Earlier I wrote a brief piece on my intentions for FM21 and a much longer article on the defensive principles I adhere to. In this article, I intend to look at the transition from defence to attack. In case you missed them, the previous articles in the series are linked below.
If you can’t be arsed clicking on that link, let me show you the visualisation of what I have in mind.
In this article, I want to look at the principles I want to use during the transition between defence and offence, how I am to achieve those principles and which performance indicators I use to make sure my players perform the way I want them to.
Table of Contents
TRANSITION FROM DEFENCE TO ATTACK
Most of our transitions from defence to attack start with counter-pressing. That means we look to capture the ball inside the opponent’s half. When we win the ball, we ought to move forward quickly to benefit from an opposing team being disorganised. We don’t allow the opposition any opportunities to regroup, but we should pounce and move forward quickly and decisively.
We will focus on this counter-pressing malarky in another article, in this article I want to look at what happens when we have won the ball. There are three general principles I want to focus on.
- Generate movement behind the opposing defensive line;
- Move forward with urgency;
- Mind the restverdediging.
Movement behind the defensive line
When breaking forward, providing depth is crucial. After all, you want players to move into advanced positions to threaten the opposing defensive line. You are essentially looking to generate movement and create options for your defenders and midfielders to pass the ball to. Creating these passing lanes is absolutely vital for a successful transition from defence to offence.
There are several underlying principles or facets I work with when I’m cooking up my tactics. I’ll run you through these principles one by one.
Layering the attack; stretching the defence
One of the facets I try to keep in mind is layering my formation. My tactical formation has no more than two players positioned directly besides or behind a team-mate on either vertical or diagonal lines in an ideal world. I realise that my formations use either a back four or back three and pretty consistently a front three, yet this is not contradictory in my eyes.
You see, in both backlines, there are generally only two players on the same line during the transitional phase. When we win the ball and transition from defence to attack, the wing-backs and libero will move forward, turning the back four or back three into a back two.
By ensuring that I have no more than two players on a horizontal or vertical line, players will rarely find themselves in situations whereby one of their own teammates is blocking off a vertical pass to another teammate further forward. This allows my team to consistently maintain options into depth, facilitating progression into the attacking third of the pitch.
Counting how many players are in a row and creating layers this way, you can also layer within such a layer of players (sheesh, talk about a nigh-impossible to read sentence…).
When you look at a formation, you can divide it into various horizontal and vertical layers. For instance, the defenders are part of a horizontal layer, but the wing-backs are part of a separate vertical layer together with the wingers. Similarly, the central defenders are part of a horizontal layer with the wing-backs, but they are part of a vertical layer with the central midfielders and (if you are so inclined) central forwards.
Sticking to that rule of two is nigh-impossible for vertical central layers. However, the central defenders generally won’t get in the way of the central midfielders or forwards with their movement and runs. Because of how I set up my tactics, I generally consider central defenders and defensive midfielders to be part of the same vertical layer. In contrast, central midfielders and attacking midfielders are part of a separate vertical layer. In a more graphic representation, it would look like this.
What is important is that there are never more than two players either beside each other or in front of each other within the same layer, to prevent congestion. If there are more than two within the same layers, the roles must be suitably adjusted so that they are not lined up in the same way for most of the match.
Take the forward line, for example. Every formation I use consists of three players; two shadow strikers and one advanced playmaker. In theory, those three line up in the same horizontal layer. The advanced playmaker often drops deep on the pitch, taking up a position in the space between the shadow strikers and the ball-winning midfield pairing.
I look at both horizontal and vertical lines. I value penetration of the opposing defensive line, and I consider stretching it a top priority too. Be they fullbacks, wingbacks, or wingers; our wide men can force the opponents to stretch their defensive lines horizontally. As they commit players to take on our wide men, they generally increase the distances between them and consequentially leave gaps for my team to pounce on and exploit. By stretching their defensive line, I make it easier for my team to penetrate the line.
For example, wingbacks positioned in line with the opponent’s midfield can open lanes for the in-possession deep midfielders or centre-backs to either penetrate through the middle and feed the attacking players in the space in front of the opposition’s backline or find a team-mate in a wide position who can run at the defenders to cause mayhem.
Good off-the-ball movement is always an important element of any good formation. Any team worth their salt will try to refrain from using a one-dimensional style of play, which means they will try to not only have players moving into space to receive the ball but also to make shadow runs, which means they are trying to create space for others by dragging defenders out of position.
