4 2 3 1 Formation in football- Everything you need to know!
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On a very basic level, the 4 2 3 1 soccer lineup makes use of tactics that are derived from the 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-2-4, and 4-3-3 systems. The beauty of this Brazilian technique is that it lets the players seamlessly rotate their positions as per the scenario of the pitch, adding up to an incredibly balanced game.
This article is a comprehensive guide to the 4 2 3 1 formation, including how to play it, the roles of each player, and the major pros and cons associated with implementing the 4 2 3 1 tactics on the pitch. We’ll also have a detailed look at what’s required of the players when playing this formation.
What is a 4-2-3-1 formation?
The 4-2-3-1 formation operates with four lines. In defense, there is a back four consisting of two central defenders and two full-backs. Two deeper central midfielders operate ahead of the back line and are often referred to as a double pivot. Further forward, an attacking midfield three plays behind a lone center-forward.
Where does the 4-2-3-1 originate?
With many teams using a withdrawn center-forward in a 4-4-2 in the late 1990s, the 4-2-3-1 was eventually introduced in the 2000s to prevent access into central spaces between the lines. This initially stemmed from having a single pivot covering these spaces – Claude Makélélé was the most notable of these – before a second defensive midfielder was added ahead of the back line.
This formation became more popular as pressing became a bigger part of the modern game. The double-pivot covers the space in front of the back four but also supports the press behind the center-forward and attacking midfield three. Manchester City assistant manager Juanma Lillo is thought to have instigated the change from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 in Spanish football, with the high press a significant contributing factor.
Is the 4-2-3-1 the best soccer formation?
To say that 4-2-3-1 is the best soccer formation might be an overstatement without going into the details. If pulled off the right way, this formation can be a deadly combination of the strong attacking flair of the traditional 4-4-2 and the near-invincible midfield strength of the defensive 4-4-3 setup.
The strongest argument in favor of 4-2-3-1 being the best soccer formation is that it offers impeccable attacking opportunities without compromising the defensive stability. One can say that the absence of wide players is a weak point of this formation, but the presence of four defenders, two defensive midfielders, three attacking midfielders, and a striker more than makes up for that.
For this to work as the best formation in soccer, it is important that the team exhibits incredible cohesion and seamless transformation between their roles on the pitch.
How to play the 4 2 3 1 formation
As suggested by the numbers, when implementing the 4231 strategies, the team formation consists of four rows. The team’s defense comprises four players in the back, with two playing as center backs and the other two as fullbacks.
Ahead of the main defense block are two defensive midfielders, also called the double pivot. These two have the job of creating a deep block and protecting the defense.
The attacking responsibility is shared amongst the three midfielders and the single striker.
Roles And Types Of Players When Playing 4 2 3 1
Like all other soccer formations, for 4-2-3-1 to work in the team’s favor, all the players must understand their roles and stick to them throughout the match. Here’s an overview of what’s expected from the players during the match.
Like with any other formation, when coaching the goalie for 4 2 3 1, it should be made clear that their primary and most important duty is to protect the goal and keep the opposing team’s scoring attempts at bay.
Being the first attacker, the goalkeeper is responsible for building up the play. Whether implementing this strategy in a friendly youth soccer match or a world cup match, the goalkeeper needs to be excellent at reading the game’s situation and flawlessly distributing the ball to their teammates with perfect rolls, throws, or kicks.
In this setup, the approach to your defensive third is sufficiently protected by the midfielders and the double pivot. Still, it is expected of the goalie to provide support to the defenders when they are in possession and act as the sweeper when the team is bombing forward.
The goalkeeper is also required to act as the leader on the pitch. An ideal player for this position can quickly make the correct decisions under the pressure of the match and can act as a wise on-ground instructor to coordinate the defense and keep the team motivated.
In terms of technical skills, this player needs to be agile and strong, have fast reflexes, great coordination, and solid catching, paired with extraordinary ball-handling and distribution abilities.
The 4 2 3 1 setup, like other soccer offense formations, deploys two fullbacks and two central defenders. These four players need to essentially work as a single unit and in close coordination with the midfielders to dominate the pitch’s defense and help the team maintain a clean sheet.
The central defenders have the obvious job of screening the goalkeeper, but they also have to build the game from the back. According to the number of strikers on the opposing side, the center-backs may need to drive forward and deliver the ball to the midfielders. They can also be needed to cooperate with the sixes for the same purpose.
One of the shortcomings of this formation is the threat to your defensive wings. To cover that, the center backs need to be good at reading the ball and be always prepared to deal with crosses.
In terms of the physical demands, these players need to be tall and strong enough to take on the opposing attackers in 1v1 or 2v2 situations. As far as technique is concerned, the players who are excellent at tapping aerial balls with perfect purpose and timing are perfect for this role.
