The 4-2-3-1 is perhaps one of the most widely used formations in football today. Notable proponents of the system include Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, and Jose Mourinho at Tottenham Hotspur. This formation is incredibly flexible and offers managers a nice balance between defence and attack.
The modern-day 4-2-3-1 was first deployed back in 1970 by the Brazilian national team manager Mario Zagallo. The 1970 World Cup was to be the first of many triumphs for the 4-2-3-1 formation; Selecao went on to win the tournament, beating Italy 4-1 in the final.
Despite Zagallo’s early successes with the system, it is current Manchester City assistant, Juan Manuel Lillo, who is largely credited with pioneering the 4-2-3-1 formation as we know it today.
Having begun coaching at just 16, Lillo holds the record for the youngest coach to gain Spain’s national coaching badge. He first used the 4-2-3-1 during his time managing Spanish Segunda Divisón side Cultural Leonesa in the early 1990s. His preference for the 4-2-3-1 formation stems from its distribution of players. Within the system, players are distributed across four latitudinal lines – which, he argues, makes it the most favourable formation for both pressing and passing.
Another notable proponent of the 4-2-3-1 is Jurgen Klopp. Although the German manager has tended to prefer a traditional 4-3-3 in recent seasons, it is the 4-2-3-1 that he has to thank for his early successes at Borussia Dortmund. In his early days at the Westfalenstadion, Klopp favoured a more traditional counterattacking style of play, however once he had built his team, he began to experiment with more of a possession-based system; this eventually resulted in him shifting to the 4-3-3 he uses today.
Under the auspices of the 4-2-3-1, Klopp managed Dortmund to 2 Bundesliga titles, 1 DFB Pokal and a Champions League final in 2013.
Jose Mourinho first began using the 4-2-3-1 formation when he joined Real Madrid in 2010. Prior to his arrival in Madrid, he had made use of the 4-3-3 at Porto and Chelsea, before having success with the 4-2-1-3 at Inter Milan. Although he is yet to win the Champions League using the 4-2-3-1 formation, he has had considerable success with this system at both Manchester United and Real Madrid. Since joining Tottenham in 2019, Mourinho has experimented with various formations, but has recently reconciled with the 4-2-3-1 and looks to be building some serious momentum.
Using five midfielders could be considered too negative for many attack-minded managers. The likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola will only deploy the 4-2-3-1 on a ad-hoc basis. However, it is greatly suited to those teams that don’t have the strongest defensive pairing. The two holding midfielders provide suitable insurance.
This system is also suited to teams that are keen to use their lightening quick forwards to play counterattacking football.
The positioning of players is also of great use to managers who wish to play possession-based football.
All in all, the flexibility of the 4-2-3-1 goes a long way to explaining its ubiquity within modern-day football.
Five midfielders are used within the 4-2-3-1 which makes it very difficult to be overran in midfield. The three advanced midfielders are multi-functional; they must have the flexibility to be able to drop deep into the midfield third in order to create numerical superiority. By placing four players – three attacking midfielders plus a striker – in the attacking third, the team is ideally positioned to press the opponents and win possession high up the field in dangerous areas.
As previously mentioned, the positioning of players in the 4-2-3-1 lends itself to possession-based football. Naturally, when lining up in this formation, multiple angles are created, meaning there’s ample ‘passing lanes’ for the person on the ball. The two deep-lying midfielders automatically form a triangle with the more advanced midfielder, thereby allowing the player on the ball to have at least two midfield passing options.
The 4-2-3-1 can provide a strong defensive platform through the middle of the pitch. This is very effective for screening a vulnerable central partnership.
Manchester United as a case study
Maguire and Lindelöf are not the most formidable defensive duo; this is perhaps why Solskjaer likes to play two defence-minded midfielders just in front of them. Counterattacks are at their most dangerous through the middle of the pitch. If you have an effective mechanism for stopping those attacks, i.e., a robust double-pivot, it reduces the risk of being countered and leaving slow defenders like Lindelöf and Maguire exposed.
The 4-2-3-1 employs four players whose primary function is to carry out attacking duties. This gives the team a variety of attacking talent and can help achieve numerical advantages in key areas of the field; it also facilitates the inclusion of the much-maligned number 10. As football has evolved, there’s been increasing scepticism surrounding the traditional playmaker. Players such as Özil, who were once deemed a creative necessity, have been banished to the side lines. This can produce a creativity vacuum. A 4-2-3-1 system provides a platform for numbers 10s to remain a focal point of the team, providing they are willing to fulfil their defensive duties.
Every formation has its drawbacks – and the 4-2-3-1 is no exception. When an advantage is gained in one area, it is usually surrendered in another.
Depending on the opponent, and how attack-minded the manager employing the system is, it could be argued that the 4-2-3-1 can result in a loss of balance. The system leaves just two midfielders to cover the entire defensive central line. It is for this reason the number 10 must be diligent and possess good endurance; if this isn’t the case, opposing teams playing with a traditional 4-3-3 can create a numerical advantage in an area of the field that is often described as “where the game is won and lost.”
Many attacks begin in wide areas. If the wide attacking midfielders fail to carry out their defensive duties, a large gap is often left between themselves and their full back. The full back then becomes isolated and exposed, which forces deep-lying midfielders wide and out of position, leaving the team susceptible to a switch of play, or worse, an attack through the middle of the pitch.
As previously mentioned, some attacking managers may find a double-pivot too conservative. If the 4-2-3-1 comes up against a low block, a double-pivot does little to help work an opening in the opposition’s defensive line. A great deal of attacking responsibility is instead placed on the number 10.
A lack of midfield variety can also be apparent within the 4-2-3-1 system. When playing a double-pivot, you will often have two players with similar attributes. Ideally you want each of your midfielders to bring something different to the table.
Due to the defensive nature of the system, physical exertion can become a problem within the 4-2-3-1 formation. There’s a responsibility for the attacking midfielders to both press the opposition and track back. Defensive midfielders are required to join the the attack if the number 10 is having difficulty breaking down the opposition’s defence. The result is plenty of interchanging of positions, however, this can come at a physical cost.
It is worth noting that physical concerns are not necessarily solely a symptom of the 4-2-3-1 formation, but instead more likely to occur due to a combination of the system and the present nature of the game.
The popularity of the 4-2-3-1 formation in modern football is largely down to the amount of flexibility it provides managers with. This is why we see it used by a variety of managers with varying philosophies. The 4-2-3-1’s sister formation, the 4-3-3, is slightly more popular and is perhaps more suitable to teams looking to dominate and control the game.