Strikerless football is not a style that appeals to everyone. Some are set in their ways and feel forwards are an integral part of their team. Others feel it’s an exploit to play in this way. There are also people who don’t like the aesthetics of this particular brand of football. Whatever their reasoning may be, there are plenty of people who would prefer not to play without strikers. Fortunately for them, all strikerless tactics can be converted to more conventional with-strikers tactics. This article focusses on changing tactics from strikerless to a more traditional style.
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The concept of formations is often misunderstood
Formations are often seen as rigid, inflexible notions. Yet in reality, there is no such thing as a definite 4-4-2 or a universal 4-3-3. Analysts and pundits alike are often a bit overzealous as they try to oversimplify the reality of what happens on the pitch in an effort to explain their ideas.
There is no such thing as a particular formation since even identical formations on the drawing board line up in different ways once they take to the field. Teams have attacking shapes, defensive shapes and they transition between these shapes, which creates additional, transitional shapes. For instance, your back four might be comprised of one or two offensive fullbacks, which effectively means you’re playing with a back three or even back two when your team is possession. Similarly, you might play with five players in defence during the defensive phases of the game when one of the midfielders drops back.
These shifts take place within every formation. As possession of the ball shifts between the sides on the pitch, so do the various shapes of the teams morph in order to adapt to the changed circumstances. In basic FM-terminology, the shape on the pitch varies dependant on the phase of play, the team instructions and the roles of the players.
No matter how crazy, illogical, irrational or even outrageous the formation may look on the drawing board, it’s how they line up on the pitch during the different phases of play that counts. A team’s line-up during these various phases is determined by factors such as team roles, team instructions, individual instructions, team shape in terms of fluidity and even opposition instructions.
This premise is important for us, as it helps us to convert a strikerless tactic to a conventional or vice versa, whatever your heart desires.
How are the attacking midfielders lined up?
Looking at the formation of the original tactic, it is important to see how the midfielders are lined up. This means looking beyond the player roles on the tactics screen and actually analysing how these roles impact the various team shapes and how their behaviour influences the movement patterns.
Just to give you an example, a shadow striker will move differently when he’s fielded behind a forward compared to when he’s leading the forward line as the deepest offensive player in the formation. Similarly, forwards behave differently depending on the roles and movement of the players around them.
This change in movement has to do with the manipulation of space. We’ll stick with the shadow striker example for now. Shadow strikers are players that thrive on space. They need space to run into to be effective. Ergo, if there is no space for them to run into, they are not effective, so they generally won’t move in a direction that leads to a dead end. If someone is already occupying a specific space, it makes no sense for a shadow striker to move there.
When there is no central forward present, the shadow strikers can make runs in between the centre-backs and the fullbacks and in between the two centre-backs. No-one else is occupying this space and the shadow strikers can be launched by the third attacking midfielder lurking behind the shadow strikers.
If a shadow striker is played behind a deeper forward, the mere presence of this forward will alter his movement pattern. He will generally drift into wider areas, away from the central area occupied by the forward, just to find space. With no actual forward ahead of him, he could roam more towards the central areas.
It is imperative that you figure out how the attacking patterns of this tactic work. Who is supposed to move where exactly? How will changing this all around impact the team shape and the movement and linkup possibilities of the other players? Just replacing your shadow striker, enganche, trequartista or any other attacking midfielder with a random forward role without knowing how it impacts the tactic is like fishing with a shotgun. You may end up disrupting the team’s balance, ultimately wasting a lot of time because you haphazardly rush into making changes.
Understanding forwards; which roles are there?
When we look at porting strikerless tactics, we need to understand the plethora of new roles at our disposal. This goes beyond the in-game description, as we want to look at which spaces these forward will occupy and what their movement both on and off the ball will look like.
The advanced forward
Advanced forwards are supposed to spearhead the attacking line, acting mostly as a lone striker. When you look at their individual instructions, you will notice that they are hard-coded to move into channels. This is the case for a lot of the forward roles on an attack duty. This movement into the channels, while hardcoded, can be kerbed, either by fielding the advanced forward together with another forward or by using wide players to occupy the channels. When there is no space to move into, he will maintain a more central position.
In a lot of cases, however, the advanced forward is the sole focal point for the offensive efforts of the team, it’s important you supply and support your advanced forward. As I mentioned before, he will need support from either wingers or attacking midfielders to prevent being isolated, otherwise his dribbling and runs into space are wasted.
The advanced forward was designed as the most aggressive forward in the game. His primary movement is actually vertical, as it is hard coded as a priority move. He looks to break past defensive lines and move between defenders. He will move into channels if there is no space centrally, but will always look to make penetrative runs into the penalty area, even from the wide areas.
The complete forward
As his name alludes to, the complete forward does it all. He will make runs behind the defence, he will act as a targetman in holding the ball up and challenging for headers and flick-ons. He will on occasion even drop deeper to link up with midfielders. He will create, score and press.
