Towing Away A Parked Bus; Breaking Down A Defence

When you play FM long enough, you are bound to encounter opponents who park the bus against you. With the knowledge that they are hopelessly outclassed against your star-studded squad, they opt not to be lead to the slaughter like the proverbial lambs. Where football romantics would love to see the smaller sides go for the jugular as well, some teams choose to erect a human wall in front of their own penalty area. In some cases, even such defensive antics prove unsuccessful as the attacking side manages to penetrate anyway or get a lucky goal in early on.

In other cases, the structure and integrity of the defensive format remain intact. How do you batter down the gates in such scenarios? Is there a sure-fire way to break down these dogged defenders and their tenacious efforts? That’s what I want to focus on in this article. How do you tow away that parked bus?


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How To Create A Strong Defense; The Phalanx Analogy

Most managers, myself included, prefer aesthetically pleasing brands of football. We are not content with merely winning a game, we want to win in style, preferably a grand style. Okay, I am not really sure if this applies to most managers, but it bloody well applies to me. I blame my Dutch genes for that little quirky trait. The Dutch are quite apt at losing games but declaring themselves the moral winners because their style of play looked better. I mean, Van Gaal anyone?

We played beautiful football! It's not like that Portuguese wanker is doing any better...
We played beautiful football! It’s not like that Portuguese wanker is doing any better…

Anyway, enough of my ranting and back to the topic at hand as promised in the title. What many people seem to forget is that there can be beauty in clean defending. The same ideas and principles so often associated with the attacking phases of football are just as easily applied to the defensive phase. The fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your teammates, maintaining a tight and cohesive formation, it’s just as much a hallmark of a strong defense than it is a characteristic of a strong offense.

That brings me to the concept of the phalanx. As an avid gamer, I played my fair share of the Total War series and well, you can’t play these games without picking up a thing or two regarding shield walls, testudo’s or phalanxes. The phalanx formation was a close-rank, dense grouping of warriors armed with long spears and interlocking shields. The Spartan phalanx was legendary in classical antiquity and renowned for hammering home the importance of keeping one’s shield up. It was not for the protection of the warrior carrying it, but for the warrior at his side. When the shield was dropped it created a gap in the impenetrable defense, which could be exploited.

A classic phalanx formation screenshot Rome 2 Total War.
A classic phalanx formation screenshot Rome 2 Total War.

I want to apply the concept of the Greek phalanx to how I organize my teams defensively. If that sounds intriguing (or just sufficiently hipstery), read on!

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Danny’s Definitive 4-4-2 (A.K.A. My Magnum Opus Ain’t Perfect)

Ah, the 4-4-2. Title winner. The bane of the naive manager. The bread and butter of every Dad who has ever put his hand up to manage his son’s under-12s side, and suddenly found himself out of his depth. One might describe it as the herald of the modern age of football. The old-school love it, the hipsters love it, and thanks to sides like Leicester City and Atletico Madrid, it’s picking up a brand new following among the future managers of tomorrow.

For me, it’s a formation that I’ve worked on perfecting throughout the course of FM16, and now I’d like to present it to you, fellow managers, as my send-off to this season’s title. As fine a representative of my year of successful saves, my heart breaks and my many frustrated “Ctrl+Alt+Delete > End Process” cycles as I can think of.

The 4-4-2 at Leeds United in the first season. New signings are Dunne and Zivkovic.

This image shows the first successful version of my tactic. It was from this point that I have to admit, I overdeveloped the strategy, making more and more tweaks for different teams and different players when I already had a solid system that I was working from. I mention this as something to bear in mind, as the point of this post is not to give you a world-beating strategy, but to share the insights I’ve gained from what I’ve done right and what I’ve done wrong with this tactic to encourage all of you to be adaptive, to be versatile, and to be innovative. No manager, whether in the real or virtual world, gets it right every time. The important thing is having the ability to self-actualize and reflect to make you and those around you better.

