Are we seeing a revival of the 4-2-3-1 system?

This season, the 4-2-3-1 formation has taken the Premier League by storm. After being imported from abroad, the formation has been a hit in England, with the top teams in the league opting to use it, Manchester City and Chelsea prime examples. It has been used on and off across the globe for years, with teams seeing it’s faults and deciding to ditch the tactic. However, after a successful start to the season in England, are we mid-revival?

The 4-2-3-1 started in South America in the 1990’s, this was because of the three attacking players sitting off the striker. These three players would all be pacey, skilful dribblers who can run at defences and carve out chances for themselves and the lone striker. The option to play three of these players interested the South Americans as they are world famous for producing players that can fit in these three roles superbly. It was no surprise that it then spread to Spain in the early 2000’s, and it became La Liga’s ‘default’ formation later on in the decade. The revolution was well underway in Europe with France, Portugal, Italy, etc all having taken the formation under their wings. However, us here in England still refused to use it. We thought that playing with one lone striker on his own was too negative, and teams that play with it are all likely to be low-scoring teams. The Spanish national team, on the contrary, were proving otherwise – storming the Euro 2008 competition with the 4-2-3-1. The Spanish lined up with Xavi, David Silva and Andres Iniesta playing off Fernando Torres, which emphatically worked with Spain winning the competition.

It was Torres’ mentor that took the formation to England, one Rafa Benitez. in 2004, he implemented the tactic into his Liverpool team which worked just as well as in Spain. After about a year, other teams were copying his style and applying the formation into their sides. England now were hooked on the formation. But back in Spain, they were seeing the weaknesses. The Spanish were now seeing the weakness that it leaves on the flanks. As England turned to the new, Spain started yet another trend – the 4-3-3. Slowly and gradually, it looked like the 4-2-3-1 had become extinct, as Spain reverted to the 4-3-3, England turned back to 4-4-2 and looked for simplicity.

The ups and downs of the formation have been going for years, but the formation, if used effectively with the right players, cause teams problems. The main benefit that it brings is the freedom that the three attacking players play with. The manager can either play the two wide players as wingers, or he can play three attacking midfielders. It is also an ideal formation for the striker, as he will be having chances carved out for him all game. They can, however, feel isolated and if they play too deep, they soon find themselves out of the game. It suits two main types of striker, the team can either opt to play with a target-man style of striker, to hold the ball up and to be a physical presence in the box. This is like a Costa style of striker in a 4-2-3-1, who acts as a bigger and stronger striker who can still find the net. Or a manager can pick a striker who almost mirrors the number 10 behind him. A fast and skilful striker, like Aguero. Managers also like the idea of the two central midfielders shielding the defence. If it works, they can form a double pivot shielding the defence, creating chances and even getting forward for attacks, leaving the other one covering. These midfielders arguably mean that the formation can cover the whole pitch, if all players stick to their positions.

It is there where the downfalls of the formation begins, if the two wide players don’t track back then this can leave the opposition wingers with huge space out wide, to have a free run at the full backs. Here, the flanks can become exposed hugely, hence causing problems for the team. As soon as the flanks are exploited, the central midfielders also get drawn to cover for the wingers attacking the full backs, leaving unguarded space everywhere and defensive chaos. The Spanish found this out first hand, hence why they switched to the 4-3-3. The three midfielders can then match the wingers that they are defending, and more space in midfield is covered. This then leaves the two wingers in the front 3 with less emphasis to track back. Another weakness which teams struggle with is the striker becoming isolated and on his own. It starts then to become imperative for the team not to play long balls up to the striker.

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The 4-2-3-1 has been used hugely in the Premier League this year, especially with the top class players in the division causing so many teams problems in those three attacking positions. The top two, Chelsea and City have both used the formation, and have seen great success with it. Third placed side, Southampton, have switched from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 and all three have played with creative freedom from the front four.

For Manchester City, they usually have played Yaya Toure and Fernandinho in the two holding positions, who both have formed a fantastic relationship and have found the winning formula in midfield. In the three attacking positions, they have an array of talent and options. With Silva, Navas, Milner, for example, they have enough pace and skill to hurt teams. Milner will always track back, so it solves the problems of leaving the flanks exposed. In terms of the strikeforce, Aguero has quite rightly been played up front on his own, who mirrors a no.10 role. He will create chances for himself, as well as finishing other players chances. It has worked so well for City because of all the players in the system working well together to create space, and to exploit it. In terms of defence, they have two full backs that get up and help the midfielders. The wingers track back and the creativity shown has led them to where they are now.

For Chelsea, on the other hand, it seems the perfect formation to use with them. Matic and Fabregas have been causing teams huge problems in midfield, with Fabregas the highest assist scorer in the league. For me, it seems to be the best midfield duo in the league by a long way. Matic and Fabregas both seem to work together, both in attack and defence. In defence, they both add strength to the team and backup to the defenders. To the contrast to City- Chelsea play with a target man striker in Costa and he joins Aguero in the top scorers. However it is the three attacking players that have been the difference. Oscar, Hazard and Willian have added such a great flair to the team and have added an abundance of chances for Costa. Oscar and Hazard have both chipped in with goals throughout the year. This creativity and attacking freedom was showed, in my opinion, in the 5-0 crushing of Swansea. The game was run by Oscar, and since, Willian has stepped up in the past few games and Hazard has been ever brilliant.

Other teams in the league have also been attracted to the formation, with Spurs using it playing Eriksen behind in-form striker Harry Kane. Joining them, Swansea have played Bony in front of Sigurdsson before his switch to City. It now looks likely that Gomis will take his place, and a change of style will seem unlikely.

4-2-3-1 has flourished this season, although only in the top half of teams. This is because managers in top clubs want to play in the most attractive style of football possible, and this formation gives managers the best chance of playing attractive football. It gives managers the best chance of playing a team with maximum chance of creating opportunities. It has only worked in England because managers have had faith in the central midfielders and defenders. The 4-2-3-1 will continue to sparkle in England, for this year at least but with the yo-yo pattern of football tactics – anything can happen.

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