There is a myriad of football formations in the modern age, some of which are universally popular such as the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1.
However, there are others that are decidedly more trend-driven and fleetingly popular, including the currently in-vogue 3-4-2-1 system. Currently being used to excellent effect by Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, this system is a variation of the classic 3-4-3 formation, and offers incredible flexibility and significant overloads both in and out of possession.
But where did the 3-4-2-1 originate, and how does it work from an offensive and defensive perspective?
What is the 3-4-2-1 and Where Did it Originate?
Rinus Michels’ brilliant Ajax side of the mid-1970s would often adopt a 3-4-3 shape when in possession of the ball, with this transitioning to a fluid 4-3-3 when the team was defending.
However, it was Ajax legend and then-Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff who first fully utilised a defined 3-4-3 shape, which featured three central defenders, a diamond midfield, two wide forwards and a central striker.
This system enabled Barcelona to dominate midfield and retain possession at will, although it did encounter issues from the perspective of a lack of natural width when defending in wide areas.
The system soon made its way to Italy, where AC Milan manager Alberto Zaccheroni implemented an adjusted 3-4-3 iteration that featured a flat midfield complete with two central players and a couple of wing-backs.
It’s largely this iteration that remains popular in 2021, although Antonio Conte and Tuchel have initiated a subtle change to the forward line to create the more flexible 3-4-2-1 . Conte, in particular, deployed the 3-4-2-1 to excellent effect when winning the league with Chelsea in 2016/17, although he adapted this to a 3-5-2 when winning Serie A with Inter Milan last season.
Player Roles in the 3-4-2-1
The single biggest advantage of this system is its ability to create overloads and a truly compact team, particularly defensively.
When out of possession, for example, this system can easily be augmented into a compact 5-4-1, with three narrow center-backs flanked by two wing-backs. Two central midfielders can then screen in front of the back three, while the two deep-lying or wide forwards drop in to mark the opposition full-backs.
When in attack, however, the system can switch to an offensive 3-2-5 shape, where the wing-backs push to provide natural width and the deeper forwards rotate within the width of the 18-yard box. One of the two midfielders may also provide an attacking threat in the opposition’s box, with the three center-backs providing genuine cover when in transition.
While the four-man midfield in the 3-4-2-1 will typically feature a double-pivot and two typically offence-minded (albeit disciplined) wing-backs, the composition of the defence and attack may vary significantly.
For example, the back three may feature a sweeper in the centre of the defence, who can collect loose balls and cover midfield runners while also bringing the ball out and initiating attacks with their range of passing.
Conversely, this type of ‘libero’ role may be undertaken by the right or left-sided centre-backs, especially if the opposition is playing with a single striker in attack. Your wide centre-halves may also be deployed to mark opposition wingers in this instance, freeing the wing-backs to push higher in the process.
As for the attack, the two forwards that operate behind the main striker may function as separate number 10s. These players will have the creative freedom to assume positions between the lines when in possession, although they’ll require defensive discipline to defend in wide areas or the left and right channels when the ball is lost.
Conversely, they may operate a little higher and wider, typically as inverted wingers. This represents a more familiar iteration of the classic 3-4-3, although the relatively deep nature of the players in relation to the striker creates a slightly different and more precise 3-4-2-1 shape.
The Last Word
The current Chelsea side may be the best current exponent of the 3-4-2-1, with Tuchel’s incredibly compact defensive shape having created a highly organised unit and a team that can also press and counter-press high and with excellent effect.
By deploying attacking wing-backs such as Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi in the wide areas, Tuchel also maintains exceptional width at all times, while the two deep-lying forwards (usually Mason Mount and Kai Havertz) utilise their clever movement and positioning to press high and create overloads in midfield.
When beating Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final last season, for example, Mount and Hakim Ziyech supplemented the attack superbly, while also dropping into the centre of the park to create a six-man midfield and outnumber City when they tried to play out from the back.
There’s no doubt that Chelsea’s recent success (along with that of Antonio Conte at several clubs) has helped to popularise the 3-4-2-1 system, with this trend likely to continue in the near-term at least.