For FM14, I went all-out in my magnum opus regarding strikerless football within the match engine of said game. A new year and a new version of the game, which pretty much means a new match engine as well. That means we get to re-evaluate the way we work. The theories and ideas, in fact the premisse behind the entire concept of strikerless football has not changed. What has changed is how to achieve these goals, how to make it all work within the FM15 match engine.
The premisse and foundation of strikerless
As I said before, the actual premisse of a strikerless formation has not changed. Instead of a traditional forward, you play a trequartista or other sort of attacking midfielder as your most attacking man on the pitch, position-wise. These attacking midfielders, be it a trequartista, an enganche or an advanced playmaker, tend to move into the space between defence and midfield to receive the ball, thus overloading the central midfield, establishing domination in terms of possession and creating space for surging runs by wingers or other midfielders.
Now to get this to work in Football Manager, your tactic will rely on four pillars. Four parts of the game that have to work in order for you to be successful with a strikerless formation. I have briefly touched upon some of these concepts in a post explaining why I was struggling to create the style of play I wanted to see within the Beta match engine. These are pillars all interact in some way and they form the foundation of the entire strikerless philosophy.
A brief summary of what I want to see:
I’ll work out each and every part of these pillars more detailed, including match clips and analysis. I also intend to work out the formation, the team instructions, the player roles and I’ll finish the article with a download-link to the actual tactic as well.
Pillar 1; Movement
Good off-the-ball movement is an important element of any good formation. For a strikerless formation, good movement is more than just an important element, it’s an absolutely crucial element. Because you lack an advanced focal point for your passing, as in some sort of forward to hold up the ball, you have to rely on players movement into space to either receive the ball or create space for others. Let’s just look at an example.
That’s smooth, silky passing and movement by my players. Players are constantly moving around, making space for themselves and for others. For instance, you can see the wing-back bombing forward, drawing the opposing defence into a wider shape, which opens up space in the heart of the defence for other midfielders to run into. The man providing the assist with the flicked header draws an opponent with him wide, opening up space behind him for Dembele to run into. The finish is class, but the video highlights the typical movement I want to see and strive for.
The key players in this effect are the attacking midfielders. The movement and positioning of the attacking midfielders opens up space in the heart of the defence. By playing in the gap between midfield and defence, they are either always open to receive a pass, or they drag the defensive line higher up the pitch, thus creating space for movement into the space behind the opposing defensive line. They basically create an overload in the central area of the pitch.
This concept of overloading the central area only really works if there is another player moving to exploit the space, thus once again highlighting the importance of movement, both between the lines and in general. The whole concept of a strikerless formation is that the various lines in the formation are closely packed together. This means that a single run by an attacking midfielder, can open up space for three or more others nearby, waiting to pounce on positional weaknesses by the opposing team. Because of their close proximity to one another, the lines are able to interchange quite fluidly. In normal people talk; because the lines are so closely packed together, players don’t have to cover great distances to benefit from each others movement. Another prime example coming up.
It’s a quick counter-attacking goal, which highlights a whole lot of things related to the movement and the tempo you should maintain. Initially, it showcases why players cannot dally on the ball for too long. With a compact formation, there is bound to be an opponent nearby as well, which means dallying on the ball is generally punished by a ruthless tackle and the loss of possession.
The red arrow shows the path the opposing midfielder has taken with his offensive movement, whereas the dotted line shows the path he should have taken. I won’t go into the defensive positioning of my own team too much, as it covers the concept of Pillar 2; Pressing. What is important is the overloading taking place. As #11 Agudelo loses the ball a mere five seconds before that, our #6 Lampard has linked up with the forward three, allowing them to overload the opposing defence. The wide threat posed by our wingbacks causes the defence to maintain a slightly wider shape, which causes a gaping hole in the heart of the defence. The lack of an actual forward means the defensive line plays fairly far away from its own penalty area, which means there is space to exploit for a runner.
As the blue lines indicates, the defensive heart is still vulnerable, because of a lot of space in the very center. Our #9 Kerlon and our #7 Villa are not facing the goal, so instead of turning and exploiting the space, they decide to draw the opposition away by dropping even deeper, thus creating space for our #8 Holness to run into, after his little one-two pass with #11 Agudelo.
