The basics of the 4-2-3-1 football formation

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By now you most have acknowledged the importance of formations and systems in football and you are itching to know more about them, How they work ? what are their requirements ? what’s the difference between them ?

In today’s article we are going to tackle one of the most ancient formations in the history of football as it was used by Mario Zagalo when coaching The Brazilian National team in 1970.

In the recent years this formation is still used by Spanish, Germans and French sides and on an international level by the Belgian,French, Dutch and German national teams in an asymmetric shape.

Overview of the system

Having five players in the midfield procures to this system a wide range of flexibility and allows the team using it to attack with leaving spaces for the opposition to counter

While attacking, The four players in front of the two central midfielders enables various attack patterns when properly used, The shape of the placement of the players in the field guaranties multiple passing possibilities and the possibility to overwhelm the defence of the opposition by the number of attackers

 Due to its versatility, teams using the same system will be experiencing different patterns throughout the game


To implement this formation the coach has to have in his arsenal some ingredients to guarantee the stability and the efficiency of the formation

  • Disciplined central midfielders who can drop in and cover the fullbacks
  • Fit and speedy fullbacks who can get forward and support the attack while also winning their personal battle against the opposition’s winger.
  • An effective striker up front who converts any opportunities that fall their way.
  • Interchanging movement from the players behind the striker. The team’s creativity going forward stems primarily from these three players.
  • Disciplined attacking players who track back and do not neglect their defensive duties.
  • Chemistry up front from the attacking player


As a coach why should I use this formation from the multiple choices that i have in the multiverse ?

Well this formation sure has some clear advantages over the other formations and if implemented correctly it can be an unbeatable system to roll by

We resume the strengths of this system in the 5 points below

  • A solid spine to the team : The two central defenders with the two midfielders in front of them are the backbone of the team,
  • Passing angles and triangles : The spread out nature of the formation allows for a number of triangles to develop around the pitch,
  • Balance : The way the formation is set up means that the team can be both a potent force going forward and a solid unit at the back,
  • numerical advantage  :As the front players have quite a lot of flexibility in terms of where they end up, they can easily overload the opposition’s defence in different areas.
  • Central midfielders :By sitting back and covering the forward players, the two central midfielders help the team to attack.


As every creation on earth this formation has also its kryptonite 😦

But don’t worry, every formation has weaknesses and the great coach is one that knows both strengths and weaknesses of the system he is going to use

we know you’ll be a great coach and we are going to give you all the preliminary knowledge you need to asses this formation

The problems that any coach will face using the 4-2-3-1 formation can be resumed in the points below

  • Pressure on the fullbacks : the majority of the opposition’s attacks will come down the wings. If the team’s winger does not track back, then the fullback is often left 1-v-1s versus the opponent’s winger,
  • Space between the midfield and defence : The central midfielders need to be very careful and make sure that they do not leave too much space behind them,
  • The team needs a clinical striker :As they should always be in or around the box when the team attacks, this player is crucial for the formation to be a success
  • Players need to track back : The midfielders all need to drop when they don’t have the ball. This reduces the opposition’s space and prevents them from overloading different areas.

Without any delays let’s dive right into the action and get to know the duties of the players in this masterpiece of a football formation


What to expect from your starting eleven

The Goalkeeper

A goalkeeper role in this formation is to keep a clean sheet and be confident taking back crosses. The density in the middle created by the two CDMs and the two full backs will drive the opposition to concentrate on attacking using the wings.

The goalkeeper should be agile and a good communicator, as he is tasked with guiding his defence and help them close gaps and spaces that the opposition can exploit.

As the team pushes forward he must stand guard at the edge of the penalty area and should not lose focus when his team has the ball, which will be the case most of the time, so he can clear balls played behind his defence line back.

The central defenders

The danger will mainly be brought from the wings.The defenders should be able to read and clear crosses whether it’s at head level or foot level.

Due to the constant offensive help that the fullbacks provides to the team when attacking, it is the role of the central defenders to cover for them whenever they move forward.

The whole defence should work in unison to keep their clean-sheet. a good Communication skills are demanded from the defenders and the midfielders to cover for each other. For example, if a central defender desert his post to cover for the fullback he must coordinate with the CDM and the other centre back to shift their positions following him to seal the space created by his movement.

In the 4-2-3-1 formation the centre-backs should be well-protected by the midfielders in front of them. However, they need to make sure that the midfielders do not drop too deep or push too far forward.

