American Football – Part IV; Evolution of the System

While my goals for the system were constant from the beginning, it can evolve considerably from the first season to its current iteration. Particularly in the early years, the system was extremely cumbersome altogether lacked much of the variation and complexity, not to mention actual functionality, that the current system has. There were numerous roadblocks and hurdles along the way and the team had to endure some pretty ugly football at times working out the kinks. To date, there have been 3 versions of the system, each a significant step forward from the last. I do not expect to need another complete version moving forward as I really like where it is now and I think any changes will be within the existing framework, but who knows.

Version 1: Chaos and Confusion – Seasons 1 & 2

Objective

My original intention was to control the game from the middle third by stacking the midfield strata with 4 – 6 midfielders, 3 of more of which would be in central positions. I would use a position of dominance in the midfield to influence the game in the attacking and defending thirds. From there I would create a varied attack through the use of different groups of attackers.

Design

The original system used around 24 different formations, each of which had its own TI setup and player roles, to create a complete playbook. The formations varied but followed 4 general themes based on how many attackers they each brought, resulting in 4 core formations, from which the others were variations of the core. Generally speaking, the formations were designed around the idea that they would shift central midfielders forwards or backward, in conjunction with higher or lower mentalities to apply more or less pressure to either the attacking third or middle third. The groups of formations were defined by each having 2 of 3 characteristics: either 2 strikers, 2 wide midfielders, or 2 fullbacks. Additionally, there was a group of single striker formations.

For example, the 3-1-3-1-2 group of formations combined 2 strikers with 2 wide midfielders, but could not use any fullbacks for width. The “defense” variant would move a MC back into the DMC strata, while the “Attack” variant would move the DMC forward into the MC strata. There would also be a “Control” variation that would use the same formation as the “Base” formation but would use a different set of roles and TI. Generally speaking, the “Base” variation was the balanced version, the “Control” was a possession tactic, the “Attack” version was a high block/high press and the “Defense” was a counter.

In this version of the system, aside from the idea of a playbook, I was not really drawing off my football background. Instead, I was trying to recreate the generic soccer tactics that I was reading about on the forums.  But there was a major problem, I had no soccer background and didn’t really understand what I was trying to create. I would read about Tiki-Taka possession or the Bayern high press and then try to remake them, but I had no idea what the finished product was actually supposed to look like. Honestly, I’m not really sure why I thought this would work. I think I really just underestimated the complexity of the tactics creator and the match engine — and likely the entire sport — and thought I would just click a few things like suggested on the forum and voilà instant soccer genius.

Result

Tactically speaking, the system was an absolute disaster. What I had created was a system of chaos and confusion led by an utter moron who couldn’t use anything other than the scoreboard to judge what was happening on the pitch. I wildly changed the tactics and shifted players nearly at random trying to react to everything I thought I saw on the field. When it all started falling apart in a match, and it often did, I would just resort to some sort of man-marking monstrosity on defense and hope that my offense could score more goals. The results and tactics were inconsistent at the best of times and I’m sure the soccer was downright ugly to watch.

Yet the impossible happened, I was winning matches. All thanks to 2 half decent tactics buried in a sea of trash — the 4-6-0 Control and the 3-5-2 Defense — and a player — Paul Wyatt — who was playing 2 leagues below his ability and absolutely carrying the team and me on his back. I ended up getting lucky late in the season and caught the last spot in the promotional playoffs, and then somehow won through to promotion. It gave me confidence the tactic was working, and, after upgrading the squad, I led the team through another campaign of insanity and inconsistency to a mid table finish my second season. But with Paul Wyatt now with players more his skill level, the inadequacies of my tactics and the system as a whole were plain for anybody to see, even with my untrained eye.

Takeaways

The biggest positive I had was lucking into 2 (of 24) decent tactics. They gave me something that I could always fall back on in a match and gave me the confidence to keep playing. I also was able to use them as an opportunity to see what better play looked like so I at least had a goal to aim for with the other tactics. I also spent a lot of time watching the central midfielders and how they played, often focusing on a single player for games at a time and just observing how they played in my various tactics. This was immeasurably valuable as it gave me a much better understanding of how to balance the midfield and use roles/mentalities to move them forward or keep them back in the various phases of the game. This knowledge was extremely helpful in designing and refining my own midfielder roles but also gave me a knowledge base to apply to the other positions moving forward.

