Reactionary Tactical Analysis: crooked 4-2-3-1 with Manchester United

Thanks for the tremendous response to the first part of the article. I hope this gives you a better idea of how you can use the tactic yourself.

As ever, no one tactic is suitable for every formation and tactic you come across. And that’s much the same with the crooked 4-2-3-1. It’s vitally important to consider the opponent whenever you play, and so I’ll highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the formation against other opposing shapes. Note that you’ll have to go into a lot more detail than this in order to guarantee success – shape is only a basis of a tactic.

I’ll be using a Manchester United side as a basis in order to show the different players you can use in each role. I haven’t made any changes to the starting squad apart from the signings of Arturo Vidal and Leighton Baines.

Note that all lineup orders are as follows:


If you haven’t done so, then I recommend reading the first part of this article, which can be found here.

vs. 4-3-3

The 4-3-3 is perhaps one of the worst tactics to face if you’re operating a crooked 4-2-3-1. The opposition wingers pin back your full-backs, which are a key attacking feature of the crooked 4-2-3-1. If your full-backs continue to push on as normal, you could easily be vulnerable to the counter-attack. However, on the plus side, a large number of teams who play 4-3-3 like to play with a tika-taka style rather than quick-tempo counter-attacking football. In order to counter this you’ve unfortunately got to ensure that your full-backs aren’t so attacking – or at least ensure one is more defensive.

When picking the full-back to remain as an attacking option, I’d advise for you to pick the right back, rather than the Inverse Wing Back. This is because the opposition midfield is packed with three central midfielders in fairly deep positions, this makes it difficult for your Inverse Wing Back to find space. I’d suggest playing someone who is more capable defensively, whilst going with an attacking right-back. Then, whilst you’re in possession high up the pitch, your defence will shift into a three-at-the-back formation with the left back sliding across.

Another weakness of the formation is the opposition’s right centre-midfielder finding too much space. If you were to play against a side like Manchester United who often operate with a 4-3-3, you’d be ripped apart by Michael Carrick. The same would occur for any side with a decent deep-lying playmaker playing on the right of the two central midfielders. This is because your anchor man is sitting too deep. In order to counter this, I’d suggest pushing the DM forward into a CM role, as a Ball Winning Midfielder – Defend. This will increase his aggression and mentality and he’ll harass the Carrick-type player. However, keep in mind you’ll need a different type of player for this. Whilst I suggested previously that the Anchor Man is almost another central defender in front of the defence, I’d advise you to use more of a midfielder in this role. Even though he’s not a BWM at heart, I’d imagine someone like Arturo Vidal would do an outstanding job in this role. This change is vital to make, though. If you don’t make it, your CAM will drift across in an attempt to close down the opposition’s RCM, because the CAM is on a Support duty. You’ll then see the False Winger at RAM drift across to cover the opposition’s DM. With this, two of your key attacking threats are immediately taken out of the game. Not ideal at all.

Another potential solution for this is to operate with your striker as the key playmaker, and operate with a more attacking left-sided winger, as well as your RAM pushing on. This will allow your CAM to mark the opposition RCM without the annoyance of your key playmaker being taken out of the game.

But it’s not all bad news. There’s one key strength to the tactic, and I’m sure it’ll please those of you out there with a Mats Hummels, Sergio Ramos or even Maynor Figueroa. The side’s Playmaking Defender is likely to find himself in plenty of space. As I mentioned in the original Playmaking Defender article, the role flourishes when the opposition play one up-front. The only downside is that he’s likely to have less options with the more defensive nature of your full-backs. I’d suggest increasing the directness of his passing – he’ll have plenty of time on the ball so if he’s a good ball-player he should still be very effective.

On a similar note to this, it may be worth playing more of a ball-player at DM. Because all three of the opposition central midfielders will be sitting back fairly deep, the defensive midfielder is also likely to find more space. Instead of Lucas Leiva, go for Joe Allen. Instead of Sami Khedira, go for Xabi Alonso. You get the idea. This will create a double-pivot in the centre of midfield which will allow you to control the game. It’s all good. In the case of Manchester United, I’ll be using Michael Carrick.

