When people talk about Total Football, they are usually referring to the attacking phase of play. The positional switching and movement off the ball it delivers has always captivated managers around the world and it’s always been an ideal people are trying to replicate in FM. The whole concept is based on fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your teammates runs. In this way, players use the movements of their colleagues for reference rather than zones on the pitch. In addition the concept is also about balancing the heart, which wants to attack, and the mind, which tends to focus more on defence. You can’t be on the offence all the time, but neither can you defend for 90 minutes and come out on top (hello José, that means you too!).
Yes, many people tend to forget that these same ideas and principles so often associated with attacking can and should also be applied to the defending phase of football. Fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your teammates, maintaining a tight and cohesive wall of players between your own goal and the opposing team. In an ideal situation there ought to be no more than 25 to 35 metres between the forward line and the defenders. The reason for this is to constrict the space in a vertical sense, hence reducing the distances between players thus making it difficult for the offensive team to pass or dribble through the middle of this compacted space.
Looking at the game, such an idea is feasible. Just look at the heat map below. The forward line is in close proximity to the defensive line, the distance between the two is not very great and there are a fair few players between both lines to help defend. You can also see that when a team lines up like this, there are large spaces on the pitch they are automatically ceding to the opposition, especially down the flanks.
This basically means that this tactic can never defend against all attacks everywhere on the pitch, instead shuffling over to a specific side to combat a threat there. With the defensive line pushing high up the pitch, there are elements of the counter-pressing there, but when the need for defence arises, the team rallies around the libero and drops back en masse. It’s a hybrid of the high up the pitch counter-pressing and deep defensive block, soaking-up-pressure defending. We attack as a team, we defend as a team.
The formation pretty much illustrates this point. I’ve tried to craft a tight and cohesive formation, with three distinctive banks of players, yet plenty of interaction between the various lines, with players crossing over and overlapping. This should help generate a 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 wide player to overlap. This train of thought complements the idea that movement both on and off the ball is absolutely crucial to the success of the strikerless formation and the style of play. This particular formation and therefore the style of play heavily rely on the exploitation of space. When your players remain static, no space can and will open up for others to exploit.
Whilst we want to generate plenty of movement, we also want to be weary about exposing our defence too much by having being dragged out of position. We need to get the balance right, which is a lot harder than one might think. I often struggle to find and maintain a balance between offence and defence measured by goals for as compared to goals against. Numbers up on attack, high in the front third of the pitch but numbers down in the middle third of the pitch when defending on transition, that is the ideal I strive for.
Offensive balance means that a team has not over committed players high up field going forward on attack during the run of play to expose it to quick transition if it loses the ball. Defensive balance means that a team has held shape and has committed enough players or the right players behind the ball as the team is attacking to slow transition in the event the ball is lost. Defensive balance promotes the freedom of movement of the attacking players during an attack but offensive balance does not likewise influence defensive balance.
Now the concept sounds quite nifty, but how to translate this concept onto the pitch? How do you generate balance? For me, this means I need to assess who the hybrid players are in my formation. 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 in order to facilitate the necessary shifting between phases. As everyone has the same responsibility, to attack and defend, the players who facilitate the shifting between these phases are absolutely crucial. Players should be capable of fitting into different positions and carrying out that specific job. The basis for each player is the same, to be part of the team at all times and to fit into any position which is required of them.
For the distinctive arrowhead-shaped formation I am currently using, the hybrid players in my formation are the Libero and both wide players. The wide players are supposed to provide wide balance, protecting the flanks and stopping those dreaded crosses from flying in. Their primary role is one of balance, since they are in essence the only wide players I have. They have to protect our flanks, allowing our central midfielders to roam more freely. Our central midfielders and shadow strikers are rather focussed on attacking, bursting into open space and penetrating defensive lines with mazy runs, which means the wide players can’t be too committed to attacking, they need to balance the side.
I tend to switch the roles and positions of these wide players when facing different kinds of opposition. Teams lining up with no actual wide threat in the AM-strata are best combatted with a Defensive Winger, who will take on the opposing midfielder, whereas a Shadow Striker tracking back will often deal with the opposing wing-backs. Against strong sides with actual wingers, I often revert to fielding an actual wing-back, dropping the defensive wingers back a line. Their main duty remains the same, balancing our wide play and stopping those pesky crosses.
The wide players’ defensive tasks are quite clear, but that doesn’t make them a hybrid player. What makes them important parts of the team is the fact that they have a role to play in the attacking phase as well. They need to get far enough forward to actually stretch the opposing defensive line, their mere presence should force the opposition to send players out wide to cover their potential runs, thus stretching the defence thinner than they ideally wish to be.
