A few years ago, Chris Darwen started playing a formation he dubbed his “Argentine strikerless,” a formation with three defensive midfielders. When I looked back at the last World Cup and the Argentine national team under Sampaoli, this formation came back to mind. Sampaoli tried to play (and quite unsuccessfully so) a hyper offensive brand of pressing football with perhaps two pure defenders. To be fair, it sounded like a great idea on paper, but it lacked in execution. Still, could I not improve on this concept?
After brainstorming a bit online, I was approached by @FM_Guru88, who had devised a tactic that sort of matched these criteria. This tactic would be the starting point for my Harpy tactic, my very own brand of Argentine strikerless. It started with a bit of Sampaoli, but there are influences in there from the aforementioned Chris Darwen and Olivier Galle (FM_Guru88), as well as my own special brand of clinical insanity and match engine breaking antics.
After all, Football Manager is nothing but a game and why not have a bit of fun while we’re playing? Even if we lose using this tactic, it is generally fun and with a lot of goals scored. So let’s delve deeper into this latest little tactic.
Table of Contents
The formation (sort of)
When you have followed this blog, you will have noticed that I have a fetish for the unconventional when it comes to the way my teams line up. I savour unusual formations, I revel in peculiar settings, and I relish tactics that are unorthodox, that are different than they might appear at first sight.
The name of the blog is symbolic of my preferences; after all, strikerless football remains a somewhat alien concept, initially mocked and hounded. Taking my predilection of the obscure into consideration, it should not come as a complete surprise that I generally try to think outside of the proverbial box. The Harpy tactic is no exception to this rule.
At first glance, the formation looks pants-shittingly insane up to the point where it seems to reminisce the early days of football and 2-3-5-
On the other hand, if you were to look at how the tactic behaves during a match, it morphs from a strange, unbalanced, seemingly unhinged set of positions and roles, to a somewhat fluid and balanced, almost cohesive arrangement of positions and roles.
When you use this Harpy tactic, it quickly becomes apparent that it doesn’t matter how crazy, absurd or obscene the formation looks like on paper, the team instructions and individual player roles determine how the team lines up on the pitch during the various stages of play.
After all, there is no such thing as an absolute formation. No 4-4-2 lines up in the same way and the game engine reflects that. Teams have an offensive shape, a defensive one and various shapes for transitioning back and forth between the two. The game mimics these various shapes by giving you three different tactical menus for all stages of play as mentioned earlier (and thus corresponding tactical shapes).
No team plays in the same shape the entire match. When the team is moving forward one or both fullbacks move forward, creating a new shape. Similarly, in some cases, a striker drops back into midfield to pick up an opposing defensive midfielder. During the various transitions between
This fluid movement between various formations applies to pretty much any formation. In basic FM-terminology, the shape on the pitch varies dependant on the phase of play, the team instructions and the roles of the players.
The underlying concept
The shape I opted for in the game’s formation screen is the primary defensive shape. When the team is either in transition or attack, the team lines up completely different. Even in some defensive situations, the formation looks nothing like the initial 2-5-0-3-0 on display above.
The motivation behind this concept is that I want a shape (and thus player roles) that allow me maximum tactical versatility and movement across the pitch. The various shapes the team uses throughout a match are rather diverse, which is something I intend to look at in the rest of this article.
Our primary defensive shape
Our primary defensive shape is far more defensive than the initial shape in the formation screen would lead you to believe. While the positioning and role of our wide players would lead you to think that their role is primarily offensive, they do tend to manoeuvre back down the flank to protect the two centre-backs.
As you might have deduced by examining the average positions of our players without the ball, the team lines up not too dissimilar to an offensive conventional 4-3-3 formation. The block of forwards drops relatively deep, but there are no glaring gaps between the forward and midfield line.
In the screenshot above, we can see that the distance between the two banks of players is maybe 10 to 15 metres at most. Since the players are generally mobile and feeding off each other’s runs and movement, it is often even less than that, again as indicated in the screenshot above, where one of the attacking midfielders drops deep to help out the midfielders.
The regular midfield meanwhile lines up in a triangular shape, again as shown in the screenshot above, with the defensive midfielder protecting the backline by maintaining a position in front of the two central defenders, essentially becoming an advanced sweeper, who eliminates quite a few threats before they reach our central defenders.
This defensive midfielder acts as an impediment for opposing midfielders and withdrawn forwards, restricting their space and preventing them from charging at our defensive line full-speed. The pair of Segundo Volantes is deputising and basing its movement on the positioning of the Anchor Man.
When we further examine the defensive shape, we reach the conclusion that the other two midfielders are defensively contributing by shuffling laterally to confront opposing midfielders all across the midfield area. They are often backed in their pressing gambit by one of the wide players or attacking midfielders.
