Last week Donny Gramenz announced to Inside Minnesota Soccer his team would switch from a 3-5-2 to a 4-2-1-3. A few people were confused by this and asked what exactly is a 4-2-1-3 ? Although I love talking tactics, Jeff Wolters enjoys talking tactics even more. Jeff is a coach here in Minnesota and wrote a great explanation which he agreed to share with our Inside Minnesota Soccer readers. If you like what Jeff wrote, let us know by leaving a comment. Perhaps we can get him to do some future tactical writing for IMS.
Playing the 4-2-1-3
By Jeff Wolters
When it comes to tactical formations, the numbers often don’t mean that much anymore. In fact they can be confusing depending on your view of the game, the players you have to work with, and the problems you are trying to solve. The formations are more about players roles and accountability depending where the ball is in the different thirds of the field, and that can change from game to game and even within the same game depending on the score and amount of time left in the contest.
Some people will refer to formations by just looking at the three primary roles — Defenders, midfielders, and forwards. If that was the case you could call this formation a 4-3-3.
Barcelona calls their formation a 4-3-3 and when they have a strong lead they will keep 3 all the way forward and wide with no responsibility to defend. However, most of the time Messi, Eto’o, and Henrey would all take turns coming back into midfield to help defend, which is why most people would now call it a flexible 4-5-1 to keep it simple. The 4-3-3 is a strong part of their club’s history and they will continue to call it a 4-3-3 because of that.
As the system becomes more developed and flexible, small groups can be identified to work together in more efficient ways by giving them more specific and different roles within the same lines, and you end up with numbers like 4-2-1-3, 4-1-2-3 and even 4-2-2-2.
Many of the current systems have three different formations in each third, defending, middle, and attacking. Your goal is to outnumber the other team in all parts of the field but to not completely wear out all your players before the full ninety minutes are up. So the one single number is confusing as it may not actually look like a 4-2-1-3 when a team is defending or trying to gain possession. In a positive attack it may look exactly like a 4-2-1-3.
Let’s clarify the 3-thirds of the field. For reasons of simplification the soccer field is broken into 3 parts. They are:
The defending third, where a team must stay organized and defend as well as regain possession if at all possible. There is little to no risk taken in this third and the team must stay compact around the goal and resist getting pulled too wide.
The possession or middle third is where a team attempts to win the ball and must hold onto the ball to start the attack. Possession is the name of the game in this third of the field.
The attacking third is where a team must take risks to be successful and quite the opposite of the defending third, a team spreads itself wide to draw the defenders out and away from the goal to create chances in those spaces or gaps between the defenders.
In the 4-2-1-3 you have 4 defenders when in your own defensive third (near your goal). Many times it can be 5 or 6 defenders in this area when the team pull all the way back to the penalty box area during a wide attack. The 2 in the 4-2-1-3 are two holding midfielders that stay with the defense. You might try to think of a box in the middle of the field with the two central defenders and two central midfielders in front of them. This creates more built in cover to the system early in the oppositions attack because the closest player (a holding mid) can pressure earlier in the attack near the center third because they’re starting positions are now more defensive in nature. The defenders behind can track and mark players making forward runs ahead of the ball eliminating passing options, or provide cover and take over the pressuring role if the player with the ball tries to dribble past the midfield. The two outside backs are mainly defending the wide attacks and can now have more attacking freedom to get forward when the team has secured possession. This creates more width and depth in the attack. This can open up space in the middle by stretching out the other teams defenders and midfielders to wider positions, making opposition chase more. The attackers and defenders can work better in small groups around the ball rather than in full lines, giving some players more time to rest because the central danger area has enough players to slow down and delay most early attacks.
The 1 in the 4-2-1-3 makes up the midfield triangle and is the forward playing midfielder and is not expected to defend as much, saving his energy to attack from behind the front players as a playmaker and feeding the three forwards. Again, this creates more depth which then equals more choices to maintain possession. The midfield triangle can change and adapt to each situation but they generally get to stay in the central channel part of the field reducing the amount of space they have to chase in.
The three forwards will be spread out wide when in the attacking half, but the two outside players may drop back and team up with the fullback when defending wide attacks on their side of the field (strong side) and when we they can’t get possession back early near the center third, he/she will become the mid on that same side while defending. The other wide player has a bit more time to rest (week side) but can still get back if they switch the ball because it takes more time for the ball to completely change sides while under possession.
Even if we know what formation a team is using you still don’t know what it means until you see the team put it into action. Many people have different views about their own system, and only the coach/trainer knows all his players strengths and weaknesses. He will build a system to play to those strengths so he can he can prepare his team to be the best based on the opponent they face. A system is never a static thing as it changes depending on the teams needs. Soccer systems are much more complicated than they often look while watching the game and every coach sees it his own way.
With all this said, most of the time we may all see very similar looking soccer because the basic principles are always the same in and around the ball which is where we most often focus during the run of play.
Jeff Wolters is a USSF C license coach and is currently involved with the Forest Lake High School boys soccer program.