Obviously, the strategy takes a lot of cues from Leicester City’s title-winning 4-4-2 shape. This tactic was largely developed whilst watching them play week-in, week-out. I noticed a lot of tactics popping up on the Steam workshop claiming to be “Leicester 4-4-2” tactics, and I remember always thinking “you just haven’t got this right at all.” So this strategy stemmed from my own attempts to re-create the exact 4-4-2 Ranieri’s Leicester used to win the title, and a lot of those influences remain in this current iteration.

The team instructions from the “base” iteration of the tactic.

The key to this strategy is hard work to achieve an overall team performance. The main thing I want to accomplish when I use this tactic, aside from getting three points of course, is to have my players work for each other, and thus get the best out of my “average” players. Strong mental attributes, especially Work Rate, go a huge way towards making this tactic tick over and produce results. As you can see from the image above, we’re looking to constantly be pressuring our opponents, from the defensive forward always unsettling the opposing defenders, to our back line pushing high up the pitch and constricting the space that opposing teams have to play in. I expect almost every player on the pitch to pull his weight and work hard, and maintain his concentration.

But I know you’ve had enough of me prattling on about the principles of the 4-4-2 already. After all, you’ve won the Premier League with Accrington Stanley. You know how the most basic formation in football works. What you really want are some juicy hybrid roles you can try out in your own formations. What you want are key positions.

Well look no further my Striker-disinclined brethren. Lets get into the breakdown.

1: The Box to Box Playmaker

Your B2B Midfielder is usually the player who is the engine of your side, and that remains true in this shape. When you think about a box to box midfielder, you think about strong and assertive defending, intelligent breaking up of opposition moves, and somehow having the pace and stamina to end up with the ball in the opponent’s box less than a minute later.

What I’ve attempted to do is make my Box to Box Midfielder one of the main playmakers in the side, filling that gap between him winning the ball in defence and him turning up in the 18-yard box. This is one of the biggest hold-overs from Leicester City’s shape and structure. Think of the way Kante would make a tackle or interception, and when he didn’t have Drinkwater immediately next to him to lay the ball off to, he’d simply start running forward with it, driving through the heart of midfield with speed and control to kick start a counter attack.

In a way, it’s a different type of direct football. If you told me I could move the ball 60 yards up the pitch and gave me the choice of having it passed from the foot of a defensive midfielder, or having it carried there under the control of one of my players, I know which option I’d choose.

An out-and-out box to box player generally isn’t all that common in a two-man midfield partnership. This is because you generally leave yourself short in the center of the park compared to your opposition, and you want to make sure you have your numbers in that area available when necessary. This is also why it’s important in a 4-4-2 that your forwards are willing to drop back and link play between the midfield and the attack. What we want from our B2B Mid is to use his work rate and his stamina, as well as his reading of the game, to become an advanced playmaker when we are on the attack. Essentially we want to achieve two midfield roles for the price of one. The Box to Box Midfielder needs to perform his defensive duties, then drive through midfield with it himself into an advanced position, unsettling the opposition with his direct play, and instantly adding another body to the attacking effort. In short, he needs to be a very strong physical and mental player, with good technical attributes in tackling and dribbling to boot.

Part of the reason I decided to use Leeds to display this tactic is because I wanted young Lewis Cook to make this role his own. You can see he has the perfect starting point for this style of play.

The way we want to achieve this is by giving the player individual instructions and preferred moves that reflect this style of running. Get Further Forward and Dribble More are the most important instructions, and Runs With Ball Through Center and Runs With Ball Often are must-have preferred moves. I’ve also found that Tries To Play Way Out Of Trouble encourages the player to take on a forward run from deep more often, and is very helpful to have on a gifted technical dribbler, however I wouldn’t hurt yourself trying to get it tutored onto a player.

