Teamwork: Understanding the 4-5-1 Formation

by Ivan Bobanovic | Last updated

The 4-5-1 formation has become an increasingly established European formation. Coaches and teams alike in Europe have proved it is – if played correctly – one of the most effective soccer formations.

Some of the notable teams that use this formation are:

  • Spanish, European and world champions FC Barcelona;
  • English Premier League champions and European runners-up Chelsea FC; and
  • AC Milan of the Italian Serie A among others.

The 4-5-1 is broken down into three categories: defense, midfield and offense. In order for this formation to work effectively, each category must function properly and understand the responsibilities at a micro-level in order for the entire system to flow.  Without teamwork, this system will self destruct.

Defense.  The 4-5-1 includes a rather standard flat four defensive line.  There are two central defenders along with two fullbacks.  The back four – and especially the central defenders – need to be the foundation of the team.  These two players are the brain; they must dictate the entire body.  These two players see the entire field and need to constantly be talking, informing, pushing and pulling players and the ball in the correct direction.  This is why you will more often than not see a captain being a central defender – the team depends on them to lead the game.

The back four should be shaped as a banana.  The central defenders should be the last line of defense, while the fullbacks play slightly ahead.  There are a few reasons for this.  When playing an offside trap, it is much easier for the two central defenders to jump up and hold a line with the fullbacks, versus having to worry about pulling the fullbacks up as well.

The second reason for the banana shape is to allow the two fullbacks to push up on the wings creating an offensive threat, while the central backs pinch and cover any forwards that are attacking.

Lastly, the banana shape needs to stretch along the entire width of the field.  This helps to move the ball from one side to the other successfully while also covering the entire field in case of a sudden counter attacks. Having constant communication within the defense is absolutely crucial.  Lack of communication in the defense results in breakdowns and goals.

Midfield.  In the midfield, there are five players.  Unlike the four defenders that line up in a line at the back, the midfield is somewhat scattered from a positional standpoint.  What the positioning of midfield usually consists of is a defensive midfielder, two central midfielders and two wingers.  Because the midfield now has the support of a defensive midfielder, the two central midfielders have the green-light to push further up the field.  One important thing to understand is that the two central midfielders can never move up and down together.  Rather, if one moves up, the other stays back and vice-versa.  This has allowed midfielders to become larger offensive threats and score far more goals for their teams, while taking some of the pressure off the forward.

The banana shaped defense allows the fullbacks to push up and help the wingers. The wingers also have the freedom to move further up the field knowing they have the support of their fullbacks.  What this does is create an enormous amount of pressure for the other team’s fullbacks who have to worry about a winger and a forward.  The wingers are now expected to make runs down the wings and provide crosses for anxious attackers.

Forward.  The forward must not be discouraged being the lone forward.  As explained above, the framework of this formation allows midfielders and wingers push so far up the field that when attacking, the system resembles a 4-3-3.  Because most of the balls will come in as crosses from the wings, a forward must have good heading ability along with good ball control skills.

The only time a forward is truly left as the lone player is while the team is on the defense.  When on the defense, everyone pushes slightly back, but still maintains that pressure up the field not allowing the other team to penetrate.  If the formation breaks down and players begin to drop too far back, problems will be inevitable.

Understand that this formation is not built to push the ball up through the middle of the field.  Because the wingers and fullbacks are stretched so wide, play must go up the flanks and be crossed in.  It is not to say play cannot go through the middle, but the most effective approach is to move the ball up the wings, have it crossed and score some goals.

The 4-5-1 is used by the best to be the best.  Study the formation and learn it from one of Europe’s best and bring it to your local team or community.  For more on the 4-5-1 formation click here.

When does your team use the 4-5-1 formation?

4 Responses to “Teamwork: Understanding the 4-5-1 Formation

  • roger lambourne
    7 years ago

    The comment would be more credible if coming from an English speaking contributor.
    Banana shape can be convex or concave….depending upon which way up the banana is perceived. Defense is spelled with a “c” and not an “s”…….which would suggest an American influence here……and to be honest Mr.(s) American speaking contributor…….try playing the game before you publicly comment upon how it is….or should be, played.

    • Ivan Bobanovic
      7 years ago

      To know that our blog has reached readers in the UK is very exciting! You are correct in saying the writers at Goalden are North American contributors. More specifically, I am a Canadian contributor. In the future, I will pay much more attention to clarifying certain concepts. However, I hope you continue to read our blog, Mr. Lambourne, because you will quickly realize that our knowledge at Goalden stems from over 20 years of experience playing soccer all over the world. Hope to hear from you again. Cheers!

      • Forgive the delay in response…but a respectful reply to perhaps a not so respectful a comment was duly noted………but with a name like Ivan Bobanovic is it fair to assume that you are not of indiginous variety of American…Northern or otherwise…….if this is the case then may I offer you an apology……certainly it’s not your fault that the so called English language in that part of the world is a trifle inaccurate in terms of its spelling

  • Dear Roger,

    The author offers an essay on tactics and you presume to refute it by commenting on the spelling of the document. How is a discussion on tactics more credible if the parties are native English speakers? You think you can hold a candle to Mancini, Guardiola or Mourinho? Last time I checked, Brazil is the nation leading the charge. Perhaps following your logic, essays on tactics should only be written in Portuguese.

    You are a dick. Get off the internet.

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