4-2-3-1 Formation Explain: A Comprehensive Guide

The 4-2-3-1 formation is a popular strategy in professional soccer, known for its balance between attack and defense.

This formation is derived from the 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-2-4, and 4-3-3 systems and allows players to rotate their positions based on the pitch scenario, resulting in a balanced game.

This guide explains everything about this formation, including its origin, strengths and weaknesses, and each player’s role.

What is a 4-2-3-1 Formation?

The 4-2-3-1 formation is a tactical setup that consists of four lines: a back four of two central defenders and two full-backs, two deeper central midfielders (often referred to as a double pivot), an attacking midfield three, and a lone center-forward.

This formation is designed to prevent access into central spaces between the lines.

This strategy has become increasingly important as pressing has become a bigger part of the modern game.

4-2-3-1 Formation

Is the 4-2-3-1 the Best Soccer Formation?

Whether or not the 4-2-3-1 is the best soccer formation depends on the team’s style of play and the players’ skills. But it has become more popular in the last 15 years because it gives a sense of balance.

The defense is very stable when a team has a back four and two central defensive midfielders. It also lets teams build-up and keep the ball for a long time, making it a popular choice for teams that want to control possession.

Where Does the 4-2-3-1 Originate?

The 4-2-3-1 formation originated in Spain in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It was introduced to prevent access into central spaces between the lines, a strategy that was becoming increasingly important as pressing became a bigger part of the modern game.

The first person to use this method was Juanma Lillo, a Spanish coach who works as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City.

What Are the in-possession Responsibilities of Players in a 4-2-3-1 Formation?

In a 4-2-3-1 formation, the main offensive threat comes from the single centre forward, who is helped by the number 10.

The two players in the double pivot position give support under the ball and are free to move wide to help the team change play.

During changes, one of the double pivots can move forward to make the counter-attack even more dangerous. The centre-backs will bring the ball out of the back line and either pass it to the midfielders or play it straight to the forwards.

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What Are the Out-of-possession Responsibilities of the Players in a 4-2-3-1 Formation?

The back four will protect as a tight unit when out of possession. When a wide player approaches them one-on-one, the full-backs will protect against them. The centre defenders will mark the strikers on the other team.

The double-pivot protects the area between the lines in front of the centre backs. When a mid or low block is in place, the three attacking midfielders and the centre forward will move closer to cover the middle spaces. Often, the centre-forward will start a high press, and the number 10 will move forward to press with them as a flat two or cover underneath and mark the opponent’s turn.

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How Do You Play a 4-2-3-1 Formation?

The 4-2-3-1 formation is a popular strategy in professional soccer due to its balanced approach to offense and defense. Here’s a detailed breakdown:

How to play 4-2-3-1 formation:

  • Formation Structure: As the name suggests, the 4-2-3-1 formation consists of four rows. The defense consists of four players: two centre-backs and two fullbacks. Ahead of them are two defensive midfielders, also known as the double pivot, who create a deep block to protect the defense. The attacking responsibility is shared among three midfielders and a single striker.
  • Fluidity and Balance: The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 formation lies in its fluidity and balance. It allows players to rotate their positions according to the scenario on the pitch, leading to a balanced game. It combines the strong attacking flair of the traditional 4-4-2 with the near-invincible midfield strength of the defensive 4-4-3 setup.
  • Team Cohesion: For the 4-2-3-1 formation to work effectively, the team must exhibit incredible cohesion and seamless transformation between their roles on the pitch. This ensures that the formation offers impeccable attacking opportunities without compromising defensive stability.

Roles and Types of Players When Playing 4 2 3 1

Each player in the 4-2-3-1 formation has a specific role to play. Here’s an overview of what’s expected from the players during the match:

  • Goalkeeper: The goalkeeper’s main job is to protect the goal and stop the other team from scoring. But they are also responsible for building up the play and distributing the ball to their teammates with perfect passes without fear. They should be good with their feet too.
  • Centre Backs: The centre backs screen the goalkeeper and also build the game from the back. They need to be able to read the ball well and be ready to handle passes at all times.
  • Fullbacks: Fullbacks’ jobs are to defend and pass the ball to open partners. When the team doesn’t have the ball, they must quickly return to the centre-backs.
  • Defensive Midfielders: The defensive midfielders screen the back 4 and play a pivotal role in building up the play. They act as the link between the back and the front and support their teammates in all directions.
  • Attacking Midfielders: The attacking midfielders add width and create chances along the flanks. They also move back to the sidelines and aid the fullbacks when the team loses possession.
  • Striker: The striker makes the team’s first line of defense. They are responsible for identifying scoring opportunities and shooting with power and accuracy.

