Tactical Analysis of the 4-5-1 Part 1

Posted on August 23, 2011


The 4-5-1 variants are only a single player and a single role away from the 4-4-2 we all know and love, and only half a player and half a role away from the CMd/CMa/FCd/FCa of say Manchester United in 1999. Yet the 4-4-2 is commonly viewed to be responsible for the consistent ineptitude of English teams in Europe during  the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The 4-5-1 variants are commonly viewed to be responsible for English football rise to European dominance in the late 2000’s and continue to be the formations of choice for all the big clubs in all the big games in Europe today.

The common concensus seems to be that the 4-5-1 is the more defensive version of the 4-4-2. That the 4-4-2 concedes numbers in midfield and concedes “space between the lines”. I don’t disagree with this point of view, but for the 4-5-1 variants to be so prevailent in top level football it seems to me that there must be far more to the issue than this.

From my perspective the 4-5-1 variants are an entire tactical world away from the 4-4-2 despite the fact that the 4-5-1 is only half a player away from the 4-4-1-1’s of the 1990’s in England. Understanding the 4-5-1 variants is not as simple as understanding that there is an extra man in midfield and one less upfront, it requires an understanding of what the shape and formation means 20-30 passes down the line and half a dozen attacks and counter-attacks later. To really understand the 4-5-1 you need understand your tactical history of football, because again in my opinion the 4-5-1 is far closer in principle to Cantenaccio and Total Football than it is to the English 4-4-2, despite being a simple one-man-change to the English 4-4-2. If you don’t understand your tactical history then perhaps I can give you some information. If you do understand your tactical history then hopefully I can explain to you with the 4-5-1 is so much more than a 4-4-2 with an extra man in midfield and one less upfront.

A Bit of Random Tactical History

The birthplace of the modern back four directly ties into the death of the traditional Sweeper, and both the modern back four and death of the sweeper arise from the battle between Catenaccio and Total Football. Catenaccio means “bolt” in English and Catenaccio was a formation specifically designed to vigorously and rigidly man mark the formations of the time, while “the bolt” in the defence was a Sweeper and a DM freed from marking duties to mop up any loose and free play through the middle. The spine of a Catenaccio formation was free from marking duties to go about their specific attacking or midfield or defensive duties, while the other 7 outfield players were given rigid man-marking instructions and specific “counter” positions to defend and defeat their specific man and the contemporary formations of the time. While modern formations are not called “Catenaccio” the principle is utterly fundamentally sound.

The key principle of Catenaccio at the time was two Centrebacks man-marking the opponents forwards, with a sweeper behind and the rest of the team set up either to sweep through the middle or specific mark in the wider areas according precisely to the setup of the opponent. At this time football tended to be about decade-long single formations of success with a new idea every so often changing the state of play. Catenaccio was so successful at destroying opponents and counter attacking through the middle that Cruyff cried “it’s the death of the wingers” who are supposed to be the most exciting and key men in the game. This is when Total Football was born, as a direct response to Catenaccio. The principle of Total Football was ability and movement that rendered Catenaccio useless. Players were expected to fluidly move from position to position while at the same time fullfil the requirements of each positions, meaning that man-marking was theoretically supposed to be torn apart. And tear Catenaccio apart it did. Maybe not tear it apart but it did defeat it.

Like the response to Catenaccio was Total Football so the response to Total Football was Zonal Marking. Catenaccio evolved into a zonal marking system whereby the defence would not only maintain their positions but attempt to contain the attack of the opponent. Mark your space and play as a unit. If the opponent is very aggressive then drop deep and maintain your defensive system infront of the opponent. The zonal marking version of Catenaccio is the direct ancestor to the modern day back four, but it also rendered the Sweeper obsolete. Or if not directly obsolete as a sweeper is always useful in defence, it rendered the sweeper a “spare man” at the back when the rest of the defense was good, at the cost of numbers further forward. For as long as the Zonal Marking defense worked, the Sweeper was useless and used up a man for nothing you could use elsewhere on the pitch. That’s how the sweeper “died” in the battle for space and numbers, he was in his position obsolete due to tactics and worth far more in attack when not starting from a position behind the other 9 outfield players in his team.

Here is an image of the Zona Mista, or the Zonal Marking version of Catenaccio:

The more tactically astute amongst you might notice the similarities between this formation and the formation used by English sides in the European Cup in the past half decade. However it is not time to go into that just yet.

The Back Four

As a man marking back three infront of a sweeper quickly becomes obsolete due to movement and ability of the opponent, so a Zonal Marking defence becomes ever more useful. With two Zonal Marking Centrebacks they no longer get pulled out of position, they continually hold their positions, and they drop deep and work in unison as the opponent attacks, continually holding their shape and only marking those players that come into their zones and pose a direct threat at goal. The sweeper becomes totally obsolete as the centrebacks take up all of his defensive jobs. The best place to put a sweeper that operates quite uselessly behind a zonal marking three is into a zonal marking back four. The zonal marking back four now stretches across the pitch, instead of three zones you have four zones meaning you can defend better in terms of zones, no player is useless and you have two guys down each flank and two through the middle while it is very rare that anyone is going to lineup with four or more forwards. The zonal marking back four is born.

With a Zonal Marking back four, you suddenly have a lop-sided attack.

