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.
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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).