The 4-4-1-1 started as a variation of the 4-4-2. It became more common in the 1990s, when teams started to combine a deep lying forward with a more traditional striker up front. The deep lying forward would drop deeper, playing in the space between the opponent’s midfield and defensive lines. This formation is a link between the 4-4-2 that has dominated the past 40 years, and the 4-2-3-1 that seems to be dominating football today. There are only a few differences between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-4-1-1, with the main difference being the player in the gap, or the playmaker. In a 4-2-3-1, it is a playmaking midfielder (normally called a number 10), while in a 4-4-1-1 it’s a forward.
Position and Skills-
There are many similarities between the position and skills of the 4-4-1-1 and the standard 4-4-2, especially on the back line. The back-line of the 4-4-1-1 consists of 2 center-backs, with 2 fullbacks, one on each side of the center-backs. The center-backs are almost entirely focused on defense. They are responsible for marking the middle of the penalty area, covering and closing down the opposition’s strikers. They need to have great stamina, physical strength and the ability to organize the defensive line. They need to have good defensive skills, with good positional awareness key to ensure they aren’t caught out of position. They have few offensive obligations, but help control possession and play the ball out from the back.
The full-backs cover the areas just wide of the center-backs. They need good pace, strength, and stamina. They need good lateral mobility, to ensure that the opponent’s wingers can’t get past him. Unlike the center-backs, they have a bigger offensive responsibility. With prolonged possession, they often will get forward to provide width to the attack and provide overlapping runs by the wingers. They need to have good crossing skills, and strong passing skills to link up with the winger.
In the midfield, there are some important changes compared to a standard 4-4-2. There are two central midfielders, who are expected to put in a strong effort on both offense and defense, but due to one of the strikers playing deeper, there is less of a demand for the central midfielders to get forward into the penalty area. Defensively, the central midfielders need to shield and protect the center-backs, and close down the opposition’s more advanced midfielders. Offensively, they help play the ball out of the back, linking the defense with the attack. They help control possession, moving the ball laterally from touchline to touchline and getting the ball forward for the wingers and strikers. They play off each other, looking for angles to support each other. They are also constantly looking for space to receive the ball. In addition to helping control possession, they can still provide forward runs when the team has secured control of the ball. It is rare that both come forward at the same time, as that would destroy the team’s shape and expose the defense.
The central midfielders need to be confident on the ball, with at least one of them able to play accurate long passes to get the ball out to the wing. Similar to the 4-4-2, most teams prefer to play one passing midfielder alongside a more physical ball-winning midfielder. It’s important that both midfielders are effective offensively and defensively, able to put in a good work rate and effort on both sides of the ball. The central midfielders need to have tactical intelligence, to help organize the teams attacking phase. They must also be defensively proficient, able to deal with strong midfielders and not afraid to put in a strong tackle to break up a building attack. Both central midfielders need to be able to coordinate their positioning and movement together. They also need to be positionally proficient, which tends to lead to a high number of interceptions.
There are two wingers, one on each side of the central midfielders. These wingers have some similarities to the wingers in a 4-4-2, but there are some key differences. On the attack, they are responsible for providing attacking width and accurate crosses into the box. They need to get forward down the touchline, and make runs at the opposing fullbacks. But, instead of just remaining near the touchline, they should also be able to cut inside effectively, playing into the channel in the penalty area between the opposing full-backs and center-backs. Cutting inside allows the wingers to link up with the deep-lying forward and the striker. They must have good pace, acceleration, better dribbling abilities than traditional wingers to go with good close control. They need good crossing ability, but they also need to be good short passers, able to link-up well with the inside players to attack the opposing defense. With their attacking tasks come important defensive responsibilities similar to those in a 4-4-2. Their job is to quickly track back and assist the fullbacks in dealing with the opponent’s wingers; they also are responsible for keeping an eye on the opponent’s fullbacks when they try to get forward.
