Tactics Explained – A Look at the 4-1-4-1

In our piece exploring football tactics, we’re going to cast our eyes over the increasingly popular 4-1-4-1.

Despite primarily being seen as a defensive system, the 4-1-4-1 has been reimagined in recent years, largely thanks to the efforts of Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta.

But how and where did this system originate, and what roles do individual players have within it?

The History of the 4-1-4-1

Similar to the 4-2-3-1, the 4-1-4-1 shape represents a natural evolution of the iconic 4-4-2.

One of the first high profile managers to use this shape was Jose Mourinho, who adopted a structured 4-1-4-1 having taken over at Chelsea. In this shape, Claude Makelele adopted the disciplined defensive midfield role, with Frank Lampard and Tiago or Geremi playing in front of the Frenchman.

In the wide attacking areas, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben would generally play high and wide, although occasionally darting inside and operating a little narrower to forge a more attacking 4-3-3.

At this time, the 4-1-4-1 was largely seen as a compact and defensive shape, and one that was seamlessly interchangeable with the classic 4-5-1.

However, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta regularly utilises a more offence-minded 4-1-4-1, with Thomas Partey often deploying the holding role behind Granit Xhaka and the gifted Martin Odegaard.

In this side, Emile Smith-Rowe (or Gabrielle Martinelli) and Bukayo Saka playing on the left and right flanks respectively.

What are the Player Roles in the 4-1-4-1?

This system deploys a regular back four, with two centre backs flanked by a right and left fullback.

However, the presence of a specialist holding player arguably affords the fullbacks a little more scope to attack in this system, enabling them to support and overlap their corresponding wingers when their side has possession of the ball.

The defensive midfielder plays a critical role in the success (or failure) of the 4-1-4-1, as he’s required to both screen the back four and prevent balls from being threaded into the attack third while constructively feeding the four more attacking midfielders in front.

This is why Chelsea’s use of the 4-1-4-1 was so successful, as Claude Makelele specialised in the holding role thanks to his positional awareness, anticipation and willingness to receive the ball from his defensive players.

With a solid and tactically aware holding player, managers can select two attacking midfielders to play in front. We’ve often seen Pep Guardiola adopt a fluid iteration of this shape during his time at Manchester City, with the quietly brilliant Fernandinho protecting the defence behind the more attacking duo of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.

These players could effectively operate as number 10s and look to receive the ball in dangerous areas between the midfield and the opposition’s defence, while also being willing to track back and create a more compact central midfield when out of possession.

As for the wide attackers, these players typically have the freedom to play either wide or narrow depending on the opposition.

So, although they may adopt wide positions when out of possession to create a more defence-oriented 4-5-1, they’re able to operate with fluidity in the final third and assume similar positions in-between the lines.

Often, however, wide players in the 4-1-4-1 play relatively high and wide, in order to create space for the attacking central midfielders to operate and provide a continual outlet for switches of play.

What about the striker? Well, the historically defensive nature of the 4-1-4-1 often left the sole striker isolated, particularly in instances where the wingers stayed wide and the two more attacking central midfielders operated a little deeper.

As the system has evolved and become more attacking, however, the striker will often find himself closer to the four more offence-oriented players who operate in front of the holding midfielder.

This creates a far greater opportunity for the number nine to link play successfully, often by dropping a little deeper and developing space for either one or both of the wingers to dart inside and assume shooting positions.

The Last Word

Thanks to managers like Guardiola and Arteta, the 4-1-4-1 has become an increasingly fluid and attacking system, and one in which structured possession and progressive patterns can be built on top of a solid defensive foundation.

This is also a formation that requires tactical knowledge and discipline, especially given the positional importance of the holding midfielder and the need for the two attacking central midfielders to drop back and fill spaces during the defensive phases of the game.

The system can also meld seamlessly into a 4-5-1 when out of possession and a narrower 4-3-3 when attacking, but it definitely allows for flexibility depending on each individual opponent.

We’d also expect this system to become more popular in the near-term, despite the rising prominence of formations with three central defenders.

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