Lauded as one of the most balanced and flexible formations, the 4-2-3-1 has become a staple in modern soccer and with Adrian Heath’s Minnesota United.
After playing with a 4-3-3 in Minnesota’s disappointing 2-0 loss against the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday, Heath opted to change back to his favored 4-2-3-1 in his side’s crucial 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake. A return from injury for Darwin Quintero meant that the Colombian spearheaded a versatile attacking midfield trio alongside Robin Lod and Kevin Molino.
Although the Loons went down 1-0 to an Albert Rusnak goal in 17th minute, Quintero, Molino and Lod had their fingerprints all over a slew of dangerous Minnesotan chances in the first 45 minutes. The trio could be seen interchangeably moving in and out of their natural positions in a demonstration of the flexibility of the 4-2-3-1. With Lod and Molino switching flanks and often drifting in-field, space opened for Quintero to play more of a free role in the center of the field and wreak havoc through his passing and movement.
“I thought our combination play at times in the first half was excellent when we got Robin [Lod] and Kevin [Molino] and Darwin [Quintero] on the ball because as I said, they are three of our better footballers,” said Heath. “We need them to be on the ball creating and being as lively as they were at times.”
Although Minnesota United conceded that early goal, Darwin Quintero’s equalizer and Ethan Finlay’s three-point-securing finish exemplified how defensively balanced a 4-2-3-1 can be.
Along with three attacking midfielders, the 4-2-3-1 also features two holding midfielders who often dictate the success or failure of the formation. Often referred to as the double pivot, Osvaldo Alonso and Jan Gregus are Minnesota’s holding midfielders and they position themselves at the base of the midfield in front of the Minnesota defense. They aren’t there as a goal scoring threat but they are there to do the necessary dirty work – sweeping up danger, breaking the high press by passing through the lines and providing defensive cover when numbers are committed forward.
After Michael Boxall intercepted an attempted RSL through ball in the 20th minute, he laid the ball off to Alonso who had dropped deep to receive the ball. As Alonso got his first touch out of his feet, he spotted Kevin Molino, coming all the way from the wing into the center circle to check back for the ball. Firing an accurate ball to Molino through RSL’s pressing midfield, the pass effectively took five RSL players out of the game. The speed and precision of the pass allowed Molino to turn and roll a lovely through ball to Darwin Quintero, who rounded Nick Rimando and equalized for MNUFC.
Not only are Gregus and Alonso often the impetus for much of Minnesota’s offensive play, their disciplined positioning allows for Minnesota’s fullbacks to get forward and join the attack with less worry of being caught out of position.
Holding a narrow 2-1 advantage in the 83rd minute, Romain Metanire sprung out of his right back position and burst forward down the flank and into RSL’s half – drawing three RSL defenders to him in the process. While Alonso, Gregus and the rest of the Loons held their defensive positions, second half substitute Ethan Finlay sprinted down the center of the field and behind the RSL defense which had been left vacant by the run of Metanire. Grabbing his first point in MLS play since June 2, Metanire found the streaking Finlay who settled and finished past Rimando to cap off a 3-1 victory in Minnesota’s return to the 4-2-3-1.
“[It’s] getting people in the right spots,” said Heath. “When you get really good attacking players and they know where to be and you can get the ball to them at the right time, it’s difficult to stop. People come in here and they try to take the middle of the field away. That’s okay because then we’ll go wide and you’ve got people like Romain [Metanire], who now is getting back to his best. They want to do that, that’s fine. We’ll go out wide and we’ll go up the field that way and we’ll deliver into the box that way.”