The Perfect Defensive System #2 – The 4-2-3-1

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The 4-2-3-1, a variation of 4-5-1, with two holding midfield players that provide protection to the back four without the ball, but help with build-up play and circulation when in possession. The simple principle of having two holding midfielders itself implies of a set up that is more structured without the ball.
Back 4 Protection

The above photo shows how the two defensive midfielders allow no space between themselves and the defensive line as well as the next midfield line, making it hard for the opposition to play through the middle, a system which City attempt to play. There’s no doubt that with strengths in the middle, the flanks must be the area to exploit. If the wingers are high, movements from the opposition winger moving off their full back to receive the ball can be exploited and  therefore requires understanding from the wide players to close the space between him and his full back. Here Ramires is used to provide support as City use an ‘inverted winger’The double pivot also means Luiz is close enough to deal with Silva, should he advance all the way inside.
Below screenshot shows Hazard who is too high and that there is room to exploit. As Dzeko moves wide, as one striker of a partnership frequently does to look for combinations, one of the double pivots is able to follow the movement of this player and the other is able to cover the space left, where an advancing midfielder or inside winger could easily exploit.

Although Silva is in-between the lines, Matic is blocking off the passing lane into Silva and Luiz is able to press if Manchester City are able to work it into him through Dzeko.


This point about dealing with a number 10 as he moves towards a wide area as well as covering the space left is an important positive that the double pivot brings. If a team choses the single holding midfielder to mark a number 10, then the movement they make into wide areas will create easy overloads and possible penetration with 3v2 if the pivot chooses to cover the space. Following the movement of the 10 leaves space between the lines for an advancing midfielder or an inverted winger to exploit. The use of two deeper midfielders means both areas are able to be covered and that the back four is protected despite various movements in the final third in an attempt to penetrate, especially if there is little space between these units.
Below screenshot shows how once Gundogan breaks the first midfield line, Martinez is able to block off the pass to the wide player moving inside, and Schweinsteiger is able to block off the pass into the number 10 whilst both are able to be put pressure on the ball should he advance further.
There is a frequent discussion about Zone 14 and how its use is beneficial to goal scoring and creating chances, and correct use of the two holding players is able to limit the space in this area, when playing against two strikers, a number 10, a winger moving inside or third man run from a midfield.


In recent years, the role of the full back has changed dramatically. Constantly teams will push one if not two full backs beyond their wingers who cover the space outside if the wide player moves inside No doubt this helps to get greater numbers forward in attack but obviously leaves space to exploit on transition, something the use of the double pivot can help to cover.
Below Schweinsteiger is in a position to support Lahm in terms of keeping possession but also to cover the space in transition. As a Ribery pass is intercepted, he is able to follow Reus’ movement into the space left by Lahm, and Martinez who is just out of shot is able to press Großkreutz who carries the ball out as he is covering the space in the middle.


Below, Martinez is marking tight, as the ball is passed to Reus. Schweinsteiger can now press whilst covering the space down the right side as delaying the attack allows Lahm to recover. The only issue here is that the left back also looks to attack and leaves some space behind him as Bayern try to recover to their original shape.


The attacking three
The roles of the midfield three can vary, but require the ability to cover a lot of ground, as on transition the wide players need to close the distance between themselves and their closest fullback. There was a lot of praise towards the end of the 12/13 season for the roles of Ribery and Robben with Jupp Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1 and their ability to support their team without the ball.
At the beginning of the 13/14 season, Mourinho faced criticism for his preference of Oscar over Mata in this shape at Chelsea, and in an interview after the Fulham game, outlined the roles of this three in regard to the defensive set up of the team.
In a counter-attacking system using a mid-low block, the number 10’s defensive responsibilities are helped by playing two defensive minded wingers and using two lines of four, limiting the space between the lines and in behind to limit penetration. This changes when using a high press, and more work is required from the number 10 as they are required to disrupt play and press the single or double pivot out of possession, something he favoured Oscar’s ability to do over Mata.
As a personal opinion, the 4-2-3-1 offers the best defensive set up, with the double pivot perfectly complimenting modern trends for when a team have possession in preparation for a negative transition but also for their ability to protect zone 14 when out of possession by dealing with various attacking movements. There can be weaknesses, if the double pivot is too far apart then there can be space for the opposition 10, and if the wingers don’t fulfil defensive responsibilities then there is space where the opposition winger can receive the ball in, and can attack the full back 1v1. Despite these points, the system is effective in a mid-low block, even if this is reactive to the opposition.
-Jack Radusin

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