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It's a Numbers Game
By: Mehdi Alamood
The purpose of this essay is to present an argument as to why the 1-4-2-3-1 is the best futbol formation. No formation, system, or tactics, guarantees success in the game as the game is wildly unpredictable, and on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. However, the great number of strengths that this formation offers, versus the manageable weaknesses, significantly increase a team's ability to succeed.
Before actually delving deep into the formation and everything that comes with it, it is important to understand futbol. Futbol is defined as a game played between two teams of 11, using their feet as the primary tools of scoring and defending. The objective is simple, score more goals than your opponents. Easy enough, right? This is where tactics and systems of play enter the picture.
In reality, the game is really not 11v11, even though it is 11v11. What is meant by that? Picture this: When your team's left-back has the ball, how involved is the striker? How involved is the right-winger? What about the right-back? Not very much, right? Situations and the numbers of players involved in different zones of the field are dictated by the manager's desired system of play and formation. For example, Jurgen Klopp's 4-3-3 overloads the outside channels and overwhelms opposing teams with overlapping outside backs capable of elite crossing combined with skillful inverted wingers who drift into the inside channels to receive the ball and dribble. Jurgen Klopp prefers to press, which means that his front line and midfield actively pressure the opposing team when they have the ball in their half, meaning his backline will play high and leave space behind them.
In comes Antonio Conte's counter-attacking based 3-4-3. Antonio Conte prefers to place more players in the defensive zones and utilize direct playing midfielders to set his faster strikers on counter-attacks. Whatever formation you choose to use, the objective is to create situations, whether defensively or offensively, where you have the numerical advantage. This benefit is precisely why the 4-2-3-1 is the best formation. It promotes flexibility and creativity. It allows players to drift into abnormal areas and create numerical advantages in the attack. And on the defensive side of the ball, it is geared towards high pressing and winning the ball higher up the field.
Let's break the 4-2-3-1 down by position. To be successful in this formation, you must have the right kind of players with the right skillset. You can't plug just any player into this kind of system and expect success. The formation requires the following:
- Able to come off his lines
- Two center backs
- Ball playing
- Able to break lines
- Two full-backs
- Attacking full-backs who have a desire to join the attack
- Able to offer width and able to cross
- One pure defensive midfielder
- This player is responsible for sitting in front of the back two and acting as a shield
- Must be tactically and positionally smart, as he has the job of breaking up opposing team's counter-attacks
- One defensive/box-box midfielder
- The second member of the shield, he also has a lot of defensive responsibilities
- However, given license to occupy zones and spaces higher up the pitch and assist with the attack
- Fluid front 4
- Three attacking midfielders
- Outside AM are inverted and are comfortable in all different spaces
- Comfortable playing in tight spaces
- Have good 1v1 ability
- Have the freedom to switch with other attacking mids
- False-9 striker
- Essentially a higher playing attacking mid, who has more of an eye towards goal
- Has the license to drop back and receive the ball deeper between the lines
- Has the ability to link up play and maintain possession
As one can see, each position requires specific skillsets, which means the formation can only work with these players. For example, if you play with more defensive fullbacks who do not have the confidence to get forward, we lose out on the width. Because now we have too many central players and have drawn in the defensive team but have no wide outlets. Another example, you need inverted outside attacking mids because you want to leave the wide channels to the fullbacks. If a right-footed player is playing on the right side, then he would be more likely to stay wide and cross the ball, which in this formation is the fullback's job. In this formation, we want our outside attacking mids to come inside to dribble, link, shoot, and create.
- Flexibility of the formation
One of the many strengths of this formation is its extreme flexibility. On paper, it is a 4-2-3-1, but because of the abundance of creative players comfortable in different zones, the system takes on many different shapes and sizes, depending on the phases and circumstances. For example, in attack, the formation will most likely turn into a 3-6-1 when the full-backs get high and the inverted wingers tuck inside.
