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Football tactics explained: the most common formations – and how to beat them

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4-2-3-1

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At times, it can seem as though every club on Earth has adopted the 4-2-3-1 as their formation of choice. It is most certainly the system of choice for an enormous number of today's top-tier clubs, with English Premier League teams now seemingly in love with a formation that has been visible in Spain and Germany for many years.

Strengths

Passing the ball through triangles is more effective at breaking down opponents than passing in straight lines, which is where 4-2-3-1 comes into its own. The position of the central midfield two in relation to the more advanced three is custom built for the generation of these passing options, ridding yourself of the problem of reductive 'straight' or 'lateral' play offered by 'flat' systems such as 4-4-2.

Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo has complained about the defensive duties a 4-2-3-1 system demands of him

It's also difficult to become overrun in midfield using a 4-2-3-1 given that there's great flexibility when it comes to the advanced players being able to drop into deep wide or central areas. Further, the number of potential attacking players means that it's possible for one of these players to drop deeper without losing your offensive threat should a sudden chance present itself on the counter-attack.  

Passing the ball through triangles is more effective at breaking down opponents than passing in straight lines, which is where 4-2-3-1 comes into its own

Additionally, with so many players ready and available to pass the ball forwards, the striker in this formation is typically provided plenty of chances to score.

Weakness

Sheer physical exertion can sometimes be a problem for teams using a 4-2-3-1. In order to generate some misdirection and create confusion throughout a defence, it's common for attacks to begin from a very deep position. Sometimes, as with Manchester United, attacks begin through Daley Blind from the core of defence.

Therefore, there is real pressure on the attacking players to play with a high enough tempo to move from one end of the pitch to the other without allowing an opponent's midfielders and full-backs time enough to recover their ideal positions.

As has been so aptly demonstrated by the teams of Marcelo Bielsa (who, granted, doesn't always play a 4-2-3-1), this consistent physical strain can lead to tired and sub-optimal players towards the back end of a season.

There is also a lot of responsibility on the attacking wide players to drop back with speed into defence when an opponent is able to pass the ball out of defence. This has caused some friction between certain players and managers, such as Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, for example, as the two disagreed on how individuals should act during the attacking and defensive phases. Ronaldo doesn't like the limitations that defending puts on his attacking options, whereas Mourinho wanted Ronaldo to submit to the needs of the team and defend when necessary.

Who uses it?

Manchester United, Manchester City, PSG, PSV Eindhoven, Real Madrid.

Which formation does it trump? 

4-4-2: The potential to use passing triangles to work your through a flat midfield can make a poorly coached 4-4-2 look, quite simply, pathetic. On the other side of the coin, the flat midfield structure of a 4-4-2 means it's difficult to break through the multi-layered design of a 4-2-3-1.

4-4-2 • 4-3-3 • 4-2-3-1 • 4-5-1 • 3-5-2