Home FEATURES Emergence of the 4-2-3-1 system in modern football

Emergence of the 4-2-3-1 system in modern football

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With the deadline day behind us now, one might find it amusing that Shinji Kagawa and Jack Wilshere are still free agents. Had I predicted this in 2015, I would’ve been laughed off of the room. Football around the world has evolved as it always has, so let us take a look into how the 4-2-3-1 system got so popular.

There are several positions on a football and one might easily get confused with different numbers thrown at them without respite. So to make things clear (as depicted), no. 6 is the defensive midfield role which is also referred to as CDM or DM. No. 8 is the central midfield role otherwise referred to as CM. No. 10 is the attacking midfield role, also known as CAM or Central Attacking Midfielder.

In the 2000s, managers such as Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelloti and Rafael Benitez were on the rise. They were known to be conservative, yet dynamic and forward thinkers. Take Mourinho for example, he has always been known to set his team up defensively. He always lines his team up with a 4-2-3-1 formation where he allows the no.10 to have a free role on the pitch, allowing him to find time on the ball and making intelligent runs across the line. The two defensive midfielders are asked to sit in front of the back four thus cutting down the defensive duties for the attacking midfielder. Clubs started using the 4-2-3-1 formation to counter the commonly used 4-4-2 formation that was used then.

Some of the greatest players Kaka, Zidane, Cazorla, Ozil, Sneijder, Mata and all of them thrived in the free roam role that the no. 10 position allowed them. They didn’t necessarily need the frame or build to get back on the ball to defend but rather just had the intelligence to find space and time along the lines and in turn helped to feed it onto the attackers further up the pitch. The no.10 role became the most coveted position on the pitch.

Also Read: Emergence of the 4-3-3 system in modern football

Fast forward a few years ahead, the 4-2-3-1 formation had become the standard line ups most teams started using and the no.6 role grew even more crucial. It allowed for the defensive shape to be maintained while ensuring the team is able to press up the pitch. The role of a no. 6 has a two-sided benefit.

Firstly, they marshal the backline and provide added defensive cover against the opposing team’s no.10. This allows the four attackers to create their own symmetrical positions that they see fit that could stretch the opposition. Secondly, the no.6s allow for the full-backs to get further up the pitch and add width to their attack. This adds an entirely dynamic dimension to the team’s attack as it helps the more creative wingers to cut inside if they chose to do so, thus creating space on the flanks for the fullbacks to occupy. What makes this switch so unique is that even if the fullbacks do get caught up the pitch, the no.6s could occupy the full back’s position, in the event of a counter.

The flexibility offered by the 4-2-3-1 system is one of its biggest selling points. Almost every player on the pitch would have dual roles to occupy given the scenario of the game. Mourinho used it at Porto to win the UCL, at Chelsea to win the Premier League thrice and at Real Madrid to win the La Liga. The positions no.10 and no.6 owe their importance to this formation.

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