When you play FM long enough, you are bound to encounter opponents who park the bus against you. With the knowledge that they are hopelessly outclassed against your star-studded squad, they opt not to be lead to the slaughter like the proverbial lambs. Where football romantics would love to see the smaller sides go for the jugular as well, some teams choose to erect a human wall in front of their own penalty area. In some cases, even such defensive antics prove unsuccessful as the attacking side manages to penetrate anyway or get a lucky goal in early on.
In other cases, the structure and integrity of the defensive format remain intact. How do you batter down the gates in such scenarios? Is there a sure-fire way to break down these dogged defenders and their tenacious efforts? That’s what I want to focus on in this article. How do you tow away that parked bus?
If you’re looking at breaking down a tight defensive formation, it’s all about finding space in the final third somehow. Against these compact defences, space is restricted, which nullifies the effect of through balls, balls over the top and crosses. With so many players crowding the box, you’re going to have a torrid time breaking through. You may get lucky with the odd flukey ball or flash of brilliance, but overall, sticking to a game plan that clearly isn’t working is akin to trying to break down a door using your head as a battering ram. Eventually, you might make a dent, but it’s going to be a painful and highly uncertain affair.
Going into full-blown overload mode is not the answer you are looking for either. People seem to think that clicking the Overload instruction is the answer to actually breaking open such a cohesive formation, but they fail to realise what the Overload instruction actually does and what they are doing is actually playing right into the hand of the AI’s defence.
Seriously, it doesn’t make sense. If you are already facing a cohesive, compact defence, which is packing the penalty area with bodies, what good will it do to add more bodies to the fray, restricting the amount of space even further? That’s right, it’s about as useful as tits on a boar.
What might prove effective is simply playing a bit deeper. This either lures the defenders forward, or it means your players generate pockets of space for themselves. Either way, space is found on the pitch. If you have a few players moving around up front, they will make use of that space, provided they have the footballing intelligence to recognise these pockets of space.
Now, this is just an example of an approach you could use to break down a defence and tow away that infernal parked bus. There are several strategies you can use and of course you can combine several or even all of these strategies, depending on your own players, the level of opposition and how it seems to be working out during matches. There is no surefire, 100% guaranteed way to batter down these defences, but I can supply you with a number of weapons in your arsenal to see which one works in the situation you are in.
Essentially, there are four basic strategies to unlocking a defence.
Finding and exploiting space
I briefly touched upon this subject earlier. People tend to go for the Overload mode, which commits more players to the offensive phases of play. Against teams that are restricting space efficiently, that is probably the worst decision you could make whilst sober and playing FM.
With so many players in the final third, both your own and the defenders, how is a through ball going to find anyone in space? Or a cross? All you are doing is passing and crossing the ball into a melee of bodies and hoping that it comes up good this time, that one of your forwards has a moment of brilliance and is not shut down by one of the many defenders around him.
What you want to create is space for yourself, for your own offensive players. The best way to generate space is by making use of a process called stretching the defence. The premise of stretching a defence is as easy as it is effective. By stretching the defensive line, by drawing defenders out of position, you are creating gaps between the lines, causing unrest and undermining the cohesion and organisation of the defenders. There are two forms of stretching; horizontal stretching and vertical stretching. We’ll look at both forms below.
Since a picture is often worth a thousand words, let’s have a look at an example of what I mean by horizontal stretching.
The presence of the wingers on either side has drawn both opposing wing-backs away from the defensive line, forcing the defenders to maintain a wider position than they might like. As the through ball is played, one of the wingers cuts inside into the gap between the defenders and finishes the attacking move. The opposing defenders are out of position as the winger is released into space. If the match-clip was a bit too fast for you, let’s slow it all down.
The mere presence of the wingers forces the opposing defenders out wide, opening up space between the wing-backs and their compatriots in the heart of the defence. As my winger gets released into space by the through-ball, the central defenders are too far away to provide cover by shuffling over to the threatened flank. The other wing-back on their left side is also leaving more space between himself and the nearest central defender because he has to cope with the threat of my right winger.
The defensive organisation is gone, the cohesion between the defenders has disintegrated, which is made apparent when the winger cuts inside into the gap in the defensive line. With the central defenders torn between picking up my central forwards and providing cover for the wing-back, my winger can waltz straight through their defence and score. The opposing defence was over-stretched like an old rubber band 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 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 actual width settings have some influence and can be used to
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 itself, but the space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper. Again, I shall provide you with a match clip to illustrate my point.
Vertical stretching is generated because players move between the lines. That means selecting the right set of roles to make it work. Since my setup is a strikerless one this kind of movement comes almost natural to me. That doesn’t mean it’s strictly a strikerless concept, it can work within more traditional setups with the right combination of roles. In the example I have provided we can see this kind of vertical stretching several times, as same is generated for both Filipovic and Takahashi. If the match-clip was a bit too fast for you, let’s slow it all down.