The main difference between a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1 is down to the deep-lying forward, also called a playmaker or trequartista. Instead of playing 2 strikers up front, in the penalty area, there is now one striker up front and the second striker plays deeper, in the gap between the opponent’s defensive line and midfield line. During the build-up, it’s not uncommon for the deep-lying forward to drop deep into the midfield to participate in the build-up. By dropping deep, he assists the central midfielders and can create overloads in the central midfield to control possession and get the ball forward. He links the midfield with the attack, often receiving the ball from the central midfielders or wingers and linking the ball forward with the wingers or striker. While this player operates in the gap between the lines, he’ll often move laterally to get into more space.
As opposed to a striker for the 4-4-2, the deep-lying forward requires different skills. The playmaker needs to have excellent technical abilities and strengths. He needs to be confident with the ball at his feet, with good movement, close control, dribbling and quality passing. He needs to be able to pass to his teammates in depth, able to make good short passes, through balls, and wall passes. In addition to passing skills, the deep lying forward needs to be a goal scoring threat. That is what separates a deep-lying forward playing as trequartista from a midfielder. To go with the technical abilities, the deep-lying forward needs to have tactical intelligence. He must be able to develop the teams attacking play with timing and picking out the best passing option to pressure the opposing defense. Another difference between the playmaker and a typical striker from a 4-4-2 is on defense. In a 4-4-2, both strikers are used to pressure the opponent’s center-backs, but the playmaker in a 4-4-1-1 often drops into the midfield on defense. He often marks the deepest opposing central midfielder, with the job of pressing him on the ball and trying to force mistakes. A strong defensive work rate is needed to ensure the team isn’t overrun in the central midfield.
Up front there is one striker. The striker plays in front of the playmaker, inside the penalty area. As the lone striker, he has a big offensive burden. He needs to be able to hold the ball up. He needs to have good pace, be tactically intelligent, able to create space for his teammates with quality movement both on, and off, the ball. He obviously needs accurate shooting, to go with the strength to deal with 1 or 2 center-backs he may come up against. Most of the striker’s job is offensively, but he still needs to contribute defensively. He’s needed to close down the opponent’s defensive line when they have the ball, and this amount of chasing demands stamina.
Tactics & Strategy-
There are some tactical and strategic similarities between the 4-4-1-1 and the 4-4-2, but the 4-4-1-1 is a bit more flexible. This formation is well built for quick counter-attacks but it is equally good at controlling possession. This formation is can stretch out an opposing defense with both width and length. The wingers and full-backs are used to stretch out an opponent from touchline to touchline, while the striker can play on the shoulder of the center-back so that he threatens to get the ball behind the defensive line. But the key to this formation is the performance of the deep-lying forward, as the success or failure can depend largely on how this player plays.
Offensively, this formation functions differently than a typical 4-4-2 does. Moving one striker back as a deep-lying forward changes how almost every position plays. Up front, the striker operates in the penalty area. Behind him is the deep-lying forward, who operates in the gap between the opposing team’s defensive line and the midfield line. Functioning in this gap, it poses a dilemma for the opponent. The opponent has a couple options. They can move forward one of the center-backs, which leaves the lone striker 1v1 in the penalty area, with gaps in the box for the wingers to play into. The other option is to move a midfielder deeper to cover the playmaker. This leaves space in the central midfield for the 2 midfielders, giving them time and space on the ball to pick out a dangerous target.
Playing in the gap, the deep-lying forward frequently moves laterally to get into open space. These lateral movements will often drag defenders out of position, and this creates openings for the wingers and the striker to play into. To avoid this, the defense can choose not to follow the playmaker laterally, but this causes another set of problems. The deep-lying forward will have space to operate in, or he can move out near either winger to create a 2 v 1 overload.
The wingers, instead of just focusing on staying down the touchline and delivering crosses, are also encouraged to cut inside on the attack. They will try to play into the channel between the opponent’s full-backs and center-backs. The wingers frequently cut inside without the ball, coming inside to link-up and play combination passes with both the striker, and the deep-lying forward. When the wingers, deep-lying forward, and striker are able to link up with short passes, wall passes, and through balls to get behind the opponent’s defense, it can be a dangerous attack.
