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Building from the Back in a 4-1-2-1-2

We have seen a slight resurgence in the use of midfield diamonds in front of a back four in recent seasons, especially in Germany but also in England. The 4-1-2-1-2 or its close cousin 4-3-1-2 has always been popular in Italy and especially Serie B teams use the shape regularly. The reason for its popularity in Italy is very likely that Italy lacks the heritage of wingers that England has since Italian wide players are often wing-backs pushing out of a back-five. There is a great emphasis on controlling central areas in Italian football and, therefore, centrally compact shapes are popular. Evidently, Italian coaches aren’t as hesitant of sacrificing players in wide areas as English or Nordic coaches are. German and Austrian coaches seem to share this Italian mentality given the regularity the shape is used in those countries, with RB Salzburg, Wolfsberger AC and Werder Bremen are among the clubs making the shape popular.

The 4-1-2-1-2 gives coaches many possibilities both in attack and in defense. Tobias Hahn has written a superb piece on the possibilities coaches can use when pressing in a 4-1-2-1-2 and I definitely recommend that you read that piece. Therefore, I will look at the immense potential of building from the back using a 4-1-2-1-2. Also, I will finish this article by discussing various methods to create chances from wide areas, which is often the big hurdle coaches need to be cleared before being convinced by the formation.

Personal clarifications regarding the 4-1-2-1-2

Personally, my intentions in regards to building from the back in a 4-1-2-1-2 is to create the possibility of a clean progression of the ball out of our defensive half. To do this, I want to create numerical advantages if/when needed and I want passing triangles and diamonds to open up thanks to the positioning of the players. A large emphasis will therefore be placed on positioning in central midfield and usage of the half-spaces in terms of creating diagonal passing options between players. Thus, it looks something like the image below.

Starting positions in my diamond; strong presence in central areas and obvious staggering with three different midfield lines.

The Giampaolo way

The first build-up method I’d like to discuss is the one used by current Torino coach Marco Giampaolo. The Italian makes use of a midfield diamond where the two central midfielders are positioned on roughly the same horizontal line as the defensive midfielder. As you can see below, he also positions his full-backs deep. The aim is to maintain short, diagonal passing lanes between his goalkeeper, back-four and three midfielders. This helps create a stable build-up shape with obvious triangular and diamond shaped structures to facilitate good connections.

A hallmark of a Giampaolo team is its staggered and connected build-up shape with deep full-backs.

The goal with this setup is to attract pressure which opens up vertical passing lanes and then use bounce-passes or lay-offs followed by penetrative passes into the third man, the attacking midfielder in the example below, who is often positioned between the lines of the opponent’s midfield and defense.

Giampaolo’s teams often make regular use of third-man passing combinations in their attempts to progress the ball.

This method requires a lot of training because you’re really trying to manipulate the opponent into pressing you and then capitalize on them losing the compactness of their defensive shape. If possession is lost, your team is in good shape with hardly any rotations destabilizing the structure of the side. Thus, the defensive transition should, in theory, be quite straightforward since you can either counter-press due to the compact nature of your attacking shape, or drop off instantly with four defenders usually behind the ball.

High full-backs

One of the most criticized aspects of the 4-1-2-1-2 is its lack of natural width. One way of solving that issue is by pushing your full-backs high. This is, of course, very similar to how many teams, regardless of their formation, use their full-backs anyway. The image below highlights one rotation, teams can use to create a numerical advantage against a team defending in a 4-4-2. The full-backs are pushed forward, the center-backs split and the defensive midfielder drops in-between the center-backs to create a 3 vs 2 in the first line. Many 4-3-3 teams rotate in this exact same way, but one issue I often see is that the second line, behind the opposition strikers, is often vacated as both central midfielders are pushed higher in each half-space as in the starting positions here too.

For me, it’s crucial to keep a presence centrally in that area so I would advocate dropping the central midfielders into that space. The ball could be moved into them and create better connections and a clean build-up, but they would also attract opposition midfielders, potentially opening up passing lanes to the front three. Creating a back-three when playing out against a 4-4-2 is popular because it creates a numerical advantage in the first line. Additionally, the potential for the split centre-backs to dribble the ball forward in the half-spaces creates difficulties for the opposition wingers since they might be attracted to the centre-back but still worry about the high full-back. Either way, the team in possession has created positional superiority and can progress centrally or out wide.

