If you’ve watched any sort of football in the last 20 years, especially football involving Northern Hemisphere or international teams then you’ll be wholly familiar with the 4-2-3-1 formation – even if you are not sure how it works.
The 4-2-3-1 formation came to prominence in Spain in the 1990s and early 2000s and is currently used by numerous teams throughout the world. Although 4-2-3-1 has lost its prominence since 2013 when it was the default formation in the Premiership it isn’t dying out anytime soon.
But why has the 4-2-3-1 been such a popular fall-back for coaches?
I think the answer is that it is a formation that best suits the kind of players most common in international football, in the Premier League and within Northern European and Scandinavian countries. That is: players big on heart, energy and athleticism but not necessarily tactical, technical or mental flexibility.
Think athletic midfielders, dynamic full-backs, towering central defenders and either big or nimble strikers.
As a favoured formation of teams at the top and bottom of the game alike, 4–3–3 for example requires all-rounders rather than specialists. And British and international football, especially, is a game played by and set up for specialists.
With its solid base of two defenders, playing the 4-2-3-1 formation should ensure teams are not out-numbered in midfield, and with so many advanced players, there is great flexibility.
When it is good it is great. However, when it is bad it is awful. Very, very awful. Too often for comfort.
“A 4-4-2 like that of Leicester or Atletico Madrid for example, might serve you rather better.”
And here is how it can go very wrong.
Many managers use the 4-2-3-1 formation as a kind of “cover-all” for squads with perceived weaknesses. The ability to employ two limited midfielders in a sitting role can limit risks from misplaced passes in attacking areas. Also the three midfielders sitting behind a lone striker can feel like a safe-haven for defensively and tactically limited attacking midfielders – central players who lack game intelligence or strength and presence and wingers without a trick or final ball.
If your side lacks athletic attacking full backs then so much of what is great going forward for this system is lost – to the point that you’d be better doing something wholly different.
Full backs are key in the modern game and are probably seen more now for their attacking potential rather than simply as defensive cover, an out-ball, or as players tracking opposing wide men. These over-lapping or under-lapping full back offers overloads that can overwhelm even the most well drilled defence in an area of the field where there is space to attack isolated defenders.
Without these most-modern fullbacks you shouldn’t really deploy this system. A 4-4-2 like that of Leicester or Atletico Madrid for example, might serve you rather better.
Boredom in the repetitive
The second flaw with 4-2-3-1 is the fact that it is a go-to formation that almost every manager has employed at some point or other.
It is utterly ubiquitous as a one size fits all default for mediocre teams with squads in transition. And as a result, all too often we see two sides half-heartedly playing the exact same setup more in hope than expectation. With neither team possessing either flying full backs or the dynamic midfielders you need to really make the system work you get poor matches where two bad sides cancel each other out for 90 minutes of sterile fare.
In many cases 4-2-3-1 setups are too easy to plot against , by focussing on the weak link players, and especially so when you know an opponent is sure to play that way.
Of course, no two team lines will ever mean the same thing – Germany in a 4-2-3-1 for example couldn’t be any more different from Chelsea under Mourinho or Manchester United under Van Gal. Similarly, any formation can be tweaked to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of the best and the worst of teams.
“Coaches employ the 4-2-3-1 formation when they fear they could be out-numbered in midfield by superior opponents were they to play a conventional four or three man midfield.”
The older I get and the more games I see, the more I believe that the formal notation of a team line is one of the biggest red herrings in football. It doesn’t tell us anything revealing other than the basic line-up at a restart.
That said, there is a fundamental character to this formation. And that is that it specifically appeals to coaches caught in a bind. They might be international managers with a squad of too varied talent looking for stability. Or they could be managers who fall back on a 4-2-3-1 in light of having no obvious better option en route to putting their own stamp on a team or squad over time.
As a general rule, and tactical rules are always general in football, seeing two teams lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation ahead of a game is a massive turn-off for me.
It generally indicates that we’re in for a poor spectacle, played out between workmanlike teams and workmanlike players. It feels like an idea that has had its time. An idea that will need to be re-imagined before it comes blinking back into the sunlight again as a once more energising prospect.
The 4-2-3-1: How to play it
The 4-2-3-1 formation found prominence in Spain in the 1990s and early 2000s and by 2013 it was the default formation in England’s Premiership and across most top leagues. At least for a couple of years.
The formation’s concept
Coaches employ the 4-2-3-1 formation when they fear they could be out-numbered in midfield by superior opponents were they to play a conventional four or three man midfield.
With so many advanced players both in midfield and supporting the play in wide areas (attacking fullbacks), there is great flexibility in a system that boasts natural width, a solid team spine and dynamic movement in the final third. Everything is predicated on a shield in front of the back four that allows the fullbacks licence to get forward knowing there is cover in behind them.
The key men
The two players positioned in front of the back-four and behind three advanced midfielders (the ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1) are the key to the formation working effectively.
