Just a few years ago it seemed as though many of the top teams in Europe relied upon some variation of the 4-2-3-1 formation. In England, at least, from relegation battling clubs to title challengers, the majority of squads over the past five or so years have used a 4-2-3-1. Quite frankly, it’s easy to see why the formation has been so popular; the 4-2-3-1 can be utilized to exploit the flanks, to push through the middle of the field, to counter-attack, and to play possession football. Depending on a squad’s personnel and their opposition, the 4-2-3-1 can be easily adapted to do almost anything on the pitch. The two central midfielders can drop deeper to protect the defensive backline or can push higher up to control possession.
The two wide attacking midfielders can stay out wide to exploit the flanks or come into the middle of the field to play narrow. The full-backs can provide support up the pitch or sit back to keep a compact defense. The central attacking midfielder can move into wider channels, stay central and spray passes out to more attacking players, drop deeper to receive the ball, move further up to act as a second striker, or simply link up play between defense, midfield, and attack. The 4-2-3-1 has really become the jack of all trades of football formations.
But, the 4-2-3-1’s popularity is starting to dwindle. Out of England’s current top six, including Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United, only two teams, Arsenal and Tottenham, consistently use the 4-2-3-1, and Tottenham even switched to a three at the back formation midway through the current season before injuries to key defenders forced them back to a four at the back.
As a disclaimer, I have to say that the data used in the table and graph is correct, but there is a bit of nuance in determining what formation a team is using.
For instance, a 4-2-3-1 can look very similar to a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-1-1. A prime example of this is Manchester City’s “4-2-3-1” in the current Premier League Season. In the midfield three of Kevin De Bruyne, Yaya Toure, and Fernandinho, it is clear that De Bruyne is the more attacking midfielder and Fernandinho is the more defensive midfielder, but is Toure playing in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 or is he playing as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3? Without watching their positions within the match there is simply no way of knowing what formation they were primarily playing. So, look at the raw data with a grain of salt. It is obvious, though, that this season, fewer teams in the Premier League are utilizing a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The central attacking midfielder, often referred to as a “number 10,” is crucial to the success of the 4-2-3-1. The central attacking midfielder has to have the dribbling and passing ability to create chances, but also has to be able to bring the ball from the midfield to the attack. Without an effective central attacking midfielder, teams using the 4-2-3-1 will struggle to create chances. Number 10s are often been given creative license to find gaps in the opposition’s midfield and defense, but this freedom comes at a cost. While it is not always the case, many of the most creative attacking midfielders are luxury players; they lack any semblance of a defensive work rate and solely focus on taking up promising creative positions. While wingers and forwards can sometimes get away without defending, having a player in the center of the pitch who simply doesn’t defend can be a recipe for disaster with the current way football is being played.
There are essentially three styles of defensive play employed by Premier League teams in the 2016/17 season. The first style is a compact defensive shape that sits back and relies on all ten outfield players occupying defensive positions to absorb pressure. The second style is a high pressing system that uses attacking and creative midfielders to press the opposition’s back line and defensive midfield to act as the first line of defense. The third style strictly uses defensive players to defend and uses attacking players to attack, and there is minimal overlap in their roles, meaning that players typically only attack or only defend. The third style relies heavily upon individual defensive talent, simply because several players in the side will rarely defend.
Having a purely creative attacking midfielder, a luxury player, forces a team to use that third style of defensive play. Arsenal is one team in particular that falls victim to this. Mesut Ozil is a great creator, there is no denying that, but he is the definition of a luxury player. He is not a lazy player, but he is also not a defensive player. The current iteration of football tactics and formations just doesn’t allow for luxury players in the middle of the pitch anymore.
At the moment, the best teams in Europe are greater than the sum of their individual parts. Teams like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid defend and attack as a full group of eleven players, instead of using seven players to strictly defend and four players to strictly create chances. Using a 4-2-3-1 with purely creative central attacking midfielder automatically means that the team cannot defend using all eleven players to either sit in a compact shape or press high up the pitch. As a result, the popularity of the 4-2-3-1 is declining and purely creative attacking midfielders no longer have an automatic starting spot in the middle of the pitch, regardless of their offensive output.
The 4-2-3-1’s reliance on a creatively gifted central attacking midfielder can limit its defensive capabilities and adaptability. As a result, the formation is losing its popularity, which has led to the decline of true number 10s. How many top European clubs regularly use a purely creative central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation? Besides Ozil, at Arsenal, I truly struggle to think of another high profile European side that relies upon a central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1.
Purely creative and offensive attacking midfielders are still crucial in the modern game, but there is not room for them in the middle of a 4-2-3-1. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva play out wide or play deeper with more defensive responsibility for Manchester City. Christian Eriksen often plays out wide for Tottenham. Coutinho plays out wide for Liverpool. Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler play on the wings for PSG. Even Juan Mata, a player with great skill on the ball but a distinct lack of pace and physicality, has no place in the center of the pitch and has been forced to play out on the wings.
Looking at teams that still use a 4-2-3-1 with some regularity, they use number 10s that can provide more than just creativity. For example, Dele Alli often plays as the central attacking midfielder in Tottenham’s 4-2-3-1, but he has decent defensive qualities. Mkhitaryan, who plays for Manchester United, has a high defensive work rate when playing as a central attacking midfielder. Nainngolan, who plays for Roma as a central attacking midfielder, is more of a box to box midfielder as opposed to a purely attacking midfielder. Interestingly enough, Jose Mourinho, the current Manchester United manager, often uses the 4-2-3-1, but has constantly insisted on using a number 10 with defensive capabilities. As the Chelsea manager, he favored the less creative, but harder working, Oscar for Juan Mata. At the time, it seemed that Mourinho was consistently making a mistake by not using Mata, but now it has almost become the norm to use a slightly more defensively capable player in the central attacking midfield role of the 4-2-3-1.
Players are becoming more technically gifted. Goalkeepers have to be able to pass the ball out of the back. Central defenders have to be composed on the ball to hold possession. Defensive midfielders have to be deep lying playmakers and destroyers, not one or the other. Because of this, every player on the pitch has to be able to contribute defensively. There is no room for luxury players anymore.
The 4-2-3-1 with a purely creative central attacking midfielder is losing its popularity because it does not allow a team to utilize all eleven players on both sides of the ball. As a result, players like Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze are not guaranteed starters just because of their attacking ability in the center of the field. Central attacking midfielders, luxury players, can no longer be sheltered from their lack of defensive ability by the rest of their squad. Currently, every player on the pitch has to defend in some regard. That is why the 4-2-3-1 and the purely creative central attacking midfielder are dying.