Another, slightly more unorthodox way to create a back-three in the first line can be seen below. There are some progressive-minded coaches around the world that make use of a goalkeeper moving into the space between the two split centre-backs to create a 3 vs 2 in the first phase whilst keeping the defensive midfielder in the next line to make sure the central midfielders can still stay higher and create more horizontal lines for the team to occupy. As you can see below, just like with the previous rotation, the creation of a back-three in possession allows for better connections across the pitch as the team has better access to every zone with three players in the first line.

If you wish to keep your goalkeeper in goal and retain your defensive midfielder in the second line but still create a back-three in the first line, you could have one of the central midfielders drop diagonally just outside the centre-backs. That position is very hard to press for teams defending in a 4-4-2 as it again creates positional superiority with the creation of a 3 vs 1 against the opposition winger. If the ball-near central midfielder in the red team below would press the dropping blue, a passing lane would open up to play straight into the attacking midfielder or one of the strikers.

Equally, you could have both central midfielders doing this movement with full-backs pushed on and then have the two strikers occupying each half-space and the attacking midfielder in the central space. That way, you would have a presence between the defense and midfield lines of the opponent in each central space whilst retaining width from the full-backs. Also, the team would be set up well to handle counter-attacks with a 2-3 structure at the back.

The double pivot

Another rotation that I’ve seen is the one highlighted below. I think it might have been Jesse Marsch’s RB Salzburg that used this one, for instance. Simply, the ball-far central midfielder drops diagonally into the second line to create a double pivot alongside the defensive midfielder. This creates an extra option to play into centrally, thus increasing the available passing connections for the defenders.

Furthermore, that movement creates two distinct passing triangles on each side, resulting in numerical advantages of 3 vs 1 on both sides. Since the right-sided central midfielder and the attacking midfielder occupy space between the lines, the opposition midfielders will be reluctant to push high to support the press. If they do, they can be bypassed by vertical passes from the defenders and, if they don’t, the midfielders in the second line will have both time and space. Thus, the structure of the attacking team has again created positional superiority in central areas.

Passing triangles on each side of the pitch in build-up.

Chance creation from wide areas

Finally, I will look at three different ways to create chances from wide areas. As you will see in the images below, I’ve opted to retain the ball-far full-back in the half-space to prepare to defend a defensive transition since my idea is that he/she can simply move wide if the ball is moved centrally, but obviously this is up to every coach.

This first pattern aims at attacking the space behind the full-back with the movement of one of the two strikers. Here, I’ve positioned the right-back high since I want the left-back to be attracted to this positioning once the ball is played there. When the right-back then receives the ball and the left-back sprints to press, the ball will be played diagonally towards the penalty area to where the ball-near striker will make a run. From there, the attacking midfielder and the other striker attack the box as a cut-back or a low cross is on the cards.

Attacking wide areas with a striker.

Another option is highlighted below as the ball-near central midfielder will make a similar run from deep. Again, the aim is to attract the opponent’s left-back to the high positioning of our right-back. In this case, the ball-near striker will pin the opponent’s ball-near centre-back, thus giving our central midfielder time and space to pick his pass from down the line.

Attacking wide areas with a midfielder.

The third and perhaps most obvious method to attack wide areas in a 4-1-2-1-2 is to attack that space with the full-backs. In this scene, the ball is moved diagonally from left to right. The ball is worked into the right-sided central midfielder who is positioned in the half-space. From there, he/she threads the ball in-behind for the diagonal run of the right-back.

Attacking wide areas with high full-backs.

As I think this piece has shown, there are numerous possibilities to create progressive build-up mechanisms when using a 4-1-2-1-2. As with all formations, the key is how you coach it and what principles you instill into your team. As we’ve seen, the potential for fluid attacking play is immense and, hopefully, more coaches will try their luck at implementing a very dynamic and exciting shape when trying to build attack-minded teams to play entertaining and successful football.

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