It really is a majestic sight. Go back 30 or 40 years and watch teams defend. The majority of them will feature a type of player that seems to have been lost from the modern game. You’ll see an elegant defender sitting behind the defensive line, picking up a stray through balls from an attacker. As he effortlessly brings it under his control, he marches forward with it, stepping past the other defenders and moving into the midfield zone. From there he acts as a modern day deep-lying playmaker, initiating the play and spreading it out to the flanks, or playing it forward into midfield or attack. This is the Libero. People tend to get nostalgic about Libero’s and their style of play and rightfully so, as they were often stylish and elegant players.
But what about the Libero’s less fashionable and unpretentious cousin, the Ausputzer? The Beckenbauers of the world were stylish and elegant players, venturing forward and contributing to the offensive phase of the game, basically acting as additional midfielders when their team was in possession. The Ausputzers were far more gritty, as they just stayed behind the defensive line and just cleared anything that got past the other defenders. Not very stylish, but darn effective. Jonathon Aspey and Guido Merry team up to see if they can realise such a role in Football Manager.
Why we don’t use the roles FM currently has
As you are no doubt aware, FM actually offers the option to field a player both a Libero or Sweeper role. What could be easier than just using the role the way FM designed it? It’s a valid question and we will start off by answering that question before we move on to explaining what we did to get the show on the road. Let’s just look at a screenshot from one of Jonathon’s latest tactical exploits with Leverkusen.
The above image illustrates one of the “issues” with the Libero role as it exists in FM15’s Match Engine. He’s not a classic Libero. You would expect him to march forward with the ball in the example above, but instead he passes it to the RPM and holds his position. The Libero generally drops slightly deeper than the other defenders, and steps up when he needs to. With the right individual settings, he does spray the ball about from the centre back position, but he just doesn’t step forward as the Libero should. The furthest forward we have seen him is at throw ins, which isn’t a realistic example. Basically, he’s a more creative sweeper.
We could ramble-on about failed attempts at getting a Libero in it’s original form working, but the general consensus amongst our respective audiences is that a roaming Libero is impossible at the moment, both in real-life and the burger van-full Match Engine. However, this is where we FM-ers like our creative freedom. If we can’t get the Match Engine to respond to a stereotypical Libero’s movements and base positioning, then what can we do to reinvent the wheel?
Flip-thinking; the key to success
With a background in education, Guido has offered the technique of flip-thinking as a possibility to solve the problem at hand. With the Match Engine limiting the vertical movement of the player in the sweeper-position, we need to explore other avenues and flip-thinking has helped us do just that.
(verb, flip*think*ing; flip-thought; a (thinking) technique which is used to transform problems into opportunities; synonym yes-and-thinking; antonym yes-but-thinking, thinking in terms of threats and limitations)
“Omdenken” – the Dutch art of creative thinking, we call it “flip-thinking”, is transforming problems into opportunities. With this way of thinking you look at reality the way it is, and you focus on what you can do with it. You use the problem’s energy to create something new. The founder of Omdenken is Berthold Gunster, best-selling author of “Yes-but® what if it all works out”, among others.
Flip-thinking is basically a two-step program that lets you deal with limitations that are in place and stimulates you to work with or around those hindering factors. The first step is turning a problem into a fact. Making the step from yes-but (it isn’t the way it should be and that’s a problem) to yes-and (it is what it is). Then you look for new opportunities that arise after you completely accepting the facts, saying “yes” to reality.
The holy Trinity of defending; Stopper – Cover – Stopper
When you can’t make the libero rush forward and stray into midfield because of limitations in the games’ core mechanics, we can piss and moan about that fact, or we can use it to our advantage and see how we can work with that given fact. We ended up deciding that if we couldn’t make the libero stray forward or drop back properly, we could take other steps to get the same desired effect. Instead of making the libero the mobile player, moving forward and backwards, we made the other defenders more mobile, with the libero morphing into an Ausputzer, solely focussed on covering the space behind the defence and picking up loose balls.
With the libero and sweeper roles not doing what we want them to do, we decided to opt for three central defenders. The roles are tailored to the team we are working with and could probably be altered if needed. What makes this setup work is the Stopper – Cover – Stopper setting. Players on Stopper settings are generally encouraged to push ahead of the defensive line to close down potential threats and nullify them before they make their way inside the penalty area. The player on Cover will drop behind the defensive line to sweep up and cover the space behind his two more aggressive collegues.
That sounds very nice and dandy, but if it were that easy, someone would’ve come up with it before. Indeed, we did encounter problems when working on this setup. The main problem we found was balancing the tactic properly. If we only fielded three defenders, they would spread too wide, which meant the spaces between the players would be too large for the Ausputzer to cover. When we played wing-backs, we had to make sure they surged forward enough to add width to the formation to prevent the entire setup from descending into a cluster of centralised players, aimlessly passing the ball between them because no space opened up. Eventually, through a time-tested concept called trial and error, we settled on the following setup.
The addition of the Complete Wing-Backs stops the wide spread of the central players somewhat, without sacrificing the offensive width we badly need. We realise this sounds very nifty on paper, but it’s untested in reality. In an effort to show you that this actually works in the Match Engine in the exact way we envisaged and described, we’ll walk you through some match screenshots.
In this match screen, we can see the opposing team trying a long ball over the top. This is the basic defensive setting our setup generates in the current Match Engine. We can see the basic premisse in action. When you cannot make the libero/sweeper move, move the other players around him. The two central defenders aggressively move forward, whilst the sweeper stays behind them, covering the space behind the defensive line. The presence of the Complete Wing-Backs stops the defenders from spreading too wide, despite the space behind the wide players. Again, the sweeper can cover these spaces if needed.
