The 4-2-3-1 seems to be the general formation of choice for a lot of Europe’s top sides, including several Premier League clubs, most notably Chelsea and Manchester City. Neither club has reached their potential this season with several factors behind this, but, the use of the 4-2-3-1 can be scrutinized as one such factor. The 4-2-3-1 was according to this graphic by Whoscored.com one of the most used formations last year:
Lack of width
One major factor with the 4-2-3-1 is that side’s often play three attacking midfielders, rather than wingers. This is partially due to a general decline in the use of wide players, but also a way to cram as many play-makers into the side as possible. City do not play a ‘winger,’ but usually opt for Silva, Nasri and Tevez. Chelsea also did this under di Matteo with Oscar, Mata and Hazard playing these roles. With Chelsea Hazard is quite mobile so could provide width and attack full-backs, but he does tend to drift inside.
At City the same is true of their three players who all drift into similar positions, the result of this is that it crowds the midfield and leads to a real lack of natural width. These two graphics from City’s defeat to United demonstrate this:
This is Silva’s heat-map, as he started in the 4-2-3-1 as one of the 3, along with Balotelli centrally and Nasri on the other flank. Below is Nasri’s heat-map:
Both players essentially took up similar positions. In this game Nasri was loosely positioned on the left and Silva on the right, but as we can see here this did not happen, with both players drifting across the pitch. Both players want to get on the ball and play, this is exacerbated further if Tevez stars, as he drops off Aguero into similar areas. If opponents defend deep and compact the only space can be out wide, but failure to exploit the wide areas is a real problem in this formation. The full-backs are required to overlap at pace, which can leave gaps in behind that can be exploited on the counter-attack (something that will be discussed below).
Scott Sinclair is not a good enough option off the bench to change things leading to the side sometimes deploying Koralov as a wide option. Chelsea have also shifted under Benitez, often playing Moses wide right/left to provide more balance and width. There is a real reliance on playing through sides in this formation, which works really well when things are ticking, as we saw with Chelsea particularly in the 2-4 victory at White Hart Lane. It can be very difficult for opposition sides to mark the three playmakers due to their movement if it is going well. However, when things aren’t clicking other options are required which are not really present in the 4-2-3-1. You could argue that too much emphasis is placed on individual play-makers in this formation to create space and create chances for team-mates.
The lack of width directly impacts on sides’ ability to defend. With side’s throwing full-backs forward they can be caught out in behind. Further to this, with the three attacking players working centrally, if they lose the ball, the sides can be exposed down the flanks as full-backs are left one against one, or even one against two. Great examples of this can be seen when both Chelsea and City played Manchester United.
United picked both sides off early on by using wingers, scoring twice in each game during the early phases by countering quickly down the flanks. The United width overwhelmed the lack of width and lack of protection for the full-backs in Chelsea and City’s 4-2-3-1 formations. Again, if we refer to Silva’s heat map it is clear that he would have problems tracking a full-back given that his own position is so fluid, with him moving into different areas of the pitch. If he is central when his side lose the ball for example, it becomes difficult for him to then get back wide and track a runner.
One further problem with this formation that again has been particularly evident at Chelsea under di Matteo, is that the 4-2-3-1 can often create two units; defence and attack. The link between the two units is difficult without specialist personnel, leading to problems with the way the team flows. This again is a reason why defending can be problematic as the three can be far too separate from the two, making the defensive midfielders overly extended if the side lose possession. City possess a player more than capable in this regard with Yaya Toure, who can defend and drive out of the midfield. Chelsea also have Ramires who can work in this role, but really he is better in a midfield three. Arguably Chelsea’s lack of specialist defensive midfielder hindered them in this role. Ideally this formation requires two centre midfield players; one to pass the ball and the other to drive out of the midfield.
The 4-2-3-1 whilst bringing success for some times is a deeply flawed formation. The main problems centre around a lack of width, which also negatively impacts on the sides’ ability to defend, especially on the flanks. City and Chelsea have been exposed in this regard this season, with as noted United being a key beneficiary Sir Alex Ferguson has tried the formation before but has generally used wingers, one of few managers to do so at a ‘top club.’ The problems presented by the 4-2-3-1 have prompted Chelsea to change and implement more of a 4-4-1-1 in order to regain more defensive solidity. Having made the shift Chelsea have kept 5 clean sheets in their last 13 a stark improvement on their defensive fortunes towards the latter stages of di Matteo’s reign.
The 4-2-3-1 is still a very progressive formation, but the flaws are obvious. To implement it Chelsea merely signed an array of attacking players, when in truth it requires specialist personnel. In particular the system requires a fluid centre midfielder who can make the transitions between attack and defence, such as Javi Martinez or Yaya Toure. Further to this it requires full-backs both adept at getting forward and covering space in behind. City enjoyed great success in this formation last year but probably need more variation at the moment, lacking a real quality wide option to change things when they are struggling. The fact that Nasri has been so unspectacular since signing for the club is a problem here and it might be why Mancini sought after Eden Hazard last transfer window as a replacement. Mancini might be advised to sign a player who can offer width in the transfer window.
Regardless, it is interesting to see United’s variation of a 4-3-3, with real out and out wingers bringing them success, as it is now quite a rare formation for side’s to adopt (used only 15 times during the period Whoscored.com surveyed). As for the 4-2-3-1, it still has a lot to offer and it will be interesting to see how it evolves in the coming seasons.
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