Fullbacks in 4 2 3 1 formation
The fullbacks are not controlling the team’s offense in the 4 2 3 1 formation. They are tasked with the defense and passing the ball to open teammates. This formation offers more space for both the left and right fullbacks to sprint up and down, facilitating the offensive part of the team.
The modern 4-2-3-1 soccer formation needs fullbacks who are strong and have incredible ball-handling skills. This is important to tackle the attackers of the opposing team and provide assistance when their teammates are attacking.
These players also need to be fast to track back to the center-backs when the team is not in possession.
The role of the defensive midfielders in this soccer strategy is to screen the back 4. However, they also play a pivotal role in building up the play. To do this, they essentially act as the link between the back and the front and support their teammates in all directions.
The tactical analysis of most coaches reveals that they have one of the defensive midfielders focuses on defense and the other on offensive play. However, the perfect setup is to have both these slots filled with players who can switch between these roles so that they can support each other as per the need of the game’s situation. Another advantage of having such players is that they can switch positions during the game, making them less predictable.
An ideal defensive midfield player must be ready and brave to take possession and either run it forward or pass it. Maintaining positional discipline by staying in sync with the movements of the rest of the team is also important for these players.
The 4 2 3 1 soccer formation deploys one center, one left, and one right attacking midfielder. The central midfield position is occupied by the key player of the attacking third. It is their duty to act as a connection between the forwards and the defensive midfielders. This player can act as a secondary striker or the main playmaker by delivering passes to the main striker in the box to score a goal.
The left and right attacking midfielders act as the wingers and are required to add width and create chances along the flanks. It must also be made clear to them in coaching that they have to leave enough space for the fullbacks.
When the team loses possession, both midfielders can move back to the sidelines and aid the fullbacks. Such a situation transforms the formation into a defensive one like the 4 4 2.
The seemingly lone striker makes the team’s first line of defense. The onus is on him to identify scoring opportunities and shoot with power and accuracy. Playing this position also involves supporting the attacking midfielders to carve out scoring chances for them too.
In theory, this soccer formation appears to have a lone forward. However, with effective 4 2 3 1 attacking drills and discipline, attacking midfielders could join the forward player to create a surprise 4-striker attack unit.
Traditionally, the striker position is best filled by a big and imposing target player. In this case, the right and left attacking midfielders should have incredible aerial ball control abilities to make crosses at head height.
The coach could also choose a fast and flexible player to lead the attacking unit. If you go with a fast striker, then they should be able to create havoc among the opposing midfielders and force the defenders out of position to create scoring spaces.
Which coaches and team have used a 4-2-3-1?
Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur
In Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1, Harry Kane was supported by Dele Alli as a penetrative number 10 who often ran beyond the center-forward. Son Heung-min also provided penetrative movements but did so more often following transitions. Christian Eriksen played as a central number 10 or sometimes as one of the wide attacking midfielders, although he would move central to help the double pivot break through the opposition midfield. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose provided attacking threats from the full-back positions, overlapping to give the team width in attack (below). Meanwhile, a versatile double pivot of Eric Dier and Mousa Dembélé provided protection in front of the two center-backs, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich
Flick’s 4-2-3-1 (below) was particularly effective in Bayern’s successful 2019/20 Champions League campaign. They beat Chelsea 7-1 on an aggregate and Barcelona 8-2, having also won 7-2 at Tottenham in the group stage. Centre-forward Robert Lewandowski had support from the mobile Thomas Müller, who ran beyond the striker, provided an extra presence in the box to attack crosses, and rotated with wide players Kingsley Coman, Ivan Perisic, and Serge Gnabry, who moved infield toward the goal. Thiago controlled the tempo of the team’s passing from his position between the back four and attacking midfield. He was paired either with Leon Goretzka, who provided penetrative runs around Müller, or Joshua Kimmich, who added a stronger defensive presence in the double pivot. This allowed both full-backs, Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies, to attack simultaneously.
Pep Guardiola at Manchester City
In the 2020/21 season, Guardiola used a 4-2-3-1 more often than in any of his prior seasons at Manchester City. A double pivot of Rodri and either Ilkay Gündogan or Fernandinho covered the space ahead of the back four (below). The back line often converted into a three, as João Cancelo moved forward from left-back. City often attacked without a traditional center-forward; if Guardiola went without Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Agüero, he would instead use a midfielder or winger – Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva or Ferran Torres – as a false nine. Central rotations allowed Gündogan to push forward from the double pivot – often with Cancelo joining Rodri in midfield to maintain a two. Gündogan then made penetrative runs through the inside channels in the space created by the high and wide wingers.
