Football Tactics: 5-4-1 formation
Overview of the formation
This is a defensive formation that relies heavily on the defensive abilities of the back-five. It consists of five defenders; three central defenders and two full-backs. In midfield, there are two central midfielders and two wingers, while a lone striker completes the formation.
Stated in very simple terms, there are basically three ways to get past an opposition defence: a team can go around, through or over the top. This system is designed to stop all those three from happening.
How it works
The idea is to make it virtually impossible for the opposition to create chances in your defensive-third. When executed properly, it forces opponents to take their goal attempts from 30-plus yards out, which is far enough for any decent keeper to save most attempts.
Usually, teams have two central defenders but in this system there will is an extra defender who takes care of any loose balls and aerial threats, so attempting to create chances from crosses usually won’t yield anything for the opposition.
A back-five has less distance between the defenders than a back-four, which makes it almost impossible to penetrate through the middle of that line. Since the back-five usually drops to the edge of the 18-yard box, any balls played in behind are simply collected by the keeper.
Since the defensive line is quite deep, the four midfielders protect the remainder of the defensive third by seriously pressing for the ball just in front of the back-five.
When attacking, side can morph into a 3-4-3 formation with the full-backs pushing into midfield to supply width in attacks, leaving three at the back. The wide midfielders join the centre forward from the flanks, forming a front-three.
Aside from errors, it is supposed to be almost impossible to score against a side set up in this manner because more than 95 per cent of goals come from the attempts in the final-third and the 5-4-1 formation packs nine outfield players into that third to prevent the opponent from creating any chances in that area.
Offensively, this system usually yields very few goals mainly because most of the players are sucked too deep in defensive positions to push on and create chances or support the isolated centre forward in attack.
Like any defensive formation, it also takes a lot of hard work off the ball, which most players are not particularly keen on doing. Discipline is also essential in this system because unnecessary movements can open up gaps and afford the opposition a chance to score.
Which teams have used the 5-4-1 formation successfully?
Costa Rica during the 2014 World Cup. Manager Jorge Pinto realised from the onset that his side was in a group that included former world champions with players of far superior quality to his own squad, so he turned to this system.
Pinto impressively transformed a Costa Rica side that was supposed to be the whipping boys in Group D, which included England, Italy and Uruguay. Los Ticos not only defied the odds in qualifying to the knockout stages but they won the group.
This became the best World Cup campaign ever for Costa Rica as they went all the way to the quarter-finals, where Netherlands needed penalties after failing to score in 120 minutes against Pinto’s men. Throughout the tournament, they only conceded one goal from open play and that actually came against Greece when they were down to 10 men.
They had the defensive discipline of Junior Diaz and Cristian Gamboa int full-back positions. In midfield, Yeltsin Tajeda, Celso Borges, Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz all worked incredibly hard, while Joel Campbell led the attacks with intelligent movement and an impressive ability to break the opposition’s rhythm by holding the ball up to relieve pressure for his teammates.