As we can clearly see in this picture, the defensive shape of the opposing team has changed. The defensive line has been thoroughly broken, as the left side of the defence has been drawn out of position, instead allowing our #8 Holness an easy route towards goal to pick up on #11 Agudelo’s pass into space.
This neatly illustrates another benefit of a tight and cohesive formation; the knock-on effect of movements. An attacking midfielder dropping dropping back into midfield creates space for another midfielder to run into, which in turn creates space out wide for an attacking full-back or wing-back to overlap. This just strengthens the idea that movement both on and off the ball is absolutely crucial to the success of the formation and the style of play. This particular formation and style rely on the exploitation of space. When your players remain static, no space can and will open up for others to exploit.
Now the concept sounds quite nifty, but how to translate this concept onto the pitch? How do you create movement? For me, this means I need to assess two things. Who are the hybrid players and where do natural overloads occur? A hybrid player is a player who is in a specific position defensively, but moves into an entirely different position when the team is on the offence. During the transition phase from offence to defence and vice versa, these are the key players who need to position themselves well. I will focus on these hybrid players and their role during the transitioning phases in Pillar 5; Transitions. An overload is where there are more players from one team in one area than another. For example, when the left wing-back steams down the wing to receive a flick-on by the left winger, you are creating an overload in this area. Simply put, any time somebody has more players in one area, it’s an overload.
So how exactly do I plan to achieve these overloads in my strikerless formation? To answer that question, we must look at the formations I have chosen for FM15, which happens to be a narrow 4-3-3-0. I will explain the roles and the various instructions further on, so bear with me.
As you can see, the attacking midfield trio is clustered closely together, which automatically gives them a numerical advantage against most opponents. They then look to overload central areas to facilitate building up from the back and through the thirds. With a lack of forwards, outnumbered in the final third when the opposition is prepared, this then means that the trio looks to play in between the lines in the final third and that the remainder of the team should look to break forward to support. The emphasis is very much placed on positioning, both in an offensive and defensive sense.
The way the team is lined up, allows for the outter attacking midfielders to add depth from central positions, the wing-backs bombing forward provide the necessary width and the central wingers either link up with the attacking midfielders or wing-backs when they go on a run, all the while the middle attacking midfielder pulls all the strings whilst the runners pivot around him and he looks to attract the passes into feet before laying it off to an oncoming player or slip the ball through between defensive channels to play someone in. A prime example.
The image shows my Trequartista, #9 Kerlon, taking up a position with his back to goal. People are able to bounce the ball off this player, who looks take up a position in the space between midfield and defence. You can see that Kerlon plays his role well, as he is relatively unmarked. When he receives the ball, he has plenty of options available to him, which also shows the layers I like to use when going forward.
First of all, there’s the quite obvious central layer. The Shadow Strikers are a quite obvious threat, with their late bursts into the penalty area. In fact, they are so blatantly the main attacking threat, that the opposing team has pushed forward to have the defenders pick up our runners. With the defensive line pushing forwards to prevent us from seizing control in midfield, there is a lot of space behind the defensive line and a flick-on into space for one of the Shadow Strikers to run onto is a very real threat to this defensive setting.
Secondly, there’s the wide layer in the form of the wing-backs marauding down the wings, offering wide passing options as well as stretching the defence, which has to sacrifice players to combat the threat of the wing-backs cutting inside or having a lot of time on the ball to whip a cross into the box.
The third layer consists of our Central Wingers, the runners from deep. The way I see it, the Central Winger can add an extra layer in two ways, basically forming a connection, a link between the other two layers. He can either link up with the wing-back to contribute to the wide play or make a late run into the box, thus adding to the confusion for defenders and increasing our chances of scoring a goal.
When people think of overloading, they generally think of overloading in terms of getting forward and scoring goals. An often overlooked aspect of overloading focusses on overloading the middle third to achieve a better build-up from the back. Usually, these movements are made by wing-backs moving forward to overload the middle third, but such an overload could also be achieved by the defensive midfielders movements. It is generally quite effective to find that long flat ball along the ground into one of the players occupying the middle third. Having the formation set up wide generally creates space somewhere on the pitch. There are several options available in such a scenario.
