We recently penned the first in a series of posts focused on the various tactical shapes and systems used in modern football, and today we introduce another in the form of the 4-2-3-1.

A clear variation of the 4-4-2 formation that dominated English football until the mid-noughties, this system is used through the English Premier League and in the five major European leagues.

But where did the formation originate and what roles do players perform in the system?

What is the 4-2-3-1 and Where Did it Originate?

The old 4-4-2 system featured two box-to-box midfielders in front of a back four, alongside two traditional wingers and a couple of centre forwards.

While the formation remains a core staple of the English game and is believed by many to have been first deployed by legendary Three Lions’ manager Sir Alf Ramsey, it can actually be traced back to the 1950s and Victor Maslov.

As for the 4-2-3-1, this was first deployed by Colombian side Atletico Nacional and their Spanish manager Juanma Lillo. The intention was to capitalise on improved player fitness and successfully implement an aggressive high press, with two holding midfielders creating a double pivot that enabled the four attacking players to operate with greater positional freedom in the final third.

Of course, the system also built on the principle of playing a “second”, deep-lying striker, which can be traced back to the Mexican World Cup in 1986 (or the great and pioneering Hungarian side of the 1960s, depending on your point of view).

By the early noughties, a number of title-winning tacticians adopted the 4-2-3-1, including Deportivo La Coruna’s Javier Irureta and Real Madrid’s John Toshack.

This validated the formation in the modern game, and it quickly became the single most popular shape in Spain and the UK by the time 2010 came around.

Player Roles in the 4-2-3-1 Formation

Built on a basic flat back four, the key component of the 4-2-3-1 is the two central midfielders. This double pivot is crucial in maintaining possession and providing defensive cover during transition, with most modern clubs employing a specialist holding midfielder alongside a more dynamic, box-to-box partner.

There are potential variations here, of course, as teams can play with two holding players (when deploying a more defensive outlook) or a pair of box-to-box midfielders who dove-tail when attacking and defending.

The two midfielders and their partnership is crucial as it helps to set the 4-2-3-1 formation apart from the 4-4-2.

More specifically, it retains the same basic shape while creating additional stability in the middle of the park, with the two midfielders capable of dictating play in possession and protecting the back four when the opposition have the ball.

In front of these players, the modern 4-2-3-1 typically deploys two inverted wingers, who play on the side of their weaker foot and are encouraged to make runs inside their full-backs both with and without the ball. These players could also appear in central midfield, creating significant overloads when in possession and helping teams to dominate the centre of the park.

When out of possession, the wide players in the 4-2-3-1 will hold their width and maintain a simple defensive shape, providing cover for their full-backs and additional defensive security.

As for the central forwards, the main striker is required to lead the line and apply pressure to the two centre backs when out of possession. Typically, the player will also be required to hold the ball and contribute to the construction of attacks, while dropping slightly deeper and creating space for the wide players to run in behind.

The second striker typically operates as a deep-lying forward who plays on the shoulder of the main strike and on the half-turn. This way, he can seek out space in between the opposition’s defence and midfield and feed his fellow forwards, while also awaiting opportunities to arrive in the box and provide a goal threat.

However, the second striker may also be an attacking midfielder by trade, who operates a little deeper and makes forward-facing runs from the middle of the park.

This represents a slightly more defensive iteration of the 4-2-3-1, and one that can create additional security and numbers in the midfield when out of possession.

The Last Word

There’s no doubt that the 4-2-3-1 is the single most popular system in the modern game, with top coaches such as Julien Nagelsmann (at Bayern Munich) and Carlo Ancelotti (Real Madrid) using this as their staple formation.

What’s more, there’s considerable crossover between this formation as the similarly popular 4-3-3, particularly when the wider forwards come inside and operate in the width of the 18-yard box when in possession.

It’s also fascinating to note that the system is a clever evolution of the tried-and-trusted 4-4-2, which is itself enjoying something of a revival in Spain’s La Liga.

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