4-2-3-1 Roles and Responsibilities

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4-2-3-1 roles and responsibilities – Tactical strategy and coaching are absolutely crucial to the modern game of soccer. Things have developed a lot since the early days of the sport when teams were organized in pretty basic ways, their play relying on the skill and creativity of individual players. Today, professional strategies are complex, and one of the most important aspects of any coach’s approach to a match is the formation they choose to play.

Recently, we’ve produced a number of formation explainer pieces, including one on the strengths and weaknesses of the 4-4-2 formation. Each system has its pros and cons, which is why today we’ll be focusing on the key aspects of another popular shape: the 4-2-3-1 formation. This is the favored structure of tons of club and international teams across the world, so having a good understanding of exactly how it works can seriously improve your ability to analyze and observe professional matches.

4-2-3-1 Roles and Responsibilities

4-2-3-1 Roles and Responsibilities


In Possession

  • Distribute effectively with accurate kicks, throws, and rolls.
  • Support defenders when they have the ball and be prepared to receive on either foot.
  • Communicate effectively with outfield players. Early decisions and clear, purposeful instructions.

Out of Possession

  • Starting position relative to the position of, and in line with, the ball.
  • Sweeper/keeper when the team pushes up the pitch, encourage the outfield players to play higher and more positively.
  • Shot stopping – ready position, the decision whether to catch, punch or parry.
  • React to 2nd chances.

Full Backs

In Possession

  • Move high and wide to receive the ball from the GK when playing out from the back.
  • Range of passes to help retain possession (into MF or Forwards or switch play via Defenders).
  • Recognize opportunities to get forward as the ball travel toward your side of the pitch.
  • Provide crosses to the forwards from advanced positions.

Out of Possession

  • Be close enough to the opposition wide player to pressure his first touch.
  • Recognize where to show your opponent (inside/outside) in relation to your cover.
  • When pressed back, to work with CB remaining tight and narrow. Protect the threat and goal.
  • Try to seize the initiative in 1v1 duels.
  • Defender narrow attack wide

Centre Backs

In Possession

  • Split wide and be prepared to receive the ball from the GK.
  • Encourage playing for the back, moving the ball quickly to create advancing opportunities, but recognize the need at times for angled passes behind the opposition to FB and MF.
  • Attack aerial balls with power, purpose, and timing.

Out of Possession

  • Recognize when to follow opponents short and when to pass them on.
  • Be comfortable defending 1v1 and 2v2 situations, and try to seize the initiative.
  • Mark the ball side and the goal side.
  • Recognize when to move deep and centrally in order to defend crosses.
  • Be vocal in organizing the defensive line, and required support from CDM.
  • Be mindful not to be caught flat, or both going for the same ball.

Holding Midfield

In Possession

  • Drop into the space created by CB splitting to give GK options to play out from the back.
  • Try to receive the ball sideways on to play forward passes that break lines.
  • Display a good range of passing, and be prepared to initiate switches of play to exploit space in wide areas.
  • Be assured in possession, and disciplined in your work. Working within 10 yards of one another, in and out of possession.
  • Be vocal and organized. No4 to remain defensively mind at all times, No8 to manage late runs to join attacks but reminded his main responsibility is protecting our goal.

Out of Possession

  • Be prepared to give cover to the FB, dropping into the defensive line.
  • Provide an additional defensive line and screen passes to the opposition forwards.
  • Block shots tackle an

Wide Midfield

In Possession

  • Try to be positive in 1v1 situations, particularly in the attacking third.
  • Be prepared to support 9 & 10 in the channels (shaded), giving space to the full-back on the outside.
  • Make penetrating passes into the forwards or overlapping fullbacks and crosses from wide areas, as well as finding feet.
  • Use No9 and No10 for bounce passes and to drive at the opposition defense where appropriate.

Out of Possession

  • Press or provide cover for the press high up the pitch. Win the ball back if you can (tackle or intercept).
  • Provide defensive cover in wide areas, and get on the outside of the CDM players. (double up with the FB).
  • Track runners from deep or on switches of play.

Attacking MF

In Possession

  • Try to play in between the opposition’s lines of defense (horizontally and vertically).
  • Retain the ball and make positive runs and passes around and in between the opposition’s defense.
  • Be prepared to shoot from distance and support the 9 at all times.

Out of Possession

  • Be prepared to press or support the press, and make play predictable.
  • If the opposition play with a playmaker, engage him high up the pitch to force longer clearances.
  • Try to intercept or tackle in the midfield area to regain possession or make the opposition play backward.


In Possession

  • Recognize and take opportunities to shoot with power and precision.
  • Be available to receive the ball into feet or space and on the half turn if possible.
  • Recognize when play is developing in wide areas and take up positions in the box to attack crosses.
  • To play on the last defender, and be available for bounce passes for advancing attacks

Out of Possession

  • Initiate the team’s press when appropriate.
  • Try to force the CB to make risky passes.
  • Try to prevent easy passes into midfield and win the ball from the wrong side if MF is holding the play up.

What are the strengths of a 4-2-3-1 formation?

One of the key reasons the 4-2-3-1 formation has gained prominence within the last 15 years or so is because of the sense of balance it provides. The combination of a back four with two central defensive midfielders gives teams a strong degree of defensive stability.

