A 3-6-1 formation sounds odd, does it not? Like it conflicts with the natural order of things, or indeed the very fabric of existence. Is it really all about hoarding as many midfielders as possible, just slotting them into the line-up? Numbers-wise and taking the strikerless aspect into consideration, we could even say we are at times working with a 3-7-0.
When you look beyond the actual numbers, which are a mere arbitrary description of the defensive shape of a formation, you will find that a 3-6-1 or 3-7-0 formation is quite versatile and offers a number of intriguing possibilities.
When you interpret the formation by the numbers, it would be logical to arrive at the conclusion that a 3-6-1 formation will lake a presence in the attacking department and at the press in higher zones. This is not the case, as we can easily fix these perceived shortcomings.
The way such a formation uses its midfielders or wide players is crucial to making it effective. If the midfielders and/or wide players are leaving the midfield block to press higher or penetrate into the opposing penalty area, it can work. Mobility is the key-word here.
Just to reiterate, the intriguing aspect behind these supposedly defensive formations with a single player in the forward line is the versatility of that midfield block, which you can shape any way you desire. You can have a number of players flood forward and overlap the lone forward, while simultaneously having a fair few players behind the ball to occupy the deeper zones. A few fast players in midfield with some strong defenders and one or two quarterback-like players in central midfield and you’re good to go.
Flexibility in several ways
“The best defence is a good offence” is an adage that has been applied to many fields of endeavour, including games and military combat. It is also known as the strategic offensive principle of war. Whether you ask Napoleon, Macchiavelli, Sun Tzu or any other strategist or general worth his salt, they all agree that in general proactivity (a strong offensive action) instead of a passive attitude will preoccupy the opposition and ultimately hinder its ability to mount an opposing counterattack, leading to a strategic advantage.
The whole concept of this 3-6-1 hinges on the fact that you do not need four or five defenders to achieve a highly stable defence. If we can protect this back-line with a strong midfield presence, we ought to be golden. With six players in our midfield block, we can spare a few to protect the defensive line, while others will drop back to help out when necessary.
Depending on the situation, the 3-6-1 can turn into a back four or even back five. Players can peel off the midfield block to drop deeper, trailing an opponents’ run or protect an endangered zone.
Naturally, this kind of behaviour works both ways. To prevent our most forward player from being isolated and crowded out of the match by the opposing defenders, players can peel off the midfield block to add additional firepower to our attack.
The sheer number of players in our midfield block offers us possibilities in terms of who goes where at what specific moment during a game, as well as offering us the option to move forward or backwards with intensity and numbers. Let’s look at the setups we have been using so far to explore this concept.
In such setups as those pictured above, we can use more players or leave the lines further and longer because the cover behind them is higher. Those wide players and central midfielders can safely move forward in the knowledge that there are two defensive midfielders holding the fort. Similarly, when the defensive line is threatened, the wide players can drop deep to help out. Tweaking the roles and at times positions of the players can offer us great tactical versatility.
The central one of the back three tries to open passing lanes to the two defensive midfielders. We can use either a libero there or we can use a ball-playing defender for this. The defenders to the side will shuffle sideways, so it is probably for the better if you use plain defenders to stop them from wandering off.
The wide and half-space runners can alternate between positions and roles as their goal remains the same; move freely and overload the space between the lines and the middle. We recommend using either IWB’s or IW’s on the flanks to make sure they do not end up isolated on the flanks. For the half-space runners, we recommend either regular old central midfielders with the instruction to move into channels, carrileros or mezzalas. Their job is to support the most advanced player and create overloads where possible.
The players protecting the backline are not necessarily mobile players. Deep-lying playmakers make sense, though a roaming playmaker or a segundo volante could do a job in this department. They are supposed to distribute play, protect the back-line and cover the gaps whenever the central midfielders go wandering off forward.
Obviously trying to use all the possibilities above would be too much for many players, we recognise that a bit of trial and error is necessary to get the balance.
