The Narrow 4-1-2-2-1 – Expanding Upon Defensive Football in FM14

Those of you that follow me on Twitter (@JLAspey) or have read any of my recent articles will know that I’ve started to become very interested in defensive football in Football Manager. I wrote an article a few months back, trying to create a side that was uber defensive, and designed to be impossible to break down, and steal 1-0 wins. Since then, I’ve wanted to expand on that idea, but take away the negative aspects of it, whilst still retaining the defensive stability. The original article was inspired by a fantastic thread by @Cleon81, where he achieved a fantastic season with his Sheffield United side, utilising a defensive 4-4-2 diamond formation. Another inspiration for my tactic came from @MrEds, who combined aspects of Cleon’s ideas and tweaked my ‘defensive diamond’ in his save with Ujpest in Hungary. Like MrEds, I’ve recently been drawn to Hungarian football, but with Kecskemet (or KTE), a team predicted to finish 13th, and tipped for relegation by many. This seemed like a perfect situation to develop some defensive football, with a team that will need to be defensively solid in order to avoid relegation.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title, the formation I chose was a narrow 4-1-2-2-1. The first reason for this is that I want to flood the centre of the pitch, to restrict any passes that the opposition can make through here. Having five men in the centre of our midfield severely restricts any options the AI has, and effectively forces them down the wings, whether they like it or not. As you will have seen on ‘Strikerless’ before with Guido, not only can you achieve fantastic passing in the offensive phase, but you immediately limit their passing options out of defence, and the AI is forced to play the ball to the full back, something that Guido has shown to be effective.


The 4-1-2-2-1 is also extremely similar to the 4-1-2-3-0 strikerless formation I used with such success at Mjallby (for those of you who haven’t seen my tweets on that, I took a team predicted 12th to the Swedish League title). Even certain roles within my 4-1-2-2-1 perform a similar role to ones in the 4-1-2-3-0. However, I’ve been far more adventurous with some player roles in the 4-1-2-2-1, with the ‘defensive’ strategy allowing me to do that.

As you can see above, the defence is pretty standard. One defender on a cover duty to sweep up behind the defence, just to give us extra security when the opposition is coming at us. I’ve also used two CWB’s, as we need them to provide the vital width going forward that we won’t get from the AM’s. When we face the top sides in the league, I’ll probably change these roles to something more cautious like WB-A or WB-S.

Ahead of that I’ve utilised a Regista where usually I would use a Half Back. The defensive strategy positions the team deeper on the pitch, allowing me to use the more aggressive regista to control the midfield, using him as our deep creative outlet. Ahead of that, I’ve gone for a BWM on support duty, to give us a little bit of a physical presence in midfield, whilst also allowing him to go forward a bit. Beside him is a B2B midfielder, providing us a central midfield of runners and tacklers.

The key to the side is the front 3. In the AM strata, I’ve gone for an AP-A to act as the creative playmaker, whilst still allowing him to make runs forward. Beside him is a Second Striker, a role I’ve used with considerable success at Mjallby. He’s there to burst past the striker, give us vertical movement, and receive passes from either the AP-A or TM-S. Both the the AM’s are also asked to ‘move into channels’ to give us a little bit more width when attacking and move into those ‘half-spaces’ that are so threatening for opposition defences. The Target Man is basically there to receive passes into him, be the focal point of our attacks, and finish the chances that come to him. Ideally I’d play a DLF or a F9 here, but financially I can’t afford that kind of player at KTE.

Now lets look at how the team performs defensively, as that is the key aspect of this tactic.


Here you can see our basic defensive shape when we don’t have the ball. The ball is being held by their left back, and the opposition has been forced into a very deep 4-4-2, with a lot of space between their central midfielders and their forwards. This is caused by the sheer amount of numbers we have (5) in the centre of midfield. The AI can’t manage to pass through the centre, so it is constantly forced to go down the wings.

You could argue that we’re exposed down the wings, but I’m more than happy to allow the AI to build up the play here, and we’re not as exposed as it would appear (as I’ll show later). Let’s face it, unless the wingers make some ridiculous run through my defence, the best that they’re going to get is a cross into the box. A lot of the time however, they’re forced to recycle possession, and the same thing happens down the opposite flank. It’s very basic, but by controlling the centre of the pitch, we’ve controlled the game.

You can also see that despite my use of aggressive player roles such as the regista and CWB’s, we’ve got a very solid defensive shape, and everyone is in the position that they should be.


