The Benefits of the 2-4-1 in 8 v. 8 Youth Football
8-a-side reduced football ; the go-to in France and other countries in the final numerical configuration before 11-a-side (which comes in at the U14 level in France).
In this article, we take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the 2-4-1 formation in 8-a-side. We use a female team as an example but the ideas and applications are the same.
Although formations are not the all-important, all-defining key element to tactics, they do have significance, particularly in the 8-a-side format used in France. The traditional formations are the 3-3-1, the 2-3-2 and the 2-4-1. These are set up in a way that if 1 player is added to each line of players, it translates to an 11-a-side formation : 3-3-1 becomes 4-4-2, 2-3-2 becomes 3-4-3 and 2-4-1 becomes 3-5-2. Granted, the back 3 is not a supremely prevalent formation in France so the direct relation is not as concrete if we were to look squarely at the formation element. However, if we delve further into the system element we draw more insightful conclusions.
Full disclosure, this writer early-on in his coaching career used a 3-3-1, then (with that same talented cup-winning U13 team) transitioned to a lopsided 3–2-2 (with the front two as wingers or one as a striker and the other as a winger) and then with other teams a 2-4-1 (with sporadic applications of the 2-3-2). The preference over the years evolved to a 2-4-1 although the back 3 has rarely been called into usage. 1 goalkeeper, 2 centerbacks, 2 central midfielders, 2 wide players and one striker. It became the preferred option because of the personnel available, which is key in establishing a team’s style, particularly when choices are limited. Not everyone can buy, sell, trade and pick the players in their team, not even at the highest level where tenures are increasingly short-term.
That said, let’s begin. We will look at advantages, disadvantages and the learning element.
The goalkeeper learns the experience of having two players right in front of her in the central areas. This will result in her adapting and learning to adjust her angles and positioning to get the best out of the setup, similar to playing with a back 4 in 11-a-side. She also has more passing opportunities in her own defensive third. This incites building from the back and also helps protect goalkeepers who do not yet have the power and/or technique to send it longer.
The 2-4-1, like the 2-3-2, allows the centerbacks to begin learning how to work as a pair through the middle, like centerbacks in an 11-a-side system. This setup is excellent for protection through the middle. It also translates it an interesting way to full field. The centerbacks are partners like in a back 4 ; this is not found in the 3-3-1.
The two centerbacks have a closer passing option in each other but also in the central midfielders ahead of them. They have a platform to advance the ball individually (dribble or drive) with the protection of their teammate’s central presence. This can help produce more confidence and nurture the classic “ball-playing defender”. The formation also resembles the system and the triangles that the centerbacks will encounter and develop in the 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1.
The Two Central Midfielders
In the 2-4-1, there is the chance two reinforce the middle of the park (the 2 central midfielders) compared to most 8-a-side formations. This also allows the pairing of two players that complement each other. If the team lacks a dominant a central midfielder in this article (#6), this is an option to help protect the most important axis on the field, the middle. That provides a spine of six players, including the goalkeeper. There is thus a 6 to 4 surplus in comparison to the 3-3-1 and an equality in the 2-3-2. The spine is stronger. 11-a-side example : a 4-3-3 vs. a 4-4-2. The 4-3-3 has the numerical advantage in the middle of the park (and disadvantages elsewhere).
The 2-4-1 provides an excellent learning basis and we must remember that is another main element of formations especially with reduced lineups : the learning aspect. The 2 central midfielders (either acting as two #6’s, a #6 and #8 or potentially even as two #8’s) are learning how to play in a midfield with a partner. This is something that they will need in every common 11-a-side system. Even as the holding midfielder in a 4-3-3 , similarities can be drawn ; in the 2-4-1, a #6 can be designated to hold, while her partner is given more license to advance. It is not an exact correlation but it there is still a learning aspect there. Otherwise, all 11-a-side formations consist of some sort of midfield partnership. The 2-4-1 provides this, where the 3-3-1 and the 2-3-2 do not. It also allows the the wide players (the term used can have a profound effect on how the players interpret the role along with how it is taught to them) to push up with the knowledge that one of their central midfielders can shift over to cover for them if necessary and still leave a presence through the middle. This also applies in the center of the park as one #6 can cover while the other presses or contains. The central midfielder thus learns how to press, contain, shift and cover for teammates all with added protection and potentially less consequence if an error is made. The risk of error is of course key for any learning process to be complete but in this case at the preformation level, the player is far from finishing the learning process.
That added protection transfers offensively, similar to the centerbacks. A player can now attempt to dribble and drive through the middle with the knowledge that her teammate is protecting the space that she vacated. Just like with the centerbacks, this liberates the player technico-tacitally but also emotionally and mentally ; there is less danger if the ball is lost and thus more incentive to take risks and progress.
