A frequently returning discussion with some of my gaming friends features the question how exactly I achieve my success. Some argued, and quite rightfully so in a way, that any formation would work with the world class players I have amassed at Fortuna. Whilst I agree with this sentiment, I also felt that they were overlooking the initial five to seven seasons of this save-game, where I was the perpetual underdog, over-achieving every season and beating far superior sides with average players.
I was and am convinced that whilst the quality of the players definitely influenced the results, it was the strikerless formation and my tactical choices that played an important role in achieving the successes I had shared with gaming comrades. I set out to prove my point by playing in Malta, with Sliema Wanderers (courtesy of a rather excellent .dbc created by Football Manager Fans Malta). The Maltese league ranks amongst the weakest in Europe and attracting foreign players is nigh impossible, which means you have to make do with the means available to you. A rag-tag bunch of third-rate foreigners and some locals would have to suffice.
Let me show you the best foreigners I have. Most of them were at the club or were released by other Maltese players. I was unable to attract anyone from outside Malta.
As you can see, it’s mostly a rag-tag bunch of distinctly average if not pretty poor players, a far way from the star-studded squad I am accustomed to working with at Fortuna. By Maltese standards, these are top players. This probably shows you the quality of the league and its players, but just to show you, this is the finest Maltese player at my disposal.
You can see, Borg is a quite poor player. In fact, most managers would opt not to sign him, even in an LLM setting. With Borg being one of the better players at my disposal for a sub-top side in Malta, it sort of shows you the level at which Maltese players operate. Now domestically, I would be able to do alright, mostly because of the foreign influences, but how would we fare in Europe, where our star players were considered sub-par at best?
In order to survive, I had to focuss on the concept of cohesion I mentioned in the article I wrote for Clear Cut Chance. I call it “cohesion”, but it really boils down to the concept of universality, combined with keeping the formation compact. I know I am going to sound like a proper hipster 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.
Very fluid mentality structures cover the smallest range of tactical priorities with the team as a whole sharply focused on carrying out a highly specific strategic objective (e.g., completely negating the opposition’s attack, controlling possession in midfield, overloading the opposition third, etc.). This represents systems in which all players are expected to help contribute to a general, collective function and in which, accordingly, there is significantly less differentiation between players based on position and role. While this demands a greater degree of versatility and tactical awareness from each of the players, it encourages the team to cooperate closely in carrying out specific tasks while promoting more movement between positional strata and, thus, greater variety and unpredictability in the team’s play.
In layman’s terms, the Very Fluid setting makes the team band together to collectively try and execute a specific target set by the manager. If you have followed my blog lately, you know I am a big fan of counter-pressing and stretching a defence, both of which can be achieved with this Very Fluid setting.
For a small club like Sliema, playing against superior opposition in Europe, counter-pressing and the constant harassing of an opposing team are important survival tools, especially combined with a Counter-attack strategy. Keeping a constant flow of bodies between your own goal and opponents on the ball before trying quick break-away counter-attacks would be a suitable strategy for my side, considering I do have some fast midfielders and I lack the technically skilled players to play my usual style of play.
In terms of what I expect my players to do, I will again quote FMScout.
GK: Distribute Safely
DC: Disrupt Attacks Judiciously
DMC: Halfback: Disrupt Attacks
WBL/R: Recover Possession After Defensive Transition
MC: Recover Possession
AMC: Keep Possession Away From Pressure
AMC: Shadow Striker: Keep Possession Under Pressure
The above text is taken from their excellent article on The Mentality Ladder, which I have referenced earlier. It shows how each player is expected to contribute to the cause of winning the ball back as soon as possible. Combine this with the usual strikerless strategy of stretching a defence and then flooding the box with running midfielders and you can see a potentially lethal strategy.
All of this sounds fine and dandy on paper, but on paper, I noticed we struggled to translate my ideas onto the pitch. Looking at my European campaign so far, you can see similar scores through-out the campaign, despite the level of the oppositiong increasing. Let’s be honest, Linfield are no Udinese, yet over two games, the Northern Irish side performed similarly to the Italian Serie A side.
The reason why we struggled earlier in our European campaign was, in my eyes, tactical familiarity. As we progressed through the season, the tactical familiarity improved, which was needed to best the ever-increasing opponents we faced. Against Udinese and APOEL, you could see less crappy passes into no man’s land, less players running around like headless chickens and thus the performances of the otherwise average and poor players improved, as they fought their way through these matches as a cohesive unit, showing that the AI still has difficulties dealing with strikerless tactics.
With a short pre-season in place before I had to start the preliminary rounds in Europe, I had no time to get the tactic fluid before my European campaign so I had to work around this obvious failure by using European and league fixtures to increase tactical familiarity. As you can see by the results I have achieved, the familiarity has severely impacted the results. Let’s just look at some match clips.
In the clip above, you can see one of the goals we scored against Linfield. Most of our goals versus the plucky Northern Irish side came either from set pieces or messy attacks like that one. You can see a fair amount of poor passing from the Sliema lads and it seems mostly through sheer luck and the fact that we have a lot of runners going forward that the ball eventually ends up in the Linfield goal.
It’s just as if players have not yet adjusted to the new style of play. The passing is off, the movement is not right or poorly timed, some players hold up the ball instead of passing it, players don’t seem to know where there team-mates are. You can blame a part of this on the poor quality of the players, but I do feel it’s mostly tactical familiarity. Let’s look at a second clip, a few months later.
What a difference we see here. Less sloppy passing, the tempo has increased significantly, players seem to know where there team-mates are because they are no longer just hitting it long upfield in the hope of finding a team-mate. During the first clip, the attack seemed a bit random, a fortunate series of events leading to a forward finding himself in space near the goal, whilst the second clip shows an actual fluid and calculated attack. Granted, the initial finishing was shitty, but the ball went in eventually.
During the first match, the tactical familiarity was around 35%, whilst during the second match familiarity had risen to nearly 100%. You can see what a difference it makes. Especially for LLM-managers, with limited resources and often tactically unimpressive players, it’s absolutely crucial to raise tactical awareness. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I prefer a fluid style of play as well for poorer teams, as it forces the team to work together instead of having two or three bands of players acting independent of each other.