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The most widely used formation in international football at present is the 4-2-3-1 formation and most of the top clubs in Europe have been using variations of 4-2-3-1 over the past decade. In the Champions League ,with the exception of Barcelona and Manchester United in recent years,all finalists have used a 4-2-3-1. Inter in 2010,Chelsea in ’12 and Bayern Munich in ’13,all have played with their own interpretation of the 4-2-3-1 and won the Champions League.
The Evolution of 4-2-3-1 formation
The trend of making the second striker as the play maker emerged in the 1986 world cup,the most famous example being Diego Maradona for Argentina. Once more and more teams started adopting this– the coming of 4-2-3-1 was inevitable. To counter the number 10,teams played a holding midfielder. Different teams and managers have different interpretations of the 4-2-3-1,but one common factor among them all is the presence of the double pivot.
The Double Pivot
The efficiency and the compactness that the double pivot provides makes it vital to have in the modern game. The double pivot actually is the usage of two holding mid-fielders in front of the defence. One generally more creative than the other and is termed as the “Deep Lying Playmaker“(Which will have its own article soon). All the 4 semifinalists at the 2010 World Cup used the double pivot. Spain,Holland and Germany all made their own interpretations of the 4-2-3-1 whereas Uruguay played with a classic 4-4-2(atleast on paper) but unlike in a typical 4-4-2 were the two Central Midfielders were allowed some sort of freedom,the Uruguayan central midfielders stayed back and acted as a double pivot. The Double Pivot or the players playing in that position are the ones who determine the tempo and also the overall setup of the team is dependent on them. You choose Busquets and Alonso as your double pivot like Spain did,then of course you will dominate possession. Or if you are Germany and play with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira,you would be devastating on the counter with Sami’s energy and Bastian’s intelligence. Or you can also park the bus like Netherlands did against Spain in the world cup final with Van Bommel and De jong.
The CAM is generally the most creative player in the team,playing between the lines and mostly with his back to the goal. He must ensure that the team doesn’t get split into two units and he must also be a master of finding space as he will be up against the opponent team’s double pivot. Thomas Muller,Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos are all world class number 10s with different qualities. Muller known as Raumdeuter(Space Investigator) is a master at exploiting space and seemingly is invisible to the opposition. Ozil has his devastating change of pace and with his tendency to drift wide ,causes problems for the opposition. Toni Kroos with his tactical intelligence,efficient passing and his dynamic and hard working approach is probably how playmakers will be in a few years. The number 10 role has changed and it has become vital for the modern number 10 to be tactically disciplined especially when the opposition has a regista or a deep lying playmaker. Read why Wayne Rooney is a bad number 10
The wingers,the full backs,the central defenders and the striker have similar roles like they have in other formations. There is tendency for certain coaches to use central midfield players in wide areas, this helps in maintaing compactness and congesting the central areas of the pitch. The striker can be a target man,a false 9 or even someone who ventures out wide to allow other players to take central attacking positions
How does one play/defend against the 4-2-3-1 formation?
The best way one plays against a 4-2-3-1 is to play a 4-2-3-1 yourself. But they are other ways of beating a 4-2-3-1. Italy with a midfield diamond completely nullified Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals. The midfield diamond allowed them to dominate the central areas quite easily and Loew made some strange decisions to counter the diamond but it backfired . A Barca type 4-3-3 also can be successful if you have the right players. The main problem in a 4-3-3 vs 4-2-3-1 is on the wings. The full back in a 4-3-3 is exposed a lot with the wingers high up the pitch,one solution for this is too have your holding midfielder drop into defence and then the two center backs can spread out wide. Sergio Busquets did this quite efficiently for Pep’s Barcelona.