The influx of 4-2-3-1
As a regular watcher of Championship football this season, one thing has stuck out to me already this campaign: the frequency of clubs that have opted to line up in a 4-2-3-1. Where once the 4-4-2 reigned supreme, there is now huge variation in how teams line up in the second tier.
The 4-2-3-1 is almost a ‘non-formation’ due to its versatility and fluidity. When teams line up in this system, the ‘on the ball’ and ‘off the ball’ shapes are rarely the same. If the emphasis in the team is to get the ball out wide and push the wingers up high, it soon becomes an attack minded 4-3-3 before then dropping back into the 4-2-3-1 after a turnover of possession (that is if the wide players do their tracking back). One of the two holding midfielders can be pushed forwards to make it a 4-1-4-1, clubs rarely looking to employ two very defensive minded midfielders in front of the defence.
If in attack the team goes forward in a 4-2-3-1 and the opposition proceed to counter, very rarely will the four attacking players stay high upfield, especially if one of the two holding midfielders have joined the attack. When behind the ball, a 4-5-1 is easily accessible.
In modern football, the emphasis now is on pressing from the front and Championship fans too like to see all 11 players put in a shift and subsequently, their team to play on the front foot. With the rich rewards of Premier League football amplifying year on year, there is a new pressure on managers and players alike to implement a high energy style due to the notable successes of Norwich, Sheffield United and, to an extent, Leeds.
When this high intensity game is applied to a side in a 4-2-3-1, the No.10 will almost act as a second striker to block off passing lanes and pressurise the goalkeeper/defenders should they choose to play out from the back (another popular change in footballing style). This creates a sort of 4-2-2-2, with deep central midfielders who can push forwards to occupy the spaces left by the No.10 to pressure the opposition holding midfielder(s) further, if the first line of the press is beaten.
A variant of this formation has proved to be successful for QPR. With a narrow three of creative attacking players just behind the striker, Rangers have one of the most potent attacks in the division, scoring 24 goals already this season and sitting just outside the play-off places. However Ilias Chair, Bright Osayi-Samuel and Eberechi Eze aren’t known for their defensive abilities and so QPR often get caught on the counter, conceding almost a league high 28 goals with a grand total of 0 clean sheets to their name.
Despite the balanced nature of this system, it’s vital that all the players help make it so with holding midfielders able to join the attack and either the two attacking wide players and/or the number 10 willing to track back and prevent an overload. This is especially pertinent in sides with attacking full backs so sides who do not need to push their full backs too high up the pitch and can rely on those attacking players to do their jobs are most suited to this system.
This is best shown by Preston North End who, so far this season, have been able to rotate their front four at will and still hit bagfuls of goals, sitting top of table in early November. North End, who don’t have many standout players but are an efficient and effective team, have fantastic work rate in their attacking players who are able to both press in attack and recover possession from behind the play. Coupled with Ben Pearson resembling an energetic terrier in the middle of the park, with either the experienced Paul Gallagher or Alan Browne beside him, their 4-2-3-1 really emphasises and brings out the qualities in their side.
Not only do attacking sides such as Preston and QPR use this formation, but more defensive sides like to employ it with its ability to drop into a 4-5-1. It can also be used as a defensive ‘off the ball’ system, which was shown by Nottingham Forest early in the season as, when visiting Leeds and Fulham, they lined up with one up top in a 4-1-4-1 type formation (an attacking 4-1-4-1 it must be said). As an early season game, it looked to be their main approach this season until a few months had passed and Forest were had started to employ a 4-2-3-1 in most games, with Ivanildo or Carvalho occupying the No.10 role and Lolley, Adomah and Ameobi looking to take up the roles on the wings. Forest clearly have a plan for each team they play, and the 4-1-4-1 earned them 4/6 points against two of the strongest and most possession based sides in the division, managing to switch into a 4-2-3-1 when defending their lead at Craven Cottage and opting for the security of two holding midfielders and showing the defensive qualities this formation has.
The 4-2-3-1 has allowed security at the back for Championship sides, while also a potent attacking force in the three behind the striker. With an extra man in midfield (to the 4-4-2) able to help out at both ends of the pitch, (and a clear space between the No.10 and holding midfielders to distinguish itself from a 4-3-3) it can be difficult system to defend against if each role is done to its maximum. Despite the initial inclination of playing two defensive minded players behind an attacking one in the centre of the pitch, a box to box midfielder beside a holding midfielder has proven to give the most balance and versatility to this system. So with the right blend of players in midfield it can enable sides to be strong at the other end of the pitch as well, something shown by numerous teams already this campaign.