The following is the first part of a mini-series in which Jake Askham takes a look at the common formations prevalent in football today. This piece focuses on the 4-1-2-1-2 formation.
The 4-1-2-1-2 formation is a variation of the standard 4-4-2 and there are two versions of this formation. In both versions, the back 4, central defensive midfielder, the central attacking midfielder and the two strikers stay the same. The main difference is the role of the two extra midfielders. In one variation, they play as wide midfielders and in the other, as central midfielders. This slight difference in positions has a large impact on the roles of the other players and the team’s overall style of play.
One of the main strengths of this formation is that it accommodates two strikers. In modern football, many teams often sacrifice a striker for a midfielder to try gain control of games and to increase defensive strength. By sacrificing control in a certain area of the pitch, it allows a team to play two strikers which will often be against two centre backs thus reducing the battle to that of individual skill.
During Liverpool’s rampant 2013-14 campaign, Steven Gerrard said “If teams want to play 2 v 2 against these two, Sturridge and Suarez, all the best”. The 4-1-2-1-2 formation allowed Liverpool to get the best out of two very good strikers; their goals fired them to a 2nd place finish even though they conceded 50 goals, only 3 less than Hull City who finished 16th.
It also allows for a central attacking midfielder (CAM) or number 10, which somewhat forces the opposition to either play a defensive midfielder or to press high/drop deep, in order to restrict the space and prevent the number 10 from receiving the ball and being able to turn and run at the defense or play a through ball to a striker running behind the defense.
Strengths of the wide 4-1-2-1-2
The wide version of this formation ensures attacking presence in the wide areas, with two strikers to cross the ball to. With good attacking play down the sides, the opposition’s wingers will have to work hard defensively which in turn will limit their opportunities to attack. Furthermore, it is very easy for this formation to be turned into the standard 4-4-2 which when deployed effectively can be very hard to break down and is a tactic often used by coaches in difficult away games.
Strengths of the narrow 4-1-2-1-2
The main strength of this variation is in central midfield. With the 4 midfielders, teams will often outnumber their opposition which will give them greater control of the game and a large share of possession. This control in midfield will then give the full-backs the opportunities to push forward further to try and contribute to an attacking move. Therefore the supply to the strikers will not only come from the central midfielders but also the full-backs giving the attacks more variety and therefore making the entire attacking unit harder to defend against.
A common occurrence when playing a single defensive midfielder is the centre-backs splitting, the full-backs pushing up the pitch and the defensive midfielder dropping in between the centre-backs to receive the ball and start the attacks. Problems with this approach occur when teams figure this out as it’s fairly easy to counter. All a team has to do is man-mark the defensive midfielder and press high on the full-backs.
A great example of this is Steven Gerrard at the start of the 2014-15 season. The year before he had re-invented himself as the deep lying player maker, his legs were not what they once were and this forced him to adapt his style of play. By moving further back he could showcase his laudable range of passing, dictate the tempo of the games and in general, he had a great influence on Liverpool’s performance. But teams realized that if they pressed Gerrard and didn’t give him time on the ball he no longer had the physical ability to make space for himself, which meant he was often being bypassed and had little impact on games. The team’s performances as a whole suffered in the 2014-15 season, the main reason was of course the departure of Luis Suarez but teams nullifying the impact of Gerrard certainly played its part too.
Weakness of the wide 4-1-2-1-2
The main weakness of this formation is the lack of a central midfield, which in turn could lead to the opposition gaining complete control of the game. The defensive midfielder will often find himself outnumbered by the opposition’s midfield, which may lead to the wide midfielders being pulled out of position to cover the central positions. This formation is usually quite attack minded, especially if the fullbacks push too far forward, which increases the chance of them being caught on the counter attack.
Weakness of the narrow 4-1-2-1-2
The main weakness of this formation comes in the wide areas. The lack of wingers or wide midfielders means the fullbacks are very exposed to attacks down their side and also it means the when they do push forward to help with an attack they can be exposed on the counter attack. The lack of width also means the attacks can become somewhat predictable and if the opposition play two defensive midfielders, there will be very little space in the middle of the pitch and no options in the wide areas thus limiting the focus of the attack.
Successful implementation in recent times
In recent times, the most notable success of a team using this formation is Liverpool’s 2nd place finish in the 2013-14 season. The success was based around 3 important factors: Suarez and Sturridge playing alongside one another, Sterling playing in the number 10 role and Gerrard operating as a deep lying playmaker.
The deadly duo scored 52 goals in the league alone; while Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling chipped in with 23 goals between themselves. This clear strength in attack meant that their defensive frailties didn’t really matter. The conceded 3 against Cardiff City but scored 6, they conceded 2 against Manchester City but managed to score 3. They conceded 50 goals and finished in 2nd place, whilst Chelsea in 3rd only conceded 27. Brendan Rodgers clearly identified his squad’s strengths, and found a formation that suited them perfectly in a highly successful season.
Key Player Roles
Defensive Midfielder: The two most important qualities for defensive midfielders are positional awareness and accurate passing. Their job as the sole defensive midfielder is to start attacks by playing the ball forward towards the more creative players and to protect the back four from oncoming attacks. Their role allows the full-backs to push forward into attacking positions and when they do that they must be very disciplined and not push too far forward as this may lead to them being open and vulnerable to a counter-attack.
Attacking midfielder: The attacking midfielder has two main roles; to link the midfield and the attack by finding space between the opposition’s defense and midfield whilst also making runs in behind the opposition’s defensive midfielder to cause problems. In order for them to fulfil their role the attacking midfielder must have great game awareness as they must know when to run in behind and when to drop deep to receive the pass from the midfielder.
Strikers: Their role in this formation is quite simpy to score goals. They must work well with one another and often sacrifice personal glory for the sake of the team, for example one striker might pull wide to offer a different angle of attack even though they might not be totally comfortable in that role. The most successful striking partnerships often are a result of two players with different capabilities. For example, Thierry Henry was fast and often ran behind the opposition’s defense while Denis Bergkamp could find space and thread through balls to his partner. The same could be said about Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan and John Toshack and Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker.
This formation can work wonders especially if a team has two excellent strikers. Attacking wise, with the correct players they can be very dangerous and hard to play against but they are often very vulnerable in the wide areas if using the narrow version of the formation or vulnerable in the centre of midfield is using the wide version. When it works it can be exciting, entertaining and very successful but when it doesn’t teams can struggle to get any control of the game at all. It’s often a risk to use either of these formations, but a good manager will know when and where to use it.