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4-4-1-1 vs 4-2-3-1 – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on March 3rd, 2022

When you watch modern football or play FIFA on your console, you may have come across several different formations, the 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 inclusive. 

This guide will show you the differences between both formations. 

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The Differences Between 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 

The 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 are two completely different systems used by teams of contrasting styles and patterns of play.

With the 4-4-1-1 formation, teams can spring into counterattacks quite easily and regularly due to the two walls of four men and two forwards working in tandem up ahead of them. This formation allows teams to counter-press the opposition and hound them for possession a good distance from their own third of the pitch.

The set-up is shown below:

Defenders Two Central Defenders
and Two full-backs 
Midfielders Four midfielders 
AttackersOne second striker and One striker

You can find out the difference between a central defender and full-back here.

A team that plays the 4-4-1-1 formation primarily relies on its wide midfielders for width, with these players expected to cover lots of ground. In addition, they are expected to be hardworking in defence and attack to help the team transition effectively from defence to attack.

This formation allows the full-backs to take over playing on the front foot from their wide midfielders, who would drift in-field to provide more central support. As a result, the full-backs and wide midfielders are expected to work very hard and be more mobile on the pitch.

The 4-2-3-1 formation is much more common these days as teams prefer to have more creative players serving as the supporting cast for their striker. 

The formation is set up this way:

DefendersTwo Central Defenders and Two full-backs 
Midfielders Two holding midfielders,
three attacking midfielders
(one number 10 and two wide attacking midfielders)
AttackersOne striker

The double-pivot in midfield protects the four-man defence stationed behind them. This double-pivot also allows the full-backs the freedom to bomb forward when they get the opportunity to join the attack.

You can find out more about the role of a pivot in this article.

The full-backs do this knowing that the two holding midfielders will remain behind to cover for them in case of a counterattack.

Consequently, the presence of the two full-backs allows the team to produce attacks of more outstanding quality. They usually have the license to drive forward and offer support out wide. Also, the three attacking midfield players have the task to create goalscoring chances for the striker.

The 4-2-3-1 requires good planning and understanding between the defenders and the players playing ahead of them. 

The midfielders’ movement will usually dictate how far the full-backs move upfield. In order not to congest tight spaces, the full-backs have to ensure that they hold their positions until the wide attacking midfielders cut inside before they move to provide width for the attack.

History of the two formations

The 4-4-1-1 is a direct offshoot of the 4-4-2 formation that came into prominence in 1966 when England won the World Cup under Alf Ramsey. Since then, several teams adopted the formation to significant effect, including Premier League title-winning sides of the 2000s and Leicester City in 2015

In 2009/10, Fulham employed the 4-4-1-1 formation successfully as they reached the final of the UEFA Europa League using Zoltan Gera and Bobby Zamora in the two forward positions.

In contrast, the 4-2-3-1 formation became widely used in the 1990s as coaches looked for ways to successfully create goalscoring chances against teams that looked to defend deep. 

The formation helped teams press high, win the ball back at the earliest opportunity and concede fewer goalscoring chances. Legendary Brazilian manager Mario Zagallo believes that his Brazil side of 1970 initiated the 4-2-3-1 formation before teams from all around Europe adopted the formation.  

The 4-2-3-1 formation is one of the most commonly used formations in modern football, with many top sides and managers using it.

Top managers that have used it in recent years include Jose Mourinho at Tottenham Hotspur, Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich, Rafael Benitez at Liverpool and Jupp Heynckes at Bayern Munich.

More recently, Arsenal has employed this formation under Mikel Arteta

Differences in Defence

On paper, the 4-4-1-1 looks much more solid than the 4-2-3-1 because the team can defend with two lines of four players. Being an offshoot of the 4-4-2, it is logical that the 4-4-1-1 offers more solid defence.

With the four defenders and four midfielders forming two protection lines in front of their goalkeeper, it is difficult for the opposition to break their lines at will.

The central defenders always remain in charge of coordinating the defensive shape and structure of the team. In addition, they instruct the full-backs on when to move and when to hold their positions. 

However, with the 4-2-3-1, the opposition always has the possibility of being caught on transition. Usually, when the full-backs have moved upfield to join the attack, they leave their primary positions exposed to runners. 

As a result, the two holding midfielders can get drawn out of position, leading to opposition attackers getting free runs from central and wide areas at the central defenders.

Differences in Midfield

The bulk of the differences between these formations can be seen easily in the midfield. This is because each formation operates a unique type of midfield set-up that allows them to play the way they want.

With the 4-4-1-1, the midfielders are usually set up as a flat four-man midfield. However, they remain in constant communication and maintenance to protect against counterattacks.