Here’s a perfect example of what happens when the opposition moves the ball to the flanks, naturally trying to exploit our weakness. Unlike Cleon, who doesn’t allow his players to press the ball in order to retain shape, I’ve combatted this threat by asking my players to ‘hassle opponents’ and press the ball. It’s a different way of going about defending, but I’m naturally proactive in terms of defending.

As you can see, the AI has moved the ball to the flank. Crucially, the CWB has immediately left his position and stepped up to pressure the ball. Not only that, but the BWM has also stepped across, stopping the opposition player from stepping inside. Our AP has even moved across from his position, and is now supporting the BBM in central midfield.

This leaves the opposition winger with few options. The passes in blue are either worthless backwards passes (which I’m happy to allow) or dangerous passes that the midfield will cut out. The potentially threatening pass is the pass in red to the striker, who is making a run behind our central defender. This turns out to be the pass that he goes for, and it is easily dealt with by the right sided central defender stepping in front of the pass and knocking it down to our Regista. What is also of note it that the covering central defender has already moved back as the ball is played and is in position to help out should the pass sneak through. With our left back, we still have 3 left in a solid defence. This is a more proactive way of defending, but it is still strong. We have one weakness looking at our formation, but by asking the team to press, we can easily turn it into a strength, trapping the AI down the wings.

The second aim of the project was to create a side that was potent in the attacking phase. The Italian Wall tactic was unbelievable defensively, but was average at best going forward. This time, I’d like to win matches a little more comfortably than 1-0, and therefore I need to have more bodies in attacking areas, and create more passing angles and overloads in key areas. That is also another reason for why I’ve packed the midfield with 5 men, in order to overload the AI centrally (making 6 with the Target Man). Along with the CWB’s providing width and stretching out the defence, it should be almost impossible for the AI to cope with (in theory). So, how does our attacking shape work?


Well, pretty well.

In this 2D screenshot you can see the 2-1-2-4-1 shape that we transfer into when attacking. The CWB’s are high up, stretching the defence and pinning their wingers back, nullifying their threat. We’ve also forced the AI to change its 4-4-2 into 4-4-1-1 in order to gain more numbers in midfield, and they still can’t cope. In this screenshot we’ve worked the ball up to Eliomar, our best player and AP-A, who has a simple ball to the TM on, or a slightly more difficult through ball to Pekar (our SS) behind their left back. The fluidity of our AP/SS combo in the AM strata allows this, as when one comes inside, the other will move wider and make forward runs (usually the SS). You can also see the TM occupying both of their centre backs. There’s also very little threat of being countered as well, as they have only left one striker up, and he would have to beat the Regista, and both central defenders in order to have an attempt on goal.

The only weakness here is that the BBM could actually be positioned further up (something that @FMAnalysis pointed out to me on Twitter) and that’s something I’m looking to improve on, as with one more runner higher up, the opposition would have no chance of avoiding a CCC.


Another rather pleasant effect of the defensive strategy is that the team keeps the ball extremely well. Those wanting to create uber possession sides in past FM’s have always had the players with lower mentalities, to force them to pass it back or square, and in FM14 the defensive mentality still yields the same result.

Above is our passing map from a 2-0 home win in the league. You can see the sheer amount of passes we’ve made centrally. Now by itself that’s useless, but you can see a large amount of them going into the box, and also a decent amount of red passes, showing that we’re actively trying to get the ball into the box, and not just passing it around, aimlessly keeping possession.

For such a narrow formation, we’ve also got a good amount of passes out wide as well, showing that we’re getting the CWB’s involved, and also that the AM’s are spreading wide and collecting the ball in dangerous ‘half-spaces’. Our passing certainly isn’t one dimensional.

In this match, our BWM made over 100 passes, with our Regista and AP making over 90 as well. It’s particularly pleasing that the AP is making so many passes, as he is the key creative hub of the team in the final third, and I need the ball to go into him as much as possible.

We’re not talking 70% of the ball here, but 60% against good sides is still possible. When you combine our strong defence with an ability to keep the ball for long periods yet still achieve vertical movement and penetration, we’ve got a winning combination.


In the above screenshot, we can also see an opposition pass map, which shows our absolute dominance of the centre of the pitch. The AI has barely made any passes in the centre of the pitch, and we’ve constantly forced them down the flanks, where I know we can trap them as in the above screenshot.

