How to beat the 4–2–3–1: A Guide for In-Possession Tactics

One Nil
18 min readJun 12, 2021

The 4–2–3–1 is one of the toughest shapes to break through as it covers almost all the key areas with a near-perfect vertical & horizontal staggering and there is very little space left open for the team in possession to take advantage of. However, there are ways to break down every defensive-shape or structure with the main objective being to pull players out of position, create space, moving the ball into that space and progressing further up-field. So when it comes to breaking down the 4–2–3–1, how do we go about doing it? While there could be many ways of going about it, we are going to be focusing on the use of a 3–4–2–1 to break down the 4–2–3–1

Setting the Tempo:

When a team is in possession, it is of utmost importance for them to understand at what tempo they need to maintain in possession. However, it is not as effective when decided by the team in possession without taking into account their opponent’s approach. The tempo, ideally should depend on whether the opponent wants to press or sit-back and if they want to press then how high is the pressure. A simple reason why this is important is because the answers to the above questions will tell us if there is going to be space, if there is then where is the space and if that can be utilized to pull the opponent’s defensive structure out of shape. Each approach from the opponent calls for a different approach from our own team in possession.

Let’s say for example that the opponent is willing to pressure our team high in our own-third and prevent us playing out from the back. This means that for every pass we make, every time we move the ball, there is going to be a chain reaction from the opponent players in their pressing movement. Now, it is important for us to remember that space is created and will always be created only when the opponent’s defensive structure is in motion. This holds true for a team’s defensive structure in any phase of the pitch. Without atleast 1 opponent player in movement, there cannot be any space created in their defensive shape.

So to contextualize this principle to the current scenario, all we need to know is if space is going to be created by itself from the opponent’s press or should we lure the opponent into pressing and in turn, create space?

When the opponent is already on a high-pressure mode,
then we don’t have to channel any effort into space creation but simply play at a quick tempo to take advantage of the small pockets which will keep coming up between the lines. This is because, the opponents will be in constant motion following along our players’ tightly. So the focus needs to be on how to be accurate, sharp and swift in ball-circulation with as few touches on the ball as possible, while playing out from the back.

If the opponent is happy to sit back and maintain his shape, this is a completely different scenario as the opponent is going to wait for us to come at them. Here, it may be wiser to lower the tempo and be patient until the right moment arises. This will be a game of patience wherein the team with the better composure usually gets the better of the other. But when we speak of the right moment for the team in possession, how exactly do we define it? It is simply that point when we successfully pull an opponent player out of his position by baiting him into pressure and create a gap or pocket of space to progress the ball. If the team in possession is staggered in right horizontal and vertical lines, the opponent’s defensive structure can be pulled out of position regularly, making ball progression smooth and seamless!

So we will be looking at breaking down the 4–2–3–1 with a 3–4–2–1 and progressing from one-third of the pitch to another, taking into account both approaches from the opponent:

a) When the opponent uses high-pressure
b) When the opponent sits back to absorb pressure
Now let us begin with the first-third of the pitch

Goal-Kick Strategies

a) Switch to a Back-Four

In a back-three setup, one of the biggest advantages in possession is the extra width from the extra centre-back while playing out from the back. However, when it comes to a goal-kick situation, three centre-backs in the same line across the width of the pitch may make it easier for the opponent to close down the GK’s passing options. Let us see an illustration on why such is the case:

The image above is an example of what could happen when the three centre-backs are lined up across the width of the pitch in front of the GK. With the CB in the middle on the same line as the GK, it makes it easy for the opponent striker to close down if he puts himself also on the same line. Let’s say the CB is inside the box until the pass is made. Even in that case, the opponent striker’s trajectory of pressure is just one straight line to close down both the CB and the GK. In other words, it will eventually force the GK or the CB to a misplaced long-pass in an attempt to evade pressure.

Misplaced long-passes forced out of pressure will only stifle the team in possession from building play from the back. There needs to be a setup which will stretch the opponent’s first line of pressure, allowing the GK enough passing options to progress the ball. So how do we position the three centre-backs to achieve that?

Centre-Back’s Alternate Positions during Goal-Kicks

There are two options that can be carried out in order to stretch the opponent’s first-line of pressure and find pockets of space to play out from the back. It will be necessary to push one of the CBs into another area of the pitch for an easier progression. As a result of the same, the GK along with the remaining 2 centre-backs takes the onus of a width across the pitch in the first-line of attack

Pushing one centre-back into Midfield:

Let us look at the scenario in which one of the centre-backs is pushed into midfield along with the other two central-midfielders to form almost what is like a 4–3–3. A major reason why this would offer an advantage to the team in possession is that it ensures there are enough numbers in midfield, which can be used to progress the ball if the opponent’s first-line of pressure is baited into pressing. In other words, overloading the gap between the opponent’s first-line and second-line of pressure is the priority for an easy ball-progression.

