The 4-2-3-1 – Midfield Analysis

The 4-2-3-1 on Football Manager for the past few versions seems to cause people all kinds of headaches. Being a moderator on the SI Games forums, I’d have to say that this particular formation covers more than half the issues I see posted on there. People seem to use it but struggle to identify just how important the two central midfielders are. This means people pick roles that just don’t suit what is needed of the players. So hopefully these two little pieces of analysis I’ve done quite recently will make you think about which roles and duties you use on these two players and should highlight, what happens when one player is more aggressive than the other.

Here is the first bit of analysis I did where the user couldn’t understand why his midfield was getting overwhelmed and how he could be vulnerable to counter attacks.

Straight away after 25 seconds I think it is, I see it happening;


Your ball winning midfielder should be more in the area where it’s marked 1 as that’s the side he is playing on supposedly. But look how far across and aggressive he’s been when closing down the ball. It means the area he should be in is totally unmarked and free space for the opposition to use if they want. He went wild and charged the person on the ball yet the ball was passed around him. Not only is he not covering the space but in one pass he’s been took out of the game for this move. I watched the rest of the move and they actually get into your box and have a shot due to the BWM’s recklessness, he’s left your entire midfield exposed and the defenders tried to make up for it but that made them out of position too.


This is taken a minute or so after and shows another counter by the opposition and this time it exposes both your central midfielder. Just look at how high up the pitch they are. Considering the central players should be more like holding players due to the sheer aggressiveness of the shape you use when they get caught out high up the pitch they have free run to the edge of your area. The DLP was actually marking someone but he’s now left them to try to run back and deal with the other thread because the BWM was high up the pitch too. When the BWM is caught out of position it makes a domino effect and someone else somewhere in your tactic as to make up the ground and deal with the threat’s he should be dealing with. I’m less than 2 minutes into the game and it’s already a disaster.


You’ve just lost possession in this screenshot and the BWM is placed alright here. But look what he does next and how far he chases down the player who has just won the ball;


Look how far across he’s gone!! Not only that but he has allowed someone to run straight past him because he’s that focused on the ball instead of tracking the runner. This has left you exposed really bad because you now have 6 players behind the ball once the opposition makes one simple pass one second later.


Another move and he pushed up to close the ball down and yet again was passed around as he went to make the challenge. Look at your DLP he has to deal with the two players who he is in the middle of and the player who is just about to receive the ball. Whoever he decided to mark here or track will be the wrong option because he can’t be in 3 places at one time. All this because the BWM closes down extremely heavy.
Can you see the issues I was talking about earlier in the thread now? All the above screenshot were taken from the opening 3 minutes. In total for the first half alone I counted the BWM being at fault or caught out of position 17 times before I stopped counting.

That’s what I saw from that specific game and that is what happens when you use those two roles together, it doesn’t matter which way around you have the duties the same thing will still happen due to the ball winning midfielder closing down too much, even on a defend duty. While playing a high aggressive pressing game the effects of these issues might be lessened somewhat but they still exist it doesn’t solve the issue. All that happens is you move all the players that bit closer to each other and still risk being undone by counter attacks.

The thing to remember with the central duo is you don’t want them chasing all over the pitch and having to cover everywhere. You need the other players around them to still track back and pick up runners if not the two midfielders will be run ragged and no matter the roles or duties you use, they’ll all suffer the same fate. Ideally the two players should be more focused on holding their position both in defensive and attacking phases as you’d already have more than enough players in the final third due to the shape you have used.
So the idea behind them is that they sit in the middle and recycle possession and allow you to build attacks as well as being well placed to deal with any kind of counter attacks or attacks through the centre. If one of them is more aggressive than the other than this can leave you exposed and cause a huge gaps to appear when one player leaves his position and adds added pressure and responsibilities for his midfield partner. Ideally both should be similar in what they do and play as a team and not individuals.

I recently wrote some more analysis for someone else in the past week. This particular user was adamant his midfield was doing what he wanted and that the above behaviour didn’t happen. But these screenshots are took from a PKM of one of his games he uploaded. He claimed that was he saw happening was due to game breaking bugs but it wasn’t really. It was just he didn’t want to admit his midfield was far from balanced. I’m aware there are issues with defenders though but this particular issue was nothing to do with that. It was due to what his midfield was doing the reasons behind why his central defender pairing was acting strangely as it added extra pressure and responsibilities for them to do.