Version 2: Watch and learn — Seasons 3 & 4

Objective

The playbook and formation system from the first two seasons had shown its limitations. It was tedious to use and the results were inconsistent. Instead of continuing to try to fix the broken system, I scrapped almost the entire thing, keeping only the parts that worked. My goal was to focus on those few plays and work to improve them.

Design

The 24 play playbook was immediately reduced to 5 formations/plays. The 4-6-0 Base and the 3-5-2 Defend were the core of the new playbook, and they worked well as designed. Additionally, I kept the 4-5-1 Wide, 4-4-2 Hybrid. They were less consistent but showed enough flashes of success that I didn’t think they were a total waste of my time. Plus I had just signed 3 exceptional wide midfielders and I thought they could turn the formations around. Each formation was given a specific role and had its TI’s tailored to that role. The 4-6-0 Base kept its “Control” possession role. The 3-5-2 was redesigned slightly to be a bit more balanced and played my “Balance” role The 4-5-1 Wide was designed to attack and the 4-4-2 Hybrid was designed around the counter.

Under the redesigned system, if I wanted to switch to a new style of playing, I would have to totally switch formations and often bring on subs, where previously I had just moved midfielders around for the most-part. It made shifting more difficult and significantly reduced the number of tactical changes I made in a game to one or two at most.

Result

The smaller system was much more successful and consistent and the quality of play improved dramatically as I had hoped it would. However, what was intended to be a 4 formation system, was really more of a 2 formation system. The attack on the 4-5-1 was effective, but it was getting destroyed on defense. Similarly, while the 4-4-2 Hybrid defended well, it struggled immensely to put together any sort of attack. I struggled through 2 seasons trying to get either to work well without success and they were eventually both reduced to strictly situational roles.

The biggest and best impact the system had was that it prevented me from making constant changes on the field. Because I didn’t have the options for making constant changes to the TI, I was able to focus on the players and what they were doing. In watching them, I was able to better identify what they did that I liked and didn’t like and make tweaks to their PI to make them work better individually and as a unit. I also was able to take time to see how my formations lined up defensively against other formations. Additionally, I improved my man-marking techniques and developed the system for “cutting the midfield”.

In the third season, I went on a 32 game unbeaten streak in the National League that would eventually lead to my first Championship. In the fourth season, I got hot late and was able to sneak into the League 2 playoffs and steal another promotion. Much of this was due to a significantly improved roster and the addition of some very speedy wide midfielders. However, the tactics and football had improved considerably and I was getting reasonably apt at recognizing when each of my formations was or wasn’t going to work. Thankfully, the 3-5-2 Wing was proving to be great against the 4-4-2 and the 4-6-0 Base performed well enough against the 4-1-2-3 and 4-2-3-1 that I could muster an answer to the majority of what I was facing in the English lower leagues.

But with the simplicity of the new system came significant weaknesses, as it lacked the tools to do many things. Oftentimes, I found myself forced to rely on the counter or attacking tactics that were inconsistent in producing what was expected of them. Neither made for good football to watch and regularly let me down despite all my efforts to improve them. There were also numerous times I just simply didn’t have (or determine) what I needed to either defend or attack against certain set-ups and formations. It was frustrating as I would see the similar things in matches over and over again but just couldn’t get over that hump against them.

Takeaways

In these two seasons, I was able to improve immeasurably on my ability to read what was happening on the field. I didn’t always have an answer, which was frustrating, but I could identify the problem with much more regularity. Additionally, all of the time watching my players had allowed me to refine their individual roles and fix a lot of small issues in the tactics. As a result, more often than not, my 3-5-2 Wing and 4-6-0 Base were actually producing good football and results. The back to back promotions and 3 in 4 seasons gave me a lot of confidence moving forward, despite my continued frustrations with the counter and attacking formations and the unsolvable issues that would keep reappearing.

My Eureka Moment — between Seasons 4 & 5

Following season 4 I  scraped both the counter and attacking tactics. I was ready to accept that I couldn’t make them work and I was okay with that as I felt I was in good company as failed tactics seemed too commonplace on the forums. Rather, I was excited that I had 2 working tactics and was ready to return to the drawing board to find another. Preferably something with my 4-4-2 Hybrid. What I didn’t know is that a single forum post was going to make a lightbulb go off that would change everything for me.

