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In modern-day football, one of the most common formations used by some of the best teams and most experienced managers is the 4-2-3-1 formation. Many football analysts have extensively analyzed the use of the 4-2-3-1 in soccer due to the effectiveness of this formation.
The 4-2-3-1 soccer formation is said to have been pioneered in the 1990s by Juan Manuel Lillo, who was, at the time, manager of Cultural y Deportivo Leonesa in Spain. He made the formation mainstream in Spain before it spread across Europe and the rest of the world in the following years.
The 4-2-3-1 formation was developed because coaches chose to play with a high press without exposing their defense. Winning the ball back high up the pitch would make it possible for them to launch attacks more regularly and limit their rearguard action.
If you’ve been wondering what 4-2-3-1 soccer formation means or don’t know how 4-2-3-1 soccer tactics work, this is the guide for you. Find out the relationship between 4-2-31 and soccer and the soccer position numbers 4-2-3-1.
4-2-3-1 Tactical Setup
When playing with a 4-2-3-1, soccer tactics play a crucial role in how a team performs, like with every other formation. The 4-2-3-1 is a variant of the 4-5-1 formation and can quickly transform into a 4-2-2-2 system, depending on the manager’s instructions. The 4-2-3-1 is one of the best formations for attacking teams because it gives them multiple attacking options to choose from.
As stated, the 4-2-3-1 formation rose to prominence due to the need for teams to press and play front-foot football. The formation is set up with four defenders, two midfielders in a double pivot, three attacking midfield players, and a lone striker leading the line.
4-2-3-1 Defence Setup
The defensive lineup in a 4-2-3-1 system is composed of two central defenders who line up with two full-backs, one on either side of the pitch. Managers and coaches today have understood the importance of having technically proficient defenders who are comfortable with the ball at their feet. These kinds of defenders are essential for a 4-2-3-1 system to function effectively.
The central defenders in this system have a lot of responsibility because they play a crucial role in their team’s build-up and defending against the opposition.
Out wide, we have the two full-backs tasked with both defensive and offensive duties. When the team is in the defensive phase, the full-backs must stay on the wing and close down the opposition’s wide players. In this phase of play, they ensure that the ball does not get sent into dangerous areas for the opponent’s strikers to thrive.
In addition to their role in defense as part of the back four, the full-backs also have an essential part to play in their team’s attacking structure. They are both expected to move upfield when their team is on the attack to hold the wide positions while other players move into more central positions. This increases the number of players that attack the opposition backline and increases pressure on the opposition’s defense.
Full-backs such as Alphonso Davies and Kieran Tierney have thrived in the position recently due to their athleticism and stamina, making them potent threats at both ends of the pitch.
4-2-3-1 Midfield Setup
The midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system is a specialized one known as a double pivot. This two-person pivot at the base of the midfield serves as a cover for the defense while also providing stability and solidity off the ball. The pivot acts as the link between his side’s defense and the rest of the pitch and is tasked with keeping the ball moving for the team and ensuring proper ball movement.
The double-pivot serves as a safety net for the back four. They must be switched on throughout the game to carry out this role effectively. The players must maintain a fixed distance between themselves to prevent being dragged around by the opponents when they attack. The two-person pivot also provides an insurance policy for the team to have its attacking players, including the full-backs, free to advance high up the pitch without being held back by their defensive burden. The movements of these midfielders dictate how often the full-backs bomb forward and how the team’s shape looks when they do.
When playing with a 4-2-3-1 formation, managers tend to go for two players with slightly different profiles in their two-person midfield system. For example, Jose Mourinho won the Premier League title in 2015 with Chelsea when his preferred midfield partnership was Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas. While Matic mostly sat deep to sniff out danger and clean up, Fabregas was allowed to roam more freely and look for openings with his expert passing skills. It is crucial in a 4-2-3-1 to have technically secure players in the midfield to dictate the tempo of the play and control the game.
4-2-3-1 Attack Setup
The attacking setup of a 4-2-3-1 system is characterized by quick movement and interplay between the three attacking midfielders and the lone striker. The attacking lineup consists of three attacking midfielders and a striker leading the line, and these players play particularly close to each other. The three-person attacking midfield unit serves the function of chance creation and goalscoring.
The system has an attacking midfielder playing in the hole just behind the striker such that he can step up and play alongside the striker once the manager instructs him to. This role has been perfected by Bayern Munich legend Thomas Muller, who has a perfect balance of goals and assists from playing in the position.
One wide player on each side usually flanks this player. The wide players must be comfortable moving infield to leave room out wide for their full-backs to occupy. To get the best out of this arrangement, the players must be on the same wavelength and understand each other well.
The lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 lineup is usually one of the most hardworking players on the team. He can not stop running during games because of how much his team depends on him to perform. The bulk of his side’s goalscoring burden rests on his shoulders, so he has to deliver. This striker needs to be adept at linking the play with his supporting cast (the three attacking midfielders); he must know when to drop back to create space and how to drag defenders out of shape. Robert Lewandowski, who recently signed for Barcelona, is a perfect example of this kind of striker.
4-2-3-1 Formation Strengths
When a team chooses to play with a 4-2-3-1 system, they gain advantages over opponents. Here are some strengths of the 4-2-3-1:
It gives the opponents very little space to operate due to the number of players covering each part of the pitch. This limits their attacking potential and forces them into errors.
Ease of Ball Retention
Retention of possession is made very easy by the presence of multiple passing triangles. As a result, teams that use the 4-2-3-1 formation can easily dominate possession and, by extension, dictate the pace of matches.
Multiple Attacking Options
Multiple players can contribute to the attack, making the team more dangerous than their counterparts. Because of the protection offered by the double pivot, up to six players have the license to occupy the attacking area when their team is on the front foot, including both full-backs and the primary attackers.
The flexibility of the 4-2-3-1 formation makes it possible for teams to withstand pressure and counter effectively.
4-2-3-1 Formation Weaknesses
In a 4-2-3-1 system, there are some weaknesses that the opposition can easily exploit. Here are some of them:
Isolation of the Striker
If both lines of the midfield are forced back into a 4-5-1, the striker is left all alone at the top end of the pitch. This situation is far from ideal, making it virtually impossible to create good openings and score goals.
Midfield Can Get Overrun Without Proper Support
When the three attacking midfielders neglect the defensive aspect of their game, they risk their midfield pivot getting pulled apart by the opponent’s runners from midfield.
Requires a Good Deal of Understanding
To get a team to play the 4-2-3-1 system effectively, it is imperative to have players who understand each other. For example, the midfield players need to know how to move to avoid exposing their defenders, and the forwards need the understanding to avoid getting in each other’s way.
Teams That Play With a 4-2-3-1
Many of Europe’s best club teams use the 4-2-3-1 formation regularly or have used it in recent seasons. Bayern Munich, for example, used the 4-2-3-1 regularly in their UEFA Champions League winning season in 2020. Mauricio Pochettino built his Tottenham Hotspur team on this system, with Dele Alli and Harry Kane playing critical roles in the setup. Pep Guardiola and his protege Mikel Arteta have also used the 4-2-3-1 formation with their respective teams.
The 4-2-3-1 formation is one of the most widely-used formations because of its obvious merits. The system allows players to express themselves, knowing they have a defensive cover. The utility value of the 4-2-3-1 makes it an excellent choice for managers in the football world, and this has been proven over time.