Playing Style, Structure & a modern 4-1-4-1 (Very Fluid)

This is a guest article by Ö-zil to the Arsenal!, an SI forum member that has produced some excellent material on tactics and club strategy over the last year or so. His articles are top quality and I highly recommend taking a look at his previous stuff – Threads

Recent threads have focused on re-creating the tactical styles of some of my favourite teams in real-life and implementing them using the Tactics Creator in Football Manager. This time, I want to try something different. I am interested in developing my approach, taking inspiration from some of the tactical trends we are seeing in modern football.

Rather than my usual approach of developing a tactic, I intend to develop a framework where I have a consistent playing style and a flexible structure which I can adapt depending on my squad, and the challenges we face.
Playing Style & Structure

Key Concepts:

  • Playing Style – overall playing “philosophy” for want of a better word. In Football Manager terms, this is primarily the combination of:
    • Mentality
    • Team Shape
    • Team Instructions
  • Structure – the organisation of a team on the field. In Football Manager terms, this refers to a combination of:
    • Formation
    • Player Role
    • Player Duty
    • Player Instructions

Playing Style depends on factors such as:

  • How would you like your team to attack? quick transitions and fast attacks? Attacking wide? Controlled build-up from the back? Playing through the centre? Long balls? Counter attack? Tiki-taka?
  • How would you like your team to defend? Intense pressing? High block? Sit deep and maintain structure? Low-Block? Park the bus?
  • Is your approach to give players an NFL style ‘play book’ telling them exactly how to play, or the freedom to make decisions?

Whilst Structure is determined by:

  • What formations can you play with the players you have available?
  • How would you like to structure your defence / midfield / attack?
  • Do you need a playmaker? A target man?
  • Who is provides width? Who is holding in midfield? Who is making attacking runs?
  • Do you really want to play that Attacking Libero with a Regista and aggressive front-6? …and no, there’s no download link available! :lol:

In order to understand the difference between Playing Style and Structure, consider teams who line up similarly but employ a different style of play in comparison with teams who employ a similar style of play but line up differently. For example:

  • Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning, attacking 4-4-2 at Manchester United in 1999 and Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning, counter attacking 4-4-2 at Leicester last season.
    • Similar structure, different playing style.
  • Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 at Barcelona and his flexible Bayern Munich side or Klopp’s use of 4-2-3-1 then 4-3-2-1 and now 4-3-3 or 4-5-1.
    • They maintain a similar playing style but structure their teams differently depending on the squad, opposition etc.

Previous threads actually give a few useful, Football Manager based examples:

  • The Cruyff 3-4-3 and Sacchi 4-4-2 employ similar playing styles but structure the teams differently.
  • Sacchi, Invincibiles and Brazil all employ a similar structure but different playing styles.


  1. Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 Diamond
  2. Arrigo Sacchi’s 4-4-2
  3. Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles
  4. Brazil’s Jogo Bonito style
  5. Cult Heroes: Wales at Euro 2016

It’s important to understand that Playing Style and Structure go hand-in-hand.

Revisiting Jonathan Wilson’s quote:


Formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them positive or negative qualities.

My interpretation of this is that ‘application’ refers to Playing Style, combined with the abilities of your squad and strengths / weaknesses of your opposition. For example:

  • If your playing style is to sit deep, draw the opposition out and counter, you need your structure to give you a solid defensive base but also men forward to counter.
  • If you’re playing a quick attacking system then you need numbers in advanced positions, in order to attack quickly.
  • If you prefer a controlled build-up then presence in midfield is essential and you’ll need players making attacking runs.

Defining a Playing Style

We’re going to begin with a bit of nostalgia. Whilst playing Football Manager 2015, I experienced something of a tactical ‘light-bulb’ moment whilst experimenting with the concept of ‘universality’ having been inspired by the movement away from specialists and towards complete footballers throughout world football.

-> Universality in Football Manager 2015 (Very Fluid)

The thread never really took off, but the under-lying concept was the basis for my interpretation of Cruyff’s 3-4-3 and Sacchi’s 4-4-2, both of which really did take off.