My XI:
De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Vidic, Baines; Vidal, Carrick; Zaha, Kagawa, Nani; Rooney.

vs. 4-2-3-1

Against a 4-2-3-1, you’re likely to have a bit more success. One key reason for this is the shutting-down of the key playmaker of the opposition who is usually at CAM. Dortmund have Gotze, Bayern have Kroos, Barcelona have Iniesta, etc. We’ve all come up against that incredible CAM who has ripped us to shreds. But a major strength of the tactic is that we’re likely to be able to take him out of the game because of the two deep central midfielders. The opposition number 10 often gets frustrated and this is emphasized when playing against a 4-2-3-1, where Phil Jones will be positioned in front of the defence to act as a man-marking third centre-back away from home.

Another key strength of the tactic against a 4-2-3-1 is the likely space the CAM and RCAM will find. Unless you’re playing against a deep 4-2-3-1, then there is often a large amount of space between the opposition midfield and defence. As the RCAM is arguably the key man in the tactic, him finding a large amount of space is ideal. However, if you do find yourself up against a 4-2-3-1 then what you can do is move your CAM back to CM, but also increase his creative freedom. Not only will this see him dragging the opposition defensive midfielders all over the place, but it will also create the space for the RCAM that he would have if it were a normal 4-2-3-1. Another way to exploit this space is to operate with a deeper-lying striker. For Manchester United, this means that there are several options for players to use in the RCAM, CAM, ST trio. I’ve decided that as arguably the most talented playmaker in the squad, Kagawa would sit at CAM. I’d then have Rooney pushing on from RCAM and van Persie at ST. Rooney should see plenty of space if the opposition midfielders are pushed up, meaning he should be used as the target man with a ball-to-feet supply.

However, much like the 4-3-3, the attackingly-positioned opposition wingers don’t allow your full-backs to attack. I can only offer the same solution that I did in the 4-3-3 section – make one [or both] of your full-backs less attacking. Yes, this does take a dimension out of the attack, but it’s just as important (if not more) to remain defensively stable. Using Chris Smalling at RB allows me to allow Baines to continue to contribute offensively (which is particularly important as Phil Jones is unlikely to offer much going forward) and whilst Baines operates as an Inverse Wing Back, Smalling can slide across and create a three man central defensive unit.

My XI:
De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Baines; Jones, Vidal; Rooney, Kagawa, Nani; van Persie.

vs 4-4-2

The 4-4-2 is another nice formation to play against. And that’s primarily because, unlike the three-in-midfield formations, the full-backs get a bit of space. The deep wingers of the opposition give the two full-backs plenty of space to push forward into. However, as ever, it’s important to consider the defensive stability. It’s important you’ve got a very defensive player at DM, perhaps even a centre back convert like Phil Jones in there. This is because you’ll want him to sit back even when you’re high up the pitch in possession – you want this because otherwise you’ll have a 2v2 if the opposition counter, which is never ideal; Jones provides an insurance.

Another key strength is one in the same mould as the 4-2-3-1, in that the opposition play without a defensive midfielder. This leaves space between the midfield and defence for the CAM and RCAM to have plenty of fun in. Playing between the lines is always the best way to find space and the 4-4-2 hands you that space in a lovely gift-wrapped box. Rooney and Kagawa will surely gobble this up. I’d play with Vidal as an all-action midfielder and make Kagawa my main playmaker, because of this. As well as this, I’d suggest you use the ‘Exploit the Middle’ touchline shout. This’ll mean your RCAM in particular will stay slightly narrower, meaning he’ll operate in the space where an opposition DM should be, rather than getting picked up by the opposition LB.

But it’s not all happy, because the two up-front of the opposition means the Playmaking Defender is always likely to be under pressure. I’d suggest changing it so you play with two normal [boring] central defenders. Being horrendously stereotypical, it’s likely you’ll come up against a big target man when you’re playing against a 4-4-2 so that’s an added bonus.

My XI:
De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Baines; Jones, Vidal; Rooney, Kagawa, Young; van Persie.

vs. 3-5-2

Something a little different now as the crooked 4-2-3-1 lines up against a 3-5-2. The first major advantage, as it always is with a one-up-top against a three-at-the-back is that their are two spare opposition central defenders. This means that the players in space for the opposition are the two defenders who have very little creative ability. Playing one up-top is highly effective and against teams that don’t have a plan B, I often even drop the striker into the LCAM role. This means that the three central-defenders effectively have no-one to mark and you can’t afford to waste resources like that in football.

