442 vs 4231

4-4-2 vs 4-2-3-1 – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on March 3rd, 2022

When you are watching a football match or playing FIFA, some of the common formations you may come across include 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1

Here is a guide that will show you the strengths and weaknesses of these formations and how they differ.

The Differences Between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1

Perfect for counterattacks, the 4-4-2 formation helps a team to execute an intensive press and quickly transition into attack when they win the ball

The set-up is shown below:

Defenders2 central defenders
and 2 full-backs
Midfielders2 central midfielders
and 2 wingers (RM and LM)
Attackers2 strikers

The presence of two hardworking wingers, who play mostly from the midfield, makes the transition effective as they put in the hard work both in defence and attack.

The simplicity attached to the 4-4-2 formation makes it flexible, allowing the full-backs to join in the attack.

In contrast, the 4-2-3-1 formation is more common in this present age as compared to the 4-4-2. 

The formation is set up in this way:

Defenders2 central defenders
and 2 full-backs
Midfielders2 holding central midfielders
and 3 attacking midfielders
(One No. 10 and 2 wide
attacking midfielders)
Attackers1 striker

The four defenders provide the team with width, allowing the two holding midfielders to cover the space in front of them. 

This gives the attacking midfielders enough space to showcase what they can do with the ball, thus creating chances for the striker. 

The two wide midfielders are vital for this formation to thrive because they tend to run into the box or cut inside, providing spaces for the two full-backs to join in the attack.

History of the two formations- 4-4-2 vs 4-2-3-1

Football continues to evolve, and while it seems that the 4-4-2 formation is no longer in common, some football teams are still using it.

The 4-4-2 formation is an English football formation, and it goes back to 1966 when England won the World Cup under Alf Ramsey. While the formation did not become popular until then, it was Viktor Maslov, a Russian that first used it several years before 1966. 

Since then, the formation became dominant, and it became even more recognised thanks to former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

He deployed the 4-4-2 formation when he took over the club in 1996, which eventually made his side win the Premier League unbeaten in 2004, getting them the name “The Invincibles.”

In contrast, the 4-2-3-1 is a more modern formation that came into play in the 1990s as coaches looked for ways to win the ball higher up the pitch and attack faster. Attacking faster will keep the ball from their defence, hence, conceding lesser goals. 

The pioneer of the 4-2-3-1 formation is believed to be the current Atlético Nacional manager Juan Manuel Lillo. Lillo advocated it when he was at Cultural y Deportivo Leonesa in the 1992-93 campaign. After that, the formation became dominant in Spain and became even more prevalent in the last couple of decades. 

Bundesliga side Bayern Munich is an example of a club that recently triumphed with the 4-2-3-1 formation in recent times, winning the UEFA Champions League in 2020 after beating Paris Saint-Germain in the final thanks to Kingsley Coman’s strike.

Differences in Defence

When comparing the differences in defence between these formations, the 4-4-2 defence seems to be more solid

Usually, the 4-4-2 is more recognised as one of the most defensive formations. 

The four defenders and four midfielders can form two walls, one in front of the box 18 and the other around the halfway line. 

4 4 2 Formation 2 Walls

Moreover, the central defenders can coordinate the full-backs to keep the shape of the defence.

The defence of the 4-2-3-1 formation is more porous because the full-backs give the team the width, allowing the holding midfielders to cover the spaces in front of the central defenders. 

This leaves the central defenders protected, and the full-backs can join the attacking midfielders during an attack. 

However, this could sometimes leave spaces for the opponents to thrive in midfielders. 

Differences in Midfield

The 4-4-2 formation lines up the midfield in two different ways:

#1 Flat 4

The four midfielders lie in front of the defence to form another wall of protection.  

442 Flat 4

#2 Midfield diamond

A No. 6 stays in the base of the midfield, a defensive safeguard, and the second centre midfielder is the No. 10, who is more offensive.

442 Midfield Diamond

The left and right midfielders stay in the space between the wings and the central midfield, technically shifting the game to the centre.

Ryan Giggs was an excellent left midfielder for Manchester United during his days. 

In contrast, the two holding midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 formation is set up as a ‘double pivot.’ One of them is usually more defensive, while the other is more offensive. 

You can find out more about the role of a double pivot in this article.

The more offensive player usually plays the box-to-box role by supporting the attack with defensive awareness.

The three attacking midfielders are mainly made up of a No. 10, who is flanked by two wingers

The right-winger should usually be left-footed, while the left winger is usually right-footed. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery played this role very well during their days at Bayern Munich. 

The central attacking midfielder (No. 10) must be filled with vision and passing skills. He must also understand how to thread passes to the strikers and wingers to score goals. Mesut Ozil was excellent at this during his days at Arsenal. 

Differences in Attack

In attack, two strikers line up for the attacking role for the 4-4-2 formation, with one of them being a centre forward and the other a striker. 

Usually, the centre forward plays as a target man, distracting centre-backs away from the striker and other players.

Didier Drogba excelled in the centre forward role when he was at Chelsea.

However, there are moments when the second attacker is called a second striker, which was the role Dennis Bergkamp played for Arsenal in the 4-4-2 formation.

In contrast, there is usually only one striker for a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the three attacking midfielders also supporting to score goals. 

Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski plays this role very well, allowing him to win the 2021 FIFA The Best Award

Indeed, Lewandowski receives the needed support, especially from a player like Thomas Muller, who has provided him with many assists.

Famous Examples of the teams that use these formations

Find below for some of the examples of teams that use the 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 formations:


#1 Leicester City 

In recent years, only a team like Leicester City predominantly use the 4-4-2 formation, especially whenever they play Kelechi Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy to pair upfront.

In fact, Leicester City won the 2015/16 Premier League with the formation. Shinji Okazaki paired Vardy at the time to complete a fairytale league triumph.

#2 Atletico Madrid

Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid to win La Liga in the 2013/2014 season thanks to his 4-4-2 formation. They also finished runner-up in the UEFA Champions League that year. 

Simeone has always been an advocate of being tight in defence. 

However, he recently switched his formation from 4-4-2 to 5-3-2, which also won him the La Liga in the 2020/21 season.

#3 Manchester United

Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008 with a win over Chelsea using the 4-4-2 formation. However, the game had to go into penalties as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side secured the victory on 6-5 penalties.

If you are looking to buy the latest Manchester United merchandise, you can get it from the official Manchester United store.


#1 Bayen Munich

Bayern Munich has excelled so much with the 4-2-3-1 formation over the years, and they keep winning the Bundesliga every year. They have won the last nine Bundesliga titles largely thanks to the 4-2-3-1 formation they deploy. 

It is only recently that newly appointed manager Julian Nagelsmann has shifted their formation to a 3-4-2-1 formation.

#2 Arsenal

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta prefers the 4-2-3-1 formation to any other type of formation. 

Since the beginning of the 2021/2022 season, he has permanently deployed this formation.

#3 West Ham

West Ham primarily deploys the 4-2-3-1 formation. Michail Antonio is the leading man up front, and players like Jarrod Bowen and Nikola Vlasic link up with the Jamaican from the flanks.


Here is a summary of the differences between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 formation:

Number of players
in Defence
Number of players
in midfield
Number of players
in attack
to understand
Strong sidelines
Solid defence
Crosses and good
Good cover for
centre backs
Creative Wingers
Free-flowing midfield
WeaknessesToo much game in midfield
Could be strenuous 
No cover for full-backs
Freedom for opposition
centre backs 
Famous ExamplesLeicester City
Atletico Madrid
Manchester United
Bayern Munich
West Ham

Both formations do have their strengths and weaknesses!

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