In Greek mythology, Cerberus was often called the “hound of Hades”. Cerberus is the monstrous multi-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving. Cerberus is my first FM18 tactic to be released and like the three-headed beast, it revolves around three deadly forwards carving a path of mayhem and destruction through opposing defences.
As a pragmatic football manager, I found myself struggling during beta, torn between trying to make individual stars shine and maintaining a tight and cohesive system. The fanboy in me wanted to make the stars shine as they do in real life, wanted to emulate the insane records set by the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, whereas the dogmatic strikerless zealot in me did not want to compromise the ideas that made strikerless as good as it was in previous iterations of the game.
The team shape
Since the Football Manager series is a simulation an actual football match it is essentially a system comprising of twenty-two elements moving with the confines of the given area of the pitch and subjected to the restrictions of the rules. In the past, for me, that implied that football was not about individuals, but the coalitions and connections between them.
Personally, I like to meticulously plan my tactics, with the team’s preparation divided into three levels. I train my players to have individual training geared towards a skill-set that suits the roles I expect them to play. That way, I can equip them with the skill-set needed to fulfil the tasks expected of them within the confines of the tactic I created. Secondly, within a general basic tactic, I setup specific tweaks for each player to the opponents we are facing. Finally, I setup strategies devised for a protracted league and international campaigns, placing each game in context by acknowledging that it is impossible for a side to maintain maximal levels over a prolonged period of time, ensuring that we have a setup to grind out games and conserving energy during periods of fixture congestion.
This Cerberus tactic strictly follows these guidelines: it is essentially a team built around several banks of players working together in a cohesive unit. Working in a 4-1-2-3-0 shape, the tactic lines up in a way maximised to overcome rivals by trying to manipulate the size of the playing area, making the field larger when in possession and smaller when defending. This setup is an effort to find the right balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defence and attack – never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match.
The idea is that our shape in possession is linked with a robust collective structure and well-coordinated movement. Considering the roles I have chosen and will elaborate on, you can see I am putting quite a bit of emphasis on a quick, vertical playing approach. Defensively, the most crucial aspect of this tactic’s philosophy is the way this setup operates when defending. Faithful to the principles I mentioned earlier, it’s all about manipulating space. Defensively, we want to restrict the opposition as much as possible.
The defensive block
In terms of pure defensive players, I only have two purely defensive roles on the team-sheet. This does not mean I tend to ignore the defenders. While the backline is often ignored, with their contributions receiving nothing more than a cursory glance, or a tacitly taken for granted acknowledgement, I recognise their value for my team.
These men do a thankless job, breaking up attacks, thwarting the opposition and doing the spade work. One mistake is all it takes to tear their reputation into tatters. Especially with my tendency to play almost suicidally high defensive lines, the defensive triangular-shaped block at the heart of the defence is the vitally important to the team’s efforts dominance. This group marshalls the entire team and acts as its bedrock. Plain central defenders and a defensive midfielder screening are all that is required.
A factor whose importance I cannot underline often enough is that of the defensive midfielder, who acts as the hybrid player who contributes to all phases of play, from attack through all the transitions onto defence. In this instance, I have included him in the defensive block to look at how he shields the central pairing at the back.
The screenshot above shows you how many interceptions and tackles this defensive trio makes, with #4 being Wessel Dammers, my defensive midfielder, whereas #23 is central defender Perr Schuurs and #39 is his compatriot at the back Allasane Diaby. Combined, the two central defenders nullify most offensive threats in and around the penalty area, whereas the defensive midfielder attempts to screen the space in front of the penalty area, trying to cut out the through ball towards the forwards.
Passing-wise, the central defenders do try to get involved. They often employ long driven passes forward to try and launch our fast shadow strikers into space. Most of the passes back towards the keeper originate from interceptions or won duels with opposing forwards, whereas most of the passes out of bounds consist of failed clearances. For central defenders, they are doing fairly well in terms of their passing.
The defensive midfielders’ passing is mostly offensive, which means I intend to look at it elsewhere in this article. While his defensive duties involve screening the central pair, he also acts as a passing outlet for the defenders, while similarly anchoring the midfield into place, acting as a passing option to relieve pressure.
The passing chart shows in which areas the defensive midfielder receives the ball. He primarily moves laterally across the pitch, shuffling from left to right in the defensive midfield zone and slightly above at times, protecting the back-line with his positioning, acting as a passing outlet for the defenders and focussing his energy towards starting attacks as well.