In a way, the image I linked above (not the shadow GIF but the one above the GIF) is a good example of shadow runs. Because the attacking midfield cluster maintains a strong central presence, the opposing wing-backs tuck inside to shield any runs into channels by the shadow strikers. This means the wingbacks have to vacate the flanks, opening up space for our wingbacks to run amok.
This concept of players feeding off each other’s movement only really works if another player moves to exploit the space. This means that the team should preferably play in a cohesive formation but should definitely have different layers. If every line makes the same run simultaneously, the attacking patterns become predictable and easy to defend. A more irregular approach, with players arriving at different locations and times, tends to be more difficult to defend.
I try to layer my formation not just by counting players but also by using different roles. Each role has its own characteristics and movement patterns and trying to find a complementary combination of roles helps tremendously in layering your formation. I try to look at how they move both on and off the ball in the analysis screen post-match, to see where space might appear for a player to exploit or run into. I use a site like Sharemytactics or Buildlineup to visualise my findings.
If I am particular about the movement patterns or have trouble visualising, as the image above is somewhat restrictive, I go to Tactical-Board to create a brief video to highlight preferred movement.
I want to make sure my formation has multiple layers to it, both in terms of formation and roles. The objective is to have players arrive at different locations and times, giving us options breaking forward.
The classic three-man-setup in the forward line is a good example. When applied correctly, a single run by for example one of the shadow strikers can open up space for three or more others nearby, waiting to pounce on positional weaknesses by the opposing team. This knock-on effect of movements is quite versatile and something you should use.
Similarly, my advanced playmaker dropping back into midfield creates space for a shadow striker to run into. While the shadow strikers can go for glory at this stage if it happens far on the opposing half, the defenders trailing the advanced playmaker usually causes the opposing defence to tuck inside, which creates space out wide for a wing-back to overlap.
Movement both on and off the ball is absolutely crucial to the formation and playing style’s success. We want to work on a style that focusses on the exploitation of space. When your players remain static, no space will open up for others to exploit. This is again where the layering of attacks comes into play.
Using the third-man
One of the reasons why I try to layer my formation is because I want to use the third man effectively. When my team looks to break forward, the player on the ball assesses his options, spotting which of his teammates has created enough space for himself by getting away from nearby defending players, enabling him to receive a pass and keep possession.
If there is an open passing-lane, the player in possession can generally pick his pass and progress the ball up the pitch without a hitch. Obviously, defenders will generally try to block the most obvious passing-lanes, making matters somewhat more complex. This is where the third man comes into play.
The player in possession assesses his options. If he is not able to progress the ball to a team-mate in an area where they can score goals, perhaps a team-mate is in a position to play such a pass. Instead of playing a direct pass, he plays it to a third man, who can pick the forward pass as originally intended.
A simple example of these third man triangle plays involves a deep-lying or advanced player using a wide option to find a team-mate in space. When the central passing lanes are obstructed you can generally find a team-mate in space on the flanks. When the opposition closes down the wide options, space will open up centrally.
Another great example of using the third man effectively is lay-offs. A player receives the ball, often under pressure, before passing it towards someone else in space, someone who can cause trouble or pick another pass.
The initial movement by the player dropping deep opens up space behind him for the shadow striker to exploit. The fact that he is facing his own goal also makes him less likely to be muscled off the ball.
Diagonal passes represent a very valuable opportunity to progress play. A quality diagonal pass shifts possession both vertically and horizontally, significantly disrupting the opponent’s defensive organisation in the process.
While packing passes is a metric that is not (yet?) part of the FM universe, these diagonal passes can have a great impact if you layer your formation properly. One cross-pass can eliminate half an opposing team. By providing layers you make sure those cross-passes find a target in a position worthwhile.
Move forward with urgency
The core idea here is obviously verticality: moving the ball up the pitch with a sense of urgency. To play with the necessary verticality levels, I have layered my formations, creating diamonds and triangles across the pitch to allow for movement and passing options. By having as many of these shapes as possible, I can increase the chance of having a spare man on a different line to progress the ball towards.
The concept of verticality is actually ideal for a strikerless formation. If you can win the ball with counter-pressing high up the pitch, you open up the opposing defence with one or two passes towards your mobile midfielders, whilst if your opponent drops back, they basically give up half the pitch to you, allowing you the time to provoke opposing players out of position, before exploiting the space that is opened up.
