For a good four years now, I have been running the weblog Strikerless.com, which is based around the ideas of strikerless football. When I started writing about strikerless football, it was deemed somewhat of a novelty, an oddity that tricked the mechanics of the match engine but had no actual foundations in real life football, barring one AS Roma team and the odd effort born out of desperation when teams found all their forwards banned or injured.
Since I started preaching the strikerless gospel, real life caught up. Several European teams play without a traditional forward and with a certain degree of formlessness. They either have no obvious focal point of attack or they can attack from so many directions that anticipating how they will attack at any given time is nigh on impossible. This is the underlying concept of a strikerless formation in a nutshell.
Instead of a traditional forward, you play a trequartista or other sort of attacking midfielder as your most attacking man on the pitch, position-wise. These attacking midfielders, be it a trequartista, an enganche, shadow striker or an advanced playmaker, tend to move into the space between defence and midfield to receive the ball, thus overloading the central midfield, establishing domination in terms of possession and creating space for surging runs by wide players or other midfielders.
That brings us to a new version of the game; Football Manager 19 is on the verge of going live. FM Grasshopper and I attended a private event and were allowed to play the Alpha version of the new game. This event and my results in playing the Beta inspired me to write this article. Please note, and I want to be very clear about this in advance, this article DOES NOT and WILL NEVER contain a download link because it was created on an ALPHA version of the game, not the finished game. What worked well in Alpha, might not work at all during Beta or the full release.
Having said that, the underlying train of thought might prove useful and insightful, so there is an added value to this article. Plus, if you are so inclined, it is not like you cannot manually write down the player roles and instructions to try this bad boy for yourself. I just don’t want to assume any responsibility if your gambit backfires. There are no proper plug and play tactics after all.
FM19 Beta; the creation of the strikerless style
As FM Grasshopper and myself described earlier, the new instalment of Football Manager has undergone some serious tactical changes. One of those changes is the inclusion of certain style templates, pre-set sets of instructions that should generate a specific brand of football within the confines of the Football Manager match engine.
When perusing the default styles the new engine had to offer, I could not find one that ticked all the boxes for the brand of strikerless football you all love to hate. I could find elements of my flavour of football in one style and some elements in another but no style was ideally matched with my own desires. So I ended up doing what I generally do, mess around with the game to create some abhorrent monstrosity that does fulfil my needs.
Essentially, it meant looking at the various styles and comparing them to each other in terms of what I liked and did not like. I chose to marry and merge two styles that already had a lot in common, the Gegenpressing style and the Vertical Tiki Taka style. In the graphic below, you can see the various instructions for each style, with the bold instructions being the ones I want to use and the red ones being conflicting instructions.
What I was looking for in terms of a style of play was the relentless pressing and defensive compactness of a Gegenpressing team with the methodical build-up of the Vertical Tiki Taka team. The one element I added in on my own was a more direct style of play. Ultimately, you end up with a mobile, fluid style of play, a possession-based style with plenty of incisive, quick passes with an emphasis on moving up the pitch quickly, while aggressively chasing after the ball when it is lost.
The build-up approach of the team is an interesting one, which is driven by the concept of what I deem to be good attacking football. In my eyes, there are three key elements to good attacking play. Good use of space. Penetration. Unpredictability. All three have to be present in order for you to have a good offensive setup.
The first two of these pillars are strongly interlinked. You cannot effectively have one without the other. You see, penetration is the ability to play through or behind the opposition, to reach a team-mate in space with a perfectly weighted pass. In order to achieve penetration, you need to be able to exploit space with both good on- and off-the-ball movement, so good use of space. You need players to make runs into space and players to get the ball towards them when they make these runs. Effectively, if your players make good use of space, they will need someone to offer penetration in the form of a pass towards them.
Implementing this into my tactic is mostly down by selecting rather mobile roles in nearly every position. When you break the tactic down into compartments, you will find that most of the roles used have some sort of mobility to them, some form of preset movement forward, backwards or sideways. This way, I hope to achieve that much-desired movement and use of space.
The image above shows you the preferred movement for each player in the setup. The wingbacks are supposed to cover the entire flank, whereas all three of the midfielders have some sort of forward momentum, in an effort to link up with team-mates and keep the formation compact. In the forward line, the middle attacking midfielders moves from side to side to link up, whereas the shadow strikers try to breach the opposing defensive line. Apart from selecting these roles, the only thing I can do to generate good movement is to select players who suit the roles I have selected.