Instead of just staying out wide, the wingers commonly make runs inside. When the wingers attack inside, it is left to the fullbacks to get forward and provide width for the offense. In a 4-4-1-1, the fullbacks will make more frequent runs than in a 4-4-2. With the fullbacks coming forward, you end up with up to 6 players on the attack. This will often force the opposition to defend deeper, in an attempt to pick up all the attackers. This leaves space for the 2 central midfielders to sit deep and control possession.
This formation isn’t as dependent on the forward runs from the midfield as the 4-4-2. However, when secure in possession it is not uncommon for one of the central midfielders to make supporting forward runs. To keep the defense intact, only one of the midfielders will come forward. Some teams will play with one midfielder who makes all of the forward runs, while the other always stays deep. Other teams will play a double pivot, which is where the central midfielders will alternate who makes the forward runs. They will alternate who stays deep, and who comes forward on the attack.
This formation works well at controlling possession due to the number of passing triangles that are available. Unlike the 4-4-2, where there are 3 straight lines with few triangles available, this formation has multiple triangles formed between the lines. This gives each player multiple passing options, allowing them to bypass aggressive defenses and move the ball into open space.
Defensively, this formation functions almost identically to the 4-4-2 except for one very important difference. The team drops back into 2 familiar banks of 4 and the only change comes with the deep lying forward. Instead of staying up front, pressing the opponent’s defensive line with the ball, he drops into the midfield. This puts 3 defenders in the central midfield, which makes them difficult to overwhelm. This is an important factor when facing teams who play formations with 3 in the central midfield, like 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. With the deep lying forward pressuring in the central midfield, it’s left to the lone striker to press the opposing center-backs when they have the ball.
There are many strengths to the 4-4-1-1, but it has weaknesses as well. With the wingers increasingly cutting inside as a direct goal scoring threat, it is left to the fullbacks to provide the width. This leaves the team vulnerable to quick counter-attacks out wide. The team is also depending on the deep-lying forward to work hard defensively in the midfield, and some struggle with this. In addition, with the central midfielders sitting fairly deep, this formation doesn’t offer the same attacking threat in the middle as some others. The main issue with this formation is its reliance on the deep-lying forward. If he’s having a bad game, the team will struggle.
4-4-1-1 Advantages & Disadvantages
+Good width and length to the attack
+The deep-lying playmaker often operates in a defensive gap
+Good opportunities for the wingers to come inside and link-up with the striker and playmaker.
+Easy to control possession with the central midfielders staying deeper.
+3 players defending in the central midfield makes it hard to overwhelm.
+Formation forms many triangles to allow players to pass away from aggressive defense.
+Over reliance on performance of the deep-lying forward.
+Vulnerable to quick counter-attacks out wide.
+Central midfielders not as strong defensively as outright holding midfielders.
The 4-4-1-1 and Manchester United-
For most of last season, Manchester United made the 4-4-1-1 their primary formation and it worked fairly well for them considering the injuries the club had to deal with. Manchester United has several players that fit in well to this formation, and this formation also helps to protect some of United’s weaknesses.
Wayne Rooney is well suited to playing in this formation as the deep-lying forward. United’s talisman has excellent passing skills, to go with great tactical intelligence which allows him to create chances for his teammates. He is able to thread difficult passes to create chances for those around him, and this ability is often wasted when he plays alone up front. He will also frequently drop deep during the buildup, and this formation takes advantage of that trait.
There is, however, an interesting problem. Wayne Rooney is a considerably more dangerous scoring threat than most trequartista. He is too much of a scoring threat to be considered a standard playmaker (Number 10) and his passing and playmaking abilities are too good to be considered just a striker (Number 9). So in this formation Wayne Rooney plays as a ‘Nine and a half’.
Typically, in a formation like a 4-2-3-1 where the playmaker or trequartista is a midfielder, their passing abilities are better than their goal scoring abilities, while in a formation like a 4-4-1-1, where the playmaker or trequartista is a forward, their scoring abilities are better than their passing abilities. Wayne Rooney plays as a true “9 and a half”, where he has equally exceptional goal-scoring and passing abilities. As the deep-lying forward, he is able to combine his passing and playmaking abilities with his shooting abilities. Rooney excelled in this role for most of the 2011/2012 season, but he had more goal scoring success than playmaking success towards the end of the season.
