Have any of you perhaps played FM Live? Probably not and the game, despite all of its brilliant potential, is now as dead as Joey Barton’s career prospects for England. During its existence however, I was introduced to the dreaded 4-6-0 tactic, or as it was known in many GameWorlds, “a fucking cheat” or “an unrealistic, negative, exploiting piece of crap.” Yep, it was pretty much deemed the bane of normal gamers, a formation exploiting some sort of loophole in the match engine.
I have to admit I initially shared these sentiments. I had grown up watching football clubs play in a 4-3-3 in the Netherlands, whilst English clubs often played in a 4-4-2 and German clubs fielded a 5-3-2/3-5-2 hybrid formation. This tactic was so far out of my comfort zone, it was almost blasphemous in a way. And yet it worked… The clever minds who came up with this tactic were dominating their Gameworlds, often with very average players (read: not the expensive real-life stars everyone else splashed their cash on).
After overcoming my initial shock, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and have a closer look at this tactic. After all, if it made otherwise average players over-achieve tremendously, as well as scoring a shit load of goals, it had to be doing something right. And as Sun Tzu once said:
To defeat your enemy, you must know your enemy.
I spent some time learning the various forms of 4-6-0 there were. You could play with decapitated 4-5-1, where the striker dropped back into an AM-slot, flanked by two wingers. Then there was the 4-6-0 where instead of a wide attacking line, you fielded a narrow forward line, focussing on flooding the center of the pitch. After a while, the strikerless formations evolved, mostly because people knew how to combat them. The most-used formation of these “second generation” tactics was a 4-1-2-3-0, where an extra defensive midfielder had to provide much needed cover for the sometimes stretched defense, as well as providing an extra passing outlet.
What I quickly discovered, is that not every variation of 4-6-0 was equally effective. In fact, some people just copied a formation, without knowing what actually made it tick. As a result, they got massacred by more experienced managers, who by now knew how to fight a strikerless formation. Other strikerless teams seemed uneffected by peoples efforts to fight their strikerless formations.
I needed to find out what the strikerless style of play was. The style of play is clearly more important than the actual formation. If you find the right style of play, you can get almost any formation to work. One of my fellow managers finally helped me out by sharing his tactic with the community. Not just a download, but the actual idea, philosophy if you will, behind the whole thing. Tõnis Lõhmus was kind enough to help me out with my first steps on the strikerless path and one of first things he taught me, is that formation is not that important.
The concept of an absolute formation does not exist. It’s a myth, crammed into our heads by analysts and newspapers, oversimpliying things. There’s no such thing as playing 4-4-2, no 4-4-2 is the same in the way they actually take to the field and move around on the pitch. Every team has at least an attacking shape and a defensive shape. You don’t play with a back four the entire time, you play with three at the back when going forward, as one of your wingbacks joins the midfield, four at the back when transitioning between attack and defence and perhaps five at the back when defending, as a midfielder may drop back to help out the defenders. In conclusion, style is more important than a formation, which can change depending on the players you have on the pitch and the instructions they are issued.
Style is important, but what consistutes a good style for a strikerless formation? Obviously, your players need certain skills to successfully pull this off. In order to find out which skills are required, let’s first look at the philosophy behind strikerless formations. The premisse of a strikerless formation is that instead of a traditional forward, you play a trequartista as your most attacking man on the pitch, position-wise. Trequartista’s tend to move into the space between defence and midfield to receive the ball, thus overloading the central midfield, establishing domination in terms of possession and creating space for surging runs by wingers or other midfielders.
Just look at the video above, which is a match clip from an AS Roma side anno 2009. Roma’s trequartista was Totti, as their manager Spaletti was forced to play strikerless due to injuries. It worked out alright for them, as the clip above shows. What you see is rapidly moving players, short yet incisive passing and a smooth, silky style of play. When Ruud Gullit was raving on about sexy football, he was full of shit and talking utter bollocks, but be honest, that clip above is showing some pretty sexy football.
There are a few concepts I find to be absolutely crucial when you successfully want to play a strikerless formation. These are, in my eyes anyway, the pillars on which a successful strikerless formation is built.
Good off-the-ball movement is an important element of any good formation. For a strikerless formation, good movement is more than just an important element, it’s an absolutely crucial element. Because you lack an advanced focal point for your passing, as in some sort of forward to hold up the ball, you have to rely on players movement into space to either receive the ball or create space for others.
Your key players in this effect are the central attacking midfielders. The movement and positioning of the attacking midfielders opens up space in the heart of the defence. By playing in the gap between midfield and defence, they are either always open to receive a pass, or they drag the defensive line higher up the pitch, thus creating space for movement into the space behind the opposing defensive line. Let’s take a look at the concept in action.
You can see the patient build up in this video, with constant movement by most players to make themselves available for the pass. You can clearly see that there is no traditional forward on the pitch. The goal-scorer starts out as a left winger, cutting inside. The space behind the opposing defence is opened by the trequartista dropping into midfield and drawing the defenders further forward. The winger cuts inside and is launched by a brilliant through-ball to score an easy goal.