You’ll see that the major breakthrough was developing the playing style, essentially using Very Fluid to organise the team into one unit contributing to all phases of the game and then to balance this with a Standard mentality, moving away from my penchant for attack.

In the tactics creator:


Summary of the playing style:

  • Very Fluid.
  • Standard mentality.
  • Intense Pressing.
  • Intelligent, technical and hard-working players.

The 4-4-2 diamond was nice, devastating in attack but the 4-3-3 was more effective at pressing and really dominated games.


Side note: look at that beautiful tactics creator screen..

Won everything there was to win at Arsenal, Ajax and Holland and the legacy continued in 2016 again with Ajax and this time Barcelona.


Take a look at the Cruyff 3-4-3 diamond and see the similarity in the playing style, roles and even half of the players. It’s largely the same system, with a different formation. The same applies to the Sacchi 4-4-2


The team structure is different but the playing style – very fluid, standard mentality, high pressing and intelligent players – remains the same.

This playing style was the real legacy of the Universality thread. The idea that you can take your playing style and apply it to any shape you like to fit your team.
Evaluating a Structure – 4-3-3

My favourite club to manage in Football Manager has always been Ajax – as you can probably tell from previous threads! :lol:

The Ajax team of 1995 is one of my earliest football memories. Players like Seedorf, Rijkaard, Davids, Kluivert, Overmars, the de Boers and van der Sar went on to become legends around Europe as I was growing up. Then, of course, there is the brilliant influence of Dennis Bergkamp at my family’s club, Arsenal. Then as I got older and learnt more about football, it turned out that a lot of my preferences about how I enjoy seeing football played stem back to the great Ajax teams of the 70s.

With a couple of additions – namely Rajkovic in goal after Cillesson’s move to Barca and the versatile Augustinsson on the left flank – this was my starting squad:

4-3-3 has always been my bread & butter, but formation can be anything. When deciding a formation, I have a few rules of thumb:

  • The overall formation should cover the field, allowing you to press effectively – for example, this is why I prefer 4-3-3 to the initial diamond.
  • Solid defensive base, generally 2-3 centre backs and a holding midfield player.
  • Look for a strong presence in the midfield area – generally 3.5 – 4 players in central midfield with the .5 indicating a wide midfielder coming inside.
  • One attacking winger or fullback on each flank providing width and stretching opposition defence.
  • A striker who will act as the first line of defence, pressing and offer movement to get involved in the build-up.
  • Most creative player assigned a Playmaker role.

You always have two influences. 1. What can you do with your existing squad? 2. Bigger picture, what are you trying to do overall? In this instance.

  1. Characteristics of my squad were better suited to a 4-5-1 variant than the 4-3-3.
    • El Ghazi is a better Winger than Inside Forward.
    • Ziyech is more suitable for a central / playmaker role than an Inside Forward.
    • Augustinsson is an excellent left winger or attacking fullback – great versatility, personality and PPMs.
    • Tete and Diks are great fullbacks but don’t offer enough attacking threat to be my main wide players.
    • Klaassen is my best goalscoring threat for movement, composure and finishing.
  2. Interested in the real-life movement towards the very fluid 4-5-1 variants, particularly from Klopp and Guardiola.

A closer look at the structure of the 4-3-3.

  • Effective pressing shape, off-the-ball.
  • Transition either through the central playmaker, or attacking fullbacks.
  • In attack:
    • Complete Forward movement creates space.
    • Inside Forwards attack the space opened up by the movement.
    • Fullbacks provide width.
    • Central Midfielders support.
    • Deep-lying Playmaker combines playmaking responsibilities with holding the midfield, protecting the Defence.


  • Fullbacks required to run the length of the field in transition – in both attack and defence – in order to provide width.
    • Even the fastest players in the world would take a few seconds to cover that distance.
    • Gives the opposition valuable time to organise their defence
    • Or – in reverse – valuable time for the opposition to counter-attack
  • Wingers start in a more advanced position so have less ground to cover.
  • Passing the ball is quicker than running.
  • Wide Attackers in the AM-strata means the 4-3-3 is perhaps better suited to a more direct transition, e.g attacking mentality.
  • Pulling wide players back into midfield gives more potential for extra numbers in the midfield.