The spear carriers
A spear carrier is somebody who stands in the hall when Caesar passes, comes to attention and thumps his spear. He is a character put in a story to be used as a piece of disposable tissue. They are there to be used, either for atmosphere or as minor obstacles in the path of the hero. In my tactic, the spear carriers are out wide. The wingbacks are my spear carriers.
Much like their compatriots in the central area of defence, they are out there doing a thankless job. They are tasked with containing the wide threats of the opposition and providing some offensive width to an otherwise very narrow setup. They do an awful lot of running, with not much of a reward in terms of accolades.
Their passing charts underline their support function on the pitch. These marauding flank players shuttle down the flanks and commit tremendous amounts of energy to their tasks, often without catching the spotlight. They often do the legwork in bringing the ball forward, yet they hardly ever penetrate into the penalty area with crosses or passes.
In terms of their runs down the flank, the recurring theme of hardly ever catching the spotlight applies as well. They pour tremendous effort into their runs down the flank, but they are mostly utilised to defend the flanks and act as the occasional wide outlet going forward. They are not raining a hail of crosses into the penalty area since this is not FM16.
The unsung (hybrid) hero
One player who I feel warrants attention, in this case, is the defensive midfielder. He is the hybrid player of this tactic, the unsung hero who ties the lines together. He doesn’t excel offensively, he’s not the one making the Hollywood-passes, nor is the one to score a heap of goals or rack up assists like it’s nothing. He isn’t a proficient force defensively, normally he’s not the one with the great last-ditch sliding challenge or the skilful tackle on an opposing player. No, this defensive midfielder is supposed to be the master of the transition phase of play and his main weapon is his positional awareness and vertical and lateral movement across the pitch.
I have included the deep-lying playmaker as an integral part of both the defensive block as the midfield block, yet I still opted to name him as a separate entity in this list because of his status in the team as a hybrid player, who contributes to all aspects and plays an integral role in offence, defence and the transition phases between them.
The heartbeat of the team
The midfielders are the heartbeat of this team, offering interchangeable partnerships, each one carefully selected to add a specific touch, a clearcut aspect to this particular blend and union of roles. Effectively, this is the setup I have chosen to work with.
Two of these roles, the Carrilero and Mezzala, are new to the game. I have opted to use these roles because they have hardcoded special behaviours in the match engine, which will see them play slightly wider than the other central midfielder roles available in the game. Considering the fact that my formation is already rather narrow in the way it lines up on the pitch, I can use whatever width I can add to the mix.
The idea is that these roles interact with each other to create a kind of layering or staggering in the way they line up. The mezzala is supposed to actively seek space in the half-space, trying to get into attacking positions and linking up with the forward bank of three. Similarly, the carrilero, who is more of a supporting player, will provide support in the wider areas as well as shield the central area. Because of the mezzala’s movement forward, he will make room for the deep-lying playmaker to step forward and form a two-man block in central midfield.
Typical movement by this midfield is showing this layering that I like to see. Our defence intercepts the ball and clears it towards the flank. The wingback looks for a team-mate in space and finds one of the attacking midfielders in space, dropping back into space in the channels. The attacking midfielder receives and controls the pass and holds it up, whilst his team-mates surge forward to take up their offensive positions. A quick flick-through sees the mezzala, whose run takes him through the position previously occupied by the attacking midfielder and his defender, go clean through on goal to cap a nice move with a clinical finish. Meanwhile, the deep-lying playmaker advances to take up a role more or less beside the carrilero in central midfield.
Whilst I characterise this move as being typical strikerless, the underlying concepts and principles can and should be universally applied to any formation and style of play. The reason why my teams play the way they do is that I try to layer the attacks, attacking a defence in multiple waves, making it harder for a defensive side to maintain a cohesive defensive line and adding an element of surprise to the equation.
Good off-the-ball movement is always an important element of any good formation. Any team worth their salt will try to refrain from using a one-dimensional style of play, which means they will try to not only have players moving into space to receive the ball but also to make shadow runs, which means they are trying to create space for others by dragging defenders out of position. The image I referred to earlier shows a nice example of this. Because the attacking midfielder drops back between the lines, the defender is dragged out of position, which makes the defensive line susceptible to a through-ball down the middle.
Above is another example of players feeding off each other’s movement, which is a concept that only really works if there is another player moving to exploit the space. This means that the team should preferably play in a cohesive formation, but should definitely have different layers. If every line makes the same run at the same time, the attacking patterns become predictable and easy to defend. A more irregular approach, with players arriving at different locations and times, tends to be more difficult to defend.
