The box midfield: football tactics explained

The box midfield: football tactics explained
(Image credit: Future)

The box midfield is a subsection of football tactics that has grown in the 2020s. 

Employed by the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool, the tactical quirk has its roots in the famed W-M formation of the 1930s. Nothing is new in this game, however, with modern managers using the idea to great effect.

And in the Premier League, you can't move for a box midfield these days…

What is a box midfield?

A box midfield, as the name suggests, is the formation of two more defensive central midfielders behind two more advanced attacking midfielders to form a "box" of four players in the centre of midfield. 

The trend started gaining real success in the Premier League with the likes of Antonio Conte bringing a 3-4-3 into English football at Chelsea, using two of his front three – often Eden Hazard and Pedro – as narrow attackers ahead of his midfield double-pivot. While most sides will play a variation of a three-man midfield, having an added player provides a fourth body in central areas, offering numerical superiority.

Many managers, however, have since chosen to ask either a defender or an attacker to drift into the centre of the park when their side has possession. This is often from using an inverted full-back but theoretically, a team can use a centre-back, too, to form a box midfield – and a 3-2-2-3 shape – in possession. 

The shape differs slightly from Johan Cruyff's iconic 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield – later used by Guardiola – but can look similar with a staggered midfield. 

Who uses a box midfield?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City before the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester City and Rb Leipzig at Etihad Stadium on November 28, 2023 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

Pep Guardiola is a big fan of the box midfield (Image credit: Getty Images)

Since Conte re-popularised the 3-4-2-1 with modern English sides, Pep Guardiola has been the most famous advocate of a box midfield. 

Guardiola's football relies on controlling possession, meaning that an extra man centrally can help to dictate play. He has often used an inverted full-back in the shape of Joao Cancelo or Kyle Walker to form that box, while John Stones has acted as a 'libero'-like defender stepping into midfield to create that midfield shape, too.

Plenty of other managers have used a box midfield for possessional purposes, with Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp at Arsenal and Liverpool respectively both use the device to great effect by inverting full-backs into the centre of midfield. Xavi at Barcelona does a similar thing, too, while one of his predecessors at Barça, Ernesto Valverde, sometimes played a 4-4-2 at the Camp Nou with four natural midfielders occupying the middle of the pitch – though they weren't always arranged into a box shape.

It is possible, too, to drop a false nine in a 4-2-3-1 alongside a No.10. This is something that Mauricio Pochettino's Chelsea did to great effect against Arsenal, earning a point at home in October 2023, using a double pivot in midfield of Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo tasked with ball-winning behind two attacking players ahead in Cole Palmer and Raheem Sterling leading the press.

Perhaps the real architects of the trend, however, are the Red Bull clubs, with coaches like Ralph Hasenhuttl and Jesse Marsch fielding a press-happy 4-2-2-2 with flying full-backs. Both managers have used 4-2-3-1 shapes in the Premier League with a winger drifting centrally to form the box shape, in the past. 

What are pros and cons of a box midfield?

Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool celebrates after scoring the equalising goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool FC at Etihad Stadium on November 25, 2023 in Manchester, England.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has been used as an inverted full-back, forming a box midfield (Image credit: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Numerical superiority is the big advantage of a box midfield – but the very structure of the box itself is key to the success of this formation. A double-pivot in midfield offers good coverage of central areas of the pitch, with either defensive midfielder able to react if the team lose the ball and are stuck in transition. Often, Guardiola will push a defender alongside No.6 Rodri to give more stability to this area of the pitch, forming a buildup shape of three defenders in the first line, with two ahead.

The two more advanced attackers are therefore positioned between the lines, able to create and attack the box – and in a 3-2-2-3 shape in possession, these players will often be members of a front five. That means that coaches like Guardiola and Arteta can attack five channels of the pitch, often against back fours, creating more numerical superiority.

With every tactical advantage comes a compromise elsewhere, however. For a start, the players who form your box midfield have to be mobile enough and competent out of possession, while the passing angles of the defensive midfielders within the box are often limited to either conservative moves backwards or extremely vertical balls forward to the attacking midfielders of the box. Where classic Pep midfields used to provide 60º angles in all directions, a box has a much wider angle of 90º, meaning that players have to be technically proficient on the ball, with little angle bias when in possession. 

Moving four players into the centre of the pitch leaves gaps in defence, too – a back three in possession, for the likes of City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Direct teams have managed to go long against these 3-2-2-3 shapes, pushing two pressers up and finding luck from long balls. Guardiola himself beat Arteta's box midfield at the Etihad in 2023 by forming a 4-4-2 shape off the ball and instructing Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland to win knockdowns. It's certainly not a flawless system…

Jude Bellingham ahead of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo? A former team-mate of the Real Madrid legends has explained how the England midfielder has the edge on the Frenchman and the Portuguese.

Meanwhile, it has been claimed that Bellingham rejected Manchester United because the Red Devils were unable to guarantee him first-team football at Old Trafford.

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