You see, the strikerless concept needs movement, either to exploit the space or to create the space by dragging defenders out of position. The whole premisse of a strikerless formation entails 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 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.
As I mentioned before, I want my wide players to venture forward and lure players wide by their mere presence, thus stretching the defence. By stretching the defensive line, by drawing defenders out wide, you are creating gaps between the lines, causing unrest and undermining the cohesion and organisation of the defenders. When the organisation is gone or sub-par, the cohesion between the defenders will desintegrate, making it easier to score.
Traditionally, 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. I’m attempting to achieve this same stretching effect with just a single player on each flank and without sacrificing overall team balance.
In picture-form, it would look something like this. Both wide men are highlighted out wide. The right-sided defensive winger is making a run into space, which is forcing the opposing team to push a player out wide to oppose my wide player. This leaves a gap between their lines for one of my players to run into. The defensive winger can opt to take on his marker and cross it in or just flick the ball on into space for our runner to chase after, but the concept remains the same, by stretching the defence, space opens up for our mobile players. In some cases, the gap between the players becomes so great that the wide player can cut inside and benefit as well. The next few video-clips will illustrate my point.
In the first video we can see that the wide player shifts into action and whips a cross in towards the first post. Remember that gap between the lines and that runner moving in there? Guess who just finished that move with a sweet volley in the short corner? Right.
In the second video we can see how our wide player notices the gap between the wing-back and his central defenders. He cuts inside to make use of the space, which happens to end in a goal this time, but he could have opted for a pass as well. By stretching the defence, space opens up for others. My wide players are the ones responsible for this stretching and are thus part of my hybrid crew.
As I mentioned earlier, a special role in this setup is reserved for the Libero. A Libero in action really is a majestic sight. Go back 30 or 40 years and watch teams defend. The majority of them will feature a type of player that seems to have been lost from the modern game. You’ll see an elegant defender sitting behind the defensive line, picking up a stray through balls from an attacker. As he effortlessly brings it under his control, he marches forward with it, stepping past the other defenders and moving into the midfield zone. From there he acts as a modern day deep-lying playmaker, initiating the play and spreading it out to the flanks, or playing it forward into midfield or attack. This is the Libero. People tend to get nostalgic about Libero’s and their style of play and rightfully so, as they were often stylish and elegant players. One of Project Arrowhead distinguishing features is the Libero revival it entails for FM16.
It doesn’t matter which formation I opt for, the shape remains that of an arrowhead due to the addition of the Libero. This addition of a libero to the equation carries an element of calculated risk. The very existence of the offside rule makes a libero a liability in defence, but allow me to vindicate the libero-role, as his presence in a defence is no different to any covering defender who sits a little deeper than the rest of the defensive line, before stepping up to make a tackle or complete the offside trap. Indeed, teams who use a consistent and efficient offside trap are becoming rarer in modern football, so whilst he adds a certain element of risk to a formation, it’s no worse than with any other form of covering defender.
The true added value of a Libero lies in what he does when he actually has the ball. His ventures into defensive midfield, carrying the ball forward, should help greatly in establishing midfield overloads and dominating the central areas overall. Ultimately teams have cancelled each other out in these areas. What this has meant is the game has become a stalemate in the middle. Allowing a defender the license to step up into midfield when in possession could mean that a midfielder could be replaced by an attacker, or that midfielder could push up with encouragement to attack. This would change the shape of the formation in the attacking phase of play, allowing you to stretch or overload a defence. With two or three defenders to cover the forward movement of the libero and wide players to cover the wide areas, the libero would in no way be a defensive liability, and could be the deep-lying playmaker without the need for a specialised player in defensive midfield..
Defensively, the Libero’s role is quite clear. His ability to read the game should allow him to eliminate many attacking threats before they have an opportunity to develop. He ought to be prodding his backline into position, tackling and intercepting, inspiring confidence in his defenders to aggressively engage their opponents, knowing full well the Libero is still behind them and can cover for them.
Offensively, the Libero acts as a playmaker from defensive midfield. Unlike previous versions of FM, the Libero does actually step up and carries the ball forward, as the following passing chart from a random match will show you.
If you look at the next video, you can actually see similar movement patterns as this passing chart would indicate.
I’ve also taken several screenshots from this clip, just to highlight his offensive movements and tendencies. The Libero constantly moves vertically across the pitch. Behind the defence when the team is on the backfoot, moving into midfield when the team is attacking, occassionally even foraying into the opposition’s penalty area.
