Over the past few years, the 4-2-3-1 has emerged as one of the most complete, well-rounded formations in soccer. It has won the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, the Champion's League, and has dominated international soccer as of late. Four of the top ranked teams at the Euro 2016 tournament field a 4-2-3-1 formation: Germany, Austria, Belgium and England. And now, the Colorado Rapids' take on the 4-2-3-1 is leading the MLS Supporters' Shield standings. A formation alone is not responsible for their success; you need personnel that is capable of executing the roles within this system. However, if played correctly, the 4-2-3-1 can cover space very efficiently on defense, ensure a strong midfield, and offer a variety of attacking options going forward.
The 4-2-3-1 features four defensemen along the back line, including two outside fullbacks and two center backs. It also fields five midfielders. As opposed to a 4-5-1, which staggers five players across the midfield, the 4-2-3-1 features two distinct rows. One row consists of two defensive midfielders that fill the space in front of the center backs. The second row consists of a traditional center attacking midfielder positioned higher up the pitch, flanked by a wide midfielder on either side. Lastly, a lone striker heads up the formation. Pun intended. Strikers playing in a 4-2-3-1 must be aerial ball winners and proficient with hold up play in order to give the midfielders time to join the attack when moving upfield.
This formation offers a lot of flexibility on offense and defense, while maintaining clear, well-defined player roles. This may be a clue as to why it is so commonly seen in international play. However, as with any formation, it requires personnel that can execute in those roles. When a team does come together to fully take advantage of everything the 4-2-3-1 has to offer, it can produce exciting, efficient, winning soccer.
Jurgen Klopp's 2012-13 Borussia Dortmund squad electrified European football with their relentless high press and quick, dynamic counter attacks. They finished second in Bundesliga and reached the final of the Champion's League, losing both to Bayern Munich (who also ran a 4-2-3-1!) BVB ran the 4-2-3-1 as a compact defensive formation, cutting off opponents' passing lanes and swarming on wingers trying to cut in toward the center of their defensive third. When possession was won, the once compact unit would explode forward in numbers, more often than not launching a successfully deadly counter attack. The roster that Klopp managed to put together at BVB precisely filled every position in a 4-2-3-1. While the Rapids obviously don't have the means to put together a roster featuring players with price tags north of forty million dollars, the front office has done a wonderful job building a roster capable of playing the 4-2-3-1 in a similar vein to one of the most memorable teams in European football. When comparing the two rosters, looking at player roles and how each player is equipped to manage their responsibilities, the parallels in style and personnel become very apparent.
BVB's back line featured Marcel Schmelzer and Lucasz Piszczek as the full backs, with Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic manning the two CB slots. Both Piszczek and Schmelzer were sound defenders willing to make long runs patrolling the flanks, and both were more than adequate going forward to join the attack. Mats Hummels is known for being a very versatile defender, able to read the game well and react quickly to win 50/50 tackles and loose balls around the box. Subotic, though a bit slower in space, was known as a physically imposing defender capable of winning aerial duals and playing a bit of free safety during set pieces. Does any of that sound familiar? Full backs in a 4-2-3-1 must be fundamentally sound defenders, with the ability and a willingness to make long runs up and down the flanks as the team transitions between attack and defense, something the Rapids have in Mekeil Williams and the new-and-improved Marc Burch of 2016. Additionally, the center backs must be able to win aerial duals and anticipate passing lanes in order to stop opposing entry passes. Ideally, they can connect with the two levels of midfielders to help catalyze counter attacks and clear the defensive third as well. Check and check. Get well soon to Bobby Burling, and stay cool to the big, beautiful Swede Axel Sjoberg.
A comparison of the midfield yields more even more similarities. Ilkay Gundogan and Sven Bender made up BVB's most commonly played defensive midfield duo that season. Gundogan, the now twenty-eight million dollar man of Manchester City, played his position with tireless intensity, combining his passing ability and defensive proficiencies into a monster that all but ensured control of the midfield. Bender was a defensively stout midfielder who would muck up opposing passing lanes and play ball winner in BVB's pressing midfield. Bender has also scored never scored more than once in a season in his professional career. Truly the Micheal Azira of Bundesliga. And while even Sam Cronin himself might admit that Gundogan may be a step above his level, the way they approach the responsibilities of a CDM in a 4-2-3-1 are strikingly similar, and they command the midfield with similar results. Gundogan and Bender were known for their ability to connect with the wide midfielders and striker via long through balls over the top or diagonally through the midfield, a mechanic that has been integral to the Rapids' success offensively this year.
The second row of midfielders for BVB included the incredibly influential Marco Reus on the wide left, with the leggy Jakub Blaszczykowski on the opposite flank. Mercurial playmaker Mario Gotze orchestrated the lightning-quick counter attacks in a traditional number ten role, or a central attacking midfielder. While the wide midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 may be asked to track back more than traditional wingers, they must be potent enough going forward to act as wingers, almost creating a 4-3-3 formation in the process as they run in toward the opponent's 18 yard box and behind their back line. When the Rapids finally have a roster free of injuries and suspensions, I imagine their attacking midfield row will line up Shkelzen Gashi and Marco Pappa on the outside, with Jermaine Jones playing the number ten role. Both Gashi and Pappa are more than capable of providing moments of creative brilliance in attack, and Jones seems very comfortable in his attacking midfield role. Jones lacks touch in tight areas on occasion, but is very good at timing the essential ball to unlock a defense. That, coupled with his tendency to pop up in the box for timely goals, makes for a dynamic midfielder in this formation.
The last comparison requires a bit of imagination, but is philosophically sound, at least in my humble opinion. The phrase "poor man's" may be thrown around here, but Kevin Doyle and BVB's prolific striker of 2012-13, a man named Robert Lewandowski, are very stylistically similar players. BVB's bread and butter that season was a ball through the middle for Lewa, who would shield and shimmy away from his man, turn, and fire a through ball to a streaking Reus or Blaszczykowski down the flank of his choosing, not unlike the relationship between Doyle and our wide midfielders this season. Lewa was also a clinical finisher in the box and commanded the penalty area in the air. Every single one of Doyle's goals in burgundy has come inside the penalty area or the six yard box. Again, not the same player by any means, but stylistically similar.
Jurgen Klopp's implementation of the 4-2-3-1 manifested itself in a well-organized, defensive outfit that landed just enough haymakers on the counter to knock out their opposition. It was not always pretty, Klopp himself described their energized style as "heavy metal" in relation to the "silent orchestra" that is possession soccer. I have yet to hear Pablo Mastroeni say anything quite as poetic about the team's style of play, but you can see how the results compare. Though the Rapids haven't consistently dominated possession this season by any means, they still have the best scoring defense in MLS while maintaining the second-best goal differential in the league.
The Rapids have been able to catch opponent's out on the counter with quick combination play and thoughtful runs from Doyle and the wide midfielders, and they have been great with set pieces, either executing their own or defending against their opponent's. Again this is not the formation or the system creating success for the players, but rather the formation placing them in position to maximize their usefulness and take advantage of their abilities. And even with that, the players have done a great job taking advantage of the unique strength and flexibility of the 4-2-3-1 formation. Kudos to the Rapids hierarchy for implementing a system that compliments the players, and building a roster that compliments the system.