This formation is almost ideal for Wayne Rooney. He’s an excellent creator, combining his passing with quality movement both on and off the ball. In 2011/2012, he averaged 50.4 passes per league game, completing over 80%. With 1.5 key passes a game, he is an extremely dangerous passing threat. This allows him to linkup well with the wingers and striker. But he’s also a dangerous scoring threat after scoring 27 goals in the league last season. Averaging 4.6 shots per game, combining with his passing ability, can cause all types of problems for the opposition. His strong work rate and non-stop motor works well not only on offense, but defensively as well. The Red Devils have other limited options in this position. The strongest being Dimitar Berbatov, who has a similar skill set to Wayne Rooney, even if his skills aren’t as sharp or polished. The other options in this position would be midfielders, like Shinji Kagawa, which turns this into a 4-5-1.
The best attacking option up front in this formation is the newly acquired Robin Van Persie. He plays well up front alone, as he did last season for Arsenal. He can attack with pace, causing severe problems for opposing defenses. In addition, he is a strong finisher, with good dribbling and technical skills and a great touch with the ball. This makes him an ideal lead striker, but he also is also tactically proficient. He has the vision to unlock a defense with a smart pass, allowing him to link-up well with wingers attacking inside or when the deep-lying forward attacks forward. For all his advantages, the Dutchman can struggle in the air, and his defensive work is not his strongest attributes. With his tactical skills, playing him as a deep-lying forward would seem like a viable alternative but playing in a deeper position wouldn’t suit his offensive skills and his defensive weakness. His game is very well suited to playing up front, attacking the opponent’s backline with his pace and his clinical finishing ability.
Another great alternative up front is Danny Welbeck. He has played well up front, with his strength, agility and his willingness to drop back to linkup with the wingers and deep-lying forward. He also has smart movement, which allows him to create spaces for the other attackers to play into. Federico Macheda would also function well up front. This formation isn’t the best option for a striker like Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. Chicharito prefers to play on the shoulder of the last defender, but this can create too large of a gap between him and Wayne Rooney. This can leave him isolated up front, with too much time between his touches and then United’s attack falls apart.
The central midfield position causes problems for United, but not as much as the 4-4-2. While most teams prefer to play a passer alongside a physical midfielder, the Red Devils struggle with a lack of tackling midfielders. At the moment, only Darren Fletcher, and possibly 19-year old Ryan Tunnicliffe can be seen to fill this role on United’s roster. Last season, Sir Alex Ferguson even played Phil Jones in this role, to some success. The lack of physical midfielders is a problem for most formations, including the 4-4-1-1, but this formation can function well with the midfielders available.
With a shortage of tackling midfielders, Fergie has taken to playing two passers together. This formation doesn’t require many forward runs, so it’s a great opportunity to play two quality passing central midfielders who prefer to sit deep. It happens that Manchester United has two players like that on their roster, and their best midfield pairing for formation is Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Michael Carrick has great short passing skills, and rarely misplaces a pass. Paul Scholes is a great short passer, but he also has the great long-range passing ability to play the ball forward to either winger. They function as a double pivot, as they both are able to make quality forward runs. The fact that the forward runs are less frequent in a 4-4-1-1 than in a 4-4-2 works to Carrick and Scholes favor. They struggle with having the pace and stamina that would allow them to make the constant forward runs that the 4-4-2 demand, making this a sound option for United’s midfield.
