4 2 3 1 Formation Strengths and Weaknesses

By Vince •  Updated: 05/29/22 •  8 min read

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At some moment, all football formations were read already, without anything new to surprise the opponent. Juanma Lillo was the key man if you ask me. Juanma Lillo, a Spanish coach and currently manager of Colombian side Atlético Nacional is credited with being the proponent of the 4-2-3-1 revolution. This is not surprising given that it was in Spain that the formation first developed as something distinct from 4-4-2. Over the years, there have been a lot of attempts to introduce new formations in soccer, but no other formation has had the same impact as the 4-2-3-1. Some of the most successful clubs in the world, such as Manchester United and Real Madrid, have used this type of formation.

Before a coach decides to implement the 4-2-3-1 formation, he or she has to make sure that it’s the right formation for the team. This type of formation is not as simple to teach as the 4-4-2, so the players must be doing their job properly. It’s pretty risky to play in this formation if you are not very ‘connected’ with your teammates. So here are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this formation. Let’s start with strengths.

4 2 3 1 Formation Strengths

Pitch Control

It’s pretty frustrating to play against teams that play in 4-2-3-1 because this formation covers the entire pitch. You are constantly under pressure because there is a player or two on every few meters of the field. That’s the first big impact on football with this formation. If you see teams today in every formation you can see it’s all about good and high pressing, that was innovation with 4-2-3-1 at the time. The center of the pitch, specifically, is where the formation shines. With five midfielders, teams that utilize the 4-2-3-1 can control the game by forcing defenses to pinch in, leaving space down the sidelines. If the defense doesn’t pinch in, the midfielders can creatively work through the middle of the defense.

Attacking Options

This formation requires good players at a high level of condition. And when you have a team that has good individual players on wings and a deadly striker it’s almost impossible to defend it. And when you add a good attacking midfielder with a good vision you can be in big trouble. Then there are some great fullbacks with several crosses at the game. The situation just went even worse for your team. That’s formation so hard to defend. Since there are three attacking midfielders in most 4-2-3-1s, there are plenty of chances for creativity. Even if only two of the three are good creators, defenses have to stay on their toes for runs coming from all angles.

The top teams that run the 4-2-3-1 will often allow their players to have freedom all over the pitch. That means that one of the defensive midfielders might join the attack and/or the attacking midfielders can act as second strikers. If you want an opportunity to be a great playmaker, then this is one of the best formations for you. As you can see, I am constantly writing about moving and running between opponent lines, so you need to have players in good shape and a long bench.

Weaknesses of 4 2 3 1 Formation

There’s no such thing as a perfect formation, and coaches who run the 4-3-2-1 certainly know that. The four weaknesses below highlight how this formation can be beaten.

Defensive Responsibility

All players need to play defense in this formation. This can be a huge problem for some players, I will just name you a few players who are absolute world-class players, the best in the world but have big problems with defensive responsibility. Alvaro Recoba, Antonio Cassano, and Juan Roman Riquelme are just one of the big groups of players who can’t defend in the right way. They were just artists with the ball, they have had amazing Goal/Assist per Game rating but they struggled with defensive responsibilities. They just don’t see football with these eyes so you need to find a way to hide that.

Most of the managers have done this with defensive midfielders with few pairs of lungs like Fernando Redondo, Graeme Souness, etc. They are pretty good with ball contribution, you can even see some dribbles but not too often because their primary role is to be safe, don’t lose balls in stupid ways, and put the creators of enemy teams in their pockets. Since players have to work harder in this formation, it’s no surprise that their defensive weaknesses are often exploited. It is tough to stay on your game for the full 90 minutes, and opposing teams often need just one chance to take advantage of those weaknesses.

Isolated Forwards

Since the 4-2-3-1 has the attacking midfielders helping out on defense, the forward can often get stuck upfront on his or her own. That can cause them to get fewer opportunities and it can greatly reduce the amount of time the team has possession of the ball. And if you have wings that are not lighting fast or with great skills you can be in problem with saving possession and making time for your defense to rest a little bit. Also, there are just a few center-forwards who can save the ball alone against a few opponent defenders. As you can see, there is a big risk with this formation if your team isn’t perfectly coordinated on the field. The teams that run the 4-2-3-1 the best way usually have an attacking midfielder or two who are engines willing to control their sides of the field. That is a special skill, though, and many teams that use this formation do not have those types of players.

Full Backs Need to Supply Width

Since there are three attacking midfielders in this formation, the fullbacks are often left to deal with the opposing team’s best outside players. If a counterattacking pass makes it to one of the opposing wingers, the full-back will have to stop that winger or he/she will be through on goal. Many coaches try to offset this issue by deploying their best all-around players on the same side as the opposing team’s top winger. While this is a good idea, it can throw off the offense and leave the striker isolated up top. So there is the biggest reason why great fullbacks with good attacking and defending skills are so expensive on market. There are just a few of them. Just look through history, how big an impact have had Philipp Lahm, Roberto Carlos, and Giacinto Facchetti, they were so good at all parts of the field. No winger will tell you he loved to play against these monsters of players. Great physicality is key for them.

Best Formation to Play Against 4 2 3 1

Patience is key when battling a 4-2-3-1 formation. Teams that try to rush the ball forward will quickly become frustrated with the cover this formation provides. To play against this formation, you should look to exploit the space in the wings, especially behind the 3 midfielders. Playing the ball behind the three midfielders and ahead of the outside backs forces the opposing defender to rush forward, or pull one of the two defensive center mids wide.

In either case, the team is pulled out of shape which will then allow your attack to advance in the gaps. Once the midfielders are moved out of position, gaps will appear in the center of the field. This is the moment you should have a player ready to exploit that space. Some teams may use their outside backs to push up to counter this play. This is when you should play the ball beyond them

Get one of your strikers to pull out wide to fill the position vacated by the outside back and play the ball through or over.
One of the keys to playing against any formation is to disrupt their positioning. When a team has ordered it’s a formality to defend, but by moving them out of their position you can create chaos!

Best Formation to Defend 4 2 3 1

Teams using this formation like to possess and build the attack from the back. Typically, the center backs will split wide and a defensive mid will check toward the middle when the goalkeeper has the ball.

Outside backs push high and wide. If you give them space, your opponent will be able to build their attack and threaten your defense quickly. Pressure the other team high on the field, while forcing the ball to the width. If you set your press too high, then most opponents will surpass your forward line. Cover the outside backs, and position players in the dead space between the center backs, outside backs, and defensive mids.


I'm a qualified soccer coach, who has been involved with the sport for most of my life. I started Woodland Soccer to talk about the game I love.