The difference between a complete forward on support duty and one on attack duty lies in the positioning. On support duty, the complete forward drops deeper. This means he will get more involved in the buildup phase of the attacks. He will get into a position to play through-balls from outside the box. When he’s fielded on attack duty, he will be in more advanced positions,
While his primary offensive movement is horizontal and not vertical, this does not mean that he will not try to get in behind the defensive line. The image above displays his average movement, his typical style. Whether he is fielded alone or as part of a multiple-man forward setup, the advanced forward is generally strong when it comes to his lateral movement, he is not likely to go deep a lot.
The deep-lying forward
The deep-lying forward drops into deeper areas of the pitch to link up with the midfielders during the attacking phases of play, enabling the team to keep possession more easily and giving wide players and other midfielders time to get into advanced positions. Unlike a targetman, who is a physical presence, the deep-lying forward offers a more mobile and technical outlet for the build-up play.
The difference between the support and attack duties of this specific role lies in the forward movement. They both drop into deeper areas, but on support duty, he stays more or less on the edge of the box when moving forward, whereas his movement becomes more penetrative when he is utilised on an attack setting.
This forward role is a very versatile role. You can use a deep-lying forward on his own upfront, provided he receives support from wingers or attack-minded midfielders linking up. He is equally adept in a supportive role with a more all-out offensive forward. His general movement pattern is versatile enough to be of value in almost every setup.
The defensive forward
At first glance, a defensive forward appears to be a contradiction in terms. Forwards are supposed to score goals, not defend. However, in modern football, the first line of defence is the offence. This doesn’t mean they are supposed to drop back all the way into their own penalty area, but they are expected to chip in with the defensive work by harassing and heckling defenders and defensive midfielders.
If the ball is lost, a defensive forward is expected to spring to a defender in possession to the defender in possession to quickly put in a tackle, charging back and forth between defenders. He is effectively leading the press by shutting down passing lanes for the defenders and giving the backline little time on the ball to build up from the back.
You can see some similarities between the deep-lying forward and the defensive forward in terms of movement. Where they differ, though, is that the deep-lying forward drops deeper in an attacking sense in order to link the play, whereas the defensive forward does so in a defensive sense to win tackles and make interceptions.
If you favour playing a high-pressing tactical system, a Defensive Forward can be a useful player to have in leading the press by shutting down opposition defenders in advanced areas of the pitch. Alternatively, if you favour a counter-attacking system, a Defensive Forward can act as an intermediary between the forward and midfield lines by attempting to regain the ball in a deeper area of the pitch before springing forward.
The difference between the support setting and the defensive setting of this role lies in the specific players the defensive forward tries to pressure. On a defensive setting, the defensive forward drops back deeper to press defensive midfielders and disrupt the circulation of the ball in the defensive midfield stratum. On a support setting, he plays his typical pressing game higher up the pitch, trying to pressure the opposing central defenders.
The false nine
The false nine is the epitome of a modern-day forward. He is a playmaker and goalscoring threat all rolled into one player. These players are your Messi’s. A player who drops back into midfield and roams around. He will ask the ball to his feet while his movement draws defensive midfielders and defenders out of position, freeing up space for teammates to exploit.
The false nine is both a difficult and versatile role in employing within your tactic. It’s a difficult role to use because it requires very specific players with very specific qualities to work efficiently, as well as requiring a balanced setup in terms of movement. As a master of manipulation of space, the false nine requires plenty of movement around him. He needs to space to move in and players to move around him to feed off his movement. His potential weaknesses are also the false nine’s main assets. His versatility in his movement can turn an already talented forward into a truly world class asset. If the tactic is set up to make the false nine shine, he can really deliver and elevate the entire team.
In real life football, poachers are a dying breed of forwards. These are the forwards who remain invisible for 89 minutes before breaking the offside trap and slotting in a cheeky goal. A poacher is a pure goal-scorer, trying to play off the shoulder of the last defender to find space and latch onto crosses or through-balls.
Because of their advanced position on the pitch, it is easy for a poacher to become isolated upfront. He will require the support of his team-mates if he is to be effective. You can pair him with a more defensive-minded forward who can do the dirty work him, you can set up support from the wings or from the midfield, but he is going to need people around him.
The targetman is exactly that, a target for your efforts to get away from your own goal. He is expected to win physical duels with defenders, hold up the ball and lay it off or flick it on towards team-mates. He’s supposed to be a very physical enforcer in the final third, relying on strength, size and aerial prowess.
The difference between the support and the attack setting is again mostly in the positioning. A targetman on a support setting drops a lot deeper. He will fill the same role, taking on long balls or direct play, holding up play and laying it off, but he will not get in front of goal a lot. As the name says, he is a supportive player. When fielded in an attacking setting, the targetman has the same tasks, but he plays in and around the penalty area. He will try to get on the end of crosses as well as trying to flick the ball towards team-mates.
