In an effort to make the most aggressive counter-pressing tactic I possibly could within the FM17 match engine, I ended up taking my inspiration from a BBC documentary on wolves and more specifically the way they work together within a wolf pack. It is during a hunt where co-operation between wolves within a pack is most apparent. A wolf pack may trail a herd of elk, caribou or other large prey for days before making its move. During this time, they are already hunting, assessing the herd, looking for an animal that displays any sign of weakness.
Such an approach is not dissimilar to how a well-executed counter-pressing tactic should function. As counter-pressing is intended to win the ball back as quickly as possible when possession is lost, you can easily see how this setup would benefit from players working together to bring down an opponent.
The team I used to develop this tactic is Athletic Bilbao of the Basque country. When I started the development process, Athletic had just won its second successive Champions League trophy. The team is one of the stronger sides in Spain, though not superior to Barcelona and Real Madrid. In Europe, the team is quite obviously competitive, but again, there are quite a few teams on the same level or even slightly better than us in terms of squad strength.
My style is a high-paced and physical brand of football. We aggressively close down opponents in their own half, either winning the ball or forcing them to play long balls we can fight for. This places quite a bit of emphasis on our back-line. Our back three consists of physically imposing players, whose main task is to win headers and prevent any balls from getting through. They should be comfortable with large spaces in their back. Most of their touches on the ball consist of heading the ball towards the Withdrawn Targetman or any of the other midfielders.
When we have the ball, we use a more patient passing style. This sounds counter-intuitive to counter-pressing, at least at first glance. Losing the ball in dangerous positions, however, can be quite catastrophic with the high defensive line I want to employ, so a more direct passing style is more or less akin to tactical hara-kiri and I am no Luis Enrique.
Offensively, you can expect a typical strikerless formation, where the opposing defensive line is manipulated either in giving away space in behind or is forced into a narrow shape, which is then exploited. The midfielders are mostly there to link up defence and midfield, effectively balancing the tactic. The wingbacks provide the extra wide layer, which can help to peel away defenders towards a wide position, in turn freeing up space for the central players. Whilst our primary means of attacking is down the middle, it is useful having that option when things get a little congested. It also helps to stretch the play when we need a bit more room to work in.
To achieve this relentless pressing and interaction between the players, I employ a Very Fluid team shape along with the Overload mentality. At first, that may sound counter-intuitive and perhaps even pants-shittingly batshit insane. However, as always, there is a method to the madness. I would like to refer you to a spreadsheet I nicked off the FM-Slack chat. It details the old slider system values for a specific role when using a combination of specific Mentality and Team Shape.
When you scrutinise the schedule, you can draw the conclusion that the gaps between the lines are the smallest when you’re using a Very Fluid team shape in combination with an Overload mentality. When the goal is to create a tight and cohesive unit of players hunting down opponents, this combination suddenly makes a lot of sense. The players are grouped closely together, which makes it easier for them to interact and help each other out.
The Team Shape instructions look like this:
- Tempo: Normal. The Overload mentality naturally comes with an already murderous tempo. I saw no benefits to increasing this tempo further. I did entertain the idea to lower the tempo in the hopes of increasing the accuracy of the passes, but in the games, I tried this lower tempo, I often saw the matches end with us suffering from Pep-syndrome. We had a lot of possession, but our attacking patterns had become sluggish and predictable. In the end, I felt a Normal tempo yielded the best results.
- Width: Fairly Narrow. When I opt for a wide setup with a three-man defensive line, the spread between the defenders becomes quite large. In fact, you could have sailed the Titanic through the gaps between the three defenders if you opt for a wider spread and much like the Titanic, your defensive line will go down in a disastrous fashion when you turn a blind eye to these gaps.
The Defence instructions look like this:
- Defensive Line: Slightly Higher. I am insane. You all know that. You shouldn’t be surprised that even Overload I have opted to push the defensive line even further forward. Is that even possible? Meh, maybe, maybe not…
- Use Offside Trap. With such a high defensive line, it makes sense to use the offside trap as well. It makes defending a bit of a risky affair, but I like to live dangerously.
- Closing Down: More. Duh… Counter-pressing… I want them to press hard so this makes sense.
- Prevent Short GK Distribution. I feel it’s a vital part of the counter-pressing setup. I want my players to pressure heavily in the opposing half.
- Use Tighter Marking. We have limited defensive options out wide, so this should hopefully help our defenders deal with strikers when the crosses come in. I also believe that the tighter marking might help with the counter-pressing setup as it forces our players to close the gap towards their opponents more rapidly.
The Build-Up instructions look like this:
- Passing: Play Out Of Defence. With the low tempo encouraging possession football and the controlled build up I want to employ, it makes sense to ask the defence to play their way out from the back. Our fluid shape allows for options to do this.
- Passing Directness: Retain Possession. Turning over possession needlessly is quite the lethal affair with the high defensive line we wish to employ so this instruction will stamp out the more risqué passing manoeuvres.
- Creative Freedom: Be More Expressive. It seems weird to tick this instruction when you’re on Overload yet at the same time asking your players to retain possession, but I want to ensure the maximum amount of creative freedom possible, whereas the retain possession instruction will hopefully help to kerb some of the enthusiasm in risky positions.
