Why 4-2-3-1 is the most used formation in world football

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Football is a game of dynamism and progress. The wheels of change continue to spin, with golden generations waxing and giants of the international stage waning with each passing season and tournament.

As with all aspects of the game, formations have developed to counteract one another and create the best environments for players to thrive in.

The 4-2-3-1 formation is perhaps the most popular in world football at the moment. Predominantly pioneered in Germany and Spain, the system is now the default set up for the majority of top flight clubs. It is revered for a number of reasons but, mainly, the flexibility it provides allows for clubs to play with whatever style their manager deems necessary to get a result. It is equally solid in defence as it is potent in attack.

That flexibility is ever so vital in the modern game. As an example, the top four in English football will be the most competitive it ever has been, with considerable financial resources available to some of the world’s most renowned and well-established managers. As such, teams that previously may have dominated could find themselves on the back foot more regularly than in previous times.

4-2-3-1 allows for midfielders to drop deep on the pitch to create a solid defensive unit. Having two players shielding the defensive line allows for much more stability, making teams considerably harder to break down. In other formations like 4-4-2, the “wingers” would sit deeper than conventional wide men in a 4-2-3-1. As such, opposing fullbacks were allowed considerably more space on the ball, allowing them to spread the play and break forward into more space.

In a 4-2-3-1, the wide players are afforded a more advanced position, sitting close to the opposition full backs. This limits the impact opposition full backs can have, while also placing the wingers in a prime position to counterattack. If necessary, the 4-2-3-1 can fold back and have two banks of four or five players behind the ball, making it incredibly hard to break down.

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More frequently, though, the number 10 will sit further up the pitch as a means of linking the defence and attack, in the event of a potential counter attack. The transition between defence and attack is a huge part of what makes 4-2-3-1 so potent. As the two deep-lying midfielders come into possession, the number 10 will open themselves up to receive the ball.

From there, those two deep players will begin to move forward, as will the striker and wingers. This gives the player in possession options in all directions to launch an attack. The ease and speed of the transition are what makes the formation so devastating.

When a team in a 4-2-3-1 system isn’t defending, it’s flexibility in creativity can be incredibly hard to deal with. Previous systems often had one “playmaker” alongside a more combative, defensive minded player in the centre of the field. As such, it was easier to nullify the threat from the creator by marking them out of the game or repressing the space he or she had to operate in.

By having three central midfielders, teams have more creative outlets to utilise on the attack. If the number 10 is being constantly man-marked, it opens up space for the midfielders sitting deeper to operate in, allowing them to drive forward and fulfil the creative role in the middle of the pitch. It also reduces the pressure on what would traditionally be the defensive midfielder, as it gives another team mate alongside them to help cut off passing corridors and mark opposing players.

Flatter formations seriously inhibited the passing options for the players within it. Simplified, a central midfielder often had two options: a lateral or straight pass. As such, it’s easier for defenders to do their jobs, as passes are more telegraphed and there are fewer options.

Utilising triangles is a much more effective method of attacking passing. 4-2-3-1 provides each player with two direct options at least across a playing area with more depth than a 4-4-2 would provide. This allows teams to move between the lines and construct misdirection and more diverse attacks than comparatively reductive passing systems.

As vital as the midfield is for a 4-2-3-1, the attacking thrust largely comes from out wide. Having three players in midfield allows for a team to maintain possession very well. In an effort to win the ball back, this may draw the opposition into more central positions. As a result, there will be considerably more space out wide for full backs and wingers to move forward. One of the major contributors to Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal scoring prowess at Real Madrid is the space created out wide by their fierce midfield. That is, aside his incredible athleticism and talent.

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As with any formation, there are several pressure points that can be exploited. While switching the play between the wings can be very effective in creating space between opposition defenders, there are problems to consider too. The focus on central players and wingers playing close to opposition full backs means that, if possession breaks down, there are often large amounts of space down each flank in a 4-2-3-1. Opposing wide men can move into these pockets and really expose the defence.

The development of modern sports science has broadened the horizons of football tactics. Increasing fitness and physical capabilities have given managers more options in how they field their teams. For example, modern full backs can cover the length of the field over and over again in the modern game. Despite the developments in player’s fitness, the 4-2-3-1 is still an incredibly demanding formation.

The physical intensity of the formation begins largely the two deeper midfielders and the wide players in the formation. Since the majority of the possession in held by those midfielders, attacks often have to start from deep. As such, when attacking those players have to drive forward constantly, and then retreat back in the defensive transition.  Most managers expect both full backs and wingers to heavily contribute to both attacking and defending, meaning they cover an enormous amount of ground over the course of the game. Consistent and intense physical strain can lead to tiredness and sub-optimal play by the end of the season, especially in leagues without a winter break.

One striker formations are very effective at creating and utilising space. During attacking phases, the wide players stretch the back four, allowing the lone striker to break between the lines and look to get in on goal. While this can be devastating, it does mean that strikers can be easily isolated by the opposition defence. If a defensive unit can avoid being spread too thinly, the striker can be marked out of the game by a pair of centre backs or passes towards the striker can be more easily intercepted, due to the fact that they can more easily track on person’s run than two.

4-2-3-1 is anchored around that creative attacking midfielder, whose range of passing and driving movement can be the biggest threat on the pitch. However, only having on striker allows an opposition centre back to more closely monitor runs from midfield. A defensive midfielder can also nullify the number 10, significantly reducing the attacking threat of the 4-2-3-1 team.

While it has its limitations, it’s obvious why 4-2-3-1 is the most prevalent system in world football right now. The solidity in defence combined with how versatile and devastating it can be in an attack fundamentally based on complex passing movement makes for a very potent force.