One of the few areas that Manchester United would struggle with when playing Scholes and Carrick together in the central midfield is on defense. They both work hard on defense, and can be considered better than average midfielders. Michael Carrick’s 2.4 interceptions a game was the most of any Red Devil, while his 3 tackles a game were the 3rd highest on the team. Paul Scholes, who was always considered a bit of a defensive liability, was much improved last season with 1.3 interceptions and 1.4 tackles a game. Together, Scholes and Carrick position themselves well to disrupt the opposition, but they can struggle when dealing with strong, or exceptionally quick, midfielders. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick excel in a formation like this, and others would work well in the central midfield. Darren Fletcher, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley, and even Anderson are good alternatives. Ryan Tunnicliffe could be another option, even though he’s only 19 years old. Other United players won’t function well in this formation. With little demand for surging forward runs, both Nick Powell and Shinji Kagawa would struggle in central midfield, while Ryan Giggs would be a defensive liability.
Manchester United certainly has the quality wingers necessary to excel in a formation like this. Following his performance last season, Antonio Valencia is the best option on the right wing. While Antonio Valencia can be considered by some to be too traditional of a winger, he showed last year that when playing with a creative attacking full-back, like Rafael da Silva, that the combination works extremely well. Instead of the winger cutting inside, and the full-back staying along the touchline, like most teams would play this formation, Valencia as the winger stays out near the touchline and the right-back, Rafael, plays into the channel between the opposing center-back and full-back. On the opposite side, Ashley Young would be the best option at left wing, with Nani close behind. Young’s better short passing and more accurate shooting ability would be more appropriate than Nani. Ashley Young developed a good relationship playing down the left side in front of Patrice Evra, with Young’s strong defensive work ethic helping to cover some of Evra’s deficiencies.
The wing is a strong position for United, but there is one issue at winger for this formation: The inconsistent performance of Nani. While he makes many spectacular plays, there are times when he becomes invisible on the pitch and he makes too few contributions. This formation runs into a problem when Nani is playing on the left-wing, with Valencia on the right, there is nobody who comes inside to link-up with the two forwards. This is especially true if a more defensive full-back, like Phil Jones, is playing at right-back which means there is nobody cutting in from the right-side.
Newly acquired during the summer, Shinji Kagawa is another alternative out on the wing. For Borussia Dortmund, he played behind a lead striker as a trequartista, but for the Japanese National Team, he is frequently used out on the left wing. He’s put in good performances out wide, and could function well out wide in a formation like this. He doesn’t have the typical winger skills necessary to play in a 4-4-2, but his ability to cut in and his vision and passing skills would make him a very good option on the left wing. This would also put another creative playmaker on the field to help Wayne Rooney, as his passing skills and tactical vision would make him very dangerous.
The best options for the Red Devils in the back line is Rafael at right-back and Patrice Evra at left-back. Both are strong coming forward on the attack, linking up well with the wingers in front of them. The biggest problem United can face is the attacking nature of Rafael and Patrice Evra. They can get caught too far forward, allowing the opponent a chance to launch a quick counter-attack behind the full-backs. Unfortunately, Fergie is currently limited with fullback alternatives. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones can play at right-back, while Tyler Blackett and Robbie Brady are the only options currently to back-up for Patrice Evra.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been a solid follower of 4-4-2 since he took over Manchester United, but he has used the 4-4-1-1 on several different occasions. Since Wayne Rooney joined the club, Sir Alex Ferguson has used this formation several different times, but last year was one of the most effective uses of it. With a shortage of true playmaking midfielders, the club needed to rely on Rooney to create chances for others as well as scoring goals himself. This became even more important after several key injuries, such as Tom Cleverley’s ankle problem, and Nani and Ashley Young missing over a month a piece.
With players healthy again, and the deal for Shinji Kagawa, the Red Devils shouldn’t be as dependent on Wayne Rooney to provide most of the creativity. Kagawa and Powell are attacking midfielders, but the 4-4-1-1 isn’t the optimum formation. Their best position is in the same area as Rooney. This will lead the manager to make a choice, to play this formation and use Kagawa in another position or to play a different formation and use Wayne Rooney up front as a standard striker.
This was the main formation that United used last year, but many people conclude that the acquisition of Shinji Kagawa will cause Sir Alex Ferguson to play 4-2-3-1. I think that his transfer will change how the Red Devils play, but I still think this formation will be among the most common formations used by United this season.
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