Earlier I wrote a brief piece on my intentions for FM21, the defensive principles and the transition from defence to attack. In this article, I intend to look at offensive principles. 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 offensive phase, 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.
Offensively, that means we will play very direct, which means verticality, a topic we covered in the previous post. In short, we want to rapidly progress through the opponent’s lines to find the shortest route to the goal. As an additional benefit, you will always have enough players’ pressure on the ball carrier in case of a turn-over. We already covered that subject extensively in the previous part, so I’ll focus on new aspects.
Movement on and off the ball; horizontally and vertically
The first principle I want to look at is the movement I want to generate. I want to see horizontal and vertical movement, and I will try to clarify why.
A preference for packing passes
I want my team to excel at what is regarded as packing passes. Packing is a system for allocating numerical values to effective play moments. The score is increased by the number of players eliminated by a pass (or dribble). Thus, the Packing Rate refers to the total number of opponents outplayed by a team.
Packing passes are frequently provoked; opponents are enticed forward. That is when the trap snaps shut; my players will pressure the ball carrier. Short sideways passes are an excellent way to draw an opponent’s attention and lure them forward, which ties in nicely with our intended style of play. Once we win possession, we build up methodically to lure the opposition forward. Then, once the opposing team presses, a vertical or diagonal pass into space is played as space opens up.
In the video above, you can see what I mean. In a perfect but nigh impossible scenario, the packing pass might eliminate all opponents. However, the recipient’s preferred follow-up is a bounce-pass to a running teammate who moves into space or wants to connect with another teammate. The initial incisive pass forward evaded one defender. Still, the follow-up bounce-pass into space cut the defensive line and left three defenders twiddling their thumbs like a congressman during a debate.
The majority of teams that play directly prefer long passes through the air toward a target man. While there is nothing wrong with that, we actively pursue a different approach, if only for the simple fact that we lack a striker and thus a traditional target man.
Above – one of our goals against Hellas Verona, an excellent illustration of our approach. As we take over possession at the halfway line, Ibrahimovic drops deep. His movement draws the attention of one of the defenders, who steps forward. Instead of playing a safe pass sideways or backwards, the Swedish striker-turned-playmaker passes the ball into the space vacated by the defender stepping out. Daniel Maldini moves into the gap and earns a penalty for his effort.
When recruiting players, I try to keep an eye out for players who possess a natural talent for playing these kinds of passes, players who like to take risks in their game and can indeed play these packing passes. This usually means that I look for players with high footballing intelligence or high values for the attributes Anticipation, Decisions, Vision and Flair. High Concentration tends to help as well, though it’s less important.
You can see what I mean by packing rating for a pass in the examples I showed you. However, you can also discern the importance of movement on and off the ball, which leads me to my next point.
Numerical superiority in the central areas
We’re mostly concerned with maintaining control of the central areas higher up on the field. I do have some general guidelines for this. As an example, the flanks are often manned by a single player. If the winger stays wide, the back on that side helps to support the midfield on the inside. In a reverse way, if a winger approaches the centre, it is the duty of the flank defender to provide width. As a result, we may always work cooperatively with a large number of players.
Take the formation above, for example. When using such a formation, I generally work with either inverted wing-backs and more traditional wide men or regular wing-backs and inverted wingers to achieve this numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch. I often task my players with underlapping as well, especially when I use inverted wing-backs.
Another option is to have only one wide player on each flank, which automatically frees more players to dominate the central areas. Wide coverage is generally provided by the shadow strikers, who are hard-coded to move into channels anyway.
In the formation above, the central midfield is packed with the two inverted wingbacks cutting inside and linking up with the stacked central midfielders. Underlapping ensures that the wing-backs are frequently involved in our build-up.
Whichever formation you opt to use, it is of the utmost importance to get the balance right in terms of roles and duties. Since I often use many attacking roles, even in defence, it stands to reason that my formations require a midfielder to protect the balance and keep the stability of our midfield intact. I generally sacrifice the playmaker role in central midfield for a more conservative player. We have a playmaker in the back, either with a Libero or a ball-playing defender. In central midfield, I need a player who is more concerned with closing gaps and snatching balls away from the opposition. He must ensure that we are not vulnerable to counterattacks and must lead our pressing.