The success of this methodology depends largely on whether the GK along with the 2 centre-backs will be able to attract the opponent’s first-line into pressing them. Hence, the first couple of passes might have to be between the GK and the centre-backs in the same line as him until one of the opponent attackers step out. Once the opponent attacker decides to charge into pressure, that’s when the team in possession brings the wing-backs also into play in order to use more width and get past the first-line.

Once past the first-line of pressure, there can be focus on bringing the ball into an area from where the team in possession can be more threatening. So, the wing-back can look for options in the middle to combine and progress forward. If the pressing is high, it is of utmost importance to have fewer touches, quick release and off-the-ball movement from the passing options to ensure they are always available to receive.

So in this strategy, the key pointers for the team in possession are as follows:

a) Make the first line of three across the width of the pitch using GK and two centre-backs with the third centre-back joining the midfield

b) The centre-back and the two central-midfielders occupy the pace between the opponent’s first-line and second-line of pressure

c) GK + 2 Centre-backs attract pressure from opponent’s first-line and progress the ball using further width — via the wing-backs

d) Further progress into the middle-third, by moving the ball into areas where there is numerical superiority after baiting the opponent into pressure

Pushing one centre-back out-wide:

Let us look at the scenario in which one of the centre-backs goes out-wide while the GK and the remaining 2 centre-backs are responsible for utilizing the width across the pitch forming the first-line of attack. Yet again the key is to bait the first-line of opponent’s attack into pressing the GK and the two centre-backs. But what happens after that will be different. Here, the major advantage would be the overload on one flank of the pitch like show in the image above. (Overload of right-flank with one centre-back moving wide)

With one centre-back moving to the flank, it gives freedom for the wing-back to push even higher up field. With the near-side central-midfielder and the attacking-midfielder also there for support, the team in possession have 5 players on one flank whom they can use for ball-progression. The only way the opponents can avoid being out-numbered is by committing more players to that flank, which would lead to tilting of their defensive structure to one side.

With the right combination-play, the team in possession can easily surpass the opponents’ pressure on the strong-flank itself. If the opponent manages to tilt their defensive structure and allow their players to be lured in towards the flank to prevent the numerical superiority, then the gap is going to arise on the far-side, which can be taken advantage of using the wing-back’s run from blind side.

Scenario 1: Same flank playing out

Assuming that the opponents don’t get attracted to one flank and are simply using passive pressure to try and stop the build-up, then progression can happen in the strong-sided flank using the numerical superiority. The important point to remember here would be for the attacking-midfielder to keep the opponent’s full-back pinned to him as drawing him out of position would create space for the wing-back to run into. Of course, there is a requirement for some bit of courageous and accurate passing in order to pull this off but against any kind of pressure, a surprise vertical pass is the weapon that can slice through them.

Scenario 2: Luring Pressure on to one-flank and hitting from blind-side

In case the opponents decide to stop progression on the strong-sided flank, they will have to push their team towards that flank to close down gaps and fight numerical superiority. This automatically leads to opening of space on the far side of the pitch. That is when the role of the wing-back on the far side would be key as a perfectly-timed run coupled with a perfectly-weighted through ball can give the wing-back acres of free space to run into.

Key-Pointers to Remember during Build-Up against High-Pressure:

· One pass/ dribble to lure pressure and then go for verticality to penetrate into space created

· One or Two-Touch football, preferably touches to be as few as possible

· Use of Pre-determined combinations & patterns to avoid thinking when on the ball

· Objective is to move the ball between each line of pressure quickly

Build-Up against Low-Press

Progress quickly to the middle-third in order to build an attack that would offer an advantageous position to our team while entering the final-third

Progressing from the Middle-Third into the Final-Third

While I would like to believe that, the previous section would have given you a fair-idea about how to play out from the back against a 4–2–3–1 shape without having to hoof it over, let’s move on to the next section which is arguably the most important of them all: The Middle-Third

