Earlier I wrote a brief piece on my intentions for FM21. This the first proper article in this series, in which I want to look at the defensive aspect of things. In case you missed it, the introduction is linked below.
If you can’t be arsed clicking on that link, let me show you the visualisation of what I have in mind.
Defensively, I want to look at the three defensive principles I mentioned, how I am to achieve those and which performance indicators I use to make sure my players are performing the way I want them to.
MY DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES
Defensively, we aim to defend by numbers. I hope to crowd out the offensive firepower of the opposing team, bury them with numbers, smother them like those bees in Discovery Channel documentaries do with wasps and hornets. Such a defensive approach boils down to collective pressure by having more players around the ball than the opponent. As a result, elsewhere on the field opponents are completely free, but that is a calculated risk.
This way of playing is not tied to any particular system. We can achieve this style of defending in either of the three formations I linked above. It will involve some tweaking with the player roles and some of the team instructions but the core principles will remain the same. A 5-2-3-0 will line up differently than a 4-3-3-0 or a 4-1-2-3-0, yet this does not mean you cannot use the same principles.
The underlying defensive principles I intend to use are the following:
- Force them wide, lock down the central areas;
- Restrict the space for the opposing offence to maneuver in;
- Maintain a compact and cohesive formation.
Force them wide
Looking into the tactical doctrines of managers who preferred heavy pressing, I read that they base their pressing upon four points of reference: the ball, the space, the opponents and the team-mates. These reference points now form the basis of the Red Bull pressing. Ideally, you want to establish a sort of hierarchy in which the players first pay attention to the ball, then to the space, then to their team-mates and only then must they pay attention to their opponents.
Such a hierarchy is difficult if not impossible to impose within the restrictions of the match engine of the game. However, you can look at these reference points and try to devise a setup, a defensive organization that makes vertical passes through the axis of the field almost impossible, thus strengthening our defensive play and pressing.
Forcing them wide is achieved by playing in a narrow formation during the defensive phase of play; a setting that is clearly in the instructions.
It is not quite as simple as ticking the box in the instructions and it will happen, as your formation and player roles need to match the instruction. I want to look at the formations and roles when I look at restricting space.
Restrict their space
Forcing them wide also means making the wide option an attractive one for the opposing team. In FM-terms, that means packing the central area with bodies, leaving an opponent no alternative but to try his luck out on the wing. Domination of the central areas is what I’m after, taking inspiration from the noble chess sport here.
In chess, controlling the central area is considered a strategy that allows you the best possible access to the board and can reach the entirety of the width as you can easily maximise the potential spaces which your pieces can move into. When you stick to a side, you have 180 degrees of possible movement. When you stick to the centre, you have 360 degrees.
When you think of the football pitch as a chessboard you can easily see that dominating this area automatically limits and restricts the opposing team, making it much harder for them to break down your defence and create chances.
To go back to our earlier bee-analogy, by forcing an opponent wide and restricting an opponents’ space, we allow our team the opportunity to swarm the opposition and keep them away from our goal.
One of the ways I can check if we are really dominating those central areas is by looking at the analysis overlay in the tactics screen. If there are red zones highlighted in the central areas, they may indicate a potential problem in that area in terms of personnel.
In two of the three formations, we can see some red or orange squares but those are generally not in the central areas. At first glance, you could say that we are indeed successful in generating a strong central presence.
In theory that leaves us with the central areas of the pitch covered. The ways the various roles interact and complement the formational choices is something I wish to discuss in the following paragraph.
A compact and cohesive line-up
The third defensive game principle I wish to incorporate into my tactics is the aim to stay compact during our defensive phase. The distances between the players should be limited so that players can help each other to close the centre or tilt the focus of the defensive efforts towards the side of the pitch the ball in on, without losing the defensive integrity.
For me, this defensive principle is not linked to the chosen formation but to the chosen roles employed within that formation. The right combination of roles creates a tight and cohesive formation, while the wrong combination of roles can create a disordered, discombobulated formation.
What that means is that you shouldn’t mix and match roles that work against each other. Know what a role does on its own and in conjunction with other roles on the pitch. There’s always a trial and error element to that but hey ho, that’s half the fun.
