4-2-3-1: The holding midfielders

The 4-2-3-1 has been heralded as a revolution in footballing tactics in recent years, taking over the majority of international football and wriggling itself into the arsenal of Europe’s best club managers. The importance of the defensive triangle and incredible pressing opportunities that make the formation so appealing to managers are extremely well documented and I have nothing extra to offer on the general pros and cons – please take a look at Sean’s post on The Away Stand about the 4-2-3-1. What I do want to talk about is the role of the two MCs in the 4-2-3-1 and how important they are to successful attacking transition and defensive stability.

Looking at the shape of the 4-2-3-1 at face value, it does look an extremely attacking and aggressive style, with 6 players in the final three strata of the tactics screen. Indeed, there are few formations which can boast two central midfielders, 3 attacking midfielders and a striker, but the MCs are vital to neutralising the attacking nature of the strike force. These players are absolutely fundamental to the 4-2-3-1 and play in a wholly different way to the central midfielders in 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formations, for example – in more ‘traditional’ set-ups, these players are relied upon to get forward and support the attack.

The MCs in the 4-2-3-1, however, are quite the opposite, and are used as defensive shields. The 4-2-3-1 is one of the easiest formations to face when the MCs are not suitable to their role; gaping holes appear and counter attacking becomes that bit easier, the much-famed defensive stability non-existent. This is especially apparent when 4-2-3-1 meets 4-2-3-1:

The red circle is where this game will ultimately be won or lost, unless there is a huge imbalance in abilities in other positions. Mikel and Bender face up directly against the opposing central midfielders but that is the same as in most formations when they meet. The difference here, is how well these midfielders can deal with the threat from the attacking midfielder who adds a lot of danger. They now need to keep their heads on screws, and be perfectly positioned. Though the 4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-3-1 shows the importance of the MCs, they are vital to the successful functioning of this formation, no matter which one of the vast array of styles you choose, in any context, against any formation.

If they don’t, it’s big trouble for their team. In my first season at Man United, I used Michael Carrick, a perfect central midfielder for a 4-2-3-1, but usually accompanying him was Ryan Giggs. This was good for keeping possession but when it came to lightning quick attacks where the ball was moved speedily, we looked very suspect. Now, three years on, I have one of the best central midfield partnerships possible in Mikel and Bender, who are brilliant positionally and keep the ball perfectly for the world-class players ahead of them. Let’s see how they shape up in action.

Holding the fort

Mikel (#2) and Bender (#22) are fairly withdrawn here, compared to what you might expect from Box to Box midfielders or an Attacking CM, but this is exactly what I want. The box contains my striker, my AMC and my right winger, with my left back and left winger trying to create a chance to cross or cut inside and my other full back on the opposite side. This means my two MCs form a ‘box’ with my two CBs as our only forms of attack. Most formations won’t leave more than three forward in a situation like this, so this box is very very strong in protecting our goal; Bender and Mikel are a fair distance apart but they are staggered so that if Mikel somehow messes up the tackle on #29, Bender can easily cover, and if not, one of the CBs is free.

The security of the box: The two CBs and MCs pack tightly

Quite simply, these partnerships, both between themselves, and with the CBs, are sturdy protection, but it is so easy for this protection to be broken by an inadequate MC. Should I play Rooney, there, it’d be easy to see the difference, since his defensive awareness would be considerably less and he would be pushing on into the area or at the least, the edge of it. You can see here that both of my MCs are very reluctant to move into such areas, as that would break the Box and be a much less secure way of defending against fast counter-attacks.

Keeping possession

The nature of the 4-2-3-1 means that these midfielders must be available to receive passes from the defenders; this is vital to ball retention and the building of attacks. The 4-2-3-1 generally relies on short passes – variants like the German 2010 World Cup are not the norm –  so if the midfielders do not drop back and show themselves to the defence, we may see defenders panicking and doing a good hoof up the pitch or trying something a bit above their station. The favourability of two MCs over a defensive midfielder, though, comes from their positioning and flexibility; they tend to be deep anyway as part of their role of protecting the defence but the simple fact that there are two of them means the defenders can invariably pick one of them out.

This screenshot is probably a situation you see countless times throughout a match, but it holds great significance in demonstrating the merits of the 4-2-3-1 MCs in retaining possession. No matter where the ball is on the pitch, they have the perfect positioning to link the back to the front, the left to the right. There is a pretty big gap between the defenders and the rest of the team but as shown in the above shot, and the first one, there is no substitute for intelligent midfielders who can link the two.

A statistical look – what kind of midfielder fits a 4-2-3-1?

My two best midfielders, in my opinion, are the aforementioned John Obi Mikel (signed him on a free, thank you very much Chelsea) and Darren Fletcher. They seem to have a perfect distribution of defensive solidity (concentration, positioning and tackling) and attacking competency (passing, off the ball, creativity) between them. Sven Bender sometimes plays to offer a bit more defensive stability, and Keisuke Honda is a more luxurious option when we need to make incisive passes.

Pass completion ratio

It is no surprise that these four feature in the top five (let’s exclude Babacar) pass completion ratio. It is absolutely categorically essential to their role as protectors that they keep the ball well; it doesn’t necessarily take a good passer, but one that can make intelligent decisions and pick the right pass. Going down the list, my midfielders have: 16, 15, 16, 15 as Decisions attributes. No frills, no bells, no whistles.

Passes completed per 90 mins

Again, no shocks here. Central midfielders are the hub of the formation, as I was rambling on about earlier. My midfielders have: 13, 16, 14, 9 as Off the Ball attributes. The significance of Bender having the least passes completed and having the lowest Off the Ball attribute is for you to decide, but I like to think it plays a part. Off to training, Sven.

Preferred Moves

What PPMs you want in your MCs is dependant on what roles you choose for them – I favour a CM-Defend alongside a Deep Lying Playmaker-Support so I like certain traits that differ between those two roles. Bender tends to take up the CM-Defend position pretty much every game and he is the image of a perfect player for that:

There are hardly any others that would significantly impact on Sven’s success in this position. The DLP role is a more fluid position though, allowed a degree of creative freedom and allowed to be a bit more expansive:
  • Comes Deep to Get Ball
  • Dictates Tempo
If you’re lucky enough to have a suitable CM who you trust, you could throw in “Tries Killer Balls” as well, but not many are that privileged and I would advise playing such a good player further forward. Comes Deep To Get Ball can be a truly brilliant PPM to have if the player has good Off the Ball and has the ability to impact on the game – Paul Scholes? – as it allows them to pick up the ball from the defender even deeper than usual and link the defence to the attack in a freer way. Really though, anything that gives an air of conservatism, of safety, of composure, is good for these players.

I could go on and on. What I set out to demonstrate was the overwhelming importance of the two CMs in a 4-2-3-1 formation and hopefully I’ve done that. Get this part right and every facet of your 4-2-3-1 will improve greatly.

One comment on “4-2-3-1: The holding midfielders

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