The strength of this shape is that the creative midfielders draw in the opposing team into the midfield zones to counter the numerical advantages we have created, so where is the space? Out wide. Our full-backs now have time and space to pick crosses, attack the line, or simply pull and push the other team's shape by keeping possession. The 4-2-3-1 can also easily be modified to the 4-3-3 by having the two outside attacking midfielders play higher and wider. What this does in the attacking phase is stretch the other team out and allow more space for the midfield 3 to create. Instead of beating the other team with a pure numerical advantage, you do it the opposite way, by isolating and creating 1v1 battles all across the field. Now our midfield has only one man to beat to break lines. Our wingers are now isolated 1v1 in areas with plenty of space to shoot and dribble.
- Dominating the center of the pitch
The center of the pitch is the key to this formation. With up to 6 creative technical players occupying the central zones, it forces the defending team to pinch in and come out of their desired shape. What this does is open up options that were not available before. It could be playing to the now open wing-backs who then have time and space to pick passes and crosses. If the defending team chooses to hold their shape and give the midfield to us, then the creative midfield players now have more space and time to pick passes and break lines.
- Set up to press
The high-pressure element is key to this formation for a few reasons. For one, it is much easier to press the opposing team when they have the ball because of the number of bodies across the zones. You have the overload of players in the central zones, making it impossible for the opposition to play through the middle, and you have pinned their full-backs in their defensive third because our full-backs are higher up the field. It creates situations where the opposition maybe has 1 or 2 players higher up the field instead of 3 or 4. With our full-backs higher, that means we are doubled up on the outside zones and can also pressure the opposition if they choose to play out through the wide channels. The 4-2-3-1 is built upon mobility, so our players will be well suited for the pressing game. Once we win the ball back, we re-establish our dominance through possession. And once the opposition goes through this cycle of not touching the ball for extended periods and losing it right away, they will begin to lose fatigue mentally and physically. It will cause them to be less disciplined in their shape, which makes possession and chance creation easier.
- Susceptible to counter attacks
If a formation had no weaknesses, then everyone would play the exact same way! The biggest weakness in this formation is that we are committing great numbers forward into the attack and playing very high into the opposition's half. If the opposition can win possession and beat our press, then there are large amounts of space behind our backline for counter-attacks, especially behind the pushed-up wing-backs. The biggest opponent to this formation is a team that plays the 5-3-2 and is disciplined defensively. Opponents can find success against our more creative side by conceding the majority of possession in exchange for hitting us on the counters. By placing their two strikers on our center backs, it essentially becomes a track race every time they look to counter.
- Managing space
If the players in this formation are unaware of how to manage space and how far they can drift into different zones, they can turn a strength into a weakness. We are already playing with six central players and will draw a minimum of 5 to 6 opposing players into the center zones. To execute this system, our central players must understand how to give the other internal players space to operate. The outside attacking midfielders have the freedom to drift into the middle, but not at the expense of crowding the proper central attacking mid. The midfielders must coordinate their movement. If an outside player comes inside, then a central player must drift outside. If the space is not maintained, the middle will become overcrowded and possession impossible to keep.
In conclusion, the 4-2-3-1 is a formation that encourages creative players to be creative and offers a degree of flexibility and freedom that other formations do not. The formation's biggest strength is in the middle of the field, as 6/11 of the team have the license and ability to operate in the central zones. This overload of talented players in the inside channels causes the opposition to pinch in and bring more players back, generating space out wide for the attacking fullbacks. From there, it is up to the possessing team to dictate how they want to generate their chances. Whether that will be with crosses from out wide, initiating 2v1 situations out wide, or combining through the middle of the park.
What you consistently find throughout the field are numerical advantages that make it difficult for the defending team to win possession. By bringing in extra midfielders to the midfield, outside, or checking back into pockets to receive the ball, it all means that we have more players in these specific zones than the other team does . . .
And I am no mathematician, but 2 beats 1 and 4 beats 2 every time, right?
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