Football is a game of transitions, as matches can be won or lost by alternating quickly and successfully between attack and defence. Teams like Liverpool base their style of play on these transitional moments, making deadly counter-attacks a house speciality. This shift in style for many real-life football teams has been emulated by Football Manager; ensuring your tactical system is set up to give your team the best chance of taking advantage of mistakes in the transitional phases of the opposition while similarly limiting your own risks is key to doing well in Football Manager 20.
So what is a transition? A transition means moving from one phase of play to the next, by winning or losing the ball. 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.
Naturally, this is all rather simplified. One could make it far more complex by establishing various other transitional phases including the various lines on the pitch, for instance transitioning between the defensive line and the midfield line or between the midfield line and the offensive line. One could also transition from the defensive line straight to the attacking one, skipping the midfield altogether. One could even attribute different roles to the midfield transition, such as consolidating possession or penetrating the opposing lines. For the sake of simplicity, we will limit ourselves to the transitional phases that are apparent in the Football Manager match engine; the transitions between offence and defence and vice versa.
The key to absolutely nailing these transitional phases is protecting the balance between offence and defence through what managers like Ronald Koeman, Erik Ten Hag and Peter Bosz call “restverdediging”. I could not find the English equivalent of this phrase, so I will try to explain. Restverdediging means the remaining defence when you translate it literally. When your team is transitioning from the defensive phase of play to the offensive phase, you want to ensure that there are enough players remaining behind the ball to snuff out counter-attacks when your team loses the ball; how many players do you keep at the back while there is an attack.
The phrase was first used by Rinus Michels, the manager of the Dutch Euro 88 squad, who decreed that at least four players had to remain in the back to act as protection against counter-attacks. Modern-day managers still use the phrase to describe their team’s organisation during the transitional phases.
Transitions are one of the keys to controlling a match because chaos arises and whoever can control and manipulate that chaos has a significant advantage. The best way to prepare for a transition is to generate numerical superiority, having man-marking and players defending the space in front of them, closing down the passing lanes.
Making these transitions work requires some thought before constructing a tactic, as well as a fair dose of trial and error during pre-season (alternatively, a firm understanding of the mechanics of the game does work as well). I use the following questions to help me in this process.
When I start drawing up the way we set out to transition, I start with the defensive transitions. When we lose the ball, what is supposed to happen? Which players are supposed to drop back (or have stayed back) to take up their primary defensive positions? What do the other players do? Will they bunch up in the middle to restrict space or will they actively try to win the ball back? You can, of course, mix this up and have some players try to win the ball back while others take up a more supportive role by constricting space.
Upon winning the ball back, we need to figure out what to do with it. Will we keep possession for a while, allowing for a gradual, patient transition to a more offensive phase? Or will we go for a more rapid transition, opting for a quick and direct counter-attack?
Finally, when we are attacking, we need to consider which players are going to make forward runs to penetrate the opposing defensive line. These players will be out of position when we lose the ball, so for the sake of balance, we have to consider our “restverdediging”; which players will remain behind to snuff out counter-attacks?
These are questions I ask myself when setting up a tactic and going through the first games in pre-season. In theory, it’s all fine and dandy, but the game mechanics also have a role to play here, especially since many of the questions above are answered differently, depending on your preferred playing style.
FM19 introduced a new User Interface, which saw transitions introduced as a separate tactical phase to set up. This design choice highlights the importance of these transitional phases. This screen features in FM20 as well. In this screen, you can select the various options that impact the team during its transitional phases from offence to defence or vice versa.
This is where we set up how our team reacts during transitions. The first screen essentially determines the way the team presses. 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.” This makes the difference between the two options.
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. The “Counterpressing” option basically generates this effect. 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, that is what the “Regroup” option does. 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.
Similarly, when you win the ball, the second screen determines how the team carries on such a situation, again with “intent” being the keyword. The “Counter” option will ask your players to immediately go on the attack after winning possession, trying to use the transitional phase the opposing team has to undergo to their advantage. “Hold shape” will result in a more considered and patient approach, keeping the ball and retaining formation before building another attack.
If you think that these boxes will enable you to figure out the transitions in the game, then you are setting yourself up for a disappointment. Setting up a successful style of transitioning goes beyond ticking or unticking a few boxes in a menu. The player roles and the very formation are also integral parts to consider.
I could start to write about all the various roles and what they do and how they interact but quite frankly, that would take forever. The shortcut is already built into the game. When you view your tactic, you can toggle the Analysis mode on the top right of the screen.
Areas that have issues are highlighted in orange or red tints. Clicking on such an area pulls up a screen that tells you what is going wrong in such an area.
Some issues are caused by a formation choice. For instance, the issue highlighted above is caused by my choice of formation. I am not fielding a right-sided winger, so yes, the wingback on that side will be isolated. You can choose to ignore this comment or rectify it as you see fit. The Analysis mode merely offers an indication of potential problems.
For the player roles, you want to look at the distribution of roles across the pitch and the movement that is typical for each role. Ideally, you want to set up horizontal and vertical lines within the tactic, players cooperating and acting as a unit.
For instance, when the ball is on the left side of the pitch, the left wing-back will generally move to a position where he can receive the ball with a short pass, maintaining a wide position to stretch the opposing defence. The right wing-back, on the other hand, will cut inside in order to get on the end of a far-post cross or pick up possession just outside the penalty area.
Setting up pairs and combinations on horizontal and vertical lines is again mostly down to understanding how player roles move and how they interact. I wish I could offer you a quick explanation but I can’t.