The Fuss about the 4-2-3-1

So what’s this fuss about 4-2-3-1? Why do people think that a formation can change the fortune of a team like England.Well the most widely used formation in international football is 4-2-3-1 and the top clubs in Europe have been using variations of 4-2-3-1 over the past decade,except of course the English clubs until recently,preferred the classic 4-4-2.In a tactical sense, England is way behind Spain as the Spaniards adopted the 4-2-3-1 as early as 2000.  English pundits still regard playing 5 in midfield as defensive and is not looked upon kindly in the Premier League.
4-2-3-1(Red) Vs 4-4-2(Blue)

The Evolution
The trend of making their second striker as the play maker emerged in the 1986 world cup,the most famous example being Maradona himself. Once more and more teams started adopting this– the coming of 4-2-3-1 was inevitable.  So then teams played a holding mid player to pick up the playmaker and the striker up lone used to drift into wide areas,leaving space in the middle,so to prevent that there were two holding midfield players and there was born the Double Pivot. And slowly but surely teams realised the importance of having possession and not being over run in the midfield and many turned to the 4-2-3-1.  Of course every manager and every team had their own interpretations of this system.
The Double Pivot
The efficiency and the compactness that the double pivot provides makes it vital to have in the modern game. The double pivot actually is the usage of two holding mid-fielders in front of the defence.  One generally more creative than the other and is termed as the “Deep Lying  Playmaker“.  All the 4 semifinalists at the 2010 World Cup used the double pivot.  Spain,Holland and Germany all made their own interpretations of the 4-2-3-1 whereas Uruguay played with a classic 4-4-2 but unlike England whose Central Midfielders had to go forward and support their strikers,the Uruguayan central midfielders stayed back and acted as a double pivot.  This statistic shows the importance of the double pivot and it is here to stay in the modern game.  Actually the use of double pivot depends lot on the two players involved as in a double pivot each player doesn’t have a definite role, either of them can stay back and either of them can make a forward run depending on the situation.  But the roles may vary from team to team.
Real Madrid:
Xabi Alonso-Deep Lying Playmaker
Sami Khedira-Defensive Mid
The Netherlands:
Van Bommel & De Jong-Both Defensive Mids
Song & Wilshere-Both box to box midfielders
The most important role and generally the best player is the attacking midfielder or the advanced playmaker.He has to have great vision,creativity,the ability to see a pass and generally should have a good finish too.Wesley Sneijder(Netherlands,Inter), Xavi(Spain), Fabregas(Arsenal), Ozil(Madrid,Germany) are accomplished players who perform this role effectively.There are two important tactical points to be noted here
  1. The CAM, because he plays between the lines or as one can say between the defense and the midfield, can get the opposition into a conundrum.  He drags either a center back or one of the pivots from out of his position.
  2. If the CAM drops deep then it helps the team to retain posssession which is what one has to do when playing teams like Barcelona,this also prevents your midfield from getting overrun.
The False 10
We all know about the false 9(a striker who drops deep to create space for other players to exploit),but in the World Cup there emerged a new tactic-the false 10.  The false 10′s break forward from deeper parts of the pitch to exploit the gaps created in the opposition defence by the false nine’s movement. Sneijder,Ozil and Keisuke Honda perfomed this role quite admirably.  But the man who is master of this role is Lionel Messi for Argentina(By the way he is an excellent false 9 for Barcelona).