When applied correctly, this means that a single run by for example an attacking midfielder can open up space for three or more others nearby, waiting to pounce on positional weaknesses by the opposing team. This knock-on effect of movements is quite versatile and something you should use. An attacking midfielder dropping back into midfield creates space for a winger to run into, which in turn creates space out wide for an attacking full-back or wing-back to overlap.
Movement both on and off the ball is absolutely crucial to the success of the formation and the style of play. This particular formation and style rely on the exploiting of space. When your players remain static, no space will open up for others to exploit. This is again where the layering of attacks comes into play. In any tactic I create, I strive for the creation of at least three but preferably four or five different layers of attacking players. The combination of roles I have selected is geared to generate as much movement as possible without sacrificing defensive stability.
The three-headed beast
The forward line is what makes this tactic great; the three-headed beast that devours opponents and destroys leagues. As always and more or less traditional, I have opted for a setup with two shadow strikers and my so-called withdrawn targetman. With the option to instruct a regular attacking midfielder to hold up the ball removed from the game (at least, in this Beta), I have resurrected the targetenganche to act as my focal point for attacks.
Essentially, I am looking for a cross-pollination of the targetman role and the enganche role. In a way, it makes sense, as the enganche already incorporates some of the qualities a targetman is supposed to offer to a team. A targetman is a striker who is the target of passes from his teammates. A good target man will possess the strength to hold up the ball, hold off opponents and bring team-mates into play. Target men are often tall, physical players who operate with their back to goal.
The enganche has to link the shadow strikers into the supporting cast of players behind them, essentially the carrilero and mezzala. The enganche is the player that receives the ball and chooses how and when to pass the ball to maximise the potential of the attacking movement. Mix those two up and you get the Targetganche™, or the Withdrawn Targetman I want to see in the game. He will hold up the ball and bring his team-mates into play, choosing how and when to pass the ball to maximise the potential of the attacking movement.
The other two forwards are shadow strikers, ideal for quick counterattacking combinations between pacey forwards or perhaps even being sent deep by some through-ball. Due to their inherent explosiveness, they are highly effective to progress through the opposition defence or chase after balls over the top of the defenders. The co-existence and synergy between the static enganche and more mobile threat of the shadow strikers is a truly beautiful thing.
The shadow strikers seem to have a natural inclination to drop deeper. From a manager’s perspective, fielding a forward line consisting of only shadow strikers is therefore not very effective, as your passing efforts lack a focal point, someone to pass the ball to. Tight and cohesive lines are ideal when your team is defending, when your team has the ball it’s a potential disaster, as your team can be easily pressured into losing the ball or just hoofing the ball forward.
Our creative yet static enganche has plenty of passing options available if he manages to find space to swivel on the ball. The shadow strikers tend to surge past the enganche, pouring into space. We’ve already established that the movement of the mezzala adds another layer to the offensive game this Cerberus tactic offers.
With plenty of passing options available, either the enganche or any of the running players can pick a pass and launch his compatriots into space, towards the opposition’s goal. The movement generated by the distribution of roles throughout the forward line and midfield always ensures running players available to receive a pass.
Addressing the team’s mentality is a difficult task, as it has an impact on a variety of other factors of the tactic. I used to try and set a default base tactic that needed only a little tweaking. It wasn’t quite plug-and-play but it was to provide me with a robust and sturdy framework that could be tweaked within matches. That usually meant changing the mentality to suit my needs within a game, leaving the roles and instructions alone. Most of that tweaking of the team’s mentality was done to sort the pressing game of the team.
Pressing and pressing triggers
Pressing is basically moving your players into a position where they can generate pressure on the opposing team with the intent of getting the ball. The keyword here is “intent.” When your team is pressing, they are actively trying to win the ball from the opposing side by moving out of position and/or actively disrupting the formation of the opposing team. If a team moves close but their intent is not to win the ball but merely to contain the opposing team, that is not pressing. Your team’s intention is to defend their own goal by stopping them from getting into positions where they can take a shot, without actively trying to win the ball.
By altering the mentality of the tactic, you change, among other things, the default defensive line, width, closing down and individual player mentalities. All of these have a severe impact on the pressing game you’re trying to achieve. Cerberus was, in the mythological sense, a guard dog, guarding the gates to Hades, the Greek underworld. The pressing formation of this tactic guards it’s defensive line and the various mentalities determine how and where I want to press an opposing team.
