The evolution of the 4-2-3-1 formation

The victorious Les Bleus side of 1998 were one of the forerunners of the 4-2-3-1 formation
The victorious Les Bleus side of 1998 was one of the foremost proponents of the 4-2-3-1 formation

The 4-2-3-1 formation with its various models/types has become the go-to formation of choice among football coaches/teams.

Tactics in football have always been a fascinating aspect of the game with various innovations, styles, and systems going out of fashion coming back to the limelight in a revolving, always changing manner.

Few issues have generated as much discussions, arguments, and controversies as much as formations most especially the 4-2-3-1 system of play.

Fielding five midfielders was for a long time considered a negative tactic, but that is dependent entirely on the make-up of the five.

It is still heard of in football to speak of teams not playing “two-up” as being negative, but even a glance at a team-sheet should show what nonsense that it.

Take, for example, France at Euro 2000 with Youri Djorkaeff, Zinedine Zidane and Christoph Dugarry playing off Thierry Henry, or Portugal in the same tournament with Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Sergio Conceicao playing off Nuno Gomes.

Take Spain Euro 2008, with Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregás, Xavi and David Silva arrayed behind Fernando Torres.

Early days

In the early part of the 90s, coaches had begun to ponder how they could win the ball back quickly high up the pitch and attack faster with the added advantage of keeping the ball away from their defences.

4-4-2 was ineffective as coaches feared that pressing too high in a standard 4-4-2 formation would leave the defence exposed creating 4 on 4 situations almost everytime they lost the ball higher up the pitch.

Juanma Lillo, a Spanish coach and currently manager of Colombian side Atlético Nacional is credited with being the proponent of the 4-2-3-1 revolution. This is not surprising given that it was in Spain that the formation first developed as something distinct from 4-4-2.

Juanma Lillo was one of the first managers to successfully adopt the formation

He said while coaching Cultural Leonessa in the Spanish Segunda Division in 1991-92;

"My intention was to pressure and to try to steal the ball high up the pitch,".
"It was the most symmetrical way I could find of playing with four forwards. One of the great advantages is that having the forwards high allows you to play the midfield high and the defence high, so everybody benefits. But you have to have the right players. They have to be very, very mobile and they have to be able to play when they get the ball. You have to remember that they're pressuring to play, not playing to pressure".

The idea of having two central or “holding” midfielders whose presence allowed the four attackers upfront press the opposition defence and keep possession in dangerous areas made a lot of sense to the young Lillo (who at that point was the youngest manager to get a coaching badge in Spanish history).

Evolution and Implementation

This daring style which gave room for experimentation upfront became an almost instant hit in the Iberian nation and slowly began to evolve out of the 4-4-2 formation of yesteryears.

This style was copied by other title-winning tacticians like Javier Irureta (Deportivo La Coruna) and John Toshack (Real Madrid) in the early 2000s. This became the biggest validation of the new formation and led to its widespread adoption by other European leagues.

Once sides had started using their playmaker as a second striker – a trend that emerged at the 1986 World Cup – the coming of 4-2-3-1 was inevitable.

Real M
Real Madrid manager John Toshack adopted the formation with aplomb

Initially, a holding midfielder would be deployed to pick him up – hence the late-nineties boom in players capable of playing the defensive role in midfield – at which point the deep-lying forward would start drifting wide to find space.

If the holding player followed him, that created space in the middle, so an additional player would be dropped deeper as cover, with knock-on effects for the more attacking midfielders.

Or the evolution could come from the other direction: a side playing 4-4-2, with the wingers, pushed high and one of the centre-forwards dropping deep, is effectively playing a 4-2-3-1.

Unlike the 4-4-2, the 4-2-3-1 encourages the use of inverted wingers who could drop into midfield to increase the numbers or move upfront to make it a front two.

It was a formation that kept the best features of the 4-4-2 (the playmaker, wingers) while adding stability and highlighting the role of central midfielders or registas who could dictate play from the centre of the pitch.

This style has served a lot of teams to great effect recently from the all-conquering FC Barcelona team to current UEFA Champions League champions - Real Madrid, and extends to national teams like Spain, Italy, Germany, Chile and so on.

It may be a while before this tactic is challenged, but for now, 4-2-3-1 is here to stay.

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Edited by Aakanksh Sanketh
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