Most avid FM players have encountered situations like these before. Whatever the exact circumstances, you desperately need to score a goal but the opposition is stifling your forwards by erecting a living wall of human bodies in and just outside of their own penalty area. Despite hopelessly outclassing the other side in terms of possession and shots on goal, your team is just not scoring any goals. These defensive exploits are frustrating you and your team, as the opposing team refuses to be led to the slaughter. In an effort to break down the opposing defence, you could employ an old-fashioned battering ram. It makes sense; when finesse is not sufficient to break down an especially tenacious and dogged defence, brute force might offer an effective alternative.
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The traditional battering ram; the bulky power player
Traditionally, the players used as a battering ram are the central forwards. These specific types were tall, strong and brave and excellent headers of the ball. They were sent out onto the pitch, unleashed on defenders to act as a focal point for the attack, often playing with their backs to goal, holding the ball up and then lay it off to play in nearby team-mates. They were not always necessarily prolific goalscorers, they played an important role within the team by dominating opposition defenders physically and keeping them occupied and on the back foot, in an effort to free up space for a teammate. Traditionally, much of their play would be about winning the ball in the air, so they were required to be a strong aerial presence.
While most teams do not use similar players often, the successes of players bulky, powerful players at various top and subtop European sides clearly show us that there is a niche for these battering rams. These hulking, powerful players are difficult to stop when they have got the right kind of service played into them. While their skill sets do not really correspond with the kind of football that many managers promote, these players are capable of linking the play, connecting with knock-downs and headers from direct passes, quickly getting the ball into the feet of those around them before turning and heading straight for the box.
It may not provide spectators with the most visually stunning game, however, aesthetics is often compromised in what is a results-driven business. The objective of football is to score, and in order to do so, you must get the ball into your opponent’s penalty area as quickly and as effectively as possible. For all the intricate thinking and complex movements some managers like to use, the same end results can be achieved through direct, physical play.
The complex ideas of managers like Guardiola have birthed the rise of a new form of defender come to the fore, perfectly adept at carrying the ball out from the back and experts in transitioning defence to attack when in possession. Most of these new defenders are great footballers at the cost of being less pure defenders or defensive specialists. These modern ball-playing defenders often struggle when facing the sheer physical power presented by a typical power player.
Managing my expectations
Most of the times I use a battering ram, I am faced with a situation in which there are many players in the final third, both your own and the defenders. In such a situation, how is a through ball going to find anyone in space? Or a cross for that matter? All you are doing is passing and crossing the ball into a melee of bodies and hoping that it comes up good this time, that one of your forwards has a moment of brilliance and is not shut down by one of the many defenders around him. The right kind of player to be on the receiving end of a cross can make a world of difference in this case.
Unlike what you might think, I do not expect my battering ram to just barge his way into the penalty area to routinely get on the end of perfectly whipped or floated crosses, scoring goals galore. As I mentioned earlier, I expect him to stir up chaos in the opposing penalty area with his sheer physical presence and aerial prowess, flicking balls on for teammates, distracting defenders and freeing up space for others and maybe scoring the odd goal as well. The fact that this Match Engine build still favours setups that bombard the penalty area with crosses is definitely another factor to consider.
As it happens, the current Match Engine seems to favour crosses into the penalty area. Somehow the defensive positioning of players is off whenever crosses come in. Instead of moving towards the ball, many defenders remain rather static or opt to crowd the player in possession, completely ignoring the offensive players behind them, which generates a fair amount of goal. Combine a setup that crosses a lot with a physically strong player and you might be able to batter down the gates and turn the tide of a game.
An additional tactical benefit to using a battering ram up front is that such a player can aid you in beating an aggressive frontline press. Teams that employ a Klopp-styled form of pressing see their players hunt in packs in order to win possession in the final third. This can be devastatingly effective, with a turnover high up the pitch often leading to lethal counter-attacks when the opposition is out of balance. The presence of a power player upfront to be on the receiving end of a long-ball negates the ability to press. Our battering ram can flick the ball on or hold it up and bring his team-mates into play.
My own battering ram
The player that started my new-found fascination with strong, physical players turning the tide in a match is this man; Steffen Görtler. I managed to snap him up last season and I have been retraining him into an attacking midfielder to suit my specific brand of football. Obviously, if you are using conventional forwards, this guy would do the trick in almost any role, though I would recommend deploying him as a target man if you want him to put that aerial prowess to good use.
As you can see, Görtler is pretty much a world class player, ideally suited for this battering ram idea I have in mind. He is tall, he is strong, he is aggressive and he is rather fast as well. His Player Preferred Moves are not detrimental to what I want to see, though I am trying to get him to play with his back towards the goal as well. He is a classic target man but with some added bonuses in the form of a good footballing brain and decent technical abilities.