One of the key components of an effective press is being in the position to actually being able to press. Your players should be positioned to establish access to the ball. You can’t pressure an opponent if you’re nowhere near him, barring the odd psychic wonder perhaps.
This where the aforementioned instructions come into play. They determine how your team’s current formation and shape is altered. When your team’s pressing efforts are proving ineffectual, you may want to alter the team’s shape somewhat. As with all elements in Football Manager, this is a careful balancing act. Every advantage has an inherent disadvantage as well.
For example, playing a wider formation could grant your players easier access to opposing wide players but it can also leave them more isolated, with their teammates further away than they usually would be. Similarly, playing in a more narrow formation creates a compact and cohesive unit of players, while simultaneously ceding the wide areas of the pitch to your opponents.
You have to look at what kind of pressing game you want to play, where your players should position themselves in order to establish access to their opponents and the ball. In this regard, football literature distinguishes various pressing zones. The German FA teaches its coaches to work with a specific schedule that divides the pitch into six zones.
In this German model, the field is split into three horizontal thirds; the attacking, midfield, and defending thirds. As anticipated, attacking pressing occurs in the attacking third, midfield pressing occurs in the midfield third, and defensive pressing occurs in the defensive third. The model also divides each third into a high and a deep zone. In the picture above, the red/yellow third is the attacking third, where the red zone represents the high attacking zone and the yellow zone represent the deep attacking zone. Similarly, the green third is the midfield third, where the light green zone represents the high midfield zone and the dark green zone represent the deep midfield zone. Finally, the blue/purple third is the defensive third, where the blue zone represents the high defensive zone and the purple zone represent the deep defensive zone.
Back to the balancing act. Your initial formation determines your defensive outlay. The instructions you select to alter the team shape can help you to establish access to the ball for your players. When your team can pressure the ball, this action allows the rest of the team in the deeper layers to push towards the ball and leave space on the far side of the field open.
This effectively allows you to create a sort of pressing trap. A pressing trap invites the opponent to act in a specific zone in their formation. Pressing traps can vary as well; aspects of the trap include where the trap is set up to isolate the opponent, how many players participate in the trap, the type of pressing when closing the trap, how the opponent is isolated, when the trap is set, and more.
Altering the mentality of the team effectively changes the primary areas of access to the ball and therefore changes the team’s pressing efforts. Essentially, I distinguish three types of pressing by the area they look to impact:
- The attacking press, which consists of a high block press on an attacking or overload mentality;
- The midfield press, which consists of a middle block press on a counter, normal or control mentality;
- The defensive press, which consists of a low block press on a contain or defensive mentality.
Attacking (high block + Attacking/Overload)
Our high block pressing is effectively a blitzing strategy, which sees the defensive side commit a lot of bodies to the fray, pressing the opposing players deep inside their own half. The pressure is mostly aimed at the defenders and defensive midfielders of the opposing side. Naturally, this means you employ such a press with an attacking or an overload mentality, as this ensures more players are pushed into the area you wish to press. Besides the usual instructions, you can opt to reinforce this form of pressing with specific opposition instructions.
The idea of this aggressive form of pressing is that when you lose the ball in the final third, you set out on winning back possession as quickly as possible. This is the form of pressing managers like Klopp, Tüchel and to a lesser extend Pocchettino employ. The idea is that you force mistakes and rushed passing by the backline, while simultaneously dealing with any deep-lying playmakers dropping back to help out with the buildup from the back. The wide players are forced onto their weaker foot, again forcing them to hit the ball long or out of bounds. The hard-tackling settings for the defensive midfielders are necessary to disrupt the opposition’s defensive midfielders and slow them down in getting the ball past the initial press.
Midfield (middle block + Counter/Normal/Control)
Our middle block pressing is aimed at disrupting the opposition’s midfield. Your pressing will primarily focus on the players in the midfield stratum, though you can opt to include defensive midfielders or attacking midfielders in this press if their positioning sees them move forward or drop deep into midfield a lot. The more conservative mentalities are usually best suited for this type of pressing. Besides the usual instructions, you can opt to reinforce this form of pressing with specific opposition instructions.
This form of pressing is more conservative in the area of pressing, not in its ferociousness. Instead of pressing high up the pitch, the team drops deeper and organises around the halfway line. As soon as the ball enters that area, which usually happens when one of the opposing midfielders receives the ball, the pressing trap snaps shut and the team starts hounding their opponents into making mistakes and gifting our team possession of the ball.
