You are on page 1of 10

Football Formations: 4 2 3 1

The trending formation in football, the 4-2-3-1, which our formation

creator offer, manages to combine the attacking flair of the standard 4-
4-2 and the technical midfield strength of the 4-3-3. It is set up in such
a way that attacking power is emphasised, while still maintaining
defensive stability. By those parameters, the 4-2-3-1 is the perfect
football formation.

The 4-2-3-1 makes use of four defenders, two defensive midfielders,

three attacking midfielders, and a striker. It utilises the 4-4-2
Diamond’s strength in midfield, while successfully avoiding the
weakness of having no wide players.
Formation Requirements

 A central defensive midfielder: The defensive midfielder in the

4-2-3-1 in the most important component of the setup. He plays
the role of two midfielders in a normal 4-4-3 —the defensive
midfielder and the controller. As such, he must have adequate
technical skills, ability to pass under pressure, an impressive
passing range, and great positional sense. A good example of
such a player is Manchester United’s Michael Carrick.
 An all-action midfielder: Known as the Box-to-Box midfielder,
this is the player who lines up alongside the defensive midfielder
on the team sheet. His role is a lot more different, though. He is
expected to carry the ball from ‘box to box’, aiding in attack when
appropriate and having significant defensive duties. This man is
usually associated with making late runs into the box to hit the
perfect long shot. An example of this is Bayern Munich
midfielder, Arturo Vidal.


 Attack: The 4-2-3-1 makes use of four attacking players with the
box-to-box having the potential to be the fifth. This means that in
a counterattacking situation, the team playing the 4-2-3-1 will
almost always have the numerical advantage.
 Fluidity: The 4-2-3-1 boasts of a rather impressive ease of
transition. While as many as five players can be dedicated to the
attack, that number can just as easily change to six in defence.
This fluidity in transition is what makes it so popular, as it is less
susceptible to the threat of a counterattack.
 Balance: The 4-2-3-1 is well balanced, having the potential for
great attacking football or a masterpiece defensive performance
depending on the manager’s game plan.


 Finding the right personnel: The midfield of the 4-2-3-1

requires incredible specific personnel. The central defensive
midfielder position, for example, requires a great passing range,
decent athleticism, and a good footballing brain. The box-to-box
midfield position requires stamina, good passing, and shot
technique. If these requirements are not met, the 4-2-3-1 loses
the balance which makes it so impressive.


The most popular variant of the 4-2-3-1 is the 4-1-4-1 — which you
can also simulate on our formation creator — the only difference being
that the position of the attacking midfielder is replaced with another
box-to-box midfielder.

When to Be Used

Anytime. The 4-2-3-1 is so popular because of its utility value.

System Of Play - Basics of the 4-2-3-1

Short introduction to the 4-2-3-1 formation and system of play (soccer's
double six)
To become familiar with the formations and systems of play, you should first read our
"The Foundations of the 4-4-2 (Diamond Midfield)" and "The Foundations of the 4-4-2
(Flat Four)“ articles. We have structured the systems of play in a systematic way and
so that they are easy to understand.
The 4-2-3-1 is probably one of the most widely used formations in professional
soccer. This system is, for example, played by Borussia Dortmund, one of the 2013
Champions League finalists.
As opposed to the 4-4-2 with the "Flat Four", the "second" back four is completely
resolved with the 4-2-3-1 formation. With the usage of four player rows, the
development of complex soccer formations and systems of play was also
incorporated into this designation. The logical division into defense, midfield and
offense was lost in the process. With the 4-4-2, this differentiation is still far more
apparent to the layman. The 4-2-3-1 is thus a 4-5-1 and this points to a strongly
positioned midfield. The "trisection" of the system may sound easier, but often leads
to misunderstandings. The 4-2-3-1 explains the tactical concept far more clearly.
Furthermore, there are additional 4-5-1 systems, like for example the 4-1-4-1.
By comparing the 4-2-3-1 with the diamond formation of the 4-4-2, we may recognize
the structures of the 4-2-3-1 more clearly.
This can be seen in the following illustration: In the basic formation, we move number
8 back from the diamond to the position next to number 6. A system of play with two
"sixes" results from the diamond formation with merely one "six" and we are thus
playing 4-2-3-1 with a "double six" or “double pivot” and therefore two holding
midfielders, henceforth referred to as the “sixes”, capable of flexibly reacting to the
progression of the game. In the actual midfield, three players are playing in a single
row as part of the 4-2-3-1. As opposed to the diamond, only one player remains in
the front of the 4-2-3-1. In most cases, this is also a classic center forward.

