The Mjallby 4-1-2-3-0

https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/2266142841/image.jpgThis was without a doubt my favourite save on FM14. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was my best, because I only won one trophy and the save itself only lasted one season, but it is certainly my favourite. At a lull point in FM14 midway through my Salzburg save, I began to search around. I’d recently read Guido’s article on his narrow 4-1-2-3-0, and decided that I wanted to use the same formation, and incorporate the Central Winger, which I had just released an article about.

Just to give you a bit of context, when I joined them, Mjallby were predicted to finish 12th in the Swedish League and were a largely average team, nowhere near the level of Elfsborg, Malmö and Helsingsborgs. Starting the save, I put the players into the narrow 4-1-2-3-0 and happily decided that a mid-table finish would do me fine. Well, that didn’t end up happening. For anyone who was following me on Twitter at the time, you’ll have seen what happened. We challenged for the title, joining the race with about a month and a half to go, and won the title on the last day, needing a win to confirm ourselves as champions.

What’s more, it’s not as if Mjallby were one of those teams with good players that FM underrates (like Southampton) that are more than capable of winning the league. Mjallby’s players are mid table standard at best. The title win also wasn’t due to my (usually terrible) man management. No, the title win was entirely due to one thing, the Mjallby 4-1-2-3-0 (Mjallby Mjölnir for Guido).

Here it is to the right. 41230 A narrow 4-1-2-3-0 shape, flooding the centre of the pitch. In goal there’s a Sweeper Keeper, due to the fact that we use a high line. The SK’s only on defend though, as I don’t want him being overly aggressive, and I rarely notice a different if I’m honest. In central defence I went for a very standard ‘defend’ and ‘cover’ combo. Ideally, I’d have the cover defender as a Ball Playing Defender, but the defenders available to me simply weren’t capable of playing that role. To the left and right of them, I went for two CWB’s. With such a narrow formation, we’re going to need natural width, and therefore CWB’s are the only option at RB and LB. In front of the defence is the Half Back. I won’t go into detail here (Guido has done some fantastic work on the Half Back), but the HB really is the unsung hero of this tactic. Considering how many men we throw forward, we need the HB to help keep our shape and defensive solidity. Ahead of him, is an Advanced Playmaker on ‘support’ who I ask to roam from position. Usually, he’s the last layer in the attack, but does bag goals. Beside him is the Central Winger, who is fantastic in this formation. He’s usually the second wave of attack and is just devastating, creating more vertical runs that just bamboozles the defence. Up until this point, this is the same setup that I used at Salzburg, apart from PI’s. Ahead of this, we’ve got an Enganche, who I asked to press more, and generally be more of a physical presence ‘upfront’. It never quite worked how I wanted it to, but the role was still effective. Beside him are two Shadow Strikers, who are basically that, Strikers from deep. I need them to break beyond the Enganche, and collect his through balls, and if need be, make layoffs to the Central Winger.

I actually created this tactic within a ‘standard’ mentality. It was never actually meant to be as attacking as it ended up, but it was so beautiful to watch I didn’t want to change anything. If anyone has any questions about instructions etc. then feel free to ask me here or on Twitter (@JLAspey), but I don’t feel that just simply unveiling the tactic itself does anyone any good. What’s more is there’s a lot of team and player instructions to this tactic, and listing them out would make for a rather boring article. However, what I can do is show you what developed as a result of the tactic, and hopefully inspire some ideas in others, at least in the last days of FM14.

At it’s most basic, what this tactic does so well is throw bodies forward. When you look at the roles I’ve used here, they’re all fairly attacking, except the Half Back and Central Defenders. That’s 7 willing runners at all times. Running through the centre, that’s going to be tough for any defence to handle.

