The 4-2-3-1 soccer formation is one of the most widely utilized formations in soccer today, with clubs and international teams regularly utilizing it in their quest for glory. While it is seen less in youth soccer, when the 4-2-3-1 soccer formation is used correctly, it can be an effective strategy for even the youngest of soccer teams.
In this guide, we will explain what the 4-2-3-1 soccer formation is, how to set it up, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the 4-2-3-1 formation. We’ll also highlight the best formation to counter the 4-2-3-1, so no matter whether you’re playing a 4-2-3-1 or playing against this formation, we’ve got you covered!
What Is The 4-2-3-1 Soccer Formation?
The 4-2-3-1 formation in soccer consists of 4 distinct lines or units. The defense is made up of a traditional back 4 with two central defenders and a left and right fullback. Ahead of the defense are two central defensive midfielder players. Further up the field, an attacking central midfielder is flanked by two outside midfielders on the left and right. These three attacking midfielder players operate behind a lone, central striker (otherwise known as a number 9).
There are several characteristics of the 4-2-3-1 formation that are relatively unique and worth mentioning. Firstly, the formation has four distinct lines rather than three (such as in the 4-3-3). Secondly, the 4-2-3-1 always has two central defensive midfield players. These are sometimes referred to as a ‘double pivot’. Thirdly, the outside left and right midfielders usually operate a little further in field compared to traditional wingers. In fact, quite often, a coach will select players to play on the opposite side to that of their strongest foot to encourage them to go inside more. When this happens, these players are referred to as ‘inverted wingers.’
What Is The Difference Between 4-2-3-1 And 4-2-1-3?
The difference between the 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-1-3 formations lies in the placement of the outside midfielders. In the 4-2-3-1 formation, the outside midfielders flank the attacking central midfielder. They also play a little further in field (more central) than regular wingers. In a 4-2-1-3, the outside midfielders are more aptly described as traditional wingers. They play wider and further forward, flanking the central striker. As such, the 4-2-3-1 offers more strength in the middle of the park, which is why it tends to be utilized a lot more frequently.
4-2-3-1 Formation Strengths And Weaknesses
A key strength of the 4-2-3-1 formation is the defensive stability and balance that the formation brings. Having two central defensive midfield players in front of the back 4 gives a team maximum strength in key central areas and ensures opponents will have difficulty breaking the team down and attacking in the central channel.
The 4-2-3-1 soccer formation is also excellent for teams that want to possess the ball and build out from the back. By having four distinct lines rather than three (such as in the 4-3-3), the formation provides more options for players to play short, sharp passes as they try to progress from defense to midfield and then to the attack.
As the team moves forward, utilizing five midfield players also makes it easier for teams to create central overloads and dominate possession by triangulating and moving the ball quickly.
On the flanks, the presence of inverted wingers/outside midfielders that are comfortable cutting inside provides two great opportunities;
- These players are more likely to score from wide areas by cutting in on their stronger foot;
- By tucking in and playing more centrally, they also create space for full-backs to join in the attack and make overlapping runs to get behind the defense.
Another strength of the 4-2-3-1 formation is that it is great for teams wanting to play a high-pressing game and stop their opponents from building out from the back. With the presence of two central defensive midfielders, the three attacking midfielders and central striker are free to go ‘man to man’ on the opposition’s back 4, making it more likely to unsettle the opponent’s defense and win the ball back close to their goal.
Like all soccer formations, the 4-2-3-1 is not without its weaknesses. One of the most common problems teams have when playing this formation is that breaking down opponents that play in a low block can be difficult. With five midfield players operating in relatively central areas, 4-2-3-1 playing teams can struggle to create enough width to break down well-organized back lines.
In addition to this, in the 4-2-3-1 formation, it is easy for the lone striker to become isolated. This makes it particularly difficult for the striker to find space to score, especially when playing against two central defenders.
Another key weakness of the 4-2-3-1 formation is that there is a strong requirement for full-backs to get forward, join attacks, and be creative forces in their teams. As most defenders are usually more comfortable defending, this extra responsibility can prove a burden for players not comfortable in forward positions with the ball at their feet.
What Is The Best Formation To Counter The 4-2-3-1?
The best formation to counter the 4-2-3-1 is a traditional 4-3-3. In a 4-3-3 formation, a team can leave three players high up the field in attack, which means at least one (or possibly both) of the 4-2-3-1 playing team’s full-backs have to stay back and focus on defense. By nullifying the opponent’s full-backs, a 4-3-3 playing team can then soak up pressure by staying organized and compact before playing the ball forward and attacking in numbers.
What Teams Use The 4-2-3-1 Formation?
The 4-2-3-1 is one of the most widely used soccer formations in the modern game, with many teams alternating using the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3, depending on the setup and level of their opponent. Below are some of the most famous examples of teams that have utilized this formation in the last few years.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City
During Manchester City’s 2020/21 title-winning season, Pep Guardiola utilized the 4-2-3-1 formation more than at any other time in his career. By utilizing two top-class central defensive midfielders in the form of Fernandinho and Rodri, Pep was able to give more attacking freedom to his forward players. With full-backs Kyle Walker and Jaoa Cancelo more than capable of providing width in attack, this Manchester City team was, at times, completely unplayable.
Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United
Although still only six months into his reign as Manchester United manager, the Dutch disciplinarian is already putting his mark on the club. With the addition of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen to the ranks, Machester United’s midfield is starting to look like a force to be reckoned with. Ten Hag utilizes a slight variation of the 4-2-3-1 with a lopsided triangle in midfield. Also, Casemiro plays slightly deeper than Cristian Eriksen, who in turn plays behind the attacking midfielder and playmaker Bruno Fernandes.
More Formation Guides
One of the things that makes soccer such a fascinating sport to watch, coach, and play, is the variety of tactics and formations that can be utilized to maximize a team’s chances of winning on the day. Before you go, be sure to check out some of our other formation guides below to see the strengths and weaknesses of each of these formations and how teams are using these to up their game.