However, obviously the reason a team will play three central-defenders is that it allows the opposition wingbacks to bomb forward. This can cause problems for the 4-2-3-1 crooked, particularly down our right-hand side. Because the RCAM is generally very attacking-minded, he won’t work hard to track the opposition RWB. However, I’d suggest using someone who is a bit more likely to work hard and track back (Antonio Valencia over Nani), as well as perhaps changing the duty from Inside Forward – Attack, to Support. But it’s also necessary to consider the offensive implications of such a move. The tactic is set up in such a way that it’s vital the RCAM contributes to attacking moves – he’s often the one who scores the goals himself. In an Inside Forward – Support role, he’s far more likely to become more of a provider than a finisher, and will play from a deeper position. This means you’d perhaps want to play more of a Trequarista in the CAM role who will contribute towards the goal-tally (to use another Manchester United comparison, Wayne Rooney over Shinji Kagawa).

Another key strength of the formation is that the lack of opposition wingers allows full-backs to push on. As I’ve outlined in some detail before this point, the full-backs are vital to the crooked 4-2-3-1 being a success, so this space is a massive bonus. The Inverse Wing Back is unlikely to make barnstorming runs because a three-man central defensive unit creates quite the wall to get through, however there is a large gap to exploit and they would be more than able to help aid the possession battle. I’d perhaps opt for someone like Arturo Vidal at LB, because I think he’d play this role exceedingly well. As for out on the right-wing, the full-back has plenty of space to bomb forward into – this is emphasized by the increasingly defensive role of the RCAM who is usually very attacking. I’d use the Look For Overlap touchline shout because of this – the full-backs both need to get involved (if only there were a Look for Underlap call for the Inverse Wing Back).

My XI:
De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Vidal; Jones, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie.


I’d like to make it quite clear at this point that these teams are certainly not set in stone, and I’m simply basing them on shape alone. I’m sure I could go into lots more detail about the style of play of the opposition and how that should affect your team selection but I’m sure it’d bore you all to tears so I won’t do so.

As well as this, I haven’t even considered squad rotation at all – I’ve simply focused on changing the makeup of the side based on the opposition’s formation. Where Carrick has been used, you might want to use Tom Cleverley or Nick Powell. Where I’ve used van Persie, you may feel Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez were more suitable. Don’t use this as a be all and end all because that’s not what it’s meant to be. I’m a big fan of squad rotation, and I’ll try and get an article out on that some time, but this certainly doesn’t cover it. But I hope you enjoyed it regardless, and I hope it made some sense.



  1. Eds

    I’ll release a download link to all subscribers of the blog, if you’re interested. Just sign up via email on the side-bar to the right, or choose to ‘follow’ the blog. You’ll then be sent it automatically over the weekend.

    • gav

      great read, I’ve signed up and followed the blog so any chance of previewing the tactic first hand mate?

  2. Tejas

    Mate would it be possible if you can send it to me today as I am going on holiday on Sunday and am so eager to try this out. My email is

    Your writing has truly inspired me to play FM. Fantastic stuff.

  3. slbjordal

    I’ve just followed the blog. A bit late, I know, but could you send the tactic to me aswell? Very interested in it

  4. Karl Grogan

    This is the most interesting tactic i have read about in a long i like enjoy the custom roles you have created would be possible to send me the tactic would like to see what instructions you have used and see if i can tweak to a bit to suit my style my have my tactic for the next Football Manager great work cant wait for the next article

  5. zubair

    Love this. I haven’t played the PC version of FM in recent games, and happen to come across this by chance when wondering what could defeat a 4-2-3-1 in european football. This is very close to what Villas Boas succeeded with at Porto if im not mistaken. Would you say the most difficult opposition is whoever is playing a 4-3-3 then?

    • Eds

      I’d probably agree that a 4-3-3 is most successful in defeating the crooked 4-2-3-1, however, not necessarily a standard 4-2-3-1. That’s because my crooked 4-2-3-1 perhaps relies on the full-backs being an attacking presence more than the standard 4-2-3-1 does. Obviously this means that with the 4-3-3 having two wide attacking players that the full-backs can be pinned back. If they do push forward, then the possibility for a quick counter attack from the opposition is fairly high.

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