CW Options

Above, you can see the kind of scenario I used to see all the time, and this isn’t even an extreme example. There’s been times when we’ve got 3 central runners going through against one lone defender just from our ball movement and vertical movement. Anyway, I digress. The Central Winger (circled in blue) has the ball here as we march towards the Elfsborg defence, and he has no less than 4 options, all dangerous, and all likely to result in a goal, or a CCC at the very least. We’ve got plenty of runners, but it’s also worth noting that we’ve got 5 men back, and the HB is doing his job screening the defence. In no way are we open to a counter attack here. This is my idea of short, vertical football at it’s finest. Moving forward at the right times, making short sharp passes and breaking through the opposition defence.

forward runs

Here’s another example of our narrow vertical movement. Yet again, the CW has the ball (circled in yellow) and has 4 vertical runners going through the middle. In addition to that, he’s also got the CWB’s making runs down the flanks, providing support. As you can see, the Left CWB is in acres of space, as the opposition goes narrow to desperately try and fight the midfield battle. All it takes is one pass and we’re through on goal. Again, despite the CWB’s moving forward this time, we’re still not open to a counter attack, as the opposition is desperately throwing men back to stop us plowing through the middle.

All of these screenshots are when we’ve built up play to this point, starting with the defence. We are fast and vertical, but there’s also a possession element to our play, where we built up to the ‘front 3′, and then things get very aggressive. We’re not just constant counter attacks. That doesn’t mean we’re not absolutely deadly on the counter though….

counterdanger

Here, we’ve just won the ball from Elfsborg. The ball has been moved into Henderson (our left SS), and he’s looking to pass the ball into our CW who is breaking past the defender closing down Henderson. In the red arrows you can see all the men we have breaking forward, getting involved in the counter attack. The Half Back eventually stops and holds his position, but (along with the CWB’s), that’s still 5 runs for the CW to look for when he receives the ball. This move eventually leads to a penalty, and our second goal in a 2-0 win. Considering with one pass, we break through their midfield, we’re in an amazing position to counter attack, and we do this so quickly. The ‘front 5′ (Enganche, SS’s, Central Winger and Advanced Playmaker) are quickly approaching the centre backs of Elfsborg, and 5 v 2 isn’t good for them.

A very fair criticism looking at the formation itself would be that it’s very narrow, and therefore must be extremely predictable in terms of attacking, and that teams can just clog up the centre of the pitch. This is a fair point, but we have far more width than the formation would suggest. I used the instructions ‘exploit the flanks’, ‘push wider’ and ‘look for overlap’ to encourage us to also look down the flanks, whilst still having that unbelievable central strength. Combine that with asking the SS’s to ‘move into channels’ and you can see that we actually use the whole width of the pitch, creating holes for our central vertical movement. If the AI clogs up the centre, we’ll go out wide and beat them there, and if they spread out, we’ll pass through the centre and the gaping holes they’ll leave.

naturalwidth

Here, you can see how we use the flanks. The ball has moved into our SS out wide, but he is confronted by a defender. Rather than try and dribble round him, he makes the pass back to our left CWB. Noticing this, the CW bursts forward, moving into space that their Right Back and Centre Back have left trying to close our SS down. Our CWB makes the very difficult pass into the CW in the blue circle, who is then through on goal for a rather simple goal. Not only does that show our width, but it also shows everything you need to know about the Central Winger in a nutshell. Forward runs, defensive danger, and intelligent movement. You can see from the screenshot that our movement has dragged the opposition defence apart.

This tactic is also extremely proactive in terms of defending. I ask the side to ‘hassle opponents’ and ‘push higher up’ to both press the opposition, and compress the space available. I’m very much of the school that the ‘pitch’ should be as small as possible when the opposition has the ball.

Compressingspace

Here’s an example of us without the ball. As you can see, we’ve compressed the space a lot. Due to our narrow shape, we’ve controlled the centre ground, and therefore there’s nowhere for them to pass through. The only real passes on are the blue ones, and they’re absolutely harmless. The red pass is a possibility, but the CW is moving backwards as this shot is taken, and covers that space. I’ve also highlighted our defensive line with the white line, and you can see how short the gap is from our back line to our front line, and the gaps are small in between our lines. Getting through is going to be nigh-on impossible for the opposition. Our pressing isn’t frantic, but it is constant, and we usually force a bad pass, rather than winning it back by tackling. Generally, interceptions are the main way we defend.

