Tactical strategy and coaching is 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.
Between 2008 and 2012, Spain dominated world football by finetuning the 4-2-3-1 system, pioneering the rise of this formation into the mainstream. In fact, their success with it (they won 2 European Championships and 1 World Cup during this period) led to it becoming probably the world's most popular formation for a number of years. However, this iconic international side wasn't the first-ever team to use 4-2-3-1 (although it did originate in Spain).
Juanma Lillo, a Spanish coach currently working as Pep Guardiola's assistant at Manchester City, is credited with being the first proponent of this system. A largely unknown but nonetheless revolutionary coach, Lillo was a major early influence on Guardiola, having taken charge of his first La Liga club, Salamanca, in 1992, aged just 29. It was here that he began advocating for the 4-2-3-1 shape.
But how exactly does this formation look in practice? 4-2-3-1 is made up of a back four, 2 defensive midfielders, a more advanced midfield 3 including two wide midfielders, and a lone central striker. Often used by teams that look to dominate possession, the 4-2-3-1 shape is all about spreading players across the pitch in a balanced way and aiming to control midfield areas.
Having 5 midfielders makes this possible; however, structuring them as 2 separate units allows the central defensive midfielders to concentrate on shielding the back four and progressing the ball, while the bank of 3 in front of them focuses on supporting the striker and creating chances.
This midfield 3 can also be highly fluid, switching positions with each other and getting themselves into advanced areas in order to link up with the center forward. This is crucial because otherwise, the lone striker could become isolated. Regardless, they will be relied upon to press defenders and stop them from easily moving the ball forwards.
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 forcing 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 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.
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 formation 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.
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 were arguably the most important pioneers 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.
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 or, go back to the basics and learn how long are soccer games.
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.