It is seen all over the world and in all the top leagues, even at a national level. The 4-2-3-1 formation has taken football by storm over the past few years, exemplified by all the teams that field it every week. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Roma and Borussia Dortmund are just a sample of clubs that have opted for this positioning.
In fact, almost every club plays a variation of the 4-2-3-1. It can be easily agreed upon that in its basic sense, this formation fields four defenders, five midfielders, and one lone striker. With that being said, the main deviation from a simple 4-5-1 is midfield separation. Two midfielders stay back to cover the defensive line, while three move forward to assist in the attack. These three midfielders are meant to be the main support for the striker, as well as the main outlet for passes out of the back. They usually have freedom to roam around the 18-yard box, looking for the best pass into the penalty area.
As for the defensive mids, they play a in a pivot setup that requires a supreme level of coordination and communication. One DM (defensive midfielder) tends to make runs forward, forcing the other to cover the whole width of the back line.
What is interesting is that the 4-2-3-1 could be easily converted into both the 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 to fit situational needs. An attack minded outfit could push their outside attacking mids further forward, theoretically becoming wingers and maximizing the width of the field. The central attacking mid would sit back to either the left or right side and act more as a deep-lying playmaker.
The more attack minded of the DM’s would move forward out of the pivot and move to whichever side is left vacant in the midfield three. The remaining mid would sit further back and act as the first last-line of defense.
If defense is necessary, when holding a lead or playing the counter against a superior team, this formation could, just as easily, convert into a 4-4-2. Once again, it’s all about midfield, as the outside attacking midfielders would drop back to sit a little ways ahead of their defensive counterparts, who would move up slightly to be more central. The central attacking mid would move up and become the second striker. This would effectively condense the field or “park the bus,” and clog the penalty box when necessary.
The 4-2-3-1 formation basically allows for both possession and counter-attacking styles of play, the two most popular styles in world football as of right now, and is a testament to the fluidity that is sought after by all of the world’s top teams.