Friday, 19 Jul 2024

The 4-1-3-2 Formation: Unleashing Attack and Exploiting Weaknesses

In the world of football, formations play a crucial role in determining a team’s style of play, strengths, and weaknesses. While some formations have become synonymous with success, others are less common and tied to different footballing eras. One such formation is the 4-1-3-2, a system that offers numerous benefits while posing serious problems for opposing teams. In this article, we will delve into the details of the 4-1-3-2 formation, explore its strengths and weaknesses, highlight examples of clubs and managers who have successfully used it, and discuss effective strategies to exploit and defend against it.

How to Play the 4-1-3-2 Formation

The 4-1-3-2 formation is a variation of the classic 4-4-2 shape, designed to dominate the final third of the pitch with an attacking mindset. It consists of a back four comprising two center-backs, a right-back, and a left-back. In front of the defensive line, a lone central defensive midfielder provides cover and acts as a shield. The full-backs in this system often join the attack, emphasizing the importance of the central midfield player in protecting the defense.

The attacking prowess of the 4-1-3-2 formation lies in the five relatively attack-minded players ahead of the central defensive midfielder. These players work together to create chances and break down opposition defenses. The three attacking midfielders are usually positioned narrowly, focusing on linking up with each other and supplying the two strikers with the ball. The central attacking midfielder acts as the primary playmaker, while the left and right attacking midfielders engage in box-to-box play, providing support and width.

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Benfica lineup from their successful 2012/13 campaign
An example 4-1-3-2 lineup from Benfica’s successful 2012/13 season, managed by Jorge Jesus.

The two strikers at the top of this formation press aggressively, forcing opposition defenders into mistakes and winning the ball high up the pitch. With three attacking midfielders supporting them, these strikers have ample options to create scoring opportunities. This offensive overload often overwhelms opponents and leads to relentless waves of attack.

The Strengths of the 4-1-3-2 Formation

Among the various formations used in football, the 4-1-3-2 stands out as one crafted specifically for attacking purposes. It combines the attacking power of the 4-4-2 with a narrower midfield, reducing the risk of being overrun in the center.

When out of possession, the three attacking central midfielders can drop back and form a compact shape in the middle of the park. Even in these moments, the front two strikers can stay high, pressuring opposition defenders, and providing an attacking outlet.

In possession, the narrow midfield allows full-backs to fill the wide spaces, serving as attacking options and delivering crosses into the box. The single central defensive midfielder provides defensive stability, allowing the five players ahead of them the freedom to venture forward. This synergy between defensive solidity and attacking freedom enables the 4-1-3-2 formation to create dangerous chances consistently.

The Weaknesses of the 4-1-3-2 Formation

While the 4-1-3-2 formation offers significant attacking strengths, it also possesses potential weaknesses. Its narrow nature, while advantageous in certain aspects, can limit the creation of moves through the wings. If central midfielders drop into a diamond shape or lack skilled attacking full-backs, exploiting wide positions becomes challenging.

The narrow midfield structure also makes teams vulnerable to fast counter-attacks. With just one defensive-minded central midfielder, the defense can become overwhelmed by swift counter-attacking sides. Additionally, when facing a midfield of five players, the risk of surrendering possession remains a concern.

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Clubs and Managers That Have Used the 4-1-3-2 Formation

Although not the most commonly used formation, several notable clubs and managers have successfully employed the 4-1-3-2 system.

One example is Slaven Bilic, the former Croatian coach, who utilized this formation during his tenure from 2006 to 2012. Croatia’s victory against England at Wembley during Euro 2008 qualifying showcased the effectiveness of the 4-1-3-2. Bilic maximized the potential of skilled players like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Nico Kranjcar, and Ivica Olic, allowing them to thrive in a fluid playmaking system supported by three attacking midfielders.

Roberto Mancini, the Italian manager, also deployed the 4-1-3-2 during Manchester City’s historic 2011-12 season when they clinched their first-ever Premier League title. The formation accommodated an abundance of attacking talents such as Yaya Toure, David Silva, Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko, and Sergio Aguero.

Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus is another proponent of the 4-1-3-2, having implemented it during his time at Sporting Benfica between 2009 and 2015. With this formation, Jesus achieved significant success, winning numerous domestic trophies.

How to Play Against the 4-1-3-2 Formation

Playing against the 4-1-3-2 formation requires careful analysis and strategic planning. Due to its relative rarity, it can be challenging to determine the best approach. However, a few strategies have proven effective.

Overloading the flanks is one of the most successful ways to exploit the gaps left out wide by the 4-1-3-2 formation. Attacking the right-back and left-back positions with skilled players can create one-on-one situations and expose potential weaknesses, especially if the opposition’s full-backs are not defensively strong.

Another area to focus on is the center defensive midfield position. Pushing additional midfielders or forwards into the deep central midfielder’s area can disrupt their play and isolate them. This forces the playmaker to drop back to assist their teammate, limiting their offensive contributions.

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By capitalizing on these strategies, teams can neutralize the strengths of the 4-1-3-2 formation and gain a competitive advantage. It is crucial to remember that no formation is invincible, and a well-executed game plan can disrupt even the most potent systems.


What is the most attacking formation in football?

One of the most attack-minded formations in football is the 4-1-3-2. Built around three attacking midfielders and two advanced forwards, it offers a powerful offensive presence. Formations incorporating three defenders, such as the 3-5-2, also prioritize attacking play.

What is the 3-5-2 formation?

The 3-5-2 formation is one of the most popular systems in modern football. It consists of three central defenders, two wing-backs, a strong midfield trio, and two strikers. This formation offers balance across the entire pitch, providing defensive stability and attacking options.

What is the 4-4-2 formation?

The 4-4-2 formation is a classic shape in football, featuring a back four, two central midfielders, two wide midfielders, and two strikers. This formation has been widely used in the sport for decades. Its strengths and weaknesses are explored in our article on the subject.


The 4-1-3-2 formation, though not as prevalent as some other systems, possesses unique strengths and weaknesses. With its emphasis on attacking play and a narrow central midfield, it can overwhelm opponents and create numerous scoring opportunities. However, its vulnerability to counter-attacks and potential limitations on the wings can be exploited by astute opponents. By understanding the fundamentals of this formation, teams can develop effective strategies to both utilize its advantages and neutralize its threats. Remember, in football, adaptation and smart tactics are key to success.