It’s also down to the players you have at your disposal. When I still had Zlatan at Milan, he played as an Advanced Playmaker, flanked by two Shadow Strikers. When Zlatan retired, I struggled to replace him with a playmaker who offered the same physical prowess. I adapted by moving the playmaker back into central midfield, which also suited Zaniolo, and added an extra runner to the front three. Similarly, I can’t find a good ball-winning midfielder in Turkey, so I changed the role to a DLP and tweaked the roles around him to make it work. Dogmatism has its perks but is ultimately curbed by pragmatism.
Anyhoo, the idea is that at least one player protects the back-line by having a more defensive setting. This lone defensive anchor (poorly phrased because you cannot consider a BWM as an anchor) is supplemented by more mobile midfielders and wing-backs providing support. The numerical superiority in the central midfield area is especially strong when I field inverted wing-backs.
The video above shows an excellent example of this dynamic. As the goalkeeper advances the ball towards Ilkay, the Half-Back, the central defenders line up on either side of the HB. At the same time, you can see the IWB moving forward. While there is movement in front, the defender opts for a diagonal pass towards Alper’s left IWB. After moving the ball around at the back for a bit, the DC Murat spots the IWB on the right side, Selahattin, making a run forward. This turns out to be a sort of hook-run; as his opponent trails him, Selahattin stops and doubles back, freeing himself to receive the ball in the central midfield area. The HB remains in a position to protect the back-line while all the other players flood forward to act as additional forwards or draw away attention. This movement allows Selahattin to advance relatively unchecked and play his through-ball almost as a withdrawn inverted winger.
Movement off the ball
What I like to see and what is, in fact, an essential component of strikerless tactics in general, is movement off the ball and preferably movement into space, movement with depth. In addition to shadow strikers, I want my wingbacks, the wide midfielders/wingers, and at least one of the regular midfielders to contribute to this constant movement by making runs into space, again preferably behind the opponent’s defensive line.
The very nature of strikerless football necessitates movement on and off the ball to work with any form of efficiency. With no traditional and obvious focal point of attack, we present opposing defenders with a problem. They either push up to close down our attacking midfielders, or they stay in place, allowing us to overload the central midfield and build from there. This concept allows us to attack from so many directions that anticipating how we will attack at any given time is nigh on impossible. Plug one gap, and we will find another way of coming at you.
If the defenders fail to push up as they do in that animation, you have the numerical superiority to dominate and bypass the opposing midfield and launch an attack at the defenders. At some point, their line will be stretched or out of position, enabling us to slip past and create a goalscoring opportunity.
To penetrate that defensive line and create that goalscoring opportunity, you need to be able to exploit space with both good on- and off-the-ball movement. You need players to make runs into space and get the ball towards them when they make these runs. So effectively, if your players make good use of space, they will need someone to offer penetration in the form of a pass towards them.
Implementing this into my tactic is mostly down by selecting rather mobile roles in nearly every position. However, when you break the tactic down into compartments, you will find that most of the roles used have some mobility to them, some form of preset movement forward, backwards or sideways. This way, I hope to achieve that much-desired movement and use of space.
The animation above shows you an example of our movement from defence to offence, showcasing the mobility of the roles I use. I do realise that this can pan out differently within the actual final phase of play, but it indicates the natural movement patterns for each role. I try to be aware of how specific roles behave on the pitch.
If you haven’t read up on that, please be sure to do so. Apart from selecting roles that offer mobility and interact well with each other, I can only do to generate good movement by selecting players who suit the roles I have selected. Take, for instance, the Enganche. A valuable role in the right circumstances and a very static role that does not suit our style.
The roles I generally use are these:
Penetration is another matter mostly out of my control. I have asked the players to pass the ball into space, but the actual passes have to come from the players on the pitch. Once again, I can generate movement on the pitch, but the players have to recognise these patterns and possess the skills to get the ball towards the players moving around.
