Defending against a 4-2-3-1 formation

This is a session focused on defending against a particular formation. It is aimed at stopping a team that plans to attack in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. When facing a team who have the ability to pass through you or exploit spaces with their running on the ball, being unbalanced in your shape and not closing the gaps through a lack of understanding or work rate can cause big problems.

This session serves to remind our players that they should be solid at the back and defensively organised, so they can exploit any turnover of possession with a quick counter-attack.

We used this training session at Southend last season to successfully prepare for our match against the league leaders, Wigan Athletic. We would run this type of session on the day before a match.



Up to full pitch


Balls, bibs, cones, 6 target goals,     

2 full size goals

Number of Players

Up to 20 players + 2 goalkeepers

Session time

Possession practice: 15mins

10v10 tactical practice: 25mins

11v11 game: 25mins

What do I get the players to do?

8v2 possession practice

We set up an area of 25×25 yards. We are using 10 players split into a passing team of 8 and a pressing team of 2, as shown [1]. This is an 8v2 possession game and the players must work at a high tempo. The coach starts play by serving the ball into the team of 8, who score 1 point for achieving 5 passes, 2 points for 10 passes and 3 points for 15 passes. The pressing duo must work hard to overturn possession – and if they succeed, they should clear the ball out of the area.


1. Play starts with the coach passing to the red team
2. The reds must pass to keep the ball. They should play at a high tempo
3. The two blue players press to turnover possession. If they succeed, they should clear the ball out of the area
4. The reds score a point each time they achieve five passes

What do I get the players to do next?

10v10 tactical practice

Next we set to work on our defensive/attacking structure. Here we are preparing to face particular opponents that play in a 4-2-3-1 formation. We set up an area of 60×40 yards with three target goals at each end and we are using 20 players. We play a 10v10 game with both teams aiming to score in the three goals at the end they are attacking.

We work on defending against a 4-2-3-1 formation with a 4-4-2 set-up, as shown [2], encouraging our players to stay solid and to cut out the space between the lines, so they can win the ball and hit the opposition on the counter-attack.


1. Play starts with the coach passing to the reds, who are set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation
2. The blues are set up in a 4-4-2 formation. Coach them to stay solid and cut out the space between the lines
3. Here the blues win possession and can counter-attack the three target goals at the opposition end

How would I put this into a game situation?

11v11 game

In the final game we work further on the movement to defend against the 4-2-3-1 formation. We set up on a full size pitch and play a normal 11v11 game.

We coach the blue team, who line up in a 4-4-2 formation. We want our centre backs and central midfielders to move, play and defend together in a ‘box’. If the two central midfielders go to press the red midfield pair, as shown [3], then we want our centre backs to condense the space and move closer to the opposition number 9 or number 10, whichever player is nearest to goal. The idea is to win the ball and launch a counter-attack.


1. Play an 11v11 game. The blues line up in a 4-4-2 formation and must defend and counter-attack. The reds are the opposition, lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
2. The two blue centre midfielders press the two red midfielders, looking to intercept
3. The two blue centre backs close in on the attacker nearest to goal and condense the space
4. A blue midfielder wins the ball and launches a quick counter-attack

What are the key things to look out for?

When defending, we are looking for players to demonstrate good organisation and clear communication, with players working together as a unit and as a team.

When attacking, we want to see effective movement, both on and off the ball. Players should counter-attack with fast forward passes, switching the play when necessary.

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