What’s also worth noticing from this screenshot is the strange 5-0-5 formation we’ve forced the opposition into, and they’re almost abandoning their midfield. This is the effect that the formation itself has, and the opposition becomes confused with how to deal with it. We have completely dominated the midfield, the most important aspect of the game in my opinion. It’s perhaps not as solid a defensive shape as my defensive 4-1-2-2-1, but then the tactic itself is very different, and with a tactic this attacking, you’re never going to have a perfect defence. I do feel however, that this side was good at defending, exhibited by the fact that our keeper broke the league record for clean sheets.

I’ve enjoyed going through this tactic, analysing it, and falling in love with it all over again. This tactic made the Mjallby save so fun for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it, and that my love for this tactic came across in my writing. Once again, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me here, or through my Twitter page.

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The Narrow 4-1-2-2-1 – Expanding Upon Defensive Football in FM14

Those of you that follow me on Twitter (@JLAspey) or have read any of my recent articles will know that I’ve started to become very interested in defensive football in Football Manager. I wrote an article a few months back, trying to create a side that was uber defensive, and designed to be impossible to break down, and steal 1-0 wins. Since then, I’ve wanted to expand on that idea, but take away the negative aspects of it, whilst still retaining the defensive stability. The original article was inspired by a fantastic thread by @Cleon81, where he achieved a fantastic season with his Sheffield United side, utilising a defensive 4-4-2 diamond formation. Another inspiration for my tactic came from @MrEds, who combined aspects of Cleon’s ideas and tweaked my ‘defensive diamond’ in his save with Ujpest in Hungary. Like MrEds, I’ve recently been drawn to Hungarian football, but with Kecskemet (or KTE), a team predicted to finish 13th, and tipped for relegation by many. This seemed like a perfect situation to develop some defensive football, with a team that will need to be defensively solid in order to avoid relegation. Continue reading

‘The Great Wall of Italia’ – Parking the Bus in Football Manager

The legendary Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera once stated that the perfect game of football would end 0-0. That is perhaps a strange thing to say, but if you look at it from a certain (defensivist) point of view, then you can begin to understand it. In theory, both teams have attacked very well, but both teams have also defended perfectly, denying the opposition chances to score. It is perhaps a more ‘perfect’ game than a 5-5, which would suggest both teams have defended poorly throughout the match. A more entertaining game perhaps, but not a ‘better’ game in Brera’s eyes. This is also a key insight into the mindset that has long existed in Italian football, a mindset that has become increasingly stereotyped over the past 20 years or so. In John Foot’s Calcio: a history of italian football, Foot claims that Italian teams have not always been defensive, but they are ‘simply much better at defending than other European teams’. Italians highly value a good defensive performance. Compare this to England, where this season Sam Allardyce was once again branded as ‘old-fashioned’ when his team sat back and defended to gain a draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and you can see the cultural differences.

However, this season many have grown to admire the Atletico Madrid side of Diego Simeone, who has put together a fantastic hard working, counter attacking, defensive minded side. I’ve said on many occasions that I love watching Atletico defend, the way they press the ball, but retain their classic 4-4-2 shape that Europe’s top teams found so hard to break through. Contrast this to Football Manager, where I can’t bear to watch my teams defend. This is likely a by product of the fact that my teams are usually quite attacking, and therefore defensively suspect, but whenever the opposition have the ball, I’m always waiting for us to concede.

Recently though, I’ve been reading several articles on defensive football, particularly Cleon’s fantastic thread focusing on his efforts to create a defensively strong side, and I’ve been inspired to create a tactic that is designed to be defensive, to not concede goals, be incredibly tough to break through, and win games 1-0 or 2-0. It also includes one or two catenaccio features. I’ve also been wanting to do an international save recently with the World Cup coming up. The perfect team? Italy.