In this option, the opposing side has dropped deep. To prevent us from overloading the defence, the entire midfield has dropped back to from almost a back 8. Our most defensive midfielder has meanwhile dropped back, into the space created by the rest of the team. Whilst his back is towards the opposition, which makes him prone to pressuring, most opponents are quite far away or facing the wrong way. There are also realistic passing options out wide to continue the build-up with simple wide passes.
The second scenario shows us an opponent with a more ballsy approach. The defence has pushed up to close down the midfield, actively trying to outflank us and pin us in our own half. By default, that means their entire team pushes forward further. With the opposing forward taking up a position higher up the pitch, our deeplying playmaker is no longer an option down the middle. However, where one options disappears, a new one opens up. The wing-backs are wide open and able to pass it to a midfielder before moving further forward to start a new attack.
In both scenarios you are able to build up play from the back due to overloads, you overload the central area of the pitch and force the opposing team into a shape that offers advantages to your own style of play. In the scenario where the build-up starts from a wide area, the ball is quickly transferred to a central player, who was more passing options available to him. With all the movement this tactic facilitates, passing options always openening up and nearby.
Pillar 2; Pressing
The next bit is going to make me sound like an absolute cunt of a football hipster, but I do feel it’s necessary to create a sort of framework and explain some of the definitions I intend to use. What I want to discuss is the concept of “counter-pressing,” because it’s an absolute prerequisite of a properly functioning strikerless style of play.
Counter-pressing basically means that you try to win back the ball as soon as you lose posession, transitioning back and forth between attack and defence quite fast. The pressing is extreme and aggressive and starts deep in the opponents half. The pressing is not random and wild, but well-organised, and the whole team moves as a cohesive unit to squeeze the play and place a strangle-hold on an opponent. One player will press the player on the ball, whilst others look to cut off any available passes, and the defence will move up in unison with the pressers to make the pitch compact. As more players are higher up the pitch as a result of the pressing positions, a quick attack with numerous players can occur, which is always a danger.
The aggressive pressing inside the opponents half has two reasons. For starters, if the ball is won immediately, you catch an opposing team when they are still transitioning from a defensive to a more attacking phase, which means their organisation is often poor and your players can go through on goal with a single pass. Let’s just look at an example from a match.
The opposing team wins the ball and starts to transition from its defensive shape into an attacking shape. At the moment they try to bring the ball into midfield, my players start an intense press and win back the ball. This leaves the opposing team disorganised, as players are not occupying their regular positions due to the transition. A quick pass capitalises on this chaos and helps free up a player on the edge of the box to score a lovely goal.
The second reason why I want my team to pressure deep inside the opposing team’s half, is to cut off the passing options an opposing team has, disrupting their build-up play as early as we possibly can. Ideally, you want to force an opposing team into playing risky back-passes or pointless long balls forward. If you manage to pressure your opponents into giving the ball away recklessly, you can again catch a defence off-guard and benefit from their lack of organisation. Let’s look at more match clips.
In both clips, my opponents are unable to clear the ball effectively, because of the relentless pressing. Their defenders are immediately pressured into clearing the ball without looking for a team-mate, which means our team, moving forward as a cohesive unit, is able to win back possession quite high up the pitch, allowing them to start another attack rapidly.
To summarise, players are pressed when they cross the halfway line and begin to threaten the goal, or during turnovers of possession. This makes sense really, as players who have just taken possession, have usually not had a chance to assess their passing options and are thus unwilling, or unable, to release the ball quickly, especially if they are facing their own goal or the touchline, with limited options available.
In my eyes, extreme pressing is a prerequisite for strikerless success. Because you lack a focal point for your passes upfront, you are heavily reliant on pass and move strategies and desorienting the opposing defence, creating disarray by overloading or pressuring them into making mistakes.