Ideally, you should be looking for this player to run with the ball, and end up assisting the attack from inside the hole. It’s easy to overlook the Decisions attribute with this player, but it is extremely important, to help him execute his preferred moves at the opportune moment. When he performs well, he forms a solid partnership with both the CM (Def) further back, and the Wide Playmaker in the final third. If he has strong finishing, The Gets Further Forward PPM will encourage him to become a goalscorer too, making runs beyond the Deep Lying Forward to get on the end of through balls. Depending on the player you use to fill this role, you can use preferred moves like Arrives Late In Opponent’s Area very effectively to add completely new dimensions to this player’s game.

Honestly, I’ve never had as much fun molding players for any position as I have this one.

2: The Wide Playmaker

While the Wide Playmaker isn’t as versatile as the Box to Box Playmaker, he nonetheless occupies a seldom-used role that is worth analyzing. Especially since he racks up a ridiculously obscene match-rating in almost every match, provided he has the right attributes for the position.

The astute among you will have noticed that I signed the young Andrija Zivkovic from Partizan Belgrade in my Leeds save, even though I was clearly trying to show the 4-4-2 with as standard a starting team as possible. Leeds United aren’t gifted with much transfer money at the start of the game, so I’m sure it seems like a strange decision to splash the only cash I had on one 18 year old. The best explanation I can give you is that those millions of Pounds/Euros/Dollarydoos reflect how highly I value this position.

Andrija Zivkovic is like a discount Martin Odegaard and he fits this position almost perfectly.

Veterans of the Strikerless blog will no doubt remember the “Central Winger” hybrid role. If you imagine the inverse of that, then you have a good idea of what the Wide Playmaker is all about, except that it’s a little more conventional given that it actually, you know, already exists as a role in the game.

Rather than use their pace and speed in the middle of the park to run at the defence and surprise the fullbacks by coming wide from inside, the Wide Playmaker looks to use their passing, vision and technical ability to create by cutting into free space in the middle of the park from wide positions on the pitch. Whilst experienced defenders will be used to this in the modern game, the idea is that he initiates his moves from deeper positions than an inside forward does, usually from the space on the wing between the opposing winger and full back. Either running diagonally with the ball into the center of the pitch to catch the opposition off-guard, or drifting narrow without position to lose his marker and influence the attack as an attacking midfielder, this player is entirely occupied with causing problems for your opponent.

Zivkovic Receives.png
Andrija receives the ball wide and looks to take on the opponent directly inside of him.
Zivkovic passes.png
Here you can see Andrija has beaten two opponents to get the ball into a central area before playing a pass.

In our 4-4-2, our Wide Playmaker is the only player given complete freedom from the structure – even the Box to Box Playmaker is expected to maintain his position within the team shape when we’re defending. It is important to have a talented full-back in behind him, as he does leave a lot of space on the right side, and the Central Midfielder (Def) also picks up a lot of the defensive onus in return for the freedom that the Wide Playmaker enjoys. If you find that your opponent is exploiting this space, don’t hesitate to make changes. Changing the Central Midfielder to a Ball Winning Midfielder or even a Box to Box Midfielder can help to break down these left-sided threats.

It can be difficult to find suitable players for this position as it isn’t widely used, but if you scout Riyad Mahrez you’ll develop a pretty good idea of the sort of player you should be looking for. Personally, I look for Flair and Dribbling as much as I look for Passing and Vision, as I like my player to have the capacity to take on defenders as well as just finding the right through ball. Acceleration and Decisions are thus also quite desirable.

Tries Killer Balls is a PPM you should pick up as soon as possible, as well as Cuts Inside From Right Wing. Having a left-footed player is preferable, however I’ve done just as well with right-footed players in this position. In any case, it always benefits playmakers to be good with both feet, so I wouldn’t agonize too much over which foot is the player’s strongest.

3: The Defensive Poacher

The Defensive Poacher is the second hybrid role in the team. This player is your Jamie Vardy. Fast, hard working, clinical and clever, the Defensive Poacher uses preferred moves to amplify his goalscoring ability over that of a regular defensive forward.

