The NWSL has seen a wide array of tactical theories be implemented over the years with a variety of nuances tailored to player personnel. Many teams have self-consciously changed due to the ever-evolving NWSL environment, team philosophies, the opponent’s structure, and player archetypes. The culmination of various factors has forced teams to become more dimensional with their style of play, often incorporating an added focus on transition. In order to combat unpredictability, many teams have shifted into a 4-2-3-1 formation which provides flexibility in attacking and defending scenarios.

This tactical analysis will review why many teams are employing 4-2-3-1 tactics in the NWSL. The aim of this analysis is to review the pro’s and con’s of this flexible formation, as well as the individual characteristics that make the formation applicable to each team. This analysis will be presented in the form of a comprehensive scout report.

Formation typology:

The 4-2-3-1 is a tactical shape that distributes players into four lines of play. Line one consists of a standard defensive back four made up of two centre-backs and two wing-backs, while line two consists of two defensive midfielders which are often referred to as “pivots.” Move into line three, and we see an area that is made up of three attacking midfield players. This line is particularly interesting, as a lot of freedom can be given to players in these roles depending on the team’s tactical structure. Finally, line four is comprised of a lone central striker that can be designated as a typical target forward, poacher, or an “out-and out” striker that looks to stretch the opposition. Now that we have overviewed the basic positions, we can dive into the formations versatility.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Standard 4-2-3-1 formation.

The 4-2-3-1 offers many teams the opportunity to be creative with positional roles in between the formations designated “lines.” For instance, in lines 1-4 the formation always provides a flexible understanding in relationship to covered space when placed in an “idle” position. This can be viewed typically in the middle third of the pitch, where teams orient themselves before generating an attack.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
These lines are typically used to orient player positioning on the pitch and in training. Lines 4 and 3 are more attacking areas while lines 2 and 3 are primarily defensive.

The back four is protected by the two pivots and further forward, three midfielders accompany a single central striker. This positioning allows enough creative space to be generated in attack from higher areas on the pitch, while also ensuring that the pivots provide defensive support and the ability to switch attacking play. Lines three and four are areas that the midfield and central strikers often combine in to move the opposition while also designating attacking roles. The same can be said with the pivots and wing-backs combining to get forward in lines one and two.

Attacking principles:

The general attacking formula that many teams in a 4-2-3-1 employ consists of the manipulation of half-spaces and spaces in between the lines of opposition defenders. The 4-2-3-1 generally deploys three creative midfielders that are positioned in front of the opponent’s backline to work in tandem with a central striker. These players have more creative freedom and the opportunity to take risks due to the vast coverage provided by the pivot midfield and flat back four.

Due to the luxury of playing with two deep-lying pivots, midfielders can choose to drift into half-spaces in between the opponents centre backs and wing-backs or choose to stay wide to exploit the wings. The movements of the team’s central striker and #10 is vital, as this interchange can help pull the opposition’s backs out of position. Typically the central striker needs to have great lateral movement in order to be an option for deep-lying playmakers to find, and play off of. This lets the three midfielders move underneath to expose the generated space in the opponents line #1.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Zone #14 is highlighted as the “golden square” for players to exploit in the attack.

Exploiting zone #14 is cited as being one of the most dangerous positions that a player in possession can be in and is often classified as the “golden square.” This term was coined by the legendary French national team that won the European championship in 2000 and the World Cup in 1998, becoming the first nation to win both consecutively. After analysing the 1998 and 2000 French national teams goal production, it was found that 81.3% of the teams total assists in both competitions came from central areas, mainly in zone #14.

It must be noted that France’s attacking play was fairly narrow in a 4-2-3-1, were Zidane pulled the strings in the attack, while Henry, Anelka, and Trezeguet stretched the opposition vertically. The 4-2-3-1 clearly emphasizes the control of midfield which can be related to the game of chess-Whoever controls the centre, controls the match.