Evolving Structure – 4-1-4-1
What changed?

  • Maintain the strong defensive shape and high pressing.
  • Transition now goes through either the central playmaker or wingers.
  • Wide attackers drop back to Midfield strata start for more control of the centre.
  • In attack, we have re-organised the responsibilities.
    • Complete Forward movement creates space.
    • Central Midfielders now attack the space opened up – one has Attacking duty and the other instructed to get forward more.
    • Wingers now provide the width.
    • Fullbacks provide support.
    • Deep-lying Playmaker combines playmaking responsibilities with holding the midfield, protecting the Defence.


  • Quicker transitions:
    • Wingers have less distance to run to provide width.
    • Less open to counter-attacks as the fullbacks are better positioned to cover.
  • My best attacking players – Klaassen and Ziyech – are in more effective attacking positions.

We won the league, the UEFA Cup – after drawing Monaco in Champions League qualifying – and the youngsters won the Dutch Cup.

The system worked very well. At this point I was 90% happy but still had a few ideas to implement going into the 2017/18 season.

  • Take advantage of Ajax’ versatile squad by adapting tactics to opposition weaknesses and punch above our weight in Europe. Namely:
  • Upgrade the Playmaker
    • Bazoer is a great player, with even better potential however Vision of 14, decisions of 11 and passing of 13 meant he was yet to reach a level capable of being a playmaker at a club challenging in Europe.
    • Question marks over the Deep-Lying Playmaker (Defend) role being too conservative. Considering splitting holding / playmaking responsibilities.
    • Change the Playmaker’s position on the field to exploit gaps in the opposition formation.

Flexible Structure – Playing against the 4-3-3

It’s difficult to talk about the 4-3-3 without thinking of Barcelona – in this case, my opponents in the Champions League, Quarter Final. From Pep’s all-conquering, to Lucho’s more direct treble-winners they’re one of the most famous advocates of 4-3-3. This is how they line up:
In the majority of leagues, 4-3-3 is one of the most common formations you’ll come up against and there’s a reason it is so popular – it’s bloody effective.

The 4-3-3 consists of a back four, midfield trio and three attackers. In this case, one of the most devastating combinations of attackers in history.

Tactically, the main challenge of facing the 4-3-3 is the midfield trio. Structured in a ‘1-2’ triangle consisting of a DMC and two MCs, this trio offers three men behind the ball when defending and two offensive players when attacking.

As we have said before – formations are neutral. The football field is a big space and it’s impossible to cover perfectly with 10 outfield players.

Given the lack of player in the AMC position, the most useful – in my opinion – space against the 4-3-3 formation is between the opposition midfield and their attack.

Utilising this space has a few advantages:

  • It allows us to build-up play from deep, through the centre of the field.
  • A player in this position has passing options ahead of him which allows us to keep moving forward.
  • As the opposition midfield press, they open up spaces further up the field.
  • Wide players occupying deeper positions between the opposition fullbacks and attackers should generally be useful passing options.

This is why I mentioned upgrading Bazoer and re-thinking the playmaker role.

Meet Stefano Sensi, my new playmaker.
Possibly my favourite player of Football Manager 2017 so far. Sensi is intelligent, creative, dictates tempo, technically gifted and unpredictable – high flair, plays 1-2s or long passes.

How does he fit in?
What’s new?

  • Split the holding midfield responsibilities from the playmaker role.
    • Sensi comes in as the Playmaker
    • Bazoer advances to an MC(D) role, maintaining his role as holding midfielder.
  • Ziyech moves out to the left midfield spot in a ‘free role’, acting as an auxiliary midfielder – roaming from position and getting forward more.
  • Augustinsson drops back to full-back but takes on an attacking role in order to provide width.

My thoughts on the deep Playmaker roles:

  • Both Deep-Lying Playmaker roles are similar. Both static, holding position and no forward movement.
  • Roaming Playmaker makes more lateral movement. Instructed to roam but fewer forward runs. Has the option to move into channels and dribbles by default.
  • Regista is the Pirlo-esq role, very mobile and slightly more direct. Passing range is increased and instructed to roam with optional forward runs and dribbling.