Let’s take a look what I wrote for him. I should add though that my tone isn’t the best with this person as they weren’t listening to anyone and was being very stubborn and just didn’t want to accept what he had, was not a balanced midfield.


This first screenshot is a classic example of the issues I was talking about before. Your central midfielder who is on an attack duty is basically a AMC in this game and is very high most of the time when attacking because you play control and are pushed up. This means that in defensive situations he struggles to get back to his MC position to help out and do his defensive requirements. That in itself isn’t a bad thing if you have players who can cover for him which you do.

However that covering playing is the DLP who is supposed to be your holding player. But because the CM was caught out high up the pitch and you are playing a very heavy pressing game, the DLP isn’t sitting and offering protection to the back four. What he is actually doing is leaving his position time and time again to cover for the CM. Now when this happens the DLP is leaving his so-called zone and chasing down players he shouldn’t have to deal with yet. He’s supposed to be a last line of defence before they get to your defenders. But because of the ground and space he is trying to cover he’s not actually doing the job he should be.

This isn’t helped at all by the fact the BWM is also caught out high up the pitch too. He also has a dilemma here because he has two players to track so whichever option he chooses will still be the wrong one because he’ll leave a player free. The free player wouldn’t be an issue if the DLP was actually in his position and doing his job. But the fact that the DLP is covering for the defensive frailties of the CM it becomes a big issues. I’ve seen this kind of situation happen a lot during the match, it’s not an isolated incident it’s a regular occurrence.

To add icing to the cake, the opposition’s striker who should be being picked up by the player you use in the defensive midfield spot – the DLP or at the very least being closer to him in terms of positioning. It now means someone else has to do this job and who does that fall to? You’ve guessed it, the central defender partnership. So if the ball is played to the striker what happens? It will mean one or both defenders will step up to deal with the threat. But this is so bad mainly for one reason and one reason only. Look how high up the field this could actually occur. It’s on the halfway line almost. That is a lot of space to be exploited in behind the defence.

All this is happening because the DLP is having to do multiple jobs and it all stems from the CM and BWM not doing what they should be doing. This means it has a massive knock on effect elsewhere through the tactic as other players then have to do much more than deal with their own responsibilities.

That’s the key thing here, it’s the balance. You think on paper the balance is right and for a less aggressive tactic maybe it would be better. But in your current set up with the current setting it’s a shambles. None of the midfield trio are doing any of the defensive jobs you think they are. From an attacking point it works I guess to a certain extent but even then I don’t think it works that well. Your shots on target ratio is awful, there is little space and movement being created and when it does happen it all comes from a central position. It’s very predictable play.


This time a slightly different scenario but still more of the same thing really. The BWM goes running to close down like a headless chicken due to his naturally heavy closing down and with your TI’s to press more, he has even more incentive to rush around. There is no real need to go charging in here and if he holds his position better and is more wise than he’d hold position and he’d actually be able to deal with the situation easier. Because he’d be able to position himself to deal with both players, the one on the ball and the one marked with number 1. It doesn’t matter is Hermann even drove forward with the ball as he’d not have any passing options because the BWM could deal with the player marked with 1 and track him easily. But no this doesn’t happen.

But a little later in the move and the screenshot looks a bit like this (this is about 3 seconds after the picture above btw)


Now the opposition’s striker might not have any actual real option here but that’s not really the point.Remember in one of the replies above when you told me that the holding player the DLP should be able to deal with situations, how’s it working out in this screenshot? Your so-called holding player is the highest player out of all three of them. So what you think is happening and what is actually happening are two completely different things.

The CM who is on attack is useless when it comes to the defensive side of things, his start position for any kind of recovery is always too high to begin with. Basically you’ve got two midfielders in the DLP and BWM for defensive responsibilities but the BWM is a bit of a liability at times too due to his closing down. This means at times throughout the job the DLP is having to abandon his game to cover for the other two-time and time again. This then in turn means the defenders are having to cover for the DLP. It’s like a gigantic domino effect, if one player doesn’t do what he should be doing then this ripples through the rest of the side and impact what the other players actually do.


One of the actual few times throughout the match that the CM is actually in a decent position. The issue here though is the BWM, he’s again charging down far too rapidly to win the ball back and when this doesn’t happen the opposition just pass straight through him. This means that yet again the DLP is stepping up far too early to deal with a threat that shouldn’t even be a threat. You are creating issues for yourself here when there is no need whatsoever. When the DLP steps up and fails to win the ball then the opposition pass to their striker and again you’re on the back foot and the defenders then have to step up and deal with it.


