Over the past years, people have asked me why I play the way that I play. Besides the obvious answer that it works, there are actually some valid reasons, some actual benefits to losing your forwards and replacing them with attacking midfielders. I never gave this any real thought as it just felt right on an instinctive level. Lately, something Cleon said got me thinking about this very subject, which ultimately led to this article.
Nothing really, I just wondered if you’d ever considered doing a piece on why you prefer strikerless over strikers and what they offer you better in comparison. I guess a bit like I’ll be doing with the DMC vs MC’s in the 4231
I always relish the challenge to delve into my own mind in an effort to try and grasp and phrase concepts that have become somewhat of a second nature to me, almost instinctive in a way. So this is my effort to explore the dark depths of my depraved mind and shed some light on why I do what I do, besides the obvious reason that I am a deranged madman.
There are three reasons why I opt to play in a strikerless formation as opposed to a more conventional one. These are not absolute truths, just personal preferences.
- It allows, in my eyes, for a more effective manipulation of space on the pitch;
- It allows for better control in the central areas of the pitch;
- It allows for every player to get involved during a match.
Manipulation of space
The first reason why I prefer strikerless formations over more traditional ones has to do with manipulating the space on the pitch. At first glance, that may seem like a simplistic, straightforward reason, but I assure you that there is much more to the concept of space manipulation than you may think.
Ideally, and this goes for any formation, regardless of the presence of actual forwards or not, a formation tends to look toward expanding the pitch when in possession, while contracting when the ball is lost again. Effectively, these are the very basic, very rough outlines of how any formation tries to beat the opposition through the manipulation of space. You try to stretch the opposition when you have the ball, trying to find holes in their defence while denying the opposition time and space on the ball when your team is on the defensive.
As the above screenshot will tell you, these concepts are exactly what FM tries to achieve. The difference between the defensive and offensive shape is rather striking and it matches the earlier description; wide in possession, narrow in defence. This isn’t revolutionary or spectacular as every formation does this. It is, however, a lot easier to achieve when playing strikerless, because, by default, there will be no players in the most advanced bank on the pitch, which means the formation automatically becomes more cohesive.
The benefits of this cohesive formation become quite clear when we look at how this translates throughout the various phases of play during a match. A cohesive formation brings advantages to both the defensive phase because it restricts space for attackers as well as the offensive phase because it allows you to overload specific areas of the pitch. The entire setup of a strikerless tactic is geared towards this.
As you can see, there are no actual forwards on the pitch. Instead, they are replaced by an attacking midfield trio, which is clustered closely together, which automatically gives them a numerical advantage against most opponents. They then look to overload central areas to facilitate building up from the back and through the thirds. With a lack of forwards, outnumbered in the final third when the opposition is prepared, this then means that the trio looks to play in between the lines in the final third and that the remainder of the team should look to break forward to support. The emphasis is very much placed on positioning.
However, there is also the often overlooked aspect of overloading the middle third to achieve a better build-up from the back. In previous versions of FM, these movements aimed at overloading were made by wing-backs moving forward to overload the middle third, but such an overload can also be achieved by a midfielder pushing on forward. It is generally quite effective to find that flat ball along the ground into one of the players occupying the middle third. The tight and cohesive setup often generates such space, because it forces the opposition to alter its shape, to prevent from being overrun elsewhere on the pitch.
In the match-clip above, you can see the fluid interchanging by the players in the middle, their intricate short passing and movement is overloading the defensive midfield and central midfield area of the opposing team, which in turn forces their defensive line forward in an effort to nullify the numerical superiority of the strikerless setup. At this point, space opens up behind the defensive line, which is exploited by an exquisite cross-court through-ball into space.
With the default distinct lack of strikers in any strikerless formation, you are going to rely on such movement of your midfield players to score goals. The players are concentrating the play in the midfield area, creating a structural numerical superiority here and using said numerical advantage to form a good flow of play through combinations.
By its very nature, this implies that superior off-the-ball movement is an important element of any good formation. For a strikerless formation, good movement is more than just an important element, it’s an absolutely crucial element. Because you lack an advanced focal point for your passing, as in some sort of forward to hold up the ball, you have to rely on players movement into space to either receive the ball or create space for others.
Your key players in this effect are the central attacking midfielders. The movement and positioning of the attacking midfielders opens up space in the heart of the defence. By playing in the gap between midfield and defence, they are either always open to receive a pass, or they drag the defensive line higher up the pitch, thus creating space for movement into the space behind the opposing defensive line.
Control the heart of the pitch
This ties in rather nicely with my next point, the next reason why I prefer to play in a strikerless setup. The centre is vital to success in the majority of sports. In chess, controlling the central area is considered a strategy that allows you the best possible access to the board and can reach the entirety of the width as you can easily maximize the potential spaces which your pieces can move into. When you stick to a side, you have 180 degrees of possible movement. When you stick to the centre, you have 360 degrees of options to work with.
When you think of the football pitch as a chess board you can easily see that this idea makes sense. A few years ago, I mentioned why the wing-backs are not exactly ideal for build-up play from the back, and the same principle applies to your creative men. You want the players with the best passing range to be in positions where they can make the most of their skill-set, to utilise their full potential.
A strikerless formation, regardless of its actual deployment of players, is arguably the most potentially overwhelming of all modern formations. There’s a reason why many of the most dominant sides of European football — Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, to name a few — use or have used elements of strikerless football. These are the sides that expect a win each week, with enough offensive power to overcome sides determined to leave with a draw.
In possession, a strikerless formation, despite its absence of all-out attackers, allows for a much more offensive distribution of roles and responsibilities throughout the side. It is not exceptional to see at least 7 players pushing forward to attack, as the attacking midfield trio squeezes the defence, the wide defenders come up down the flanks and two of the central midfielders push forward as well.
As you can see from an average passing chart, the central midfielders and attacking midfielders are positioned in close proximity to each other, enabling this a special quality; the ability to strangle an opposing team. This comes from combining two elements, a strong central midfield setup, which can dominate possession via passing triangles and the presence of several offensive midfielders, who can press high up the pitch, without being isolated from the rest of the midfield. Opponents find it hard to get the ball and hard to keep it. Midfielders can’t get a hold of the ball and are pressured quickly when they do. The defenders are faced with three men pressing them and there are no easy balls to the wings when my wide defenders push up. A fully-functioning strikerless formation is like the tide against a sandcastle – it might take a while, but it’s gonna break through the defences eventually.
Every player gets involved
People like Michels, Cruyff, Lobanovskiy and Sacchi strived for universality, where every player on the pitch takes a collective responsibility for each aspect of the game. Not in the sense that the forward is now tracking back to help with the off-side trap, but more in the sense of for example a forward pressing an opposing defender on the ball, allowing his team-mates either time to link up and help or fall back to take up a more reliable defensive stance.
In a way, universality is part of some mythical style of play, which combines the aesthetics of short and intricate passing, aggressive pressing, fluid movement on and off the ball and positional interchangeability with the results that deliver trophies. That really isn’t what I’m after. 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.
The strikerless setup offers me a fluid template that allows players to contribute in every phase of play—it will house a left-back who bombs forward, but also tears back to defend his own byline. It allows for a defensive, holding midfielder who can easily move to the edge of the opposing team’s area, without neglecting his defensive duties. Again, it’s mostly the compact nature of the tactic that allows me to be fairly adventurous with the distribution of roles and the fluidity of play.