American Football – Part VIII; Executing the System

So all the preparation in the world is no good if you can’t execute on game day. Part of what I enjoy about this system and makes it fun for me is that it really challenges me as a coach to step up and get involved in what is happening on the field. I have a role to play as much as any player on the field. If I’m not making the calls to give them favorable match-ups, the players are going to struggle to win their one-on-ones and the team will struggle.

It is also important to note that this is very much a “by feel” thing and there aren’t any unbreakable rules. I still have a lot to learn and am continuing to test the bounds of the system. I’m constantly looking to add or subtract things and discover new ways to make the system work in my favor.

For those interested, I always watch matches on comprehensive highlights, but I am often doing something else outside of the game while the match runs, particularly if I feel good about the direction the match is going.

Pick a base formation

The entire process starts before the game even starts with selecting a base formation and lineup for the match. Although I am going to try to get my best 11 on the field every game, because of the matchups the various formations make, I will make concessions to get a favorable matchups, knowing that I could bring a better player on at some point with a formation change if the first choice formation isn’t successful.

The first thing I am looking at is the opposing team formation, particularly that back line. If it is a 4 man backline without DMC support, then I want my 3 man attack to hit that A Gap, so I’m going to go 4-4-2 Diamond or 3-5-2. If its anything else, I’m probably going to with my 5 wide men, so either a 4-6-0 or 4-4-2 Hybrid.

Having narrowed the selection down to 2 formations, I look at how my defense is going to line up against their attackers. This is less clear cut as I have less information about how they will actually attack, so I have to just guess based on numbers and positioning. If they have wide attacking midfielders (AMR/L) then I want to make sure that I have a full 4-man back line to match their width, eliminating the 3-5-2. If they have 3 or more central attackers (STC & AMC), I want to make sure that I have more than just 3 players protecting the central areas, else I am vulnerable to them bringing an attacker in from deep or wide to create a numerical overload. This will eliminate the 4-4-2 Diamond, but the 4-6-0 is still a valid option because the numerical overload it creates defensively in the midfield can offset this. If there are 2 or more strikers, then the 3-5-2 becomes a good option to try to double team and outnumber the strikers, but the 4-6-0 and 4-4-2 could still be in contention.

Last, I look at the central midfield (AMC, MC, DMC). If I am between 2 formations, but one can get me a man advantage in this area, then I will often opt for it over the other. However, I don’t value a 2 man advantage any more than a 1 man advantage. Having a free man in transition and for recycling possession is very useful, but having 2 doesn’t add that much over just 1. I also look at the shape of their midfield compared to mine, in particular, I want to avoid putting my 3 man midfield up against a 2 MC, 1 DMC. This is because my 3 man midfield lacks the movement, particularly at DMC(s) to find space and it makes it easy for the other side to defend.  Generally speaking, midfield is more of a tiebreaker than deciding factor and I have already decided on a formation before I got to this point.

Common lineups

Here is my typical lineup in response to the formations I regularly see:

  • Against a standard flat 4-4-2, I’m going 3-5-2. Everytime. Period.
  • Against a standard 4-2-3-1 Wide, I’m going 4-4-2 Diamond more often than not.
  • Against a normal 3-5-2/5-3-2 (with the wingbacks and 3 midfielders), I’m looking at my 4-6-0.
  • Against a normal 4-1-2-3 Wide, I’m also looking at my 4-6-0.

Last, if the team I am going up against is immeasurably better than I am like I get a cup draw against a team I have no business playing, then I throw everything else out and go with the 4-6-0.

Here is a breakdown of how my formations were this last season when I won Skybet League 1.

Pregame

I don’t use any OI currently, though I hope to start incorporating them into my system at some point in the future. Unfortunately, for now, I just don’t have the skill to recognize what specific players are doing or understand how to use the OI to make their life difficult. For now, rather than screw anything up, I just leave it alone. I also don’t let my assistant manager make those calls because I don’t want them to inadvertently wreck my system.

I do, however, make some man-marking assignments. I generally avoid this until I see how the game is playing out, but with the 3-5-2 I need to mark the W(s) to the opposing wide midfielder (or most advanced wide players).

I also set up my initial TI setting if it needs to change as I prefer to start from the “Balance” TI. Typically this is just if I’m in the 4-4-2 Hybrid as it has “Attack” by default and I will sometimes reduce it to “Balance” before the match starts. The 4-6-0 starts with “Control” by default, but I typically let the 4-6-0 start that way.

Watch and react to the match as its developing

All the formations are designed to run all of the TI settings and the TI switches can make the team play in very different ways. This is an easy way to react and change what is happening on the field. Further, because each TI in constant (as opposed to making different TI switches all the time), I know what each TI setting looks like when it is or is not working. Switching TI is an easy move and the first change I ever make in response to what I see.