My favourite screenshot though has to be this next one;


This is the build up to the goal that loses you the game. Look at your holding player, what’s he holding exactly? The CM and BWM are already sprinting trying to get back as they know you’ve been found out and are being hit with a good counter attacking move, one which could have been avoided if you wasn’t as aggressive btw. But you’re setting yourself up for these types of situations time and time again.

I could provide loads more examples all showing the same things too. I think so far I’ve counted about 32 times the midfield have been at fault or not doing what they should be doing during the first 60 minutes of the game. Have a think about that for a moment. This also means then when the players do get back in time they are all very narrow and all in the same kind of space.

Still think your midfield is balanced and not adding extra pressure to the defence?

So the next time you set up a 4-2-3-1 remember what you need the central midfielders to do and pick roles that don’t leave you exposed with just one player having to cover the entire pitch. If one player has to cover for someone else then that has a massive knock-on effect elsewhere.


27 thoughts on “The 4-2-3-1 – Midfield Analysis”

  1. BWM is an often misunderstood role – people take the obvious decision of wanting someone in there in a holding position… but this isn’t what the BWM is in FM. I’d say it’s almost more similar to a Paul Scholes type of player – maybe not the best example, but it’s really aggressive. Chase and harry.

    I pretty much never use BWM personally. Can be really useful in the right setting, but I tend to want something a little more tactically disciplined. Give me a CM-S any day!

    1. The name BWM suggests that he is there to win the ball for you. Placing him next to a DLP, makes you think you have created a Gattuso/Pirlo or De Rossi/Pirlo situation. The fact that the BWM roams from position is overlooked I think, especially since people might not read the full role description, but just look at the name. To create a Gattuso/De Rossi alongside Pirlo situation, I think then Anchor Man role might be suited better

  2. Very interesting, thank you.

    Personally discovered the lack of discipline in BWM a while ago. My preference rightly or wrongly is to go with DLP-D and BBM-S as the midfield two – I will run similar analysis to see if I should change!

  3. Interesting piece. But it also got me wondering: as you might know, Rashidi uses with his legendary WBA side ( a midfield three in a 4312 formation which consists of 3 CM’s: a DLP-D in the middle and two BWM-S on both sides. Why does that (apparently) work, while a DLP + BWM in a 4231 doesn’t? Same kind of roles.

    Also, next time, in a piece like this, I would be interested in seeing what kind of midfield duo does work, instead of only reading what does not work. But nonetheless, nice piece!

    1. I’ve already got plenty of pieces on the blog showing what works and why so it wasn’t needed in this piece.

      It works in Rashidi’s because there is 3 players centrally not two so 3 can cover a lot more space than 2 and even if one goes wandering there will still be two. In a 4231 or any other formation that only has 2 central players and no-one along side them or behind them, the issues I highlight will always be able to be seen throughout the match.

      It might be similar roles but the shape is totally different so it’s not same or similar at all.

      1. Thanks for your reply. I already thought it might have to do with the 3 men in midfield instead of two. Still I couldn’t, and still can’t, understand why it works. You say in your reply that it doesn’t matter if one goes wandering, there will be still two men behind, but since the BWM-role goes wandering “by default”, won’t it cause problems if both go wandering and the DLP stays behind alone (or even has to cover for two wandering players)? Or will they just not both go wandering at the same time? If they don’t the latter, then I can see how it works.

        I don’t doubt that Rashidi’s system works (I would be stupid to do so, after he has won 300+ games in a row), but it just fascinates how a trio that I would qualify as ‘imbalanced’ on first sight, turns out to work awesomely.

      2. Could You please post the site where ur blog is at or is this it? As I cannot find the article for the two DM pairing that does work. Cheers

      3. Cleon would you then say a CM D and Roaming Playmaket or DLP a better combination in midfield if you are playing a midfield

        1. A roaming playmaker will stray from his position far too much, so you’d have all the issues highlighted in the article.

  4. It’s no surprise people don’t take into account the BWM’s roaming from position, since if you use it in either DM or CM and when hovering over the popup says unavailable, not already in use.
    Or do you speak about the roaming that happens as consequence of his high closing down? Or is it that I’m missing something?

    1. I think its roaming because of high closing down, I don’t know if he also ‘normally’ roams from position (like mostly attackers or attacking minded players can do)

  5. He doesn’t roam, it’s his high closing down that makes him rush around and charge players to try and win the ball back. It’s nothing to do with roaming at all.