Penetration is another matter mostly out of my control. I have asked for the players to pass the ball into space but the actual passes have to come from the players on the pitch. Once again, I can try to generate movement on the pitch but the players have to recognise these patterns and possess the skills to get the ball towards the players moving around.
The third pillar is less about the players and their abilities as footballers but aimed more at their roles on the pitch and the team instructions. Since unpredictability is the best way to break down locked defences, it is a critical factor to include in your tactics. After all, a predictable offensive setup is generally easy to negate. Lumping the ball up to a big man is bad as it is predictable. The fall of pedestrian playmakers can also be attributed to this predictability. While on occasion, a predictable style can be effective, in the long run, they are easily negated by top sides.
If you want to successfully unsettle stable defences they have to be unsure how you will attack. This means coming at your opponent in a multitude of ways, effectively layering your offensive plan to prevent it from becoming stale and one-dimensional. This is where the layering of attacks comes into play. In any tactic I create, I strive for the creation of at least three but preferably six different layers of players:
- The main offensive outlet; in my case, this usually means the presence of one or multiple Shadow Strikers. Effectively, they serve as the deepest forward players and the players the opposing defensive line focuses on when positioning. More traditional tacticians, the guys who field actual forwards will usually not select two similar roles upfront when fielding a multiple-striker setup.
- The advanced pivot; in my strikerless setups, this usually means fielding a Withdrawn Targetman; essentially 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 layer; 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. In this case, I have the complete wingbacks covering the entire flanks, although the shadow strikers tend to move wide, into the channels as well.
- Having penetration from the 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.
- The ball-retention layer; while thinking about players who flood into the penalty area is all fine and dandy, you need to consider what happens when you lose the ball as well. Which player or players are going to recycle possession by winning the second ball? Which players are going to ensure you keep the ball, providing an added layer of security.
- The defensive layer; the players who essentially do that, defend.
In my own teams, the layers are organised as such, each number corresponds with the layer listed above.
These layers are created by toying around with the roles you assign to your players. By watching the players in matches, you soon observe how they interact with each other and if you need to tweak the roles or not. It is basically a sophisticated form of trial and error. Any idea can look great on the drawing board, that does not mean it will actually work in-game. It took me hours of tweaking and experimenting in previous versions to get the fluid and silky movement that eventually gained recognition as the Strikerless brand of football.
When we look at the diverse approach I have undertaken in creating this tactic, it will come as no surprise that the build-up play and offensive manoeuvres of the team are quite diverse. Sometimes, it would appear as if they are a team who wishes to play out from the back, whereas in other moments they appear to utilise a more direct style, alternating between attacks down the central areas of the pitch or using the overlapping wingbacks out wide.
This is best symbolised, and perhaps dictated, by the asymmetry in their build-up approach. The left side triangle of consisting of the left complete wingback, the mezzala and the left shadow striker (sometimes assisted by the regista shuffling wide) represents a more offensive and productive flank in terms of chance creation and shots on goal. In terms of building out from deep positions, there seems to be a fairly heavy focus on this left side, and it is largely because of the collective movements of these three players and the more attacking mindset of the mezzala in central midfield.
Rather than retaining positions in areas where those roles would traditionally be expected to play, there is more flexibility given in how they position themselves. For instance, not every attacking midfield role will move into the channels to provide a wide outlet. This shadow striker has moved all the way to the left touchline, where he is sent into space by the mezzala. This interaction between good players suited for the roles I want them to play allows the players to react off each other, counterbalancing the movements of their teammates. Even disregarding many of the other players in the team, this alone can create a fairly complex system with a number of different potential movement patterns.
These movements are often triggered when the ball is re-circulated from right to left, particularly when through the regista. When the regista switches the ball to a different flank, this means all three mobile players on that flank are ready to cause havoc. I will add another example of the type of attacking pattern where the players feed off the movement of their team-mates.
Naturally, these are just examples of the dynamic down that left flank. In some cases, the mezzala gets on the end of an attack that moves past the other players. In other cases, the regista or the withdrawn targetman get involved as well. There is a myriad of options in that regard, I merely tried to highlight how the distribution of roles and instructions can lead to a specific brand of football.