This verticality concept’s key features are a commanding mentality coupled with controlled build-up and direct ball circulation plus a propensity to attack aggressively. Capturing these building-blocks in the instructions FM offers is no sinecure, as it means balancing pros and cons carefully, mostly through trial and error (yay for pre-season!). Ultimately, I want my team to look for a forward pass quickly and try to attack these transitional moments with speed against a disorganised opponent.
I have opted for a Very Attacking mentality. The reason is very much self-explanatory. Out of all the mentalities FM offers, this is the one that offers the most direct patterns of play. Go for goal or go bust; that’s the sense of urgency I want to see. I generally play on Very Attacking every match and for ninety minutes (plus injury time).
With a much greater emphasis on moving the ball forward in a controlled manner, passing sideways too often is discouraged. But we also have to balance our passing-style in combination with the Very Attacking mentality. Going for an overly direct playing-style and Very Attacking mentality will result in Hoofball; my players blindly pun the ball forward. I don’t want to rely on one of my forward players being smarter, faster, stronger or more aggressive and winning the ball based on just skill, rather than by design.
Through trial and error, I have found that the combination of mentality and passing directness that works best for me, is a Very Attacking mentality in combination with a Standard passing directness. While I understand that may sound counterintuitive, going for a more direct passing-style means, we go for long balls forward instead of building up from the back.
I have also selected play out of defence. Building up from the back in this style is similar to a surgeon making the first incision with a scalpel. The penetrating cut is precise and quick, and cuts open the opponent. This requires intelligence and a high degree of skill from those in possession and is not simply a forward kick delivered anywhere into the attacking half, hoping that a teammate reaches it.
Again, it comes down to balancing and a bit of trial and error to find the right equilibrium between directness and keeping possession. To sum it up; the ball should only be played sideways to move the opposition out of their defensive structure and open up new space to then play forwards. If there is space to play a penetrating forward pass, I would prefer my players play that forward pass. In my eyes, these settings give me that style.
Oddly enough, most of the instructions that help me shape the transitional phase of play are not actually listed as such in FM. The ones listed as belonging to the transitional phase in FM’s tactical creator merely supplement the previously mentioned instructions.
In this case, the Counter instruction supplements the Very Attacking mentality in that it asks, nay, demands that our players break forward as quickly as possible after recovering possession. Similarly, the Distribute to Centre-Backs and Take Short Kicks instructions supplement our previously mentioned Play Out Of Defence instruction.
Mind the restverdediging
The key to absolutely nailing this 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 enough players remain 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.
In that regard, I distinguish two sorts of restverdediging. The primary one is purely defensive players. They will hold the fort and not get involved offensively at all. The second type consists of more hybrid players. They will get involved offensively, but they will be in more withdrawn positions, able to track back and help out defensively if needed.
This transition is 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, and players defending the space in front of them, closing down the passing lanes.
Numerical superiority is easily achieved. Check how many men the other side is keeping forward and ensure you have one more. Against low(er) level sides, this is generally not an issue. They will fold back en masse, making numerical superiority a negligible detail.
Stronger sides pose more of a challenge, as they often look to hurt your side on the break. You could risk it all and play one-on-one at the back. A more sensible approach would be to tweak some of your team’s roles, keeping more players back to ensure numerical superiority. Depending on the scoreline and how desperately we need, I decide on which strategy to employ.
Tweaking the roles is similarly dependant on what the opposition does and how you are lined up. Against a 4-4-2 which keeps both forwards upfront, it makes sense to ask one midfielder to take up a holding position in front of the defence or if you’re playing with three at the back, asking the libero to play less adventurous.
When the opposition fields a formation with wingers in attacking midfield, it makes more sense to ask the wing-backs to play more conservative. The circumstances and strength of the opposition determine your response.
Again, there is no surefire way to plan all of this. Even the best ideas need to be tested and calibrated in friendlies, and I suggest that you do that. Play a bunch of games and see what happens when you concede goals. When you get caught on the break often, you may need to tweak your restverdediging.
I will be honest here; I found this section of the article bloody difficult to write. Most of the performance indicators are subjective, the result of trial and error and my own warped reasoning. I cannot come up with statistics or bits of analysis that show you that my ideas are indeed working. I can offer match clips, but that’s it. Still, let me try and explain what I do to assess my team’s performance in this game aspect.
