Much as the 4-4-2 was the default formation for teams in the 80s and 90s, the 4-2-3-1 is the cookie-cutter choice for uninspired managers everywhere in the contemporary game. The template is simple: two holding midfielders, one player in the ‘free role’, a couple of goal-scoring wingers and a big man up front. It’s not rocket science, and while it offers a little more flexibility than the straight 4-4-2 sometimes did, it’s still a rigid, safety first way of playing the game.
Of course, not all teams that nominally use a 4-2-3-1 are defensive. Wenger’s Arsenal for example use a formation that’s often depicted as a 4-2-3-1, but which is in practice a dynamic 4-3-3, with interchanging midfielders and no out-and-out holding player. A true 4-2-3-1 by comparison, uses holding midfielders – two to be precise - in order to break up play and launch counter attacks from deep on the pitch. To illustrate this style, I’ll use two examples from recent years everyone will be familiar with: Firstly, the Holland team from the 2010 world cup; who encapsulated everything that’s wrong with the formation. And secondly, Mourinho’s Chelsea team, who have been perhaps the worst culprits in this year’s low scoring start to a Premier League season.
For Holland, the team’s only real creative force was Wesley Sneijder, who occupied a similar ‘free role’ to the one he played in his Champions League winning Inter Milan squad. Behind him were 2 out and out destroyers in De Jong and Van Bommel; and on either side of a front 3, inside forwards in Robben and Kuyt. This presented an obvious problem for Holland; the ball needed to get to Sneijder, or their creativity would be stifled.
Sneijder is many things, but he’s not a natural ball winner and as such he himself needs service of some kind. In a 4-2-3-1 with out and out holders however, the player in the hole is inevitably a bit isolated. This leads to two outcomes: Either he therefore has to work disproportionately hard, tracking back to receive the ball in non-threatening areas and wearing himself out, or he hangs around in dangerous areas, but relies on service form inferior ball-players like Van Bommel, and lucky counter attacks. What Holland lacked at the world cup, which might have taken some of the pressure off Sneijder was a genuinely deep lying player who could play the ball – a Pirlo or a Yaya Toure, even a Gareth Barry. This weakness was not showcased against Brazil, who failed to effectively mark Sneijder out of the game, nor against comparatively weak opponents in Slovakia and Uruguay. In the final against Spain however, the dynamism of the opposing holding midfielders Alonso and Busquets proved crucial, allowing Spain to move the game from the centre of the pitch to edge of Holland’s box relatively effortlessly, and reduce Holland’s opportunities to moments of individual flair from Robben.
As is often the case with international sides, it’s fair to say that Holland’s choice of formation was dictated by personnel rather than footballing idealism, but it nonetheless reflects a similar trend in club football, and was in many ways copied wholesale from Mourinho’s Inter Milan. Three years down the line, Mourinho is up to something similar at Chelsea, combining workmanlike but uncreative holders in Lampard, Mikel and Ramires with a dynamic front line focused on the attacking talents of Eden Hazard and Oscar. It would be unfair to describe this Chelsea team as lacking creativity; Hazard and Oscar are exceptionally creative players. However they lack a natural deep-lying link player, and thus there is often a noticeable leap when moving from the defensive 6 to offensive 4, usually only bridged when the team is pushed back and allowed to counter attack.
This weakness was exploited noticeably by Everton last Sunday, as technical midfield players like Barry and Osman heavily utilised the space in between Chelsea’s front 4 and back 6 to relieve pressure and keep the ball when Chelsea should have been putting them on the back foot. Indeed, the time Chelsea looked most threatening was, paradoxically, during the opening 45 minutes, when Everton were pressing higher up the pitch, and leaving gaps in behind.
Not only does the straight 4-2-3-1 make inefficient use of the space on the pitch however, it also produces slightly dull, turgid football. This is less evident against smaller teams, but Chelsea’s 0-0 draw against Man United showcases what happens when a 4-2-3-1 team plays this way in a big game. Of course, Chelsea will probably do very well this season and Mourinho has simply taken a calculated gamble that in a league with no really dominant team, a conservative style will pick up the most points.
For the sake of interesting football however, I wish teams would ditch the 4-2-3-1. It’s not that it doesn’t work; it’s a decent enough way of playing the game if you lack the creativity or resources to play any better. It is however limited in its scope, and at times predictable and dull. Most damningly, the very best teams of recent years - Spain, Barca and Bayern to name 3 – never use it, and if Mourinho's Chelsea fancy themselves in the same league, they will have to ditch it too.