Football Tactics: 4-5-1 tiki-taka formation
Overview of the 4-5-1 tiki-taka formation
This is a system based on a good understanding of the geometry of the football pitch, with a key emphasis on teamwork.
The overall idea is to control the game through ball retention and gradually gain territory in the opposition’s half with short accurate passes until it results in a goal.
There will be four defenders; two central defenders and two full-backs. In midfield, usually the team is set up with two holding midfielders, a playmaker and two wide midfielders, while the lone striker completes the formation.
There are two key differences between this formation and other possession-based formations. The first one is obviously the insistence on short passes when in possession.
The next difference is the reliance on the idea that the size of any football field is flexible and can be altered by the team playing on it. In possession, the team aims to make the pitch as big as possible for the opponent but when defending the outfield players compress the play for the opposition.
How it works
Short passes are essential in this system because they allow the team to control the game by retaining the ball for longer periods of the game.
Usually the team keeps play in the offensive half, with the central defenders holding their defensive line on the halfway line. To make the pitch ‘bigger’ for the opposition defenders, the midfielders have to operate with a lot of positional rotation, often with only one player anchoring midfield.
The full-backs also play an integral role in the offensive play because they work close to the touchlines in the attacking half, which stretches the opponent’s defensive unit and creates space centrally for the midfielders to exploit.
Pep Guardiola, one of the most successful managers at implementing this tiki-taka system is famed for saying: “You win the ball back when there are 30 metres to their goal, not 80.”
He basically meant that the team has to compress play for the opposition by holding a high defensive line when defending, with the midfielders joining the centre forward in aggressively pressing the opponent in their own defensive-third.
The main advantage of using this system is the control that comes with enjoying a lot of possession. It is easy to dictate the tempo of the game with the ball.
When this formation is successfully implemented, the opposition are usually pinned in their defensive half, which means that most free-kicks come in good positions and the opposition gets the ball in deep positions so they may struggle to stage effective counter-attacks if they lack pace in their side.
Another positive that comes with adopting this philosophy is the satisfaction it gives fans. Tiki-taka football involves a lot of flair, touch and creativity, which goes down well with supporters.
The goal return from this system is usually lower relative to the amount of possession a team enjoys. The other key disadvantage is the ever present risk of counter-attacks.
With virtually all the midfielders involved in recycling possession and probing the opposition, plus the full-backs staying very high to stretch play, there will always be enough space for the other team to exploit on the break.
Which teams have used the 4-5-1 tiki-taka formation successfully?
Spain won their maiden World Cup in 2010 using this system. They may not have scored a lot of goals in that tournament (just eight in seven games), but they controlled a lot of their matches and only conceded two goals.
Defenders like Carlos Puyol and Sergio Ramos deserved a lot of credit for that success, but the key player was Xavi Hernandez. Arguably the best Spanish footballer of all time, Xavi was 30 then and clearly at the peak of his powers.
His abnormally good vision, pinpoint passing (averaging 91 per cent accuracy) and world class ball control allowed him to dictate the flow of play while rarely relinquishing possession.
Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal in the final against Netherlands, also played a key role in the middle of the park, while Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets were the holding midfielders in that side. David Villa was, of course, the final piece of the team and he scored five of Spain’s eight goals in that tournament.