The Anchorman, who is highlighted in a circle, remains static, whereas the Segundo Volantes shuffle over to help nullify threats posed by the opposing team. These shifts become very apparent when you look at how the triangle shifts and tilts. The original defensive shape is highlighted with blue dotted lines, whereas the new one is highlighted in the white triangle.
The flanks, which would appear vulnerable when you base your opinion merely on the formation screen I posted initially, turn out to be less understaffed than you may have initially guessed. The wide wingbacks tend to drop far back, despite their advanced positioning and offensive role.
When the team has entered its defensive shape, the wingbacks drop back to form a traditional back four with the two central defenders. The central midfielders retain their triangular shape, with the Segundo Volantes shuffling wide if needed to back up the wingbacks.
Our transitional shapes
Since the emergence of counter-pressing, more and more teams are focussing on countermeasures against this particular brand of football, which means spending more and more time improving your transitional phases.
Now a transition means moving from one phase of play to the next. For instance, when your defenders intercept a cross and bring the ball out from defence into midfield, the team is effectively entering a new phase of play. Your team has transitioned from its defensive shape to a more offensive one.
I grossly oversimplified the concept, but that is the concept of transitions. I highly recommend watching this video by Rashidi/BustTheNet for more information.
Transitioning from defence to midfield
The first transition I wish to look at is the transition from our defensive shape into our midfield. This transition involves working the ball from our backline towards our midfield players. It is typically a short transition that involves simple passes from the goalkeeper to our defenders and from there on to our midfielders or either the goalkeeper or defenders playing the ball directly towards one of the three midfielders.
The shouts “Play Out Of Defence” and “More Direct Passing” might initially seem confusing but the compact nature of our formation combined with the often attacking mentality employed generates an efficient end-result, where the goalkeeper and defenders generally feed the ball towards the midfielders quickly, without taking excessive risks. Let’s look at the passing charts for the goalkeeper and defenders.
One of the first facts to catch my eye is the overall lack of long passes or hoofed clearances overall. Bear in mind that this data was taken from Maccabi Tel Aviv’s European Supercup fixture versus Liverpool and you would expect a team like Liverpool, that presses aggressively, to force a fair few hoofed clearances forward.
We can see that our goalie has only had one pass that breached the halfway line, which was a free-kick from inside his own half. The central defenders have had a few long passes, both successful and unsuccessful, but they seem to prefer a shorter build-up play when transitioning out of the back towards our midfielders.
Our regular buildup play transitioning from a defensive shape into midfield is that of relatively short passes towards either the defensive midfielder shielding the defence or one of the wingbacks. At times, the defenders will pass it between themselves until a clear passing line opens up into midfield.
The ballplaying defenders I have selected to play in the heart of my defence are generally quite comfortable on the ball and don’t mind a bit of pressure. With no less than five players in the defensive midfield area plus the presence of a second central defender and a goalkeeper nearby, there are always passing options available and the ballplaying defender role ensures that my players have the tactical freedom to use these avenues available to them instead of merely hoofing the ball forward at the first hint of trouble.
When the team successfully brings the ball into the midfield area, it usually ends up with either one of the Inverted Wingbacks or the Anchor Man. The two Segundo Volantes typically do not get involved this early. Depending on the circumstances and risks involved, these players can either opt to consolidate possession by choosing a safe pass or break forward to the attacking area with a penetrative pass.
Midfield transition; consolidation
When the team opts to consolidate possession, the team shape alters. Our Inverted Wingbacks, who are generally positioned far up the pitch, will come inside more to offer more secure passing outlets wide, whereas the Segundo Volantes will try to get involved as well.
The players positioned in attacking midfield will try to drop deeper to find space between the lines. The consolidation phase is often typified by movement off the ball, as players try to make themselves available for a pass, to maintain possession.
This is a typical midfield consolidation transition from our Anchor Man. After receiving the ball from our central defender, he can either swivel on the ball and relay play to the other flank or play a short pass wide or towards one of the other midfielders, maintaining possession by playing short and simple passes.
This may seem like an odd decision; playing an Anchor Man in such a pivotal position. After all, a playmaker could seriously speed up play in such a role. Since this tactic is all about transitions and using them properly, I opted against such an approach. After all, losing the ball in this area of the pitch and in this stage of our transitional phase could have devastating consequences, as our IWB’s are moving high up the pitch and would be unable to track back if we lost the ball. An Anchor Man is rather conservative in his passing and thus makes for an ideal role to suit my needs in midfield.