Unless something jumps out at me, first I’m focusing on transitions and play through the middle third for both teams. Particularly I am watching how freely both teams are getting through the middle. If they are getting through easily, then I’m looking to switch to “Control” or “Attack” to disrupt their tempo and apply more pressure. If they are letting me get through freely, then I’m looking to take advantage by getting the ball, so I will lean towards “Control”. If they are really pressuring me, or leaving a lot of space behind the line, then I’m looking at trying to exploit that with “Attack”.  I also watch how both teams are attacking and defending the gaps and zones. If they aggressively trying to get the ball into the zones behind my LOS, I should shy away from control as it has the defense taking the highest risks and is the most likely to give them that extra bit of space. If they are giving me space behind the LOS, then I’m looking “Attack”.

Regardless of all that, if I am getting good chances on goal or am at least getting the ball into dangerous locations and they aren’t, then I’m  going to stick with what I have and not make a change, even if something else might be better. Similarly, if they are getting good chances and I’m not, then I have to make a change. The system lives off tipping the scale in my favor. Once it is tipped, I’ve done all I can as a coach. Now it is on my players. I’m not going to try to tip it further for fear of losing the advantage. Likewise, if it is going against me I need to make a change.

Cannot Solve Problems with a TI switch

I don’t consider something a problem until I see the same issue 2 or 3 times unless it is so obvious and dangerous that it needs to be addressed immediately. I don’t want to be chasing ghosts and altering the tactic for issues that aren’t really there, even if something results in a goal against. It is important to remember that I don’t expect to have a perfect defense and that the other team is out there trying to win too. I can’t stop everything and they are going to make some plays and score. A problem is only a problem if it is repeatedly happening.

That said, oftentimes I cannot solve the repeating problem with a TI switch. Sometimes the issue is isolated, like a single opposing wide player always getting free space, which I can solve by man-marking or switching the appropriate FB to WB(s). Else if it an issue of players getting too aggressive attacking gaps, I can redirect them to work the zones in front of the LOS more with a similar switch to their support role.

If the attack is working well, but the whole team is struggling to defend, then I look to see if I can solve the issue with a generous helping of man marking. Typically it’s wide players beating me or my wide players are always being out of position. If that’s the case, I will go man-to-man outside and set all of the wide players to man-mark their counterparts on the opposing team. This reduces their pressure on other players but keeps them locked down on their guys.

“Cutting the midfield”

Alternatively, if it is not just the wide players, but the entire team beating me, then I do what I call “cutting the midfield”. Under this, my goal is to use every one of my players to man mark out every player they could possibly play through and free up my CD and DMC to focus on defending the opposing strikers. I start by going man-to-man outside. Then starting with my most advanced attackers, I start man marking them to the holding midfielder and working backward, assign my players to their central midfielders. The goal is to get my advanced players to drop back a bit deeper than they normally would on defense and focus their pressure on a single player to try to take away their space.

Typically this will result in my DLF(s) matched up with the opposing holding midfielder, my AF(a) or SS(a) matched up with their more supporting midfielder, and my BBM(s) or SS(a) matched up on any midfielders with even more advanced positioning. My DC and DMC are left to control their gaps and zones as normal but now can have a much easier time of it as they can focus on the strikers and only have to clean up an occasional leaker. Additionally, with no midfield players left with any space, the opposing defensive players are forced to decide between lobbing the ball forward into my CD and DMC or trying to squeeze a pass into very tight windows. Their central defensive players can now make the pass mostly without being harassed, but all the passing options become much harder for them to make.

For the football gurus, they may recognize this as a Man Under or Cover 2-Man Under defensive play.

“Cutting the Midfield” is an incredibly effective method to disrupt the opposing teams attack, but my own attack suffers, particularly in transition. This makes it difficult to play with the “Attack” TI and is why I avoid this level of man-marking unless needed. It’s also worth pointing out that if I have both a AF(a) and DLF(s), I man mark the DLF(s) to the holding midfielder and not the AF(a) as the DLF(a) positioning is more important in transition and the AF(a) still plays effectively running from deeper.

Formation switch

Finally, if the attack is the problem, I lack the players to man-mark effectively, or the man marking doesn’t work then I look to switch formations. Sometimes I skip right to changing formation if I am confident that a certain formation can give me what I need or if it’s not burdensome to make the switch, as is often the case for the “Sub” formations.

I’ll not get into too much detail as I discussed the merits of each formation previously. However, it’s important to mention that the entire playbook is open and any formation is fair game, including the goal line formations. I’m also not going to concern myself too much if that means I use up 2 of my subs in the first 20 mins to get the formation I need — although I will avoid using all 3 in possible, including playing out of position. It’s not ideal, but learn from it and next time you make sure you pick a better base formation time start the game.

