Football, and by extension, Football Manager, is a game that is constantly evolving, and it features a wide variety of various formations, styles, and tactical approaches, each of which is successful in its own right. However, no single version can be considered flawless. Each style has its particular drawbacks and restrictions, just like everything else does.
The most recent iterations of the game displayed a growing propensity for the Gegenpress model of football, characterised by a lightning-quick tempo of play and a high level of pressing from both sides of the ball. They can win possession of the ball higher up the field and cause problems for the other team when they counterattack. Gegenpress is obviously a style that I have tried and experimented with in the past, but FM22 saw me experimenting with deep block defence and a more defensive approach to the game.
‘Attack wins you games; defence wins you titles.’Sir Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex’ creed never rang true in Football Manager, for me anyway. I struggled to play a defensive tactic with any modicum of success. Last year, I managed to change that, and this year is the next step in that evolution. I’ll be looking to employ my defensive tactics to FM23.
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A while back, when FM23 was but a distant dream, I wrote about my defensive principles and how to apply them to Football Manager’s engine. I’m using the same basic principles this year, but I will try to redefine them. Ironing out the glitches, so to speak.
Organising your team on the pitch is the first step in accomplishing anything worthwhile in Football Manager; that goes for pretty much any team at any level. Playing in a tight, compact block of players highlights the significance of mutual distances between the players. On average, most top sides have a maximum of around 30 metres between their most advanced and most defensive players.
Compact. That is how I would describe the tightly-grouped defensive unit in the image above. This group would be positioned in the center of the field, blocking access to their own goal and limiting the time and space the opposing team has on the flanks.
A team that plays in a compact formation works to eliminate any open space that the side that is currently in possession of the ball can exploit through forward passes or dribbles. They are, to put it plainly, impeding a straight route to the target. The intention of this compact formation is, at the very least, to only allow spaces that the team that is currently in possession will find more difficult to exploit. Generally speaking, it means I will try to funnel the opposing team wide to the flanks and force them to lob high crosses into the box.
Cohesion is not the same as playing compact. The latter is used to describe the distance between the various players, whereas cohesion determines the interaction of the players, as in that they stick together and back each other.
When a team is in possession of the ball, when they do not have possession of the ball, or when they are transitioning between having and not having possession of the ball, all of the players will be aware of a particular goal and have a distinct idea of how to achieve that goal through a collective structure or plan. The idea of cohesion has as its ultimate goal not only the creation of scoring possibilities for one’s own team but also the elimination of such opportunities for the other team.
The cohesiveness of a team can be broken down into its component parts. A team is composed of many different smaller subsets working together. Fullbacks and wingers, central defenders amongst each other, and central midfielders and attackers often work together to form partnerships, represented by yellow or green lines between various players. Further cohesion can be built amongst the different sections of the squad, such as the defence, the midfield, and the attack, with the left and right sides forming further subsets. To realise the full potential of each, you will need an understanding of how they are interrelated.
I want them to back each other and cover for each other, expanding and contracting like an accordion. The distances between the players may vary, but they ought to be covering each other’s movement, ensuring that enough players stay back to protect the defence but also sending enough players forward to ensure momentum and support.
Movement can be further broken down into two distinct sub-categories: movement with the ball and movement without the ball. Since there is no advanced focal point, I use both forms of movement a lot to get results. In short, Strikerless is all about movement, both on and off the ball.
The key is to achieve some form of balance. Achieving movement is not particularly difficult; achieving movement that works effectively is significantly harder. You don’t want players overpopulating the same zones (at least not all the time); players shouldn’t be getting in each other’s way; they ought to support each other and shouldn’t leave each other exposed.
Strategy and tactics must be in balance in all positional areas for a team to develop a tactic that works, which means that all of its tactical goals must be met in each positional area. This can only be done if the team works together to do so. Therefore, a team ought to effectively distribute playing places and take on adequate strategic risk in its relative employment of each playing technique across individuals.
A team can accomplish this by allocating tactical roles, which ultimately results in proper tactical structures (team instructions), and an adequate allocation of responsibilities (formation and roles, and possibly individual instructions).