Here’s the defensive monstrosity to the right.

The main element of our defensive strength comes from our central defensive diamond (I’ve expanded on this as I’ll show later). The diamond is so strong, that it forces the AI out wide, limiting them to crosses. The sweeper is a basic sweeper from the catenaccio mold rather than a more modern Libero. He’s there to be the last man, to cover behind the defence, and to pick up the pieces when he needs to. He’s allowed more freedom in his passing range, but that’s mainly to ensure that the ball is moved into the midfield.

There’s also a Fachetti style wing back on the right wing, set as a CWB, who is responsible for the attacking width down our right flank, preventing us from become predictable down our left side. He’s not quite a goal scoring wing back like Fachetti was (not yet at least), but he provides us with a lot of support going forward, and has been one of our most important players so far.

I’ve also got a Central Winger in there to provide further attacking intent down our right side. Considering we’re defending with 6 men at times, there has to be enough movement from the 4 men going forward (sometimes 5 with the CWB) to get the one or two goals we need to win games. I don’t have the ideal player to use as the CW right now, but when I can fit a player into the role, the attacking potency of the side will dramatically improve.

There’s also an Inside Forward on the left wing, who acts almost as an abstract strike partner for the False 9 upfront. These are our two most important attacking players, and one of the usual attacking movements is to see the ball played into the F9 by one of our midfielders. He’ll then turn and play the ball in behind the defence for the inside forward cutting in from the left wing. Candreva has performed brilliantly so far from the left wing role, and scored both of our goals in a 2-0 win against the Czech Republic.

Here’s an example of our defensive shape when the opposition has the ball. You can see the strength of our defensive diamond and our back 6. Not only that, but we’ve pushed Slovakia’s midfield so far back, so that their midfield trio is almost on top of their defence. As a result of this, Slovakia don’t have a central player within our third of the pitch, except for their increasingly isolated striker, who is covered by a triangle of the DLP, CD and Sweeper. As you can see, the gap between their midfield and their attackers is huge, making it very difficult for them to build up play towards their forwards. We may not be controlling the ball, but we’re certainly controlling the space. I’m more than happy for the opposition to have the ball in these areas, where they’re no threat to us.

Here’s another example of our fantastic shape whilst defending. The opposition is more advanced this time, and is threatening our final third. What’s worth pointing out though, is our midfield trio of the DLP, the CW and the B2B have already forced the AI to go wide, and they’ve retained their shape centrally. All of the Slovakia players are easily covered by at least one of our markers, and the only player that is unmarked in the picture is a backwards pass (in yellow), something I’m happy to encourage as I can force the AI to go central, where we (often) make tackles or key interceptions to launch attacks.

‘The Defensive P’

I said previously that one of the key elements of the tactic is the defensive diamond. That is absolutely true, but it’s been expanded into what I’ve called the ‘Defensive P’, that incorporates the defensive left back. Set on a defend duty, the left back almost becomes another centre back. In fact, I’ve been using mobile centre backs in this position, and I’m looking for Ogbonna to make this position his own, and complete the all Juventus back line. With all of these players on a defend duty, they hold position whilst the rest of the team attacks, retaining a strong shape and preventing us being countered. The right sided centre back is set as a stopper, to increase his closing down should anyone break down the left wing before the CWB can track back. All together, it forms an abstract Back 4 when we have possession. Here’s another example of the Defensive P forming when we’ve got possession. With this in place, we become even more difficult to score against.


To give you an idea of how well the tactic works defensively, here’s a screenshot of Armenia’s passes against us in a recent qualifier. You can see they’ve got plenty of passes around the halfway line (however, there’s also a lot of incompleted ones), but in the central areas of our final 3rd, there’s very few passes at all, showing how much we force the AI to go down the wings with our central defensive strength. You can also see how few passes we allow into our box, with the Defensive P shielding it.

