players Can Get in Each Others' Way
Without good communication and positioning, the five central players can limit each others' space and get in each others' way. In doing so they limit their own time and space on the ball and therefore their effectiveness at keeping possession.
3. Can Be Hard to Create Chances
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.
4. Requires an Efficient and Ruthless Striker
If the striker doesn't tuck away the chances that fall their way then there may be a lack of goals in the team. As such, the four midfielders need to chip in with goals and assists.
5. Harder to Get Right Than it Looks
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 Setup
While at first sight, the 4-1-4-1 formation looks to be quite defensive and negative in set up, it can actually be very attack-minded depending on the instructions you give the team.
Many managers are now using the formation to release their more attack-minded players from their defensive duties.
Having said that, it can still certainly help you to protect a lead, shut up shop, and make your team compact and hard to beat.
The setup of the formation and the personnel you choose depends to a large extent on what you want to achieve and the instructions you give your players.
In any case, the team always lines up with a flat-back four in front of the goalkeeper.
After that, you have the two centrebacks before them and the two fullbacks out wide.
While the former are expected to win every duel and marshal the defence, the latter should defend their flank and push up and help out their wingers when they have the chance.
In front of the flat-back four we have a holding midfielder or defensive mid.
This player sometimes acts as a deep-lying playmaker depending on the make up of the midfielders before them. This position is the key to whether the 4-1-4-1 is a success or not.
In central midfield, the manager is free to select one or two box-to-box midfielders or even two attacking mids or number 10s.
Both of these players have to get up and down the pitch, support the defence and contribute in attack by supporting the lone striker.
On either side of them we have two wingers or wide midfielders, depending on how the manager chooses to set up.
While these players should help out the fullbacks behind them, they also need to get up and down their flank and support the striker up front.
In attack is the lone striker who is expected to score the vast bulk of the team's goals.
While this player can be an out and out striker who is pacy and stretches the play, the manager may alternatively select a false 9 who drops deep and allows the two attacking midfielders to pass beyond them.
In any case, they should be adept at keeping hold of the ball, acting as a target for the team and bringing others into play.
As you can already tell, there is a great deal of flexibility in terms of not just how you line up but also the personnel you select to carry out your instructions on the pitch.
Let's now take a look at each individual position to see what is expected from players lining up in the 4-1-4-1 formation.
Player Roles and Responsibilities
With the 4-1-4-1 there is less emphasis on goalkeepers to be good with their feet or quick off of their line like with some other formations.
This means that their role is quite traditional and therefore boils largely down to them making saves when required and commanding their box.
As the team lines up with a flat-back four and a specialised holding player before them, they should concede relatively few clear-cut goalscoring opportunities.
As such, the goalkeeper needs to ensure that they remain focused and keep their concentration for the rare shots on goal that arise.
With so many players sitting in front of the area, the opposition should in theory struggle to get shots off from close range.
This means that the keeper should instead keep an eye out for longshots.
Alternatively, the opposition may resort to lumping the ball into the box from the flanks.
The keeper should be brave and not afraid to come and claim crosses that come near to them.
While the 4-1-4-1 should in theory be quite a defensively solid formation, gaps can appear if the four midfielders in front of the holding player are too gung-ho in their approach.
This can also happen when the defensive midfielder drops back and the fullbacks push forward.
In this scenario the goalkeeper may have to be quick off their line to cover the defenders if too much space is left in behind them when they push up.
As always the goalkeeper needs to make sure they communicate clearly with their defenders and let them know if any danger comes their way.
The centrebacks in a 4-1-4-1 also largely play in the same way as they would in any other type of flat-back four.
The challenge therefore is to make sure that they clearly communicate with the holding player in front of them, not get in each others' way and not double mark the same player.
As the holding player will often be the one who initiates and starts plays from deep, the two centrebacks have less pressure on them to be good with the ball at their feet.
This means they can focus on the defending side of things.
With a defensive midfielder and four other midfielders in front of them, however, the centre of the pitch should be quite tightly congested.
Because of this, the opposition will struggle to play their way through and create in the box.