Parking the bus 2.0, parking the tank
This is Guido’s take on the 3-6-1. Like we mentioned in the introduction, these tactics look like they’re parking the bus. Only, instead of parking the bus, you are parking a tank with these tactics. Solid defensively but capable of running you over and delivering devastating blows through sheer force of firepower. We pack the central areas and absorb their pressure and then we counter as fast as humanly or AI-ly possible.
We have essentially taken the typical negative style associated with managers like José Mourinho during the latter stages of his career and we have given it some oomph when going forward.
The aim of this tactic was to create a high-paced tactic that was both defensively solid as well as offensively impressing. While it may sound counter-intuitively to do that with no actual forwards and only a single attacking midfielder, the midfielders flooding forward and back again, acting as a wolfpack hunting its prey will ensure that we can achieve both goals.
Which is, incidentally, how Guido came to name his tactic Fenrir, after the monstrous wolf of Norse mythology. Fearing Fenrir’s strength and knowing that only evil could be expected of him, the gods bound him with a magical chain. When the chain was placed upon him, Fenrir bit off the hand of the god Tyr. He was gagged with a sword and was destined to lie bound to a rock until the Ragnarök (Doomsday) when he will break his bonds and fall upon the gods.
My style is a high-paced and physical brand of football. We aggressively close down opponents in their own half, either winning the ball or forcing them to play long balls we can fight for. This places quite a bit of emphasis on our back-line. Our back three consists of physically imposing players, whose main task is to win headers and prevent any balls from getting through. They should be comfortable with large spaces in their back. Most of their touches on the ball consist of heading the ball towards the midfield block.
When we have the ball, we use a more patient passing style. This sounds counter-intuitive to counter-pressing, at least at first glance. Losing the ball in dangerous positions, however, can be quite catastrophic with the high defensive line I want to employ, so a more direct passing style is more or less akin to tactical hara-kiri and I am no muppet.
Offensively, you can expect typical strikerless movement, where the opposing defensive line is manipulated either in giving away space in behind or is forced into a narrow shape, which is then exploited mercilessly.
With multiple players attacking from deep positions, the opposition faces a classic heads-I-win, tails-you-lose situation.
As we described earlier, the midfielders are mostly there to link up defence and midfield, effectively balancing the tactic. The wingbacks provide the additional wide layer, which can help to peel away defenders towards a wide position, in turn freeing up space for the central players. Whilst our primary means of attacking is down the middle, it is useful having that option when things get a little congested. It also helps to stretch the play when we need a bit more room to work in.
In-game, this is the setup Guido uses.
The player roles are quite offensive and all about mobility. Take for example the movement of the wing-backs. While it seems counter-intuitive to have them cut inside, removing all width from the formation, in reality, these inverted wing-backs act as withdrawn inside forwards, bombing down the flanks assisting their own defence as well as contributing offensively.
Normally, the movement of a wide player is curbed by the presence of other players either wide or in the half-spaces. In the formation I am using, there are no players occupying the half-space regularly, nor is there any other wide player present. The inverted wing-backs can run rampage up and down the flank, getting into goal-scoring opportunities quite regularly.
Another lovely mobile role included in this setup is the libero, the elegant defender sitting behind the defensive line, picking up a stray through balls from an attacker before striding forward, stepping past the other defenders and moving into the midfield zone. From there he acts as a modern-day deep-lying playmaker, initiating the play and spreading it out to the flanks, or playing it forward into midfield or attack.
Initially, we feared that the presence of the dual block of deep-lying playmakers in front of the defence would curb the movement of the libero. It does not. Much rejoicing took place.
The libero regularly moves past the defensive midfield block to act as an advanced playmaker in front of the two deep-lying playmakers.
Our dual playmakers and libero are acting as a triple pivot of playmaking awesomeness, pinging long balls forward for the IWB’s, the central midfielders and the shadow strikers to work with. Just look at these passing charts.
The playmakers are using the mobility of the wide men and the more advanced players to spray passes around and start devastating counter-attacks. Looking at our average positioning, we can see that as well.