Anyway, the main problem that arises in two out of the three formations is the narrowness of the midfield. I have tried to fix this in an unorthodox way. People consider BWM’s a liability because of their tendency to leave their assigned positions on the pitch and chase after the ball. I have tried to turn this weakness into a strength.
What I want them to do is chase after that ball and pressure the opposition wide if needed. This fanatical tilting by the BWM block ensures a numerical superiority on the side where the ball is. The wing-back on the opposing side generally tucks inside a bit to prevent trouble from a diagonal cross-pass.
The above moments show roughly how that works: the entire team moves like a harmonica towards the ball. Especially the midfielders and attackers orient themselves almost completely on the zone where the game takes place. With this, we create the conditions to develop pressure and win back possession.
The first performance indicator I use in determining the defensive success of the formation is the analysis overlay in the tactical screen. In plain English, the grids on your tactical screen will tell you whether or not you’ve got a problem here. A red zone indicates a problem, a green zone means you’re good to go, it’s as simple as that.
Another feature you should always check is the Team Report > Match Analysis. This features some text-based feedback on the last five games. I generally look at both the positives and the negatives. It can be the first indication of something that needs amending.
More often than not, this screen shows you the information you are already aware of, but on the off-chance you missed something, this can be a wake-up call. Also, the well-meaning advice from the assistant manager generally gets ignored. My assistant generally does not get strikerless football, nor what I want to achieve, so asking him for improvements would be akin to asking Homer Simpson for advice on responsible parenting; he knows fuck all about the subject, so it’s better to ignore him.
When you focus on individual matches, one of the things I like to do is check out how the opposition performed, especially in games we struggled to perform in. There are several options I always look at during such an analysis.
One of those is the heatmap. I am not necessarily interested in our own; I really want to see if we managed to keep the opposition at bay. Little or no touches in and around our penalty area is a good sign; their possession should be concentrated away from our box.
In the heatmap above, you can see a sort of barrier around our penalty area. While we did concede a goal during this game, we generally kept the opposition at bay and away from our penalty area. The majority of their possession has been near the halfway line and just inside our half, which is where they run into the various layers of defence.
The next aspect I check is the key passes and created chances for the opposing side. How did they create their chances? Did they manage to break through my central barrier, or did they find another way to cause problems for us?
In this instance, we can see most of their key passes were created from wide positions or balls headed through following a cross. If our objective was to force them wide, it looks like succeeded in doing so. All threats were created from wide positions, which also highlights a need to shore up our central defence somehow.
I generally double-check my findings on forcing opponents wide by looking at an opponent’s completed passes. These passing patterns should match with the created chances pattern. Most passes should go towards wide areas
The opposing team can play rather direct in their own half, but as soon as they hit the halfway line, most of their passing is directed towards the flanks. This is a prime indicator that we are maintaining a strong, compact and cohesive presence in the central areas, pushing our opponents wide.
A final check on the opposing team has me checking out their misplaced passes. Interceptions are not the only indicators for successfully maintaining a tight formation. Forcing the opposition into making mistakes also counts, and that’s what we are looking for; mistakes and turnovers.
When the opposition tries to pass through the middle or is in a central position to play a pass, we can see that they regularly cock-up. Again, an indication that our intentions are working.
When you force the opposing team out wide, that will inevitably lead to a load of crosses coming in, as most teams out there are not Arsenal and will try to score a goal somehow. This means that it is important that my players win their aerial challenges in the zones that matter, which means in and around our own penalty area.
So far, so good. Our central defenders are generally winning their aerial challenges defensively, which means it’s okay to cede the flanks to the opposing side. If our central defenders cannot win their headers, you really ought to consider maintaining a slightly wider defensive stance to block some of those crosses.
The final indicator refers to our interceptions and tackles. To confirm that we are indeed shutting the opposition down, I always check if there are certain zones where we are not winning our tackles or missing our interceptions, as this could indicate a zone in which we are overrun or where a player is underperforming.
So far, it does not seem like there is a structural problem. Our central defender (#4) has lost one duel in an area where I prefer he wins every duel, but that can happen. The lost duels out wide are less of an issue as this merely invites a cross into an already heavily populated area.
Finally, I always look if there are individual players underperforming. I have created a custom squad view to have a peek at their individual performances.
It stands to reason that my expectations for defenders are far higher than those of midfielders and forwards. If you see a central defender losing half of his aerial challenges, he quickly becomes a liability.