I deliberately ignore the opposing defenders, which makes sense. I also deliberately ignore the opposing wingbacks. The idea behind this is that my formation is a relatively narrow one. Pressuring the opposing wingbacks would invariably lead to my players being drawn out of position and space appearing between the lines. Should the wingbacks venture further forward, I want them showed onto their weaker foot to nullify the threat of their crosses into the box somewhat, but a more aggressive approach towards them would lead to my defensive shape being disrupted.
Similarly, I generally do not press the opposing wingers. By pressing them, I either commit a wingback to venture forward with space behind him or one of the midfielders to drop back. Either way, this creates gaps in my defensive formation and a loss of cohesion within the team structure.
This pressing trap is designed to battle for midfield. Your main efforts are focussed towards taking on the opposing midfielders and preventing them from feeding the ball towards the wide players or forwards. The buildup play from the back generally happens pretty much unopposed, but as soon as the opposition reaches the high midfield zone, the attacking midfielders and regular midfielders start their pressing.
Defensive (low block + Contain/Defensive)
Or defensive or low block pressing is aimed at inviting the opposition to pour men onto our half, soaking up the pressure and then hitting the opposing team on the break. This pressing trap is designed to establish a perimeter in and just outside our own penalty area. The most defensive mentalities are the ones that are best employed with a defensive block. Besides the usual instructions, you can opt to reinforce this form of pressing with specific opposition instructions.
When your team’s forte is the ability to soak up pressure before striking on the counterattack, this low block pressing setup would be ideal. In this setup, the team looks to occupy the area in and around its own penalty area, while pressuring the opponents near the ball yet also maintaining a good overall structure. Facing a shield wall of defenders, opposition teams are forced to use very quick attacking moves, consisting of one or two touches, in our defensive third.
The default posture of the team is to sit deep in a narrow, compact shape in order to prevent the opponent from creating scoring chances. I am happy to concede time and space outside of the penalty area to the opposition. Most teams are unlikely to score from outside the area, so I am willing to give that space in order to stay organized and compact in our defence of the area of the field that actually matters. We soak up the pressure in and around the penalty area, somewhat like an NBA team that is willing to let a team pass the ball around the three-point arc but never allows them to pass the ball into the area immediately around the hoop.
This setup aims to nullify the threat of the opposing strikers by sticking close to them while trying to shut down the passing lanes towards these strikers by pressuring the attacking midfielders and central midfielders. Unlike the other blocks, in this deeper shape, we do take on the wingers. We cannot allow them to roam freely and with such compact lines, there is always cover for the defender who takes on the wingers. The other wide players are not pressured, they are just forced onto their weaker foot.
Hybrid pressing forms
Naturally, hybrid pressing forms are a very real possibility. These pressing traps are not written in stone and can, therefore, be tweaked and altered as a manager sees fit. Perhaps you wish to place more emphasis on negating the threat posed by an opposing dangerman, or maybe you have identified a weak link in the opposing team you wish to exploit. Maybe you are torn between using two shapes and you wish to create a sort of hybrid pressing trap. Feel free to experiment with these, my examples above are not mandatory to use and there are many other options.
How do you determine which mentality to use?
So with all these forms and options, how do you determine which one will suit you best? This is where things become somewhat complicated. My rule of thumb is to start the game on Control, unless I am expected to be the underlying party, in which case I will start on Counter. During the game, I tend to shift to other mentality settings depending on how the game develops. This version of the game forces me to play more versatile. Defend or Contain are ideal for seeing out a game, whereas Attack or Overload are good for trying to force in an extra goal.
Breaking with tradition; fluidity
In the past, I have always worked with a Very Fluid setup, because it suited my needs in terms of compact formations. In FM18, I have broken away from this setup, as the Very Fluid team-shape in combination with the relentless pressing saw my players run all over the place and break defensive shape too often. Instead, I have opted for a more structured approach.
A more structured mentality will make my more attacking and defending duty players deviate from the team mentality you choose, hence reducing compactness somewhat, but it also means the players will stick to their positions more, thus protecting the overall integrity of the defensive shape.
Guido, where are the download links and such?
Yeah, sorry about that… As I expect to compete in the Copa Manageria this weekend, download links will be provided after the weekend. I don’t want people snooping around too much in my gameplans.
Update 13/11 – The download
As promised, after my Copa Manageria campaign, this is the tactic that got me the silver medal.