Despite a relatively defensive initial look, we can see that in possession, we have three players in and around the penalty area, with the wide players and the defensive midfield block offering support and the libero can add an extra layer of offensive firepower if needed.
When you look at the passing charts, you can see that the offensive prowess is at times even greater. The two central midfielders mostly receive the ball in positions more advanced than that of the shadow striker, when they bear down on the opposing goalkeeper. If you want to have an impression of the spread in goals and assists throughout the team, have a quick peek at some statistics from Guido’s Incheon save.
Almost every field player in the squad has contributed in goalscoring or assisting, with our forward line averaging almost a goal a game. What’s not to love?
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water
In building his version of the 361, Seattle Red began with PM Haaienbek, his setup from our prior tactical collaboration based on Julian Nagelsmann’s “sharkmouth” principles.
The tactic had proven solid defensively, so Seattle Red aimed to maintain that solidity while withdrawing one shadow striker into the midfield strata — thus resulting in a 33310 shape that is something like a drunken Bielsa might employ in a fit of pique.
The roles and team instructions weren’t right, though.
Gareth suggested a few tweaks to the team instructions, which brought us close to the edge. And when Seattle Red had a moment of madness regarding the roles and duties, the pieces fell into place.
In terms of player instructions: (1) the wingbacks are instructed to “stay wider;” and (2) the shadow striker instructed to “close down more.”
At first glance, you may think that we’re insane for using a central axis comprised of: (1) a libero on attack duty; (2) a regista; and (3) a roaming playmaker.
And you might be right. In fact, you almost certainly are right.
But not necessarily for the reasons you think…
Seattle Red’s love for a libero is well-documented. And there’s no point in playing with a libero if he isn’t on attack duty…
The obvious problem being that a deep-sitting 33310 shape isn’t naturally conducive to a libero romping forward into space.
By employing a regista and a roaming playmaker, we ensured that the players in front of the libero would move aggressively forward and laterally in the attacking phase, thus creating space for the libero to stride into midfield.
That also means we have three players in the spine of the team who are aggressively-creative in possession, always looking to progress the ball forward into dangerous positions.
I can hear the question already — don’t they still step on each other’s toes? In a word, no.
Due to our very attacking mentality, the regista and roaming playmaker operate like a high double pivot in possession, supported by the libero.
The average position maps tend to show these three players aligned vertically. Which is what we should expect. It is average position only, over the course of 90 minutes.
What you actually see in matches is that the regista and roaming playmaker stay close together, in terms of the direct distance between the two — but they drift wide in possession, such that they’re operating on different horizontal axes, with the regista usually drifting wider.
The reality is if the regista and roaming playmaker played in a direct vertical axis, their instinctive creativity would be nerfed. They’d step on each other’s toes. They’d be predictable.
But that’s where the inherent aggressiveness of these three roles kicks in. They naturally work to support and play off of each other in possession, creating angles to progress the ball forward or shift the point of attack.
This high double pivot becomes the fulcrum of our side in the attacking phase, as other players work off and around them, to create and exploit space.
In the final third, there is no denying that the shadow striker is our primary goalscorer and most-immediate attacking threat.
But you would be wrong in thinking that this setup is one-dimensional in the attacking phase. Rather, we are remarkably flexible, based on the exigencies and opportunities of a given moment.
This flexibility derives from the combined effect of our “very attacking” mentality and team instructions (e.g., shorter passing, standard mentality). Depending on the situation, we can be both: (1) direct and incisive when the situation calls for it; while also (2) being deliberate and purposeful when looking to break through a determined defensive line/press.
This flexibility also derives from the roles and duties we’ve selected. Our basic, 33310 shape looks incredibly defensive. And it does present a solid, determined wall, in the defensive phase. But, in transition and in the attacking phase, our players launching forward en masse.
That means that, while most chances fall to our shadow striker, we have a wide variety of additional attacking threats, through: (1) the libero–regista-roaming playmaker axis, each of whom is directly involved in the final third, from different angles and depths; (2) the two mezzalas, who aggressively attack the half-spaces, and contribute to central overloads; and (3) the two wingbacks, who provide width and depth.
