As I have argued zealously in the past, the entire strikerless concept not only requires movement but actually thrives upon it, either to exploit the space or to create the space by dragging defenders out of position. The premise of strikerless football calls for the various lines in the formation to be packed in close proximity of one another.
This suggests that a single run by an attacking midfielder can open up space for three or more others nearby, waiting to pounce on positional instabilities in the opposing teams line-up. 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 close together, players don’t have to cover great distances to benefit from each others movement.
The second reason why the formation should be as tight and cohesive as mentioned in the previous paragraph is the knock-on effect of movements. An attacking midfielder dropping dropping back into midfield creates space for a winger to run into, which in turn creates space out wide for an attacking full-back or wing-back to overlap. In short, you can’t have runners exploiting space if there is no space. You need shadow runners as well, people moving around with the sole aim of creating space for others. When your players remain static, no space can and will open up for others to exploit.
It sounds great when you read it like that, it even makes complete sense, but how do you translate a concept into a working tactic in-game? How do you create movement? How do you generate the kind of movement that drives an opposing defence to madness? That’s exactly what this blog post will focus on.
For me personally, trying to generate movement of individual players and between the various lines of the formation 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. 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. Any time somebody has more players in one area, it’s an overload.
So which formation is supposed to generate all this movement? What does it look like or rather, what is it supposed to look like?
It’s a surprisingly asymmetric formation, with a kind of staggered distribution of players in the central areas, meaning players can always benefit of the movement of the players ahead of them.
What all these movements are intended to generate is chaos and confusion in the opposing defence by stretching the defensive line, causing the organisation of the defence to deteriorate, making it easier for my players to overload a certain area and benefit from the space generated by a team-mates movement. In terms of stretching a defence, the hybrid players are key players and are the ones constantly creating the overloads. Now there are two different types of stretching I want to differentiate between, those being horizontal and vertical stretching.
The premisse of stretching a defence is as easy as it is effective. By stretching the defensive line, by drawing defenders out wide or keeping them central whilst another player overlaps, you are creating gaps between the lines, causing unrest and undermining the cohesion and organisation of the defenders. Personally, I’m a rather visual person, so instead of just elaborating with endless paragraphs of text, let me show you what I mean with a video-clip.
The presence and positioning of the winger, Townsend, keeps the wing-back in a more compact position than he might like, effectively ceding the flank to our marauding wing-back. The hybrid player here is the wing-back, who is one of the key players during the transition from defence to attack (and vice versa, naturally). The wing-back, Naughton, charges forward and is released into space due to a sort passing triangle which started with Kabouls forward pass. Noticing the wide threat, the opposing defender is drawn wide to counter the immediate threat. Naughton has time on the ball and can pick his pass, ultimately culminating in a lovely team goal. If the match clip was a bit too fast for you, let’s slow it all down. Let’s look at the initial setup of the attack.
You can see that the opposing defensive line is fairly compact, all players are maintaining their positions, there is no space for anyone to directly exploit, as the wing-backs are covered by the central defenders and even four defensive midfielders just ahead of the defensive line. You can however see that the opposing team has taken up quite a narrow stance, with space opening up down the flanks.
In the second picture, which was taken a few seconds after the initial screenshot, when Naughton was sent into space, you can see the positioning has changed. The opposing wing-back has moved towards the ball and has been drawn out of position. Townsend is about to be released into space by Naughton’s through-ball. The central defenders are attempting to provide cover, but cannot shuffle to their left side fast enough to adequately provide cover. The overload has already taken place in the central area, where one defender has both Townsend and Eriksen to contend with.
The organisation is gone, the cohesion between the defenders has desintegrated, which is made apparent when Naughtons through-ball finds Townsend in space and the Tottenham winger can flick the ball back for the completely unmarked Eriksen to finish. The opposing defence was over-stretched and poorly organised and they paid dearly for their mistake.
This horizontal stretching is a very common form. Traditional wingers, the speedy dribblers on the flank, used to stretch the defence like a rubber band, so natural poachers like Robbie Fowler could find space in the box to run into to receive the ball and do their thing. In FM, the same result can be achieved by either fielding actual wingers or by fielding inside forwards and overlapping wing-backs.
The basic premise of vertically stretching a defence is the same as the horizontal stretching approach. You try to create gaps between the lines, so runners can exploit this space. In this scenario however, we are not stretching the defensive line itsself, but the space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper. Again, I shall provide you with a match clip to illustrate my point.
It looks easy, right? One of the two central attacking midfielders drops into the hole between defence and midfield, receives the ball and plays a killer through ball, which is unfortunately just off-side. Still, it’s a lovely execution of the concept of strikerless football.
Once more, 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. This either means that an opponent allows you to outnumber their midfield, with the trequartista dropping back, or an opponent pushes up his defensive line, to try and prevent the strikerless formation from dominating the midfield.
In this case, we can see Eriksen receive the ball, with plenty of passing options available to him as soon as he receives the ball. He has all these options and time on the ball because he drops back to play in the hole between the opposing defence and midfield.
In the second picture, we can see Eriksen holds up the ball slightly, to allow the wingers to cut inside and Kane to drop deep, this giving the two central defenders no direct opponent. The wing-backs are trusting the central defenders to provide cover, which isn’t always a given. That leads to situations like the one above, which resulted in an unfortunate off-side decision, but the basic concept was there and working, the attacks are nice and layered, with lots of movement.
So yeah, enough of my narcissistic rantings, most of you want to see the concept in action and want to actually play with the tactic. I’ll oblige and offer the download.