These tactics have helped us qualify for the World Cup, and in the games I’ve used this setup, we’ve only conceded one goal, a 92nd minute free kick in the friendly against Slovakia. Apart from that we’ve won the other two qualifiers 2-0 against Armenia and the Czech Republic. The Czechs tried to out defend us, leading to us dominating possession and all of the stats. It’s a positive side effect of the defensive mentality I utilise, that if teams try to out defend you, you will dominate possession and create chances.

95% of the tactics I see around the FM scene are control/attacking tactics, so I thought it would be interesting to try this, and explore different ways of playing the game tactically. If anyone else has experimented with playing defensive football, I’d be interested to hear what your results were.

One thing that has happened as a result of this tactic is that I no longer dislike watching my team defend. Watching teams struggle to break us down, and watching my defenders and midfielders make tackles and interceptions all over the place is actually fun to watch in game.

Parking the Bus isn’t as boring as you’d think.

Utilising the Central Winger

Those of you that follow me on Twitter (@JLAspey) will know how much I’ve banged on about the ‘Central Winger’ these past couple of months. It’s something I originally said whilst watching Angel Di Maria’s early performances in central midfield for Real Madrid, saying that he was playing almost like a central winger. It’s also a position FM Analysis has been analysing, particularly with Peter Pawlett of Aberdeen, a natural winger who has been moved inside into a midfield 3, much like Di Maria.

Although the term itself may sound like football hipster mumbo-jumbo, it actually has a lot of reasoning behind it. In its basic nature, it’s the idea of playing a competent dribbler in central midfield, who can beat players and get to the byline to cross. Anyone who has seen Madrid this season can see the effect that Di Maria’s vertical and direct running has had on the whole team, and therefore it has made them extremely dangerous on the counter attack, something that has carried on from Mourinho’s Real side.

In theory, the role can be so much more dangerous than just a normal winger, or a box to box midfielder. Defenders are unable to use the sideline as an extra defender (as they would against a normal winger), and instead are forced to engage a fast midfielder dribbling at pace, something no centre back would be comfortable defending against. In addition, the player also has a much wider range of passing options, especially if he has additional players breaking forward with him, especially in wide areas, and runners from full back. A setup utilising a CW has the potential to completely overrun the opposition defence.

For a while now I’ve wanted to utilise the role on FM, but I’ve never really felt I had the correct players to allow the role to reach its full potential. I did use it in a save at Racing Club in Argentina, and whilst initial results were promising (for the role at least), the save was soon binned (my last attempt at a back 3). However, I’ve now started a new save in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg in 2018, and I believe I’ve got the CW working extremely well, and it’s become a key part of my tactical planning. The players I’m using aren’t even my ideal players for the role, but it’s still working extremely well.


The players I’m currently using in the CW role are Mario Lemina and Kim Nielsen. Both are undoubtedly talented players, but if you could combine the two, you’d have the perfect CW for RB’s level. I’m still not overly sure who I prefer in the role if I’m honest, and most of the time I rotate the two for fitness anyway. Nielsen does have the better goalscoring record in the role though (you’ll see in this game). The player I’m keeping an eye on for the role is Marti Vidal of Barcelona, who has been moved up to their senior squad since that screenshot, but still isn’t in the first team. He’s been open to a move to Salzburg, just Barca won’t sell him. He’s got all the technical ability and physical pace needed to play the role perfectly. Anyway, the CW is surrounded by the setup you can see on the right, with a DLF to create space and drag defenders out of position, and two IF’s to exploit that space along with the CW. Combine that with a mobile roaming playmaker in Miladinov to control the midfield, and in theory there’s a setup to unlock defences.

The match I’ll be using to illustrate the CW is a Europa League match against the Hungarian side Videoton. We’re already 4-0 up from the first leg at home, so I chose to rotate the team a bit and give my top players a rest for the upcoming league matches. I chose to play Nielsen in the CW role for this match, as Lemina had played our recent 1st vs 2nd match against Austria Wien, and therefore needed a rest.