An example of this can sometimes be seen with Leicester City’s set-up under Brendan Rodgers.

Compared to the 4-2-3-1 formation, this formation provides solidity in midfield due to the sheer number of players packed in the middle of the pitch. 

Unlike the 4-4-1-1 formation, a three-man midfield system can easily outrun the midfield of the 4-2-3-1 formation.

In contrast, the midfield of a 4-2-3-1 formation consists of only two men as a double pivot in front of the defenders.

Usually, one of the two midfielders stays back to shield the defence while the other roams around in a box-to-box capacity looking to break opposition lines with his runs.

The player in the box-to-box role usually performs a more offensive function, and the other player plays more defensively in midfield. An example is the duo of Joshua Kimmich and Corentin Tolisso with Bayern Munich.  

Furthermore, the three attacking midfielders usually comprise a number 10 playing through the middle, flanked by two players capable of playing inside forwards. Players like Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry are perfect for the wide roles, with Thomas Muller regularly used in the number 10 role. 

In order for them to function effectively out wide, the wide players must be able to play as inside forwards. The left-footed player usually plays on the right, and the right-footed one plays on the left. 

Moreover, the number 10 must play defence-splitting passes with great precision and accuracy. He must also know how to make calculated bursts into the opposition box to score goals.

The No. 10 position is a role Thomas Muller has excelled in his career, scoring goals and providing assists to help Bayern Munich and the German National Team win trophies.

Differences in Attack

In the attack, both formations differ significantly due to the manner of attack each operates. For example, in a 4-4-1-1 formation, there are usually two forward players, one of whom serves as a second striker while the other plays as the main striker.

The main striker is usually responsible for running the channels, while the second striker majorly maintains the central role and looks to link with the main striker regularly. 

Last season, Leicester City excelled with the system, using Jamie Vardy as the main striker and Kelechi Iheanacho as the second striker. The combination led to them scoring a combined total of 36 goals for Leicester City last season. 

In contrast, the 4-2-3-1 formation allows teams to play with only one recognised striker while the three attacking midfielders contribute goals and assists for the team. 

An example of such a striker is Robert Lewandowski, who has distinguished himself in that position in recent years. Other notable strikers in this system include Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane, Fernando Torres, and Mario Mandzukic.

Famous Examples of the teams that use these formations

Here are some of the examples of teams that use the 4-4-1-1 and the 4-2-3-1 formations:

4-4-1-1 

Leicester City 

Since the appointment of Brendan Rodgers as manager of Leicester City, the former Liverpool boss has shifted from the 4-4-2 system that got the club the Premier League title in 2016 to a 4-4-1-1.

He primarily used this formation in the 2020/21 season when Iheanacho and Vardy formed a brilliant partnership, eventually beating Chelsea to win the 2021 FA Cup. 

Atletico Madrid

 In their title-winning 2020/21 season, Atletico Madrid played with a 4-4-1-1 formation for large chunks of the season using two of Luis Suarez, Angel Correa and Joao Felix, as the forwards.

Fulham

In the 2009/10 season, Fulham managed to rub shoulders with the elites of Europe’s second-tier competition, the UEFA Europa League, reaching the competition’s final using this formation.

4-2-3-1 

West Ham

David Moyes prefers to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, helping West Ham become a force in recent seasons. Moyes deploys Michail Antonio as the main forward, with Nikola Vlasic and Jarrod Bowen linking up from the flanks and Said Benrahma occupying the No. 10 role.

Arsenal

Mikel Arteta favours using three attacking midfield players behind a lone striker in his team, helping Arsenal thrive in the 4-2-3-1. Alexandre Lacazette plays as the top man, with Martin Odegaard as the No. 10 role.

They both have Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli on either side of the flanks to make the formation work excellently.

Bayern Munich

Although they play in various formations, one of the most prominent formations employed by Bayern is the 4-2-3-1. This formation allows them to use their profound attacking quality to full effect against any opposition.

The formation has yielded them several trophies (and stars) over the years.

Verdict

Here is a summary of the differences between a 4-4-1-1 and a 4-2-3-1 formation:

4-4-1-1 4-2-3-1
Number of
players in defence
44
Number of
players in midfield
45 (2 holding midfielders,
3 attacking midfielders)
Number of
players in attack
21
StrengthsGood counterattacking
Solid defence
Good counter-pressing
Good cover for centre backs
A high volume of chance creation
Good goals return 
WeaknessesIt can be too defensive
Too reliant on wide
players for chance creation 
No cover for full-backs
Susceptible to counter-
pressing by opponents 
Famous Examples of
teams that use it
Leicester City
Atletico Madrid
Fulham
Bayern Munich
Arsenal
West Ham

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