Now imagine what would happen when the midfielders would not actively close down their opponents, instead opting to drop back into midfield, maintaining the defensive shape. The premisse of a strikerless formation is that your side is going to dominate by having more men in midfield, drawing in opponents and then exploiting the space they give away. If an opposing defender can take control of the ball and either pick out a pass unopposed or even worse, dribble into a midfield position, negating the numerical advantage you once had, it pretty much defeats the purpose of not fielding a forward and having a numerical advantage in midfield.
When you’re playing strikerless, you’re almost forced to play all-out pressing, to hamper the oppositions build-up game. Allowing them a proper build-up is potentially opening up your midfield to a penetrating run or pass by a defender, negating the numerical advantage you once had and indeed require to successfully play your own game.
Now for the actual explanation of what I do and why. First of all, let me start by reminding you that this aggressive pressing is not achieved by simply ticking or unticking a few boxes. It’s a combination of various team settings and instructions inter-acting, locking into each other and complementing each other. Merely ticking every box under team instructions in regards to pressing does nothing to actually achieve this form of pressing.
I will continue by simply showing you the instructions and settings I use for my strikerless style, before explaining each choice I have made.
For starters, I opted for the Very Fluid approach because I want the team to act as a cohesive unit. I am going to sound like a proper hipster prick for referencing famous real life managers, but bear with me on this one. People like Michels, Cruyff, Lobanovskiy and Sacchi strived for universality, where every player on the pitch takes a collective responsebility for each aspect of the game. Not in the sense that the forward is now tracking back to help with the off-side trap, but more in the sense of for example a forward pressing an opposing defender on the ball, allowing his team-mates either time to link up and help or fall back to take up a more reliable defensive stance.
Anyway, since universality is closely associated with Total Football, it’s becoming a sort of buzz-word. In a way, universality is part of some mythical style of play, which combines the aesthetics of short and intricate passing, aggressive pressing, fluid movement on and off the ball and positional interchangeability with the results that deliver trophies.
That really isn’t what I’m after. I want all players to take equal creative and defensive responsebility during all stages and phases of the game, resulting in a very fluid style of play. Because of this style of play and by pushing up the defensive line, I try to keep the lines compact. This means the players can press without being too concerned about leaving huge gaps behind them. So in my eyes, a Very Fluid setting is a necessity if I want to keep a tight and cohesive formation through-out the match, because the defenders have to think of their positioning when attacking and the forwards have to contribute defensively by pressing.
If you want to press aggressively, you have to have players high up the pitch to actually achieve this. Look at the description. Look at what it says on the tin (read: the description in-game). “Win and … dominate possession in your opponents half.” It would make no sense what-so-ever to maintain a more cautious approach, when this is the kind of pressing you hope to achieve. If you want to counter-press, you need to get men high up the pitch and I do believe Attacking is the best Mentality setting to do so without compromising defensive stability.
I suppose a Control setting could work as well, but the pressing will start slightly deeper and it does allow an opposing team slightly more time on the ball to build their attacks. This could be useful when you are playing a superior opponent, because all-out pressing gone wrong could end in disaster, in which case it might be smart to start the pressing slightly deeper, more in the proximity of the half-way line.
The Overload setting generates an even more aggressive form of pressing, but with most players flooding forward to join in, you become very vulnerable to opponents who employ a more direct style of play. If you play the Tony Pulis-style AI managers, this kind of pressing becomes useless. Why bother pressing the defenders into giving a long ball, when it’s their intention to do so anyway? Sending too many men forward will leave you exposed at the back against opponents who are not only able but very willing to go head-to-head (pardon the poor pun) with your defenders in aerial duels for the ball.
Not all of the above instructions are linked with the pressing. Obviously, the Close Down More one does. I do want my players to harass the opposition where-ever possible and in terms of sliders (I am old skool like that), this instruction would increase the amount of closing down my players do. I want them to seek out opposing players to win back the ball, cut off passing options or simply allow others time to re-group. I tried the highest setting, but this seemed to draw my defenders out of position far too often.
Tied in with the whole concept of disrupting the build-up is the instruction to Prevent Short GK Distribution. I’ll be brutally honest and say I haven’t really seen much difference with this box ticked and without this box ticked, but I’m just going to leave it in there, just in case. Philosophy-wise, it should be ticked anyway.
