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. Now for the Match Engine FM15 is currently using, there are few problems with basically two of my pillars.
MOVEMENT – HOW I ENVISAGE IT
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.
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. This just strengthens the idea that 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.
Now the concept sounds quite nifty, but how to translate this concept onto the pitch? How do you create movement? For me, this means I need to assess two things. Who are the hybrid players and where do natural overloads occur? A hybrid player is a player who is in a specific position defensively, but moves into an entirely different position when the team is on the offence. During the transition phase from offence to defence and vice versa, these are the key players who need to position themselves well. An overload is where there are more players from one team in one area than another. For example, when the left wing-back steams down the wing to receive a flick-on by the left winger, you are creating an overload in this area. Any time somebody has more players in one area, it’s an overload.
MOVEMENT – WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT
At the moment, I am just not seeing the fluid movement I am used to from the FM14 Match Engines. Let me just remind you of what a typical strikerless goal looked like in FM14. Look at the smooth, silky, almost sensual style of play. Look at the fluid interactions between players, the runs with and without the ball. Just look at it.
You can see the patient, careful build-up in this match clip. It features constant movement by most players to make themselves available for the pass, in an almost Barcelona-like style of short pass and move football. You can clearly see that there is no traditional forward on the pitch. The space behind the opposing defence is opened by the trequartista dropping into midfield and drawing the defenders further forward. You can also see the wingers moving wide to stretch the defence horizontally, before cutting inside to create space for the surging wing-backs. Defenders are lost, hapless even and the organisation and cohesion of the opposing defence desintegrates.
Now watch an average FM15 match. Most players look very clumsy on the ball, definitely not capable of the silky smooth one-touch passes displayed in the clip above. Because they have such poor first touches, it takes them more time to control the ball, allowing the opposing team time to re-organise or even dispossess your players. It’s not only the forwards that seems clumsy and oafish, note how poor the defenders are in controlling a pass, the ball often bounces a metre or two off their foot, allowing forwards a chance to intercept and skip past them.
In the match clip, you also saw players dribble past their marker. Have you watched any forwards dribble past anyone else? Even the truly world class dribblers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Bale look like their drunk and have the dribbling skills and turning circle of a slightly overweigth Robert Huth. Hardly the dazzling and sizzling runs you’d expect from these stars, in part because they can’t seem to control the ball properly.
Whilst I note that there are definitely players out there with ball-handling skills similar to a drunk Oleg Luzhniy, it happens far too often for any sort of effective movement to be possible. Simply put, the game stagnates as the ball is transfers from one player to another because they need a second, maybe two to control the ball before they are able to pass it along accurately. When you employ a tactic that relies on movement and you see this movement stifled by the Match Engine, it’s not exactly helpful.
More traditional tactics can just hoof the ball forward, toward their striker, who can hold it up, head it back or in general provide an outlet to get out from under pressure. With strikerless lacking such an outlet, I have to rely on ball circulation and movement. When the Match Engine throws a spanner into the works, it definitely makes the task at hand more difficult.
PRESSING – HOW I ENVISAGE IT
The second pillar of my strikerless ideas is pressing. With pressing becoming some sort of fashion in real life at the moment, 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, Klopp, 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.
Now imagine what would happen when the attacking midfielders and/or 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.
Within the confines of the FM14 Match Engine, I was able to achieve this style of pressing by using a Very Fluid mentality and employing an attacking style of football, which pushed the team high up the pitch as a compact unit, making it easier for my players to hound the opposition into making mistakes.
PRESSING – WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT
In a nut-shell, the players just aren’t doing what’s instructed. When I want my players to chase down an opposing team, I expect them to actually do it. I even used the Prevent short GK distribution shout, to make sure the opposing team can’t build up from the back. Unfortunately, it’s just not happening. Just look at the following situation.
The opposing goalkeeper has the ball and will pass it towards a defender. Where are the midfielders? What good did the Prevent short GK distribution shout do here? It’s about as useful as Chelsea’s youth academy right now. It may look fancy, it probably cost a load of money but ultimately fails to produce anything of note. The attacking midfielders are quite far away from the defenders, who can easily (even in this Match Engine) control the ball and pick out a pass.
Whilst the midfielders do move forward to generate some form of pressure, it’s hardly the aggressive pressing I want to see and in fact ordered. Maximum closing down in the team instructions, combined with the individual instructions to close down even more and I get to see this tame display? The team has pushed up fairly high, so it’s not fear of leaving gaps behind them that’s keeping them back, they’re just not doing what I instruct them. Just compare that to how FM14 worked.
Aggressive fore-checking, players closing down inside the opposing penalty area if needed. Not quite the same as the tame show put on display in the current match engine. If I want to force the opposing team into playing long balls, this isn’t the proper way to go about it. I highly doubt we can even win the ball in midfield at this rate in the odd case the opposing team does play a long ball. They just seem too nice and friendly.
HOW WILL I FIX THIS?
To be fair, I’m still struggling to wrap my head around these issues. One of the ideas I was thinking about was employing a more direct style. Verticality seems to work in this Match Engine, but I am afraid that the movement and ball control will fail me regardless. It’s still worth a try I feel, as less ball contacts equals less chance of something going wrong because of a poorly controlled pass. Long balls into space could go a long way to solving at least one of the problems, provided the opposing team pushes up to deny my attacking midfielders space.
I am not entirely sure how I can fix the pressing bit. I have pretty much ticked every box linked with pressing, as well as reducing the amount of space to an absolute minimum without fielding a defensive line on the half-way line. The only idea I have left is to use the Get stuck in shout. If I tell them to go in more aggressive, they may go in more at all instead of standing off. It will be a bit hit and miss though.