This concept only really works if there is another player moving to exploit the space. The whole concept of a strikerless formation is that the various lines in the formation are closely packed together. This means that a single run by an attacking midfielder, can open up space for three or more others nearby, waiting to pounce on positional weaknesses by the opposing team. Because of their close proximity to one another, the lines are able to interchange quite fluidly. In normal people talk; because the lines are so close together, players don’t have to cover great distances to benefit from each others movement.
An added benefit of a tight and cohesive formation is the knock-on effect of movements. An attacking midfielder dropping dropping back into midfield creates space for a winger to run into, which in turn creates space out wide for an attacking full-back or wing-back to overlap.
Movement both on and off the ball is absolutely crucial to the success of the formation and the style of play. This particular formation and style rely on the exploiting of space. When your players remain static, no space can and will open up for others to exploit.
The clip shows a nicely executed attack, where the team goes from defence to offence to goal in one rapidly-flowing move, that lasts a mere 12 seconds from start to finish. What I want to highlight are the hybrid players, the players making a difference when making a transition. To illustrate this, I’ve taken screenshots from two moments in the match clip.
This screenshot is taken briefly before we actually recover possession. Van den Berg, our centre-back, is ready to take control and before he even has the ball, two of the hybrid players have started the transition from defence to attack. Both wingbacks are moving into forward positions, looking to back up the wingers and create a potential overlap on the wings. Now let’s look at another phase in the attack, a few seconds later.
Van den Berg has moved the ball to Suárez in central midfield. Both wing-backs have moved into forward positions. When Suárez plays the ball to the left winger, the left wing-back is already in a position to link up and overlap. The wing-backs aren’t the only hybrid players though.
At the same time the wing-backs move forward, the anchor-man drops back a bit. He covers the midfield space in front of the two defenders, shutting down the supply towards the opposing forwards in case Suárez misplaces his pass. As an added bonus, he’s available for a pass in case there is no forward passing option. The opposing forwards stick with their defenders, leaving the defensive midfielders free to receive a pass and aid the build-up play. So even if a player does not have a direct role to play in the offence, his off the ball movement can be crucial to the way the team plays as a whole. That’s how the defensive midfielder highlighted in blue works on the pitch. He guards the defensive zone in front of defence when his team attacks, as well as forming a reliable pass-back option.
The fourth hybrid player highlighted is the trequartista. His key movements are highlighted later on in the match clip, in the final stages. Normally, he can create space during the build-up stages of an attack, this time, he creates space with a run during the final stages of the attack. Again, I have screenshotted the phase I am referring to.
What we see now is that the left winger has found the man in space, right winger Engelen. Engelen can move forward unchallenged, before crossing the ball. This screenshot has been taken right before Engelen starts his run to cross the ball. The trequartista will make a run towards the penalty-spot, distracting all three players high-lighted in blue, who will track his run. This means that the left winger is free to cut inside and head the ball past the goalie at the far post.
With pressing becoming some sort of fashion in real life at the moment, especially with Pochettino’s Southampton now playing an aggressive pressing game in the Premier League, this whole pillar of my strikerless style is going to sound a bit hipster-esque. “Oh, look at me, throwing around big names like Pochettino, Bielsa and Lobanovskiy.” The truth is you have to play a similar style of aggresive fore-checking if you want to have any sort of success in a strikerless formation, so it’s not really a case of me brandishing real-life names in an effort to compare myself to them.
The philosophy behind the pressing game is to press and defend high up the pitch, aggressively chasing down opposing players, forcing them to play either a long ball or play risky back-passes. By playing a high defensive line, you can keep the distances between the lines small, to stop your players from having to cover great distances to effectively close down an opponent. Let’s have a look at the concept in action.
Whilst only the trequartista actively chases the ball here, the defensive positioning is well organised here. As soon as the ball gets halfway into the defending teams own half, the entire team moves forward a bit and pressurises the opposing team, forcing them into a bad pass, which is pounced upon.
So why is pressing an indispensable part of the strikerless style? Allow me to show you with yet another video.
In that brief match clip, my team snap into tackles, swirled around their opponents, pressure them even deep in their own half. It was a remorseless, bewildering assault, the opposing team was given no quarter, no respite anywhere on the pitch, not even when the ball was rolled by the goalkeeper to a defender just outside the box.
Now imagine what would happen when the trequartista and wingers would not actively close down their opponents, instead opting to drop back into midfield, maintaing the defensive shape. The premisse of a strikerless formation is that your side is going to dominate by having more men in midfield, drawing in opponents and then exploiting the space they give away. If an opposing defender can take control of the ball and either pick out a pass unopposed or even worse, dribble into a midfield position, negating the numerical advantage you once had. By keeping the opposition pinned at the back, you force them into a long ball or reckless pass and allowing your midfielders to win the ball.
Usually players are pressed when they cross the halfway line and begin to threaten the goal, or during turnovers of possession. This makes sense really, as players who have just taken possession, have usually not had a chance to assess their passing options and are thus unwilling, or unable, to release the ball quickly, especially if they are facing their own goal or the touchline, with limited options available.