It isn’t perfect, though. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester stormed the Premier League predominantly using a 4-4-2 that many regard to be archaic. Now-Everton boss Ronald Koeman began using a 3-5-2 that proved particularly effective in combating the 4-2-3-1. So while it’s the principle formation right now, other systems are developing to counteract it. As football always has, the game will progress, the wheels of change will continue to spin and new ways of playing the game will emerge. For now, though, 4-2-3-1 remains the most formidable system in the modern game.

Source: Why 4-2-3-1 is the most used formation in world football? | The Boot Room

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24 thoughts on “Why 4-2-3-1 is the most used formation in world football”

  1. i would like to see us play 4-3-1-2 with coutinho spraying passes to both our strikers. with moreno running up to wing always we will have midfield depth to cover our defense too. studge and mane/ as two strikers with coutinho behind them, can at the dm position, hendo n winja at either side of him. when we defend this can switched to 4-4-1-1 leaving studge up front for counter and mane n winja to make supporting runs, coutinho and hendo has the eye for those defense splitting pass like that arsenal game we killed in first 20 mins

  2. For me keep the foundation simple, 442. The complexity comes with the interchanging of roles, full backs that attack and wingers that defend with the same mentality through out the team. The shape is always maintained and the interchanging of roles is a smooth process. This is the dream, reality is much different.

  3. for me 4-2-3-1 will work as long as midfielders make the runs and get ahead of the striker, if they don’t we’ll end up with 1 striker against 2 or 3 defenders and he’ll have no space. I like to see us with 2 strikers at home and am curious to see how Koemans 3-5-2 works out as I think we may have the players for that system.

  4. All boils down to player.

    By the way if anyone is interested Chiwell is doing great against a great team.

  5. Nice read! In the end it all comes down to the players and the players available in a team/club. Our team is most suitable to 4231 or the 433 with a dm I personally love the 433 with a dm that helps out the defence and then makes room for two AM’s but it is a bit old fashion these days 🙂

  6. Nice article. One thing that it didn’t touch on is that the 4-2-3-1 requires a very strong relationship between the two midfielders. Perhaps even more than their individual qualities the pair has to have great chemistry. That comes with time on the pitch together. There has been some folks complaining about our midfield not being strong enough. However, I see it more as players having not had enough time to gel together yet especially with the new additions of Grujic and Wijnaldum.

  7. I prefer 5-5-5!!! 😀

    Joking apart, i prefer an old school 4-4-2 when playing, sometimes morphing into a the diamond midfield 4 (as shown in the barca pic above). It all depends on the opponent team formation. Each system has it’s own +’s & -‘s. That’s my two pence!

  8. I just don’t think this formation is sustainable for 90 mins against a top team. The 2 midfielders have to play the games of their lives. We’ve been overrun in midfield a few times last season and against Chelsea you could see Fabregas overpowering and running the show until he was sent off.

    1. It takes the right type of midfielders. Big, strong tackling midfielders who are also good in transition and attack. The MFs also have to have very good chemistry with each other. I think both Gujic and Can are in the mold. Whether they are good enough remains to be seen. You also must have quick FBs and wingers willing to run their asses off to track back.

  9. 4-2-3-1 is not a lot different from the 4-3-3 with a “10”. The Dutch system been used by Ajax (and most other Dutch sides) since the early ’70’s. It’s been created to accommodate the lightweight Cruijf up front. Cruijff and Michels moving from Ajax to Barca brought the system to Spain.

    It’s indeed build around the concept of having 2 outlets all the time, creating triangles all over the pitch and it occupies the entire pitch.

    Later systems used 2 DM’s, which limits the football. Luckily Klopp wants his 2 to be footballers.

    1. Ah yes. Total football or tiki taka as some know it.
      I believe the 4-2-3-1 was introduced for a team who played slow tempo, ball on the ground and of course insane possession. In our case, I still cant justify why we use that system.
      Klopp advicates high tempo football. SO when we have the ball we try to transition as fast as we can to the attack. This leaves our midfield underutilized in the offence and overutilized in defence.

      1. Klopp has been using the 4-2-3-1 system his entire career and it was pretty effective for his high tempo football at Dortmund. If he has the right players this formation is lethal in a gegenpressing system. Unfortunately we don’t have the quality in midfielders he had at Dortmund

        1. Agreed. Maybe the potential is there but the quality is glarely lacking. Seems like thats how we will lineup come next season. And im scared

      2. But that’s why we have Hendo and Can and no Matic/Kante or something. With 2 box to box players you’ve always got on extra to move up.

        Similar to the Ajax in ’95-96. When Reiziger/Ronald de Boer/Finidi had the ball Davids would make his way into the box and vice versa. Always creating numbers in areas where the ball is going to move into.

        1. True. The key is the midfield two. And ours is not strong enough to implement this system. Thats why I think 4-3-3dm would help us better.

          1. Hendo/Can bossed many games allready. With a better understanding and another outlet in Mané I think it will be even better. Wijnaldum as a 10 over Firmino is a bit more midfield strength as well, so there’s options.

            And the 4-3-3 is also a system we’ve been training in pre-season so we’ll see that in action as well.

    2. Cruijff used 343 also quite often during the mid 80s. This formation was also used by Ajax during the 70s as well? With the right players (good skills and lots of speed and stamina, especially the wing backs) this is the most efficient formation in my opinion.

      1. On the ball it’s 3-4-3, a center back in the mould of Rijkaard to move into midfield. Like Barca does with Masch. Defensively it reverts to 4-3-3

  10. Very well written. I don’t know if its just me but I would usually prefer us playing with 2 strikers as that would get the opponent’s defence preoccupied with their presence up top. Stretching the play, causing difficulties for the centrebacks. Oh how I miss Suarez/Studge partnership.

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