4-1-2-1-2: Breaking down the Union’s potential new formation

We’re roughly two weeks from the start of the 2022 MLS season and it’s been a pretty great offseason for the Philadelphia Union. Curtin and co. decided to make a change or two up top with the sale of Kacper Przybylko to the Chicago Fire while bringing in both Julian Carranza on loan from Inter Miami and Union’s record signing Mikael Uhre from Brondby.

CHESTER, PA – NOVEMBER 20: Philadelphia Union defender Jakob Glesnes (5) celebrates a goal in overtime during the MLS Playoff Game between the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union on November 20, 2021, at Subaru Park in Chester, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

In the two preseason games we’ve seen/read about, the Union has played with a new formation. That formation to be exact is a 4-1-2-1-2, specifically the narrow variation. So, I thought I’d break down the formation and see how some of the Union’s players can fill in the major roles of the formation. 

The 4-1-2-1-2

Main Strengths

One of the main strengths of playing this formation is the benefit of having two strikers in the team. A lot of modern football is now played with one striker unless you’re Pep Guardiola and play with none, and it means there’s usually a mismatch for the striker, having to compete against two centre backs. With two strikers, you limit it down to two different 1v1 battles and can target the weakness of one centre back with the strength of your striker. For example, if you had a tall striker and an opponent’s centre back was on the smaller side, you’d put the tall striker on the shorter centre back in the hopes he wins more headers. 

The formation also allows for a number 10 or CAM to be played which forces the opposition to play with a defensive midfielder who has to man-mark that CAM for the entire game. This could cause a team to have to play in a different shape or way to what they’re not used to playing. 

Playing the narrow variation of 4-1-2-1-2, which is what it seems to be in the Union’s case and it fits with Jim Curtin’s style of play more, allows you to have four midfielders who can outnumber the opposition centrally and control the game possession-wise. It looks like the formation lacks any width, and whilst it does in a traditional sense you can either quickly switch to the wide variation and play wingers instead of a more central midfielder, but you can also use your fullbacks to create the width, giving you a variety of ways to attack. You aren’t restricted in just attacking centrally and it allows the strikers to work off a variety of different balls throughout the game. 

Main Weaknesses

The main issue with this formation is the fact it’s very one-dimensional in its buildup play. You can always go long, but the reason you play this formation is to control games through possession. The defensive midfielder has to drop back and be the initial playmaker as your full-backs push forward to create an initial width. 

Opposition teams will just have their CAM or central midfielder man-mark the defensive midfielder while their wingers put a hard press on the fullbacks to take all options away from the defensive midfielder. 

Another issue that appears when playing this formation is the wide areas. While the Union has very good fullbacks that suit this style of play really well, with them having to push up constantly to create the width of the team, you leave huge open spaces in behind and are very vulnerable to counter-attacks down the wide areas of the field. 

Opponents playing two defensive midfielders can also present issues to both teams. The central areas of the pitch get overloaded and there isn’t much space to operate within. 

Key Player Roles

A recent example of this formation being successful is Liverpool’s 2013-14 season where they finished 2nd in the Premier League. The key players within that team were Steven Gerrard at defensive midfielder, Luis Suarez, and Daniel Sturridge upfront, with Raheem Sterling in behind them as the number 10. 

Defensive Midfielder

In my opinion, this is the most important position for this formation to work. They need to have great positional awareness and understanding to know not to push forward when their team attacks. They need to understand to hang back when on the attack because of covering for the fullbacks in case of a counterattack. 

They also need to be very accurate passers, both long-range and short-range. The responsibility of controlling the tempo of the game and how every attack their team has falls on their shoulders, so they must be good and composed on the ball at all times. Look at how Jorginho for Chelsea and Italy plays and how he’s the perfect tempo creator for both sides, linking the defense with the attacking part of the team. 

Jose Martinez has played in that role in both pre-season games so far, so Jim Curtin is obviously eyeing him for that position moving forward and trusts he has the traits to pull it off successfully. Jesus Bueno has also played there in both his appearances in pre-season and he’s impressed me more in that role than Martinez has so far. Bueno is a player I studied heavily after he joined the Union and I was blown away with his composure on the ball, his passing range, and the way he defended very intelligently. 

Attacking Midfielder

With how the formation works, the attacking midfielder actually has two roles to fulfill. They have to be the main link between the defensive midfielder and the two strikers, they need to also know when to manipulate the position of the defensive midfielder man-marking them in order to open up space for their teammate. With these two roles, the attacking midfielder must have great situational awareness, they have to always be in sync with what the defensive midfielder wants to do with the ball, alongside all the usual jobs an attacking midfielder needs to do. 

Clearly, the Union has this position on lockdown. Daniel Gazdag has been a standout for me so far in pre-season and I’m expecting big things from the Hungarian this season. He has all the traits and ability to really push this team forward and be the creative spark and flair.  

The Union also have a very good understudy for Gazdag in Paxten Aaronson, it’ll be interesting to see how his minutes go up this season and how he takes the chances he’ll get from squad rotations and international breaks, he has all the talent in the world, now it’s about proving it in the limited spotlight he’ll have. 

Strikers

It’s pretty obvious that strikers are a crucial part of any formation but the way the two strikers need to work in this one is something that needs to be pointed out. Uhre and Carranza will obviously be the two strikers for the Union this season and they need to build a great partnership and understanding of how the other operates. 

Uhre clearly feasts off making runs in behind the defense whilst it seems Carranza enjoys dropping a little deeper and linking with the attacking midfielder, which has been Gazdag in pre-season. They each need to help the other out and do things that will help the other play to their strength. Uhre making runs will give both Gazdag and Carranza more space and time to work with, which will then help them find and play the best ball into him. 

That’s exactly what Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge did on the Liverpool side I mentioned earlier. Another great example is how Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp played together. Henry was the faster of the two, so he’d make the runs in behind while Bergkamp was extraordinary on the ball, they both played to each other’s strengths and benefitted hugely from it.

Final Thoughts

The 4-1-2-1-2 formation has been dying off in football for quite some time now, with most teams opting to sacrifice a striker to play an extra midfielder and try to just control the game there. I’ve always loved the formation mainly because it’s a very attacking one where you sacrifice a bit of defensive security in the hopes of scoring a few more goals than you would in other formations.  

There are risks involved with playing this way and it can be a very hard formation to adapt to and master, it can end up blowing up in your face and causing your team to go through rough patches in the season. However, if the Union finds a way of mastering this formation, it’s a very difficult one to stop when in full flow and they could blow teams away in games, it’s a very exciting prospect for the Union this season. 

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Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire

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