Still a lurker on this forum I came across a rather innocent post referencing a mentality chart (below). Previously I had read a super interesting and dense article on FM Scout regarding the mentality ladder and shape and it pertained to individual players. I found it super helpful in understanding how, mechanically speaking, the AI treated different player mentalities, and it helped me get a rudimentary understanding of the decision tree the AI traverses in evaluating potential actions. But this was different as it broke out everything in a super convenient chart and even went to far as to break it down by position.

As I was still trying to create a playbook of soccer tactics, I didn’t know where else to go because I lacked any frame of reference. As far as I understood it, there were 4 ways to play soccer, balanced, possession, counter, and attacking. Having given up on creating a working attacking or counter formation and feeling good about my balanced and possession tactics, I was struggling for ideas of where to go with the new tactic. As a means to get a launching point for a new tactic and with no real goal in mind, I decided to print off a few copies of this chart and see if I could find anything to pique my interest and get the creative juices flowing.

After I printed it off, I identified all of the positions/roles I use in my formations from my 2 successful tactics (standard/structured and control/fluid) and then my 2 failed tactics (counter/flex and attack/flex). Then I compared the two and identified the differences between the various tactics. I also broke out the positions and roles I used into 3 broad categories and added them up so I could roughly compare how each setup was broadly affecting the groups of players I was relying on for either attack, defense, or support.

It became immediately apparent that the two tactics that were failing me were either higher or lower across the board compared to my successful tactics. Using the failed tactics as upper and lower extremes, I looked to see if I could find something that might fall closer to my existing tactics, but still be different enough to give me something new. I identified all of the player/positions from the good tactics, and using them as bookends, I circled all the instances where the players could be expected to play like my existing tactics. Then I did the same with the failed tactics but scratched out the most troublesome and problematic players/roles. After I was done I identified all the mentality/shape combinations which would give me the players I liked and avoid giving me the players I didn’t like. This left me with 6 potential options, but after culling the ones with results that were either nearly identical to my own tactics or too close to the failed tactics, I was left with 3. I dismissed the counter/highly structured as it was across the board lower (like the previously failed tactic) and having narrowed it down to 2 — control/highly structured and attack/highly structured.

Then I did a deeper analysis comparing the 2 potentials with the 2 successful on each of my 3 formations. In the end, the differences were slight, but in the end, I went with the attacking over the control as I already had a tactic that used control and I was concerned that I was going to have some of the same issues at DMC(d) as with the failed counter tactic.

What I also discovered is that the various setups had significant similarities such that they could potentially be used interchangeably without having to change player roles or formations. This would allow me to create potentially different styles of play to create the playbook I wanted. At this point, I was well beyond any soccer based tactic or system that I had previously seen. Since I was making a football playbook, it seemed appropriate to pull off my football knowledge to design it. Using the objectives I identified in the previous sections, I went through all the TI options to determine which were going to be required for me to get the styles of play I wanted to see.

For each TI option I thought I wanted, I asked myself 1) How did it fit into the system? and 2) How will my team be able to handle the instruction? The end result was a lot shorter than I expected and significantly trimmed the TI list from the original tactics.

Version 3: Football meets Football– Season 5 & 6

Objective

I wanted to explore and figure out if what I had was a workable model or if I was working into a dead end. Worst case scenario, I was going to be able to return to my previous tactics and I felt confident that I could use the attacking/highly structured core to make something workable with the 4-4-2 Hybrid formation.

Design

While it started with just 3 formations, the system eventually expanded into what you see now. As I continued to play, I started to put more and more effort into identifying, creating, and exploiting match-ups.  When I discovered I lacked the formation to do what I wanted, then I started bringing back or creating new formations to fill the need. I started using the gap/zone system to help decide player roles and evaluate whether or not I was effectively using the entire field or leaving areas undefended or without an attacker to exploit them.

Result

I was finally able to get the “playbook” I envisioned when I started and I am still exploring the full capacity of the system. What was especially exciting for me is that I was operating in a system that I understood. I went from trying to make something I didn’t really understand work to actually being able to envision and then create what I had in my mind. That was a pretty amazing change. It was so refreshing to say “I should have done x” vs throwing my hands up and not knowing how to approach a problem.

Also exciting was that the soccer in the matches was so much better to watch. Most notable was the consistency. Even when things fell apart or looked poor it could normally be traced to a poor tactical decision by me rather than the players just looking like crap.