We will be looking at this section assuming that the team in possession has reached up-field till the middle-third and the defending team with the
4–2–3–1 shape has retreated into a mid-bloc press. This has been the trend in top-flight football in recent times as it allows the defending team to protect the central area and force the team in possession to go wide. Hence, a defending team with a solid defensive plan would generally aim to achieve the following in the middle-third

· Prevent conceding in the middle by remaining compact

· As a trade-off, give the CBs time on the ball but cover dangerous passing options and not get sliced through

· Force opposition into the wider areas as closing down the player in possession against the touchline is a smarter way to create pressure

So, in order to deal with this scenario, let us first have a look at the shape for the team in possession against mid-bloc pressure and analyse:

Against Mid-Bloc Pressure

Luring the Opponent-Winger:

As you can see in the image above, as the team in possession enters the middle-third, the central CB is on the ball with the striker trying to close down space. The immediate passing options are of course, to the right CB and the left CB. This is the pass which the team in possession would hope lures pressure from the opponent winger. If the opponent winger is successfully lured into pressure, then there is a free pass into the wing-back who is hugging the touchline, after which there is acres of space for him to run down and connect with the Left Attacking Midfielder or Right Attacking Midfielder.

2v1 for DMs against opponent’s number 10:

There is also the availability of the 2 Defensive-Midfielders who have been highlighted along with the opponent’s number 10, who is in between them. However, there would be much more use to them if they actually don’t receive a pass directly from the central CB for a simple reason. Let us take the scenario of one of the DMs receiving a pass and see what could happen:

The DM has received a pass directly from the central CB and he may not be under any direct pressure for a second. But look at the opponents positioning around him without the opponents having to move. There is a natural shadow-cover for the opponents who can just close down the DM in possession while also covering his nearby passing options. This can result in a turnover of possession right outside zone-14 for the opponent, who can then just reach the penalty area in a matter of seconds and create a chance.

To avoid this risk, there can be the use of diagonal passes in order to enter the middle-third and progress further upfield. When we speak of diagonal passes in this context, there are 2 main ones which can be utilized:

· Left Centre-Back to DM

· Right Centre-back to DM

This is when the 2v1 created by the DMs against the opponent’s number-10 comes into play as a key differentiator. When the Left/Right Centre-Back is in possession, then it is the job of the nearside DM to go closer, asking for a pass. This will be a bait to lure the opponent number-10 into pressing the DM and leaving the other DM free to receive.

As you can see, the opponent’s number-10 gets lured into pressing the nearside DM, leaving the other DM free. Now the DM who is free, needs to make an appropriate movement to position himself for a pass from the centre-back. The advantage of this pass is that, it allows the DM to receive the pass on the half-turn with his body ready to face the attacking-half and set himself up perfectly. From thereon, he can decide to either carry the ball or release it to a player giving a run; depending on the situation, the reaction of the opponents and teammates.

A sample showcasing how the team in possession can reach the final-third via this route

The positioning of the wide attacking-midfielders (No.7 & 10) are also key in order to make this work as by occupying the half-spaces, they can keep 3 opponents engaged and distracted. They will also be pulling the opponent’s defensive shape narrow, creating space for the wing-backs to charge up-field

Against Low-Bloc Defending

The scenario totally changes the approach to be taken in the middle-third. This is assuming that the opponent drops-off and lets the team in possession have space and time on the ball. This means that factors like patience, picking the right moment, moving the opponent to create space and then attacking the space are of utmost importance. As you can see in the image above, the 4–2–3–1 shape changes into a 4–4–1–1 as the opponent drops off to protect the final-third. This in turn, creates space in the interior corridors of the middle-third. Occupying this space is pretty much the key to unlocking the 4–4–1–1 as the shape has the ability to protect all key areas and it is possible to create chances only by forcing the opponent to step out, take a risk and get out of shape.

Numerical Superiority in Wide Areas:

Given that the opponent centre-backs are protected by two defensive-midfielders right in front of them, it wouldn’t be easy to penetrate through the middle or pull the opponent out of position. Hence, numerical superiority would be a wiser-route as the team in possession have a wing-back, a wide attacking-midfielder, a wide centre-back, making it easy to create overloads.

Wide Centre-back joining the attack

Numerical superiority in the wide-areas is in general, a very difficult challenge to deal with for any defensive shape. In order to ensure that there is no significant threat despite being outnumbered, the defensive shape will have to tilt towards the ball-side and ensure the team in possession won’t be able to have a simple 4v2 Rondo exercise to move further upfield. If they fail to do so, then as mentioned it would be a simple rondo-exercise for the team in possession to play and move forward.

As you can see in the animation above, a dangerous numerical superiority can be achieved in the wide-areas in favour of the team in possession by making the wide centre-back join the attack along with the other wide-attackers. This can be achieved with a simple rotational movement that will send the near-side DM back to where the central CB is positioned and in turn, the central CB takes the wide CB’s position. The wide CB then charges forward to take up a position outwide, which gives full freedom to the wing-back in attack.

Tilting the opponent and attacking the far-side

The options outwide are sufficient to progress on the same flank. However, if the opponent’s defensive shape manages to tilt towards the ball-side and see out attacks, then the natural solution would be to attack the far-side. This can be done with precisely timed switches of play to the far-side, where the opponent would have conceded space in order to have enough numbers on the ball-side.

In the animation above, you can see an example of what we discussed. The opponent proactively tilts his defensive structure towards ball-side in order to avoid getting outnumbered in the wide areas. This creates space on the far-side, which can be attacked by the wing-back along the touchline. The only requirement here is that of an excellent passer who would be able to accurately launch the pass into the far-side towards the wing-back, who can attack from there.

Key-Pointers to Remember in the middle-third:

a) Objective is to progress further and further up gradually till the final-third and try not to go back once progressed to a point forward

b) Keeping the ball patiently and waiting for the right moment

c) Series of non-penetrative passes followed by one penetrative pass

d) Test the Waters to see if a vertical pass or carry instigates pressure.
If yes, then take advantage of the space created.
If no, then pass back and restart from another focal-point

e) Calculated Risks at regular intervals are key as otherwise, it will lead to continuous non-threatening passes

f) Tilting the opponent from side to side is important as touchline pressure is a common trigger-point for pressure

g) Use the entire width of the pitch for better passing angles for centre-backs into the defensive-midfielders

h) If the DMs also spread themselves wide along with the CBs, then they would end up blocking the passing-lanes of CBs into the AMs, occupying same positions

For example: CBs spread across wide, then DMs and AMs must stay narrow to create diagonal passing angles to avoid blocking passing options and enable (Diagonal passes from out-to-in created)
CBs positioned narrow to bring opponent’s first-line of pressure narrow and find wing-backs in space (Diagonal passes from in-to-out and then scan)

The other way for the team to position itself is by the centre-backs and the defensive-midfielders narrowing it in the middle to attract the opponent’s striker and the three-behind him to also narrow themselves. This will create ample space for the wing-backs along the touchline, who can then charge forward and combine with the wide attacking-midfielders.
(Diagonal passes from in-to-out and then scan)

So a team can either go in-to-out or out-to-in but the important principle here is to move the ball forward using as many diagonal-passes as possible

Some Possible Patterns & Combination-Plays to reach the Penalty-Area

Final-Third Attacking

Any amount of planning that a team can do in the first two-thirds will remain in vain, if they are unable to produce the desired outcomes in the final-third. However, in this article or probably in any article, I wouldn’t detail out final-third attacking to the extent of taking sample scenarios like we had seen for the first two-thirds of the pitch. I personally believe that since football is a dynamic sport with changes happening every second, there are only a few moments that we can control in the game and final-third attacking is definitely not among them. While we can give an approximate idea as to how the player can go about a 1v1 duel, it is not possible to exactly chart out instructions for any player. Two simple steps to the right or to the left by the opponent defender can have an impact on the plans we make for the team.

Is it not applicable for the planning done for the first two-thirds of the pitch also?

Yes it absolutely is true for all parts of the pitch. Which is why, it may be important for the team to have a basic planning on how to play out from the back, goal-kicks, set-pieces and other dead-ball situations but the team should be able to understand the overall idea as to how to move the ball around, how to move the opponent by moving the ball, how to create space and attack that space. That is the overall point that we are trying to make here with such articles. But as far as the final-third is concerned, once a player is in possession of the ball against a defender 1v1 in a dangerous space near the box, then it is totally up to him to make the best decision possible to design the attack from thereon. Any amount of scripting we attempt to do there, may not only spoil the beauty of attack but could also be impractical to that particular scenario as no 1v1 duel happens the way we exactly imagine it in our heads. Hence, there is mostly no point in instructing players to follow one particular method once they are in that space in the final-third against an opponent. As many sources say about what Pep Guardiola says to his team,

“My job is to bring you to the final-third and then its up to you to create the chance and score the goal!”



One Nil

What does a team need to win a football game? 1–0! How does the team do it? Well you can find out right here in, what will be soon, a library of tactics.