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The 4-4-1-1 Formation: Its Uses, Strengths and Weaknesses

The 4-4-1-1 Formation: Its Uses, Strengths and Weaknesses

The best modern-day managers are known for their innovation. Even when a soccer formation looks fairly simple when written down on paper, top-level coaches will regularly invert certain positions and tweak things tactically to outwit the opposition and push their players to the next level.

This kind of innovative, forward-thinking positional play can be developed from a number of different starting points. However, whatever approach a coach takes, the most important fundamental to get right is the formation.

Whether it's 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, or something a little more unusual like the 3-4-2-1 formation, the way a coach chooses to structure their players on the soccer field evidently has a huge impact on how the game plays out. In our series on the most popular formations in football, we've been working our way through the key reasons for using different shapes and systems and in this article, we'll be honing in on 4-4-1-1, a formation that has been seen regularly in modern professional football.

Jurgen Klopp's 2011/12 Borussia Dortmund team, the last time they won the Bundesliga

We'll explain the key strengths and weaknesses of 4-4-1-1 and give you some practical pointers about its tactical implementation before moving on to the best-known examples of the system in action and closing with some guidance on how to play against a 4-4-1-1 shape.

How do you play a 4-4-1-1?

The 4-4-1-1 formation is structured into three core units: defence, midfield and attack. At the back is a simple defensive unit of four players, comprised of two centre backs and two full-backs (left and right). This is probably the most popular way of setting up a backline in modern soccer.

In front of them is a relatively flat midfield four consisting of two central midfielders (in a largely defensive-minded double pivot, focused on keeping hold of possession and providing solidity) and two wide midfielders, one on the left and one on the right. 

Ahead of this midfield four is where things get a little more fluid. Here, an attack-minded Number 10 or Central Attacking Midfield will typically operate in the areas between midfield and attack, finding space and creating chances while linking up with the central midfielders behind them, the wide midfielders on either side, and the lone striker who completes the formation as the most advanced player in the 4-4-1-1 shape. The CAM in a 4-4-1-1 is technically part of the midfield but will often end up playing closer to the striker.

Like all formations, coaches who play with this system have a level of flexibility; full-backs can shift forward to support midfielders, wingers can get into the final third to support the lone centre forward, and the CAM will often have plenty of freedom to roam around. This leads us to the question of what key strengths this shape offers…

What are the strengths of the 4-4-1-1 formation?

Arguably the biggest strength of the 4-4-1-1 formation is its versatility. Throughout the course of a game, this shape can be shifted and tweaked to reflect whether a coach wants to place more emphasis on keeping things tight or attacking the opposition.

The wide midfielders can become more advanced wingers to transition into a 4-3-3 shape, the full-backs can push up to create massive overloads in midfield areas, or if a coach wants to go more direct they can move the CAM up front to create a strike partnership and turn this formation into 4-4-2.

Whichever changes are made, 4-4-1-1 is equipped with the foundations to remain stable and balanced throughout. The risk of leaving areas of the pitch exposed should be relatively low because a strong duo in centre-back and central midfield should provide a stable core from bottom to top.

Having a Number 10 and two wingers means that teams playing 4-4-1-1 are capable of attacking in great numbers, but this offensive threat shouldn't leave gaps at the back, with this system offering great balance across the pitch.

One more important thing to mention is that this formation is pretty simple for players to learn, whatever their technical standard or tactical knowledge base. It's very close to commonly understood shapes such as 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 and it's possible for less confident or experienced players to just stick to their zones on the pitch and do the basics.

What are the weaknesses of the 4-4-1-1 formation?

There can be no passengers on a football pitch and each player has to do their job, but in 4-4-1-1 some jobs are more difficult than others. In this system, there is a lot of responsibility placed on the central midfield duo, who need to be able to protect the back four, break up play, keep possession under pressure from the opposition, and distribute the ball upfield, whilst also moving up the pitch to support the central attacking midfielder ahead of them.

Ticking all these boxes is difficult and if the CAM plays in a highly advanced position and the opposition target midfield as a space to gain overloads in, these central midfielders can become overwhelmed.

Other potential problems come down to how managers choose to find fluidity and flexibility; for example, if a coach decides to push their full-backs forward in order to overlap the midfield and get into crossing positions, it's possible that these full-backs can get stuck upfield and the gaps left behind them can be targeted by the opposition during counter-attacks.

Similarly, if the two wide midfielders transition into more offensive-minded wingers and stay in a forward three, the spaces in wide midfield can be exploited by the opposition manager and the full-backs in defence can potentially become overwhelmed. 

There is also a fair amount of pressure on the front two in a 4-4-1-1 shape, and a lot of the creative impetus of the team will rest on the Number 10. If this player isn't highly creative, technical proficient and capable of supporting the lone striker consistently throughout the game, this forward can become isolated and it can become an issue both generating and putting away chances. Ensuring the right players are occupying these two positions is essential.

Which clubs and managers have used a 4-4-1-1 formation?

4-4-1-1 can sometimes look very similar to a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, so while it's not super common to see a manager set out their team sheet with this shape pre-match, many professional outfits will regularly use some kind of variation of 4-4-1-1. Below, you'll find a few of the most high-profile recent examples of this system in action.

Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp

German boss Jurgen Klopp has proven during his time at Liverpool that he is one of the greatest tactical minds of his generation, and it was during his time in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund that he developed many of the ideas that have allowed him to win numerous European and domestic trophies in recent years.

At Dortmund, he achieved great success using a shape that fluctuated between 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1, becoming more compact out of possession but shifting when in possession to allow talented attacking midfielders like Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to push forward and support Robert Lewandowski up top.

Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson is often credited with adapting the way he set up his team constantly during his illustrious 26-year reign as Manchester United boss, and this was certainly a key factor in his enduring success. Throughout much of this time he played using a 4-4-2 system; however, he would also often utilise a Number 10 playing just behind the main striker, thereby tweaking his shape to more of a 4-4-1-1.

Examples of players to have occupied this key role include Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney, and when you have that level of attacking midfield talent available, it makes sense to use this system.

How to play against 4-4-1-1

Various different tactics can be employed in the battle to beat the 4-4-1-1 system. As we've discussed, this formation does have its weaknesses and if you manage to target and exploit them effectively, you can be very successful. For example, if you play with two centre-backs and they manage to physically dominate and isolate the lone central striker, finishing chances will become very difficult.

To support this task, using a central defensive midfielder to man mark or at least stay tight to the opposition's central attacking midfielder can be extremely effective. By keeping the front two quiet throughout the game, you can cut out a lot of the attacking potential of the 4-4-1-1 system.

There are a couple of different specific shapes that could be used to achieve this, but perhaps the most effective would be 4-1-2-1-2. This formation is not a massively common one in professional soccer, although it has been used by some top coaches over the years (it's also sometimes known as the diamond midfield formation).

4-1-2-1-2 is super narrow, with four midfielders stationed in relatively central areas of the pitch. This allows you to dominate the midfield battle and create overloads in this zone, overwhelming the central midfield partnership at the core of the 4-4-1-1 shape (as we said earlier, this can be a weakness of this formation). 

Outnumbering the opposition in the middle of the park can also be achieved using a 4-1-3-2 formation, which similarly looks to exploit the midfield but, unlike the narrower 4-1-2-1-2, can allow you to push midfielders into more wide areas and create dangerous chances from the flanks. If you've got talented wide midfielders, this formation could be even more useful for playing against 4-4-1-1.

If you'd like to find out more about a similar system to 4-4-1-1, one which also focuses on providing balance across the pitch and packing central areas with dynamic midfield players, check out our in-depth guide to the 4-1-4-1 formation.