Wesley Sneijder’s average position in the game against Denmark

Mesut Ozil’s average position against Australia
As you can see both Ozil and Sneijder’s positions are quite same as their striker’s, so this proves the theory of the false 10.
Variations of the 4-2-3-1
There have been a number of variations of the 4-2-3-1 by manager of various clubs and international sides.  Lets look at some of them.
The Strikerless formation
The strikerless formation or the 4-6-0 was perfected by Sir Alex Ferguson in the 2007-08 season, here the front three i.e Rooney,Ronaldo and Tevez used to drop into midifield and then depending on the situation took turns to play as the striker.  The ability of all the three player to either play on the wings or up front meant that SAF could use this tactic to a great effect.  Although United used it to great effect and won the Double that season,  Roma under  were the ones who initially perfected it.
Dunga’s 4-2-3-1
Dunga’s Brazil was not very popular back home,as they were looked up as a defensive minded unit not playing the samba-style football their fans are used to seeing.  Europeans viewed Brazil’s formation as a 4-2-3-1 with Gilberto and Melo as the pivots, Ramires(or Elano),Kaka and Robinho supporting the lone forward Luis Fabiano.But the Brazilians insisted on describing their system as a diamond.  They saw Gilberto as the base,Melo on the left and Ramires on the right as carrileros (the shuttlers on both the edges of the diamond),Kaka as the tip of the diamond(Play  maker) and Robinho as the second striker.As we can see below both the views are correct.

The diamond as the South Americans see it

The 4-2-3-1 as the Europeans view it
Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1
Jose Mourinho adopts a defensive approach in his 4-2-3-1(Real Madrid,Inter) by using 2 holding midfielders and basing the attack on a disciplined counter attack.  He used it to great effect at Inter and it a work in progress at Real.
How does one play against the 4-2-3-1?
The easiest way to play against a side playing 4-2-3-1 would be to play 4-2-3-1 ourselves.  But if the opposition is of higher quality then we would stand no chance.The W-W formation is an effective way to combat the 4-2-3-1.The W-W which Barcelona have mastered recently was actually used in the 1930s, as they say history does repeat itself.

The W-W formation
Whatever the tactical system is the players who are on the pitch have to perform,but having said this the modern game is increasingly being played out in the mind especially the internationals where the difference in the quality of teams is minute.

10 Responses

  1. I don’t know why, but I get so excited by formations, and what each player’s job is in them.

    Sir Alex is doing an excellent job with Rooney in the “Sneijder” role. Hopefully it all pays off in the final.

  2. Yeah, good question from Jude. How exactly does the WW formation combat the 4-2-3-1? Thanks.

    Great article by the way!

  3. actually i didnt mention how the ww combats the 4-2-3-1
    in the w-w u will have 2 cb’s marshalling the striker so only one of them will be dragged out of position
    the wing baks join the def mid and this can take care of the attacking mid as well as the winger
    the main drwaback of 4-2-3-1 is ur playmaker can get suffocated by 2 good holding mids(Ozil-alonso,busquets)but in w-w u have 2 attacking mids
    one example for w-w’s success is of course barcelona.

  4. i think the the playmaker in the tip of the diamond can be substituted by a “trequartista”….rooney is more of this a false 10..4-2-3-1 is van basten’s favourite as he implemented it in euro 2008!excellent article…

  5. It’s a nice article, could definitely expand on the stuff at the end about how the 4-2-3-1 can be countered. It’s a good formation for dominating possession, because the double pivot and the 3 in midfield offers a lot of good passing angles, but Andre Villas Boas has written about the benefits of the Christmas tree in counteracting it:

    The 4-2-3-1 (in yellow) only has space in the full-back areas, but the 4-3-2-1’s (green) LCM and RCM are likely to be defensively capable, and able to pull wide to counter them. The Christmas tree allows the team in green to overload the yellows in all areas of the pitch – the two attacking midfielders plus the forward can outnumber the two centre-backs in a quick counter attack, the attacking midfielders can drop goalside of the yellows’ DMs or the wide CMs can tuck in to form a midfield 4 or 5, while still retaining a spare man at the back. It also allows the green team to use two creative attacking players, which makes it more difficult for the yellows to stem their creativity.

    But, ultimately, the amount of space it tends to allow to the yellow full-backs is too much for most managers – it means the 4-2-3-1 will always have an out-ball which the greens don’t.

    Sorry for the ramble, wasn’t intending to write that much! Keep up the good work.

  6. didnt know much about the christmas tree,well thanks for explaining that
    read my previous comments i have explained how the w-w counters the 4-2-3-1 and barca are a famous example!

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