In the first situation we can see where the Libero is situated. The Libero can step up to recycle possession should the team lose the ball in midfield. He is also available for an easy pass, since most teams are not sure how to pick up the Libero’s movement. The opposing forwards generally stick with the defenders, whereas the midfielders are drawn out of position by our own midfielders surging forward, leaving the Libero with a whole lot of space.
The second screenshot shows our Libero after he picks up a loose ball. Not just content in playing he easy passes, he actively dribbles forward with the ball and looks to force an opening. He doesn’t always succeed, but he definitely gives it his best.
The last screenshot shows a situation where our sweeper is actually our most advanced player and looks menacing to run into the penalty area. The through ball never arrives, but it does show intent and how the role works. As the clip also showcases, he also shuffles back to back up the defensive line. When the ball is lost, the team has to transition from attack to defence rather quickly. The Libero buys time by stalling in defensive midfield, before taking up his position behind the defence when the midfield is back in position.
The quite obvious elephant in the room for this tactic is the obvious lack of sweepers in the FM databases. This means re-training players, in which case I like to retrain defensive midfielders, which makes sense when we look at the attributes required for our Libero. Our Libero is a glamorous defender, who has to start attacks and dribble forward with the ball, which is something most defensive midfielders can do, without sacrificing the defensive stability. Still, there is no real need for offensive extravagance. In similar fashion, we are not looking for a ruthless cut-throat of a defender. Any mistimed tackle or overly aggressive challenge will probably result in a red card. No, our Libero’s main talent is probably one of the hardest to scout for, as we’ll be looking for footballing intelligence.
In real life, footballing intelligence is as intangible an attribute as they come in football. It’s not like technical prowess, where it can be easily seen how well a footballer manipulates the ball to his advantage or his physical adeptness enabling him to overcome his opponent via speeding past them or brushing them off with their strength. No, footballing intelligence is one of the hardest qualities to quantify in the game. There seems to be much subjectivity to how many assess the excellence of a player’s footballing intelligence. Football Manager makes it easier to scout for these attributes, as the game breaks down the mental aspect into a number of hard-set criteria. The following criteria are, according to us, important for the Ausputzer role.
Anticipation – How accurately can a player predict other player’s movements
In other words, can our Ausputzer “read the game”, can he predict where the ball is going and where is opponents are going to be. A player who can accurately predict the movement of opponents doesn’t need to be fast or ruthless, he compensates with the power of his mind and his speed of thinking.
Concentration – How long a player can keep his mind focussed on the game
A players attention tends to fade as the game progresses. We don’t want that, our Ausputzer needs to be focussed for as long as possible, as any mistake he makes can be potentially fatal. A high attribute for Concentration means the player will use his Decisions and Anticipation attributes better throughout the length of a match.
Decisions – Controls the quality of decisions the player makes
A player is constantly presented with options, and the Decisions attribute controls if the player chooses the best option. It also controls how and when an option is performed. Decision is what, when and how. We don’t want our player to be hesitant, when he makes a move, we want him to follow through.
Positioning – The accuracy of a players position
This attribute controls how well a player positions himself, depending on what’s going on around him. Positioning (do I recognise the various options available to me) is linked with Decisions (do I opt for the right position out of the various options available to me) and Anticipation (do I predict the movement of others well enough to read the game). In our eyes, these three attributes make up most of the footballing intelligence our Ausputzer should possess.
Another aspect we shouldn’t underestimate is mobility, which means movement. Movement is important in the game so that players can create or guard space for themselves or for their teammates. Players without the ball need to keep moving to unbalance the opponent’s defense or guard runs by their own team-mates. Mobility is, in my eyes anyway, secondary to footballing intelligence, but still important. A player might be able to recognise where he should position himself, in today’s fast-paced game he needs the pace and acceleration to get there in time as well. Awareness should be complemented by relatively swift feet. The following criteria are, according to me, important for the Libero role.
Acceleration – How fast can a player reach top speed
Whilst the Pace attribute determines the actual top speed a player can reach, Acceleration determines how long a player needs to reach that top speed. In the split-second decision-making world of the Ausputzer, getting there fast is mostly about accelerating rather than top speed.
Agility – How easily a player moves
A low attribute means the player is “sluggish”. A high attribute means the player is nimble and light-footed. We prefer the former to the latter. Sluggish players commit fouls, which is generally not a smart idea if your Ausputzer is the last field player between an opponent and your own goal.
Pace – Decides the top speed a player can reach
The Pace attribute determines the top speed a player can reach whilst sprinting. Our Ausputzer rarely has to cover large distances, so whilst this attribute is not unimportant, you don’t need to scout for the next Usain Bolt to play in this position. Average (10+) Pace will do just fine, as long as he’s intelligent enough.
So if you want to give these tactics a go, feel free.