The 4-2-3-1 Introduction

When I normally write an article it’s normally based on something from my own save game, I don’t really do request for articles as such. But for the last few years I’ve been asked quite regularly when I would be writing about the 4-2-3-1 and the answer as always been never. The reason for this was I don’t really use the formation, I find four defender formations boring. I’m more of a three at the back and then experiment with the players in front kind of guy. Using four defenders you don’t really have many options you can use, so that’s always been my preferred method of play.

This year though I thought I’d bite the bullet and write about the 4231 to give people a better insight into how I’d use it. The only downside is I’ll be writing about the 4-2-3-1 and explain why this is my preferred option throughout the article. So over the next few weeks I will hopefully have this series about the 4-2-3-1 finished :). But for now, here is the introduction to get familiar with what I’ll be doing and why

The 4-2-3-1 formation is a very popular formation, however on Football Manager, it’s always been one that a lot of users struggle to get working. There are a few reasons why users struggle to implement the system into the game. A few of those reasons are;

  • A 4-2-3-1 as we see it in Football Manager isn’t the actual shape we see real life teams line up as.
  • Top heavy formations are hard to balance out and require a different type of thinking compared to the less top heavy formations.
  • The defensive/central midfielder combo confuse people, they don’t understand how important and vital these players are.

The Shape

I mentioned this further up, but one of the reasons I believe people struggle is due to the shape they use. Logically you’d think the 4-2-3-1 that we see in FM would be a replica of what we see used in real football. But it’s not because on FM the formation is very top heavy and starts off this way. In real life the formation is deeper. So this is what we see on FM;

As we can see (ignore the roles and duties they’re not important) the formation is really top heavy naturally. Then when we add roles, duties and the mentality the team will use then it changes even more.If you use an attack duty then the player is likely to be pushed higher and the same when you use a high mentality. If you was to use support roles and a lower mentality then you can get the players deeper but they’ll still be high due to the natural shape.

If you wanted to replicate a real life 4-2-3-1 into Football Manager then I’d recommend this shape instead;

This is a better version due to the players starting lower down the pitch, this means you can replicate the defensive aspects much better than you can compared to the first image I posted. However you lose nothing in the attacking shape because you can push players as high as you want and can replicate any of the roles you can in the normal shape. Another positive about this shape is if you used an aggressive mentality then the player shouldn’t be as isolated as they can be in the normal 4-2-3-1 shape.

I understand that people don’t want to play this way on Football Manager even though it’s a better replication and more accurate real life comparison. You can also use the 4-1-2-2-1 shape to give a similar effect with the right use of roles. But for this article I’m going with the deep 4-2-3-1 which looks like this;

The main reason for preferring the deep version with two defensive midfielders over the two central midfielder version is actually simple, it’s not something that requires lots of explaining. It’s due to the behaviour of the defensive midfielders, you can make them act like normal midfielders however you can’t really make central midfielders act like true defensive midfielders. This means defensively I can replicate the defensive shape and behaviours I need more accurate while still having the same attacking intent when in possession and have them act like normal midfielders. This particular shape offers the best of both worlds.

Another one of the reasons why this shape is also hard to create on Football Manager is the defensive shape. Most real life versions of this tactic tend to defend in a 4-5-1 or a 4-4-1-1 shape for most parts. Now depending on which roles and duties you’ve used this becomes harder to replicate on Football Manager.

Top Heavy Formations

One of the biggest obstacles people have with top heavy shapes is they don’t know how to firstly create space and movement and secondly don’t know how to use it when they have created it. Unlike deeper formations, it’s easy to have your front four isolated from the rest of the team when using this shape especially on higher mentality structures. When you use attacking duties and high mentalites you push the players even further forward, which isn’t always a good thing. If players are too high how can you create space let alone use it?

Not only that but it also requires the deeper players to supply them the ball constantly because they’ll be too high and attacking to be involved in most build up plays. When this happens it puts a lot of pressure on the full backs and the central midfielders and requires them to work even harder than normal while still carrying out their own duties. Basically you split your team into two different bands rather than a well oiled cohesive unit playing this way. This brings lots of issues, which I’ll be talking about in great depth a little further in the article.

Depending on how the opposition play, top heavy formations can naturally struggle to find space in behind the opposition. Especially if the opposition is sat deep and defending, then it gets harder to break these teams down. All the space that exists naturally is actually in front of the defensive line not behind. This means the role and duties you use here are vital in creating the space. Somehow you have to balance these roles out to offer the kind of movement you need.

Another important factor in this is the team shape you use. On the more fluid end of the scale players will be closer together and this again takes away space compared to the lower end team shapes. So if space is an issue then what kind of team shape you use will be vital. In fact all of the issues I’ve mentioned so far could mean you are restricted to long-shots without creating any real quality chances, at least not consistently.

Don’t worry though, I will be covering all of these issues a little later and discussing how we can stop it from happening and how to fix it, if you currently suffer with any of these issues.

The Central Defensive or Midfield Players

These two players whichever way you utilise them, are vital to how the formation functions as a whole. Many people think when they use a 4-2-3-1 that the two central midfielders need to be aggressive and support attacks so tend to set them up to get further forward. This is great but brings implications. One is that again it asks players to move into already crowded space assuming the opposition is defend deep. Secondly it leaves you exposed when the ball is turned over because the player will have to get back into his defensive position. Considering you only have two players centrally who are expected to cover the entire midfield then it a major issue if one is caught out of position or can’t recover in time.

It leaves you badly exposed and you get run ragged. So ideally because the players for this position need to be workhorses even if you want them to support attacks. It’s a demanding role but often this is overlooked. You shouldn’t need them to go forward and get into the box or be very deep in the final third. That’s not to say they can’t be used like that but I’d have to question why you’d set up like that and wonder what the other four front players were doing? They can support and aid attacks from deeper positions, four players should be more than enough to break down any side or to create that important space and movement. Balance is key to everything and that’s what makes a good tactic into an excellent one, it’s a fine line.

Now we’ve got some of the common issues and mistakes out of the way, it’s important we understand how and why the shape we use actually works. You need to understand the basics to know if it’s working or not. So what does the 4-2-3-1 offer.


The strengths of the formation without a doubt is the flexibility when attacking and that you have three attacking midfielders positioned high up the pitch with a striker. You can make the formation shape into various different shapes with clever use of the roles and duties. In a proper balanced set up the central midfielders provide the needed cover to allow the forward four to be more expressive. It’s also hard for you to be overrun in the midfield area with essentially five players across the midfield.

Another strength is how you utilise the ball. Generally speaking it ulises possession more effectively than a 4-1-2-2-1 which is more focused on retaining possession. So having four players advanced up the pitch allows the ball to be used much quickly. With the two deep central players supporting behind you can distribute the ball more effective due to not having to pass in straight lines and creating lots of different triangular passing options. This is where the 4-2-3-1 excels for me.


Due to the high positions of the three attacking midfielders, tiredness can be a major factor. In Football Manager terms the issue here might not be tiredness, it might be that those three players don’t track back further enough in their own half. In real life tiredness is a factor because they’re expected to be almost like box to box players, so it’s a lot of physical exertion. This can also make it hard to defend against quick counter attacks depending on how high your players are when the ball is lost. A simple ball over the top or across the midfield can potentially take up to six of your players out in one go, depending on the positioning of the central two players.

Another known on effect of having three attacking midfielders high up the pitch is opposition wingers. They can harass your full backs and create 1v1’s or 2v1’s if you don’t get your own wide players tracking back enough. It’s quite demanding to expect players to be really advanced yet deep in defensive transitions.

That’s why the 4-2-3-1 is really tricky to set up on Football Manager. I’ll split this into a series of articles, if not it’ll be a 15k word essay and I don’t want to bore you all to death (although I likely do that anyway).In the next part of the series we will look at the 4-2-3-1 I’ll be using and discuss the roles and duties and how I imagine it will all work and link together.

The System

Now that I’ve covered the basics, it’s time to explore the practical side of things and how to implement our ideas into the game. So this is the shape with the roles and duties I’m using;

It’s really just a standard deep 4-2-3-1 formation but now I’m going to explain how all the roles link together and work to create the overall style I’m creating. I’ll also go into detail about why I chose a specific option over the others available to give you a real insight into how it should work.This will happen in the analysis section of the article.

I probably should also point out that the roles might not be set in stone and can change depending on what I see happening in the analysis parts. The tactic so far hasn’t been used and is just the base I’ll start with before making any changes. But below I want to focus briefly on why I choose these settings and explain how I believe it’ll function, before comparing whether my ideas on paper are being translated into the game properly. Then at a later stage in the article some of this might change but then again it might not when we start the actual analysis. At the minute everything is still is the idea stages. Either way I’ll document any changes and discuss why in the analysis parts should I have to make any.


Mentality is probably the biggest factor for me when creating a tactic, it’s the most important part of the puzzle. A lot of people want to create a style of play, let’s say for example they want to play attacking football. Automatically people think that the attacking strategy is the best one and will give them everything they need. But this isn’t entirely true as I’ve pointed out before with some of the other articles I did. You can be just as attacking on a lower mentality scale than you can on a higher one.

Due to the shape being top heavy I’m not a fan of playing on a higher mentality. I’m not saying higher mentalities don’t work but for me, my personal preference is to create a base formation that works in majority of scenarios I’m likely to face. That way they need less micromanaging and less changes during a game. If I was to use a more attacking mentality then I’m pretty certain I’d end up making changes more frequently in game compared to what I will using a standard one. Especially if faced with sides who sit deep.

I’ll still have to make changes at times and in certain circumstances I might need a higher mentality, although based on the roles I’m using maybe not. Either way, I feel I can create all the space and movement needed on a standard setting. In the analysis sections a little later on you might be surprised to see the actual differences and benefits I get from playing on standard compared to control or attacking mentality.

Team Shape

This is another tricky one that people like to spend hours agonising over and giving it a greater influence than really needs to be. I’m not saying it isn’t important because it can be but I don’t believe it to be as important as is made out. It’s just one piece of the puzzle not the entire puzzle.

For me team shape comes down to two things;

  • The more structured you go the less compact you’ll be. The more fluid you go the more compact you’ll be.
  • All the base roles you use will get slightly more creative freedom than normal if you use a fluid team shape compared to a more structured one.

It can be slightly more complicated than that but for most parts I like to keep it in simple basic form rather than complicating something that doesn’t require it being complicated. If you’re unsure on what to select then always go with flexible as you can’t go wrong, flexible is basically the neutral setting you see. I like to use flexible a lot unless I want to create a specific style of play that requires players to be closer together then I’d use a more fluid approach.

There are lots of articles that already cover team shape in great detail though so I’d have a quick look for them if you want to learn the inner workings of the setting. But I honestly believe it’s not needed. A little further in the article you’ll see why flexible is the best base for me and how it works compared to a more structured or fluid shape.

Team Instructions

These are used to refine and create the style I’m going for which is, to create a build from the back strategy that is focused on being a bit aggressive when we don’t have the ball, but not overly aggressive. It’s important that I build out from the back because I’m using two defensive midfielders, so moving the ball forward quickly by the keeper wouldn’t really benefit me as those deeper players wouldn’t be involved. That’s why we play out from the back.

Player Roles and Duties

In the whole of the tactic making process, the roles and duties you used are what will make you function a certain way. These are what determine what you’ll do during a game, all the other settings are just things that alter the behaviour slightly. But ultimately any style you want to create must use roles and duties that allow so.

Gk –  His job is to save shots and distribute the ball of the defenders. Simple I know, but that’s basically it.

Right Wing Back – In defence he’s expected to pick up the oppositions wide players and hopefully reduce the amount of crosses we see the opposition doing. In attack he is expected to provide support and overlaps for the winger on the same side. He is also expected to get to the byline at times and provide with.

Left Wing Back – Almost identical to above but due to the support duty will be more of a deeper option when attacking and either create stuff deeper or be a late option getting into the final third areas. I wanted to create variety and because I have one on an attack duty already then I wanted to create a staggered effect and have someone who does all the same things but from a deeper area of the pitch. In defensive situations he should provide everything the right sided player does.

Central Defenders – Pretty simple really, just mark strikers, attacking midfielders, reduce shots we are likely to have against us. Win tackles and be strong in the air. In attacking situations they should look to distribute the ball to the wide players or the defensive midfielders. Nothing too fancy, just basic run of the mill stuff.

Defensive Midfielder – If any role changes I can see it being this one. I’m not sure if an anchorman would be better here or if that would make me too deep at times. It’s something I’ll find out during the analysis I guess. However the main idea is that the defensive midfielder will provide a screen for the central defenders and look to win the ball back and cut off passing lane for the opposition. When attacking I don’t expect him to offer much at all apart from being a deep passing option and maybe someone who recycles possession naturally rather than making him a playmaker and trying to force it. His only real responsibility is to provide cover.

Segundo Volante – Without a doubt this is my favourite role on Football Manager ever. I expect him to act like a normal defensive midfielder when not in possession. But when we are in possession this is where he should shine because he is the heartbeat of the side. I want him to bring the ball forward and be the complete midfielder than I need. I also expect him to get his fair share of goals and assists. The whole build from the back approach relies on him and the wingbacks bringing the ball forward. While also providing running from deep and offering support to the advanced players

Winger – Defensively he should track back and try and cut out overlaps from the opposition or stop them from creating a 2v1 situation against my wingback. In attack he is expected to link up with the wingback and allow him to overlap naturally. He is also to provide crosses from deep and the byline into the box. On top of this he is the main player along with the wingbacks to create width.

Attacking Midfielder – I want him to pressure the defence and midfielders when we don’t have possession and along with the striker, defend from the front. On the attacking side of things his main responsibilities will be passing, supporting the striker and making later runs into the box. I didn’t want a playmaker here as I want all play to feel natural and not forced, which using a playmaker does at times. It makes things seem forced but I didn’t want him to attract the ball more than he has to, as that would take away from the winger and inside forward’s game.

Inside Forward – I don’t expect him to do much defensively because he is too high up the pitch and I want him to be the main source of goals. This means the position he will take up makes it harder for him to fall back to the defensive position you would expect him to take up. When we attack I want him to drift inside and get into space and gaps created by the attacking midfielder, striker and possible segundo volante too. I also expect those three players to pass to him frequently so he can score those goals I want him to score. How this role functions and is utlised is heavily based on how the players around him perform. Supply is the most important thing here.

Deep-lying Forward – While he should score goals for me, that is only his secondary job. His main responsibility is to occupy the opposition’s defenders and creating space by pulling them out of position. This will hopefully create space that will be used by the movement created from the attacking midfielders behaviour and the inside forward.. Those are the two players who should be looking to move into any space created by the forward. He should also be a passing outlet too and the one who makes things happen in the final third.

So that is how I imagine it will all play out, whether it does or not though is something different entirely. That is why in the next section we will start with the analysis.




65 thoughts on “The 4-2-3-1 Introduction”

    1. Great article. The importance of the Double Pivot in the midfield is very often not mentioned in the analysis of a 4-2-3-1.
      I myself try to deploy my midfield duo having in mind that I want them to, more or less, appear as a pivot behind the attacking 4, and as a 2nd line of defense in front of the back 4. I usually utilise one in a more defensive role, either the CM(d) or the Dlp(d), and the other in a more agressive but not too much (b2b or dlp(s).
      I consider them a combination of players rather than 2 sepparate ones.
      I have found myself selling Top Quality players in the CM position just because they didn’t fit my tactical approach to the double pivot. That is playmaking ability, and defensive qualities.

  1. My tactic started as a traditional FM 4231. As a season wore on, I moved one of the two back into the defensive midfield and created a staggered two in the two band. In the 2018 offseason, I pulled the other central midfielder back into the defensive midfield and the attacking midfielder into the central midfield as an advanced playmake (A). Essentially, moving the entire midfield triangle back one band. I may need to experiment with moving the point of the triangle back into the attacking midfield band with a support duty.

      1. Defensively, both formations are more stable. The traditional FM 4-2-3-1, we could get sliced apart in the back. Once, the players learned the second formation, we (Nurnberg) beat PSV 5-1 and Club Brugge 3-0 in away friendlies. Haven’t used the second formation in a league match yet.

  2. Hey Cleon, I’m curious on how you would set up a 4 man defence that would shift into a back 3, with one of the full backs tucking in instead of defensive mid dropping back, when in possession. I’ve tried with player instructions set to sit narrower but he won’t exactly position to be like part of a back 3.

  3. Just got off the back of a long crappy day which involved 7 hours of driving to find this.

    *Grabs beer, settles down to read*.

    Looking forward to the other articles 🙂

      1. Ok thanks. It was funny when you said you wanted your IF to be the main goal threat as this happened for me unintentionally when I built my 4231.

        My 4231 is quite similar to yours, but I don’t use a VOL, instead I use a BWM with “gets further forward”. Looking forward to the analysis part of this topic. Cheers.

  4. Nice article! This is almost exactly the shape I settled on to start the game, though I wasn’t sure if Volante on attack got too far forward, exposing the DM. I’m playing with Arsenal atm, and it sometimes recreates their issue where Ramsey (Volante) gets too far ahead of Xhaka (DM). I’m wondering if you have similar issues?

    One idea I had was to use an IWB to cover for him, but they don’t seem to work as well as they did in FM17.

  5. I have read all your articles and they are top class stuff. Best on Football Manager by far.
    At the beginning of the article you stated that a real 4-2-3-1 plays 2 players in the DM band and the other 3 Mids play in the CM band. In your Tactic you have chosen to leave the front 3 Mids up in the “AM”. and i was wondering why?

    1. Good spot 🙂

      It’s because on FM the average user wouldn’t play like I suggested in the opening and would be set on using 3 players at AMC. And seeing as the article is aimed at those, I thought it best to meet in the middle and use the variation I am 🙂

      1. Thx for responding. Assuming you could have the players required to execute each system, would you give either formation an advantage in effectiveness (no matter how slight) ?

        1. I’d play the version I mention in the article as being the better, more realistic version. That would be the 2 DM, 1 MC, ML/MR version.

          1. With that in mind cleon would it be a wide midfielder in the inside forward role? Cause I was thinking of dropping them back wasn’t sure what to do with the IF?

          2. Hmm good question. I like a wideplaymaker myself and the inverted winger would be my options. The inverted winger should play like the IF did so it would be like for like really.

          3. Hi Cleon
            I’m currently playing with the deeper set up & it’s working very well. Sometimes the DLF gets isolated, I’ve tried dropping him back to the AM area but can’t find a role that works well. Any suggestions on either an alternative striker role or an AM role for him?

          4. How can he be isolated? He has two wide players and a AMC? If he is isolated I don’t know how. Also it cannot be the strikers fault if he is, I’d look at your other roles the two wide players and the amc.

          5. Hi Cleon

            Sorry for not being clear, I’ve been playing it with the MR/ML/MC in front of the 2 DM’s as you suggested you would have played it (apart from for this thread). I love how they all move from deeper positions but the striker is then further away.

          6. Ah that makes more sense. What roles are you using for the striker and the wideplayers and the MC? As it sounds like it’s still a supporting and supply issue.

          7. Inverted winger/ CM / Wide Playmaker. It’s the striker role I’m having problems with finding the best selection. Would you still have him in a DLF role or does he need a similar role in the AM position you think to bring him closer? Thanks for your time on the reply.

          8. The striker will struggle on most roles as its a supply/support issue. Who is realistically supplying him the ball and supporting him? The CM? This alone is not enough support.

            It’s not about bringing him closer its about the type of supply you give him and who in turns is going up along side or beyond him offering support?

            Ignore the strikers role that’s kind of irrelevant for now and you’ll have the same issues regardless.

          9. When you suggested you’d have them in that set up what roles do you envisage the DM’s & CM to have?

          10. Depends the style I was creating. I didn’t envisage anything as I didn’t play that way. But anything is fine, it’s how it all links together that is the key.

          11. I thought the sec vol would provide enough as a playmaker coming from deep? Would it be overkill to have him & a playmaker in front of him? I think I remember you suggesting not to force play through too many playmakers.

          12. No player alone is enough to provide support. The segundo volante will drive forward but only you will know if that’s enough or if he is actually linking up with the striker regular by viewing back your games. However I’m pretty certain it won’t be enough.

          13. Thanks Cleon
            I’ll try some more play maker & support roles & see if I can work it out to get him fed & people going past him.

  6. You stole my next question Geewfm (lol). To be realistic, Don’t most real Football teams that play 4 in the back play a 4-4-1-1 or 4-1-4-1 when defending ( even though commentators on TV call it a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3) and then give player instructions or team instructions to attack like a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-4 ( just as in Football manager) ?