While the centrebacks need to remain alert to any danger and of course tackle anyone who does get through, their main job will therefore be blocking longshots and clearing any crosses that come into the box.
When they do throw themselves forward to block the ball, they should try to not give away any fouls or leave space in behind them for attackers to exploit.
As this formation is not too demanding or complicated in terms of what positions they should take up, the centrebacks should instead focus on directing their fullbacks and making sure that the holding midfielder doesn't drop too deep.
Consequently, they need to have good leadership and communication skills.
Although they shouldn't actually have all that much defending to deal with due to the nature of the line up, the more open, expansive and attacking the team is, the more challenges they will have to commit.
In addition to this, there will be more emphasis on the centrebacks to be good on the ball if the manager expects the holding midfielder to drop back from time to time and form a back three.
In this case, the defenders would also have to be quite quick and strong and be ready to cover the space in behind the fullbacks who have pushed up.
As with any formation, time, practice and coaching will help the centrebacks feel comfortable with the various demands placed upon them.
Left and Right Fullback
While the primary aim of the fullbacks in the 4-1-4-1 formation is to defend, they may have greater attacking responsibilities depending on their manager's instructions and if the team regularly changes to a 3-4-3 set-up.
In essence, however, their role is to defend the flank, keep the opposition winger in check and prevent them either getting into the box themselves or putting a dangerous cross in behind the centrebacks.
While the fullbacks are expected to win their personal battle with the player they’re up against, they also need to closely coordinate with the centrebacks and holding midfielder beside them as well as the wingers in front of them.
This demands good communication and teamwork skills as well as great positioning and tactical understanding.
When in possession the two fullbacks should push wide and create passing angles not only for the centrebacks but the deep-lying midfielder as well.
As such they should be comfortable on the ball and be able to calmly keep possession.
Depending on their instructions, they may also have license to push further forward and support their wingers in attack.
This could then see them overlapping and putting crosses into the box for the striker and attacking midfielders to get on the end of.
Although the 4-1-4-1 can be very defensively solid, the fullbacks may have to sit back and defend more if the manager instructs the four midfielders to push forward and attack at will.
In this case, the fullbacks' role would be much more defensive in nature and they may have less help from the wingers in front of them.
In this scenario, the fullbacks would have to be very good at tackling and know exactly when to commit to a challenge and when to stand off and wait for support to arrive from the holding midfielder.
With the 4-1-4-1, a lot of the formation's flexibility, fluidity and defensive solidity comes from the holding midfielder.
It is their job to sit in between the defence and midfield and snuff out any of the opposition's attacks.
This means they have to have a very good sense of positioning and be quick and strong in the tackle. They should also be able to sniff out danger and drop into any gaps that open up when the team are attacking.
As well as this, they should also be able to read the game very well and make a lot of interceptions.
They should screen the defence and block off any passing angles in behind them and be very mobile and be able to cover a lot of ground.
Their role isn't only defensive however as they also need to be very comfortable on the ball and have a wide range of passing.
Usually it will be this holding midfielder who picks the ball up off of the centrebacks and sprays it forward to either the midfielders or fullbacks.
As they operate in a congested part of the park, they should also have very good footwork and be able to keep possession and remain calm in tight spaces when under pressure.
It is this player's disciplined nature and fine defensive work that allows the rest of the midfielders to push forward and attack, safe in the knowledge that the defence is adequately protected.
With many teams who play the 4-1-4-1, it is the holding midfielder who acts as the manager's general out on the pitch.
They dictate the pace of play and also decide whether or not they drop back between the centrebacks and turn the formation into a 3-4-3.
Consequently, these players often have great leadership skills and a fantastic tactical understanding of how the game should be played and what is needed at any particular moment.
In addition to this, they also need great communication skills as they need to know when to call the midfielders in front of them back and when to encourage them to push forwards.
While the flat-back four and holding midfielder positions are a given in a 4-1-4-1, it is in central midfield that a manger can really implement their tactics and decide how they want to set up.
As such, they may select more disciplined, hard-working and defensive players if they want to shut up shop and defend a lead.
