It’s well-documented that one of the most effective modern formations in soccer is the 4-2-3-1 formation, with an emphasis on the three attacking midfielders being used to cause defenses all kinds of trouble.
When the team using the 4-2-3-1 is packed with skillful players, it’s a nightmare for defenders to combat.
If the defense moves out to try and combat the two wide players or the attacking midfielder, they leave themselves exposed to through balls to the striker; if they sit deep, they invite 90 minutes of pressure that’s often impossible to withstand.
So what can a team do? In this case, it’s often the tactics a manager uses that determine the outcome; can one formation overcome another?
Today, we’ll look at four formations that can be used to counteract the attacking threat of the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Used properly, and with the players well-drilled in how to make the most of a formation, it’s not impossible to nullify and even defeat a talented team that makes use of this excellent tactic.
Here are the 4 best formations to use against 4-2-3-1.
4. 4-4-2 Formation (Utilize the long ball)
The old mantra “if in doubt, kick it out” still has merit, even in the elite leagues; when you’re under pressure from a team using the 4-2-3-1 formation, sometimes, all you can do is boot the ball upfield.
The 4-4-2 is more refined than that, but the principle stands. A team of well-drilled players can turn the 4-4-2 into a fortress, and every attack can be repelled.
A defense consisting of four players who stay on the edge of their area is protected by a further bank of four players in midfield.
The midfield is a crucial part of the 4-4-2 as they’ll need to drop much deeper without the ball to counteract the three attacking midfielders of the opposing team. If the midfield drops deeper, they look for long balls to the strikers when the ball is won back.
The two strikers need to be prepared to feed off scraps for the entire game; when a long ball is punted up the pitch, they must shield the ball and hold on to it for all they’re worth until the midfield rallies forward to help.
The 4-4-2 formation ebbs and flows with the game, either compact in front of their 18-yard box or stretched thin as the midfield goes to support the attack.
Used correctly, it’s a great tactic, but against really top opposition, it can be tough to maintain for 90 minutes. As soon as the midfield fails to react, the defense can be carved open by through balls.
The four defenders offer a tempting prospect as the three attackers in the opposing team find space to thread through balls or to run in behind and beat the offside trap.
- A simple tactic to understand.
- Most squads have the players required for this formation.
- The four midfielders stifle the opposition, and the four defenders close ranks to make it challenging to get through.
- When the midfield is bypassed, the defense is put under enormous pressure.
- Susceptible to through-balls and breaking the offside trap.
- The 4-4-2 formation isn’t very fashionable.
3. 4-5-1 Formation (Flood the Midfield)
Similar to the 4-4-2 formation, the idea behind using a 4-5-1 formation is to flood the midfield, stifling the opposition.
The two wide attacking midfielders and the central attacking midfielder are the vital elements to the 4-2-3-1 formation, so having five midfielders forcing these players back is a great way to neutralize the threat.
The two widest players of the five-person midfield can be used as wide midfielders, moving forwards to help the lone striker when the team has the ball.
Without the ball, the entire midfield closes ranks, closing down opponents and making the angles disappear, with the end result that the opponent has no way through.
Should the midfield fail occasionally, the four defenders are on hand to slow down the attack.
A flat, four-person defense is still liable to suffer in the long term; the 4-2-3-1 formation is ideally suited for deployment against a static defense, but if several midfield players drop deeper, the 4-5-1 formation can be wildly successful.
It’s also one of the more attacking counters to the 4-2-3-1 formation, as the five midfielders can move forwards when required but move backward when danger approaches.
A cohesive unit is needed, fitness is a must, and the players must have absolute concentration for the full 90 minutes.
- Flooding the midfield can stop teams from breaking through.
- It’s a defensively sound formation that tries to keep the ball far from goal.
- Most teams can fill out a 4-5-1 formation with ease.
- It can be offensively poor if the midfield doesn’t join the attack.
- It Can be a boring game to watch as the midfield turns into a battle zone.
- The lone striker becomes very isolated.
2. 4-2-3-1 Formation (Fight fire with fire)
If you’ve got a team of talented, motivated, and confident players, why not fight fire with fire and counter the 4-2-3-1 formation by mirroring it?
It’s a tactic that’s offensively consistent, and it’s why many top teams use it, and if your team has a similar set of skills, it could pay to use the same tactic as your opponent.
In this instance, it can often come down to who remains the most disciplined for the entire game; luck might play a part, for good or bad.
It could cause the game to slow down as each team cancels out the other, but as a formation, if you’re worried about how to counter the 4-2-3-1, using it yourself could be the answer.
Your team has to worry about the three opposition attackers, but the same can be said for them; matching the formation of the opposition forces them to have the same concerns you do.
Unlike our two previous formations, which focus on negating a threat, the 4-2-3-1 formation you’re employing turns the tables; suddenly, your attacking threat is the worry.
- It’s an excellent countermeasure to the same tactic.
- Strong teams can put the opposition on the back foot.
- It’s an exciting game to watch for the fans.
- Without the correct players, this formation is hard to master.
- If both teams take a more defensive approach, the game can fizzle out into a stalemate.
1. 5-3-2 Formation (Flood the Defense)
Assuming your team hasn’t got the level of skill required to maintain a 4-2-3-1 formation, one of the best formations to use is the 5-3-2 formation.
In a defensive-minded formation such as this, the key players in this game are going to be your wingbacks. Defensively, the two wingbacks must mark the opponent’s wide attackers, negating their threat.
Offensively, the two wingbacks will need to fly forwards in supporting roles, crossing the ball into the area for the two strikers.
Heading past a three-player central midfield, it’s the wingbacks who add width and attacking threat; without them, the team has a 90-minute onslaught to withstand.
The 5-3-2 formation is tactically sound but requires enormous fitness levels, especially from the wingbacks. The three central defenders sit close together, acting as a screen for the goalkeeper.
All three must cover the striker and occasionally move wider to double up with the wingback if they’re struggling against a tricky winger.
With quick, talented wingbacks, the 5-3-2 formation can be a superb option for countering the threat of the 4-2-3-1; the wingers are almost man-marked for the entire game, and when possession is regained, the team has the opportunity to counter quickly.
- The 5-3-2 is excellent for nullifying the three attacking midfielders in a 4-2-3-1.
- Compact and secure without the ball, a team can explode forwards at pace when in possession.
- It draws opponents forwards, negates their attacking threats, and exploits their weaknesses.
- The formation is dead in the water without fit, tactically astute wingbacks and can quickly become a rout.
- If the wingbacks don’t receive the ball and move forwards, the formation quickly breaks as the team kicks the ball upfield, only for another wave of attackers to appear.
- If the wingbacks aren’t utilized properly, the strikers are left isolated, and suddenly it’s eleven vs. nine as the opposition simply bombards the defense for 90 minutes.