Defensive principles:

In defence the 4-2-3-1 offers a myriad of tactical adjustments that can provide numbers up scenarios in the back. Strategic flexibility comes from the advantageous positioning of the two holding pivots located in central midfield. These players can occupy the opponent’s zone #14 and the half-spaces in front of the backline, effectively pivoting into the channels. Theoretically, the 4-2-3-1 can split the team almost evenly into designated attackers and designated defenders by demanding attacking play from the front four (three midfielders and one forward), and defensive actions from the back six (four defenders and two pivots). This structure can help teams decipher the roles and actions of player positions which can then be adapted to become more fluid. The combination of fluid positioning and designated actions make this formation particularly effective in defence, even if the formation alternates slightly. A good tactic is a flexible one.

When in a low block, the 4-2-3-1 has the capability to be easily transformed into either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-4-2. These structures became popular in traces of early La Liga and Serie A football. Real Sociedad’s manager, Juanma Lillo, first employed the formation self-consciously in the 1992 Spanish Liga Segunda due to the correlated symmetry that the formation provided in pressing actions. The ability to play with basically four pressing forwards and 6 defenders that were very mobile, proved to be particularly effective and carried Sociedad to the promotion later that year.

Lillo’s philosophies were developed after the Arrigo Sacchi 4-4-2 era, which was still encapsulated in his defensive approach. If the press would break down, Lillo’s men could drop into a low block 4-4-2 that would provide a large amount of horizontal coverage in defence. This action required the wings to drop back and the attacking midfielder to move up, providing a partner to the centre forward.

A modern approach would consist of Luis Aragones’ 4-1-4-1 formation that won Spain a distinctive European Championship in 2008. This adjustment was made in order for Cesc Fabregas to play in a slightly withdrawn role for their semi-final match against Russia-where he replaced the injured Barcelona forward, David Villa. This change gave Fabregas the opportunity to play make in line two and in the half-spaces which was perfect for Spain’s tiki-taka play, methodically keeping possession before exploiting space in behind to the on running Torres and Guiza. Aragone’s adjustment would prove to be monumental, as Spain went on to win the Euro’s and arguably play their best football yet.

Jill Ellis has also reinvented the U.S. Women’s National team by implementing a 4-2-3-1 formation upon her debut in 2015. This formation in particular-helped players like Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe blossom in the tactically adept footballers that they are today. Ellis’ change from a standard 4-4-2 proved to be a gentle shift for players like Morgan Brian and Julie Ertz to perform in, given their ability to play both as a holding midfielder and centre-back. The clearly communicated stability in defence is what kept Jill Ellis at the pinnacle of U.S soccer, operating in arguably their most successful era. This was all due to Ellis’ tactical know-how and awareness of her personnel in a flexible 4-2-3-1 formation.

NWSL Archetype:

The 2019 NWSL season saw a large number of teams choose to employ the 4-2-3-1 formation. Around 45% of the league chose to play the flexible formation with the Chicago Red Stars (68.5%), Orlando Pride (68.1%), Seattle Reign (65.7%), and the Portland Thorns (54.6%) all opting to play the flexible formation. So why is this formation so common in the NWSL?

The Seattle Reign, Orlando Pride, Chicago Red Stars, and the Portland Thorns all have players that are well suited to fit into the 4-2-3-1’s positional “lines.” Many of the league’s top U.S. international players are already familiar with playing the 4-2-3-1, including Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Alyssa Naeher, Lindsey Horan, Alex Morgan, Julie Ertz, and Ali Kreiger all having vast experience with Adonovski and Ellis’ 4-2-3-1 formation. However, each team has certain skillsets that make them slightly different from others playing this flexible formation. Let’s take a detailed look at the NWSL teams that play the 4-2-3-1 formation:

Chicago Red-Stars:

The Chicago Red Stars are arguably the most successful NWSL team that played a 4-2-3-1 in 2019, finishing second in the league. In 2019 the Red Stars scored a healthy 42 goals and conceded 32 over the course of the season. Chicago’s main attacking threat consisted of Sam Kerr, who bagged an impressive 19 goals and finished as the league’s top scorer.

