Exposing the Myth: The ‘4-2-3-1’ Formation

Exposing the Myth: The ‘4-2-3-1’ Formation

I am not a writer; I am not an aspiring journalist either. I am merely a Football fan who likes to talk about everything Football related. I am writing this piece due to the several frustrations I have had while talking to people and reading written pieces about a formation as being a ‘4-2-3-1’ formation. Before I delve deeper, I would like to say that I myself have used this term ‘4-2-3-1’, not because I believe it, but because it is easier to speak to people using the term instead of trying to explain what I mean when I say ‘4-2-3-1’ or what I am actually talking about when they say ‘4-2-3-1’. In my piece I will only focus on the attacking aspect of the 4-2-3-1 and will not be looking at the defensive phases. Therefore, although it may not show a complete picture, it will show where I consider the myth of the formation lies. Obviously it is important to look at all phases when talking about formations, but this will give a good starting point to why I believe the formation is more a myth.  Moving forwards, I shall be using the help of some images along with my explanations to help my point.

I would like to begin with the image of what is commonly perceived to be the ‘4-2-3-1’ formation as it is popularly used right now. As I am a Liverpool fan, I have chosen to display my argument through diagrams using the Liverpool team players.

The Perceived Formation

The image above helps me explain what I mean when I say ‘Percieved ‘4-2-3-1’. On first look the formation seems simple: Keeper, Right Back, 2 Center Backs, Left Back, 2 Central Midfield Players, 3 Attacking Players and a Striker. I would like to go deeper into the formation to explain why I believe this is a myth, and not reality. When it comes to formations, I believe that formations are set up with each player fulfilling a particular role within the formation that gives it its shape. If you are someone that believes a formation is merely what it looks like on paper the way players are lined up, then what I am saying will go completely over your head and you will probably disagree with everything I am saying. I believe this, as I think there is no other way to look at a formation besides the role’s each player plays within the formation.


I have adapted the image above to show the 2 roles that I deem questionable with the perceived ‘4-2-3-1’ formation. I have termed these roles as ‘limbo’. As I have stated above, it is important for me to define the roles each player plays within a formation. Therefore I have highlighted the two roles taken by the wide players from the attacking 3 and labelled them ‘limbo’. What are the roles of the wider players in the formation? I am yet to find out. I have seen people talk about them as wingers, inside forwards or wide midfielders, however they are none of the above. I will now highlight why I believe none of those roles fit the ‘4-2-3-1’ formation.


Here is a simple 4-3-3 with a 2-1 midfield triangle as apposed to the 1-2 midfield triangle. This formation is probably the best way to help show where winger’s fit into the formation. As this is an article based completely on my opinion I have chosen to define the term ‘winger’ as I see the role. For me a winger is a player that looks to take on opposition fullbacks and provide crosses for the attackers/teammates to convert. They primarily stay very wide and are rarely found central. With this definition it is easier to see the formation 4-3-3 as it is displayed above. Ignoring the Keeper and Defence, there are the 2 central midfield players (One Defensive midfielder and one Deep-Lying Playmaker), there is the Central Attacking Midfielder (which is your attacking playmaker role or ‘Number 10’ role), this then brings me to the 2 wingers with the striker upfront completing the formation. If we take this formation and push up the Attacking Midfielder and bring the wingers into ‘limbo’ we see the ‘4-2-3-1’ back in action. So are the wide players in the ‘4-2-3-1’ wingers? You tell me.

Inside Forwards

Above is what I determine to be a 4-2-1-3 formation. Before I go on further, I would like to add that I believe that this formation is what people right now most commonly mistake ‘4-2-3-1’ to be. Coming back to my definitions, in my book an inside forward is a player that plays in attack and complements the striker. When I say this I mean that the role of the player is to run between channels in defence and whose first instinct would be to take a shot at goal from close to the box. This varies from my winger definition as I have defined a winger to play wide and look to cross to the attacker/teammate. I believe this is an important definition that is currently lost to many people who loosely use the term winger to define an inside forward. In the formation above, just focusing on the front three players, you can look at them as: Left Forward, Center Forward (Striker) and Right Forward. If we now take this formation, move the left and right forwards upwards to get into a line with the Attacking playmaker, we see the ‘4-2-3-1’ turn up. So again I ask, are the wide players in the ‘4-2-3-1’ inside forwards?

Wide Midfielders

The above image represents the ‘4-4-1-1’ formation. I will use this to help with the position displayed by a wide midfielder. A wide midfielder is not an easy term to define; the best way to help the definition would be as a defensive winger. Commonly seen as RM or LM, a wide midfielder will have a similar role to that of a winger. However, a winger is seen to be more of an attacking player with less defensive responsibilities. Therefore, defensive winger would seem a more apt definition of wide midfielder. Here the midfielder will have an extra role that is to provide the fullbacks with extra defensive cover, therefore moving up and down the wing supporting the attack and defence. Now we take our wide midfielders and move them further up the pitch, in line with the attacking playmaker. We come back to the ‘4-2-3-1’. So are the wide players in the ‘4-2-3-1’ wide midfielders?

Before I continue, I would like to include the term ‘inverted winger’ into the role’s I have given these wide players. For me, an inverted winger is merely taking the inside forward role and adding to it from the outside. An inverted winger is a player who is playing on the side that is his weaker side; i.e. a left footed player playing on the right. By doing so, the role is for the player mainly to cut inside (like an inside forward) and provide assistance to the striker or take a shot on goal. However, the term ‘inverted winger’ also implies that the player has an added duty to look to the wings and provide a cross if no other options are available. Although this role is also performed by an inside forward, it is not inherently in the name (I shall touch on this later).  In regards to the formations, for me an inverted winger would fit into either the 4-3-3 or 4-2-1-3 formations.

