The 4-2-3-1 revolution has (finally) conquered Major League Soccer

It's become the world's default formation, but MLS was slow to get on board. Scott French on what the change has meant to Major League Soccer.

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It's been around since the 1990s, has dominated the world's game for the past decade, and has been the system of choice for many teams in Major League Soccer for a few seasons, but the anointment of the 4-2-3-1 formation's supremacy in American soccer was largely the work of Steven Gerrard.

Or, rather, of Bruce Arena, the United States’ most revered coach, who this summer set aside his customary 4-4-2 in an effort to better capitalize on the English legend's attacking qualities. Whether it has worked for the LA Galaxy is up for debate, but when an old-school acolyte such as Arena dispenses with the tried-and-true for some newfangled approach that's stormed every shore, it serves as, perhaps, a blessing.

These 4-2-3-1s sometimes look like 4-4-2s, 4-5-1s, sometimes 4-3-3s, so it's all gibberish, to be honest with you.

- Bruce Arena

Arena would disagree. He's never been particularly interested in formational debate, and he has been pretty clear in his belief that alignments are merely starting points that have limited impact on what occurs. Yet a desire to minimize Gerrard's defensive responsibilities while maintaining a reasonable balance has led him here, like so many before him, even if he has come rather late to the party.

The 4-2-3-1 formation isn't new. It offers uncommon resiliency and, to take an aesthetic stance, a rather beautiful structure in its symmetry and depth. It originated in Spain in the early 1990s, was in common use in La Liga by the new century, and spread through Europe in the following decade. Twenty-seven of 32 teams at the 2010 World Cup employed some version of the alignment.

Most of the important tactical innovation since its arrival, including Jurgen Klopp's pressing game at Borussia Dortmund, have been further alterations. The 4-2-3-1 has proven most popular, perhaps because it is the most utilitarian of systems.

Its makeup is simple. There are two holding midfielders in front of the back four in support of a playmaker creating for a single striker and two wingers. The outside backs, as in a 4-4-2, are expected to attack, and the variety that can be employed among the attacking positions offers great variety in style and approach.

“[Tactics are] evolving,” Oscar Pareja, whose FC Dallas plays primarily from the formation, told FourFourTwo. “And the 4-2-3-1 gives you a lot of structure.”

Structure is its primary selling point, but not the only one. The formation affords considerable interchange in the attacking positions and is simple for integration of new players. It enables teams to field a true No. 10, and not from the flank -- where playmakers had been banished in the 4-4-2. The holding midfielders, Pareja says, are “the heart” of the system, “the support and the balance,” and the coverage they provide the backline enables teams to take attacking risks they might otherwise resist.

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Diaz is the indispensable part of Pareja's setup. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

The formation also offers the opportunity for triangles virtually anywhere on the field, creating numerical advantages that can be exploited both in attack and while defending.

“These 4-2-3-1s sometimes look like 4-4-2s, 4-5-1s, sometimes 4-3-3s, so it's all gibberish, to be honest with you,” said Arena, who still uses the 4-4-2 on occasion. “But the key to that formation is you've got a guy up high that can do a good-enough job to occupy two defenders, and so the theory when all the idiots talk tactics is that you end up having an advantage somewhere. Because if two take one, that means it's nine against eight somewhere.”

That's how it's designed to work.

“The wide players can come inside,” Colorado Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “And you can do that in a 4-4-2 as well, but having the flexibility of the wide players coming inside, overloading, pulling your outside backs forward, and then one of the central midfielders feathering out wide allows usually for 3-v-2 in the wide areas, if the combination play [is working]. If the movement's good and the quickness of the pass is good, you can exploit the wide areas.”

So much flexibility

MLS teams have increasingly employed the 4-2-3-1, with 13 of the league’s 20 clubs this year either use it as their primary formation or most often among multiple systems. The Rapids have exclusively played in it. Columbus, the New York Red Bulls, Montreal, Orlando City and Philadelphia trot it out nearly every game, and Dallas, Portland and Vancouver nearly as often. Seattle has used it since Brian Schmetzer took the reins, and it was New England's go-to formation until September. Only New York City and San Jose have stayed away in 2016.

There's a lot of variation in how it looks throughout the game, and that's what I like about it. You can be very flexible with your movement ...

- Gregg Berhalter

That pliability is a extremely attractive, says Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, who like Mastroeni is a former Arena pupil.

“If you look at our team, it's a 4-2-3-1 when the game starts,” he said. “But there's a lot of variation in how it looks throughout the game, and that's what I like about it. You can be very flexible with your movement, and it can take different shapes very easily.”

Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic remembers seeing it during his decade, from the mid-1990s, as an attacker in Spain. He says the world’s shift to a 4-2-3-1, which he uses the most often among several systems, is just the progression of the game.

“I think it became popular when the coaches realized how transitional the game became in the modern era of soccer ...,” Paunovic said. “You have more players to defend with in 4-2-3-1; you can also be a very dangerous team in transition once you recover the ball, but as transition demands a lot of energy, a lot of effort -- and that style can be very draining for the team -- then you have to also be able to control the game by having the possession of the ball. This system also gives you this possibility, just by opening up a little bit more (with) your wingers and giving the width and depth with strikers.”

Specific kinds of players are needed to get the most from the system.

