Play and Beat the 4-2-3-1 Soccer formation (Advantages and Disadvantages)

What do Dortmund, Lyon, Paris St Germain, Arsenal, and Valencia all have in common?

They all are known to use the 4-2-3-1 formation. 

It’s also the formation Spain used to clinch the 2010 World Cup Title. 

Top club and national teams leverage this formation in favor of its possession-oriented, setup. The 4-2-3-1 provides great numbers in the attack while also offering substantial cover against the counter-attacks.

While it’s generally a balanced approach, it does expose the width. 

The 4-2-3-1 formation requires fit, athletic outside backs, and a talented striker, but it’s effective for many teams around the world.


As with any formation, it can be beaten with some considerations. 

4-2-3-1 - Soccer Formation
4-2-3-1 – Soccer Formation

Advantages of a 4-2-3-1 Soccer formation 

The 4-2-3-1 is a possession-oriented formation that is now one of the most popular in the world. It relies on four defenders, two defensive midfielders, three attacking midfielders (central, left, and right), and one striker.

This shape provides great stability in the middle of the field and encourages outside backs to get involved in the attack. 

Teams in the top leagues around the globe leverage this formation because of its many benefits. 


  • Creates triangles throughout the field to facilitate effective passing. 
  • Two defensive mids provide a significant defensive cushion against counterattacks and quality offensive opponents. 
  • Facilitates build-up from the back, beginning with the goalkeeper. 
  • Great for center backs that are organized and technically sound. 
  • Allows center mids to attack 1-vs-1 and generate the attack higher up on the pitch. 
  • Accounts for space on the entire field. 
  • Encourages creative play and freedom from attackers. 

Weaknesses of a 4-2-3-1 Soccer formation 

Despite its many advantages and widespread popularity, the 4-2-3-1 is not perfect. When coached poorly or used with the wrong personnel, the formation can fail miserably.

Even with great players, there are some drawbacks to consider:


  • Requires full-backs that are extremely fit and can cover a lot of ground.
  • Defensive responsibilities for attacking-minded players. 
  • Takes immense physical exertion from several players that can lead to burnout throughout a season. 
  • Attacks begin from a very deep position. 
  • Potential to exploit center backs in 1-vs-1 situations.
  • Often pits a lone striker against several defenders. 
  • It can be more complicated and intricate to teach to players. 

How to play against a 4-2-3-1 Soccer formation 

Patience is key when battling a 4-2-3-1 formation. Teams that try to rush the ball forward will quickly become frustrated with the cover this formation provides.

To play against this formation, you should look to exploit the space in the wings, especially behind the 3 midfielders.

Playing the ball behind the three midfielders and ahead of the outside backs forces the opposing defender to rush forward, or pulls one of the two defensive center mids wide.

In either case, the team is pulled out of shape which will then allow your attack to advance in the gaps. 

Once the midfielders are moved out of position, gaps will appear in the center of the field. This is the moment you should have a player ready to exploit that space.

Some teams may use their outside backs to push up to counter this play. This is when you should play the ball beyond them.

Get one of your strikers to pull out wide to fill the position vacated by the outside back and play the ball through or over.

One of the keys to playing against any formation is to disrupt their positioning. When a team has order it’s a formality to defend, but by moving them out of their position you can create chaos!

How to defend against a 4-2-3-1 Soccer formation 

Teams using this formation like to possess and build the attack from the back. Typically, the center backs will split wide and a defensive mid will check toward the middle when the goalkeeper has the ball.

Outside backs push high and wide. If you give them space, your opponent will be able to build their attack and threaten your defense quickly

Pressure the other team high on the field, while forcing the ball to the width. If you set your press too high, then most opponents will surpass your forward line.

Cover the outside backs, and position players in the dead space between the center backs, outside backs, and defensive mids. 

As the goalkeeper plays the first pass, pressure the player receiving the ball hard and force them wide. It’s most important to cover the outside backs and defensive midfielders, preventing them from playing a quality pass.

This formation offers the most support centrally, so keeping the ball wide will help you isolate outside backs and stuff their possession. 

Best formation against 4-2-3-1 Soccer formation 

Choose a formation that suits the strengths of your players but also addresses the weaknesses of a 4-2-3-1. 

One example is a variation of the 4-3-3, a 4-1-2-3. The 4-1-2-3 typically provides you with enough midfielders to handle the centrally-dominant 4-2-3-1 but gives more attacking prowess in the width of the field with 3 forwards. 

If you have fast, strong defenders that are good in 1-vs-1 scenarios, consider a 3-5-2.

3-5-2 - Soccer Formation
3-5-2 – Soccer Formation

The three defenders can play more centrally and generally handle the loan striker as well as an attacking midfielder attempting to join.

With five across the middle, you can exploit the width of the pitch and dish the ball two the two strikers. 

How to beat a 4-2-3-1 Soccer formation 

Even though this formation is highly successful for many teams, it can be beaten. While it offers left and right midfielders, they typically cannot cover much of the width of the field.

The full-backs attempt to make up for this by surging forward into the attack. However, this leaves a 4-2-3-1 wide open to counter attacks on the width. 

Defensively, force this formation to the width and pin them there. Look to counter-attack quickly, isolating the outside backs in 1-vs-1 situations. 

If the counter is not on, then be patient with your attack. Be careful when playing through the middle against this formation. Look to engage players near the width before slotting the ball to a forward.

You can mark the forward four players which will stop their attack, leaving their defensive players to make a move. 

By keeping their striker out of the game you can easily nullify them. Have one of your defenders tightly mark the striker, with another defender for cover.

You can always drop a midfielder back to block any through ball to them and stop them from linking up play. 

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