In this formation analysis, we take a look at a playing shape of the 4-2-3-1. This shape is excellent for allowing your front players to express themselves and have freedom to create opportunities with movement and rotation in the opponents half of the pitch. The shape your team plays will always depend on the ability & qualities of your squad and also that of the oppositions strengths and weaknesses. These points are a guide to highlight the key areas of a 4-2-3-1 formation and give you an insight on how you can play it with your group of players.

What are the Strengths?

  • Create and overload in central areas of 5 players in midfield plus centre forward adding depth to play.
  • Exploit spaces between Full back and Centre backs of the opposition.
  • Defensive structure in defensive midfield to nullify transitional counter attacks against.
  • Width of the defensive line, should not exceed 40 yards.
  • Distances centrally from the next unit.
  • Slow down the opponents play with a compact defensive block.
  • Easily slip into a 4411 or 451 defensive structure.
  • The 4231 can be used to be compact with the aim of regaining possession in certain parts of the field to counter attack your opponent. 

What are the Weaknesses?

  • Facing an opponent with 2 Centre forwards, versus 2 Centre Backs.
  • Down the sides, particularly on quick switches of play.
  • Playing against more direct teams who bypass your overload.
  • Relying on the width of your full backs you risk leaving spaces behind them where centre half may need to go cover, stretching your defence.
  • Centre Forward becoming isolated and struggling to progress up the pitch.

In Possession – Attacking Build Up

This shape can help in the build up of play with the two midfielders being deployed to support the play, help switch the play, and also secure the initial attack. Certain Clubs deploy their full-backs in these central areas when building play, with their left/right of the 3 players providing the width, and the two central midfielders pushing on. With numbers centrally if the ball is needed to be played into more advanced areas, support would be there much quicker for the 2nd balls due to the compactness of numbers.

The 10 plays an important role in build up, playing off and often behind the opposition midfielders ‘in pockets’ of spaces. This causes decision making issues for the centre backs of whether to go in and engage or allow the space to receive and turn. The 10s role includes making forward runs in advance of the centre forward so their relationship and rotations again cause problems for the oppositions back line. The ’10’ or play maker as he is referred to in this system can be anyone or all of the 3 players playing off the centre forward.

Out of Possession – Defending Shape

Defending with 4 players is certainly more complete and can defend the width of the pitch more easily with the roles of the two players either side of the ‘3’ tracking oppositions full backs to help nullify overloaded situations against.The closer the ball is to the goal the shorter the distances between each player, certainly in central areas. If a full back must go out to defend wide areas, generally the remaining 3 defenders with position themselves within the width of the goal frame, the nearest central midfielder will cover the full back.Central areas can form a defensive block to setup transitional counter attacking situations from high or deeper.

Transitional Moments

The system benefits defending slightly deeper to counter attack as the defensive block that can be set up in the structure brings the opposition into tighter more compact spaces, with an increased chance of interception and breaking on opponents. It can also be utilised for a high press, particularly showing opponents into traps set up centrally. The risk in this is playing an opponent comfortable on the ball and timings of pressure not purposeful, this allowing the opposition to switch the play. Upon losing possession the structure should hold strength in central areas with good discipline from the two ‘holding’ midfielders.

Types of Players

  • Defensive and disciplined central midfielders who support and distribute the play well
  • Full backs who have athleticism to support attacks high and the ability to defend 1v1
  • Advanced midfielders who are able to handle the ball between the lines, have a good sense of spacial awareness, and posses real pace to create problems on the counter attack and with forward runs in advance of the central striker. Confident and controlled ability to also be patient when in possession.
  • Centre forward who can hold up the play, move well off shoulders to create spaces for themselves or from deeper runs.
  • Centre backs comfortable in not only building the play, but being destructive defensively and able to read the play. Able to cover wider spaces in 1v1s on the transitions.