The Wide Players
This term is left deliberately vague as it is up to the coach to decide how she will transfer the information to the player. This is dependent of course on the club’s philosophy, as well. Fullbacks, wingbacks, wide midfielders and even wingers have been used, but a coach must choose wisely. This will affect how the players behave in the game but also their understanding of certain roles and terms.
We will use the term wingbacks as a compromise. In this system, these players are given a unique interpretation of the wide role in this situation. They can attack as much as the wide midfielders and defend as much as fullbacks in the 3-3-1 and at times have to. It is not dissimilar to the 3-5-2-/5-3-2 conundrum ; everything depends on the animation of the formation (i.e. the system) and not the formation itself. The team might be dominating possession farther up the field and is able to push the wide players higher or they might need more helping building from the back and thus the wide players are deeper. One (or even two but rarely) of the wide players might even be asked to stay high while the team is out of possession so as to pin the oppositions’ defender(s) back and keep her(them) occupied. Tactically, the wide players learn the benefit of staying wide in possession and the duty of tucking in defensively when the ball is far side.
The 2-4-1 is also a clever way to begin the conversion of a winger to a fullback/wingback or vice versa as it allows the player to still perform the initial duties she had while taking on the other duties of her new role.
The striker is given a unique role in this formation which can then be adapted and applied to any system. She can be a target player, a fox-in-the-box or even a false nine. She can stay and act as a pivot and be used as a wall to bounce passes off, she can check into the midfield area to allow any of the four in the midfield line to run past her or she can be less directly involved in possession if the team has a strong central presence and wide players as well who can successfully build possession and create chances. She can do any of these things or all of them, within a game or within a season. It depends on her attributes and the coach’s and club’s philosophies but the possibilities are numerous. There is opportunity to run into the channels and either overload the flanks or swap positions with her wide player. If the #6’s are adventurous she will receive help and will not find herself routinely isolated. This helping role can also be filled by a wingback (the fields are much smaller so there is less distance between the nominal winger and striker). In the future the striker will not be hamstrung by only ever having played in a striker partnership and will learn to lead the line herself. She might feel more pressure to score as the only striker but pressure is part of learning and development.
The 2 centerbacks in the 2-4-1 are much closer together than in an 11-a-side formation even when considering the reduced pitch size. The distance between the centerback and the fullback (latéral) in a 3-3-1 can correlate better, although this also depends on the coaching philosophy. While the 3-3-1 can offer a facsimile of this distance, it is not a perfect match because the centerback and the fullback are more concerned with the defending the flanks and half-spaces while the two centerbacks in the 2-4-1 are mainly occupied with the central axis and half-spaces.
The centerbacks can be overwhelmed when playing against a 2-3-2, particularly with an attack-minded interpretation of the latter formation (although in setup it is already quite attack-minded).
This formation asks a great deal, physically, tactically and mentally of the wide players. Many out-and-out wingers will be reluctant do the dirty work of recovering and defending. That is where good management must be present to anticipate or otherwise intervene and adapt.
The 2-4-1 is more encouraging of inverted wingers than the 2-3-2 and less so than the 3-3-1. In the 2-3-2, there are already two strikers occupying the advanced central area which restricts the space for the winger to drive into. If clever, a striker can always liberate that space but that requires higher cohesion, coordination and intelligence. There is also no deep wide option if the winger cuts in and so an overlap or even just recycling possession is less plausible. With the 2-4-1, the intermediary middle space is occupied by two #6’s who can hold or go up individually or collectively and so there is more opportunity and variety for the wide midfielder. The overlap in this case must come from either a centerback which is risky or one of the #6’s. Both cases require again a great deal of cohesion, coordination and intelligence. The winger however will find more space in the advanced central role to attack in a 2-4-1 than in a 2-3-2. In a 3-3-1, inverted wingers do not encounter the same issues and thus are much more advantageous.
Defensively, the wide players can be left in a 2 vs. 1 position when going up against a 3-3-1.
A pass from the centerback to the striker checking in is less likely unless one of the central midfielders coordinates a run forward or wide so as to liberate space for that striker ; again, more cohesion is necessary than in a 3-3-1 or 2-3-2 where there is more space due to the absence of an extra central midfielder.
The striker will not learn how to work in a pair in the same manner as the 2-3-2 and despite a period of reduced 2-striker play in world football, it is beneficial for a player to learn how to adapt to teammates’ movements. If put in a striker partnership without ever having played in one, she will have to learn how to adapt and adjust spatially to her teammate.
The 2-4-1 is not the only formation available in 8-a-side and it obviously depends on the system. However, with these ideas in mind, a team can implement it for short-term and midterm success in a singular season but also for long-term success and development when the players transfer to 11-a-side.