Chicago’s makeup of the 4-2-3-1 consisted of a back four that incorporated the steady Alyssa Naeher in goal, Tierna Davidson and Julie Ertz at centre-back, Casey Short and Sarah Gorden at wing-back, and two holding midfielders consisting of Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico. In the attack, the combination of Savannah McCaskill and Vanessa Dibernardo occupied the attacking midfielder position, while Yuki Nagasato and Katlyn Johnson provided options out wide. The perennial Ozzie striker, Sam Kerr, was left up top as the lone central forward.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Chicago Red-Stars starting 11. [Credit: Wyscout]
In attack, the Chicago Red Stars thrived off the tactical flexibility of the 4-2-3-1 by playing off of their central striker and exploiting space underneath them. Players like Dibernardo, McCaskill, and Morgan Brian were often the suppliers while Nagasato and Johnson would peel inside, becoming inverted to play in between the lines with Kerr. It can be seen from the passing images that Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico are the constants that often distributed wide to provide an angled approach to the Red Stars attack.

Once in the final third, the qualities of Kerr, Nagasato, and McCaskill become obvious. The 4-2-3-1’s attacking flexibility relies heavily on the creative abilities of Nagasato from the left-hand side. As indicated from the midfielders pass maps, Nagasato is a consistent target on the left side of the pitch. Nagasato’s passing abilities are vital to the Red Stars attack, particularly when she cuts inside to make line-breaking passes to Kerr.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Chicago Red-Star’s average positions. [Credit: Wyscout]
Kerr scored a total of 19 goals over the course of the season, with seven of them coming from Nagasato’s assists. The relationship that Nagasato and Kerr formed was fostered further with the positional flexibility of the 4-2-3-1, allowing Nagasato to take up positions in dangerous half-spaces and zone #14.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis

Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico were particularly good at finding Nagasato in these positions and often served as a cue for her top drop inside, and push Kerr high to anticipate a pass in behind to line four. Chicago’s ability to overload central spaces and unlock opposition defenders through the off-shoulder running of Kerr, proved to be a lethal combination.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Nagasato drifts into the half-space while the forwards peel inside to get in behind into line #4. [Credit: Wyscout]
4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Chicago’s midfielders roll high to overload the central areas. [Credit: Wyscout]
Defensively, the Red Stars thrive off a well established counter-attacking system that is often dictated by the initial pressure of Sam Kerr. It is vital that the central striker helps dictate where to press and when, as this helps the entire team shift accordingly to markers or space.

By forcing players one way and making play predictable, it allows players underneath the strikers to judge what passes are available to the opposition. Understanding the use of players “Cover shadow” is essential as it allows players to differentiate between what passes are available to the opposition and what is not. Generally, the Red Stars are always organized to press in their already set, 4-2-3-1 formation by rolling the wing-backs high onto the opposing wide players. This helps the backs stay connected with the midfield/ forwards in lines #2-#4.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Chicago presses in an organized manner using cover shadows. [Credit: Wyscout]
When not pressing the Red Stars are able to adjust into a low block 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2. This adjustment allows the Red Stars to cover more space horizontally as well as provide more counter-attacking outlets with Kerr and McCaskill as a two-front.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Chicago drops into a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 in order to provide cover in wider areas. [Credit: Wyscout]
The flexibility provided by the 4-2-3-1 proved to be an advantageous formation for the Red Stars due to the personnel they had at their disposal. The sheer quality and brilliance of Nagasato’s positioning, Kerr’s finishing quality, and the backlines stability in a low block and the press, make the Red Stars a formidable opponent in this shape.

Orlando Pride:

Marc Skinner’s Orlando Pride finished the 2019 season at 9th place in the NWSL but with a lot of room to grow. The Pride scored 24 goals over the course of the 2019 season and conceded a league-high 53. The Pride played all of 2019 without U.S. notables Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux which did damper their attacking prowess. Nevertheless, Skinner’s main issue in 2019 lied in defence.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Orlando’s 2019 starting 11. [Credit: Wyscout]
Before we analyze Orlando’s attacking style and defensive strategy, we will present their average line up. Orlando’s goalkeeper and centre back unit consists of Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, and Shelina Zadorsky, who are all excellent at initiating build-up play. At wing-back, the presence of Kristen Edmonds and Erin Greening help provide width and service from deep, while Joanna Boyles and Marisa Viggiano patrol at holding midfield. The attacking presence of Abby Elinsky, Rachel Hill, Camila Martins, and six-time FIFA world player of the year Marta Viera da Silva, round up Orlando’s dynamic front line.

