Tactical formations are a subject that is debated every single day around the world. Some people argue it’s vital for how a team plays and if a team plays poorly then a simple formation switch will solve the issue. Others argue that formations have no meaning other than when the television broadcaster shows the line up in their graphic.
Personally, as a football fan and a coach, I believe formations are extremely important. Not in terms of how a team plays, after all you can play a 4-3-3 formation in vastly different playing styles, but rather as a structure I want my players to adhere to. If I want us to press with two forwards and four midfielders in a line behind the forwards then it is of utmost importance that the players position themselves accordingly to make sure we can fulfil our aim. I think the truth lies in that the formation forms the base of the team on the pitch, but not the playing style.
One formation that automatically provides interesting possibilities in terms of central combination play is the 4-3-2-1 formation which was in the spotlight at various times during Carlo Ancelotti’s reign at AC Milan. It’s a formation that is seldom used nowadays although it can be argued some teams end up in similar structures when they have wingers coming inside to either halfspace instead of staying out on the touchline. Ancelotti deployed it with a back four, a midfield three of the creative Andrea Pirlo as a deep-lying playmaker, a regista, and the combative all-action duo of Massimo Ambrosini and Gennaro Gattuso either side of Pirlo. Ahead of them were a duo of creative souls in Clarence Seedorf and Kaká while Filippo Inzaghi, Hernán Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko all spent time as the lone striker. In certain games, Seedorf would replace Ambrosini to make Milan more attacking with Rui Costa coming in as one of the attacking midfielders. Milan’s team was based around the creative talents of Seedorf, Pirlo and Kaká and the best way to utilise their qualities and maintain balance in the side was the 4-3-2-1 or the 4-3-1-2 which they also used regularly.
Other than Milan few teams have consistently used the formation, although former Milan right back Massimo Oddo brought it back to Serie A last season after gaining promotion with Pescara playing a stunning attacking style out of a 4-3-2-1 formation. Their time in the top flight brought some impressive performances, but their lack of cutting edge and frankly quality meant they were always destined to return to Serie B. Oddo did however, show the possibilities for central combination play that the formation automatically allows. Italy’s best coach at the moment, Massimiliano Allegri, was perhaps inspired by Oddo when he set up his Juventus in a 4-3-2-1 against Bologna with Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala as the attacking midfielders in an outstanding performance from the Italian champions.
In this piece we look at how those two teams implemented the formation, what strengths the formation has and the weaknesses which are probably the reason it’s such a rarely used shape.
The obvious defensive advantage with the 4-3-2-1 formation is that it’s very strong centrally with three central midfielders in front of the defence as well as two centrally positioned attacking midfielders in front of the other three. It automatically forces opponents wide and they will struggle to build any kind of possession play centrally. Therefore, the defending team can force their opponents to play in the spaces least desirable – the wing spaces. If you have energetic full-backs who like to quickly sprint out to press and slow down opponents then they can rest assured that they’ll be covered by the ball-near central midfielder. If the full-back can’t press in the wide area, the ball-near central midfielder as well as the ball-near attacking midfielder have access to provide pressure on the ball-carrier.
If the defending team is forced deeper, the two attacking midfielders can quickly slot in with the central midfielders, most often in a wide role, to create a midfield five and thus a 4-5-1 when defending deeper.
Upon loss of possession, the 4-3-2-1 is also perfect for teams who like to counter-press given the close proximity between the players in the attacking structure. Especially if the ball is lost in central areas, you would have at least five players who should be close enough to press intensively or at least delay any forward pass from the opponent’s ball-carrier.
The problem that could arise is the fact the back four could get stretched if not given cover by the midfielders quick enough. For example, if an opposing winger receives the ball and the full-back can’t sprint to press because of a lack of cover behind him it will leave the winger with plenty of time and space to attack the defence. And if the full-back would press without cover the risk is high that the winger can beat him and still attack with plenty of time and space.
Going forward, the main appeal with this formation for me is the positioning of five players in central areas where they are sure to create a numerical advantage against their opponent. Given the three central midfielders and the two attacking midfielders, a defending team would have to focus on denying space for the two attacking midfielders but that would in turn leave the central midfielders with too much time. If they go to press the central midfielders it will be easy to set the attacking midfielders up in threatening positions between the lines of the opposition. The central positioning of the midfielders and attackers will also lead to teams becoming very narrow to negate the central threat. This will then open up huge spaces down either wing for attacking full-backs to exploit. Overload the opposition centrally to force them inside and then go and exploit the free wide spaces. Given the full-backs arrive from deeper positions they will be harder to defend as they will be running into space rather than standing in space.
The close proximity between the players will also means it’s easier to change positions which will allow fluid movement between the players both in midfield and in attack. The striker can drop deep only for a midfielder or attacking midfielder to attack the space just vacated behind the striker for example. If both full-backs bomb on the formation will no longer be exactly 4-3-2-1 but rather 2-3-4-1 at that particular moment but the team still plays out of the 4-3-2-1 formation.
Juventus attacking structure against Bologna was perfect and allowed them to dominate centrally while remaining threatening on the flanks, as can be seen in the video below. The football was fluid, quick and incisive and brought a 3-0 win.
The attacking problem that most teams will struggle with is probably the lack of natural width. If the full-backs don’t join the attack then there will certainly be a problem with breaking down a compact defence since every good attacking structure must have both depth and width. Similarly, if the full-backs stand in high wide spaces they will be easier to defend, so the key will be to develop patterns of rotations centrally to unleash full-backs who can come with speed and attack the opponent.
With both full-backs bombing on, it can also be dangerous if the two centre-backs aren’t comfortable to defend big spaces as they will be quite exposed. If opponents gamble and leave 2 vs 2 with their strikers against the centre-backs then it will be quite dangerous when possession is lost if the counter-press doesn’t work effectively. This problem can be negated by instructing the midfielders not to venture too far ahead of the ball or by focusing on the ball-near full-back to join the attack while the ball-far full-back stays in defence with his centre-backs. When the ball is then worked over the two full-backs switch responsibilities. This is something Napoli does fantastically with their full-backs.
What we’ve found is that the 4-3-2-1 formation is highly adaptable and flexible as it can easily be altered to correct the initial flaws coaches might find. If you lack wingers in your squad and have lots of capable passers as well as attacking full-backs then this formation would suit you perfectly. Solid defensively in the centre while slight changes in positioning of the attacking midfielders can set you up with good coverage in wide areas too if that’s needed. The formation is also perfect if counter-pressing is something you’d like to implement. Going forward, the small distances between the players naturally allows for short passing combinations to attract pressure and open up other spaces from where to attack. The possibilities are almost endless and it will be interesting to see if any coaches start implementing this formation in the coming season.