The legendary Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera once stated that the perfect game of football would end 0-0. That is perhaps a strange thing to say, but if you look at it from a certain (defensivist) point of view, then you can begin to understand it. In theory, both teams have attacked very well, but both teams have also defended perfectly, denying the opposition chances to score. It is perhaps a more ‘perfect’ game than a 5-5, which would suggest both teams have defended poorly throughout the match. A more entertaining game perhaps, but not a ‘better’ game in Brera’s eyes. This is also a key insight into the mindset that has long existed in Italian football, a mindset that has become increasingly stereotyped over the past 20 years or so. In John Foot’s Calcio: a history of italian football, Foot claims that Italian teams have not always been defensive, but they are ‘simply much better at defending than other European teams’. Italians highly value a good defensive performance. Compare this to England, where this season Sam Allardyce was once again branded as ‘old-fashioned’ when his team sat back and defended to gain a draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and you can see the cultural differences.

However, this season many have grown to admire the Atletico Madrid side of Diego Simeone, who has put together a fantastic hard working, counter attacking, defensive minded side. I’ve said on many occasions that I love watching Atletico defend, the way they press the ball, but retain their classic 4-4-2 shape that Europe’s top teams found so hard to break through. Contrast this to Football Manager, where I can’t bear to watch my teams defend. This is likely a by product of the fact that my teams are usually quite attacking, and therefore defensively suspect, but whenever the opposition have the ball, I’m always waiting for us to concede.

Recently though, I’ve been reading several articles on defensive football, particularly Cleon’s fantastic thread focusing on his efforts to create a defensively strong side, and I’ve been inspired to create a tactic that is designed to be defensive, to not concede goals, be incredibly tough to break through, and win games 1-0 or 2-0. It also includes one or two catenaccio features. I’ve also been wanting to do an international save recently with the World Cup coming up. The perfect team? Italy.

Here’s the defensive monstrosity to the right.

The main element of our defensive strength comes from our central defensive diamond (I’ve expanded on this as I’ll show later). The diamond is so strong, that it forces the AI out wide, limiting them to crosses. The sweeper is a basic sweeper from the catenaccio mold rather than a more modern Libero. He’s there to be the last man, to cover behind the defence, and to pick up the pieces when he needs to. He’s allowed more freedom in his passing range, but that’s mainly to ensure that the ball is moved into the midfield.

There’s also a Fachetti style wing back on the right wing, set as a CWB, who is responsible for the attacking width down our right flank, preventing us from become predictable down our left side. He’s not quite a goal scoring wing back like Fachetti was (not yet at least), but he provides us with a lot of support going forward, and has been one of our most important players so far.

I’ve also got a Central Winger in there to provide further attacking intent down our right side. Considering we’re defending with 6 men at times, there has to be enough movement from the 4 men going forward (sometimes 5 with the CWB) to get the one or two goals we need to win games. I don’t have the ideal player to use as the CW right now, but when I can fit a player into the role, the attacking potency of the side will dramatically improve.

There’s also an Inside Forward on the left wing, who acts almost as an abstract strike partner for the False 9 upfront. These are our two most important attacking players, and one of the usual attacking movements is to see the ball played into the F9 by one of our midfielders. He’ll then turn and play the ball in behind the defence for the inside forward cutting in from the left wing. Candreva has performed brilliantly so far from the left wing role, and scored both of our goals in a 2-0 win against the Czech Republic.

Here’s an example of our defensive shape when the opposition has the ball. You can see the strength of our defensive diamond and our back 6. Not only that, but we’ve pushed Slovakia’s midfield so far back, so that their midfield trio is almost on top of their defence. As a result of this, Slovakia don’t have a central player within our third of the pitch, except for their increasingly isolated striker, who is covered by a triangle of the DLP, CD and Sweeper. As you can see, the gap between their midfield and their attackers is huge, making it very difficult for them to build up play towards their forwards. We may not be controlling the ball, but we’re certainly controlling the space. I’m more than happy for the opposition to have the ball in these areas, where they’re no threat to us.

Here’s another example of our fantastic shape whilst defending. The opposition is more advanced this time, and is threatening our final third. What’s worth pointing out though, is our midfield trio of the DLP, the CW and the B2B have already forced the AI to go wide, and they’ve retained their shape centrally. All of the Slovakia players are easily covered by at least one of our markers, and the only player that is unmarked in the picture is a backwards pass (in yellow), something I’m happy to encourage as I can force the AI to go central, where we (often) make tackles or key interceptions to launch attacks.

