Dynamic Midfield Presences

One aspect of football I deem important is control of the central areas of the pitch. When you control the heart of the field of play, you automatically limit the opportunities your opponent has, whilst increasing your own options exponentially. The freedom of choice is greater in the middle of the field. There is no boundary created by the touchline. One has roughly eight basic directions from which the ball can be played (forward, backward, left, right, and four diagonal lines), which means keeping possession becomes a lot easier. A team that bases their play around establishing a greater presence in the center will have many more choices and thus be more dynamic. The opponent must also not only defend the two wings, but the middle and both wings, because from the center of the field either are directly playable. These are concepts I have touched upon before in my Strikerless Magnum Opus.

In that regard, it makes sense that I experimented with the Triple Pivot, as the default setup of such a triple pivot looks to distribute the various tasks of a regular midfield between the three players in the defensive midfield position, aiming to generate more space for the other players by drawing the opposing midfielders further forward. It is basically a way to generate control in the midfield area with actually having a player directly present in the area. The triple pivot controls the central area from a distance with its movement and interaction, it’s a form of indirect control.

This makes my new experiment a rather exciting one. I want to attempt to dominate the central area indirectly, so basically without fielding an actual central midfielder, attempting dominance by having players drift in and out of the central zone. The line-up would look like this.

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It looks good on the drawing board

The idea is that the midfield presence is formed by the defensive midfielders shifting forward and at least one of the attacking midfielders dropping back to form a sort of narrow diamond shape in central midfield without actually fielding any central midfielders, ergo indirect control. The object is to delay direct occupation of the central area by the opposition, thus enabling us to control it ourselves. The two banks of midfielders pose problems for any opponent because of the very nature of the setup.

They can cause trouble because the AI generally reacts in one of two ways. Both AI-approaches can be countered quite easily if the players are able to keep the ball moving fast enough and if they remain mobile and available for a pass. The first method is the basic AI approach. This is generally what happens when your team has a better reputation or better players. Most of the time, the AI even uses this approach if your team is of equal strength. What the AI does is that it pulls back their midfielders to protect the defence, they react to our strategy instead of trying to impose their own will onto us.

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Our team lines up in blue and we can see the three very distinctive banks of players. A four man defence with offensive wing-backs, three man in midfield and three man on offensive duty. Our shape is dictating their shape. Despite not fielding any players in the central area of the pitch, we have complete dominance there. The threat of our three attacking midfielders threatening to overload the central defenders has caused the AI to pull back their midfield, erecting a sort of human wall in front of their own area. They are basically ceding the midfield to us, allowing us free reign in the central areas for our players to pick a pass as they please. Our midfielders generally have plenty of time on the ball in a central area, which means plenty of space and time to pick a pass towards a team-mate.

In order to put some pressure on our middle bank, the AI has opted to remove its wingers and have them cut inside to form a narrow defence. The same applies to the opposing wing-backs, who have cut inside to help out with runs from deep by our attacking midfielders. The opposing team is acting reactively. They notice a threat on the pitch and respond accordingly. At times, this strategy is effective, especially when your team does not move the ball around fast enough, allowing the opposing team time to re-group and shuffle their block of players over to the threatened side of the pitch to block impending danger.

The other, slightly less standard, AI scenario is that they do not react to your antics on the pitch and keep playing their own game, effectively playing around and in between the spaces my own team occupies. Both teams are hell-bent on playing their own style in this scenario, which usually occurs when the opposition feels they have superior players or when the opposing team has a much higher reputation. The central zone is in such cases still in our possession, as we generally have six players drifting in and out of said zone, whereas the opposition has two or three players in positioned there at best.

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Once again, our team lines up in blue, whereas the opposing team is represented by the yellow dots. This team lines up in a 4-4-2 diamond-shaped formation and they will not budge. This means there are quite a few odd pairings out there. For instance, the opposing wingers are finding themselves with acres of space around them, though a wing-back is waiting for them further up the pitch. The central area remains firmly under our control though, as one of the defensive midfielders shuffles forward and one of the attacking trio drops back a bit to create a six versus two/three situation in the central area.

Naturally, an opposing team could bypass the central area and just boot the ball towards the wingers. That would require them to take on your defenders in one-on-ones a fair bit, but even when the winger beats his marker, he either generally has to cross the ball or cut inside in order to create any real goal-scoring chances, at which point he runs into our well-packed central area, which happens to be exactly what we want and what we are prepared for.

Balancing the midfield movement

Now in order to achieve this indirect control, there is basically one element I need to perfect and that is the movement of the team. 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. When you are going above and beyond the regular strikerless insanity by attempting indirect control of the most important area of the pitch, movement becauses even more important.

What you can see are players constantly moving around, making space for themselves and for others, drawing the opposing defence into a wider or more advanced shape, which opens up space in the heart of the defence for other players to run into. The finishing in both videos is subpar, but the videos highlights the typical movement I want to see and strive for.

The key players in this effect are the attacking and defensive midfielders. The movement and positioning of these players opens up space in the heart of the pitch. By playing in the gap between their midfield 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.

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. On the other hand, you also want to prevent too much movement, as this will leave you exposed to counter-attacks.

The balance of the side depends on all areas of the team, but the area where balance is of absolute importance is in the midfield. Within the team setting, you need to address matters like who marks which opponents, how are attacks set up and solving problems on the fly. Classically, a midfield needs robustness, (and that means a degree of physicality) to ensure defensive stability, creativity as well as an ability to control possession and the tempo of the game. When you’re not fielding actual central midfielders, your team is also going to need mobility, stamina, pace.

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, as at least one of them is also expected to pick up on opposing defensive midfielders.

The defensive midfield trio is qually clustered. These players provide a large part of the midfield balance and the link within the midfield between the defensive line and the more attack minded players in the attacking midfield stratum. They have a host of responsebilities as they need to be protecting the defence, winning possession, linking play as well as creating chances for the forward three. As I said, balancing these three was quite a difficult task.

What I needed was the right mix between defensive stability and offensive drive. This is where my FM14 ideas regarding the Running Regista came in quite well. My friend Jonathon Aspey (@JLAspey) has written about the Central Winger before, whereas I have written about the intricacies regarding the implementation of the role in a Strikerless formation. The next idea is pushing the idea a bit further and withdrawing the Central Winger from his central midfield position, de facto creating a sort of hybrid between the wandering midfielder we wish to see and the generally more static defensive midfielders we are used to. SI have basically done that for us by creating a Roaming Playmaker. Tweak his instructions a bit and he does a fair bit of running, both with and without the ball.

In the not-too-distant past, your traditional defensive midfielders were widely considered to be the midfielders who did the dirty work, guys like Gennaro Gattuso, Nigel de Jong, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. Defensive midfielders were underrated. Stereotypically, defensive midfielders are portrayed and viewed as aggressive, wild and cynical players. That’s not to say that’s not how some of them played, but there is more to them than that, as they do possess other traits and offer alternative options besides the destroyer role. Basically, while a defensive midfielders’ primary role is to shield the defense and goalkeeper, they could also be tasked with starting their teams’ attacks immediately after breaking down the attack of the opposition, thus giving them a more constructive role.

We took the traditional ball-winner and gave him a bit of a make-over, which mostly just means removing the midfielders in front of him, which pretty much forces him further up the pitch and forces him to interact with his team-mates differently. So there you have it, my thoughts on indirect control in FM15.

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