Tough call between the roaming playmaker and regista but I prefer the lateral movement, as there’s more time and space in deeper positions to pick out runners and I didn’t necessarily want the more direct style accompanying the regista.

If there’s an issue with the Playmaker not getting into advanced enough positions, I was ready to switch to Regista + get forward more, dribbling and shorter passing PIs.
Playing style remains the same.
In-Game Analysis
Ajax v Barcelona, Champions League Quarter Final

Flexible Midfield structure and Pressing
Here you can see Barcelona building-up from deep through Mascherano.

  • Sensi and Bazoer combine to form a double-pivot shielding the defence and covering Rakitic and Rafinha.
  • With the cover from the double-pivot, Klaassen leads the press with the rest of the team cutting off passing options.
  • Defending with a 4v3 at the back and a 2v2 on each flank preventing overloads.
  • Dolberg working hard as the first line of defence.

Build-up through the Middle
Veltman is under pressure from Suarez but lack of support from his team mates means Veltman can bypass him easily.

  • Sensi is in plenty of space with 6 passing options available ahead of him or – preferably – advancing with the ball until he meets pressure.
  • Bazoer has dropped into space providing an easy passing outlet, should Sensi hit trouble.
  • El Ghazi and Ziyech are both in space on the flanks.
  • Width and passing options give us a good platform to build.

Sensi advancing into Midfield
One of the advantages of chasing a more aggressive playmaker role was that Sensi could advance into midfield and transition into attack rather than just circulating possession.

  • As the Barcelona midfield start to press, this opens space for the further up the field:
    • Bazoer offers a simple, easy option and covers against counter-attacks.
    • Klaassen is wide open in an advanced midfield position.
    • Ziyech has come inside and is using the space ahead of Bazoer.
    • Dolberg drops deep to get involved with the build up.
    • El Ghazi and Ziyech are wide and stretching the defence.

Transitioning Attacks
El Ghazi has attacked down the right-hand side but been outnumbered so needed an outlet to retain possession in-field.

  • Sensi – this time well in the Barcelona half – again in plenty of space.
  • Sensi has time to control the ball and either advance himself or pick out a passing option.
  • Ziyech has gone forward too early here. Red area is where I’d want him.
  • Bazoer is deeper, once again, offering a simple passing option and cover against the counter-attack.

We won this game 1-0 with 60% possession and was probably the performance of the season. At this stage, the squad was nowhere near Barcelona so we really punched above our weight.

Unfortunately lost the 2nd leg at the Nou Camp, getting knocked out on aggregate but gives us a real platform to build on next season.
Flexible Structure – Playing against the 4-2-3-1

When I think of the 4-2-3-1, Borussia Dortmund – in this case my opponents in the Champions League, Second Round – spring to mind. First with Klopp and now with Tuchel, they’ve been very successful with the 4-2-3-1 for a number of years now. This is how they line up.
4-2-3-1 is an aggressive formation consisting of a back-4, double pivot midfield, playmaker and 3 attackers.

One of the challenges of playing against a 4-2-3-1 is that you can easily find yourself overrun at the back by the 4-man attacking unit but – once again – formations are neutral. This is both a strength and a weakness.

With 4-players in the attacking strata, the double-pivot in midfield must be reasonably conservative in order to maintain balance. Dortmund kindly illustrate my point here, fielding Ginter and Weigl – both conservative, holding-type players.

Essentially, the 4-2-3-1 naturally divides itself into an two units:

  1. Attacking unit – attacking midfielders and striker.
  2. Defensive unit – defence and double-pivot.Note: The fullback role is always unknown. With the presence of the double-pivot they could theoretically bomb forward, or sit back and form a solid defence.

Compare this with our approach of having the entire team attack and defend as a unit. This is where I see an opportunity to gain advantage.

My approach is to isolate & bypass the attacking unit and then to stretch and draw out the defence, then attack the space that creates.
No drastic changes but you’ll notice 3 structural changes designed to exploit some of the weaknesses of the 4-2-3-1.