The 4-2-3-1 formation can be powerful if all players understand their roles and work together effectively. It offers a balanced approach to both offense and defense, making it a popular choice in professional soccer.

What Are the Strengths of a 4-2-3-1 Formation?

The 4-2-3-1 formation is a popular choice among many football teams due to its numerous strengths:

4-2-3-1 formation strengths:

1. Defensive Stability

The presence of two central defensive midfielders in front of the back four provides a solid defensive base, making it difficult for opponents to penetrate through the central channel.

2. Possession and Build-up Play

The 4-2-3-1 formation is excellent for teams that aim to maintain possession and build up play from the back. The four distinct lines provide more options for short, sharp passes, facilitating smooth progression from defense to midfield and then to the attack.

3. Central Overloads

With five midfield players, teams can easily create central overloads, dominating possession by moving the ball quickly and efficiently.

4. Inverted Wingers

Using inverted wingers who are comfortable cutting inside gives you two big benefits. First, these players are likelier to score from far away by cutting in on their better foot. Second, by going towards the middle of the field, they make room for the fullbacks to join the attack and make runs that overlap to get behind the defense.

5. High-pressing Game

The 4-2-3-1 formation is ideal for teams that want to play a high-pressing game. The two central defensive midfielders provide a safety net, allowing the three attacking midfielders and the central striker to press the opposition’s back four aggressively.

6. Versatility

The 4-2-3-1 formation is highly versatile. It can easily transition into other formations such as 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 depending on the game’s flow, providing the team with tactical flexibility.

7. Counter-attacking Opportunities

The 4-2-3-1 formation is excellent for teams that thrive on counter-attacks. The three attacking midfielders can quickly join the lone striker during rapid transitions from defense to attack, creating numerical superiority against the opponent’s defense.

Also Read: Highest Scoring Soccer Game Ever Recorded – Explained by Soccer Coach

What Are the Weaknesses of a 4-2-3-1 Formation?

Despite its strengths, the 4-2-3-1 formation also has certain weaknesses:

4-2-3-1 formation weakness:

1. Difficulty in Breaking Down Low Blocks

Teams using the 4-2-3-1 formation may struggle to break down opponents that employ a low-block defensive strategy. With five midfield players operating in relatively central areas, it can be challenging to create enough width to penetrate well-organized defenses. Teams with discipline and organization in their defensive setup can take advantage of this significant 4-2-3-1 formation weakness.

2. Isolation of the Striker

In the 4-2-3-1 formation, the lone striker can often become isolated, making it difficult for them to find space to score, especially against two central defenders.

3. Dependence on Full-backs

The 4-2-3-1 formation strongly emphasises full-backs to join attacks and contribute creatively. This additional responsibility can be burdensome for players more comfortable in defensive roles.

Remember, the effectiveness of any formation depends on the players’ understanding of their roles and their ability to execute the tactics effectively. The 4-2-3-1 formation, with its balance of defensive solidity and attacking potential, continues to be a popular choice in modern football.

Also Read: Difference Between Soccer and Football Cleats? – Explained by Soccer Coach

What is the Best Formation to Counter the 4-2-3-1?

Many people think that the best way to beat the 4-2-3-1 formation is with the 4-3-3 formation. This setup lets a tight midfield trio take on the 4-2-3-1’s midfield duo and attacking midfielder. In the 4-3-3 formation, the wingers can use the room left by the other team’s fullbacks to attack.

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Which Coaches and Teams Have Used a 4-2-3-1?

1. Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur: 

Pochettino utilized the 4-2-3-1 formation effectively at Tottenham. Harry Kane was the lone striker, supported by Dele Alli as a dynamic number 10 who often ran beyond the centre-forward. To enable the double pivot burst through the opposition’s midfield, Christian Eriksen played either as a central number 10 or as one of the wide offensive midfielders.

2. Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich: 

During Bayern’s great Champions League season in 2019-20, Flick’s 4-2-3-1 formation worked especially well. Thomas Müller, who can play in different positions, gave crosses more of a presence in the box and switched with wide players Kingsley Coman, Ivan Perisic, and Serge Gnabry, who moved in towards the goal, to help Robert Lewandowski in the middle.

3. Pep Guardiola at Manchester City: 

Guardiola used a 4-2-3-1 formation at Manchester City more often in the 2020/21 season than in any other season he had been there before. Rodri and either Ilkay Gündogan or Fernandinho worked together to cover the room in front of the back four. City often attacked without a standard centre forward. Instead, a midfielder or winger would act as a false nine.

4. Gareth Southgate with England: 

Southgate has almost always chosen a double pivot with England. He has used a 4-2-3-1 formation at both Euro 2020 and the qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup. When both Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice were available, they made up the double pivot. Both were very good at connecting the back line with the creative midfield three and centre-forward Harry Kane, who often moved into the middle of the field.

Also Read: What is a Brace in Soccer? – Explained by Soccer Coach

How Should You Play Against a 4-2-3-1?

Several strategies can be employed to understand how to beat 4-2-3-1 formation.

When playing against a 4-2-3-1 formation, you need a plan. A midfield diamond or a 4-3-3 shape is a good way. By getting tight and letting the fullbacks provide width, these shapes let teams control the middle of the field and suffocate the other team’s midfielders. Wingers can launch attacks in a 4-3-3 formation by utilizing the space the opposing team’s fullbacks leave open. It’s also important to press the ball hard, which gives the other team’s defenders fewer choices, and to track back if the ball gets past them.

Here are some examples of teams that have beaten the 4-2-3-1 formation in recent years:

  • Liverpool vs. Barcelona (2019 Champions League semi-final): Liverpool used a high press to force Barcelona’s two central midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, into making mistakes. This led to Liverpool scoring two goals in the first half, and they went on to win the game 4-3 on aggregate.
  • Argentina vs. Brazil (2022 FIFA World Cup final): Argentina used their pace and movement to create chances against Brazil’s 4-2-3-1 formation. They were able to get in behind the Brazilian defense on a number of occasions, and they eventually won the game 4-2 on penalties.

These are just a few examples of how to beat 4-2-3-1 formation in soccer. The best way to beat it will depend on the specific strengths and weaknesses of the team that is playing against it.

Battle of the Soccer Formations: 4 2 3 1 Vs. All the Rest

The 4-2-3-1 formation is a fluid and balanced strategy that can adapt to various game scenarios. It offers a strong defense and a potent attack, making it a popular choice among many professional teams. However, how does it stack up against other formations?

4-2-3-1 Vs. 3-4-2-1 Formation 

The 3-4-2-1 formation offers unpredictability with its ability to change formations on the fly. 

4-2-3-1 Vs. 3-1-4-2 Formation

The 3-1-4-2 formation is more attack-oriented compared to the 4-2-3-1. While it offers better scoring opportunities against teams with a weak attack.

4-2-3-1 Vs. 4-1-2-3 Formation 

The 4-1-2-3 formation is a defensive variation of the 4-3-3 formation. While it has its strengths, the 4-2-3-1 formation is more balanced and can easily transition between attack and defense.

4-2-3-1 Vs. 4-2-1-3 Formation 

The 4-2-1-3 formation is similar to the 4-2-3-1 in the defensive third but is more attack-oriented upfront. 

Difference Between 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-1-3

The difference between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-2-1-3 is where the outside midfielders are placed. In the 4-2-3-1 system, the outside midfielders play next to the attacking central midfielder and a little further up the pitch than wingers.

In a 4-2-1-3 formation, the midfielders on the outside are more like standard wingers. They play wider and further forward, on both sides of the target in the middle. As a result, the 4-2-3-1 gives you more power in the middle of the field.

Summing Up on 4-2-3-1 Formation

If all of your players know how to play in the 4-2-3-1 formation, it could be the best way for your team to play football. It has a balanced, flexible structure that makes it easy to switch from offense to defense. But players must know and stick to their jobs for the whole game.

If used properly, it can be a good strategy for even the youngest football teams.

About the author


Hi I"m Aryan a pro soccer player, coach, and visionary in the world of soccer. With an impressive journey that began at the tender age of five, I have dedicated my life to the beautiful game.

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