The aim of these interactions between players, which are facilitated by the aforementioned distribution of roles and instructions, is to destabilise the oppositions defensive shape and create potentially advantageous situations out of these moments for my team to exploit. Within this pattern particularly, there are clear advantages. Given the quickly-changing position of the ball during these moments and the presence of multiple opposing players, defenders can be overwhelmed and overrun.
The unpredictability of our offensive gameplay is a useful factor, as it makes it increasingly difficult for an opposing team to try and shut us down. Depending on the defensive approach of the opposition, different movements will have varying levels of success. When the situation like we detailed above does not work, a different approach is taken, like for example this one.
The sharp forward movements of our shadow striker (#8 Sinkgraven) in this attacking move were integral in attracting the attention of the opposing defensive winger, who focusses his attention on him, which in turn causes him to lose sight of the forward movement of our central midfield. By dropping slightly back, the shadow striker is effectively creating space for Sisto to burst forward because his direct opponent has shifted attention towards someone deemed a more immediate threat. In this situation, our central midfielder could then use his receiving skills and uses a burst of speed to dribble into the penalty area.
In some cases, the opposing team will not get drawn out of position by a single player dropping back. Instead, they will maintain a cohesive defensive unit. In such a case, we often drop the entire forward line back, to try and overrun the opposing team when we do win the ball back. In such situations, our players initially unable to immediately penetrate in dangerous areas, instead of having to beat two or three players before being able to run at the last line. By dropping back the entire team, we dominate the central midfield and build-up from there, often with a more direct approach as such.
These movement patterns are driven by overriding objectives that we aim to achieve. Regardless of the width and depth of our forward men, their intentions and objectives are always the same. Both shadow strikers will aggressively attack the last line when a defender receives the ball in space, whereas the aim of the withdrawn targetman is to receive in situations where he can link up with his team-mates or use his physique and technique to move past a defender to create mayhem for the opposing defence.
Such a combination of potential movement combinations is hardly revolutionary as such as it represents a similar basis as that utilised by for example the Barcelona in years gone by, where for example Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic & Lionel Messi formed a strong unit. In that case, the roles of Alves & Rakitic were largely to react and balance the team’s structure as a result of Messi’s freedom on and off the ball. However, my team has no players even nearly reminiscent of Messi, and so instead, I will try to use such movement patterns to create situations where any player who ends up being our most advanced man can attack the last line or where our withdrawn targetman can receive the ball in moments where he can immediately receive and dribble.
An extra special role is reserved for the box-to-box midfielder, who singlehandedly plays in two different layers. When the team is in possession, he will move forward and hover around the edge of the box, sometimes as a direct recipient for long balls or crosses but more often to act as another body in creating compactness around the ensuing second ball situation.
In these moments where the team either goes in for a cross or uses a more direct build-up from the back, our regista and box-to-box midfielder can showcase their ability to anticipate chaotic situations and win that second ball. The regista is effectively playing in the pocket behind the mezzala and the box-to-box midfielder, where he positions himself in a manner whereby he can immediately counter-press any second ball situations. Tidying up these messy situations with such consistency is not a particularly easy thing to do, but it is much-needed.
Fortunately, the regista is not alone in this regard, as his teammates all understand this aim and are particularly active in offering themselves as passing options within these semi-chaotic moments. Particularly on the right side of the central midfield, where the box-to-box midfielder is often positioned nearby to aid the re-circulation of possession.
Out of Possession
Defensively, we have gone for a high defensive block, in an effort to pressure the opposition into handing us possession. So what does that mean? It means the team defends as a collective unit, far away from our own penalty area. The settings we use to achieve such a high block defence have become increasingly easy to set in the Football Manager 19 game.
The most obvious settings here are the defensive line and the line of engagement. Common sense will dictate we are looking to set the defensive line to push as far up as possible and engage the opposition as far away from our own goal as we possibly can. That will, however, leave space in behind that the AI can perhaps look to capitalise on and as such we have to implement closing down throughout our side starting with the attackers. The key is to have the pressure exerted on the AI starting with our strikers and filtering throughout the side to force the AI to make a mistake and choose a bad pass. Should the initial press fail, there is always the offside trap, which might prove a useful tool to negate such nefarious AI schemes.