The first performance indicator I use in determining the formation’s transitional success 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.
If you are curious why an area is red, orange or green, click on it. This pulls up an information screen to show you how a certain area is being used by your teams within the confines and limitations of that specific combination of formation and roles.
Defensively, I used this overlay to check for gaps in the cohesive nature of the team. During this transition phase, I want to ensure I have a strong presence in most pitch areas to ensure triangles and diamonds to layer our forwards. It’s the same concept as before, but with a different goal in mind.
A second method to check for proper layering is using the in-game data analysis and looking at your team’s average positions during a match. If players are spaced too close to each other or too far apart, you have a problem on your hands.
You can fix such problems by tweaking roles or positions or bringing on a different player; someone who plays the same role adds a new dimension because he has a different skill-set.
In some cases, if you want to zoom in on a specific part of a layer, it helps to look examine their interactions in the match analysis. The pass-combination tool seems to be messed-up as I type this (December 29th), but you can still see the interaction between two players, though with a bit more tinkering.
Say I want to examine my widest two players’ interactions on Saelemakers and Almada’s right flank. By selecting one player’s received passes and another’ successful passes, you can check any interaction between them. It’s cumbersome, but as long as the actual passing combinations in-game are broken, it’s a viable workaround.
Unfortunately, statistically checking how we use the third man and making make shadow runs is pretty darn difficult. Ideally, you would use the movement map in the analysis model, as it shows the entire team’s movement for a brief moment. It looks like this.
In a perfect world, that would be a great way to analyse and showcase layering. Since this isn’t a perfect world, the movement map always starts right at kick-off, and there is no way to scroll forward or back to look at things, making it inherently useless unless something of note happens in the first few minutes of a game.
Whether or not we move forward with urgency is something we can check in-game, as we can look at the passing chart for a match. Looking at the combined picture of all the passes is a bad idea though, as it’s an unintelligible jumble of lines and numbers.
Our salvation lies with the filter at the bottom of the page, as it lets us zoom in on certain areas of the pitch, the direction of the pass and the passing-length to see how many passes were attempted.
You can use these filters to look at all the passes forward, for example. You would end up with this screen.
You could filter on short, medium and long-range passes if you want. The only slight issue I have with this setup is that a diagonal pass is sometimes counted as a forward pass, sometimes as a sideways pass, depending on the pass’s angle.
If you hire a performance analyst, he will summarise this data after the match in his post-match report.
It will give us an indication of our passing urgency as a team. Unfortunately, there is no way to pull up similar numbers for individual players effectively. Also, as I mentioned earlier, sideways passes include a fair number of diagonal passes, so the stats are somewhat skewed most of the time. I would use them indicatively at best.
Restverdediging is another concept that’s hard to catch when looking from either a statistical or analytical perspective. You can catch it during the games, but you can’t quite pinpoint it in any of the data post-match.
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.
Give me packing!
At this stage, I feel some need to elaborate. The squad view for the transition between defence and offence shows a few categories. The passing and dribbling statistics are important to me. I mentioned earlier how I feel it’s important that we move the ball forward with urgency. Passing and dribbling are the best ways to do so and spotting a player who is particularly inept at either aspect of the game, could be dropped from the squad.
That is, if the data FM provides is entirely reliable. I’m not talking about the actual numbers, I’m sure the spreadsheet behind the numbers is perfectly capable of adding up and dividing to give us the accurate totals and averages. I’m talking about interpreting and using these numbers.
Let me give you an example. A player with a high pass completion percentage is someone you’d consider to be a good passer of the ball. What it fails to take into consideration is the type of pass played. Theoretically, a midfielder could achieve a 100% pass-completion by just playing safe passes to a team-mate beside him or behind him—a perfect pass-completion-ratio but not the type of player I’d want to have on my team. Move forward with urgency, remember?
I want players who are progressive with their passing, displaying a tendency to look forwards for opportunities to progress the ball through the thirds. I want players to play passes that break the lines of the opposition defensive structure. Yes, that will lead to a few turnovers, where we give away possession. It will also increase our chances of scoring a goal.
FM has no way to show this, either for passes or dribbles. That’s why I would love to see packing in FM. If you haven’t heard of it, let me link you to some reading-material. Packing and xA for FM22 and I’m a happy camper.