Nowadays, we see a lot more managers using a 3-4-2-1 system: Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola and Brendan Rodgers to name a few. It is a formation that has seen high levels of success over recent years and this article will explore why the 3-4-2-1 can be efficient and how it can result in success if utilized well.
Firstly, one of the biggest advantages of the 3-4-2-1 is avoiding conceding goals. With three centre-backs you can nearly man-mark the two opposite wingers with your wing-backs and control the striker and the 10 or the box-to-box midfielder with your three centre-backs. Each of the center-backs should bring complimentary attributes to the back line. This is very helpful to solidify your team but also to make it efficient offensively. You need at least one CB comfortable in possession of the ball who can pass it effectively from the back through the opposition’s lines. You also need someone who can read the game very well to make interceptions and carry the ball from the back to make the pass. Finally, you need a sweeper, someone who is able to clear everything that gets past his partners.
These three types of centre-back will change position, depending on what the manager wants. For example, in Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side, the sweeper was Skrtel, who played in the middle of the defence. Skrtel didn’t have the greatest passing ability but Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho made up for that. At Chelsea, David Luiz was the sweeper but Gary Cahill was the one who cleared everything. Cesar Azpilicueta thrived in this Chelsea team thanks to his intelligence and ability to break lines with his passes. David Luiz was able to break the opponent’s lines in a slightly different way, by carrying the ball forwards himself, something crucial in Conte’s system. This shows you that you need to adapt your formation based on the traits of the available players in the squad.
The wing-backs are crucial in this system. They need to provide dynamism and width in the offensive phase whilst covering very well in defensive phase. Not all full-backs are used to acting as wing-backs, hence why some managers like to give wingers an opportunity in that role. Pep didn’t need to do that at Barca because he had arguably the two best wing-backs in the world at the time: Abidal/Maxwell and Dani Alves. At Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers decided to put Lazar Markovic or Jordon Ibe as right-wing-backs and Conte decided to use Moses there. Both had success with their choices.
In midfield, you need a deep-lying playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder. Both midfielders have to be dynamic and need positional awareness to intercept passes and close angles if the full-backs don’t get back in time. But they also need to initiate the offense quickly. At Liverpool, it was Henderson and Leiva. Leiva didn’t play at the beginning of the season, however, when Rodgers decided to play with 3 at the back, Leiva was selected to line up alongside Henderson. Jordan Henderson had by far his best season individually from an attacking sense with 6 goals and 9 assists from a box-to-box role in 2014/2015. At Chelsea, the roles were less distinguishable at times, with both Matic and Kanté acting as box-to-box midfielders at points, however Kante most commonly took this role. Matic registered 7 assists during the title-winning season and Kanté was the midfield engine, doing the same job as when he was at Leicester and was rewarded with the PFA player of the year award.
The front three is a bit different. Every manager has a different way of thinking when it comes to picking the striker, with some managers prioritising a poacher while others prefer a target man. A complete forward like Karim Benzema is ideal in this formation but they aren’t very common nowadays. The centre-forward is often isolated because of the extra body in defence so you need someone who can receive a long ball and keep it thanks to his large body frame and technical ability. When it comes to the inside forwards, you need a creative outlet as well as a finisher/hard worker. Coutinho at Liverpool or Hazard at Chelsea are examples of players operating in the creative outlet role within the 3-4-2-1 formation. They use their movement and passing ability to operate in the half-spaces and break lines, but they are also very good goalscorers. Lallana and Pedro were the hard-workers alongside Hazard and Coutinho for their respective teams. Indeed, the other inside forward has a crucial role. When a team plays with a regista or a deep-lying playmaker as a defensive midfielder, the hard-worker needs to press him and is acting like a 10 as part of his defensive duty.
The key for this formation to work is the complementarity between the players. Everyone needs to have an ability which can make up for a teammate and compliment their abilities/traits.
How does the 3-4-2-1 work offensively?
The main point of this formation is to create overload. The 2 wing-backs will go in-behind the two opponent full-backs to create space for the 2 inside forwards. The inside forwards will run into the channels between the centre-backs and the full-backs. If they can’t receive the ball from the wing-backs, a cross will be delivered, hence why a target man is often seen as beneficial in this sytem as he can use his body structure and size to attack these crosses or hold the ball up for teammates.
Why is 3-4-2-1 unpredictable?
One of the biggest advantages of a 3-4-2-1 system is that you can change formation easily within the match. If the sweeper is good enough to be a defensive midfielder, you can go to a 4 at the back formation during the game. If one of your inside forwards could play as a 10 and the other as a striker you could switch to a 1-2 attack instead of a 2-1. As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities with the 3-4-2-1, with 4-3-3/4-3-2-1/4-3-1-2/3-4-2-1/3-4-1-2 all becoming options throughout a match. This is an unpredictable formation and one which can be fluid through the defensive, transitional and attacking phases of the game.
How do you attack against 3-4-2-1?
There is a lot of space between the lines in a 3-4-2-1 formation. The midfielders can’t cover all the spaces as there are only 2 central midfielders, so you have to play with someone between the attack and the midfield to exploit the gaps between the lines.
Jorginho or Thiago are ideal players to put between the attack and the midfield of your opponents. They can collect the ball from deep to make the play and avoid the marking of one of the inside forwards. Indeed, the front three will have to work a lot against you, otherwise their 2 midfielders will be massively exposed. Often, one of the two inside forwards is a bit lazy so if you can eliminate the other inside forward when he is pressing you, you will allow your full-backs and one of your midfielders to push higher. As you can see, there are spaces in the channel between the wing-backs and the centre-backs. If you can attract the wing-back on the inside with one of your midfielders, your full-back will have the room to go behind him to make a cross or progress with the ball.
To conclude, we can say that this formation is very useful in the sense that it can be adapted according to the opponent but it can be easily exposed if your opponent knows how to do so and you do not do enough to prevent it. The players will need time to learn this formation but once they understand it can be very effective both offensively and defensively.
Written by Nick Pasquet + @JKRegista
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