Alternatively they may instead choose more attack-minded players if they want to overwhelm the opposition in attack.
Regardless of what type of players the manager selects, the two central midfielders need to be cool, calm and collected in possession, have good ball control and be able to pick a pass.
As the centre of the pitch will undoubtedly be quite congested, they need to work well in tight spaces and have some fancy footwork to get out of trouble when necessary.
They should be able to work well as both a central midfield partnership and as part of a trio with the holding midfielder in behind them.
This means that they need a good sense of positioning and be able to communicate well with one another.
The relationship between the three players in the centre of the park goes a long way to determining whether or not the team wins or loses and so they need to understand each other's roles perfectly.
Together they should be able to dominate possession and keep the ball between them.
Although the deep-lying midfielder largely absolves them of their defensive duties, they should work hard, support the defence behind them and cover a lot of ground.
In addition to this, they should not be afraid to put tackles in as well as press their opponents and try and win the ball back.
While the two central midfielders certainly have to help out in defence, it is absolutely crucial that they not remain too deep and leave the lone striker isolated.
As such, they need to be able to hare up and down the pitch and support the striker as much as possible.
Ideally one, if not both of them, should play close to the striker and feed them balls in behind the defence.
They should also look to run beyond the striker and get a shot off at goal when they have the chance or try and get on the end of any crosses into the box.
In Guardiola's teams, these two players are often traditional number 10s who are given the freedom to roam about where they see fit.
They’re both very hard-working however and cover a lot of ground both when attacking and defending.
By having two creative players in the team, the formation takes on a very fluid look as they drift into space and take up unorthodox positions which are hard to defend against.
This also enables them to overwhelm and outnumber opponents on one flank before later on appearing on the other.
These players are expected to get in amongst the goals and also contribute assists and create goal-scoring opportunities.
They should immediately hare back however if the team loses possession and if necessary commit a foul to prevent the opposition from counterattacking.
As you can see, the type of players that the manager selects in the centre of midfield goes a long way to determining how attacking or defensive the team plays.
Wide Midfielders or Wingers
The wide positions are another area where the manager can decide if they want to set their team up to attack or defend.
If they want the team to play more expansive or open soccer for instance then they may opt for wingers over wide midfielders.
In any case, both types of player are expected to help out defensively and protect the fullback behind them.
This means that they should track back when the team is defending and put tackles and blocks in when the occasion calls for it.
Consequently they have to be disciplined and hard-working and have good pace and stamina to get up and down the pitch in time.
While the wide players certainly have their defensive duties, they’re also required to support the lone striker in attack.
This means getting high enough up the pitch to either put in an accurate cross or exchange passes with the striker and get a shot off themselves.
These more attack-minded players should have great technique and fancy footwork so that they can not only dribble around players but pass, cross and shoot accurately.
As the formation only has a lone striker upfront, the wide players need to contribute as many assists and goals as possible.
As aforementioned, the 4-1-4-1 formation can easily transform into either a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 and this type of set up gives the wide players ever more license to push forward and attack.
This then relieves them to a large extent of their defensive duties and encourages them to remain forward and stick closer to the central striker.
In this more advanced position they can then either attack the flanks and get more crosses into the box or cut inside more regularly and get shots off or lay up a shot for a midfielder.
As well as working effectively with the fullback behind them, these wide players need to be on the same wavelength as the striker up front.
As you would expect, one of the main requirements for any striker in any team is to put the ball in the back of the net as frequently as possible.
This becomes even more important in a single striker system such as the 4-1-4-1.
Beyond having fantastic finishing abilities, great off the ball movement and an eye for goal, the striker also has to lead the line, battle for every ball and make darting runs in behind the opposition's defence.
This helps to stretch the opponents and create more space in which the midfielders behind them can play.
While some managers opt for a false 9 instead of a more traditional target player or speed merchant, this striker still needs to act as a target for the midfielders and hold the ball up well and bring others into play.
As the striker in 4-1-4-1 formation can get a bit isolated at times, they need to encourage the others to push forward in support of them.