The fullbacks

As we mentioned earlier, the oppositions attack will be mainly concentrated on the wings. So the fullbacks will have their hands full pretty much the whole time

The fullbacks need to have the upper hand over the opposition wingers and always prevent them form crossing the ball to the penalty area.

A good positioning skills are need to drive away danger, they should be good at reading the gameplay and decide whether they should go get the ball from the opposition at the wing or drop back to the penalty area to prevent 3v2 situations in the box.

They should be good on the ball, decent dribblers, and be able to deliver a dangerous ball into the box. It is their movement both on and off the ball that provides the forwards on their side of the pitch with space within which to play.

They should be extremely to dominate their flank both in attack and defence the whole 90 minutes.

By staying wide they give more space to the midfielders to get the ball to the opposition’s danger area. Advertisements


The central midfielders

The 4-2-3-1 football formation aim at bossing the game and maintaining an equilibrium while attacking.

The two central midfielders in front of the defence have a responsibility of compressing the space in front of the goalkeeper.

They should maintain the distance between them and the line of defence. They should not drop too deep to keep from isolating the forwards and they shouldn’t stray too high and expose the defenders.

They have a responsibility of covering for the fullbacks when they go up and leave spaces behind them.

The two central midfielders selected will vary in their abilities depending on how the coach likes to line up. One of them will nearly always be a specialised holding defensive midfielder. If playing an attack-minded team, the other one may also be a defensive player.

Regardless of their role on the pitch the two central midfielders should be able to move the ball form the defence to the forwards in front of them. Basically, their passing skill and their understanding of the game should be top notch.

The forwards

In the 4-2-3-1 football formation the three forwards open the room for a multitude of variations depending on the players the coach has in his arsenal. He can align fast players to stay out and widen the field or creative players to move in the space between the lines.

The combinations possible between the three forwards, the striker and the pushing fullbacks are endless. You can play wide and deliver crosses to the players in the box or combine with the striker and push from the middle. It all depends on the qualities on your team.

The three players have the responsibilities of creating dangerous situations and scoring goals. Using the freedom they have in the final third and the possibilities they have with the ball it is extremely difficult to counter them.

The numerical superiority guaranteed by the players in the final third make it possible for the team to create 2v1 situation all over the pitch. If used correctly the passing lanes and the triangles created by the movements of the three forwards make for a fluid and fast movement of the ball from the midfield to the penalty box of the opposition.

The central attacking midfielder is often the playmaker of the team and, as well as creating chances, needs to offer a potent attacking threat in the opposition’s box. Like the other forwards, they are at times expected to push on past the striker and use their movement and skills to create space and opportunities for their teammates to exploit.

When the team loses the ball the front three are expected to act as the first shield protecting the goalkeeper. The number of attacking players in the final third associated with an intense pressing strategy will force the opposition to make a mistake or play the ball long.

The striker

Score the goals man !! duh !!

All the efforts Starting from the goalkeeper lead to placing the ball in front of the striker in the most dangerous area of the field and he has to finish the job of his teammates.

Depending on the tactics adopted for the game and the opposition weaknesses you can choose between a classic big target man as a strike or a fast player to lead the offence.

With a big target man up front, the forwards can play into their feet and expect them to hold the ball up and bring others into play.With an imposing player to aim for, the forwards out wide should put in crosses at head height and hope to take advantage of their aerial prowess.

If a mobile striker is selected, the team’s attacking dynamic changes completely. This type of striker should aim to use their pace and movement to drag the opposition’s defenders out of position and run in behind them.

It is their movement and interchanging of positions with the forwards behind them that can cause havoc to the opposition if executed correctly.

Regardless of which type of player is selected, the striker must have a great shot, be very accurate, and be able to put away any opportunities.


The best defence is to attack as the saying goes. With the 4-2-3-1 football formation the attacking possibilities seem endless and the serenity in the midfield is assured by the two central midfielders.

The shape of the 4-2-3-1 football formation is flexible and you can shift to other soccer systems easily. by taking one defensive midfielder and replacing it by a box to box midfielder you can shift to the 4-3-3 formation assuming you started with at least two forwards that can play wide so you gave the playmaker drop deep and the two forwards go wide to support the striker.

The 4-2-3-1 is still roaring as a pioneer formation in the different footballing leagues due to it’s stability in defence, attacking options and flexibility to shift to other formations during the game like shifting to the 4-3-3 formation and switching from attacking through the midfield to attacking using the wingers.



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