When the team is going forward, the Complete Wing-Backs surge even further forward, adding some much needed width to an otherwise largely centralised setup. What is encouraging, is the positioning of the remaining three players. They are situated on the half-way line, with the sweeper slightly behind the other two. In a setup with no wing-backs, the three defenders would spread to cover the flanks as well, creating gaping gaps between them, large enough to sail an aircraft carrier through unscathed. Despite the attacking runs by our wing-backs, the defence remains centralised, with the gaps between the players small and manageable. That roughly looks like this.
When the ball is lost, the team has to transition from attack to defence rather quickly. With the spread between the three centralised defender being limited, the two outter players can step forward to challenge their opponent, knowing the space between them is limited and the sweeper will cover the space behind them, as he does quite expertly in the match-clip we linked to above.
This holy Trinity of defending looks quite sturdy. The Ausputzer is not the mobile player the libero is. He does not move laterally behind and in front of the defensive line. Instead, he is the focal point of the defensive line, the pivot so to speak. Whilst he does make covering runs to clear dangerous situations, he remains largely static , whilst the others form the line around him. Take a look at the next match-clip.
The positioning of the sweeper really never changes, whilst the other defenders adjust and alter their positioning depending on the placement of the Ausputzer, at times actually dropping behind the sweeper to cover his action towards a lone forward. All in all, the setup looks fairly balanced, despite being a risky one in terms of space that can be exploited by the opposition.
Mind over matter (mostly anyway); required attributes
When we look at the attributes required for our Ausputzer, we need not concern ourselves with the attacking side of things. Our Ausputzer is not a glamorous defender, who has to start attacks and dribble forward with the ball. Our Ausputzer will primarily sit behind the defensive line to cover the others, so there’s no need for offensive extravagance. In similar fashion, we are not looking for a ruthless cut-throat of a defender. Any mistimed tackle or overly aggressive challenge will probably result in a red card. No, our Ausputzers main talent is probably one of the hardest to scout for, as we’ll be looking for footballing intelligence.
In real life, footballing intelligence is as intangible an attribute as they come in football. It’s not like technical prowess, where it can be easily seen how well a footballer manipulates the ball to his advantage or his physical adeptness enabling him to overcome his opponent via speeding past them or brushing them off with their strength. No, footballing intelligence is one of the hardest qualities to quantify in the game. There seems to be much subjectivity to how many assess the excellence of a player’s footballing intelligence. Football Manager makes it easier to scout for these attributes, as the game breaks down the mental aspect into a number of hard-set criteria. The following criteria are, according to us, important for the Ausputzer role.
Anticipation – How accurately can a player predict other player’s movements
In other words, can our Ausputzer “read the game”, can he predict where the ball is going and where is opponents are going to be. A player who can accurately predict the movement of opponents doesn’t need to be fast or ruthless, he compensates with the power of his mind and his speed of thinking.
Concentration – How long a player can keep his mind focussed on the game
A players attention tends to fade as the game progresses. We don’t want that, our Ausputzer needs to be focussed for as long as possible, as any mistake he makes can be potentially fatal. A high attribute for Concentration means the player will use his Decisions and Anticipation attributes better throughout the length of a match.
Decisions – Controls the quality of decisions the player makes
A player is constantly presented with options, and the Decisions attribute controls if the player chooses the best option. It also controls how and when an option is performed. Decision is what, when and how. We don’t want our player to be hesitant, when he makes a move, we want him to follow through.
Positioning – The accuracy of a players position
This attribute controls how well a player positions himself, depending on what’s going on around him. Positioning (do I recognise the various options available to me) is linked with Decisions (do I opt for the right position out of the various options available to me) and Anticipation (do I predict the movement of others well enough to read the game). In our eyes, these three attributes make up most of the footballing intelligence our Ausputzer should possess.
Mobility; not an absolute necessity but certainly handy
Mobility means movement. Movement is important in the game so that players can create or guard space for themselves or for their teammates. Players without the ball need to keep moving to unbalance the opponent’s defense or guard runs by their own team-mates. Mobility is, in our eyes anyway, secondary to footballing intelligence, but still important. A player might be able to recognise where he should position himself, in today’s fast-paced game he needs the pace and acceleration to get there in time as well. Awareness should be complemented by relatively swift feet. The following criteria are, according to us, important for the Ausputzer role.
Acceleration – How fast can a player reach top speed
Whilst the Pace attribute determines the actual top speed a player can reach, Acceleration determines how long a player needs to reach that top speed. In the split-second decision-making world of the Ausputzer, getting there fast is mostly about accelerating rather than top speed.
Agility – How easily a player moves
A low attribute means the player is “sluggish”. A high attribute means the player is nimble and light-footed. We prefer the former to the latter. Sluggish players commit fouls, which is generally not a smart idea if your Ausputzer is the last field player between an opponent and your own goal.
Pace – Decides the top speed a player can reach
The Pace attribute determines the top speed a player can reach whilst sprinting. Our Ausputzer rarely has to cover large distances, so whilst this attribute is not unimportant, you don’t need to scout for the next Usain Bolt to play in this position. Average (10+) Pace will do just fine, as long as he’s intelligent enough.
So what’s next?
Well, you can expect some fireworks from Jonathon and Guido the next weeks with regards to this whole Ausputzer idea. Jonathon has encorporated the concept into his already formidable Leverkusen setup and will blog about this more, whilst Guido has developed a strikerless 5-2-3-0 tactic, which will be available for download in the near future.