Defending Against the 4-2-3-1

More and more teams at every level of the game are playing with a 4-2-3-1 so it makes sense to work with your team on how to defend against it. Using a 4-3-3 formation to counter a 4-2-3-1 can be an effective tactic. Teaching your back four and defensive center midfielder to deal with the striker and three midfielders of the 4-2-3-1 is a good place to start.


This session is taken from our book, ‘Beating the 4-2-3-1’ by Stevie Grieve. The book includes main real examples from games at the highest level and training sessions to teach the concepts to your team.

Defending against the 3-1 attack within a 4-3-3 formation


The defence play 5v4 within 30 yards from goal. The Coach feeds the ball into play to an attacker at random and the attack looks for solutions to find a way through to score. Once play is stopped or the defence win possession, the next attacking team take up new positions to attack next.

Coaching Points:

  • Early pressure on the ball
  • Watch the intentions of the player in possession to allow you to press early and win possession  – watch the direction of the eyes as they receive, body shape, 1st touch – anticipate the decision
  • The 1st covering centre back and far side full back should be in line, the 2nd CB is deepest
  • The defensive midfielder shouldn’t be further than 5m from the attacking midfielder


  • Add in an outside channel and 2 attacking full backs who make an attacking overload

Attackers must try to dribble 1v1 to create an opening before looking for a pass.

4-1-2 Defence v 2-3-1 Attack


Split a field into 2 zones, one up to 30 yards, the other 10 yards longer up to 40 yards from goal. The 4-1 play in the 1st zone 5v4, the 2v2 is played in the 2nd zone.

Coaching Points:

  • The 2 central midfielders should ensure that they don’t get drawn into the 5v4 zone as this would allow the 2 deep players in the 4-2-3-1 to gain control of the midfield
  • The 5v4 should work the same as the previous excersize, paying attention to 1v1 scenario’s, pressing and covering in defence and the defensive midfielder marking the attacking midfielder
  • Try to force play into an area of 2v1 or 3v1 to win possession easily when pressure is made on time


  • The 2 deepest players can enter the 5v4 to make a 5v5, midfielders don’t need to go with them
  • Add in 3 small goals on the half way line as outballs for a turnover in possession

Activity 3

Playing against an overload and containing play in one area– 4-3-1 v 4-1-2


The 4-3 defence should defend up to the width of the 6 yard box on the far side, and try to make a defensive overload, leaving attacking players on the far side as they are the least dangerous in this scenario.

Above, the ball is passed inside, the initial presser stays in position to deter a pass back again to open up space, while the centre of the 3 midfielders’ presses on the ball and shows back where the ball came from, to contain play on that side. As there is now only a passing lane forward, the central defender in the passing lane should step forward to cut out the pass, as the other marks the striker or covers behind.

Coaching Points:

  • Look to fill in the spaces where defensive triangles can exist
  • Remind players that containing play can save energy for counter attacks
  • Read the intentions of the opponent to press effectively and win possession back


  • Add in a goal on the half way line, so the midfield can shoot when they win possession


Leave a comment below and we will randomly choose one to receive a free copy Beating the 4-2-3-1 eBook.

Have a great day!




  1. andy may says:

    These sessions will become invaluable next season as my team go to 11 a side for the first time. I look forward to reading more sessions just like this one. Thanks keep up the great work

  2. brano says:

    Very good article-thank you. hello brano

  3. Dan says:

    Great insight, will certainly help our defensive positioning.

  4. George says:

    I always enjoy the articles. This is a great drill. But the defence also starts in a good position, so I also start the attack from deeper with the defence pushed up so they learn how to drop off and get into position early based on the nature of the attack. Keep up the great work!

  5. Michael Hogg says:

    Great starting point for coaching the system but a coaching point should include the farthest FB and DM to be aware of quick switches in point of attack. This should be progressed to ensure good width and pace in counter attacking and using the fact the midfield 2 should not enter the 5v4 zone as a springboard for that attack.

  6. GREGORY says:

    who is the most important player at every phase;how we can develop to 11v 11
    thank u

  7. oscar says:

    Firstly great defensive work to press , cover and balance and also cover up the spaces in defense . Good support in the confines area working on defensive shape and triangle which leads to good communication and good tackling to win the ball . Good drills to work on the back 4 with support in midfield