This article is an excerpt from the chapter called "Exploiting the Central Midfield" from our new book, Beating the 4-2-3-1.
Attacking the centre of the 4-2-3-1
When attacking the 4-2-3-1, one of the main strengths is the base of 2 players infront of the back 4, but playing in a manner which forces one of the players to come out and press, especially against a dribbler who likes to play quick passes in their stride while running, can be an easy way to penetrate the midfield line, pull a central defender out for a through ball into a run behind the defence, or even allow for long range shots if enough space is created.
Drawing out one of the defensive midfielders isn’t always easy - playing with several players occupying the same space can allow for wide attacks, wide play can force one of the players over to help the full back press the ball and leave central space.
Chelsea v Napoli – Napoli’s 3-5-2 (3-4-1-2) overcomes Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 via central attacks
Wing Backs provide support on the sides to move holding midfielder over to play 3v2 on the side
Cavani pulls wide to leave Hamsik and Lavezzi playing 2v4 against Chelsea’s centre backs and holding midfielders. Napoli’s left wing back support’s on the overlap bringing Sturridge back to defend 2v2 on the side. As Chelsea want to have an overload on the side and know that Cavani is skilful and shoots from various areas, he will need to be pressed by Ramires, making a 3v2 on the side.
Lavezzi must find a way to lose Meireles and offer a pass inside and exploit the space left by Ramires moving over to press the ball and leaving a 1v1 at the edge of the box.
Cavani dribbles inside and Ramires is drawn to the ball as Meireles moves to block the pass into Hamsik – I think his priority should’ve been to mark Lavezzi and leave the 3 players close to Hamsik to deal with him. Note the player supporting behind Cavani – he has brought Sturridge back with him, meaning Chelsea’s outball in transition will be harder to find should Ramires win possession as he presses Cavani.
Lavezzi receives, but Meireles doesn’t rush to press the ball. Instead, he expects a pass into the run of Cavani which Cahill could covers as his body shape suggests he is already expecting this pass. Lavezzi fakes and then curls a shot into the far corner from 25 yards with Meireles lost.
The Napoli wing backs have helped occupy the full back as Cavani is in possession, with Hamsik, Cavani and Lavezzi showing here how to disrupt a tight zonal defence of the defensive midfielders and open up space with good movement and watching the movements of both team mates and opponents.[wpsharely id="2988"][/wpsharely]
Wing Backs drag back wingers to allow more space for Napoli to control central midfield
As Napoli’s wing backs push forward; both are circled, they bring with them Chelsea’s wingers. This means that the number 10, here, Mata, should drop back to maintain 3 lines of defensive play, and gives Napoli an advantage - when they are in possession near the corner of the box, with the 3 attacking midfielders playing deeper to close the spaces between the lines, the wing back can make a deep pass back for the defensive midfielder to control the play from a deep position. From here, Gargano can control the attack.
Gargano decides to use the 3 targets inside the box and crosses to the back post with 2 runners, of which Cavani runs unmarked to score at the back post. This was an effective use of the centre as the wing backs created the space, pulling the wingers back but also the defensive midfielders deeper to help cover inside, bringing the central attacking midfielder back too, which in turn opened up the space for Gargano to receive possession with time and space to make a good decision with good execution.
As we see from Napoli’s 3-1 win, two of the goals have come from exploiting central space with wide attacks made by the space created by the attacking wing backs drawing the Chelsea wingers into defensive positions and creating 3v2’s close to the ball, and exploiting the negative overload to find a player in space centrally – Lavezzi goal created by Ramires moving from central to wide (creating a defensive 3v2) and a pass being made inside to Lavezzi who wasn’t pressed by Meireles.
The goal from Cavani is a result of the wing backs pushing forward to receive possession high up the field and taking the wingers with them. As Meireles has moved over to help, (making a 3v2) Mata has dropped off and allowed Gargano an easy receive to set up the far post cross to Cavani.