  1. Bazoer – our holding midfielder – drops to Defensive Midfield (Defend).

    • The central midfield structure in a 4-2-3-1 is a ‘2-1’ shape consisting of MC-MC-AMC where it’s a good bet that the AMC is the playmaker so Bozoer drops to DMC to nullify his threat.
    • Also, it’s now a very crowded area for me to play my playmaker.
  2. van Ginkel comes in as an all-rounder in midfield.

    • Ginter and – particularly – Wiegl can control a game. Van Ginkel is a hard-working player who will put them under pressure.
  3. Ziyech is now my assigned the Playmaker role.

    • Ziyech is my most creative and technical player and is positioned in the biggest gap in the 4-2-3-1.

Combined with minor tweaks to the playing style:

  • We no longer play from defence because a simple ball directly into midfield bypasses the entire opposition attacking unit and leaves their defence exposed.
  • We no longer focus passing through the centre as there is more space on the flanks.
  • During the match I reduced my defensive line to standard to counter the incredible pace in the Dortmund attack.

In-Game Analysis
Dortmund v Ajax, Champions League Second Round

Isolating the Attacking unit
Here is an example of Ginter trying to build up play from his deep midfield position.

  • Back four plus Bazoer creates a 5v4 advantage over the attacking 4.
  • Despite Shurrle cutting inside to create space and Guerreiro playing an attacking role, the attacking unit looks isolated.
  • Klaassen is putting Ginter under pressure whilst the rest of the team cut off passing options.

Bypassing the Attacking unit
Riedewald finds Ziyech after intense pressure from Dortmund’s famous intense pressing.

  • One pass has taken 4 Borussia Dortmund players out of the game.
  • Ziyech has the ball with space to advance into with runs from team-mates giving Dortmund difficult decisions:
    • They could hold their shape, in which case Ziyech advances unopposed into a dangerous attacking space.
    • The fullback could press Ziyech but would leave the Augustinsson making an attacking run unopposed.
    • Either centre back could press but that’d leave Dolberg – one of the most dangerous strikers in Europe, at the moment – space to exploit.
    • One could press and the left-sided defenders drift across but that’d leave El Ghazi open on the right wing.

Overrunning the Defensive unit
Ziyech is again exploiting the space on the flanks but this time faces intense pressing.

  • This time Dembele has dropped deeper to press, meanwhile the other 3 from the attacking unit look uninterested in helping the defence.
  • We still have 4v3 in the event of a counter-attack.
  • The Dortmund right-back has been drawn to press Ziyech leaving wide-open space for Dolberg and Augustinsson to attack.
  • Weigl has also been drawn across from his midfield spot, leaving van Ginkel open in the centre.
  • Klaassen has taken a very threatening attacking position in the channel between right back and his centre back.
  • El Ghazi is again stretching the defence, preventing them from drifting across without leaving him space to attack.

The pass-map also how influential Ziyech was, playing in the gaps of the Dortmund 4-2-3-1.

Ajax went into this game as underdogs and came out 6-3 winners on aggregate. This game, the away leg finished 3-0 and the home leg was an epic 3-3- draw where we didn’t quite to such a good job of isolating the attacking unit!
Hopefully some of the information presented in this thread is useful to the rest of the community and inspires some interesting discussions.

One final point for those who are here to ask advice from the community. Remember that football is highly subjective. A question like, “how can I play like Jurgen Klopp?” is difficult to answer as my interpretation of Jurgen Klopp’s approach will probably be different to yours, which will probably be different to the next guy or girl’s. You’ll get a far better response by defining the characteristics you’d like to implement, and having a go. It’s much easier to help someone with a question like, “this is what I’m trying to do… this is what I’ve done… and when I’m playing games I’m facing challenges x, y & z”.

My best advice would be to apply the advice that you read from around the community, then play and experiment, don’t give up too soon and ask plenty of questions to supplement what you’re seeing in the match-engine.

Thank you for reading! :thup:

Author: LPQR

founder & main content/rant producer at

2 thoughts on “Playing Style, Structure & a modern 4-1-4-1 (Very Fluid)”

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: