Formation Transitions From a 3-4-1-2: Tactical Theory and Player Requirements

Article by Ben Griffis.

This piece looks at the different positional movements players can make to transition from a 3-4-1-2 formation to other widely used formations. Namely, it discusses movements from a 3-4-1-2 to 4-4-2 Diamond, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, and 3-3-1-3 tactical shapes.

Few teams both attack and defend the entire match in the formation they’re initially structured in, and this is the first post in a series of posts that will look at several transitions from a starting formation. I’ll explain specific attributes and versatility needed in the players who shift positions, as well as strengths and weaknesses of each transition.

Why do teams shift formations in the first place?

First off, we need to address why a change in formation—slight or major—occurs. Managers might prefer their squad to buildup and attack in a formation that enables the specific attacking tactics a manager wants to implement. They may also use a different defensive structure than what they use in attack.

See this exceptionally detailed and well-written article by Tom Payne at Spielverlagerung on Empoli’s 2015/16 tactics for examples of this. Notice how different players move in attack (and defense) based on Marco Giampaolo’s game plan. For example, one fullback pushes high up the pitch in attack, while the other stays behind and narrows to form a back 3.

While lining up in a 4-3-1-2, Empoli attacked with a formation closer to a 3-3-2-2 or 3-3-1-3. They defended much in their 4-3-1-2 shape but could also form a 4-3-3 or 4-2-2-2 with the forward movement of one player (attacking midfielder or central midfielder, respectively).

Another example, again an excellent piece from Spielverlagerung (by Judah Davies), explains Maurizio Sarri’s 2015/16 Napoli. While lining up in a 4-1-2-3/Defensive 4-3-3, Napoli attacked in a 3-4-3, with defensive midfielder Jorginho dropping deeper between the center backs as the fullbacks pushed up in line with the central midfielders.

The 3-4-1-2 Formation

The 3-4-1-2 formation is a slight variation on a 5-3-2 formation, with the central of three midfielders pushing up to be an attacking midfielder, and both wingbacks also sitting just a little higher than in a 5-3-2. Overall, these two formations are very similar and many times the biggest difference is the presence of an attacking midfielder (3-4-1-2) or absence of one (5-3-2), since wing backs and wingers can sometimes be hard to distinguish in back 3s or back 5s with no other players on the wings.

Several teams have employed a 3-4-1-2 as their main formation this season. Franck Haise and RC Lens in Ligue 1 might be the most notable, as they surprised Ligue 1 with great performances as a newly-promoted team and finished 7th, one spot below European qualification.

Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea used the formation as a variation on their usual 3-4-2-1 shape, with Havertz or Hudson-Odoi joining Timo Werner as strikers instead of their usual position behind Werner. Another example is Leicester City, where Brenden Rodgers adopted it as his favored formation in March after starting right back James Justin suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Wolverhampton Wanderers also used the formation several times this season. Finally, FC Nordsjælland from Denmark’s Superliga also lined up in a 3-4-1-2 multiple times. These are just a selection of teams who have used the formation, but there are countless others.

The 3-4-1-2 is a strong shape in both attack and defense. The wingers able to push even higher to create an overload of players in attack, or they can drop deep back 5 in defense. It’s very flexible when a few versatile players are in the formation, which is what I’ll show here.

Transition to a 4-4-2 Diamond

The above image shows one way how the 3-4-1-2 can quickly shift to a 4-4-2 diamond formation, a very popular formation in football for its own flexibility and strength in structure. Both wingers drop to become fullbacks while the central center back steps up into the defensive midfield position.

While the wingers/wing backs in a 3-4-1-2 should be adept defenders, a manager transitioning into a 4-4-2 diamond will need wingers who are comfortable being both defenders and attackers. Take Juan Cuadrado at Juventus, for example. The former attacking winger has dropped back to become a right back, and can defend well but of course is still a very competent right winger. Andrea Pirlo has deployed him as a winger/wing back several times while using a back 3. Cuadrado is a great example of the type of winger necessary to enable the 3-4-1-2 to 4-4-2 diamond tactical transition—a player who is effective as a lone winger and is not an attacking or defensive liability to their team.

