In this formation analysis, we take a look at a playing shape of the 3-4-1-2. This shape is starting to become very popular in the modern game with the development of athletic qualities in players. The shape your team plays will always depend on the ability & qualities of your squad and also that of the oppositions strengths and weaknesses. These points are a guide to highlight the key areas of a 3-4-1-2 formation and give you an insight on how you can play it with your group of players.

What are the Strengths?

  • Deploying two central forward players & one ‘playmaker’ in advanced midfield can create through the middle of the team.
  • Numerical superiority through the middle of the pitch, providing opportunities to play through or switch the play.
  • Creating opportunities to score from wide areas with the support on the sides and numbers centrally.
  • Creates more superiority in central areas in the defensive third.
  • Can easily drop into a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 to defend deeper and counter attack of kill spaces for the opposition.
  • Compactness and less space centrally, can be more difficult to break down.
  • Responsibility of wide players to tuck round and create almost a back 4 situation to defend the width of the field.
  • Able to deal with direct play or crosses when disciplined to stay centrally.
  • Can man mark against 2 forwards and deploy a ‘sweeper’ system to cover teammates and be the free player.

What are the Weaknesses?

  • Can struggle to cover the width of the pitch so must utilise a midfield player.
  • Distances can be big on transitions of wider wing back player to cover round with ball on opposite side.
  • Often leaves a weak side if opponents switch play easily or attack quickly on regains.
  • Can be outnumbered on attacks down the sides.
  • Communication & tactical breakdown between 3 players in understanding responsibilities.
  • Relying on the width of your full backs you risk leaving spaces behind them where centre half may need to go cover, stretching your defence.
  • Playing an opponent with a front three with good movement can often cause problems pulling the centre backs into areas like midfield or out wide where they may be uncomfortable.

In Possession –Attacking Build Up

This shape can help in the build up of play and provide more assurance and security as the team moves up the pitch. The problems can occur when all the back 3 stay behind the midfield with good possession in the attacking half, as the team can loose one extra player in the advanced final areas of play. However, if the back 3 characteristics and capabilities are that they are comfortable on the ball, they may join in the play in midfield and advanced areas to create overloaded situations down the sides or through the middle of their opponents.

With a numerical advantage often found vertically through the centre of the team, this can provide problems for opponents in both direct play and also more patient build ups, which switch the play and wait for the moments to play through the opposition. Utilising two centre forwards can occupy the two centre halves if the opposition play a back 4, thus, working on their start position and movement to run behind or come off their opponents into spaces and midfield areas can cause plenty of issues. Particularly if from this movement teammates utilise the space created with forward runs if the defender gets pulled out of position.

The front 3 can rotate and move to form a 2-1, 1-2, high 3 or deeper 3 if the wing backs pin the opponents back unit high, creating decision making issues for the opposition.

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Out of Possession – Defending Shape

Defending with 3 players in the central zone is flexible and safer and from these areas rarely plays in situations of equal numbers against opposing forwards, while with the back 4 system sometimes the two centre backs are man on man against a front two.  A coaches philosophy and understanding to instruct how his team structure is without the ball is vital in this system. Setting up to be high pressing and aggressive without the ball can be done, although the roles of the players and the discipline to concentrate for the full duration, particularly if the game is transitional is a difficult thing to do without being exposed down the sides. In addition the team can also set up to pick and choose moments to apply high pressure. With this in mind dropping off to deny space in behind, and with good compactness can lead to interceptions and spring attacks. Players who have good energy and discipline can be useful in these midfield areas. The wing backs need to tuck in and round to make a back 4 unit to help not get exposed in wide areas. They also need to be athletic being able to cover the ground both attacking and tracking back. 

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Transitional Moments

The system can be utilised upon regaining possession by defending deeper and nullifying spaces to be able to intercept and break on the opposition. If this is the structure be clear on the roles of the players down the sides so your team doesn’t get outnumbered in these areas, for example dragging out a centre back when he’d be better placed to defend crosses.

Upon losing the ball the system can be exposed down the sides and even centrally if the back 3 all stay behind the opponents forward(s). One back player should push into midfield to further enhance central superiority and also provide security on the first pass/ball upon losing possession higher up the pitch.


Types of Players

  • Central defenders who are capable on the ball and comfortable stepping into midfield areas to advance and support the play.
  • The right and left centre backs must be comfortable in going out to defend in wide areas particularly on transitional play.
  • Wing backs who have good physical endurance to work the flame of the pitch, supporting attacks mid and high, and also covering round into a compact shape with the ball on the opposite side.
  • Midfielders who are not only disciplined out of possession to sometimes drop into the back unit, but also in possession, creating space for defenders to step in and effecting the opposite shoulders of their opponents.
  • The ‘playmaker’ will at times have the freedom to effect the game not only in central positions but also in wide areas, as the two forwards can often occupy the centre backs. He can also make runs beyond the front players to exploit spaces behind with deeper runs.
  • The two centre forwards must work together with their movement to effect the centre backs decision making and pull them into uncomfortable areas, also to create space for themselves to get into good attacking positions.

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