The 4-2-3-1 looks like a very defensive formation in the graphic illustration, but this is
dependent on the distances between the individual rows. When in possession of the
ball, it is possible to rapidly "switch" and create "superior number" situations which
may even be reinforced by the role of the "sixes". If one of them joins the attacking
play, the pressure on the opposing defense is even more increased.
Without going into any more details, you will surely recognize the flexibility of the 4-2-
3-1. If the left and right midfielders move forward from the midfield, they become
wingers. If one of the "sixes" and/or the defenders joins the attacking play, a strong
offensive play quickly develops (a 4-4-3 in this example). One thing is for certain with
this system: a strong midfield. We will now describe the individual rows of the 4-2-3-1
and the roles of the players in detail:
The 1 (Goalie)
The tasks of the goal keeper have been detailedly described as part of other systems of
play/formations and a number of articles. Similar to the 4-2-3-1, he is the first attacker and
the last defender. Due to the "double six" and the good defensive behavior of the midfielders,
the pass ways into the joints of the "four back" are well blocked. In case of inaccurate passes
by the attackers or passes above or via the "four back", the goal keeper should secure and
command the rear space.
The first 4 (Defenders)
A "four back" is situated in front of the goal keeper (players 2 to 5). Players 2 and 5 are the
wing-backs while 4 and 3 are the center-backs.
Today's wing-backs are fast, agile, confident with the ball and often join the attacking play in
a quick-witted and clever manner. A very good technical education is important for every
position today.
In this system, the wing-backs are often faced with the difficult problem that they cannot be
immediately supported by their fellow team mates; running paths are often very long for
defensive players. For this reason, the wing-backs have to be strong tacklers that are
capable of delaying the opponent's attack.

The 2 - (double six)

It's actually superfluous, but we will go into it anyway. Our "sixes" need to possess a high
degree of footballing intelligence and the ability to "read" a game. But all players need that
nowadays, don't they?
The "double six" is often interpreted in the following way as part of this system of play: one of
the "sixes" is more offensively oriented, is often unmarked in the midfield and thus can be
passed to, additionally takes care of the playmaking and secures the rear space behind
number 10 if his team is in possession of the ball. The second "six" is mostly responsible for
defensive tasks. Ideally, the two players swap their roles in the system of play time and time
again, in order to become less predictable.
In the defensive, the "sixes" may easily form triangles with two players of the "four back" on
their sides and thus heavily attack the opposing player in possession of the ball. Gaps for
possible passing routes are automatically closed in the process and if possession of the ball
is won, it is easy to find access to the wing players in the midfield. However, the running
paths are often very long as described above and it is often hard to support the wing-backs.

The 3 - (the midfield)

The midfield of the 4-2-3-1 formation is very flexible. Number 10 constitutes a real
"playmaker" and the two wing players are nearly equal to real wing attackers or wingers.
Constant advances of the players in the offensive (alternating, if possible) cause problems
and confusion for the opposing defense.
Due to this offensive, a 4-3-3 often automatically results when in possession of the ball.
Requirements concerning the willingness to run and tactical discipline are very high but
mandatory in order to successfully play these frequent system changes.
The 1 (Striker)
One player in the offense sounds like a typical center forward who not only has to be tall and
good at heading but also capable of achieving successful tackles. But times are slowly
changing for the 4-2-3-1 formation as well and a "false nine", a flexible attacker, can often be
found in this position.
This concludes our short introduction to the 4-3-2-1 system. This system is very complex and
not fixed in any way. The motivation, skill and footballing intelligence of the team are even
more important here as compared to other systems. If the entire team does not consistently
work both offensively and defensively, gigantic gaps will develop. Learning this is not only a
challenge for the team, but also for the trainer.
Systems of play:
The Foundations of the 4-4-2 (Diamond Midfield)
The Foundations of the 4-4-2 (Flat Four)

Football tactics basics: The 4-

2-3-1 formation explained
The tactics column looks at the 4-2-3-1 formation and how it has become
almost the standard in modern football because of its balance and flexibility.
The 4-2-3-1 splits players into four bands. The defensive unit consists of the
standard centre-backs and full-backs and two defensive midfielders screening
them, often called the ‘double pivot'.