An example of a player you would not want in this role is Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, who was infamously deployed as a left wingback by Mauricio Pochettino in the 2017 FA Cup Semifinal against Chelsea. While one of the best left wingers in the world, Son is not an adept defender and Chelsea exploited his defensive weaknesses, leading to him being a liability for Spurs. Using a player like Son in the winger role for a 3-4-1-2 to 4-4-2 diamond transition would be detrimental for the team.

Let’s move on to the center back who pushes up into midfield. This center back would need to be comfortable on the ball and carrying the ball up the pitch occasionally. While they could be used as a ball-winning midfielder, they are still in midfield and will have more attacking duties and less time on the ball to make decisions. They would also have to have a bit more pace than regular center backs, so that they can recover after any mistakes, track attackers making runs, or help further up the pitch.

A player who typifies this profile is Spurs’ Eric Dier under Mauricio Pochettino. Especially in his first couple seasons at Tottenham, Pochettino used Dier in both midfield and in the back line. Dier is comfortable on the ball, making passes, and moving up the pitch when necessary, and has the pace to not get caught out playing higher up. He’s also a good defender, able to lead a back line, snuff out danger, win aerials, and out-muscle many attackers—even though he has performed relatively poorly recently like the rest of the Tottenham squad. A player of Dier’s profile would be the perfect player to set up as a center back but step up when transitioning into a 4-4-2 diamond.

Of course—and this applies to the further formations discussed—these specific positional movements are just one way to transition from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond shape. I’ll quickly discuss another transition sequence that can change a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond.

If a team has one wing back that is adept at playing midfield and no center backs that could slot in, but that could slide over to be a fullback, one wing back would shift over into the defensive midfield position while the center back on that side becomes a fullback. The wing back on the other side would drop back into the fullback position.

Example players for these roles would include Joshua Kimmich in his early career with Bayern Munich, and especially Philip Lahm before him—both are fullbacks and midfielders. Many wing backs today are converted fullbacks, and can easily rotate between the two positions. Atlético Madrid’s Kieran Trippier is one example of such a player, as he has played both positions for Tottenham and England, and operates very well in both attack and defense. Finally, a center back example is Benfica’s Jan Vertonghen. While normally a center back, he has been deployed as a left back regularly and is comfortable in both positions.

The key for the manager looking to transition between different formations is to have versatile players. At least a few players on the pitch need to be able to perform in whatever positions they are instructed to line up in. The manager needs to ensure their players and formation align and do not lead to any major weaknesses for the opponent to exploit. While in the above example the center back stepping into midfield does not need to be starting-midfield quality, they must hold the attributes required for that role and be comfortable performing in it.

Transition to a 4-4-2

The 3-4-1-2 can also transition into a more traditional, flat 4-4-2. In the movements shown above, one center back shifts over to become the fullback while the other two remain as two center backs. One winger drops back into the back line and becomes the other fullback. Lastly, the attacking midfielder moves over to the wing previously occupied by the new fullback.

A slight variation on this move would be to move a central midfielder to the wing and the attacking midfielder to that central midfield position. As noted in the previous example, a manager looking to transition to a formation would need to assess what player can make these positional movements.

An advantage of transitioning from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-4-2 is additional defensive compactness. While a 3-4-1-2 has four lines of players, it spreads out the players in each line, which can lead to gaps in the lines, if not between lines. The 4-4-2 has a very solid defensive structure with 2 lines of 4 players each, which brings most of the outfield players close to each other while defending. Christophe Galtier effectively used a 4-4-2 with his 2020/21 Lille squad. This formation was structural sound and led to Lille having one of the best defenses in Europe. Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht also uses a 4-4-2 with unique buildup instructions to not only remain solid defensively in case they need to transition quickly, but also to open up space and fluidity for the attackers.

A drawback to transitioning to a 4-4-2 is the possibility of marooning the strikers from the midfield. With no players in an attacking midfield position at the start of possession, either the midfield or the strikers will need to perform extra work to open safe passing lanes.

An example of a player able to shift from center back to fullback (and vice versa) is Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard. While almost exclusively a right-back this season and with the French national team, he began his Bayern career playing in both positions. At Stuttgart, and in the French youth teams, he primarily lined up as a center back. Pavard is not a fullback that bombs up and down the wing like his teammate Alphonso Davies. Instead, he is world-class defender with a bit of pace and the awareness and attacking ability to be equally effective in the back line and up the pitch. A player like Pavard would be a perfect option for the position-changing center back in this specific transition to a 442.

