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Football Tactical Analysis: The 4-5-1 Formation

A passionate Football (Soccer) fan who is into the sport as both a player, a fan, and in the future, a coach.

Let's examine the 4-5-1 formation.

Let's examine the 4-5-1 formation.

Origins of the Formation

The 4-5-1 formation has a strong resemblance to the 4-3-3 formation, 4-1-2-3 formation and 4-2-3-1 formation. It's often used by professional European teams and managers.

It's often considered a defensive formation, but it can also be used as a counterattacking formation. The five midfielders run on possession and win key balls in the middle. An extra person in the middle would give more stability to the midfield.

The 4-5-1 formation originates from the traditional 4-3-3 and 4-2-4 formations. The difference is that the 4-5-1 formation promotes a more balanced midfield. It sometimes features two defensive midfielders or two attacking midfielders.

Types of 4-5-1 formation in play.

Types of 4-5-1 formation in play.

How to Play the 4-5-1 Formation

The 4-5-1 formation has multiple variations. Let's examine the different versions.

  • 4-5-1 flat: This is the most balanced variation. There are three central midfielders and two wingers. This offers a more compact midfield. This formation is usually played when opposing teams are not crowding the midfield.
  • 4-5-1 attack: This is the attacking variation where the three central midfielders play different roles. In an attacking 4-5-1, there's usually one defensive midfielder, one central midfielder and one attacking midfielder.
  • 4-5-1 defensive: This is the defensive variation where there are at least two defensive midfielders with one box-to-box central midfielder.
Liverpool converting into a 4-5-1 formation from a 4-3-3.

Liverpool converting into a 4-5-1 formation from a 4-3-3.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Here are the pro and cons of this formation.


The key strength of the 4-5-1 formation is having a crowded midfield that spans the whole field line. This allows play to spread across the width of the pitch. This gives the team more passing options, especially if the tactic is playing from side-to-side.

Rather than just promoting possession football, the five midfielders provide a wide range of attacking options.


The weakness of this formation is that the lone striker does not have many options to pass if the opposing team is playing a high line. This means that the striker will have to press the defensive line of the opposing team.

There are times when the lone striker will not have support after receiving the ball, especially in a balanced 4-5-1 formation. However, if the striker is good in holding the ball or shielding the ball from the opposition, then there will be enough time to look for support.

Liverpool vs Man City.

Liverpool vs Man City.

Movement of Play

The 4-5-1 comes with a wide variety of passing movements during attacks. You can pass from the defenders to the wingers, with a supporting attacking midfielder, or to the lone striker. You can even pass from the defenders to the midfielder who can search for a winger for support.

The end goal of attacking in a 4-5-1 formation is to create chances through the midfield line towards the striker. The goal is to create options to quickly attack. As opposed to having high line wingers in a 4-3-3 formation, the 4-5-1 formation has their wingers playing a lower line. The strikers are usually the target in this situation.

Jose Mourinho during his time in Chelsea FC.

Jose Mourinho during his time in Chelsea FC.

Successful Managers Using 4-5-1 Formation

  • Jose Mourinho was a key manager employing the 4-5-1 formation during his heydays in Chelsea FC. He had Claude Makelele as a midfield anchor who constantly harassed and marked players. This allowed box-to-box midfielders like Frank Lampard more freedom to venture upfront. It also allowed talented wingers like Joe Cole and Arjen Robben to go further upfront for counterattacks.
  • Carlo Ancelotti used Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, his two talented wingers, in the 4-5-1 formation during his time in Bayern Munich. Although the shape of play looked like a 4-3-3 formation, Ancelotti always started the match with a 4-5-1 formation.
  • Joachim Low of Germany employed a compact 4-5-1 tactic during his World Cup win in 2014. He had three central midfielders and two defensive midfielders, which was unusual during that time. Two of the central midfielders, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, had the space to enter as a winger during counterattacks while Toni Kroos constantly supported the striker, Miroslav Klose, upfront.
The 4-5-1 is one of the most popular formations.

The 4-5-1 is one of the most popular formations.

The 4-5-1 formation is often considered to be a defensive and counterattacking formation. With five midfielders covering the wider areas of the pitch, there are less chances for the opposing team to get past the midfield.

However, with football tactics constantly changing, it is rare to see the 4-5-1 being deployed in its traditional fashion. Most teams opt for a 4-3-3, which sees the wingers playing higher up the pitch. Other similar formations adopted by managers these days are the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1. These formations deploy the midfielders in different parts of the pitch.

How the 4-5-1 formation can be deployed depends on the opposing wingers and formation. If the opposing team plays a 4-3-3 formation, it's best to hold on to that 4-5-1 since the wingers higher on the pitch allow for faster counterattacking, which reduces the time for midfielders to track back.

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