Similarly, my Inverted Wingbacks play a rather conservative role in this transitional phase. Like the Anchor Man, they are quite cautious in their passing while they are still in their own half. Their passing chart will show you.
We can see a few misplaced passes, either from throw-ins or clearances inside or around our own penalty-area but the majority of the passes are short and safe. Inside their own half, these players do not take excessive risks and will usually opt for safe options. Their typical passing pattern is an indication of how our game develops.
Like the Anchor Man, the Inverted Wingbacks carefully guard our possession. Since they are my sole, wide outlets, I want them to face inward and look for a pass more centrally. I have experimented with Complete Wingbacks and other options, but they were all too focused on getting down the flanks themselves. Even on an Attacking duty, the Inverted Wingbacks tend to cut inside a lot, which automatically means they have more passing options available to them and sees them squander possession far less often.
Quite often, as the team shifts from a defensive phase to a more offensive-minded one, the entire team starts moving forward. The Anchor Man and the Inverted Wingbacks are there to guard the balance and prevent needless risks. They choose between opting for a more penetrative pass forward or a conservative, consolidating pass sideways or even
Midfield transition; penetration
The Midfield Penetration phase is the point in the game where your team has consolidated its control of the midfield area. The time is right to move men forward and get players into position to support the attacking motives we wish to employ. The penetration of the opposing midfield-line can happen in a multitude of ways. Effectively, our Inverted Wingbacks can make darting runs forward, the Segundo Volantes could push further forward, and players from the forward line will also begin testing the opposing defensive lines at this point, attacking the channels between defenders and fullbacks and between defenders.
Looking at the first method of midfield penetration I described, we can see that it is as straight-forward as I described. Once the Inverted Wingbacks leave their own half, they can spot the movement of either the players in the forward line or linking up midfielders to pick a pass.
As our sole, wide outlets in this formation, their tactical discipline is one of the cornerstones of the tactic. In this phase of the game, they are less burdened with the responsibility for a poor pass, and they tend to take more risks in their passing efforts. In the example above, we can see the Inverted Wingback opting for a more risky pass forward. Inside his own half, he would most likely have played a sideways pass towards one of the midfielders.
Near the halfway-line and inside their own half, the Inverted Wingbacks are not taking any chances with their distribution, whereas they do look for
Due to the natural high positioning of the wide players in this formation, I expect the players who are fielded there to maintain possession and not take risks that leave our defensive line of two-and-a-half men exposed. Because of the very nature of the Inverted Wingback, he cuts inside and has more passing options, whereas conventional wide defenders tend to play the ball down the flanks or start marauding runs. This looks quite neat going forward, but once you are caught by a few devastating AI counter-attacks, you quickly decide that the offensive momentum is usually not worth the defensive risk.
The second method of midfield penetration I mentioned involves the more centrally placed players; the Segundo Volantes and the players in the forward line. What generally happens when these players get involved is what I like to call a two-stage-transition. It starts when one of the defensive midfielders, generally but not exclusively one of the Segundo Volantes, opts for a riskier, more direct pass forward. One of the Inverted Wingbacks or a player in the forward line is always the intended recipient. Either the pass breaks the opposing midfield-line, or the follow-up movement does; our player dribbles past the midfield-line or picks a pass that breaks the opposing midfield line.
In the situation above, the defender skips the consolidation transition and opts for a long pass towards one of the Segundo Volantes. Claílson is being pressured by one of the Liverpool players but still has the time and space to find one of the Shadow Strikers in space. The Liverpool midfield has been bypassed, as is clear by the movement of one of the central midfielders, dropping back to pressure Tsygankov.
The screenshot above displays a similar situation on the left flank, where the Shadow Striker actively drops back somewhat to allow himself a bit of time and space on the ball. He is now playing in the gap between midfield and defence. A short pass by one of our Segundo Volantes finds him in space, breaching the opposing midfield line. Solomon will end up passing the ball centrally, but he could have just turned around and attacked the space between the two defenders, returning to his previous position.
The Segundo Volantes are instrumental in making the midfield work, as this role offers one of the most complete midfield roles in the game. It is a demanding role that expects a player to be both a proficient box-to-box as well as a defensive midfielder. The Segundo Volante role tries to combine the best of both worlds. The penetration and forward drive of a box-to-box midfielder, yet the defensive and tactical sturdiness of a defensive midfielder.
With no real conventional central midfielders in place, the Segundo Volantes are essentially the pivots between the offensive and defensive players, being able to link play between the thirds while contributing both defensively and attacking. It is all about their positioning both on and off the ball, as it makes the difference between starting a promising attack or being caught out of position, leaving the team susceptible to a counterattack.
