Over the course of FM20, I have, at times, struggled to get into the flow of the game. It’s not that my teams were not achieving successes, but something felt off. My tactics were not producing the smooth, silky style of play they used to in other instalments of the game. What was up? Were my earlier successes flukes? Were all those comments about exploiting, hacking and cheating based on more than just conjecture?
I started doubting myself, feeling at times like a bit of an imposter. While this insecurity can be a healthy feeling, keeping my hubris in check, it was now messing with my head. The game was less fun for me because I couldn’t get the style going I wanted to see and was used to seeing. In a world where I was working long hours at school, unwinding with FM was rather important to me.
I decided to dive into the save-games I played during FM20 to see what was going on there. Why were the ideas that have served me so well since FM14 no longer producing the style of play I love to see?
I went back to my FM18 and FM19 saves and compared the data from these saves with the data from my FM20 career. One of the first things I noticed when I started crunching the numbers, was that the number of goals scored had remained virtually the same, but my teams had become more dependant on set pieces; Set Piece Manager 2020 instead of Football Manager 2020.
This was not an entirely satisfactory explanation as to why I felt my preferred style of play was no longer working. We were still creating chances, which lead to set pieces, which ultimately lead to goals. While I prefer to score goals from open play, this was not the avenue I to go down in search of answers.
The distribution of goals and assists between players was another avenue to venture down. The difference between the older versions and FM20 became apparent rather quickly. In FM18 and FM19, my Shadow Strikers were my primary offensive outlets, especially in terms of goals. While the Shadow Strikers have contributed more assists in FM20, they have scored far fewer goals than they used to.
The shadow strikers have contributed far fewer goals to the cause than they used to. This hasn’t had an impact on the team performance so far, but it’s indicative of a change in how they behave and especially how they interact in combination with the other roles on the pitch.
Ideally (and in FM-terms traditionally), the shadow striker operates in the hole between the classic number 9 and the central midfielders, searching to operate like a withdrawn striker that attempts to get the second ball or arriving late at the area.
Isolated, they are supposed to rely on their positional intelligence. Find a pocket of space and try to move into the box from that position. The movement of a shadow striker is not necessarily vertical, as they are hardcoded to move into channels if there is space out wide. Be it from a central position or wide, the shadow striker will use a sudden burst of speed to move into space and cause trouble for the defence.
The issue I encountered with the shadow strikers is related to my rather unusual penchant towards strikerless tactics. The shadow strikers are hardcoded to move laterally as well as moving deep. When their lateral movement is not curbed by the presence of team-mates occupying a certain space, they will keep moving wide, sometimes ending up on or near the touch-line. In narrow formations like the ones I favour, that is a problem.
I briefly touched upon the problem in the previous paragraph; shadow strikers are hard-coded to move into channels. If there is no team-mate positioned on that flank, they will continue to move wide and end up spaced far apart and in zones where they are not causing trouble for the opposition. Let me show you an example of what I mean.
As you can see, the shadow strikers spend a lot of time in areas not even close to the opposing penalty area. These guys are supposed to be my main offensive threats, and they end up pretty much anywhere except in positions where they can score goals.
While the screenshot also showcases their ability to be mobile and to drift around to find pockets of space, these shadow strikers are not doing what they used to in earlier versions of the game. They used to find space between the opposing defensive midfielders and central defenders and find their moment to surge forward into the box. Well, there’s no surging going on in FM20. Instead, they drift wide, ending up in zones where we don’t want them to end up.
Instead of moving into the half-spaces, a position which would allow them to maintain a presence towards the central area and surge into the box if the opportunity arises, the shadow strikers often end up wide of the penalty area, in a position where they can only flick the ball back or maybe get a cheeky cross in. The shot chart shows you the same thing.
Most of the times, the shadow striker does find a pocket of space, often behind the opposing fullback and he will surge forward into that pocket, only to find himself isolated out wide, in a position where he cannot effectively threaten the opposing defensive line or try to score a goal.
The shadow strikers are no longer the potent offensive threat they used to be, often relegated to diversionary players, who draw away opponents instead of finishing an attacking move. While I can see the value in such movement, shadow strikers ought to be the most penetrative role in the attacking midfield arsenal. If they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, it makes life rather more difficult when you rely on these players.
These observations corroborate the data I painstakingly pulled from the game. Shadow strikers in a narrow formation are not quite as effective as they used to be, because they are hardcoded to move wide, and they do so far too wide when there is no wide player present to check their movement.
I have mentioned other wide players keeping the shadow strikers in check in regards to their movement. That isn’t some willy-nilly statement of mine but something I actually tried, tested and tweaked in FM20. Essentially, I tried to box in the shadow strikers, not allowing them too much freedom to drift.
In the following formation, the player roles are specifically set up to create a zone around the shadow strikers, to keep them focussed and pointed towards the opposing goal. They won’t drift out wide if there is a team-mate occupying that space. Now it will be hard for them to drift back or out wide as there are team-mates in these zones.
These formation changes drastically impact the movement and behaviour of the shadow strikers. Instead of roaming wide and eliminating themselves from the equation by drifting into positions where they pose no threat, the shadow strikers remain in a central position, constantly looking to get behind the opposing defensive line.
As you can see, the shadow strikers remain much more focussed towards the central areas. They also get more touches in positions in and around the penalty area where they can cause trouble for the opposing team. This impacts the number and quality of shots taken as well.
Compared to the narrow formation, the shadow strikers are much more active in the areas that matter. While set pieces created some of the scoring chances, most came from open play. We are getting the shadow strikers to do what we want; get inside the penalty area and cause havoc.
While I ultimately found a working solution to a problem presented to us by the match engine, FM20, in general, was frustrating at times. I had a few specific ideas I wanted to try, and I couldn’t get them to work the way I wanted to. I prefer not to use workarounds to achieve my goals.
With FM20 coming to a close (as I type this, I have the FM21 beta open), I look forward to applying what I have learned here to FM21 to see how the new match engine will perform with my hijinks. For now, this was a mostly therapeutic blog on my personal frustrations with the shadow striker.