That is a prime example of what the eventual outcome can look like. Players moving freely forward while supporting one another and keeping enough players behind the ball to thwart potential counter-attacks.
This is another example of what I want to see. The midfield setting revolves around the half-back, literally enabling him to position himself and help out the defenders, while his teammates offer themselves as passing outlets.
The formations and roles
I started my beta adventures with the traditional 4-1-2-3-0 formation, the classic Cerberus tactic. While my initial adventures with Ajax were immensely successful, I struggled to get the balance as mentioned earlier between the various lines right.
The distribution between the midfield roles was an issue. While we did well enough going forward, we struggled a bit defensively. The DLP proved too static on a defensive setting, whereas he was too mobile on a support setting, strolling out of position and leaving the back-line exposed.
I experimented with different roles in defensive midfield. An anchorman proved too static, a ball-winning midfielder too volatile. We had some success with a half-back in that position, but we struggled with our central midfield pairing when the defensive midfielder dropped deep. The ball-winning midfielder had too much space behind him and ended up roaming out of position.
As you can see, the innate movement patterns of these player roles causes them to venture forward, leaving a big gaping hole where your midfield used to be. One midfielder drops deep, the other two move forward and one wingback sort of occupies that space. That leaves you with a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon, which only just lacks blaring neon signs besides it screaming “exploit this space.” We don’t want any of that, thank you very much.
As such, a midfield tweak was necessary and ultimately proved successful. We scrapped the ball-winning midfielder and replaced him with a box-to-box midfielder. This completely nullified the output of this particular player, who never got more than a 6,7 or 6,8 rating, but it fixed the overall balance of the team.
It did ensure a more central presence and stopped us from being overrun on the counter. It also put more of an emphasis on the wide defenders, who play a significant part in this idea and are responsible for maintaining the precarious balance between defence and attack. They have to be able to judge when it is the appropriate time to use the space on the flanks, they not only need the skill to get around an opponent, and provide a quality cross into the box, but when you’re in that situation, the most important thing is to make smart decisions: when should you go forward, when should you pressure an opponent, when should you seek out the combination with a team-mate, and when should you take on an opponent offensively? But most importantly, when are you not allowed to move forward, and do you also carry out your fundamental responsibilities as a defender effectively?
While we generally maintained a healthy balance between offence and defence, I found our offensive gameplay predictable and one-dimensional. Pass the ball towards one of the forward three, who in turn drops deep to receive the ball. The shadow striker either turns and launches a through-ball or passes it towards a midfielder or wingback, who hits a long ball or plays a through-ball towards the other shadow strikers.
While it worked and enabled me to win silverware both domestically and internationally, it felt like I needed to evolve the way we played beyond this one-trick-pony kind of football. My continuous failure to insert a sort of withdrawn targetman or advanced focal point into the forward line caused me to apply my gameplay principles to a different formation, which heralded the birth of the Riders On The Storm series of tactics; a 4-2-4/4-4-2 hybrid formation. The usual lack of strikers is implied.
It started out as a way to shore up my midfield and to be honest, it did suit my club of choice; Millwall. Again, we kept tinkering with the midfield balance. We started out with a DLP and Segundo Volante combination in defensive midfield and a symmetric wing-pairing of a complete wing-back and inverted winger. Some trial and error machinations, combined with transfer market activity saw the setup evolve into a more lopsided setup.
During my first season and parts of the second season, I used pure speed demons on the flanks. Afobe and Voglsammer are reasonably pacey players and they used their physical prowess to harass defenders and get in behind the defensive line. The wing-backs and the DLP would generally ping balls over the top for the IW’s and SS to run onto.
As we signed better and more versatile players, I started experimenting with making us less predictable and more stable at the back. The lopsided half-back solution turned out just great, both in terms of stability and suiting the new players I brought in. We kept the physically strong player on the left, but added a creative outlet on the left flank. The DLP was removed to improve defensive stability.
You can find the whole journey in downloadable tactics right here.