The final transition is the attacking transition. The team is looking to make an attacking pass to break the defensive line or get into a position where the team can threaten the defensive line. The team generally has two approaches to this attacking transition; they either play the ball in towards one of the forward three, who breaks the defensive line with a dribble, or the ball is played towards the player I use as a Withdrawn Targetman, who then opens up the defence with a through-ball.
A good attacking transition involves the exploitation of space. When the team has successfully completed the midfield penetration phase, they ought to have men in numbers in a position to cause mayhem for the opposing team.
The Withdrawn Targetman is often a linchpin in this phase. As intended, he receives the ball in the gap between the opposing defence and midfield. He can hold it up there and either go for an individual effort or lay it off towards one of his team-mates linking up.
The key to using that Withdrawn Targetman right is facilitating plenty of movement around him. By creating a compact playing space (i.e., pushing up the defensive line, yet withdrawing the line of engagement) and selecting the right combination of roles, you can see that there is plenty of
In the next screenshot, we can see a similar situation developing. The Shadow Striker, Tsygankov, dribbles inside and passes the ball towards the second Shadow Striker. As the ball is moving out to the second Shadow Striker, the Withdrawn Targetman has already started his run. The second Shadow Striker, Solomon, can play a simple pass into space for the Withdrawn Targetman to chase after.
Again, we can see how the Segundo Volantes and Inverted Wingbacks have flooded forward as well, effectively turning the formation into a 2-1-7-
Our offensive shape
We have seen how the team plays in this rather unorthodox formation, and we have established that during our attacking transition, no less than seven players are actively involved in pinning down the opposition and trying to score a goal. Especially the forward three and the two Segundo Volantes have complete freedom to roam around and find pockets of space to exploit. The proximity to one another makes it easy for them to feed off each others movement.
When one of the Shadow Strikers drops back into a pocket of space to pick up the ball, one of the Segundo Volantes will often surge forward and move into the space vacated. The opposing midfielder often tracks the run of his opponent, while the opposing defender generally refuses to abandon the defensive line, which results in space and time on the ball for one of my guys.
With our attacks being as fast-paced and incisive as they are, creating an image to capture their essence is pretty difficult. A series of videos should display what a typical Harpy attack looks like, displaying the midfield penetration, attacking transition and final attack.
This first goal is a typical counter-attack, where the team skips the midfield consolidation, and the penetration happens directly from a long pass towards the Withdrawn Targetman, Pavelic. Our star player holds up the ball and in the attacking transition sends a through-ball into the path of our Shadow Striker Tsygankov, whose run penetrates the defensive line. In the attacking phase, he can simply pick a pass, and Solomon finishes coolly. Even then, watch as the two Segundo Volantes, the Inverted Wingbacks and even the Anchor Man have entered the frame as well to assist in recovering the ball should we squander possession.
This second goal is far more methodical in its approach and setup. There is a lot of movement and patient passing, as the Maccabi Tel-Aviv players are trying to find a gap in the opposing defence. The two Shadow Strikers, Tsygankov and Solomon, combine to lure all the defenders into a more central position. One of the Inverted Wingbacks cuts inside and attacks the halfspace, finding room inside the box to finish with a sublime shot in the far corner.
The third goal is one of the rare goals that comes from actual wing play in this tactic. Our Inverted Wingback sends one of the Shadow Strikers chasing after a long ball down the flank. The whipped low cross finds the Withdrawn Targetman in the six-yard box with an easy finish to score our third goal. Much like the first goal, aided by its compact nature, the team drops into a medium-low block to absorb the pressure from a technically superior opponent before transitioning to the attacking phases in a rapid fashion.
This fourth clip does not show us an actual goal, but it does showcase how the team moves when it’s on the move. Our Inverted Wingback dribbles into the opposing half and sends a pass towards one of the Shadow Strikers, Solomon. His run starts to threaten the integrity of the opposing defensive line. With no less than four team-mates nearby, this is a very promising attack. Ultimately, Pavelic wastes what could have been a prime chance by taking a wild shot instead of passing it to the flanks or towards a team-mate on the edge of the box.
So what’s up with the pompous name?
The word Harpy means ”snatcher.” Early Greek poets like Hesiod described the Harpies as winged, with maidenheads and youthful ”long hair.” They were creatures ”who on their swift wings keep pace with the blasts of the winds and the birds; for quick as
Originally, Harpies were spirits of the wind, and, while there is not widespread agreement on their origin, many scholars believe that the idea of the Harpy came from the constantly changing winds. For many ancient Greeks, the sky was a place of special significance because it was inaccessible, and therefore
I figured the name suited the way I want the team to play. Like the wind, the team is constantly changing its approach and setup, blasting away opposing teams like a