Gareth Southgate with England
Southgate has almost always favored a double pivot with England. He has used a 4-2-3-1 both at Euro 2020 (below) and during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice made up the double pivot whenever they were available. Both demonstrated an exceptional ability to link the back line to the attacking midfield three and center-forward Harry Kane, who often dropped into midfield. England’s attacking midfield three rotate constantly, making penetrative runs in behind as well as dropping into similar positions to Kane. Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, and Phil Foden all offer the impressive ability to combine in tight spaces. Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling make more penetrative runs beyond the opposition’s back line.
4-2-3-1 Formation Pros and Cons
Benefits of playing with a 4-2-3-1
The 4-2-3-1 provides a central midfield three that can overload a midfield two. The number 10 provides a presence between the lines and can receive in space when up against a flat midfield.
The double-pivot provides a solid midfield base, allowing wide rotations and cover if one or both full-backs push forward. They also protect the central spaces when defending, and give an added layer of security at defensive transitions.
The 4-2-3-1 provides a good, staggered defensive presence when in a mid or low block, making it harder to penetrate through, especially in central areas. A 4-2-3-1 shape also provides lots of different passing lines and angles to play out from the back. The formation lends itself to triangles, making it conducive to a possession-based game.
Disadvantages to playing with a 4-2-3-1
The single center-forward can be isolated. They are always underloaded against opposing center-backs, and the use of a double pivot means it can take longer for others to push forward and support attacks.
The central midfield three can be overloaded by a four – a 4-4-2 diamond, for example. If the number 10 stays too high when defending, an opposing midfield three can overload the double pivot.
The wide areas can be vulnerable to switches of play during counter-attacks if both full-backs have pushed forward. One of the double pivots can cover underneath an advanced full-back on one side; as they move across and the other member of the double pivot is left alone, however, a switch of play can bypass both of them.
Battle Of The Soccer Formations 4 2 3 1 Vs. All The Rest
The main difference between 4 2 3 1 and any other soccer formation is that it is a fluid formation that can take many forms on the pitch. Here’s how it compares to the other widely used ones in modern soccer.
The 4 2 3 1 Vs. 3 4 2 1 Formation
If we compare 4 2 3 1 with the 3 4 2 1 formation, the main advantage of 3 4 2 1 is its unpredictability. 3 4 2 1 offers the possibility of changing formations on the fly. If the sweeper can double as a defensive midfielder, you can effectively have a 4 at back-formation at any point in the game.
Up front, the situation is also a bit more fluid in 3 4 2 1. If you have an inside forward who can play as a 10, you can go to a 1-2 attack instead of a 2-1.
However, as a whole, the 4 2 3 1 is a more balanced and composed formation than the 3 4 2 1.
The 4 2 3 1 Vs. 3 1 4 2 Formation
The 3 1 4 2 formation is more of an attack-oriented formation compared to the 4 2 3 1. The biggest advantage it offers is that you can deploy two strikers instead of 1. However, that is at the expense of the defense of your third.
If you are playing a game where pressures are high, and you cannot risk letting the other team get a chance to score a goal, the 4 2 3 1 setup is more favorable. However, when playing against a team with a weak attack, 3 1 4 2 offers better scoring opportunities.
The 4 2 3 1 Vs. 4 1 2 3 Formation
The 4 1 2 3 formation is a defensive variation of the more commonly used 4 3 3 formations. One of the midfielders plays purely defensive in this layout, while the other two are on the attack.
Compared with the 4 2 3 1 formation, the main difference here is that the team deploys two wingers and a center forward. The 4 2 3 1 is a more balanced formation and can easily transition between offense and defense compared to 4 1 2 3.
The 4 2 3 1 Vs. 4 2 1 3 Formation
Comparing the 4 2 1 3 formations with 4 2 3 1, the defensive third of the pitch is the same in both. Both offer strong defense with 4 full-time defense players and 2 others that can transition to acquire defensive positions when needed.
In the front, however, the 4 2 1 3 is more attack-oriented than the 4 2 1 3 as there are two wingers and one center forward, able to launch a more wide attack.
Soccer Formation 4 5 1 Vs. 4 2 3 1
The 4 5 1 formation is often called the parent formation of the 4 2 3 1, with many coaches regarding the latter as a variation of the former. There is a key difference between the two, though. The 4 2 3 1 offers a playing formation where the players can change their roles during the game and acquire positions as needed by the game. This makes 4 2 3 1 a more balanced and fluid formation.
The 4 2 3 1 formation can prove to be the best football formation for your team if all the players are properly trained for it. One of the best ways of training players for such an intricate strategy is by using Blazepods, which are intelligent light pods that can help record and analyze players’ performance. Take this quiz to see which package is good for you as a player or a coach.
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