Fundamentals of the 4

The tactics column looks at the 4-2-3-1 formation và how it has become almost the standard in modern football because of its balance and flexibility.

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The 4-2-3-1 splits players into four bands. The defensive unit consists of the standard centre-backs và full-backs & two defensive midfielders screening them, often called the ‘double pivot".

The attacking unit consists of a band of three attacking midfielders & a lone central striker. The wide midfielders are generally fast dribblers who like to cut inside or make runs into the box. The attacking central midfielder, often the ‘No. 10", is normally a creative passer who can play balls into the feet of either the wide attackers or the lone striker.


A good 4-2-3-1 is a formation that has a wonderful ‘springy" chất lượng - it absorbs pressure without breaking và then snaps back with surprising force.

In defence the 4-2-3-1 covers space very effectively, with the band of three & the lone striker able lớn press the opposition high up the pitch while the two defensive midfielders ensure that there is no space left in front of the defence. Then the back four can either play a high line, compressing the space even further, or drop deeper as preferred.

Video analysis: Jose Mourinho"s 2014-15 blue wall at Chelsea

Chelsea were dominant in 2014-15 as Nemanja Matic và one of Cesc Fabregas or John Obi Mikel formed a stable ‘double pivot" at the base of the Chelsea midfield to lớn release the attacking unit of Hazard, Oscar, Willian và Costa up top.

This Sky Sports analysis of their December năm trước win over Stoke đô thị shows how Jose Mourinho set-up Matic & Mikel khổng lồ win the ball in midfield & then release the attackers. A good example of the 4-2-3-1"s flexibility as Mourinho opted for a more defensive double pivot against a physical side.

Once the ball is won back, often by the defensive midfielders, the 4-2-3-1 can spring into attack.

The full-backs can surge up the wings in the knowledge that the defensive midfielders can drop into the space left behind if needed. As they come up the wings, the wide attackers come inside và they tend to lớn be fast dribblers who look lớn get into the box. The attacking central midfielder, often the ‘No. 10" who is the most creative player on the team will look to play them or the lone striker in via fast passing combinations.

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Video analysis: Arsenal"s attacking 4-2-3-1 destroys Manchester United

Arsene Wenger loves an attacking midfielder & the combination of Theo Walcott as a lone striker, supported from left to right by Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil và Aaron Ramsay ripped Manchester United apart inside đôi mươi minutes in October năm ngoái with their rapid passing combinations.

Note for the first goal how first Hector Bellerin provided width from the full-back position but lost the ball và then Francis Coquelin, playing as one of the two defensive midfielders, won it back behind him to continue the attack. A perfect demonstration of the how the 4-2-3-1 covers space.

If the rapid attack fails, the 4-2-3-1 is well set-up to either retain possession, with a large number of passing triangles naturally formed by its four bands of players, or khổng lồ press & regain the ball quickly.


While at its best the 4-2-3-1 is a masterpiece of flexibility, when played poorly it can be slow và cumbersome.

If the midfield bands are forced back & compressed into a 4-5-1, the striker can be left isolated with very little support. The full-backs, key to modern attacking football, can also be trapped behind their midfield line.

Or the opposite may happen, where the attacking band of midfielders neglect lớn track back và help their full-backs, allowing opposition wide players khổng lồ overload the defence. This is similar to lớn the possible problems in a 4-3-3, if the attacking wide players forget their duty lớn help the team when out of possession. However it can be even more pronounced as the two defensive midfielders are left with a huge amount of the pitch to cover.

Video Anaylsis: Chelsea"s 2015-16 nightmare

After dominating the Premier League one season in the 4-2-3-1, Jose Mourinho và Chelsea had a horrific start khổng lồ the season with the same formation. The most obvious problem was the failure of their defensive midfield to cover their back four, as they were left isolated by the attacking band of midfielders - as analysed in this Sky Sports clip of their 3-1 loss to lớn Liverpool.

How the 4-2-3-1 took over the world

Juanma Lillo, former Real Sociedad coach, is generally accepted lớn have been the first khổng lồ consciously use the 4-2-3-1 in pursuit of the best distribution of players across the pitch to achieve two key aims - possession & pressing, retaining the ball & regaining it quickly.

Since its adoption by many teams in Spain in the 1990s it spread rapidly in the early 2000s as detailed by Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian here. The switch from a 4-4-2 is relatively easy - one striker drops back to become the creative, attacking midfielder, the wingers push forwards & instead of staying out wide & putting in crosses they become dribbling attackers and the central midfielders drop deeper to lớn make the ‘double pivot".

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Since then the extraordinary success of Pep Guardiola"s 4-3-3 ´tiki-taka" at Barcelona (see my analysis of the 4-3-3 featuring that team here) has provided an alternative khổng lồ the 4-2-3-1 but the principles that Guardiola adheres khổng lồ - retain the ball và regain it quickly when lost - are the same identified by Lillo and for teams which want to achieve those aims while also having flexibility the 4-2-3-1 is still the most popular choice.

More articles in the Football Tactics Basics series can be found here: