Mourinho inspired 4-2-3-1

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INTRODUCTION

It’s rare to see a system in football manager built around the philosophy of Jose Mourinho. The less than glamorous tactician has an unfair reputation in my opinion. Despite the guarantee of trophies wherever he goes, many prefer to emulate the more exciting coaches like Klopp or Guardiola.

With this in mind, I decided to attempt to replicate Mourinho’s successful 4-2-3-1 with which he continues to use with great success. However, it is important to stress that this system is not a like-for-like, rather it is a Mourinho inspired system; therefore you might see some player roles and instructions that you might not agree with. However, I’m open to having a healthy debate on anything I’ve presented below. 

I’ll jump straight into the system below, talk a bit about Mourinho, and then how I replicate this philosophy in game. To get the obvious out of the way first, we play with a control mentality and a structured shape. I want to ensure that the structural integrity of the shape is maintained. I will tailor my instructions via each player so that they know what their responsibility is. With a structured shape, we are more disciplined in defence, e.g., we’re less committal going forwards and there’s more space for us to operate in. 

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So let’s look at some of the key characteristics of a Mourinho system and see how I have tried to slide these into my setup at Barcelona. I will talk about the instructions Mourinho uses and note observations against them, so I can reference these from my tactical instructions.

IN DEFENCE AND TRANSITION FROM ATTACK TO DEFENCE

Arguably one of the best defensive coaches of the modern era. Mourinho typically builds his team around a two-man midfield. His system typically deploys a deep playmaker alongside a more defensive midfielder who is tasked with winning the ball back and releasing it to more creative players. At Manchester United, this responsibility has predominately fallen to Matić and Paul Pogba respectively. [Observation 1]

When in their defensive shape, a Mourinho side will utilise a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation with the central attacking midfielder staying with the striker in order to have players available for the counter attack, should his team turnover the ball in an advantageous position. The wide attackers will fall back in line with the central midfielders in front of the defence to create two solid banks of four. [Observation 2]

In the early phase of defence, the aim is to shift the opposition out wide when they have the ball since it is easier to defend the flanks. This is due to the limited options to progress the ball compared with the central areas and the natural player match up (1v1 or 2v2). A way of achieving this is by having the two furthest central attacking players block the passing lanes for progression of the ball through the central areas and to put pressure on the defence. Moreover, when the play does get out to the wide areas, this is where the overloads become more effective. It is less detrimental to your shape by overloading the wide areas than it is in the middle, simply because there are fewer passing lanes for progression of the ball (since the side of the pitch blocks passes in that direction). [Observation 3]

When it comes to pressing the opposition the two key objectives are to reduce space for wide players and reduce the time on the ball for central players. In wider areas space is reduced by tightly marking the wide player and closing down aggressively. Increasing numbers out wide will reduce the space the opposition can move into. To reduce time on the ball for the central areas an aggressive approach to closing down will achieve this, however, with more and more coaches increasing numbers in the central areas, this can cause your shape some problems if you’re not closing down intelligently. Furthermore, tightly marking the central players will lead to an increase in interceptions. [Observation 4]

The defensive line is neither deep nor high, usually situationally adapting.

So let’s look at some of my tactical instructions and relate these back to the observations above.

[Observation 1] To achieve some defensive solidity, and to match the asymmetry of the midfield two, I use a Central Midfielder with a Defend duty and a Deep Lying Playmaker with a Support duty. This gives me the solidity in front of the back four, with a risk averse two who will be the first line of cover should the opposition turnover the ball and break the first lines with a counter attack.

[Observation 2] When playing against two wide men on each flank, e.g., a left back and a left winger, I will instruct my attacking wingers to specifically man mark his opposite to increase our chances of ball turnover. We want to be winning the ball in the central midfield or out wide. We don’t want to rely on the last man of defence to make the last tackle. Since the wide men track their opposite number, this brings them down in line with the central midfield pairing and giving us what looks like a 4-4-1-1

[Observation 3] I use the opposition instructions to show the defenders out wide, so the left sided central defender is shown onto his left foot, and the right sided onto his right foot. With the passing lanes into the midfield covered by my central attacking midfielder and my striker closing down the defence, the ball is moved out to the wider areas where you can safely press with more numbers with less impact on the defensive shape. Moreover, the central midfielders are instructed to close down more, increasing their determination to move into the wider areas when the opposition progresses the ball here, creating 3v2 overloads against the opposition wide men.

[Observation 4] Wide players are closed down always as defined by the generic opposition instructions. Additionally, my wide attacking wingers are set to man mark their opposite number when the opposition plays with wingers (most teams in Spain). Hard tackling is also instructed against the opposition central midfielders. Similarly to the central defenders, the central midfielders are down onto their outside foot, e.g., the left central midfielder is shown onto his left foot. This is to try progress the opposition build-up down the flanks.

Simplistically, we play with a very conservative back four. We have two Central Defenders with a Defend duty, and two Full Backs with Support duty. Ahead we use a Central Midfielder with Defend duty and a Deep Lying Playmaker on Support. We aim to get into our shape quickly. Forcing progression of the opposition attack down the flanks if we can, where we create overloads in an attempt to win the ball back before the opposition can get a cross in. If the ball is progressed into the middle, we are quick to close down the opposition midfielders in an attempt to win the ball back before it progresses through to my defensive line.

With these observations my defensive team instructions look like this:

  • Defensive Line
  • Defensive line is set to normal
  • Use offside trap enabled
  • Closing Down
  • Closing down is set to sometimes, but this is governed by specific opposition instructions
  • Tackling
  • No specific instructions at a team level

My player roles and instructions for the defensive players:

My defence is pretty standard. I want my central defenders passing it short to my central midfielders or our wide to the Full backs. I don’t want them hoofing it the field so that is why they’re set to pass it shorter (since we use mixed team passing). My Full Backs have a few instructions. Fewer risky passing to help control the safe possession when they receive the ball in deeper areas in the build-up. I don’t want them spraying fancy cross-field passes to players where there is a high-risk attached to the pass. I need them up supporting play, but also very mindful of their defensive responsibilities so we allow them to get further forward, but we keep the support duty to ensure their starting position is deeper in line with the defence.

EXAMPLES OF OUR DEFENSIVE PLAY

In a recent game against Real Madrid we came up against a stubborn 4-4-1-1 system. Below is an example of our defensive shape in action. The backline is relatively flat around the midpoint of our half. Playing with a control mentality and a normal defensive line it is slightly higher than normal. My Trequartista (the midfielder circled) is covering the inside of the pitch as he moves the midfielder towards the wide areas with the ball. My striker, meanwhile, is occupying the central defenders to ensure a pass isn’t easily recycled. In this particular passage of play, Marchetti plays the ball into the winger, who almost instantly has my left back on his toes, who wins the ball back cleanly.

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In this next phase of play Madrid have just won the ball back and are looking to progress. My Advanced Playmaker highlighted positions himself between the ball carrier and the central midfielders. Moving the ball out wide where the player is already being tightly marked. With the alternative being a long ball forward, the player attempts a high-risk pass into the winger despite the presence of my defender.

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Sasic is closed down quickly and ordinarily would have probably lost the ball here. However, we’re playing Madrid so have to expect that at some points in the match they’re going to beat the man or pass when it seems almost impossible to do so.

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However, because of the high closing down and structural discipline, when the pass is made into the midfield, my Deep Lying Playmaker (with closing down more activated) makes a good interception to win the ball back for us. All the while my Central Midfielder maintains his position in front of the defenders as a second line of defence if the pass is successful. During this game we made 62 interceptions across the pitch, most of which in our own half. 

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IN ATTACK AND TRANSITION FROM DEFENCE TO ATTACK

The defensive shape and team instructions allow for more efficiency in a quick transition from defence and counter attacking. With the shortest distance to goal on the counter being through the middle, an efficient counter system would require at least two central players in attacking positions during the defensive phase, with a supporting wide player along one flank to join in if progression through the middle is restricted. At United, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku are usually the furthest forward when the team is defending. Sometimes the left sided attacking midfielder will be somewhat advanced. [Observation 1]

With Juan Mata operating more as a playmaker a lot of the slower and more patient build-up was directed to the right side of the pitch. United created overloads on this side with Pogba and Valencia supporting Mata and Mkhitaryan in the attack. Furthermore, with the approach directed to guide the ball towards one flank with clear overloads, this frees up the player on the opposite side to almost inevitably be free for a quick break. [Observation 2]

This season it appears that Mkhitaryan has more confidence from his manager and this has shown with his free role to create and dictate play from the central areas. He is registering high chance creation and assists already. This free role to roam and be less involved in the defensive side suits his style. A similar role has been afforded the number 10 at Madrid and Inter. [Observation 3]

So let’s look at some of my tactical instructions and relate these back to the observations above.

[Observation 1] I leave my Trequartista and Complete Forward high during the defensive phase. This allows our transitions from defence to attack to be quick and sharp and triggers good counter attacking opportunities with Raumdeuter being fairly advanced, too. With the team instructed to pass into space, we look to progress the ball forwards quicker than we would if we passed into feet.

[Observation 2] We have also adopted an Advanced Playmaker on the right. With our right sided central midfielder and right sided winger being playmakers a lot of the ball and progression is down the right flanks. This leaves the Raumdeuter with more space to exploit. And given his pace, acceleration and dribbling, he takes full advantage of this. He is currently second in the scoring charts.

[Observation 3] My Trequartista is there for attacks. I afford him the freedom to dictate the game from the middle. I’m less concerned about his role defensively, which is just as well, given he is assigned a role that has less emphasis on defence and more on offence. However, this does not mean that he is ineffective defensively, on the contrary, he is key in the first phase of defence in moving the ball into wide positions.

When we transition to attack, if we’re quick enough to break into a counter then it is usually through my Trequartista that play progresses before the ball is switched out wide to my Raumdeuter. At this point we usually trigger a 3v3 or 3v4 attack, of which we’re usually favourites to come out on top. When we progress with the ball we have a natural inclination to progress to the right with quick switches to the left when the Raumdeuter is in space and 1v1 situations.

We are comfortable on the ball and happy to play the patient game looking for clear openings. Typically, this will see us dominate in the possession and passing stats for most games.

With these observations my offensive team instructions look like this:

  • Passing
  • Exploit the middle
  • Play out of defence
  • Pass into space
  • Passing Directness
  • Mixed passing
  • Creative Freedom
  • Be more disciplined

My player roles and instructions for the defensive players:

My Central Midfielder is instructed to pass it shorter as he needs to keep things simple. His prime role is ball winner and defence protector. I don’t need him doing anything fancy. Alongside him is my Deep Lying Playmaker. He has a bit of freedom but not too much. He is instructed to close down more to keep up the pressing when the ball moves into the middle of the pitch and to help support the overloads on the flank.

My Trequartista doesn’t have instructions as it isn’t really needed. My Advanced playmaker is instructed to sit narrower as I want to really congest this side of the pitch and draw in the opposition to the half-spaces where he will be operating. My Raumdeuter is instructed to shoot less, purely because of the positions he can get into. I need him to be more decisive when he is in the box and to only shoot when it is a high chance shot.

My Complete Forward is instructed to move into channels to support the build up and to move the defence with him to open up spaces for the on-rushing players behind him.

EXAMPLES OF OUR OFFENSIVE PLAY

In the next passage of play I will highlight how out players use the short passing abilities of my playmakers to move the ball about and manipulate the shape of the oppositions. I will show the intelligence of my Raumdeuter to isolate the right back and subsequently unmark himself to break free and score a simple goal.

To set the scene, my Central Midfielder makes a short pass into my Deep Lying Playmaker. This is a common pattern between the two. My left back has the attention of the opposition winger and my Raumdeuter is in-line with my striker, pressing the defensive line back.

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My Deep Lying Playmaker now progresses the ball into my Trequartista. He is a very technically gifted player and is the key creator in the side, both scoring and creating goals. You will notice that my Raumdeuter has now drifted into space in order to move into a better position to attack the ball. All the while the defender who was meant to be watching him is now ball watching. 

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My Trequartista wastes no time in playing a first time pass into space for my Raumdeuter to run onto. Who has this time unmarked himself and snuck in behind for a very nicely worked goal. This is one of the more simple patterns of play we create by overloading the right and central sides of the pitch before playing the ball to the left side where my Raumdeuter will have isolated the defender. The supporting Full Back is key in occupying the attention of the winger to ensure there’s little in the way of obstacles.

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Here is another example from the same game, where my Raumdeuter actually scored four goals. Again, play is moved from my Advanced Playmaker on the right, into my Trequartista. My Raumdeuter is running in behind the defender, and waits for the pass to come in from the Trequartista. A really simple, yet effective pattern of play.

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IN CONCLUSION

I’ve tried to keep this fairly brief without going over the top with examples and images, so if anyone is curious about how I’ve setup or why, just drop a reply and I’ll see what I can do to answer anything. It’s a really simple system and one that is very effective. Finally, I have posted our results from our season so far. We’re defensively strong and offensively potent. I have also included the complete team instructions and opposition instructions, since I’ve already posted the roles and player instructions above.

Team Instructions

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Opposition Instructions

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Results so far

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Thanks for reading,

17 thoughts on “Mourinho inspired 4-2-3-1”

  1. Really nice write-up again Cleon, top stuff!

    You mention that you set your wingers to man-mark the opposition wingers, is that just when the opposition has wide men in the midfield strata? If the opposition was playing with wingers in the AM strata (say you were facing a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3), do you still set them to man-mark, or would that lead to them dropping too deep to be effective say on the counter?

    1. If you use Twitter you might be best asking this question direct to the author. His Twitter handle is at the very start of the article 🙂

  2. This is a very good tactic! I’m in my 5th year with Hamburg, and I won the league every year but I needed a new tactic for champions league and this one is working very good. I’m in the middle of the season, set this tactic and won 7 games in a row now, without training it! Very good!

  3. Thanks for the share Cleon.
    I have a question regarding 4231, not to the author, but to you, if i may.

    I remember reading somewhere from you a while ago (SI forums?) saying that if you use a 4231 you’d never go for the “normal” version, instead you’d chose 2 DMC.

    My question is, would you go with 2 roles that advance forward for the DMC’s? For example DM(s) and a Regista (s) or do you feel that only 1 is good enough, while the other keep his position?

    The reason i ask this is because with no players in MC strata, might be a good idea to have both DMC’s supporting. I dont count DLP on support because it’s a role that always stays back.

    Thank you and i really enjoy reading your blog!

    1. I’d always use DM’s yeah. As for what I’d use it depends really. In some saves 1 might be enough to bring forward while in others maybe not. It all depends on how good the player is and if the wingbacks/AMC are also providing support or not.

  4. Thank you for the reply Cleon.

    In my case it would be something like this:

    GK – D
    LB – FB (s)
    RB – CWB (a)
    DCL – BPD(d)
    DCR – CD(d)
    DMCL – Regista (s)
    DMCR – DLP(s)
    AMCL – AM(s)
    AMC – SS
    AMCR – AP(s)
    ST – AF

    What do you think about the roles and duties distribution?

    1. Looks okay to me. I’d just try it though and note any issues you see then see if its a role/duty allocation issue or not. And of so how can you fix it 🙂

  5. Super article, it’s with articles like this that you learn things about real football, it’s a shame that you have to make do with a bad translation

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