Current Practice

What I would like to do now is to take the ‘perceived 4-2-3-1’ and show how it has been used to describe formations of certain teams. My favourite examples to use are those of the current Manchester City team and last year’s Chelsea team. I will begin with Manchester City.

Here is what I have seen many people describe the Manchester City formation and line-up to look like with various player rotations. If we go by definition, Nasri and Silva are either wingers, wide midfielders or inside forwards and Aguero is the attacking playmaker behind Negredo who is the striker. Something about this does not sound right. From what I have seen from the players, neither Silva nor Nasri are wingers and Aguero is not a playmaker. Therefore I have taken the liberty to adapt what most people look at as ‘4-2-3-1’ and adapt it to what I believe is more in line with the role’s displayed by the Manchester Ciy Players.

Above is what I believe to be the formation used by Manchester City when these players are on the pitch. This represents a 4-2-2-2 formation. Here Nasri and Silva are both Attacking Playmakers and Aguero acts as a second striker or Center Forward along side, but slightly behind, the primary striker that is Negredo.

The next team I shall use is the Chelsea team from the 2012/2013 season. I have heard many people argue that Benitez is the man who brought the ‘4-2-3-1’ to light in the premier league. Therefore I have decided to use Benitez formation to help describe my point.

The images below show the Chelsea formation that I have seen displayed on paper for a large part of the season as well as the formation I consider it to look like. First we have Hazard and Oscar in ‘limbo’ or as winger, inside forward or wide midfielder, Mata is the attacking playmaker behind Torres as the striker. However, for me this looks different. In my formation we have Hazard and Oscar as inside forwards, with Mata playing as the Attacking Playmaker behind the striker Torres. Maybe if Benitez were to read this he would agree with me, or maybe he would tell me that he actually used them as wingers or wide midfielders, however, what I am trying to say here is that ‘4-2-3-1’ is a formation where there are certain undefined roles.

My 4-2-3-1

My point here is not to say that 4-2-3-1 is not a formation at all. My point merely is to highlight that the formation most people perceive to be ‘4-2-3-1’ really is not 4-2-3-1 at all. Here I am going to look at what I consider to be the most apt description of the 4-2-3-1 and I will also go on to describe how the 4-2-3-1 can be commonly mislabelled due to several player roles.

Above we have the image of what I perceive to be a 4-2-3-1 with the roles within the formation defined. Here we have 3 attacking playmakers all playing behind the striker. Here is where I would like to expand on the point I alluded to earlier. When talking about inverted wingers I said: ‘Although this role is also performed by an inside forward, it is not inherently in the name’. Here I was referring to the secondary role of an inverted winger that is to perform the primary role of a winger: staying wide and providing crosses. When I talk about roles and formations, I mainly focus on the primary role of the player to help fit the formation. However, with football today being extremely fluid and several players contributing to the different phases of play, this primary role gets lost within all the roles expected of the player. With my 4-2-3-1 there are 3 attacking playmakers. They are all expected to fulfil the primary playmaking role, however, there will also be instances where they help provide width and move wider leaving 1 playmaker in the middle. This role is then interchangeable between the 3 players as they are all players who can play as a ‘number 10’. The team I have chosen to help display this is Arsenal. This season Arsenal has 4 players who could fit the description of Attacking Playmaker: Jack Wilshere, Tomáš Rosický, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil. I have gone with 3 of these players to help display what I mean.

Here we see the 4-2-3-1 as I describe it with 3 Central Attacking Playmakers. However, although the formation may seem too narrow with all 3 only having a central role, due to the fluidity of the game these players will interchange and also provide width during the game. Here we can clearly see the ‘3’ in the formation with no player being caught in ‘limbo’.

Now I would like to touch on the mislabelled formations that are invariably called ‘4-2-3-1’.

In the above image I have shown another formation that I believe sometimes is mis-represented as being ‘4-2-3-1’. Here the roles of the ‘3’ players are: Wide Midfielder, Attacking Playmaker and Inside forward. There are a few ways in which a variation of this formation or other formations can be used and represented as ‘4-2-3-1’, however just as an example I have chosen to use this. Here the misconception is placed due to the unsure role of certain players, therefore most people discard the roles and continue to call it ‘4-2-3-1’. However, if we were to look at the formation more closely, it would seem to represent either a 4-4-2 diamond (4-1-2-1-2) or a 4-3-1-2 depending on the roles of the players. With a 4-4-2 diamond, there is a Defensive midfielder along with 2 narrow Central Midfielders that would take up the Box-Box midfielder roles. In front of them would be the Attacking playmaker and in front of him would be the 2 strikers or (1 primary striker and 1 secondary striker). In the 4-3-1-2 you would have the Deep Lying Playmaker accompanied by the 2 Box-Box midfielders with the roles in front being the same as the diamond formation. This, for me, is where it can get tricky. Although some may argue that the wide midfielder should be wider and therefore part of the ‘3’, I would say that this role needs better defining before labelling it as a ‘4-2-3-1’. Then comes the question of the inside forward. Is the player an inside forward, or is he a second striker? These are several questions that get overlooked when actually debating what formation to use or how to number the formation based on the player’s a manager puts out.


The only conclusion I would like to draw from this is that if someone wants to start talking tactics and formations, they better understand the roles of the players within it. Without that, any combination of numbers can be used to define a formation, however, they will simply be viewed as numbers on a piece of paper. Formations should be drawn based on the roles each player has been given and not simply by the way you can line them up on the pitch.