The second and equally obvious team instruction in this regard is the closing down setting. The higher the bar is, the more aggressive the press is executed. The downside to a high closing down setting is that players are also more likely to break formation and get drawn out of their respective defensive positions. As with most settings regarding pressing, it is all a precarious balancing act.
The third pressing setting we want to look at helps you in establishing cover for the press. Tighter marking means that your players who are not actively closing down the opposition player on the ball will now stay closer to their direct opponent. If the initial press is evaded, it automatically creates a secondary press. It establishes easier access to your opponents, allowing you a safety net in case the opposition manages to evade the initial press. The downside of tighter marking is that when possession is won, your more advanced players will have less time on the ball because of their close proximity to an opponent. While it is a solid and sound idea defensively, it can lead to problems going forward if your advanced players are up against a strong defence.
The fourth setting that can help you achieve a more effective press is the “prevent short GK distribution” option. Especially when you are looking at a high block press in the attacking third, it makes sense to tick this instruction. It means your forward line will spread out and actively engage opposition defenders when the opposing goalkeeper is in possession.
This harassment makes it difficult for the opposing team to build from the back, often forcing them to play long balls up the pitch. This automatically makes it easier to press the opposing team, because you always know where the ball is going to end up. It also forces opposing forwards to drop deeper to link up with their midfielders, effectively leading them away from your own defensive line.
The final pair of instructions is used to nuance the pressing. When you ask your players to get stuck in, they will attempt earlier and riskier tackles when engaging an opposing player who is on the ball. It may lead to more ball recoveries but it could also lead to more yellow cards and fouls. You could use this instruction when your regular pressing is not working. Step it up a notch and be more physical. Please keep in mind that more attacking mentalities will have your players tackle earlier by default. Asking them to get stuck in at this point could be counterproductive.
On the other end of the spectrum is the stay on feet instruction. When you ask your players to stay on their feet, they will attempt later and less risky tackles when engaging an opposing player who is on the ball. It may lead to fewer ball recoveries but it could also lead to fewer yellow cards and fouls. You could use this instruction when your regular pressing is yielding too many fouls or yellow cards. If the referee is handing out yellow cards like it is Christmas, it might be wise to ease up on your tackling intensity.
This is a prime example of the high block in action. The solid blue line represents our defensive line, which has pushed right up to the halfway line and where our #4 has stepped out to get in front of the sole attacker, while our left wingback is providing cover further up the pitch. This gives us an excellent base to build upon, as the AI team is pinned back in its own half, trying to deal with the midfielders we are throwing at them. These midfielders are already on their way back and they are essentially choking the passing lanes the player in possession has. There are no easy passing options available. They are also compressing the space available. The man in possession could take on his nearest opponent but there is a wingback nearby to provide cover. The one remaining risk is the long ball over the top but that risk is negated by the pressing of our forward players. As you can see the AI has possession but there are no easy passes for the AI to complete and they are forced into a mistake. The long ball forward is an easy prey for our #4, who still has two team-mates behind him should he miss the interception.
With the team shape and setup we have chosen, the team generally possesses good compactness, with minimal distances between players on the same horizontal line, and short spaces between the lines due to the positioning of the back four. This compactness is then further assisted by the work rate of the box-to-box midfielder and the shadow strikers, who would often press backwards in order to maintain pressure on the opposition midfield. At times our regista moved forward to create a situational three-man midfield, and the team adapted well to maintain suitable distances in these moments.
The end result of this development is that this tactic now has one of the most cohesive and effective defensive systems I feel you can create within the confines of this game. From a 4-1-2-3-0 base, we maintain a high level of compactness horizontally, with the front 6 rarely occupying more than half of the field’s width. This type of defensive shape discourages vertical passes, with a high occupation of the space in ahead of the ball carrier, and instead leads to more horizontal circulation from the opponent. As a result, opponents are forced to either play through the compact block within the centre and half-spaces, or move the ball to the wings, a strategically less valuable area.
Either option can be seen as a victory for us. The opponent either risks a likely turnover by attempting to break through the areas already occupied by the 4-1-2-3-0, or plays into a wide area, limiting the potential options for the receiving player and making the next action more predictable. Easy progressions through the wing are generally prevented because the midfield shuffles over to the threatened flank rather quickly.