How to play the 4-2-3-1 soccer formation

As time progresses, coaches are always coming up with new ideas, tactics and training plans to get the most out of their team and to win as many games as possible.

Any possible advantage that a coach can get, they will grasp with both hands. One of the easiest ways in which to see a drastic change in the fortunes of a team is by tweaking and changing the formation that is being used.

It was only recently, in the early noughties that the 4-2-3-1 formation was developed and started being used by some of the top teams.

Some teams starting using it in the late 1990s and it became more popular with the turn of the century. It got a foothold in recent years, with many of the leading teams in Europe using this strategy in 2010 and more than half of the participants in Euro 2012 utilised this formation, including Germany.


The basics

As a modern system and formation, 4-2-3-1 has been constantly developed and changed in the last few years as coaches become more experienced with dealing with the formation and getting the most out of it.

It is vitally important that if you are going to use this formation that all of your players buy into it and know their specific roles in the team. Failure to do so will render this formation ineffective and potentially catastrophic.

The beauty of this formation is in the flexibility that it provides, as you can use it against almost any other type of formation. The main focal point of this line-up is with the makeup of the midfield and the outside defenders who can overlap with ease and security.


The makeup of the defence of the 4-2-3-1 formation is made up of two central defenders and two outside backs.

The central defenders need to be strong presences that are strong in the air and can put attackers in their place. They need to be able to communicate with their fellow defenders to ensure that any space is closed down in an optimal fashion.

If you wish to make it a bit more defensive, you can drop one of the central defenders behind the other, about 5-10 yards behind. They can then act as a sweeper and double up on any dangerous players that are in possession and it gives an extra degree of safety for the defence.

The outside backs can be short and quick, getting up to support the attack and back down to defend when needed.


There are two defensive midfielders and three attacking midfielders in this formation.

The defensive midfielders act as a wall in front of the main defence and will couple disrupting opposition attacks with linking the play between defence and attack. They put forth a physical presence and are strong tacklers. It is important that players in this position are cool headed and are well able to pick out a pass and are accurate.

The two outside attacking midfielders make their runs out towards the wings in order to create space that can be exploited by other players and spread the opposition defence wide. They are an outlet and option for the central forward when they have been held up.

The attacking midfielders need to be very fit as they are going to be running up and down the pitch, being the launchpad for attack, as well as supporting the forward. As there is a solid defensive structure at their back, they have the license to attack uninhibited.

Each of these attacking midfielders should be well able to score goals, as the lone forward plays a holding role and will need others to play of him.

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The main forward acts as a focal point. This is why they need to be well built and good in the air. Their strength will allow them to hold up the ball while teammates come rushing forward in support.

They need to be able to take their shots well from difficult angles, but their main role is to hold possession up front and help to create chances for other players.

Pros of the 4-2-3-1 formation

  • Well suited to a number of different opposition formations
  • Very solid at the back, meaning that goals will not be conceded as often
  • Well suited to those players who are versatile and can blend together a few different roles

Cons of the 4-2-3-1 formation

  • The three attacking midfielders may slack off when it comes to their defensive duties
  • Players need to be fit in the supporting roles
  • Attacking players need to be well able to shoot

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