Above I discussed Juan Cuadrado, a player who would be able to drop back from the wing into the back line, so I won’t go too much further in depth. Other players like this include Tottenham’s Sergio Reguilón, who is a natural fullback but is an effective attacker and has lined up as a left winger for stretches of games when left back Ben Davies enters the game.

An attacking midfielder that moves onto the wing would need to possess ample pace and acceleration to beat defenders in addition to the passing and vision required of attacking midfielders. Further, they would need to have a high work rate, since wingers in a 4-4-2 are required to help out defensively as well as in attack. If they don’t track back, the shape is broken and the opposition will take advantage of this hole.

An example of this type of player is Roma’s Pedro. Pedro is normally a winger, but has played as an attacking midfielder for much of this season under Paulo Fonseca. Pedro possesses very high work rate, pace, and ability to close down opponents. He would be able to perform in a role which rotates him throughout the match between an advanced midfielder and a winger, without compromising his team in either role or the transition.

Transition to a 4-2-3-1

Another common formation the 3-4-1-2 can transition to is the 4-2-3-1. This formation has been one of the most widely used tactical setups in recent football history. Many managers line up their teams in a 4-2-3-1, including Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City; Jürgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool; and Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain, to name a few.

The 4-2-3-1 adds additional flexibility to any team transitioning to it. Wingers can cut inside to drag defenders out of position, allowing the fullbacks or another midfielder space to run into. The defensive line can still be strong in buildup if one midfielder stays deep near the center backs. The other can get forward to offer another attacking outlet. In defense, there are plenty of players who can close an opponent down anywhere on the pitch. The formation has both width and depth, and can be an effective formation to create a narrow defensive block to force opponents wide. In combination with players across the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 is an effective defensive shape as well.

One set of positional movements to transition from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-2-3-1 are shown in the image above, an almost clockwise movement. Similar to the move to a 4-4-2, one winger would drop and become a fullback while a center back shifts over becoming the other fullback. Next, the winger who does not drop back pushes up to come an advanced winger. Depending on the other tactics the manager employs, they may stay very wide or sit narrower. Finally, one striker pushes out onto the wing while the other one stays central.

We’ve already looked at wingers who can play as fullbacks and center backs who can play as fullbacks, so I won’t discuss those in depth again.

Wingers who can also operate as advanced wingers are abundant, however in modern football there has been a tendency to have advanced wingers be on the opposite flank to their strong foot. For example, a right-footed advanced winger is usually deployed on the left wing and vice versa. This allows them to cut inside with the ball as opposed to sprinting down the line and crossing. The modern fullback has taken over that role.

Thus, in a system of movement shown above, it might be best to have two right-footed wingers in the 3-4-1-2. When the right winger drops back to become a fullback, they are still on their strong-foot’s side. And when the left winger moves forward, they can then act as an inverted winger to cause problems for the opposition defense. Overall, a winger who becomes an attacking winger will need to possess extra decision-making skills on the ball, good off-the-ball movement, and dribbling skills since they will be one of the most advanced attackers for their team—if not the most advanced player in a system where the striker drops deep.

Players with this profile are abundant in today’s game. A player like Bayern Munich legend Arjen Robben is probably the most famous modern interpretation of a winger. His dribbling, vision, movement, decisions, and especially his ability to cut inside from the wing make him one of the best attacking right wingers of his generation. He also has the pace and work rate to track back, help out defenders, and close down opponents, allowing him to operate on the wing in the 3-4-1-2 and then transition to the advanced winger role in the 4-2-3-1.

An example of a more traditional winger would be Wolves’ Adam Traoré (Kylian Mbappé at Monaco and his early PSG days played similarly). Traoré uses his world-class strength, pace, and dribbling skills to control his flank and dominate the opposing fullback in attack. He can also harass the opposing winger or fullback when Wolves are in defense and is good enough defensively to press and win balls back.

Finally, the striker who moves onto the wing would need to possess adequate pace and work rate to command the wing. Strong, target-men strikers like Romelu Lukaku would probably not be the best choice for this role. More explosive forwards like Kylian Mbappé would be the best option. Mbappé now plays mostly as a striker, having moved over from the right wing, so he in particular would thrive in a role where he rotates between the two positions during a match.