Early in the 5th season, we had some struggles, particularly in defense, but a lot of that was because we had just promoted back to back and our player quality was poor. I was able to get a new GK around midseason and that alone cut the goals conceded in half. We ended up ending the season just outside of the playoffs. Prior to the 6th season, I sat down and tried to think of all the niche I needed to fill to hopefully have a complete system and not find myself without the right formation. I expanded from 5 formations to the 9 you see now, adding the goal line and the right/left formations. The season went great with us dominate throughout despite an almost identical squad.

Takeaway

The light bulb switching on regarding shape/mentality was a huge step for me. I now finally understand how Cleon was able to create his attacking defense and use so many counter intuitive formations to create wildly different tactics. Now, I’m still by no means capable of doing all that, but I at least understand the mechanics and how he did it. That gives me huge amounts of hope and confidence moving forward.

As for the system, it ss more than I ever expect it would be and I’m still exploring all of the possibilities for it. It is as strong as I am in identifying and reacting to what is happening on the pitch. Right now, I’m definitely the part holding it back right now, which gives me something to strive for.

Moving Forward: Where to now?

In addition to sharing, part of the whole reason I did this entire write-up was for me to go through the mental exercise of thinking through the system to the depth needed to explain it. I figured it would help me better understand the system and also identify potential weaknesses and give me direction with it moving forward other than just learning to execute it better — which is priority number 1 right now.

One of the weaknesses with the system right now is that my player roles are more static than I really want them to be. I could be getting a lot more out of all the formations if I had more options on attack and could shift my player roles to redirect my attacks into a new manner in match. Currently if I want a drastically different attack, I am almost forced to sub into a new formation.

The biggest hurdle I have right now is that I do not have a clear alternative to the WM(a) to attack the B Gap. Particularly, I would like to figure out a method for creating a reliable B Gap runner from another position, preferably something in the center of the pitch, like a CM, AMC, or STC. My BBM(s) create some B Gap runs, but they are unreliable and unpredictable. I’ve run into a similar issue with the CM(a). I think they may be the answer, but I’ve yet to get what I’m looking for. This issue is also holding me back from being able to create a couple new formations I have in my head which would definitely be useful but don’t have a wide midfielder available to attack the B Gap.

Similarly, the 3 man attack is effective but single-minded in attacking the A Gap. I would be nice to be able to set it up in a manner than would be more balanced between the A and B Gaps or actually be able to redirect it into a B Gap. This would help significantly when the opposing team is effectively defending the A Gap with either good CD discipline or effective tracking back from the CM. Although its not a large issue now, I expect this issue will become more common as the quality of players increase.

Additionally, system aside, I have a lot of issues that I need to learn related to club finances and roster management which are going to limit the progress of the club here soon.

All told, I feel the system is strong, and even if I can’t make any improvements on what I have now, I believe it is capable of bringing my club to the top even in its current state.

4 thoughts on “American Football – Part IV; Evolution of the System

  • I feel thoroughly enlightened, it felt that way throughout the series.
    Lovely to read, with eyes&mind wide awake, itching every day to go back home straight from work, to implement the idea shared and even tinker a bit.

    Thanks a lot!

  • Nice series… I love American Football and all the strategies it brings to sports in general. I’ve been watching the game since 1993 (started with an Eagles vs Broncos game, featuring Cunningham and -not yet a Super Bowl winner- Elway. Thank god the game broadcast next week was a 49ers matchup where I met Steve Young and an old yet still legendary Joe Montana, not to mention Jerry Rice. So I immediately became a 49ers fan and been a Faithful ever since, through good days and “Kaep” days.

    Anyway, I like your approach to the game, very interesting to see the gap play translated into “soccer”. The logic is the same as in every single team sports shaped around a ball… Overloading a certain part of the pitch and creating matchup issues. This shape / mentality chart looks very helpful as well. I’ve read similar stuff before by Cleon and other leading authors of the community but it seems to me that I have missed this one so it would be great if you could share a link with us to go alongside the chart.

    Also, isn’t this the 9th one in the series?
    So it has to be American Football part IX instead of IV, right? 🙂

  • I hope this gets finished as it’s been very interesting to read how you are trying to transfer the playbook scenarios across to football/soccer.
    It would be great to know where you’ve ended up formation & strategies wise.

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