These two are known as the ‘doble pivot’ (double pivot) in Spain. They shield the back four and offer cover in behind the midfielders. Their composition is such that one player typically revels in breaking up opposition attacks, while the other puts more emphasis on circulating the ball to the attacking players ahead of them. The stereotypical pairing is one out and out sitter combined with a more dynamic runner, comfortable breaking forward in possession and working passing combinations.
Strikers in the 4-2-3-1 formation
In this formation, the striker should not lack support as he has three players whose job it is to either supply him with chances or play off his link-up work. If the players behind the main striker are of genuine quality, the formation can be a dream for both the most advanced forward and the supporting cast who become a mobile front six with the fullbacks pushed on.
The 4-2-3-1 formation can contain a big target man who can hold the ball up, play with his back to goal, and link the play with others. It also works with a nippier, smaller striker capable of running on to through-balls, making runs in behind, and finishing chances.
It is important that the front-man is either a strong physical specimen or a mobile, pacey (false nine or nine and a half) – someone with a defined way of playing.
“It is essential that the two key deep-set midfield players have positional sense in order to protect the back four properly.”
Despite numeric support from midfield, the striker will either need to hold off defenders, either facing his own midfielders or on the half turn, or be flexible enough to play off movement and runners in behind/beyond him.
This does though mean that no two 4-2-3-1s, like no two 4-3-3s are ever the same. In fact they could be so different that the set-ups can only really have that basic 4-2-3-1 notation when play is restarted in common.
Attacking midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 formation
The three attacking midfielders can be hard for opposition defenders to nullify, especially so if they swap positions and make runs from deeper positions to support or finish attacks.
There is usually one central creative force, playing behind the striker (a number 10 type) in a semi-free role.
When Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia won Spanish League titles in the first half of the last decade under Javier Irureta and Rafael Benitez respectively, Juan Valeron (Deportivo) and Pablo Aimar (Valencia) both defined that playmaker role in behind the striker.
Valeron and Aimar remain the creative archetypes of such a role even today because their subtle skills created all sorts of headaches for defenders who did not know who to mark and when to challenge. These Valeron and Aimar-type players are employed solely to find the space and time required to fashion and finish scoring chances.
To either side of the number 10 playmaker, there are two wider midfielders. Their job it is to create chances from the flanks as well as drifting into central areas so that their full-backs can exploit the space they leave out wide.
There is also an onus on these three players to help out defensively, particularly those playing in the wide roles. When on the back foot, these players should be helping their full-backs, and the formation will become a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 without the ball.
Defensive midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 formation
It is essential that the two key deep-set midfield players have positional sense in order to protect the back four properly. One of these two is generally more of a tackler, with the other concentrating on distribution – like a so-called ball-playing centre half. This is especially desirable when the opponents are also playing with a solitary striker.
Think of Rafa Benitez’s title-winning Valencia team. David Albelda and Ruben Baraja formed an excellent defensive shield in that side. Albelda was a workhorse, while Baraja maintained a more attack-minded outlook. And they complimented each other perfectly.
Bayern Munich’s Xabi Alonso is the perfect example of a player grown up in the era of 4-2-31 in Spain with Real Sociedad. He has also starred for Real Madrid, Liverpool and the Germans in a star-studded career for those clubs and his country.
Whoever he plays for, Alonso’s job it is to defend, but also to open up the opposition with his incisive passing short and long. Though the Alonso role is equally transferable to a 4-3-3, having those two players in front of the back four can be especially attractive to a troubled coach. A cultured ‘Alonso’ contributes to what is a solid platform from which the team’s more attacking players can create chances and the full backs can get forward as required.
Full-backs in the 4-2-3-1 formation
First and foremost it is the job of full-backs to defend against opposition attackers, particularly wide players. But in the present day, and especially in a 4-2-3-1 formation or 4-3-3 they are the most dynamic runners in the team.
It is important that they have covering pace, boundless stamina and can read the game well. They have to be comfortable defending in wide areas and they must also be attack-minded (or at least one of them should be). Having bombed forward they then must be able to get up and down the line for the game’s full duration.
Pace is key as is all-round technical and athletic ability. They will also be expected to help defend against opposition set-pieces, and support attacks by following in back post crosses. So good heading ability is also sought-after. These days, a small fullback, such as Barcelona and Spain’s Jordi Alba at 1.7m tall, is a rarity and it is a testament to his all round game and skills that he has been able to excel, right at the top of the game, with this deficit of height.
A full-back with pace, power, stamina and good crossing ability is a must while an eye for goal, or a killer pass though of secondary importance, can really push good attacking fullbacks onto the radar of the world’s top teams.
Central defenders in the 4-2-3-1 formation
The job of the central defenders is consistent with other formations that employ a back four as their starting point.
Central defenders repel opposition attacks by tackling, intercepting, heading and marking players (whether in a zonal or man-marking configuration).
Centre-backs should be physically dominant. They should be organisers and vocal leaders and extremely adept in attacking and defensive set-piece situations.
Strength, concentration and anticipation (reading the game) are important attributes when playing as central defenders. This is especially so against opponents that will look to exploit attacking overloads from midfield runners or against wide players that cut in off the touchline.