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A guide to formations: The 4-2-3-1

The following is the third part of a mini-series in which Jake Askham takes a look at the common formations prevalent in football today. This piece focuses on the 4-3-3 formation.


A few years ago, the 4-2-3-1 was the go to formation for many of the top teams. Even today, the likes of Chelsea and Real Madrid use this formation. The back four is nothing out of the ordinary, then there are two defensive midfielders (or one defensive midfielder and one central midfielder), the lone striker is supported by three attacking midfielders.

The 3 attackers behind the strikers are categorised often as left attacking midfield, central attacking midfield and right attacking midfield. The two wide players will often be fairly quick whilst also being able to dribble past the opposing full-back, whereas the central attacking midfielder’s role is to link the midfield with the attack.

The formation is fairly versatile too. The two wide players could push further forward to create a 4-3-3 or they could drop deeper to create a 4-4-1-1 (a variation of the 4-4-2). This flexibility means that teams using this formation can adapt to situations that arise in a game and this is a great asset to have.


A great strength of this formation is having 3 attacking midfielders who have plenty of license to push forward and attack due to the stability of the two man midfield. With the two man midfield, it also means that the wide players have plenty of freedom to move across the line and interchange positions with one another.


This image shows Chelsea in attack vs Liverpool in the 2015 Capital Cup Semi Final. In this game, Hazard found himself mostly on the left hand side, Fabregas was the central attacking midfielder whilst Willian operated from the left. However the image above shows that all of them had changed positions with one another, something you wouldn’t often see during an attack by a team playing 4-4-2 or even 4-3-3 due to the differences in attributes needed from the attacking 3 and the midfield 3 in a 4-3-3.

The image above shows Ivanovic pushed way forward, and this is only possible due to Nemanja Matic’s positioning. If this attack was to break down and Liverpool tried to counter then Matic would be in the perfect position for an interception.


The image above shows Fabregas dropping deeper, to create a triangle with Matic and Mikel; whilst Hazard and Willian drift inside giving space for Filipe Luis and Ivanovic to push forward. With all this movement in the attacking third, it also gives Diego Costa the ability to move along the opposition’s defensive line rather than stay in the middle.

The strength here lies when the ball is supplied into the feet of Hazard or Willian and they’re able to turn and drive at the opposition’s defence. Here you can see that Willian and Hazard are both in positions where they can receive the ball to feet and run at the defence.


Issues arise if the opposition have top quality wingers. Due to the wide attackers playing almost as wingers, the full-back will be left in a 1 v 1 situation which may even turn into a 2 v 1 situation if the winger is supported by the full-back on his side, the striker or a midfielder close by.


In this situation Markovic has plenty of space ahead of him, and Hazard, who is the winger on his side is out of position. This means that Filipe Luis can either hold is position, allowing Markovic to advance with the ball with plenty of space or push forward to engage in a tackle which would potentially bring him out of position.

The issue here is if the winger with plenty of space was someone like Lionel Messi for example, then eventually you’d expect him to produce a wonderful pass to either Neymar or Suarez no matter who the opposition had in defence. Furthermore, it means that the two wingers must be very fit as they will often have 20/30 yards to make up in order to get back in position which will tire them out and also limit their attacking influence.


The image above shows the build-up to Sterling’s goal in this game. Sterling had received the pass from Jordan Henderson, turned past both Mikel and Matic then used his speed to create space for a shot and scored a wonderful goal. It could be argued that it’s a mistake from Matic and Mikel to allow Sterling the space to turn but it shouldn’t have been so easy for Liverpool to score from where Jordan Henderson passed from.

In my opinion, I believe this problem arises from the position of Willian in particular. In the position he’s currently in, he is offering very little protection to Ivanovic which in turn forces Mikel to be 3/4 yards further away from Sterling than he’d like so he can cover his full-back if the ball was played out to Moreno as there are two Liverpool players (in the circle) against just the 1 Chelsea player which creates an overload and space to exploit.

Successful implementation in recent times

Chelsea in the 2014/15 season were comfortably the best team in the league and had the league all but won by March. A rock solid defence, a striker who scored from 34.5% of his shots (which is remarkable compared to the 22.6% of Sergio Aguero) and the creative genius of Eden Hazard meant that they conceded just 32 goals (5 of which in a freak game vs Tottenham and then 3 vs West Brom once they had won the league).

They had the squad to make subtle changes which had a huge impact on the style of play, and these changes were made in ‘tough games’.


By simply swapping Oscar with Mikel, Chelsea then had two defensive midfielders to provide cover for their defence whilst Fabregas would play a more attacking role and would be allowed to play higher up the pitch. This pragmatic approach to games meant Chelsea rarely lost a ‘big game’ all season and were in 1st position all throughout the season.

Key player roles

Defensive midfielder: In Chelsea’s team, this was Nemanja Matic and he played the role superbly all season. His role is to stop any attacks before they become dangerous by cutting out passing lines, man marking the opposition’s number 10 and winning the ball back in general. Once the team is in possession his role is to play the simple ball and to not lose possession.

Central midfielder: In Chelsea’s team this would be Cesc Fabregas, and from this position his role is to begin attacks and also create chances for his team mates and Fabregas did this better than anyone else in the league by contributing 19 assists which was 1st in the Premier League and 7 more than Santi Cazorla who was 2nd. To excel in the position a player needs to have great passing ability and having an outstanding game sense in order for his team to control the game.

Winger: One of the two wide attacking players is likely to be the typical winger. Their role is to provide width to the team and supply crosses/through balls to the striker whilst also being a goal threat. In order to be successful here they need to be competent in dribbling, shooting and crossing.

Inside forward: The opposite wide player will often play slightly further infield than the winger on the opposite side but their job is to still create chances for the striker. By drifting in-field, the full-back on that side will be expected to provide the width and an inside forward will often be played on the opposite side to his strongest foot which will allow him to be on is favoured side more often (left footed player playing on the right, right footed playing on the left).

Central attacking midfielder: The key role for the CAM is to link the team together, especially providing the ball to both the wingers and the striker in dangerous positions. Key attributes for this position are creativity, shooting and passing and if they can provide goals from midfield then it is an added bonus.


This formation’s biggest asset is that it is finely balanced between attack and defence, and simple changes in personnel can make a big difference. It allows for control in midfield and numbers in attack, and gives the 4 main attacking players and the full-back license to go forward due to the 2 midfielders who can cover spaces that could otherwise be exposed. This formation will be around for a long time yet.

Written by Jake Askham

Jake Askham
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