 

The 4-2-3-1 formation has been a fairly consistent tactical formation for Marc Skinner’s side mainly due to the varied style of players that he has at his disposal. In attack, the Pride often look to play wide to initially stretch their opponents before quickly changing the point of attack to experienced players that are in space underneath defenders. Players like Marta, Hill, and Camila have a knack for arriving late into space and getting into isolated pockets, particularly in lines #3 and #4.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Orlando’s average positioning shows that play is typically swung out wide in the build-up. [Credit: Wyscout]
4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Orlando’s attack focused on play through the middle third, particularly in zone #14. [Credit: Wyscout]
The pride have relied on the offensive presence of Marta, who is generally positioned in the coveted “treqartisa” role behind Hill. This position is generally donned by creative players who are particularly adept at creating chances and exhibiting supreme technical ability. In the case of Marta, she has ability in spades, while also being a proven world-class striker. Marta’s scoring qualities in attack were vital to the Orlando pride in 2019, as she led the team with 6 goals-many of them coming from central positions.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis

Marta was particularly adept at combining with Hill and playing underneath her as a withdrawn strike partner, which incorporated late runs into the box. The Pride often struggled in the final third to create chances, which usually drew Marta into a much deeper role to get on the ball. Nevertheless, this occasionally worked in favour of the Pride to open up space for Hill and Ubogagu to run in behind. Marta’s strong technical ability and positional sense would often draw centre-backs and midfielders with her into line #3, where she could either pass to a teammate or play Hill and Obogagu in behind herself to line #4.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
In this image, Marta drifts deep in order to create a passing lane in the middle of the park. [Credit: Wyscout]
4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Orlando typically plays into zone #14 by pulling defenders out of the backline. Marta draws attention centrally, which opens up a passing lane for Hill to run into. [Credit: Wyscout]
Defensively the Orlando Pride struggled to maintain any sense of consistency and conceded a total of 53 goals over the course of the year because of it.  The defensive structure typically consisted of the team’s natural 4-2-3-1 shape and often focused on pressuring the opposition to wide channels once teams reached their middle third. This was mainly due to Orlando’s disconnected press, which often left them no choice but to drop back to their middle third. Central players like Marta, Viggiano, and Camila, all struggled to press as a unit and left spaces in the midfield for teams to play into. This can be seen with Orlando’s PPDA of 10.06 which places them at 6th in the league, indicating a relatively average-low intensity press. This unorganised press usually stemmed from the backline which was at times either too high or too low in accordance with the organisation of the opposition, making it easy for players to turn in space and run at Orlando.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Orlando’s defensive 4-2-3-1 defensive shape. [Credit: Wyscout]
4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
In this image, we see a large percentage of ball recoveries that are located centrally in the defensive third. [Credit: Wyscout]
Orlando also hurt themselves in transition and during build-up play, where the full-backs often made simple passing errors that invited pressure from opponents in their own defensive third. Much of theses woes came from indecisive positioning in between the lines which often forced the centre-backs to roll extremely high in order to apply pressure to the oppositions forwards (particularly in line #2). This would draw them out of position and leave holes in the back for the other strikers to exploit. Many of these actions could have been prevented through the organized work of the two central pivots, but both Viggiano and Boyles were typically tasked with helping the wing-backs defend out wide. This left a large central gap that was often not covered effectively. 26.6% of Orlando’s average recoveries were positioned centrally in their own defensive 3rd, indicating a large amount of pressure produced from the opposition.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Orlando’s centre back steps high, leaving space in behind centrally. [Credit: Wyscout]
Clearly Orlando will need to improve on both sides of the ball in order to bounce back from a frustrating 2019 season. The return of Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux should help take some pressure off of Marta, and the injection of new young talent will hopefully invigorate Marc Skinner’s side to become more astute defensively. The 4-2-3-1 formation is suitable for creative players like Marta to play in, but defensively too much space was available in critical areas of the pitch last season for the Pride-which may lead to a reevaluation of tactics.

