Yeah, let’s just get this one out of the way. I’m honest enough to admit that no matter how much I try to look at things objectively, I am a human being and I bring my biases to the table. As a child of the late 80’s and early 90’s, I grew up in a golden age of gaming. While these classics are awesome and have stood the test of time far better than I suspect most modern games will, I fully admit that part of the appeal is that I grew up with them. After all, you never forget your first love. Strikerless Sexy Football…
Strikerless Sexy Football was my first love, back in the FM14 days. It was football the way that pretentious prick Gullit envisaged it originally. I have to admit, Gullit has a way with words. If his coaching skills matched his vocabulary and oral skills, he’d be able to rival Sir Alex. Sadly, it did not, so all the dreadlocked Dutchman has to show for his coaching career is an FA Cup with Chelsea and the coining of the phrase Sexy Football, which had fuck all to do with John Terry’s off-the-pitch antics. No, Gullit used this term to describe teams who played the game in a smooth, elegant and effortless style: teams comprised of artists who could evoke the highest spiritual consciousness through exceptional technique and intimacy with the ball.
If you think that sounds rather pretentious and exceptionally twattish, you’re probably right as well. On the other hand, I prefer to let videos do the talking for me. Just have a look at some of these moves and then tell me it’s not fluid, smooth football, indeed the sexy football Gullit was ranting about.
The classic 4-1-2-3-0 formation I have picked was back then and remains to this day, for me anyway, the ideal formation to generate the maximum amount of movement and overlap, so we can overload opposing teams in key areas. What you want to look for are a few wide players to stretch the defence, a central passing outlet for the central defenders and a tight midfield for maximum effect in playing one-two’s.
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The key roles you need to make this work
I am not going to bother you with the details on each and every player and how it should interact with the others. Instead, I will focus on the key roles that make this formation tick. Incidentally, these are also the roles you want to tweak if things are not working out.
- The Half-Back;
- The Central Winger;
- The Withdrawn Targetman.
One of the unsung heroes of my by now (in)famous strikerless formation is the Half-Back. He doesn’t excel offensively, he’s not the one making the Hollywood-passes, nor is the one to score a heap of goals or rack up assists like it’s nothing. He isn’t a proficient force defensively, normally he’s not the one with the great last-ditch sliding challenge or the skillful tackle on an opposing player. No, the Half-Back is the master of the Transition phase of play and his main weapon is his positional awareness and vertical and lateral movement across the pitch. Yes, the noble Half-Back, the invisible driving force in defensive midfield. You could argue he is the beating heart of the team and the glue that holds the team together.
The Half-Back looks to serve a role somewhere between an aggressive sweeper and the more traditional defensive midfielder. During the various phases of the game, he takes up different roles and positions, all of them inconspicuous, bar one. Defensively speaking, I want to differentiate between the snuffing out of counter-attacks, which, whilst being defensive work, is not part of the defensive phase of play and the actual defending done in the defensive phase of play. During the actual defensive phase, the Half-Back tends to act as a screen in front of the defence, so basically as a normal defensive midfielder would.
During the transition from defensive phase to the offensive phase of the game, the Half-Back can play a number of roles, but they all rely on his positioning. When the ball is won high up the pitch, he plays the role of a pivot in defensive midfield, similar to his role in the attacking phase of play. As the Half-Back is supposed to drop back from midfield into defence to take up his defensive position, he is often in an advanced position compared to the center-backs. This means he is often the recipient of their headed clearances, as he as the time and space to receive the ball, swivel and look for a pass, often towards the wing-backs, who are also key players in terms of transitioning.
Whilst it’s hardly glamorous or spectacular what the Half-Back does, it’s absolutely crucial to the teams efforts to transition from defence to offence. If you want to catch an opposing team off-guard with a quick and critical counter-attack, you have to be able to quickly transition from offence to defence and as you can see, the Half-Back is one of they driving forces behind these transitions.
In the transition from defence to offence, the Half-Back is mostly required to snuff out counter-attacks by the opposing side, as he moves from his position in the attacking phase as part of the back three to a more advanced role in defensive midfield. He can stop counter-attacks dead in their tracks either by winning the ball through an interception or successful tackle or he can delay the onrushing forwards and midfielders long enough to allow the other players to track back and take up their defensive positions. Either way, to effectively fulfill this role, he will need to move quickly and be intelligent in his positioning.
Considering the importance of this position for the midfield balance, it is also one of the first positions you could tweak when things are not working the way they should. You could consider setting this player to an Anchorman if you want to pressure the opposition even more. He will not drop back between the defenders, which effectively leaves you with an extra midfielder when defending. I would be rather hesistant to employ the Ball-Winning Midfielder on his own in this position, as he is rather prone to getting pulled out of position. A Roaming Playmaker or Regista would work as well, especially if you want them surging forward into midfield to add offensive power. It will leave the defence exposed though, so only do this against weak opposition or be sure to tweak the roles for the wide players as well.
The Central Winger
Although the term itself may sound like football hipster mumbo-jumbo, it actually has a lot of reasoning behind it. In its basic nature, it’s the idea of playing a competent dribbler in central midfield, who can beat players and get to the byline to cross. Anyone who has seen PSG this season can see the effect that Di Maria’s vertical and direct running has had on the whole team, and therefore it has made them extremely dangerous on the counter attack.
