The 5-4-1 Formation
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The 5-4-1 Formation: Complete Handbook

The 5-4-1 formation’s most famous use was in the 2004 Euros. Where Greece used this formation to win the whole competition. So surprising was this victory that the Greek coach famously said

The Greeks have made football history. It’s a sensation, there are always surprises. This time we are the surprise.”  

At the previous Euros, Greece did not win a single match. But using the 5-4-1 formation they went on to win the competition four years later. 

Many people criticized Greece’s use of the 5-4-1 formation. As they predictably played extremely defensive soccer (they won 1-0 in the quarter-final, semi-final and the final). However, this tactic obviously worked and the 5-4-1 played a crucial part.  

What is the 5-4-1 Formation? 

“Is 5-4-1 a good formation?” is difficult to answer unless you know the basic setup of the formation. 

The 5-4-1 is a fairly complicated formation with numerous variations that alter the appearance of the formation fairly significantly. Here we will explain the most commonly used variation. But we will go over all the variations in a later paragraph.  

In defence, the 5-4-1 has three central defenders with two wing-backs. In midfield, there is one defensive midfielder, two central midfielders and one attacking midfielder. 

5-4-1 Formation

A Defensive Formation

Due to the high numbers in at the back, it is clearly a very defensive formation. Teams will have a hard time breaking down the five-man wall that the 5-4-1 formation provides. 

The opposition will also have a hard time even reaching the defence as there are four in midfield who can easily block any attack from the opposition. 

Variations Of 5-4-1 Formation

There are quite a few variations of the 5-4-1 formation due to the many different combinations you can form with four players in the midfield. 

  • One of these variations is where you move two of the midfielders out wide. This has a lot of benefits including making the formation slightly more attacking. And taking some pressure off the wing backs. However, this variation does leave you a lot more vulnerable in the centre of the midfield. As that leaves only two central midfielders to cover the defence.  
  • Another variation is where the attacking midfielder drops back into the central midfield. This makes this formation even more defensive so it should only be used when parking the bus as otherwise the striker will just be left completely stranded up front. 
  • The last variation involves turning one of the centre-backs into a sweeper. In case you are not aware, a sweeper is a defender who sits just behind the defensive line to “sweep” up any attacks that make it past the defence. Although sweepers have fallen out of fashion in recent years, it is still an option to consider. 

Is the 5-4-1 a Good Formation? 

The 5-4-1 is a very good formation in some circumstances. Because it is very strong in defence it works best against teams who use formations with high numbers of attackers

The 5-4-1 formation works very well on the counterattack. On winning the ball the wing backs can sprint up the field, turning the 5-4-1 into a 3-4-3-like formation. From there the ball can either be played out wide to the wing-backs. Or played up and through the midfield to the striker. 

If the counterattack does not work, the 5-4-1 facilitates keeping possession for long periods of time. Because of the large number of players in defence and midfield. There are a large number of passing options for each player. 

The 5-4-1 is also able to dominate in midfield as there are four midfielders in a diamond shape (Or even flat). Who is able to pass in triangles around the opposition’s midfield. 

Problems WITH 5-4-1 FORMATION

Although there are benefits of having such a large number of players in the defence and midfield, it leaves the 5-4-1 formation very lacking in attack. With only one striker and no wingers, there is not a much-attacking threat. 

The lone striker can find himself quite stranded up front with passing options if he receives the ball. This means that the striker has to be a player who is very good at holding up the ball and waiting for support. This support could come in the form of the wing-backs or the attacking midfielder. 

All the responsibility falls on the wing backs’ shoulders to put balls in the box. However, if they push too far up the pitch, it can leave the defence very exposed. 

The wingbacks also need to have almost superhuman stamina as they are fulfilling the role of full-backs and wingers at the same time. They also need to be very quick as they need to be able to get back fast if they are getting hit on the counterattack. 

Problems With 5-4-1 Formation

Which Clubs use the 5-4-1 FORMATION? 

Only one team in the top five leagues used this formation in the 2019-20 season. This team was Leganes in La Liga who finished 18th last season. 

Strengths of the 5-4-1 Formation? 

Very strong in defence – due to the obvious fact of there being five players in defence, the 5-4-1 is a very defensively strong formation. 

Lots of passing options – because of the high concentration of players in defence and midfield, there are always players that can be passed to. 

Able to dominate in the midfield – when playing the 5-4-1 formation it is very easy to dominate the midfield just due to the sheer number of players there. The midfield can easily pass around teams that have two or three players in the midfield. 

Good on the counter – due to the wing backs and midfield the ball can travel from one end of the pitch to the other in a matter of seconds. 

Good at defending the counterattack – if the wing-backs are caught out of position then the midfield can easily drop into the defence to provide extra cover.

Weaknesses of the 5-4-1 Formation? 

The striker can be left very isolated – because there is only one in attack, the striker can be left very isolated. Due to this, hold-up play should be one of the best assets to his game so that he can keep possession of the ball whilst waiting for support. 

Need wing backs with incredible stamina – the wing backs play a crucial part in the attack as well as the defence in the 5-4-1 formations. Because of this, the wing-backs need to have amazing stamina to be able to be bombing up and down the wings constantly. 

Need midfielders who are very good on the ball – for this formation to work, the midfielders have to be the ones who control the game. This means that they all have to be very well-rounded players who are able to provide attacking threats as well as defensive cover. They also need to be able to distribute the ball very well to be able to launch attacks. 

Very weak in attack – because the 5-4-1 only has one attacker it can be quite hard to score goals using this formation. 

Relies quite heavily on set pieces and headers – when Greece used this formation in the 2004 Euros, the goals in both the semi-final and the final were scored from headers from corners.  

Quite vulnerable on the wings – because the wing-backs are pushing up the field to join the attack, there can be space left in behind on the wings that the opponent can exploit. 

How to attack with a 5-4-1 formation?

It’s evident that the defensive zones of the team are quite overloaded in the 5-4-1 formation. But few changes and the presence of versatile players can make it very useful from an attacking point of view as the game shifts and the need of being offensive arises. Here’s how.

We have 3 centre-backs who can cover the defensive width, which allows the wing-backs to advance and act as wingers and participate in the attack. Since the width is now covered, the wide midfielders can be more offensive and help out the lone striker upfront. Here, the presence of a false nine or attacking midfielder might come in very handy.

This was just one possibility, there can be drawn many like this one, given the situation. What we’re trying to establish is that, with few adjustments and variations, the 5-4-1 formation can be used in an attacking scenario too.


In conclusion, the 5-4-1 formation can be used to play a very defensive – but effective – game, as proven by the Greeks. It’s incredibly strong in defence as there are five at the back with a defensive midfielder as well as two central midfielders who can all help out the defence. 

The 5-4-1 provides a large number of passing options that lends itself well to playing possession football (soccer). It is also able to completely dominate the midfield. 

However, if you do not have two very capable wing backs and four highly skilled midfielders then it is probably best to avoid this formation.

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