Seattle Reign:

Vlatko Adonovski’s Seattle Reign experienced a rather unfortunate 2019 season where they finished 4th in the NWSL. Injury and various international duties stretched the squad thin, but they still managed to maintain an average GA and GS ratio of 27 goals scored and 27 conceded over the course of the year. The NWSL’s Rookie of the year, Bethany Balcer, was a surprising bright spot who led the team with six goals and two assists on the season playing as an adapted wide midfielder and centre forward.

Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 tactics consisted of a very defensive-minded back six that looked to occupy the centre of the park and “block” the opposition from going down the middle. The standard centre back pairing consisted of Rebecca Quinn and the experienced Lauren Barnes, while the full-back roles were made up of Stephanie Catley and Theresa Nielsen. Seattle generally employs a rotating midfield with Rebecca White, Kristen McNabb, Jess Fishlock, and Beverly Yanez often switching roles into the attack, while Allie Long maintained her staunch defensive presence in front of the backline. The attacking front of Seattle was often comprised of the ever prevalent Megan Rapinoe, who pulled the strings underneath for central strikers Jodie Taylor and the pacey Ifeoma Onumonu. Bethany Balcer was a consistent figure in the starting line up, being used as both a wide midfielder and a central striker.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Seattle’s 2019 starting 11. [Credit: Wyscout]
The Seattle Reign attack experienced a fairly frustrating year in front of goal scoring 27 goals out of a comprehensive season xG of 33.3, showing a lack of finishing quality in front of goal. One contributing factor could have been that Megan Rapinoe was absent for a handful of matches due to international duties and injury maintenance. Regardless, the Reign continued to adapt their four-pronged attack in order to exploit their opponents out wide. This action would prove to be particularly advantageous for the Reign who have quality wingers that are good in isolated 1v1 opportunities with Balcer and Onumonu.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Seattle’s average positioning shows a large amount of activity involving the two central pivots and on the left-wing. [Credit: Wyscout]
The attacking midfield options available to the Reign are also particularly flexible with this group of forwards, as Rapinoe, Balcer, Fishlock, and Yanis constantly look to join the attack by interchanging movements. Seattle’s attacking midfielders are well instructed to roll high once a forward drops into space to receive the ball.  This creates confusion for the opposition markers, who are then tasked with passing on players to the next line of defence which disorients defending lines.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis

During these movements, it is critical that Tayor (CF) pin’s the centre backs in their own defensive line so they cannot shift over to cover space laterally. By pinning the centre-backs space is available to attack behind and in front of them. This is where Seattle can be particularly effective, and can quickly play into the channels for Balcer, Rapinoe, Onumonu, or Fishlock to receive.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Balcer’s movement inside “pins” the centre backs on top of their 18yard box, which opens up a pass for Onumonu out wide. [Credit: Wyscout]
Defensively, Seattle looks to press just like many other 4-2-3-1’s due to the numerical superiority in the centre of the park and the balance upfront. Seattle typically waits for the centre forward to cue pressing actions when the ball goes wide, which is typically when a full-back is in possession. This cue helps Seattle’s active central midfielders roll into a higher position in the attacking third to create potential pressing overloads. It is vital that the forwards help cut off any lateral passes in order to make the press predictable for the attacking midfielder to join. If the forward does not cut off these passes the opposition can build-out of the back and potentially in a more dangerous position due to the attacking midfielders gambled positioning.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
In this image, Balcer cuts off the other centre-back option which allows Fishlock to leave her position in midfield to press-creating a 3v1 scenario. [Credit: Wyscout]
4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Onumonu prevents the switch while Fishlock and Balcer roll high to press. [Credit: Wyscout]
In a low block formation, Seattle elects to drop into a much deeper designed 4-2-3-1 that looks to suppress space in between the lines centrally. This is where it is particularly useful to have a defensive midfielder of Allie Long’s quality who can defend from deep and launch counter-attacks after repossession. Her pure ability to win the ball and position herself in advantageous areas has yielded her the most valued recoveries on the team with a total of 58 and an average of 10.3 recoveries per 90 mins.

