4-3-3 vs. 4-1-4-1: Tactical Flexibility

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In the post 4-4-2 era, teams all over the world play a variety of different formations. These formations change game by game or even within games, so it is becomingly increasingly difficult to nail professional teams down to just one single formation. That being said, two of the most popular formations in the world right now are the tactically flexible 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1, both of which have been used heavily by Pep Guardiola throughout his career. Ultimately the formation has to suit the players that you have and their developmental, psychological and physiological characteristics. But the 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 are two very similar formations. The 4-1-4-1 is perhaps a little more physically demanding and tactically complex, while the 4-3-3 is perhaps more rooted in wing-play and the collaboration of the midfield triangle. Although these formations are very similar, they can offer a team a completely different dynamic, depending on how a manger or coach wants to implement them.



One of the most popular formations in the world today, the 4-3-3 has become a favourite of some of the most celebrated attacking teams on the planet. FC Barcelona, Ajax and Real Madrid have all used the formation to tremendous success using a possession-based style of football but the 4-3-3 has more recently been used to achieve success whilst playing on the break, such as Croatia’s star-studded World Cup 2018 team. The formation is fantastic for teaching youngsters how to play the game in a variety of different ways. It provides natural triangles for keeping possession, allows players to understand the use of space and playing wide and naturally provides moments for creativity and adaptability. It’s also great for teaching fullbacks to get forward while most utilize the formation for its attacking potential.

The most obvious drawback to the 4-3-3 formation is the open space between the fullbacks and the wingers. Through playing in a front-three the wingers are often not typically ones who want to do a lot of defending, nor do managers often want them to do any defending. This is why the formation can be dangerous for teams that don’t keep a lot of possession, because without the ball there is a lot of open space out wide. Only with very defensive-minded fullbacks and a top quality defensive midfielder who can cover a lot of ground (Croatia) could a team be very successful in a 4-3-3 without being possession-based. That being said, the perks and pros of the 4-3-3, such as its overwhelming attacking potential, can be invaluable to any team looking to play free-flowing football.


4-5-1 Formation

In the Guardiola era, 4-1-4-1 has recently become one of the world’s most popular formations. Essentially it takes a defensive looking 4-5-1 and makes it one of the most fluid attacking formations in existence. With the 4-1-4-1, managers can opt for a defensive approach with a flat 4-5-1 or can play like Guardiola’s Manchester City and push the wingers so high that it becomes a 4-3-3 in attack. Because it is relatively new, it is one of the lesser studied formations and managers can benefit as a result thanks to its fluidity. The key to the formation’s fluidity is in deciding which pair of players are going to be the main support system for the lone-striker and how the team will cope with having only one defensive midfielder. If it’s the two central attacking midfielders supporting the striker, the wingers need to be particularly disciplined in defense. As a result, most opt for the wingers to be the support system for the striker, like Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham. This then allows the central midfielders to drop deeper depending on the situation, eliminating the most commonly believed disadvantage of the formation, with having only 1 man in defensive midfield.

The formation is also very conducive to allowing fullbacks to play on the front-foot and has become a favourite for possession-based teams around the globe. That being said, teams who do not keep a lot of possession may struggle to cope during defensive transitions due to the second line of four having less clearly defined defensive roles. That can be a key reason for why youth teams might opt to avoid the formation in favour of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, which provide a similar attack-to-defense balance but have more clearly defined roles.


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Although these formations are very similar, they can offer a team a completely different dynamic, depending on how a manger/coach wants to implement them. Here are some of the key differences between the 4-3-3 and the 4-1-4-1.


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One of the main and more obvious differences between the 4-3-3 and the 4-1-4-1 is that typically the 2 inside central/attacking midfielders in the 4-1-4-1 have a more free role with both of them playing like number tens at times. In the 4-3-3 the number 10 role is typically designated to only one player at a time and might swap between either of the outside central midfielders depending on the position of the ball. Moreover, the midfield trio in the 4-3-3 is essential in making the team tick. They have a lot more responsibility to work as a collective unit, while in the 4-1-4-1 more responsibility is put on the number 6 and taken off the number 10’s who are given more of a free role.


A key similarity to both formations is that in defense, they can both take the shape of a more defensive 4-5-1, yet teams typically playing these formations don’t usually take the approach of over-adapting their defensive shape. Teams like Manchester City in fact rely more on tactical fouling high up the field to ease their transitions into defense. In terms of tactical flexibility, it’s no secret that the 4-1-4-1 has more of the trait than just about any other formation out there. This is perhaps why managers like Pep Guardiola have utilized the formation so heavily in recent times. However, this increased tactical flexibility can be a drawback. As already discussed, it is perhaps more difficult for young players to grasp their roles given the physically demanding nature of most positions and the tactical complexities involved in them.


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The role of the number 6, the defensive midfielder, is so crucial in both formations. However, they have more of a close supporting crew in the 4-3-3, meaning they are required to do less lateral shifting. In the 4-1-4-1, not only is the number 6 the playmaker and the director, but they have to be so positionally sound and physically adept, running from left to right to cover the space in behind the front four. If the defensive midfielder is Fernandinho or Bastian Schweinsteiger, this may be the best formation to utilize in order to get more numbers in attack. Not only can these players cover a lot of ground with their positional awareness and physical presence, but they are very capable in possession of the football and able to direct play all on their own. But if there isn’t a player in the squad who can play that role, a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 may be a better option in order to ease the pressure off of the number 6.


So there it is! Some of the key differences and similarities to the 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3 formations. On paper these formations might look very similar, however depending on the team’s style of play and in particular – the role of the number 6, the formations can be used in many different ways. Pep Guardiola’s a massive fan of both and has used both throughout his career, but doesn’t seem to have a preference. So what’s your preference? Comment below to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

For more articles like this, check out our Coaching section. See you soon!

You might also like – Best Formations for 11v11 and 3 Ways to Play 4-5-1.

11 thoughts on “4-3-3 vs. 4-1-4-1: Tactical Flexibility

  1. Actually both 433(2) and 4141 are variations of 451. As well as 4231. Basically this is all 451.
    The real 433 are 4312 and 4321.
    In football there are just a few formations
    1. 442( flat,diamond,4222)
    And that’s it. 5 in the back are actually 3 in the back. Wing backs are the same as right or let midfielders in fifa.


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