Here is how I set up the CW, starting as a CM-A with ‘press more’, ‘get further forward’, ‘dribble more’ and ‘run wide with ball’ selected. Ideally I’d also select cross from byline, but according to FM14, that’s a ridiculous thing to ask a midfielder to do. As the save progresses, that’s something I’ll have to ask my players to do through PPM’s. It’s why I’ve selected run wide with ball, in order to try and force him to get to the byline when he’s got the ball.

Here you can see exactly the movement I want to see from the role. The DLF has dropped deep, leaving a large area of space between the LCB and the RB, with the RCB deciding not to allow the DLF too much space, and stepping out to challenge my striker. However, Nielsen is now on the move and is moving towards that space as Damari (DLF) plays the ball into him. In one very simple move we’ve confused the AI and created space we can now exploit.

As you can see, Nielsen has continued driving forward, running at the defence (if the CW was a faster player such as Vidal, the midfielder wouldn’t catch up with him). This is where attacking layering comes into play, as my AML Pederson stays outside of the RB, who is now unsure whether to close down Nielsen, or stay with Pederson. He dithers long enough for Nielsen to be able to slip the ball through for Pederson, and we’ve overloaded them down our left hand side. This is all entirely due to the movement and combination of the DLF and the CW.

Not only does Nielsen play the ball through for Pedersen, but he then drives towards the box, and we’ve now got 3 v 2 in the box as Pedersen puts the cross in. My DLF Damari (who started the whole move) gets his head on it and puts it in the corner for our first of the game. This is exactly the kind of vertical attacking football I love, and the kind I want my Salzburg side to play. This isn’t a goal assisted or scored by the CW at all, but you can see how his vertical movement has opened up the defence, and allowed us to go 1-0 up.

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Again you can see the havoc that is caused by the DLF, and how important he is to the success of the CW. He’s dropped off again, and this time the CB decides to stay home, leaving Damari with plenty of space to turn and pick out a pass. What’s worth noting is that Nielsen (circled in blue) has actually moved forward and occupied the space left upfront by Damari, only dropping off slightly once Damari has picked up the ball. Damari picks the pass out to the AMR and once again we’re now looking at overloading them down the wings. The CW is now in a position to stay forward and influence the attack and get into the box.

We’ve now achieved the overload as our CWB right back has marched forward, and collects the quick ball inside from the AMR. Our CW Nielsen has already been driving to the near post, and is in the perfect position to then finish off the move. Once again, the movement caused by the DLF and the CW has undone Videoton.

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The CW will also take up very advanced midfield positions at times when we’re in position, almost in an AMC position. Here and Here are examples of his ‘get further forward’ instructions allowing him to move into those positions at times. It’s not something that I particularly want from the role, but fluidity isn’t something I’m going to stop, and picking up those positions will help link the rest of the midfield to the attack.

The CW’s advanced positioning can also be clearly seen in the average positions map. When you compare Nielsen’s positioning compared to his other midfield partners, he’s clearly the attacking part of the trio. That shape of midfield is something I’ve seen in other games, but usually the AP-S is a bit more advanced than in this game.

The Central Winger also contributes to the passing game as you can see in the passing map, and isn’t just a one dimensional role that constantly runs at defences. He made the 2nd most passes in the whole team throughout the match, only beaten by the roaming midfield playmaker, who always ends up with the most passes. He had a fantastic game, and out of our 4 goals, he was directly involved in 2 of them.

The Central Winger is certainly a role that I still need to develop somewhat, through PPM’s in particular. If I can teach a player to keep crossing from the byline, it could take the role to another level. In addition, if I can develop/buy a player with similar attributes to Marti Vidal (or Vidal himself), the CW will become even more dangerous for opposition defences. It’s arguably become the key part of my Salzburg side though, and it’s clear it has definite potential.

– To end, I’d like to say thank you to Guido for allowing me to put this article on his blog. If anyone reading this has any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.