Setting up your battering ram
Now before I start this section of the article, let me start off by saying that the following tactical instructions are generally not used for the full ninety minutes of a match, since this style of play is rather energy-consuming and requires some rather specific instructions, that are easily countered by the AI when you try to use them for an entire game. If you want to try and use this style for an entire match, feel free. Maybe you are luckier than I am. I generally use this style to either blitz an opponent and force in a few early goals or when I am chasing a game.
In setting up this specific playing style, where I am trying to bring a powerful aerial threat into play to break open a defence, there are three factors to consider.
- Finding the right player to play the part;
- Providing this player with proper service;
- Setting up movement and penetration.
Finding the right player
The ability to hold the ball up, offer a physical presence of sorts and predatory prowess, these are pretty much the characteristics of a player in the targetman role in FM. 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 is supposed to be a very physical enforcer in the final third, relying on strength, size and aerial prowess. To find such a player, I generally look at finding a targetman.
The intended targetman player needs to be strong, good in the air, strong off the ball to make space for himself. If you intend to field him as a targetman, there are several options. In the TM/S role, it is also important to have a decent if not good passer as he will lay off a lot of balls to runners or wide areas (depending on how your attack is set up). You should expect to see lots of balls heading to your TM.
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 up front, 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.
Providing him with proper service
Classic wingers were a brilliant sight on their day. They could liven up a boring Sunday afternoon when they mesmerized a crowd by skipping past a hapless defender, reaching the touchline and delivering a pinpoint cross onto the head of a waiting forward. Nowadays, crossing is seen as uncouth and unfashionable: a caveman tactic in a world of Renaissance artists. Oddly enough, setting up an effective crossing system is not as easy as one might expect. This is rather paradoxically; crossing is a simple and direct style, which is surprisingly difficult to analyse.
Let us start with what I think has been the catalyst for this style of play to flourish: several layers of providers. I generally try and set up a formation that provides me with several layers of players who can whip the ball into the box. In my specific case, I have one of the best outside back duos in the world and two world-class wingers, as well as a midfield pairing that drives into the halfspaces at times.
Nicolai Jacobsen and Jindrich Matejka, as most of you will agree, are among the best right and left back pairings in world football. They have combined for a total of 9 assists in the half season I played in the Eredivisie so far, and both players have a wide array of crosses in their locker, they can use at any given point, and from any angle, in the attacking third.
When defences are in a low block, not allowing us to beat them on the byline or get in behind the outside backs, Jacobsen and Matejka whip early, deep balls to oncoming forwards. Both wingbacks are good at my powerhouse aerial target Görtler to finish these deeply served crosses or flick them back towards a teammate. These crosses are very difficult to defend, given that goalkeepers would have to come out to almost the penalty spot. Additionally, these crosses allow for my forwards to make diagonal runs in behind centre-backs since the balls can be curled into the penalty area.
The second layer of our strategy of successfully crossing the ball is the collective technical comfort level of all my wingers Van der Ree and Van Wambeke. They possess a wide array of possible delivery options, always ensuring balls are delivered into the penalty area. Due to their technical skills, these balls can either be rifled balls on the floor or chipped crosses to the front or back post, causing confusion for defences and goalkeepers. Similarly, the Mezzala and Carrilero drift into the half-space as semi-wingers at times.
The concept of layering means there is always someone in a position to whip the ball in. The video above illustrates my point. As Van der Ree skips between two defenders, he is allowed such space because Matejka is already making an overlapping run on the same flank, drawing a defender wide and allowing Van der Ree the time to dribble between the two defenders. In the penalty area, we see another example of layering. As Görtler is the focus of everyone’s attention, the defenders ignore the winger cutting inside and the Mezzala moving in.
Setting up movement and penetration
The final aspect of making the bulky powerful player effective is by setting up movement around him. 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 video clip I referred to above shows a nice example of this. De presence of the overlapping wingback creates space for the winger to make his move.
Now this concept of players feeding off each other’s movement 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 main offensive outlet; in my case, this usually means the presence of a Shadow Striker, the deepest forward player and the player the opposing defensive line focusses on when positioning. More traditional tacticians, the guys who field actual * shudders with disgust * “forwards”…. will usually not select two similar roles upfront when fielding a multiple-striker setup. The main offensive outlet is the most advanced offensive player.
- The advanced pivot; in my strikerless setups, this is our bulky power player. A player who drops back to play between the lines, feeding flick-ons and through-balls to more advanced players and players overlapping.
- The wide layers; you want to be able to stretch an opposing defence by drawing players out of position, which is why you need a wide threat. Depending on the formation you use, you can have a single wide layer consisting of a wing-back or winger on each side or a double wide layer, with a wing-back and a winger on each flank. When the wingers cut inside, the overlapping runs by the wing-back add an extra dimension and layer to your style of play going forward.
- The central midfield layer; the central midfielders or at the very least one of them needs to make late surges into the penalty area to add an extra layer. Depending on your midfield setup, you could even create two midfield layers, with one player on an attacking setting and a second on a support setup, which means they won’t be in and around the box at the same time, effectively creating another layer of attack.