Even if full backs decide to step forward and join attacks (like full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo did within Brazil’s 4-2-3-1 shape), there are still two central midfielders (also referred to as a double pivot) providing defensive cover, and two center-backs sat even deeper behind them. Pushing these two full-backs forward can also help create plenty of width in more advanced positions, as well as force opposition wingers to track back and cover.

Perhaps the most crucial benefit of playing 4-2-3-1 is that it gives your team a good chance of being able to build up and keep possession of the ball for sustained periods. If your aim is to use your back four to receive the ball from their goalkeeper and progress it forward, the two central defensive midfielders provide great outlets and are able to smoothly connect defense with the attack. When in possession, the 5 midfielders are also able to spread wide, create midfield overloads, and dominate the ball using intricate passing triangles.

But don’t think that 4-2-3-1 is all about contentedly sitting in, passing the ball around the midfield and defensive areas, and waiting patiently for a moment to pounce. It can also be a highly aggressive formation. Having 2 central defensive midfielders always providing cover allows the 3 more advanced midfielders to press high and essentially become forwards themselves, creating a front 4 capable of causing chaos in opposition defenses.

Chances are created by pressing the ball high, winning possession, and interlinking as a fluid front 4. Sounds good, right? When implemented properly, 4-2-3-1 can be incredibly difficult to stop. However, there are some weaknesses that come with this shape. Let’s look into them.

What are the weaknesses of a 4-2-3-1 formation?

Like most advanced formations, the 4-2-3-1 requires constant communication and a lot of hard work. In order to stay compact and organized, each section of the formation needs to be instructing and advising each other at all times. This is particularly crucial for the 2 central defensive midfielders (or CDMs), who must remain disciplined and defensively-minded, while at the same time always giving passing options to whoever is on the ball.

It’s also possible that some central defensive midfielders are more effective sitting in and performing the ‘destroyer’ role on their own; think of Chelsea’s Claude Makelele, or Manchester City’s Fernandinho, for example. It could be that your central midfield area becomes a little congested or tight using the 4-2-3-1. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, and if strong communication is maintained throughout matches, it’s unlikely that this will be a major problem.

Another thing worth mentioning is the wide midfield areas. If your two wider midfielders aren’t fast and dominant in one-on-one situations, they can tend to become weak links. Not only do they need to be able to link up with the striker to create chances, they also need to be able to press the ball hard, limiting the options of opposition defenders and tracking back if the ball does get past them. There’s also lots of creative responsibility placed on the CAM (central attacking midfielder), who will often be a team’s star player (think of Mezut Ozil, David Silva, or Thomas Muller).

It’s easy to see why 4-2-3-1 replaced 4-4-2 as Europe’s dominant form in the late 2000s — it’s essentially because its weaknesses are far less impactful. Playing 2 strikers can create all sorts of risks that are negated by the 4-2-3-1 system, with its advanced midfield 3 being able to lead attacks while simultaneously dominating central possession. So who has benefited from this important soccer development? It’s time to explore the most famous clubs and managers to have used the 4-2-3-1 system.

Which clubs and managers use the 4-2-3-1 system?

The 2010 World Cup highlighted the dominance of the 4-2-3-1 system, with all four semi-finalists using a double pivot, and Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands lining up as a 4-2-3-1 (while Uruguay went for more of a 4-4-2 with 2 deep-lying center-mids). Vincent Del Bosque’s World Cup-winning Spain team was arguably the most important pioneer of the 4-2-3-1 system, with the double pivot of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso proving to be one of world football’s best CDM partnerships.

Other successful implementations of the 4-2-3-1 include Bayern Munich, who have used this system to totally dominate the Bundesliga throughout the past decade. Coaches such as Hansi Flick and Julian Naglesmann have adapted the shape in different ways, but the German champions’ success has rested on the basic foundations of the 4-2-3-1 structure.

How should you play against a 4-2-3-1?

It’s often the case that the best way to play against a certain formation is to simply line up with the same shape yourself. This is definitely true when it comes to the 4-2-3-1 because it will allow you to place players in areas of the pitch that are vulnerable to overloads when lining up against a well-drilled 4-2-3-1 side. However, there are other approaches you can take, too.

Using a midfield diamond can be a good way to nullify a 4-2-3-1 structure, as shown by Italy in the Euro 2012 semi-final which saw them beat Germany 2-1. A midfield diamond shape allows teams to dominate central areas and suffocate opposition midfielders by getting tight and letting full-backs provide width. It’s also possible to beat a 4-2-3-1 shape using a 4-3-3, which can utilize a tight midfield 3 while allowing wingers to terrorize opposition defenders alongside their central striker.

If you want to find out more about the benefits and weaknesses of different soccer shapes, you should check out our article on 9 of the best soccer formations explained. Getting to grips with the pros and cons of each structure is crucial if you want to develop your tactical knowledge and learn more about coaching within the game. And if you want a bit of light relief from what can sometimes be quite a complex area of soccer knowledge, take a look at our guide to the 10 best panenka penalties ever, go back to the basics and learn how long are soccer games are.

Want to learn about another formation? Try our insight into the 3-4-2-1 formation or the 4-2-2-2 formation.

Fred Garratt-Stanley is a freelance writer and long-suffering Norwich City fan with experience reporting on football for a number of titles. He also has a background in music and culture journalism, with bylines in NME, The Quietus, Resident Advisor, and more. Currently, he’s working as a content writer for a variety of online health and fitness publications.

Conclusion – 4-2-3-1 Roles and Responsibilities

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.

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