When you’re playing strikerless, you’re almost forced to play all-out pressing, to hamper the oppositions build-up game. Allowing them a proper build-up is potentially opening up your midfield to a penetrating run or pass by a defender, negating the numerical advantage you once had and indeed require to successfully play your own game.
Looking back at the match clip I used before, you can see this perfectly. Let’s just look at the situation again.
Van Schie, the goalkeeper, was unable to distribute the ball wide. Good pressing by the wingers shut down the potentially safest passing option. A long ball would result in the central midfielders re-positioning themselves and challenging for the ball. All the central players were marked by one of my own players, the opposing wide midfielders were given more space, but should a high ball be played towards them, one of the central midfielders would move out wide and pressure this player, backed by the wing-back. In this particular case, the goalie opted for the short pass, which ended in disaster for the opposition. In most cases, the opposing goalie will just hoof the ball forward.
For this pressing to work three elements are required. The players must be fit, they must keep the spaces between the lines small, and they must work as a unit. It is no good when one player is pressing and his team-mates are standing off, you have to attack, defend and transition as a unit.
I have called this third pillar “cohesion”, but it really boils down to the concept of universality, combined with keeping the formation compact. Again, I am going to sound like a proper prick for referencing real life managers, but bear with me on this one. People like Michels, Cruyff, Lobanovskiy and Sacchi strived for universality, where every player on the pitch takes a collective responsebility for each aspect of the game. Not in the sense that the forward is now tracking back to help with the off-side trap, but more in the sense of the example of the anchor-man’s positioning to protect his defenders and at the same time offer a safe passing option, whilst other team-members move forward.
Anyway, since universality is closely associated with Total Football, it’s becoming a sort of buzz-word. In a way, universality is part of some mythical style of play, which combines the aesthetics of short and intricate passing, aggressive pressing, fluid movement on and off the ball and positional interchangeability with the results that deliver trophies.
That really isn’t what I’m after. I want all players to take equal creative and defensive responsebility during all stages and phases of the game, resulting in a very fluid style of play. Because of this style of play and by pushing up the defensive line, I try to keep the lines compact. This means the players can press without being too concerned about leaving huge gaps behind them. I can show you want I mean with another match clip.
It’s a rather typical clip of our free-flowing and fluid style of play, rapidly changing between defence and attack. You can see the wing-back moving forward a bit to intercept and a few seconds later, the trequartista has dropped into space, received the ball, drawn the defenders towards him and played a brilliant through-ball for the on-rushing midfielder Eppenga to slot home. What I want to high-light from this is how compact the formation remained throughout the attack. Let’s have a look at the defensive stance first.
You can see that even the most attacking players drop back and move into a defensive position. Wingers, who are generally not known for their love of tracking back, have moved along with the opposing wing-backs and taken up defensive positions on the flank. As you can see in the match clip, the left wing-back will retain the ball soon and the whole team will switch to attack in a matter of seconds. Let’s look at their positioning when attacking.
I had to change the camera-view a bit to show you the offensive shape of the formation. Even when going forward, the formation remains relatively compact. Yes, there are penetrating runs by players into, which is something we are actually going for, but the team move forward as a cohesive unit, to try and keep the space between the lines limited.
What I love to see in my teams is either a rapid counter-attacking style, exploiting the space opponents leave. When that is not possible, you have to have a Plan B. In my case, that’s a calculated and meticulous build-up from the back. Blindly hoofing the ball forward á la Stoke City under Pulis is not going to work, mostly because we have no focal point upfront to hold up the ball and win headers. Trequartista’s are generally not renowned for their aerial prowess.
No, what I want to see can be explained best by a movie reference (pop culture ahoy!). Have you ever seen the Mighty Ducks movies? Once every movie, they performed a move called the Flying V, it’s possession play in its purest form, moving the puck between their various players in a murderously high tempo, until the space opens up for a shot.
That’s posessional build up play in the same way teams as Barça, Dortmund and Ajax use. It’s moving your players forward piece by piece and passing throughout the lines to control possession as you created overloads by possession rather than athleticism. It’s a style of attacking that to negate risk at every possible section and with every possible pass, which is a sensible strategy when you’re throwing 5 to 7 players forward most of the time and every misplaced pass can lead to a lethal counter-attack.
Now can that be done in FM? I feel it is a very real possibility to perform rapid-moving attacks like the Flying V in FM. Just have a look at the next match clip.
What you see there is the FM equivalent of the Flying V. Rapidly moving players, intricate passing, possession play and lethal efficiency going forward. Keeping possession is possible because the players are taking their offensive responsebility to open up space for others. The wing-backs and midfielders are all moving along with the attack and are keeping the pitch wide. Defenders absolutely hate balls that move from one wing to another quickly as they can’t organise quickly. By maintaing a fair few wide passing options, you are forcing the opposition to maintain a wider defence, instead of just huddling together for a compact defence.
When it all comes together, a strikerless formation can deliver beautiful and fluent football, aesthetically pleasing and definitely what that smug prick Gullit meant when he mentioned sexy football. The strikerless successformula is quite simple.
Movement on and off the ball + pressing + cohesion + possession = lovely football
Just watch at this final video, with some match clips displaying how simple, effective and lovely football can be.