Case study: 4-2-3-1 formation analysis

My fourth and last case study in Dutch academy football concentrates on formations. More specifically, I’ve looked at two formations used in the U18’s of several clubs. This analysis focuses on the theory of what’s good and what’s not so good about the 4-3-3 formations and the 4-2-3-1 formations. In part II: 4-2-3-1

These two formations have been used the most by the teams in the U18 leagues I’ve observed and in this analysis I will focus on a few things:

  • The defensive role of the midfield: double or single pivot
  • The attacking role of the midfield: the number ’10’
  • Pressing from the front

Often formation is used by media and fans as something that is static, as if each players holds a specific position – but as you may have seen or know, they are rather fluid and change within the game. But the roles asigned to players in a system, that’s what’s important in a game.

In this analysis I will focus on what I’ve observed in the games I’ve seen in the U18 league. This might be different to what senior sides do and the decisions made in attack, defence and transition can therefore be different than what is best, but this analysis looks at what happened.

The 4-2-3-1

A 4-3-3 is the formation of the Dutch footballing DNA. Many academies have been drenched with the idea of a 4-3-3, but the 4-2-3-1 is being played more often nowadays. This has to do with the idea that the playing philosophy of the first team should reflect the academy and vice versa.

There is a back four and a low defensive bloc – which also can be described as the double pivot in midfield. These six player form the defensive side of the starting 11. The attacking midfield consists of three players with #11 and #7 having space in front of them and the #10 staying a bit deeper. In this system there is one striker, as you can see with the #9.

Looking back at the games I’ve seen, the double pivot has not only a role to play in defence, but also in attack. How? The double pivot consisted of two defensive midfielders or a central + defensive midfield combination (the central midfielder would have more defensive qualities than attacking). This double pivot makes it so that there are essentially six defensive players in the team and this enables the four attacking players to think more in attack.

These four players are not only tasked with attacking, but they are encouraged and allowed to express more creative freedom. When they lose the ball, there is a defensive bloc that will try to deal with it in transition, before the back four will be threatened by the opponent’s attack.

There a few things different in the games I’ve observed from the 4-3-3. In the image above you can see how the attacks are constructed in a way. The ball was often played from the central defensive duo to the defensive bloc/double pivot. They would have several options going forward, but they often picked out the wide attacking midfielders. The difference is that they are not real wingers in the sense of the 4-3-3, but are more inverted and this is the key.

The #11 and #7 receive the ball and move inside into the box, where they would try to create a chance for the striker via a through ball or, would shoot with from that position. But that’s not the only attacking role they play. In the case that the defensive bloc picks out a pass to the upcoming full backs – who have a slightly more attacking role in this approach – the full backs move into the wide area. The wide midfielders and the #10 all move closer to the box, resulting in the following situation:

  • #9, #7 and #11 in the box
  • #10 in zone 14

The full backs had two options going forward which would create a lot of threat. Option one was to swing the ball into the box via a cross, with three players trying to attack that cross in the air. Option two was that the full back would go closer to the back line and try to pick out the #10, who was moving forward from zone 14.

The 4-2-3-1 was very effective when the team went into transition from defence to attack and wanted to create a goalscoring opportunity quickly. They could take risks and be more direct, because of their ‘safety-net’ of the double pivot.

Like I said above, hwne the ball was lost – the first line of dence was the double pivot, but that didn’t mean that the midfield was lost. The formation shifted and although the double pivot had to deal with the threat of the opponent, the formation would then change into a 4-5-1 formation in most cases in order to create a numeric advantage in midfield.

You can see this in the image above. When for example #10 lost a all, #6 and #8 were tasked of stopping the opponent. At the same time the attacking midfielders would drop deeper and join the double pivot to create a five-man midfield.

The 4-5-1 doesn’t really differ too much from the 4-2-3-1 as a midfield, but the defensive bloc and the attacking midfielders are playing more compactly, which makes them stronger as a defensive unit. At the same time it’s easier when they are transitioning from defence to attack, to get back in the shape of the 4-2-3-1.

It’s a slightly different approach than with a 4-3-3 with more attacking threat created to central zones of the pitch rather than from the flanks. The involvement of full backs from the flanks creates a different dynamic though, but the idea of having a defensive and attacking bloc, sits very well with some of the teams observed in the Dutch U18’s leagues.

*The tactical images are made with Tactical Pad, which gave me the freedom to alter the pitch just like I wanted to.

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