In theory, the role can be so much more dangerous than just a normal winger, or a box to box midfielder. Defenders are unable to use the sideline as an extra defender (as they would against a normal winger), and instead are forced to engage a fast midfielder dribbling at pace, something no centre back would be comfortable defending against. In addition, the player also has a much wider range of passing options, especially if he has additional players breaking forward with him, especially in wide areas, and runners from full back. A setup utilising a CW has the potential to completely overrun the opposition defence.
You can see how the running Central Winger beautifully overlaps the Withdrawn Targetman, who drops back and flicks the ball along into the path of the onrushing midfielder, who coolly slots it away. I love these little overlapping runs as they prove difficult to stop for the AI defenders. If they track the run of the Withdrawn Targetman, they leave their defensive collegues exposed, undermining the integrity of the defensive line and opening up space for the CW to run into. If they do not track the player dropping back, they are then faced with a pacey midfielder coming at them full-speed, which often leads to fouls or dangerous situations.
In some games, your midfield is overrun or the opposing penalty area is already packed with players. The surges from midfield are either dangerous to the own team or not necessary in such situations. You can tweak the role to a more conservative one in such cases. I would refrain from using two BBM’s in one midfield pairing, as this makes the team awfully one-dimensional. Instead, I would opt for an Advanced Playmaker or even Roaming Playmaker to add some extra creativity from midfield. In games where the team is outnumbered in midfield, these players will do their defensive duties well enough without straying too far forward. In games where the box is packed, they might just bring that extra spark of creativity required to find openings in the opposing team’s defence. If you are already using a playmaker role in defensive midfield, do not use a second one here in central midfield. You could also remove the individual instructions from the CM(A) and turn him into a more traditional midfielder.
The Withdrawn Targetman
Last year, I attempted to re-invent the whole Withdrawn Targetman role. I require a player who will hold up the ball and bring his team-mates into play, choosing how and when to pass the ball to maximise the potential of the attacking movement. Since this Withdrawn Targetman is also supposed to be my Plan B, he would have to offer some physical brutality as well as footballing skills. I basically want a player who can beat opposing players for headers and contribute with flick ons, and hold up the ball by controlling aerial balls played into his chest. Such a player will play with his back to goal to help relieve opposing team’s pressing and allow our runners to link up. I want this player to play a typical targetman role about 15 metres deeper than where a targetman usually plays. He would pair up with a shadow striker making runs forward to get on the end of a flick-on or get the rebounds from the headers. In a nutshell, I want the role Fellaini plays for Utd at times or how Cahill played for Australia and Everton.
In earlier versions of the game, I used an Enganche in this position to great effect, but the Enganche was a fairly static player, whereas the current engine almost forces me to use more mobile players, hence the choice for the Attacking Midfielder (S), as this role offers more mobile threat, whilst still dropping between the lines and acting as a pivot. The WTM is required to be more direct, roam from his position and take up wide positions if necessary. He is asked to dribble more so he will keep hold of the ball a bit without significantly slowing play down, which adds a bit of static nature to his role. I also want my Withdrawn Targetman to move laterally over the pitch, so he can combine with all the onrushing midfielders in the team, playing the typical one-two’s and flicked-on passes you would expect a targetman to play. The roam from position, move into channels and run wide options are there to ensure that the Withdrawn Targetman stays mobile as opposed to the more static Targetganche. By nature, he’ll be positioned slightly deeper than the two runners besides him, which makes him ideal for the kind of play I want to see.
When he acts as a withdrawn pivot, this is basically how the Withdrawn Targetman plays during the normal stages of play. He often takes a touch before quickly passing the ball along, instead of holding it up to ensure players link up or move into advanced positions. He’s not supposed to delay play, but keep the ball moving, keep the tempo high, contributing to fast and fluid ball retention. In some cases, a more physical approach is required and instead of taking a touch and passing, the WTM is required to go in hard and challenge for the ball either aerially or on the ground, bringing a more direct and physical approach to the fore.
There is ofcourse more to the Withdrawn Targetman’s game than just flicking the ball along, as he also offers a goal-scoring threat. With the two Shadow Strikers acting as diversions, defenders tend to be rather susceptible to a late run into the box to meet a well-placed cross. The Withdrawn Targetman tends to make late runs into the box, darting past the two Shadow Strikers and their markers and appearing unmarked in a position to receive the cross or get on the end of a trough ball to coolly put the ball past the goalkeeper. This is fairly typical for a targetman and our man tends to score a fair few goals like this.
Tweaks upfront are entirely dependant on the level of penetration and timing of the runs you wish to achieve. The heavily tweaked AM(S) role I started with in this version, is a mobile threat, but also one who drops back quite far at times to make space for the overlapping runs. If you want some more penetration, either because you tweaked the CW-role or because you need some more firepower upfront, you can tweak the role to AM(A), with the same instructions. In some cases, you just want to go full throttle and you have no need for a player dropping between the lines. A line-up with three Shadow Strikers can work, especially since the outter two are set to move into the channels, to prevent them all from clustering together.