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

The 4-3-2-1 Formation

The 4-3-2-1 (commonly known as the Christmas tree formation) was once a very popular formation in England. It was used by Terry Venables and Christian Gross during their time managing Tottenham and it was also used by a variety of other teams in the 1990s. 

Its most famous use, however, was by Carlo Ancelotti when he used this formation on and off in his time at Milan. Using this formation he ended up winning two Champions League titles. 

However, since then it has faded in popularity and become virtually extinct. 

4-3-2-1 formation

What is the 4-3-2-1 Formation? 

For me to be able to answer, “is 4-3-2-1 a good formation?” you have to first understand the basic layout of the formation. 

The 4-3-2-1 is quite a narrow formation that, in defence, has two centrebacks and two fullbacks. The midfield consists of five players – three central midfielders and two attacking midfielders. In attack, there is just one up front. 

Due to this layout it is called the “Christmas tree formation”. It is also a very narrow formation as the only width is provided by the full-backs.  

However, this narrowness can be remedied in one of two ways. Firstly, you can instruct the attacking midfielders to play slightly wider and let the remaining midfielders cover the middle of the park. The other way is a variation of the 4-3-2-1 that will be explained in a later paragraph. 

The 4-3-2-1 is also quite a balanced formation as there is not too much emphasis on the attack or defence in this formation. Although there is only one out and out attacker, the two attacking midfielders are predominantly focused on attack, and the three central midfielders play an active part in attack as well as defence. 

There are two variations of the 4-3-2-1 formation. One of these is where one of the central midfielders drops back into a defensive midfielder role. This gives the formation a bit more depth and provides the defence with a bit more cover. 

The second variation of the 4-3-2-1 completely alters the layout of the 4-3-2-1. In this variation, the two attacking midfielders become a left forward and a right forward. In this case the formation becomes very similar to the 4-3-3. It provides a lot more width but loses out somewhat in the midfield. 

Is the 4-3-2-1 a Good Formation? 

One of the 4-3-2-1’s main selling points is the fact that the 4-3-2-1 is very versatile as a formation. It can easily be re-engineered into a formation to suit almost any circumstance. The five in midfield can easily be repositioned out wide or further up and down the pitch depending on the situation. 

On top of this, the 4-3-2-1 is a very wellbalanced formation. It offers good attacking threat as well as having a strong defensive system. This is because there are relatively similar numbers of players in all areas of the pitch. 

The 4-3-2-1 is also able to thoroughly dominate in midfield as there are five midfield players! Although the attacking midfielders act fairly separately from the central ones, they are still able to pass around the opposition. 

This also means that the 4-3-2-1 is able to dominate possession quite easily as the midfielders can just pass it around and nobody will be able to get near them. 

Another side affect of having loads of players in midfield is that there are a huge number of passing options in and around the midfield. The defence also has a large number of people they can pass to as there are three midfielders sitting just in front of them. 

Although having a large number of midfielders has its benefits, it does also mean that there are fewer players in other areas of the pitch. For example, the wings and attack are hit particularly hard by this as the 4-3-2-1 only has one striker and the only width is offered by the fullbacks. 

This comes with its own problems as if the full-backs push too far up the field, there can be a lot of space left in behind that the opposition can use to their advantage. 

For the 4-3-2-1 formation to succeed, the full-backs have to have very high stamina and be very fast. This is because the full-backs are the only width in the team and so have to full fill the role of wingers as well as fullbacks. With only one striker the emphasis is definitely on attacks through the middle rather than on the wings. This can be a problem as the opposition can learn to predict this and just overload the midfield. 

The 4-3-2-1 is also quite bad for playing on the counterattack as there is, as mentioned before, extremely little attacking threat that is always high up the pitch. This is not necessarily a bad thing as this just means that the attacking style should be based around possession rather than fast counterattacking football. 

4321 Formation

Which Clubs use the 4-3-2-1? 

Currently, no teams use the 4-3-2-1 formation as in recent times it has become a much less favourable formation. This is because modern day football is quite often based upon fastpaced, counterattacking football. 

The last time this formation was used consistently by any club in the top five leagues was by Milan in the 2008-09 season under Carlo Ancelotti. However, Juventus used this formation for a brief spell and Pescara gained promotion from the Serie B using this formation, but they were quickly relegated back into the Serie B after this brief spell in the Serie A. 

How is the 4-3-2-1 Played? 

  • Strengths: 
    • Loads of passing options – because of the high number of players in the midfield, there are loads of passing angles and options that can be used to pick apart the opposition. 
    • Very versatile formation – due to the close proximity of the five in midfield, the arrangement of these players can easily be adjusted to suit the circumstance. The instructions these players are given can also be altered depending on the situation. For example, the attacking midfielders can be told to go further wide or stay central to adjust for the other team’s formation. 
    • Can dominate easily in the midfield – because of the five in midfield, the 4-3-2–1 will easily control the midfield when faced with almost any other formation. 
    • Can control possession – because the 4-3-2-1 has the ability to dominate in the midfield, it can also easily control possession as the five midfielders can just pass it around with the defence. 
    • Wellbalanced formation – the 4-3-2-1 is neither a very defensive formation nor an extremely attacking one. It is fairly well balanced across both fields. 
  • Weaknesses:  
    • Quite lacking in width – because this formation has no other wide players than the full-backs, it is quite lacking in width. The fullbacks have to fulfil the roles of wingers as well as full-backs. The lack of width can be solved one of two ways: either the attacking midfielders can drift slightly out wide, or they can completely change position and become a left forward and right forward. 
    • Space can be left in behind on the wings – if the full-backs push up too far, they can leave a lot of space in behind for the opposition to exploit. 
    • Need full-backs with good pace and stamina – as mentioned before, the full-backs are forced to be sprinting up and down the wing a lot. This means that they can potentially become overworked or find themselves out of position. This means that the full-backs have to have good stamina and pace to be able to get back in position and last the whole game. 
    • Striker can be left without support up front – due to the low number of players attacking, the striker can be left stranded in attack. This means that the striker has to be good at hold up play so that he can keep the ball whilst waiting for support. 
    • Bad at playing on the counter – Again, due to the low number of players in the attack, there are not many players that can receive the ball with ease high up the pitch. 


In conclusion, the 4-3-2-1 is a wellbalanced formation that lost popularity for a long time during the 2010s. However, it recently made a small comeback a few years ago in the Italian leagues. 

It is quite a good formation for keeping possession. However, there are probably better options out there if you are looking for a solely possession based formation. 

To use this formation effectively, you must have very fit and versatile full-backs as they are the only width in the team. 

All in all, there are probably better formations out there, but feel free to try this formation out if you are sure you have the right personnel for the job.

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