While our defensive shape is a 3331, the attacking shape will more often resemble a 2134/2143.
Pro tip: if you use fast, attack-minded wingbacks who can beat a man on the dribble — and if you don’t, you should give your head a wobble — they will unleash Hell on an unwary defense in this tactic.
The beauty of the advanced positioning of the mezzalas and wingbacks also means that we have the numbers to counterpress effectively from our 2134/2143 shape.
(Note, however, that our defensive line and line of engagement are set to standard, while our pressing is set to “more urgent.” A more aggressive press, with only one advanced player, would result in our being pulled out of our compact defensive shape far too easily. This, of course, is a reflection of the oft-misunderstood difference between a high press and counterpressing.)
Does PM Haaientand work? Well, while fine-tuning the tactic Seattle Red won the 2037/38 Champions League with a young Partizan squad, won Ligue 2 with a young Stade de Reims, and then took that same Reims side into Europe, at the first asking.
It isn’t a plug-and-play, “instant win” tactic. But it’s Seattle Red’s favorite tactic on FM 20 thus far, for whatever that’s worth.
They’re not gonna catch us. We’re on a mission from God.
Gareth’s setup went in a different direction entirely, more aggressive from the outset with a 32410 shape, deploying 4 players in the midfield strata.
Gareth tested his Riot in Cellblock #9 setup extensively in England, taking a deep look at the statistics behind the scoreline.
One initial concern might be covering the width of the pitch during the defensive phase, given that your only true “wide” players are in the midfield strata.
But, as we can see from this one example here, the wingers do not stay high, waiting to serve as an outlet when possession is recovered. They’re back, putting in the hard work.
When building from the back, however, those same wingers push high to give a vertical passing option, while the setup otherwise provides numerous options to progress the ball forward more deliberately.
As midfielders, however, they sit deep enough that the opposition backline don’t know what to do with them. In a typical building-out scenario below, the Manchester United backline are marking…no one at all. Gareth’s City have 5-6 passing options in the center of the field, with the two wingers high and wide.
The tactical shape provides solidity even in the run of play, as your opponent seeks to build out of the back.
Here, City shift as an adjustment to United building out through the left. A solid defensive shape, with runners tracked.
As United play the ball into the middle, City’s press collapses upon the ball, forcing a turnover. City immediately drop the ball to one of the deep-lying playmakers, who immediately plays in Vinicius wide left, for an aggressive counter-punch.
Another hallmark of Gareth’s setup is the use of two deep-lying playmakers, who combine to serve as the quarterbacks of the side, spraying passes into dangerous positions, supporting the attack in case we need to shift the point of attack.
Words. Talking. Pictures. More words.
We know what you want. What you need. What you crave.
You filthy beast.
Get stuck in, with these tactics, right here:
Seattle Red’s PM Haaientand
Gareth’s Riot in Cellblock #9
Gareth’s Dull Riot in Cellblock #9
All work and no Football Manager makes Seattle Red a dull boy.
Keith Tinker · February 20, 2020 at 5:49 pm
Great article guys, looking forward to my own concept of strikerless
Seattle Red · February 20, 2020 at 7:17 pm
Glad you enjoyed it! Be sure to drop us a line on Twitter (or in here!) and let us know how it’s going, man!
David · February 23, 2020 at 2:29 pm
Guido i always wonder , how would you set up pep guardiola strikerless?
Guido · February 24, 2020 at 8:58 pm
Are we talking Man City Guardiola?
Oilpress · March 21, 2020 at 7:09 am
I look at that 3-6-1-0, and I feel compelled to push the central midfielders up to the AMC spot to make a 3-4-3-0. I like having some attacking flair in my team, and with only one AMC and no forwards, it’s tough to get enough skill into the side (at least with player playing their natural positions). Also, I like having three interchangeable attackers in the AM strata who can keep the defense guessing, while being able to press higher up the pitch.
Niek · March 30, 2020 at 11:00 am
Hey Guys! Do you have any tips for implenting Fenrir and Haaientand during a season?