  7. Good tutorial Cleon. Can you show an example to what situation where look for underlap is good? What kind of tactic can use it?

  8. I’m going to be completely honest with you, I will simply rip this tactic and see if it can fit my team because I see a lot of things I like in this.

  9. Cleon this was a very pleasing reading, as any of your articles is.
    I’m currently trying a 4-2-3-1, deep version but with 3 AMC’S instead.
    Do you think this setup is too attacking and I should have another AM on support, helping the AMC, instead of two attacking AMC’s?

    DMCR: DLP(s)
    AMCL: SS(a)
    AMC: AM (s)
    AMCR: AM(a)
    ST : DLF(a)

    All this in theory, certainly. But I’d just like to know the opinion from someone with that game acknowledge. Thanks.

    1. I’d try it and see what happens, I actually used a 3 AM version for FM17. Just focus on who will provide the 3 AMC’s the ball (which in your case would be the RPM) and see what happens when he has a bad game or is marked out of the game and not able to dictate play as much as normal.

      1. Thanks for the feedback Cleon. I believe that the same can also apply to your deep 4-2-3-1, if they do a nice job of marking your Volante? But you also have a winger on support, who can also help, i guess?

  10. Thank you for your time. Looking forward to see your analysis, not only to see if that happens to you and how you react to it, but also how does the tactic behaves overall 🙂

  11. Incredible article Cleon! I was selected to play in the Football Manager 2018 Copa Manageria this weekend in London. I am planning to adopt this formation. Would I be able to privately email you or tweet you in order to discuss personal.

  12. Thanks for the reply,

    If you had £500 million to spend who would you pick using your 4-2-3-1 formation?

  13. Cleon,

    Im struggling to combine Matic – Pogba in the deep roles. Matic is playable as a DLP(d) but i cant seem to fit in Pogba.

    Any advise here?

  14. Great article, thanks.
    Sometimes against an easy rival I feel that I have to change to control or attacking mentality or il be lacking of attacking highlights during then game. I can do it changing the mentality or making some adjustments manually like pushing up or playing wider… Cleon, you prefer to do it yourself in a standard mentality or you change the mentality??

    1. I change things based on what I see happening so sometimes it would be a mentality change other times maybe just a different kind of player. Although there is nothing wrong with a standard mentality, how attacking you’ll be will be determined by the roles and duties you use.

      1. Cheers Cleon for this article.

        I have a question. Do you think a 4-2-3-1 Wide can be used with ‘attacking’ mentality? Or will it be too top heavy, i.e. too much risk?

        The setup I was contemplating was:

        GK – standard


        SV(s) or RPM

        W (right side) on support


        attack, flexible, standard d-line, close down more, shorter passing.

        I was thinking of making a tactic similar to that of the high press/quick passing Germans. Do you see any logical breaches here?

        Thanks in advance.

  15. Cleon, great insight here, thanks! Just a quick question that I think wasn’t asked yet: what is the reason for the very high d-line/pressing? Is it due to the team being low already since you’re using 2 DMs or something else?

  16. Hi Cleon
    I need some advice to fix a problem. I’m playing a 4-2-3-1 like you describe above with 2dm’s and 3 central mf’s (the way people don’t want to play). It is tremendous defensively but I have a problem in gifting possession on my right side. On left I have an inverted winger attack and wingback support with good attacking play. On right I have winger (support) and wingback (attack). These two constantly dribble right up to each other or the player without the ball runs next to the dribbler. I can’t seem to get them to stop without changing winger to inverted forward, which then makes the attack the same on both sides.
    Any suggestions on how to fix this? Wingback has PI’s of run wide with ball and cross from byline.
    Thx for any help

    1. What about wide midfielder like in his invincibles thread? Works a treat in my current save. Especially with the pi’s he set

  17. Any replacement role for Segundo Volante in the older FMs to use in this tactic? If not, is there any role other than Segundo Volante that you would advise us to use?

    1. There is no other role that does what the SV does on older roles or one that comes close.

      All roles work though, it all depends on what YOU want and what you are creating. You pick the roles that allows/compliments what you want.

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