‘The Defensive P’

I said previously that one of the key elements of the tactic is the defensive diamond. That is absolutely true, but it’s been expanded into what I’ve called the ‘Defensive P’, that incorporates the defensive left back. Set on a defend duty, the left back almost becomes another centre back. In fact, I’ve been using mobile centre backs in this position, and I’m looking for Ogbonna to make this position his own, and complete the all Juventus back line. With all of these players on a defend duty, they hold position whilst the rest of the team attacks, retaining a strong shape and preventing us being countered. The right sided centre back is set as a stopper, to increase his closing down should anyone break down the left wing before the CWB can track back. All together, it forms an abstract Back 4 when we have possession. Here’s another example of the Defensive P forming when we’ve got possession. With this in place, we become even more difficult to score against.

To give you an idea of how well the tactic works defensively, here’s a screenshot of Armenia’s passes against us in a recent qualifier. You can see they’ve got plenty of passes around the halfway line (however, there’s also a lot of incompleted ones), but in the central areas of our final 3rd, there’s very few passes at all, showing how much we force the AI to go down the wings with our central defensive strength. You can also see how few passes we allow into our box, with the Defensive P shielding it.

These tactics have helped us qualify for the World Cup, and in the games I’ve used this setup, we’ve only conceded one goal, a 92nd minute free kick in the friendly against Slovakia. Apart from that we’ve won the other two qualifiers 2-0 against Armenia and the Czech Republic. The Czechs tried to out defend us, leading to us dominating possession and all of the stats. It’s a positive side effect of the defensive mentality I utilise, that if teams try to out defend you, you will dominate possession and create chances.

95% of the tactics I see around the FM scene are control/attacking tactics, so I thought it would be interesting to try this, and explore different ways of playing the game tactically. If anyone else has experimented with playing defensive football, I’d be interested to hear what your results were.

One thing that has happened as a result of this tactic is that I no longer dislike watching my team defend. Watching teams struggle to break us down, and watching my defenders and midfielders make tackles and interceptions all over the place is actually fun to watch in game.

Parking the Bus isn’t as boring as you’d think.

Table of Contents

Jonathon Aspey

A 24 year old aspiring football writer with a keen passion for football in Eastern Europe, and its relationship with politics. Particularly interested in the effect of Communism on football in the region, and the results of its collapse. Lover of Back 3's, Italian football and classic Number 10's. I also write about the Football Manager series of PC games on my own blog, The Tactical Annals. I am available on Twitter (@JLAspey).

Jonathon Aspey

A 24 year old aspiring football writer with a keen passion for football in Eastern Europe, and its relationship with politics. Particularly interested in the effect of Communism on football in the region, and the results of its collapse. Lover of Back 3's, Italian football and classic Number 10's. I also write about the Football Manager series of PC games on my own blog, The Tactical Annals. I am available on Twitter (@JLAspey).


Analog FM · June 9, 2014 at 7:16 am

Had the itch to try a Catenaccio-style tactic for awhile now, and so really enjoyed the article. Curious if you’re finding any defensive gaps down the right flank with that ‘trio’ of CM(A), CWB(A), and CD(X)? I guess the DLP(D) is covering well for you?

cdeekyfm · June 9, 2014 at 8:39 am

Thanks for the positive comments, I appreciate that. I haven’t found any problems yet, as the CD(X) is there to step across should such an incident happen. With the Defensive P sitting back, even if there is a gap there, we can only force them wide, as if he cuts in, he’s moving towards a wall of blue.

Fabian Jonsson (@LFabianJonsson) · June 9, 2014 at 10:41 am

Great article. Just out of curiosity, what philosophy do you use?

As to the comments in the introduction regarding how common aggressive closing down is in FM14, I think it, to a large extent comes down to how extremely poor the defenders are at playing their way out of the pressure. Is that something you’ve had problems with using a defensive approach, because I know I have!

cdeekyfm · June 9, 2014 at 11:13 am

It’s the defensive philosophy. I’d use contain but I think that’s going too far with the negativity!

So far it’s not something I’ve had problems with. The sweeper is set to make more direct passes, and the centre backs are set to make shorter passes. This is largely to make sure that they move the ball, and play it into either the DLP, or the central midfielders. I’ve not noticed any issues so far.

I did encounter such an issue when trying to replicate Barcelona’s style a month or so ago, in that aggressive pressing led to some shocking passing out from the back. I think that was largely due to other instructions though.

Fabian Jonsson (@LFabianJonsson) · June 10, 2014 at 10:54 am

Cool, although I did ask about philosophy – not strategy 😛

Do you use Balanced or a more rigid approach?

    cdeekyfm · June 10, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Ah, my mistake.

    I went for the rigid approach, mainly to focus the team on certain tasks. I don’t want the whole team defending, I need to have the IF and the F9 solely focusing on attacking.

orecagigiovanni · June 19, 2014 at 4:49 pm

Hi! I ‘ve just discovered this blog and I ve got to say that I love the ideas that you bring up and also the way that you ‘re presenting them! Well done!

Now in regards with this topic, defensive solidity has been a huge struggle for me in the 2014 version of FM. I ‘ve deployed several different tactics to restrict the number of chances created by the AI, with the most successful of them having negative effects in transitions and attacking variety.