“You have to have two very flexible and complete holding midfielders, who can play in front of the defense, to know how to play that, and also they can be dangerous in transition so they can attack the depth and attack to score goals,” Paunovic said. “Then you need wingers who can drop deeper and wingers who can who can [succeed] when it requires to counter ...

“And then, of course, you need a target [forward] and a No. 10 who can connect with all of them, especially with the striker and the wingers in transition. When you need to have the possession with that system, you will need those two [holding] midfielders and the No. 10, they are good with the ball and keep it also with the wingers and with the target.”

Lots of moving pieces

The clubs that have fared best this season within the system, Dallas and Colorado, have been most consistent in using regular tandems, and it's paid off handsomely on defense.

You look at [Clint] Dempsey in Seattle -- that's the position he's best suited for. You look at [Mauro] Diaz in Dallas, you look at [Javier] Morales in Salt Lake ... you don't want to give them a whole lot of defensive responsibilities.

- Arena

The Hoops pair Carlos Gruezo, maybe their most crucial offseason pickup, with Kellyn Acosta or Victor Ulloa in front of a standout duo in central defense. Throw out four outlier results -- all lopsided road losses, two by 5-0 counts -- and they have the league's best defense. Colorado is No. 1 for the season, and captain Sam Cronin with Micheal Azira are the linchpins of that setup.

Defensive midfield cover is increasingly needed in MLS, where there's now a surfeit of creative midfielders but only so many true strikers. It has become a luxury to use two up front, and MLS teams have done so a little less than 18 percent of the time this season.

“I think [its widespread MLS use is] probably due to the fact that you probably think you don't have enough strikers,” Arena said. “And maybe you have a guy who's more comfortable underneath. You look at [Clint] Dempsey in Seattle -- that's the position he's best suited for. You look at [Mauro] Diaz in Dallas, you look at [Javier] Morales in Salt Lake. And those guys also tend to be guys who play in the attacking half of the field, and you don't want to give them a whole lot of defensive responsibilities. ...

“I think probably the reasons most teams play a 4-2-3-1 is to free up the No. 10 player and to have a 6 and an 8 [in the holding-midfield spots].”

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Kljestan's thrived in Marsch's 4-2-3-1. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

MLS assists leader Sacha Kljestan, the Red Bulls' No. 10, sees it as a boon for playmakers.

“I think in MLS for the last two years, you've seen a lot of every good No. 10s,” said Kljestan, who played in one of the holding roles in Anderlecht's 4-2-3-1 when he was in Belgium. “When I think about [Portland's] Diego Valeri, [FC Dallas'] Mauro Diaz, [Sporting Kansas City's] Benny Feilhaber, you kind of have to start [to] not build the team around these guys, but put these guys in a position to succeed.”

Said Marsch: “The one thing it does, it's a way to play with a creative No. 10 player but also still keep some sort of organization in midfield, where you can support that. In the past, teams would use a diamond -- that's a way with two strikers -- but I think you can protect yourself a little bit more in the defense of midfield, and I think that's the way it plays itself out.”

'Can't cover everything'

In some respects, it's a defensive posture that enables dynamism in the attack. The engine, of course, is the triangle in the middle and the interaction therein.

Dallas, ahead in the Supporters' Shield race, has best demonstrated this all season. Gruezo's work in a holding slot enables a most mobile attack to run through MVP candidate Diaz, who has connected with varied options, resulting in the finest and most successful soccer in MLS this year.

The Red Bulls exemplify this, too, with Kljestan feeding Golden Boot leader Bradley Wright-Phillips thanks in great part to Dax McCarty's and Felipe Martins' exploits behind him.

“The two guys behind me are very key, the way they can be box-to-box, and also join in the attack but do a lot of dirty work,” Kljestan said. “Dax is a big part of it, because he's so good on the ball, and when he gets the ball, his first option is always to find me, and he finds me in very good spots.”

At the end of the day, all these systems and formations, all the different formations -- the magic happens when the individuals execute in the right way.

- Oscar Pareja

The greatest differences within the system tend to result from the varied qualities of the wingers. Some, such as Ignacio Piatti, who is sometimes is wide and sometimes central on Montreal's line of three, “come into a hole, turn and make things happen in the attacking half of the field,” Orlando City head coach Jason Kreis said. “Those I think more of as the typical No. 10 players, and they tuck inside.

“Then you've got other players that play more of a typical winger and want to be on the touchline and go 1-v-1 at defenders,” Kreis continued. “I think it's the best thing to have players that can do both, that can mix and match.”

The wide midfielders take increased responsibility, constantly balancing their defensive requirements and attacking duties, and their ability to defend while providing an attacking dimension is critical to things coming together. They're asked to do a lot, sometimes too much.

“That's the challenge,” Paunovic said. “It's like the blanket. You can't cover everything, especially the blanket in the airplane.”

Ultimately, Arena is right. The system merely provides a framework, and a good team is constantly shifting among shapes and alignments depending on the situation. It's not the formation that wins games. Pareja knows this, too.

“A lot of formations have been successful during the years,” Pareja said.

He continued: “But at the end of the day, all these systems and formations, all the different formations -- the magic happens when the individuals execute in the right way. And you have to have talent, because, for me, the most important in order to be successful is not just the way to line them up, but it’s the way they do it when they have the ball in their feet. And that formation has an implication, but there's many, many other things that have an influence on the teams that are successful.

“It's the way you act in the offensive phase with your players that create the real revolution. For me, revolution equals talent.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.