Differences and Similarities Between 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1

U.S. national soccer team midfielder Clint Dempsey (L) listens as forward Jozy Altidore answers a question from a reporter at a news conference in Irene June 20, 2010. The United States will play Algeria in their World Cup Group C match on June 23.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP)

After the USA-Poland match two weeks ago, many pundits noted Bob Bradley’s experimentation with a 4-2-3-1. In FFG’s opinion, USA actually used three formations in the match. They seemed to move from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 to 4-2-3-1. The difference between the latter two can be distinct, though it’s often hard to see.

Similar Appearance

On paper, the 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 look almost identical when a squad is in possession.

4-2-3-1 (left) and 4-4-1-1 have remarkably similar shapes

The distinction is due more to personnel than shape. In the 4-4-1-1 the central attacker is a striker dropping deep, whereas in the 4-2-3-1 the central attacker is a midfielder looking to push forward.

Illustrating the Difference

To investigate the difference between the two, let’s compare Clint Dempsey – who often lines up as the withdrawn forward in Fulham’s 4-4-1-1 – to Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, who usually sits in front of two holding midfielders in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1. Below are their passing stats from two matches earlier in the season.


by Guardian Chalkboards

Fabregas did have many more pass attempts, of course. His Arsenal were the favorites in their match with Blackburn, whereas Dempsey and Fulham were underdogs against Manchester United. Still, a trend can be observed. Each player spent most of the match in the middle of their opponent’s half.

However, thirty percent of Fabregas’ passes originated in his own half. Only eighteen percent of Dempsey’s came from the same area, illustrating the key difference between the two formations. In a 4-2-3-1 the attacking midfielder often spends more time in his own half than does the withdrawn forward in the 4-4-1-1.

It must be noted that squads can implement the formations in other ways. Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil – their attacking midfielder – receives the ball much higher than Fabregas, and some teams prefer their withdraw forward to move deeper than Dempsey. Heck, Bob Bradley doesn’t see much difference between the two formations when Clint is playing as the withdrawn forward for the USMNT.

But, as Dempsey and Fabregas showed, there can be a difference. Going forward, if Bob Bradley decides to permanently drop his 4-4-2, it will be interesting to see if USA’s formation more closely resembles Fulham’s 4-4-1-1 or Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1.

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