One of the greatest teams to ever grace the World Cup was the 1982 Brazilian national team. They failed in winning the World Cup, but they succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of football fans all over the world. They played the game the way the Seleçao should play it, were stuffed full of incredible individuals and they were the architects of their downfall. Brazil was so good they had to beat themselves to lose.
Their squad was a fantastic mixture of incredible personalities. Zico was the superstar whose every touch prompted screams. Junior sported a terrific beard-and-afro combo that made him look like a percussionist for a 1970s funk-rock fusion band rather than an outstanding defender. Falcão, Cerezo and Oscar charmed. But Sócrates and Éder were the ones who stood out – the former a chain-smoking doctor and political activist who in his spare time was one of the world’s greatest footballers, while Éder was the undisciplined rogue, operating on a knife-edge of artistry on one side and self-destruction on the other.
The formation they played in can be best described as a 4-2-2-2, with a strong central column flanked by two marauding full-backs in Leandro and Júnior. In a European context, it would have been perceived as lacking width, but this was a team of such fluency and poise in possession that they created it with their movement.
While the football they played was certainly not as rigid as this formation might lead you to believe, the idea is that the two deep-lying midfielders provide a platform for four out-and-out attacking players – two centre-forwards and two trequartistas – while still allowing the full-backs to tear up and down the flanks as they had been doing in Brazil since the days of Nílton Santos.
The tactic was fondly christened the Magic Box, as it effectively comprises of two boxes. One mainly defensive, and the other attacking. These boxes are supported by the wingbacks, who will primarily occupy wide positions and support both boxes. The overload of players in the centre of the pitch makes it difficult for opposition players to contend with, though they can drift out wide to draw opponents away and create space for shadow-runs by their team-mates.
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How would you replicate this tactic in FM?
Naturally, since this is Strikerless.com, we will replicate said tactic without any forwards. I’ve opted for the following formation.
To supplement this formation, these are the team instructions I use.
What makes this tactic tick?
Let’s not make this needlessly complicated. There are a number of ideas and concepts that make this tactic tick. I’ll work through them one at a time.
1. Maurading wingbacks
Without attacking wingbacks, the formation will lack width. The occasional drifting by the central players is not nearly sufficient to generate a wide outlet and stretch a defence, so these guys are absolutely crucial to the success of the tactic. A complete wingback seems like the most sensible option in this regard.
You want the wingback to bomb forward, playing one-two’s with the central players and getting near the opposing penalty area. His presence automatically stretches a defence wide, which in turn opens up space for players from the central column to penetrate the defensive line.
In the example above, the CWB is sent deep. His offensive movement draws a defender out wide, which in turn opens up space in the central area for one of our players to exploit. This is their primary offensive role, marauding up and down the flanks in the tradition of great Brazilian wingbacks such as Roberto Carlos and Cafú.
2. Tight, compact units of players
If you want to optimise the compact nature of your formation, you ought to strive for a scenario where there are no more than 25 to 35 meters between the most advanced line and the defenders. The aim is to constrict the space in a vertical sense, hence reducing the distances between players. This makes it difficult for the offensive team to pass or dribble through the middle of this compacted space.
This concept isn’t merely about playing destructive, restrictive and negative football, 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, you muppet, that means you too!).
Looking at the game, such an idea is feasible. Just look at the heat map above. 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.
These compact lines can be achieved with the right combination of instructions, mentality and team shape. A counter setup means the team sits deeper and more narrow by default. I am fine with the team sitting even more narrow, but I do want them to push forward more. The “very fluid” team shape is typical for my strikerless setups. I want all players to take equal creative and defensive responsibility during all stages and phases of the game, resulting in a very fluid style of play. Because of this style of play and by pushing up the defensive line, I try to keep the lines compact. This means the players can press without being too concerned about leaving huge gaps behind them. So in my eyes, a Very Fluid setting is a necessity if I want to keep a tight and cohesive formation throughout the match because the defenders have to think of their positioning when attacking and the forwards have to contribute defensively by pressing.
3. Balancing the midfield
Midfielders form the most important part of any team in football. The midfield works as the connectivity between the defence and the attack, quite literally too. It acts as an anchor that holds the entire squad together. Balancing the roles in midfield out properly can either make or break your tactic, especially when six out of eleven players on the pitch are technically midfielders.
The two holding midfielders will form a defensive block with the two central defenders. This means that I want players in defensive midfield who can screen the area in front of the two defenders. They need to protect the back-line, especially when the wingbacks have moved forward. That means you need to have defensive-minded players there, not playmakers. One of the players needs to remain in position (the defensive midfielder on a defensive duty), whereas the other can move forward to actively chase down opposing players (the ball winning midfielder on a support duty).
The offensive part of the box consists of two regular midfielders and two attacking midfielders. Upfront, I have opted for a shadow striker, who tends to move into channels to offer a more advanced and wide focal point for through-balls, in combination with the withdrawn targetman, who is supposed to hold it up a bit for others to link up. Our regular midfield consists of a box-to-box midfielder, who is supposed to protect the team during its transition phases from defence to offence and vice versa, in combination with a roaming playmaker, whose runs see him link up with the withdrawn targetman often.
Is it an ideal setup? Meh, who knows… Trial and error have shown me that this is a setup that works… All ideas on improving the tactic are welcome.