The attacking unit consists of a band of three attacking midfielders and a lone
central striker. The wide midfielders are generally fast dribblers who like to cut
inside or make runs into the box. The attacking central midfielder, often the
‘No. 10', is normally a creative passer who can play balls into the feet of either
the wide attackers or the lone striker.

A good 4-2-3-1 is a formation that has a wonderful ‘springy' quality - it absorbs
pressure without breaking and then snaps back with surprising force.

In defence the 4-2-3-1 covers space very effectively, with the band of three
and the lone striker able to press the opposition high up the pitch while the two
defensive midfielders ensure that there is no space left in front of the defence.
Then the back four can either play a high line, compressing the space even
further, or drop deeper as preferred.

Chelsea were dominant in 2014-15 as Nemanja Matic and one of Cesc Fabregas
or John Obi Mikel formed a stable ‘double pivot' at the base of the Chelsea midfield
to release the attacking unit of Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Costa up top.

This Sky Sports analysis of their December 2014 win over Stoke City shows how Jose
Mourinho set-up Matic and Mikel to win the ball in midfield and then release the
attackers. A good example of the 4-2-3-1's flexibility as Mourinho opted for a more
defensive double pivot against a physical side.

Once the ball is won back, often by the defensive midfielders, the 4-2-3-1 can
spring into attack.

The full-backs can surge up the wings in the knowledge that the defensive
midfielders can drop into the space left behind if needed. As they come up the
wings, the wide attackers come inside and they tend to be fast dribblers who
look to get into the box. The attacking central midfielder, often the ‘No. 10' who
is the most creative player on the team will look to play them or the lone striker
in via fast passing combinations.

Arsene Wenger loves an attacking midfielder and the combination of Theo Walcott as
a lone striker, supported from left to right by Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Aaron
Ramsay ripped Manchester United apart inside 20 minutes in October 2015 with their
rapid passing combinations.

Note for the first goal how first Hector Bellerin provided width from the full-back
position but lost the ball and then Francis Coquelin, playing as one of the two
defensive midfielders, won it back behind him to continue the attack. A perfect
demonstration of the how the 4-2-3-1 covers space.

If the rapid attack fails, the 4-2-3-1 is well set-up to either retain possession,
with a large number of passing triangles naturally formed by its four bands of
players, or to press and regain the ball quickly.


While at its best the 4-2-3-1 is a masterpiece of flexibility, when played poorly
it can be slow and cumbersome.
If the midfield bands are forced back and compressed into a 4-5-1, the striker
can be left isolated with very little support. The full-backs, key to modern
attacking football, can also be trapped behind their midfield line.

Or the opposite may happen, where the attacking band of midfielders neglect
to track back and help their full-backs, allowing opposition wide players to
overload the defence. This is similar to the possible problems in a 4-3-3, if the
attacking wide players forget their duty to help the team when out of
possession. However it can be even more pronounced as the two defensive
midfielders are left with a huge amount of the pitch to cover.

After dominating the Premier League one season in the 4-2-3-1, Jose Mourinho and
Chelsea had a horrific start to the season with the same formation. The most obvious
problem was the failure of their defensive midfield to cover their back four, as they
were left isolated by the attacking band of midfielders - as analysed in this Sky Sports
video of their 3-1 loss to Liverpool.

How the 4-2-3-1 took over the world

Juanma Lillo, former Real Sociedad coach, is generally accepted to have been
the first to consciously use the 4-2-3-1 in pursuit of the best distribution of
players across the pitch to achieve two key aims - possession and pressing,
retaining the ball and regaining it quickly.

Since its adoption by many teams in Spain in the 1990s it spread rapidly in the
early 2000s as detailed by Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian here. The switch
from a 4-4-2 is relatively easy - one striker drops back to become the creative,
attacking midfielder, the wingers push forwards and instead of staying out wide
and putting in crosses they become dribbling attackers and the central
midfielders drop deeper to make the ‘double pivot'.

Since then the extraordinary success of Pep Guardiola's 4-3-3 ´tiki-taka' at

Barcelona (see my analysis of the 4-3-3 featuring that team here) has provided
an alternative to the 4-2-3-1 but the principles that Guardiola adheres to -
retain the ball and regain it quickly when lost - are the same identified by Lillo
and for teams which want to achieve those aims while also having flexibility
the 4-2-3-1 is still the most popular choice.