A layered offence
It is another subject I touched upon in the previous instalment of this series. I explained in this instalment that my tactical formations have no more than two players positioned directly besides or behind a teammate on either vertical or diagonal lines in an ideal world. Not because of their actual positioning in the formation screen, but because of the roles used and the movement pattern that goes with every role.
I try to create animations detailing the movement pattern I want to see. I have shown you one of these animations before; I can show you another for a different formation.
In the previous section, I touched upon the importance of movement. Now, we look at creating layers of movement, as in not everyone moves at the same time and not everyone moves in the same direction, as that would make our gameplay predictable.
I try to generate layers by deliberately creating gaps in the formation for others to move into. An example of this is visible in the Hofland formation, the 5-2-3-0.
There is a lot of space for the libero to move into and operate by not fielding a defensive midfield and two aggressive ball-winning midfielders in central midfielders. The libero can push into the space they vacate while the ball-winning midfielders advance and support the offensive players. If the libero is allowed so much space, he can set up dangerous attacks with dribbles and long passes. If an opponent sacrifices someone to stop him, space is created elsewhere on the field.
Another example of layering by deliberately creating space is the movement of the inverted wing-backs in my formations.
By not selecting two central midfielders and opting for a defensive midfielder and a central midfielder pairing, the half-spaces are left wide open for the inverted wing-backs to move into, essentially becoming additional central(ish) midfielders and at times even acting as a sort of playmaker.
In the example above, you can see how the two Inverted Wingbacks position themselves. Both Alper and Altay sit quite narrow and have relatively lots of time on the ball to pick a pass. You can also see the movement of the two Shadow Strikers, the Box-to-Box midfielder and the Inverted Wingers upfront. Lots of movement, different layers, as players are not moving in unison but at staggered intervals, making it difficult for the defenders to anticipate who will be making the decisive run.
Another option to create layers is by selecting multiple roles within a stratum, which staggers the movement of the players.
The Advanced Playmaker typically moves differently from the Shadow Strikers, so you get a layered movement pattern by selecting two different roles in the same stratum. Similarly, you could select a central midfield of two Mezzala’s. You get a similarly staggered movement pattern if you set one to Support mode and one to Attack mode.
With parts of my offensive game plan matching the one when we transition from defence to offence, some performance indicators will also match up. I will still look at the formation analysis screen to see if zones on the pitch are an issue. I will still use the flawed interaction analysis or movement patterns to see if what I had planned in my mind is actually working on the pitch.
So with parts of the game not working as intended, I have to revert to more traditional methods to check for the effectiveness of my efforts. The easiest though least revealing effort is to check the number of goals scored compared to the opposition.
While this definitely showcases the overall effectiveness of my tactic, it does not showcase chances created and whether or not we have been wasteful or not. Fortunately, FM tracks the total of xG your team has amassed as well.
Another way to check if we are creating enough chances is by checking the clear cut chances created. Again, it would appear that this tally is flawed, but it is indicative. If your team is low in the rankings, you’re not creating enough chances.
In terms of efficiency, checking for shooting and conversion rates is another way to spot potential problems within your team. If your team is not getting enough shots on goal, that’s an issue. Not creating enough chances. The conversion rate ought to be somewhere between 12% and 18%. Higher is obviously never a problem but could be indicative of overperforming.
While I do take a gander at the passing percentages, these also include the passes in my own half. Sadly, we cannot use passing rates per half of the field. The crossing percentages are also worthy of inspection, especially when you use wide danger men.
With so many mobile players in my line-up, I always find that looking for dribbles and fouls is quite useful. The dribbles statistic shows us how often a player beats his marker, while most fouls are committed against mobile players.
The team statistics offer more visual insight into your teams’ performance, including highlighting some of your stronger and weaker assets. The diamond shapes offer a more graphic representation of statistics mentioned earlier, but some of these numbers cannot be found elsewhere.
I like to check the shot map every now and then to ensure my players are not taking an excessive number of long shots. Similarly, I look at how the chances are finished and the location and type of the assists provided.
Finally, I always look if individual players are underperforming; therefore, I have created a custom squad view to have a peek at their individual performances.