Being a huge fan of counter-attacking transition football and quick exploitation of space after winning back possession of the ball, I usually try to set up a medium block against opposition by inviting them in the middle of the pitch, where I try to win back possession through a hard-working tight midfield and then quickly attack with a few skillful and pacey wide or central attacking players, within a rigid formation.

My most successful approach was the following: A standard or control mentality, with my d-line on default, the “hassle opponents” instruction on and a series of specific opposition instructions and single or double man-markings. I would set the closing down to never for the AI’s central defenders and other players that I was keen to let keep the ball as much as they wanted and I ‘d also instruct my striker to man-mark the opposition’s DM or another holding player. Furthermore, I double man-marked any skillful wingers with both my full-back and wide midfielder (winger, inside forward etc.) and also any highly dangerous AMCs with a pair of my central midfielders.

I ‘ve had some great results against top-tier teams (I m usually managing mid-table or low-table teams in Premiership,Championship, Bundesliga and Serie A) by keeping the scorelines low, but even if it was extremely satisfying to nullify the influence of some world class attacking players, i was relying solely on half chances, scrap-outs and set pieces to get goals. My attacks were totally stuctureless with my players being disconnected. Hence, I ‘ve abandoned this approach and tried different ones but without any impressive results, experiencing also a relegation in my worst save ever in FM, watching my Millwall side going down after a season of experimenting with a ridiculous number of different tactics.

Your idea about controlling the space through an unusual formation like this, is really interesting and has definitely made me rethink the whole subject. Anyway, forgive me for expatiating on my obsessions with defence, but I just find it extremely intriguing! Keep on bringing up cool innovative tactical ideas, I ‘m looking forward to your next posts!

    cdeekyfm · June 20, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Thanks for the kind comments, but I certainly can’t claim all of the credit. @MerryGuido is the main writer on this blog, and he allows me to post my articles here.

    Defensive stability has also been an issue for me (I hate watching my teams defend), but largely because my tactics are always very attacking, or throw plenty forward on the counter attack at least. This formation doesn’t have a lot of attacking variety, and by design it’s very negative. It’s more versatile than you’d think though, as if the AI tries to out defend you, you will dominate possession due to the ‘defend’ strategy, which has always led to greater possession levels.

    I’m very interested in your use of marking, and double man marking. If you’ve seen any of my other pieces around the FM scene, then you’ll see I’m a regular user of man marking in order to create certain defensive shapes and player roles. I wouldn’t abandon this idea, although it is a very reactive idea (nothing wrong with that). The only issuer may be that because so many men are marking, they’re not available for the counter attack. There should always be at least a couple high up the pitch. For example in this setup, the False 9 and Inside Forward always stay high up, and are our main scoring outlets.

    Controlling the game via controlling the space is really something that’s become relevant as a result of teams trying to break the dominance of possession focused teams, and it’s a more than viable way to play the game. The team with the ball isn’t always the one controlling the game.

    Once again, thanks for your comments, and contact me on @JLAspey if you have any questions!

      Ore CagiGiovanni · June 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm

      First of all my apologies to @MerryGuido for taking away the credit from him! Second thanks a lot for your answer and I ‘d be glad to exchange more views about fm tactics in the future!

Ghents · June 24, 2014 at 1:02 am

This is a really interesting tactic/idea. Do you mind listing what team/player instructions you have? I’m curious in trying this out for a spin.

vaggelis · June 28, 2014 at 6:08 am

how can i download this tactic?

    strikerlessguido · June 28, 2014 at 6:52 am

    As Jonathon explained earlier, it’s a concept, not a downloadable tactic.

za8legend · April 4, 2016 at 8:37 pm

Would you mind posting a download link for this tactic? I love this tactic but I think my PI is not suitable so m team still conceded some easy goals and my attacking players didn’t offer any threat enough to the opposition’s defence.

    StrikerlessGuido · April 4, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    I’ll ask Jonathon, but I don’t think he offers downloads.

      za8legend · May 13, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      I tried to copy or made this tactic as inpiration/base for my defensive tactic but I hardly found the suitable PI for each players lead to miss pass to opponent’s strikers and my strikers only know to shoo tfrom distance eventhough I set the PI to shoot less often. For your information, I try this on FM 15 as I don’t buy the 2016 version yet.

Joey Numbaz · August 20, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Are those images of the tactic lost forever? Any chance of getting them back?

Joey Numbaz · August 21, 2017 at 9:14 pm

I just tried to post and it said my browser appears to be a spam bot? Weird. Anyway, I found a link that has the images.

FM14: Re-creating the Mighty Magyars | The Coffeehouse: FM Discussion · June 11, 2014 at 4:19 pm

[…] from a different writer, @JLAspey. Jonathan made a wonderful post on defensive football (read here:😉 which further convinced me to take such an approach on this save. But one point he made that I […]

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