What can also be seen from the pass map is the passes into our box are mostly long balls from the flanks, which are easily dealt with by our defence. There are very few successful ones.

Here is also a screenshot of our average positions map. You can see from the average positions, that despite having extremely aggressive roles such as CWB’s and a Regista, the team itself actually sits quite deep. In fact, we’ve only got 3 players whose average positions are past the halfway line. Quite surprising really, in a very comfortable 2-0 win where we dominated the entire game. It just goes to show how much we control the space, and how well we utilise the football.

I plan to continue using this tactic in this save, and I’ll update on how it’s working, but I wanted to show again that there are different ways of playing the game. You don’t simply have to resort to the ‘attacking/control’ tactics that have almost dominated the FM scene since the beginning of FM14. You can play counter attack, and you certainly can play strong defensive football, both ultra negative and proactive, as I’ve shown.

Over the last few months I’ve become extremely irritated at people suggesting there is a ‘best tactic for FM14’, or that there are certain ways to play the game that yield the best results. That is utter nonsense, and the key is to find the best tactic for your team, and exploiting the strengths of your players. I hope I’ve shown here that using a defensive tactic is a perfectly viable way of playing FM14.

As always, if you have any questions/queries, feel free to contact me through this thread/PM/Twitter.

6 thoughts on “The Narrow 4-1-2-2-1 – Expanding Upon Defensive Football in FM14

  1. Awesome write-up. Yours, Cleon’s, and MrEd’s threads have all been wonderfully insightful. But whenever I see one of these, I have the same reaction: “what fluidity/team instructions are they running?”

    I see you’re pressing. Are you bothering to move the defensive line? Do you have overlap checked, or is that wide play simply organic? How are your passing instructions set up? Tempo? The formation itself sits so narrow, do you bother with a narrow instruction, or do you set play wider? So many questions!

    Like

    • Thanks for the comments, I appreciate that.

      As for your questions:
      1. The defensive line is left as standard. I know Cleon lowered the defensive line during his project, but I decided to leave it as standard.
      2. Overlap isn’t selected either. I’m happy with the CWB’s attacking nature, and I certainly don’t want them to be overly attacking.
      3. Passing is set to short, and tempo is left at standard. I also haven’t selected ‘retain possession’
      4. I don’t use any width instructions, but I do ask the team to stick to positions, in order to retain shape.

      If you have any more questions, feel free to ask 🙂

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      • that’s a pretty short list of TIs. I’m starting to get the impression that unless you really nail your system, one is probably better off with fewer TIs. Certainly, Guido’s 41230 with like 14 works wonderfully, but I suspect it’s the case that more TIs=more pieces to not quite fit properly. It’s a bit like flat-pack furniture, I suppose. Or I’m a crap manager with crap analogies. Either/or.

        One other question about your tactic: (because it’s the hardest thing to get my head around) What fluidity setting are you using, and why? I think I have a pretty good sense of the conceptual differences, but I struggle to see when one is preferrable over another, outside of “very fluid is sort of total football-ish”

        Like

      • Well, I kept a short amount of instructions with this one, mainly because I didn’t feel there were any more I wanted to use, and I didn’t want to risk ruining the effect of the tactic. I’ve got a 4-1-2-3-0 like Guido with a whole bunch of instructions and player instructions, but that’s because I understand that system inside out, and know how to make it work best.

        I do completely agree though, unless you have developed a deep understanding of your system, it’s best to keep things simple. There are also cases where you may want to alter things via player instructions rather than team instructions.

        I’m using ‘fluid’, mainly because I’m asking them to press, and I want them to do it as a team.I’m also not using a whole load of specialised player roles, meaning I can afford to keep the mentalities similar. There used to be a guide over on the SI forums saying when to use rigid/fluid etc.

        Again, thanks for your good questions.

        Like

      • So what TI’s and PI’s do you have?
        Also, does the shout hassle opponents contradict the stick to positions shout?

        Like

  2. i had a great time reading this article, clear, concise and clarifying. definitively, i also do not agree there’s one “best tactic”. this is one prove. people who state that simply do not reallize some of us are so specialized in a certain way of playing that we are not capable of designing different tactics (and i include myself because even though i’ve had some success with all kind of tactics, i still excel only in possession ones. i tend to design my squads in the long term to adapt to that stye, although i usually adapt my tactics to what i have when starting a new save, specially with lower teams).

    Like

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