The Attack instructions look like this:
- Final Third: Look For Overlap, Work Ball Into Box. Since turning over possession is generally a bad idea, these instructions in the final third make sense. A methodical build-up which maintains the integrity of the formation and maximises the chances of a speedy recovery of the ball should possession be lost.
- Dribbling: Dribble Less. I don’t want the team looking to retain possession of the ball in the final third by dribbling their way out of trouble. Rather I would prefer them to look to the extra man to make a pass to, or to fire a through ball over the defence to create a better opportunity. It is going to get pretty congested in the middle of the pitch and we don’t have a Messi. So this instruction should make the players look for better options.
- Freedom of Movement: Roam from Positions. This is what makes a strikerless tactic work, players roaming from their positions, finding pockets of space in front of or behind the defensive line.
The Opposition Instructions look like this:
The idea is to press as a high block in the opposing half, mostly on the central players. In our own half, the pressing is less aggressive to prevent players from being drawn out of position. With a high defensive line and just three defenders, we can’t have that.
The formation, the player roles and their duties
This is the starting formation we start each game with.
The defence: Our back line is fairly standard. The limited defenders are tasked with dealing with the opposing forwards, whereas the ball-playing defender plays deeper and provides the build-up from the back somewhat.
The wide players: On either side of our central defenders are the Wing-Backs on a support duty to offer some width when the central areas become too congested. As the sole wide outlets, they are offered a fair amount of space. They will try to stretch the opposing defence offensively while dealing with opposing wingers when my team is defending.
The central midfield: A plain and simple pairing of two regular old midfielders, one on a defensive duty and the other on a support duty. They form the spine of the team and should just maintain the balance to prevent the team from being overrun in midfield.
The attacking midfield: Our forward line consists of a Withdrawn Targetman and two Shadow Strikers. The former is supposed to hold it up and flick it on towards the latter two.
Our results so far have been brilliant. We’re topping the table this season and haven’t dropped any points, barring an unlucky draw in an away game against Real Madrid. Both our offence and defence have been on point so far and it looks like we can comfortably claim another title win this season.
Possession-wise, we are also dominant. The Spanish Priméra Division is a fairly competitive league where even the weaker sides can still muster a decent starting line-up. Being this dominant is a decent achievement.
We’re also excelling in the passing department. Accurate passes and lots of them as well. We make more passes than anyone else in the league with a terrifyingly high accuracy as well.
Our shooting has been prolific as well, though the finishing leaves something to be desired. It’s not poor, but it could be better. However, since we take more shots than anyone else, it’s still a decent finishing percentage we have managed to pull off.
To give you an example of the chances we create, we can look at the charts for both goals and assists. Most of our goals come from inside the penalty area, there are not many long shots among the goals we scored so far.
The assist charts show a versatile build-up, where the right flank seems to be lagging behind somewhat in terms of its contribution. This could be due to player personnel, on the right flank we have a 33 year old holding down the fort and he is just not as fast and tireless as he used to be.
A few most stats from the current season. Most of our goals are placed shots created by through-balls.
Defensively, we seem to be doing alright. The highly risky strategy appears to be paying off. Not only have we conceded a mere four goals so far, we win most of our tackles as well. We do commit a lot of fouls and concede a fair few cards, which makes sense considering the risks we are taking.
Analysis of our attacking play
As I mentioned earlier, counter-pressing is an important element which defines our style of play. It is more than a way to defend, as it is often the starting point of one of our own attacks. We tend to score a fair few goals like this one.
Granted, we recycle possession after a poor corner, but with the overlapping wing-backs and patient build-up, we often get into similar positions anyway. As the opposition looks to break away, there are no real passing options available to the AI. The passing lanes are blocked and every player near him can immediately be pressured by two or more Athletic players.
When we take over possession, the team quickly transitions into a more attacking shape. A mere three seconds after winning the ball, there are three Athletic players in the penalty area, waiting for a cross or through ball.
The ball is eventually whipped in near the first post, where an onrushing forward taps it past the helpless goalkeeper.
When the ball isn’t immediately turned over by our opponents, they are often forced into hoofing the ball forward. When this happens, we start our own attacks. This often looks a bit like this.
This attack is a lot more patient and less dependent on a sort of counter-attack, yet again it starts with counter-pressing. From a throw-in, the opposing players are isolated in their own half. The opposing defender has no other option than hoofing the ball forward, effectively gifting us possession and allowing us the chance to start our own attack.
In the remainder of the attack, we can see the smooth interactions between the lines, the silky passing-movement, the intelligent runs both on and off the ball that strikerless tactics are renowned for. Just for good measure, I’d like to share another video.
Analysis of our defensive play
The high defensive line is a high-risk style of play that sees’s a team push up in order to shut down the amount of time an opposition has to play, however, it requires high levels of skill and cohesion as the team stepping up leaves spaces to run into. This means that most defensive play revolves around my three defenders clearing the ball forward again or battling for long balls.
This requires fast and strong defenders with an excellent sense of positioning, but they are backed up by the relentless pressing upfront.