  6. Personally I don’t understand why FM players sacrifice the defence to add bite to the attack, I don’t use the 4231, i actually use a narrow 41221,giving my fullbacks d creative space and allowing the midfield do the covering.
    I concede less goals and create chances a lot.

    1. Cleon what are your thoughts on a DLP – Defend and DLP Support as the Central Midfield Pair in 4231 formation. I am using a Trequartista in the AMC. My full backs are set to support and I have a inside forward attack and Winger Support on the wings. My striker is set to Complete Forward Support. What do you really think about the midfield roles.

      1. Sounds like the “Doppio Play” Prandelli with Pirlo and Verratti used in the 2014 World Cup, though was 41311.

        I use DLP-D and DLP-S in a direct/counter 4411. It’s pretty solid and good to hold a 2-0 lead, Use an AM-A in the AMC, with CF-S.

        1. Do you used the DLP Defend and DLP Support in a 4231 also. I have Ozil and he is more suited to a Trequartista role than AM Attack. What forward role would you suggest with a Trequartisa in the AMC position.

    1. I can see that the DLP Defend always sits a little deeper than the DLP Support. My main concern is that I have two playmakers in midfield and they might start passing the ball between each other and not pass it forward (is this possible with two playmakers in Midfield. I am playing as Arsenal and Ozil plays in the AMC position as a Trequartista and he should really be the creator of the team.

      1. There is no reason why they would just pass the ball between themselves. If that happened it would be because they couldn’t get the ball to the front players. But it really shouldn’t be an issue.

        1. Thanks Cleon. Sorry to go off topic but do you have any advice on the Striker role. I am playing Giroud as a DLF Support at the moment. Ozil is playing as Trequartista. In the game Giroud drops deep but because Ozil is a Trequartista I do not see them getting in each other’s way too often. I am now trying Giroud has a Complete Forward Support to get some more Goals from him. Would you advice on any other striker roles. I am playing with Inside Forward Attack and Winger Support. Also would it be best to keep both Full Backs on Support when playing a 4231 with aggressive pressing. I am using Standard Flexible with a Much Higher Defensive Line.

  7. 4-2-3-1 is a paradox. It’s simple but in the same time a bit complicated because it has 2 major areas where you can be exposed if you don’t have the right balance: the flanks and either the space between midfielders and center backs (if you play with MCs) or the space between DM and AM strata (if you play with DMs).
    I think this shape is very offensive by default so my way of looking at it is that I don’t need too many attacking roles to apply pressure on the opposition. I have a balanced system in my opinion. How did I come up to it after I also struggled a couple of years? Well…first thing: I play very fluid. This way I reduce the mentality split, the team becomes more compact, so the space between the lines is not very big and I provide the team with lots of creativity.
    Second: player roles. Like I said, no need for 3, 4 or 5 attacking roles. The shape is already attacking enough. One standard keeper, 2 standard central defenders. On the right side I have Darmian set to CWB on attack and on the left Shaw as a WB with support duty. The midfield duo now, the most important pieces of the puzzle. They need to recycle, they need to protect the defence and they need to bring the ball to the final third. My main starters are Schweinsteiger as a DLP on defend and Schniederlin as a CM on defend with the PI “close down less”. The german starts our attacks and provides defensive cover and the frenchman is a pure destroyer, constantly breaking the opposition’s attempts at the right time.
    This is how I imagine a well balanced 4-2-3-1. I didn’t write about my attacking strata because I’m pretty sure everyone has in mind a specific way of how they want their team to score goals. I just explained the basic vision. If you are able to create a solid defensive base, you already have more than half of the issue solved. I play like this with success because I know what type of football I want and what players I need. Team selection is critical and you will have problems even with a correct setup if you don’t have the right players.

    1. This is how I line up my Chelsea team as well.

      Mentality/Team shape: standard, very fluid

      TI’s: retain possession, play out of defence, close down much more, roam from position.

      No PI’s.

      GK/D (Courtois)

      DR – CWB/A (Ivanovic)
      DCR – CD/D (Cahill)
      DCL – CD/D (Terry)
      DL – WB/S (Azpi)

      MCR – DLP/D (Fabregas)
      MCL – CM/D (Matic)

      The only thing is that I have a lot of possession but I can’t score goals at all.

      AMR – W/S (Willian)
      AMC – AM/S (Oscar)
      AML – IF/S (Hazard)

      ST – AF/A (Costa)

      I guess the front four is the problem here.

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