In England during the 70’s and early 80’s this was dived upon whole heartedly. You have the Zonal Marking back four which is excellent, two upfront, three in midfield and a spare guy on the wing. So in England you play a “Dalglish” style player slightly deeper than the main Centreforward, and you stick your spare midfielder on whatever wing the opponent is weakest. 4-3-2 + Winger on the Weak Side.

I don’t need to tell you how widespread the 4-3-2 + Weak Side Winger was in England. And it does not take much imagination to realise that if one winger is doing the trick, two wingers will run rampant.

4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1

The zonal marking back four is set-in-stone. The weak side winger becomes a key aspect of English sides, the 4-4-2 is becoming more and more regular, and English sides are utterly dominant in Europe. Liverpool in particular are rampant in Europe and in England, employing the pace and strength and workrate of British midfielders combined to the pace and strength and workrate of British wingers. Liverpool employing the “modern” ideas of a back four and weak side winger, combined to their domestic supemacy and ability to sign the best, move to the more aggressive “modern” 4-4-2 where the concession in midfield for an extra winger are irrelevant, and they go to town in England and in Europe. Liverpool are totally dominant.

Then comes the Heysel disaster and a ten year ban for English sides in European football.

English football does not evolve much during that time. The 4-4-2 becomes 4-4-1-1 and with Cantona as the Second Striker it is suddenly Manchester United that rise to utter dominance. Manchester United end up in a position to completely and utterly dominate the English game through tactics, players, finances, “pulling power” and all the rest. Barring the odd error and pretender and “scandal” it is Manchester United that near the end of the 90’s is completely and utterly dominant. No one else is even remotely close.

When they Heysel ban ends English football finds itself completely out of European depth. The slight development of the 4-4-2 is pathetic in comparison to Eurpean tactics. While Manchester United win the European Cup in 1999, they do it with a team consisting of Schmeichal, Stam, Johnson, Neville, Irwin, Beckham, Gigg, Scholes, Keane, Yorke, Cole, playing completely out of their skin for game after game.

The 4-5-1

Despite Manchester United winning the European Cup in 1999 it was comletely obvious that the tactical development of English football was stale. The overwhelmingly superior English team side managed to win a single European Cup through utter determination and nothing else.

This was completely and utterly reinforced when Mourinho joined Chelsea and won two titles on the trot, which only Ferguson had ever done since the Premier League had started.

The 4-5-1 proved to be an unstoppable formation in English football, because it was on a completely different tactical level to the English 4-4-2 or 4-4-4-1-1.

If the development of English football shows a clear evolution from Catenaccio, it also shows a clear stall when it comes to the development of superior formations. English football untill Mourinho was the story of 1980’s football that failed in Europe. Mourinho brought the cutting edge of contemporary tactics to England, and during Mourinhos time and the time after his departure shows a paradigm variation in tactics.

Tactical Analysis of the 4-5-1

Despite the fact that the 4-5-1 is only a single player or half a player away from 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 it is fundamentally and completely a different tactical premise.

Like Catenaccio, the central premise of the 4-5-1 is the defense of the centre. However as Catenaccio proved that the sweeper was absolete and moved the sweeper into a Zonal Marking back four, the modern 4-5-1 understands that the Sweeper is critical and rotates the centre of defence so that the “Sweeper” becomes a spare Central Defender while the previous man-marking Centre Back becomes a DM. The basic defensive function does not change but fundamentally the positioning of players changes. The “libero” function of playmaker and attacking threat is removed from the “spare” Sweeper and given to the DM. The central defensive premise is unchanged but the shape is changed, and the position of the Libero is moved into a midfield role.

Instead of a defensively useless Sweeper and a hugely deep “attacking” threat, the heart of the defence is rotated so that the Sweeper moves into the centre while the other Centreback advances into midfield and plays the “Libero” role. This is trully and utterly huge and I do not think I am doing this tactical issue justice.

The rotation of the two Centrebacks + Sweeper into a system of two Centrebacks + DM has many further benefits. First of all it is now possible to continually and adequatly employ the Off-Side trap, but perhaps most importantly of all is the fact of the shape.

The shape of two Centrebacks + Sweeper will automatically channel any “break-through” attacking play towards the penalty spot and goal. The shape of two Centrebacks + DM will automatically channel attacking play to the flanks. This again is defensively profound. The flanks do not carry the same threat as football through the middle. Forcing play to the flanks reduces the direct threat of the opponent while allowing your own team to get back into defense. Defense between the lines is maintained. Space between midfield and attack is cut off. But perhaps most important of all is the fact that the formation itself forces the opponent to play wide, to play the pass and the run into wide areas, and it allows you to attack those wide areas with numbers and free from marking or position duties.

In the screenshot I posted I have drawn white and black triangles. The White Triangles show where the defending team holds it shape and forces the opponent to play towards the flanks. The black triangles show the space the opponent is given/forced to play into. The white triangles eliminate all space at the same time as defending the critical heart of the pitch. The black triangles give the opponent space at the same time as forcing him into defensively stong positions but also positions where you can attack the ball and win it back.

The entire formation is infinately superior to the 4-4-2 in defense, while also maintaining the principle of “Sweeper” of the Catenaccio, without sacrificing either position or numbers. It not only defends the area that matter in huge numbers, but it forces the opponent to areas that do not count and combines it with an arrangement of players that is perfect to close down the ball, force the opponent to the touchline, and win the ball back with ease.

Posted in: FM 2010