Apr 30

The 4-5-1


162x90genlogo The 4 5 1When Michael Lowes was in the “studio” a few months back, we discussed some myths about FML. We didn’t have time to put the discussion in the show, but one thing we looked at was the 4-5-1. As 1.1.x reaches the end of its run, the hope is that the new tactical changes may break its dominance. However, in the mean time let’s take a look at the formation and ask why it has earned its reputation as an “exploit” tactic.


The 4-5-1 has become a staple of away sides in England and has been popular on the continent for many years. Consisting of a flat back four, a midfield five and a lone striker, it’s the perfect game killing counter-attack tactic, allowing less gifted sides to hassle the opposition and restrict their options.

It comes in many flavours from the “flat” five across the centre to a “4-3-3” with three central midfielders and two wing-forwards to a system with three attacking midfielders and two hanging further back. Such versatility is another reason for its popularity, giving the stability of a flat back four with the almost endless combination of midfield options.

The “exploit” tactic people moan about, however, is the default 4-5-1 that is available from the drop-down, the “flat” 4-5-1. This is the one we’ll discuss today.


The 4-5-1 floods the midfield and reduces the creative space of the opposition. Particularly on narrow pitches, it is difficult for a normal four-man midfield to cope. The flat defence is classic an easy to buy players for, while its numbers ensure stability and cover at the back. The lone striker can play in the gaps between defenders, and can either be quick and run onto balls through the channels or be big and able to outmuscle opponents, nodding the ball back to the midfield or powering home high crosses.


However, because it only has one striker, nullifying him can cancel out the goal threat (hence the low scoring and boring matches it can produce). Similarly the flat midfield can leave gaps between the “strata”. Playing a staggered midfield can exploit these gaps and hold possession. A quick temp may help here. Also, having a longer and wider pitch can spread the midfield five and negate its power. The 4-5-1 will always create a good amount of possession, so the key is to create better quality possession. As we said killing the lone striker is one way to decrease their quality and pacy players able to run into the gaps quickly with or without the ball is another.

The other option is to have big burly players of your own and fight fire with fire. A mirror image 4-5-1 with stronger and more technically gifted players may give you the edge.


A lot of the 4-5-1’s strength comes from its negating effects. Overcoming those is the key, since the 4-5-1 is rarely (unless well staffed and well constructed) a major attacking force. It holds onto the ball well, but does not necessarily do much with it. A three-man central midfield is where it centres its power, so a classic 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 may give you a similar edge in midfield as well as providing more attacking power. Finally, having a large pitch at home (if you prefer technically gifted and/or very quick players) can stretch the 4-5-1’s midfield and allow you to play around them.

Remember, if the 4-5-1 really were a super tactic, we’d all win every game! Most managers start with it because it’s solid and then stick to it because it “works”. It’s also a lot cheaper to buy one star striker then two (high quality strikers are often the most in-demand players so get really high wage auction and transfer bids). But a good strategy and a belief that the tactic is more than fallible will help you get an edge – if your players are good enough, of course.

Written By Gareth Millward
"Millie" is a long-standing member of the FM community and a co-founder of Gameworld One.Com. As part of FM-Britain, he was a contributor to TT&F and involved with the new tactical interface in FM2010.
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  • Spinsaweb

    Well presented, would be great to similar breakdowns of other formations.

    Standard 4-3-3 is probably the one i struggle most against (so do that next :)), although in fairness much of the issue i have with it is that i set a standard defence vs 4-5-1.

    Would then suggest a 4-5-1 that can adjust to a standard 4-3-3 as a great option for many.

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