To further enhance the aforementioned Very Fluid settings, I have also opted to tick the Roam From Positions box, which allows players the freedom to move beyond the boundaries the formation usually sets for them and allows them to seek out players that would otherwise have been allowed time on the ball to start an attack. We don’t want that, so some freedom has to be given to players to take their own responsebility in preventing an opponent from having time on the ball. I am aware that you need quite talented players to pull this off, so when looking to replicate this style with a smaller side, you may have to consider not using this instruction, because less talented players tend to make the wrong choices from time to time.
The Push Higher Up shout makes sense in backing up the Attacking mentality and Very Fluid settings. Players can close down and press more effectively when there aren’t huge gaps behind them, so the team has to be packed closely together. Pushing the defenders forward to around 10 metres behind the halfway line makes for a fairly compact squad and allows my team enough confidence to aggressively counter-press whenever possession is lost.
Finally, we look at the Stay On Feet and Get Stuck In instructions. I must admit that I have changed my tune from last year, where I argued that I didn’t want my players to slide in because it left them vulnerable if they mis-timed their challenge and it could lead to more suspensions. For this version, I have changed that. I noticed that not having them slide in meant they often stood by idly, not actually attacking their markers, which lead to a cross and a goal. Having them slide in hasn’t exponentially increased the amount of goals or cards conceded, so yeah, I’m sticking with this gut-feeling, because fuck you logic.
Pillar 3; Cohesion
I have dubbed this pillar “cohesion”, but it really boils down to the concept of universality, combined with keeping the formation compact. I briefly touched upon the Universality concept when I described what made the whole concept of counter-pressing work in FM in the previous pillar. In layman’s terms, the Very Fluid setting makes the team band together to collectively try and execute a specific target set by the manager, in this case keeping a tight and cohesive team, which presses forward as a unit.
Basically, my style of play requires a combination of positional freedom and variability, with interchangeable footballers capable of operating wherever required, every player on the pitch should possess the key attributes of a footballer and be capable of filling in to different positions when and if required. This makes for a hard-to-break-down team, that fights as a unit. Just look at this match clip.
It’s not particularly fancy or spectacular, but notice how compact the team remains throughout all phases of play; attack, defence and transitioning back and forth between phases. The defenders keep the shape of the team compact and tight by moving forward on offence, whilst the offensive players track back to keep the shape intact when the team is on the back foot.
Pillar 4; Possession
What I love to see in my teams is either a rapid counter-attacking style, exploiting the space opponents leave. When that is not possible, you have to have a Plan B. In my case, that’s a calculated and meticulous build-up from the back. Blindly hoofing the ball forward á la Stoke City under Pulis is not going to work, mostly because we have no focal point upfront to hold up the ball and win headers. Trequartista’s are generally not renowned for their aerial prowess.
No, what I want to see can be explained best by a movie reference (pop culture ahoy!). Have you ever seen the Mighty Ducks movies? Once every movie, they performed a move called the Flying V, it’s possession play in its purest form, moving the puck between their various players in a murderously high tempo, until the space opens up for a shot.
That’s posessional build up play in the same way teams as Barça, Dortmund and Ajax use. It’s moving your players forward piece by piece and passing throughout the lines to control possession as you created overloads by possession rather than athleticism. It’s a style of attacking that to negate risk at every possible section and with every possible pass, which is a sensible strategy when you’re throwing 5 to 7 players forward most of the time and every misplaced pass can lead to a lethal counter-attack.
What you see there is the FM equivalent of the Flying V. Rapidly moving players, intricate passing, possession play and lethal efficiency going forward. Keeping possession is possible because the players are taking their offensive responsebility to open up space for others. The wing-backs and midfielders are all moving along with the attack and are keeping the pitch wide. Defenders absolutely hate balls that move from one wing to another quickly as they can’t organise quickly. By maintaing a fair few wide passing options, you are forcing the opposition to maintain a wider defence, instead of just huddling together for a compact defence.
A single picture is worth a thousand words, these are the player roles I utilise for my strikerless formation.