The picture above shows us the starting situation. The defensive line is still compact and cohesive and there are still two midfielders protecting the defensive line. That gives the defenders a 6-vs-5 numerical advantage right now. The central zone the defensive players are able to cover is a sizable one. Our man Filipovic, who is in a lot of space, can still pick his pass and opts to pass the ball to the left, towards Shadow Striker Takahashi.
The moment Takahashi receives the ball, our wingers and other players spring into action. We can see some horizontal stretching taking place on the right-hand side, as the opposing wing-back is drawn wide. Our Trequartista moves into the gap but is ignored initially. Takahashi draws in both of the midfielders, stretching the defensive shape and whilst making it more compact in the central area, it opens up space on the right-hand side and in a more withdrawn central position for Filipovic.
The final image shows us the result of this stretching. The compact shape we have forced the defenders in has disrupted the opposing defensive line. Filipovic is in space and can pick his pass, again. This time he opts for the Trequartista, who was left in space initially. The vertical stretching ensured time and space to give the decisive pass. It also saw the opposing defensive line push forward in some places to combat the threat of an attacker, ensuring that space opened up.
Another aspect to consider when breaking down an opposing defence is the tempo. While a slow and methodical approach means a high pass completion, it also gives an opponent time to re-group and re-organise the defensive line. A higher tempo, faster ball rotation, these can be keys you can use to unlock a stubborn and dogged defence. Just look at the example below.
The defensive integrity of the opposition is barely compromised in terms of stretching, yet ultimately the opposing team has to concede. As you can see in the clip, most defensive players are not really drawn out of position but the ball is moved so fast that the defenders have no time to re-adjust to the new circumstances, thus losing out eventually.
The defensive line is still tight and there are no large gaps in the organisation. The key element here was the speed with which the ball was moved along from player to player. If the passing is accurate and combined with proper off the ball movement, it’s a deadly combination that can tear through an opposing defence.
Please keep in mind that a high tempo regarding ball rotation is something else than a direct style of passing. When you are moving the ball at pace and at a fast tempo I recommend you also try some patience. Swinging in aimless cross after aimless cross or just hoofing the ball forward and hoping for the best is the worst strategy you could possibly employ, particularly when you’re up against big lumbering defenders. Heading away high balls is the one thing you want to be doing as a defensive side because it requires zero thought.
Ideally, you want to pass it around the edges of their box in rapid tempo, look for the gap, look for that one defender switching off, look for that one run. If there is no opening, pass it back to the central midfielder who switches it out to the other side, to see if there’s a gap there. Repeat this process until someone switches off, someone doesn’t track a runner, someone loses concentration. If the tempo is high enough, someone will slip up sooner or later.
We mentioned this before but let me re-iterate this point a third time. If you are up against a low-block packed defence, does it make sense to commit even more bodies to the attack? If there are even more players crowding the box, will that help you gain the upper hand or does it play into the hand of the defenders? You need to be careful not to commit too many players to the attacking phases of the game in order to maintain balance. Every player you send forward is a player that needs to track back when the ball is lost.
So not only do you risk frustrating your own attacks by sending more players forward, you also run the risk of a successful counter-attack by the opposing team. As you grow more and more desperate and commit more and more players to attacking the opposing defensive line, you also improve the opposition’s chances of a successful counter-attack.
Instead of sending them all forward, make your players set up a perimeter around the opposing penalty area. Pick up the loose balls and let your players attack their opponents. More often than not, they commit fouls or get drawn out of position that way, which opens up space for other players to exploit.
Penetrating the defence
In order to breach the defence, you need players that move to penetrate that same defence. So how do you create this elusive movement to penetrate the defence? 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 particular 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. Anytime somebody has more players in one area, it’s an overload.
You’re also going to want to employ a needle player. I am going to quote Spielverlagerung on this one.
A needle player is used to maintain ball possession in tight pockets – mostly in the central attacking midfield. The player moves like a needle through the opposing formation. As the increasing athletic abilities lead to tighter spaces and give the attacking players less time to receive the ball properly, needle players have become important. Particularly smaller players can utilize their low body’s centre of gravity to be more agile. Moreover, a needle player must be able to receive fast passes without misplays and should have a good vision to see in which direction the player has to move to maintain ball possession and lead the attack on.
The way I set out to break down a defence start with the roles I have selected. The right combination of roles can create and use space. This will force the opposition into making decisions (stretching the defence, remember?). These movements, both on and off the ball, are important because they cause a chain reaction of events. A Shadow Striker dragging two defenders with him opens up space for the Trequartista who drops deep, which in turn may lead to a gap in the lines for a winger cutting inside.