The 4-3-1-2 Formation: Complete Handbook

The 4-3-1-2 Formation

The 4-3-1-2 is a formation that has fallen under the radar despite its fairly frequent use in the last two decades. 

Many big name teams have used this formation fairly regularly. A notable use is when Porto won the Champions League twice between 2002-04. Milan also used this formation around the same time as Porto, and Carlo Ancelotti used it to win the title at Chelsea in the 2009-10. 

It is often viewed as a variation of the 4-3-3 as the striker becomes an attacking midfielder and the two wingers come inside to play as strikers. However, it has some fairly big differences from the 4-3-3 that make it, in my opinion, a standalone formation. 

4312 Formation

What is the 4-3-1-2 Formation? 

If I am to answer the question, “is 4-3-1-2 a good formation?” you must first understand the basic layout of this formation.  

The 4-3-1-2 is a very narrow formation. At the back there are two centrebacks and two fullbacks who protect the goalkeeper. In midfield there are three central midfielders who contribute to the attack as well as defence. Further up the pitch there is an attacking midfielder who supports the two strikers up front. 

Unlike the 4-3-3, the 4-3-1-2 is predominantly a defensive formation. This is because it is very compact and narrow which means that the main objective is to force the opposition out wide and then let the fullbacks and midfield deal with them. 

There is also very little focus on pressing the ball when the opposition have it in their own half: it leaves the passing option to the fullback open and forces the opposition out wide from there.  

When attacking, the focus is often on short combinations in midfield. This is due to the compactness of the formation and the high concentration of players in the midfield. There is also very little width that can be used so the focus stays on the centre of the pitch. 

The focus is also on keeping possession of the ball as this can draw the opposition out of position and leave spaces in behind. These can then be exploited and be used to create goal scoring opportunities.  

There are no variations of the 4-3-1-2. However, the 4-3-3 could be considered a variation as all that has to happen for the 4-3-1-2 to convert to the 4-3-3 is for the attacking midfielder to push up and for the strikers to drift out wide and play as wingers.  

Is the 4-3-1-2 a Good Formation? 

The 4-3-1-2 is a very good formation if you are looking to play defensively, or to play possessionbased football. 

The 4-3-1-2 is very strong defensively as there is a very easy defensive method you can employ when using the 4-3-1-2 (and all other narrow formations) 

This is where you use the high concentration of players in the midfield to push the opposition out wide. Then the full-backs and midfielders can squeeze the opposition against the touchline and either try and put the ball out for a throw or force the player to play backwards. 

This means that unlike in the 4-3-3, there is no need to defend from the front and apply pressure to the opponent’s defence. 

If the opposition manage to break through into the centre of the pitch, then the midfield can easily dominate. This is because there are three central midfielders and an attacking midfielder who are all capable of applying pressure on the ball.  

If the midfield wins the ball back, then they also have the ability to keep the ball for long periods of time. This is due to the number of passing options that are available to the midfield. Every player in the central midfield has at least five players they can pass to. 

The 4-3-1-2 is also fairly strong in attack as there are two strikers as well as an attacking midfielder who can provide attacking threat 

However, due to the lack of width, the 4-3-1-2 can sometimes be left a bit lacking in attack. Because of the lack of width, almost all of the attacking play has to go through the centre of the pitch. 

This is why the 4312 is particularly good against wide formation as these formations often have a lot of fewer players in the centre of the park which means that it will be easier for the midfield to play through the middle.

  • Problems 

Although the 4-3-1-2 is good against wide formation in attack, it is particularly weak against wide formations when defending.  

This is because, if the opponent can get past the midfield, they have a one on one versus the defender who has very little support as there are no wide midfielders in this formation.  

On the topic of full-backs, they have to work incredibly hard to rush up and down the pitch to aid the attack as well as defence. This can mean that sometimes they can be caught out of position and leave lots of space in behind on the wings. 

Due to this, the full-backs have to be very fit, and disciplined, to be able to be constantly running up and down the pitch.

The 4-3-1-2 is also vulnerable on the counterattack for this same reason. If you lose possession high up the pitch, then the full-backs and midfielders can be caught out of position. 

Which Clubs use the 4-3-1-2? 

Currently, no clubs use the 4-3-1-2 as their primary formation. This is probably due to the fact that it is essentially a variation of the 4-3-3. 

How is the 4-3-1-2 Played? 

  • Strengths: 
    • Strong in defence  when playing the 4-3-1-2 you can easily force the opposition out wide and squeeze them against the touchline.  
    • Lots of passing options – because the 4-3-1-2 is a narrow formation, many of the players are relatively close to each other so there are many passing options and angles. 
    • Can dominate in the midfield  because the 4-3-1-2 has four in the midfield (three central midfielders and one attacking midfielder), you can easily pass around the opposition. 
    • Can keep possession very well – the reason the 4-3-1-2 can keep possession so well is, again, because of the high concentration of players in the midfield.  It is also due to the high number of passing options that this formation provides as this always means that the player on the ball has someone they can pass to. 
    • Strong against wide formations when attacking  because wide formations are also a lot less concentrated in the midfield, it is quite easy to overload the midfield. The four players in the centre of the park can easily dominate the opponent’s midfield and play the strikers in behind. 
  • Weaknesses:  
    • Quite weak against the counterattack – if the ball is lost high up the pitch then this can mean that the full-backs can be caught out of position. When this happens, it can leave lots of space in behind that the opposition can exploit on the counterattack. 
    •  Weak against wide formations when defending  this is because there is very little cover on the wings which means that, if the opposition gets past the midfield, the full-backs are left very exposed. 
    • Very lacking in width  because this is a narrow formation, it is obviously without very much width. The only width this formation has to offer are the full-backs as there are no wide midfielders or wingers. 
    • Full-backs can easily become overworked – because the full-backs are the only width in the team, they have to be almost constantly running up and down the pitch. 
    • Have to have very fit full-backs – leading on from the previous point, if the full-backs are running up and down the pitch all the time then they have to be very fit to be able to get back in position in time. 
    • Quite weak in attack – this is because the 4-3-1-2 only has three attacking players. However, one of those attacking players isn’t even a completely dedicated attacking player.    

Conclusion 

In the answer to the question “is 4-3-1-2 a good formation?”, the 4-3-1-2 is an interesting variation to the 4-3-3 that can be quite effective in some situations.  

It is fairly effective against wide formations as it can really overload the midfield and exploit any gaps that may be left by the opposition. 

However, because it’s a narrow formation the team can be left very vulnerable on the wings if the full-backs do not get back in position. Because of this, the full-backs must be very fit to be able to recover. 

All in all the 4-3-1-2 is worth looking into if you are looking to try and counter teams playing a very wide formation such as the 4-4-2. 

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