A targetman could be used on his own upfront, but again, would require the support from onrushing midfielders or wide men to be really effective. It makes more sense to field him in conjunction with one or two others. On a support setting, the targetman would make a great combination with a poacher for example, forming the classic big man / little man strike partnership. On an attack setting, you could combine the targetman with any other forward role who stays behind the targetman to benefit from flick-ons.
Much like the false nine, the trequartista is a combination between a playmaker and a goalscorer. Where they differ is their movement pattern. A false nine will drop back to link up with midfield before surging forward, whereas a trequartista roams the space between midfield and attack, in between the opposition’s defence and midfield.
These guys are almost never used on their own, though it is possible to do so. They need to be carried by the team as well. As you can see in their player instructions, they are not so fond of defensive efforts and will generally strive to get away from opponents instead of actively closing them down. They are great players to use behind a more advanced forward role.
Creating a conventional setup
When you’re looking to create your own conventional forward setup by transforming a strikerless tactic, there are a number of factors to take into consideration. The first factor would be the lateral movement. In a strikerless setup, there is usually a lot of lateral movement that helps with the retention of possession by offering extra and less risky passing outlets, which is often a key element in strikerless tactics. If you’re replacing all of the attacking midfielders with forwards without taking this into consideration, you could end up with a disjointed and unbalanced formation, which lacks the means to retain the ball as often as the original tactic.
Similarly, you need to look at which players are supposed to be making runs into the box. If you want to score goals, you’re going to need one or two players who get inside the penalty area to score goals. In a strikerless setup, this role is usually reserved for the shadow strikers or trequartistas, who have a different movement pattern than conventional forwards, if only because they have a much deeper position from which they start their movement.
The third factor is the link-up play. Your attacking partnerships and link-ups extend to the AM strata, as well as general creative & running support from deeper midfield positions too. Most strikerless need a player to link the mobile goalscoring threats to the rest of the midfield. Your conventional offensive setup is probably going to require a similar player. This can be a forward or an attacking midfielder, but you are going to require someone to link offence and midfield together.
The final factor to consider is the transitional and defensive contributions of the forward line. Purely looking at my own strikerless tactics, I know that the offensive midfielders are expected to contribute defensively by pressing aggressively. Not every forward role is that dedicated to contributing to the team’s defensive efforts, so balancing your setup in this regard would be sensible if you’re looking for a clean and effective port.
Examples of a strikerless setup ported to a conventional tactic
While this is most definitely not an exhaustive list, these are a number of suggestions on how you can port your typical strikerless tactic to a more conventional setup. Please keep in mind that in FM17, most strikerless tactics feature three attacking midfielders. That means that most suggestions here include three forward players. I have however included the principles and reasoning behind every suggestion, which means that you can easily convert this to a two-man operation if you so desire.
The semi-strikerless setup
You’re being plain lazy, but hey ho, if it works, why not eh? Whereas the traditional strikerless tactics feature shadow strikers, who start from a deep position to make their runs, this setup requires the usage of false nines, who have also make runs from deep positions, but they need to drop back first before they can surge forward. This setup is an easy port and adheres to almost all the basic principles of strikerless football.
The semi-strikerless setup; part II
Another one in the category lazy-but-effective. You’ve heard me rant about the usage of the withdrawn targetman before. So if you’re not bothered by actually using strikers, why not stick a targetman into the mix and keep the rest of the setup intact? Easiest chop-and-change ever! You could also opt for a targetman on an attack setting or even deep-lying forward if it better suits your general style, but it doesn’t really change the philosophy behind the setup.
The Big-Man / Little-Men setup
This setup is a classic British one. Stick a big man upfront, hoof the ball towards him and have several runners positioned around him to link up with the big man. The targetman is supposed to win the aerial challenges and then hold up the ball or flick it on. The shadow striker and the advanced forward will look to break in behind or into a pocket of space.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can chop and change the players’ roles as it suits you. The advanced forward could be replaced by a more one-dimensional poacher, whereas the big man could also be a targetman on an attack setting or even a deep-lying forward or complete forward. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, stick a trequartista into the mix instead of a shadow striker to add a touch of creativity.
Creator – Scorer
In this setup, you make use of one creative player and one or two others who are mobile threats, waiting to be released into space by the creator with a through-ball. The creator generally plays deeper than the runners, allowing him more time on the ball to pick his pass. You could always stick the attacking midfielder in between the other two, if you so desire, as long as he drops deep to generate space for himself.
There are countless variations on this setup. The trequartista can be replaced by an advanced playmaker or enganche, whereas the forward two can be replaced by deeplying forwards or even complete forwards if you want to add a creative touch to the front two as well. It all depends on the players at your disposal and the rest of your setup.