Conversely, a winger who can also play as a striker would be an option for this role as well. Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is mainly a left-sided attacking winger, but fills in for Harry Kane whenever the Spurs striker is injured. Son thrives as a striker as well, scoring loads of goals as a co- or sole striker. His movement, decisions, and ball-striking ability with both feet make him one of the best players to play in a role where he rotates between the striker and winger positions. Antonio Conte currently deploys Son as a striker, as his system does not use attacking wingers. son has thrived in this role so far under Conte.

Transition to a 3-3-1-3

Another formation the 3-4-1-2 can transition to is Marcelo Bielsa’s favored 3-3-1-3. The 3-3-1-3 is one of the most flexible and fluid formations out there when used with the right players. Slight movements of players on the flanks allow for an overload of players in almost any area of the pitch. This can increase both attacking potential and defensive solidity. The 3-3-1-3 allows for quick counter-pressing from anywhere on the pitch while retaining structure for those not pressing.

Transitioning from a 3-4-1-2 to a 3-3-1-3 involves, in this specific movement pattern, every attacking player. First, one midfielder would drop back into the defensive midfield position. Ideally, this player would be a quality playmaker, per Bielsa’s system. Next, the other central midfielder would move centrally and push a little higher, acting as the advanced playmaker who links the defense to the attack. This player would also need to have a keen eye for passes, but also needs strong off-ball movement to find space to receive passes.

Next, the attacking midfielder would move to the wing. I use this movement simply because many attacking midfielders can operate on the wing. Another move would be to keep the attacking midfielder in place and move a central midfielder to the wing, but there are fewer players who can effectively play both roles. Finally, one striker would move to the other wing while the other striker moves central as a lone striker.

We have already discussed both attacking midfielders and strikers moving to the wings, so I will not discuss that again here.

In terms of a central midfielder moving into a defensive midfield role, many attributes carry over. For Bielsa’s specific tactic, the player occupying the defensive midfield position acts as the key playmaker for the entire team. This player needs top-tier vision, technique, and vision to make passes and create plays across the pitch. They will also need to possess keen defensive attributes, including positional awareness and the ability to win tackles and interceptions.

An example of a player of this caliber is Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Previously of Southampton, this season Højbjerg is one of Europe’s leading defensive-minded central midfielders who can also act as a playmaker. Højbjerg has been deployed in both central midfield and as a defensive midfield in Tottenham’s season under José Mourinho and Ryan Mason. His strengths include defensive attributes like positioning and tackling, but he is also a top-tier passer. He has recorded 1.3 interceptions, 2.6 tackles, and an 89% pass completion percentage per game in the Premier League, where he played every single minute.

Similarly, a central midfielder moving to a slightly more advanced role will have many attributes transition to the new role. In this system where the advanced midfielder is charged with linking lines, they will need to possess the same vision, technique, and decisions as the deeper playmaker to make accurate passes. Instead of a few defensive skills, however, they will need mobility and off-ball awareness as well as intelligence to pick up the right positions because they will need to get open or create space to receive passes from the other midfielder or defenders.

A player who is an example of this is Manchester United’s Paul Pogba. Pogba is more than capable of playing in a central role or an advanced role in midfield (and of course, even as a deep midfielder). During his spells at Juventus and United, he has excelled in both roles. He has the technical and mental abilities to be a playmaker, the power and technique to be a goal threat, and the movement and awareness to always find space. A player like him could easily transition from a central role to an advanced role and be as effective.

A Final Word

Of course, any manager looking to transition from one formation to another must ensure their players do not become less effective in the new formation. While moving from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-2-3-1 may complement an added attacking intent, if a few players in new positions are less comfortable or if the new position hinders their ability, the team will suffer and not benefit from such a transition. Versatility is key in modern football, and especially when rotating players to form different formations.

Finally, these are just 4 possible formations a 3-4-1-2 can transition into with a few positional movements, and there are many more. And even though this article highlights specific players who move positions to change into a specific shape, managers can achieve the new formations through other combinations of player movements. A manager will instruct his players to move based on their individual abilities and their level of comfort in each position.

Transitioning between different shapes is a good way to both counter the opposition’s unique threats and confuse their defenders and markers. A constantly changing formation in specific situations can have game-changing effects in both defense and attack.

Here are GIFs that show these 4 positional movements:

2 thoughts on “Formation Transitions From a 3-4-1-2: Tactical Theory and Player Requirements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s