This means that when they do get the ball they really need to protect it, hold on to it and wait for the rest of the team to push up the pitch.
In addition to this, they should have a good relationship and understanding with the two attacking midfielders who operate directly behind them.
As such they should look to the lay off the ball for these players to have a shot themselves or drag defenders out of position so that they can make runs in behind.
When the ball comes into the box from out wide, the striker needs to anticipate where it's going to go and battle to get to it before the centrebacks.
They should be able to head and volley the ball well and have good timing when striking it.
In a 4-1-4-1 a striker needs to be absolutely selfless and work hard throughout the game to create opportunities and score goals.
Attacking in the 4-1-4-1 Formation
While the 4-1-4-1 can be quite defensive in terms of its set-up, there are actually ample opportunities for teams to attack in a creative manner using the formation.
It all really depends on the personnel the manager selects and just how attacking they instruct the players to be.
Regardless of the attributes of the players that the manager selects in the middle of the park, it is up to these four midfielders to get forward as much as possible and support the lone striker.
Although a lot of the goalscoring burden falls on the striker up front, these four players in behind them should all chip in with goals and assists.
As the holding player can cover and take care of the vast majority of the defensive duties, these four midfielders can push forward without too many worries about getting caught out.
Although they certainly have to track back and help out the defence, they should feel free to be creative and attack the opposition either through the centre or down the flanks.
While the wide midfielders are expected to get forward and put crosses or passes into the box for the striker to get on the end of, the central midfielders also need to try and get into the box to get a shot at goal.
These more attack-minded central midfielders should also stick as close to the lone striker as possible and try and slip passes for them in behind the defence, get off shots themselves or help out the wide midfielders on the wing.
As they have quite a lot of freedom in terms of where they pop up, they can help outnumber the opposition in certain areas of the pitch.
While the four midfielders and striker are responsible for the vast bulk of the team's attacking output, the fullbacks may also bomb forward, depending on the manager's instructions.
They may for instance overlap beyond the wide midfielders and put crosses into the box for the striker and central midfielders.
This happens both when the team is set up in a 4-1-4-1 and when the holding midfielder drops back to create a 3-4-3.
Due to the tactical flexibility of the formation, the team has lots of possibilities when attacking thanks to the holding player who sits in front of the back four.
Defending in the 4-1-4-1 Formation
As aforementioned, the 4-1-4-1 used to primarily be seen as a defensive and negative formation as the line-up sacrifices a striker for a holding midfielder.
While this view has changed somewhat in recent years, the formation can still be very solid and defensive when need be.
In addition to the holding midfielder who can make interceptions, block off passing angles, track and tackle attackers, the four midfielders in front of them can also be brought back when the team is defending.
This means that the opposition have two banks of four to try and get through, with a holding midfielder also snapping about between the lines.
This understandably makes the 4-1-4-1 very hard to play through and the team can compress and reduce the space in which the opposition have to operate if they bring the lines closer together.
This then affords their opponents very little time and space on the ball in front of the area.
Not only is the formation hard to play through in the centre, but the wings are also well defended with a fullback and winger on each side.
These two can also be supported by a centreback, central midfielder or holding midfielder if necessary.
With both the centre and flanks shut off, the opposition then have to resort to crossing the ball in from deep or taking speculative longshots from afar.
Both of these should be easily claimed by the goalkeeper.
While the formation can be very solid defensively, it may come undone when too many players pour forward in attack. This then means that the centrebacks and holding midfielder are more exposed.
As such, they then need to hold off the opposition until help arrives and the rest of the team comes back or make a tactical foul to prevent a goal from being scored.
This latter option should be done as high up the pitch and as far away from the goal as possible.
Although the formation can certainly be very defensively solid, it relies on the players working hard and supporting their teammates and taking up the right positions time and time again.
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.
If you have lots of great midfielders for instance then it is a great way to select three of them in your team and not unbalance the line-up.
It does, however, rely on you having a great striker up front who will score more often than they miss.
While this striker may become isolated up front, it is up to the four midfielders behind them to push forward and chip in with goals and assists, all without neglecting their defensive duties.
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.