Allie Long’s defensive recoveries for the Seattle Reign in 2019 rank 4th most on the team in 2019. However, Long did make the most total recoveries. [Credit: Wyscout]
4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Seattle’s defensive 4-2-3-1 shape. [Credit: Wyscout]
Overall, Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 shape is arguably the most effective in terms of results when comparing to the other 4-2-3-1’s in the NWSL. The Seattle Reign won more than 60% of their matches against teams that deployed a similar 4-2-3-1 formation and conceded the least amount of goals out of all 4-2-3-1’s. Seattle has a great defensive cast to build on for next season but, improvements need to be made in attack if they want to advance further in the league.

Portland Thorns:

The Rose City has been host to some mint football since Mark Parsons managerial debut in 2016. The Thorns have been able to produce great quality in attack with the likes of Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair, Haley Raso, and Caitlin Foord all playing across the front line of Parson’s edited 4-2-3-1 formation. Portlands red hot attack was clearly on display in the 2019 season, scoring a total of 40 goals (3rd most in NWSL) but their defensive potency wavered, as they conceded 32 goals (5th most in NWSL) over the course of the year.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Portlands 2019 starting 11. [Credit: Wyscout]
The Portland Thorn’s abilities in the attacking third are almost second to none, with the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars being the only two teams that have outmatched their offensive prowess scoring 54 (North Carolina) and 41 (Chicago) goals respectively. This potent scoring output can be related to the tactical formation that Mark Parsons implements into his team.

In goal, Adrianna Franch continues to be a mainstay in the league after winning NWSL goalkeeper of the year in 2018. Directly in front of her is the centre back pairing of U.S international Emily Sonnett and Thorn veteran, Emily Menges. Completing the defensive backline is the presence of Meghan Klingenberg and Katherine Reynolds, while the two pivot roles consist of Lindsey Horan and Dagny Brynjarsdottir. The Thorns daunting midfield attack is generated by the experienced Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, and Midge Purce. Australian international Caitlin Foord is left up top to operate as the lone central striker.

 

The Portland Thorns plethora of attacking talent is utilised in a variety of manners going forward in Mark Parsons 4-2-3-1. Parsons typically likes to be the initiator and wants his teams to dominate with the ball in order to move opponents. The creation of space in wide and central channels is where the Thorns are particularly dangerous due to the highly coordinated rotation of Heath, Horan, and Klingenberg. When The Thorns fail to win the ball off the press and in transition, they tend to regroup and cycle possession across the backline.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Portlands average positons show a large amount of activity on the left-hand side. This usually incorporates the likes of Klingenburg, Horan, and Tobin Heath.

These actions allow the Thorns to build-up play in a methodical manner through the varied passing ability of Lindsey Horan, who often constructs attacks by dropping into the “hole” located in front of the backline. This action generally acts as a cue for Klingenberg to get forward and Heath to drop into the central half-space, creating room for Klingenberg to advance into. The forward movement of Klingenburg is often particularly effective and challenges the opposition wing-back to make a decision with 2v1 wing overloads. These scenarios are often advantageous for Heath to get on the ball in space and dribble at the backline, or for Klingenburg to get into the channel and cross- depending on the full-backs decision to step or drop.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis

The attacking trio of Sinclair, Foord, Purce, and Raso also move in tandem to exploit space in the channels. Purce generally uses her pace to stretch the backline while Sinclair and Foord look to operate in spaces in front of the oppositions line one. The Thorns top scorer, Christine Sinclair, played a vital role in Mark Parson’s 4-2-3-1 formation. She ended the season with a total of nine goals with an impressive 5.38 xG, showcasing a remarkable ability to finish with difficult chances.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
In this attacking scenario, Horan drops deep into the “hole” which pushes Klingenburg into the attack from left-back. Realizing her movement, Heath comes inside to open up the wide channel. [Credit: Wyscout]
In Transition, the Thorns almost always look to press high immediately after possession is lost. This is particularly evident in their PPDA (pressing intensity) average which is ranked at 2nd in the league with 7.76 per 90. The Thorns superb pressing ability can be related to the early organization of the backline which looks to press high into the attacking third upon restarts and recycled opposition play. This action is coupled further with the attackers’ ability to force the opposition centrally where the Thorns can initiate a trap with Sinclair, Horan, and Brynjarsdottir. In these scenarios, the Thorns are often numbers up in the middle of the park and can then spring into space upon repossession due to the 4-2-3-1’s flexibility.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
The Thorns typically look to force the ball into central positions where they are numbers up. [Credit: Wyscout]
Many of the Thorns pressing recoveries were centrally located. [Credit: Wyscout]
Portands shape in a defensive block traditionally consists of a mix between the standard 1-4-2-3-1 and a 1-4-4-2 low block, with the withdrawn role of Sinclair shifting to help apply pressure with Purce. This allows Portland to cover more space out wide and helps ease the work rate of the central forwards by having two instead of one.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
The Thorns occasionally drop into a 4-4-2 defensive structure. [Credit: Wyscout]
The Thorns clearly have a well designed 4-2-3-1 structure that plays to their individual attacking strengths but will need to improve on the defensive end and become more astute in the box. In attack, the Thorns must look to expand their wing overloads and continue to get Sinclair, Horan, and Heath on the ball.

Data analysis:

This section will review how each team has performed in a 4-2-3-1 formation in comparison to the rest of the league statistically, while also pointing out various traits of other formations.

The first statistical component to analyse is the topic of pressing. As previously mentioned in this analysis, many 4-2-3-1’s choose to press teams high in the attacking third during the oppositions build-out phase and when possession is lost. The data below helps confirm that many 4-2-3-1’s were very good at pressing based on their measurements of PPDA  and total recoveries per 90 over the course of the 2019 season. As we can see, the top left corner of the chart is filled with the Portland Thorns, Chicago Red-Stars, and the Seattle Reign who all have extremely low PPDA’s (opposition number of passes) and high recoveries per 90, yielding an effective pressing tactic. The only team that trumps the 4-2-3-1’s pressing team statistics is North Carolina, who won the league outright in a unique 4-2-2-2.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis

Breaking down the 4-2-3-1 pressing teams further, and we can see that the Thorns are particularly high pressers when compared to their formational counterparts.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis
Attacking 3rd pressing percentage of teams that play a 4-2-3-1.

While the data surely supports that 4-2-3-1’s are prone to press well, defensively, many of these teams have struggled to deny goals to the opposition. In the graphic below we can see that the Orlando Pride lag way back in goals against and season xG, while the Portland thorns and the Chicago Red Stars clearly conceded above-average goals over the course of the season. The one outlier is the Seattle reign, who despite having a fairly high xG against average they conceded the fewest amount of goals out of all the 4-2-3-1 formations with 27 total. This could be contributed to their strong defensive spine consisting of Long, Barnes, and Quinn.

In terms of scoring many 1-4-2-3-1’s were fairly good at creating and finishing chances when compared to the rest of the league with the Seattle Reign, Chicago Red Stars, and Portland Thorns all scoring more goals than the league median of 27 and having an xG higher than the league median of 33 expected goals per 90. This can help provide further evidence that the more pressing based teams happened to score more goals in a 1-4-2-3-1 formation. However, more research can be applied to individually focus on how each goal was scored in relation to opposition structure, game moments, and individual performance.

4-2-3-1 Formation in the NWSL-team analysis

Conclusion:

Overall, the 4-2-3-1 has proved to be the formation of choice for teams that look to press high into the opposition half. The Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars, Seattle Reign, and Orlando Pride have all created tactics to press in a variety of ways, which also showcases the team’s effectiveness. The 4-2-3-1 can be adapted to exploit space in behind and with central overloads (Chicago Red-Stars), adapted to create space in zone #14 with the use of creative #10’s(Orlando Pride), altered to exploit half-spaces and wing movement (Seattle Reign), and employed to create wide overloads with the use of attacking full-backs (Portland Thorns). The 4-2-3-1 formation has been used by a variety of teams in the NWSL, but each system has a specific identity that differs from the rest in relation to the players at disposal- making the 4-2-3-1 particularly advantageous, and possibly used by more teams in the NWSL.

Kyle Emerick
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