Situational Football

You may have noticed that up to this point, I have not mentioned using statistics or the score to dictate what I’m doing. While I do watch stats as the game goes on, I use them to confirm or deny conclusions I have drawn from watching the march and not to form conclusions directly from any stats, including the score. So while I may be down 2-1 away 30 mins into a match, if I like what I see and shots totals and chances for each team are in my favor, confirming what I see, then I will stick with what has been working, despite the score. Because if I’m getting my guys play the way I want, then the system IS working and needs to be left to continue to work. The score and even the final results of the match aren’t the benchmark. Similarly, if I’m up a goal, but don’t like what I’m seeing, I’m looking to make a change.

I cannot emphasize that enough. My only objective is to get the system to work. That is my only measure of success. Not goals. Not even wins and losses. Because I believe — and have seen — that if the system is working, then good results will come. Maybe not every time, but definitely more often than not.

Two goal rule

That said if I go up or down by 2 goals I need to take steps to consider the game situation and either close out the advantage I have or turn the game around.

I’m the team ahead, then I may just switch the FB(a) to WB(s) to keep them from making so many forward runs. For the most part though, I’m going to stick with what got me up 2 goals. I just need to take care to not get complacent in reacting to changes the opposing team may make.

If I’m the team down 2, then I need to come up with a plan immediately to get back into the game. At minimum, this means I need to play “Attack” or “Control” to either attack the zones or gaps to try to get some offense going. I also really take a hard look at making a formation change to give myself more attacking tools, including going as far as switching to my 2-6-2. I don’t like it, but the base system, even under ideal circumstances, is designed around 3-1 wins. In actuality, the average results are closer to 2-1. Getting the 3+ goals needed to overcome the 2 goal deficit is simply too much for the base system to overcome without adapting to give the team any chance at a result.

Subs and the last 15-30 mins

If I can, I try to save all of my subs for a single 3 man substitution that will occur between the 60-75 minute marks. I like using all 3 at once because even if I’m not making a formation shift, adding 3 sets of fresh legs all at once can shift a number of matchups into my favor. I prefer to do to between the 60-75th minutes because I feel that gives my new players the best chance to impact the game. Any earlier, and I don’t feel like they have a great advantage over the players coming with rest from halftime. Any later and I feel like the new players aren’t getting enough time to exploit their matchup advantage.

This substitution event is my last chance to shift into to a different formation, and, unlike other changes I make in the game, this change is very influenced by the game situation.

Winning

If I like what I have been seeing and I have a 1+ goal advantage, I’m likely to stick with what got me there. I will look to shore up the defense by reducing to “Balance” and tone down my FB(a) to WB(s) if I have a 2+ goal advantage. But if I’m at just 1 goal advantage, then I am going to keep up with the attack as I think the best way to protect a single score lead is to score again. If I do, then I will shift down to “Balanced” with WB(s). In this scenario, I’m waiting till closer to 75 min to make the subs, as my current players are doing a good job. And when I do make the subs, they will primarily be in the defensive strata.

If I have that same 1+ goal advantage, but I’m not liking what I’m seeing, then I’m not going to get greedy and instead try to defend what I have. I will make the subs closer to 60 mins and my primary goal will be removing and replacing my underperforming players. I will also strongly consider shifting into a more defensive formation, like a 4-6-0, 4-4-2 Hybrid, or, in extreme situations, 5-5-0. Last, I will put my FB (a) to WB (s) and avoid the “Attack” TI.

Not Winning

Similarly, if I don’t have a goal advantage or I’m losing and I’m not liking what I’m seeing on the pitch, then I’m making the change closer to 60 mins, maybe even as early as 50-55 mins. I’m also likely looking to change formations to get more attack, though I’m typically looking at the sub formations or the 2-6-2. And for my subs, I’m trying to get my underperforming players off and bring on fresh attackers.

If I’m down or it is a tie game, but I like what the team is doing, then I’m going to let them keep going out there and give them a chance to equalize or gain the goal advantage. I’ll sub late around 75 mins and try to make the subs balanced across the formation to help keep the team going in the right direction. If at 75 mins, I’m still down, I will strongly consider shifting into a sub formation or 2-6-2 to try to make sure I at least get the equalizing goal and give my team the best chance at winning the match. However, if it is drawn at 75 mins, and we look good, I’m not changing anything with the expectation that a player is going to step up and make the play to get the late game winning goal.

Always at this point in the match, I am looking for a win and I will do what I can to give my team the best shot at it. I don’t expect to always get the result though. I can be happy with a loss where my team played well and were in it until the end. Likewise, even if I get a win, I’m upset if my team played poorly.

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