The game suggests that the Defensive Forward role is mostly a creative one, which we know from players like Vardy and Deeney is not necessarily true. The essence of the Defensive Forward is that when off the ball, rather than walk back with the defensive line and prepare himself for the next break, he uses his pace to close down the opposing defenders and midfielders and give them less time on the ball to think, looking to force a mistake or a long ball forward that his own defenders can mop up, giving possession back to his team, or at least disrupting the opposition’s attacking tempo. This kind of hard work from your forwards is absolutely vital in a 4-4-2 formation.

Where the “poacher” part of this role comes in, however, is how the player is expected to operate once he has performed that closing down duty. Once the opposition have moved possession forward from their backline, Troy Deeney often begins to operate as a Target Man or a Deep Lying Forward, using his strength and size to his advantage. A-League fans will be aware of Melbourne Victory player Besart Berisha, who does similar, using his intelligent positioning and awareness of the game to compensate for his lack of pace, almost like a Trequartista, but still having the engine to close down on opposition defenders for 90 minutes.

Souleyman Doukara has a great starting point to become either a Defensive Target Man or a Defensive Poacher, but he still has a lot of work ahead of him!

Jamie Vardy, on the other hand, acts more like a traditional Poacher, operating on the shoulder of the last man and using his extreme pace to get on the end of through balls and long passes from the backline. In our 4-4-2, this is the kind of play we want to emulate. Again, a physically and mentally gifted player is what you’re looking for in this role. On the technical side, you want a lethal finish, but you can get away with not much else. You can completely ignore the game suggesting that tackling is an important attribute for this player. Work Rate, Stamina, Acceleration and Pace are your four crucial attributes, but high Determination, Aggression and Anticipation are also very important. On top of this, any attributes you’d usually want in a poacher, like Balance and Composure, are also desirable traits.

What you really need to make this player shine, however, are the right PPMs.

Likes To Try To Beat Offside Trap, Moves Into Channels and Knocks Ball Past Opponent are unequivocally the most important for the Defensive Poacher, as well as your choice of finishing PPMs. Shoots With Power or Places Shots coupled with Tries First Time Shots will turn your Defensive Poacher into a truly clinical forward. Likes To Round Keeper or Likes To Chip Keeper are also good PPMs to pick up early, as your striker’s pace and tenacity to get behind the line will see him in a lot of one-on-ones with the opposition goalie. Pick whichever is best for your player based on whether he has good Dribbling and Flair.

Doukara Pounces.png
Here you can see Doukara has beaten the offside trap and is in on goal, without even having any of the PPMs! We can expect a lot more of this sort of play with the right training.

Experimenting with the Defensive Forward has been a lot of fun for me this year, and it’s probably the role that I would consider as giving you the best base for creating a hybrid player. Provided you have a striker who fills the requirement for a Defensive Forward, with the right preferred moves you can very easily mix in other positions he’s proficient in to make a truly potent forward.

Closing Thoughts

Well, there you have it. Another year of Football Manager, and I’ve finally written about one of my tactics. I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing some of my thoughts on my own work (hey, all the successful managers have big egos!) They didn’t get much coverage in this piece, but I will say that a strong defensive backbone is really crucial in this side. I’ve found that the tactic does leak a few more goals on average than the likes of Atletico Madrid do. But I haven’t spent a year making a perfect tactic – I’ve spent a year creating something that I can be proud of sharing with you guys (aww), creating something that I can use to initiate discussion and exchange ideas with other like-minded people. So hit me up with what you think about my tactic, let me know how you’ve adapted it. If you’ve managed to get a False-9 to work better than a Deep Lying Forward then let me know, because that change cost me a European competition when I was managing in Germany. And if you can figure out a more sound defensive approach then I’d be really keen to hear about that too.

Feel free to hit me up at my casual email, if you want to get into direct contact with me. I’m pretty new (comparatively) to Football Manager, and I’m looking to work on my writing and my media integration too, so let me know how I can improve for the next time I write for you guys!

You know, I’ve kind of realised putting together this post that I’m a lot like the players I like to have. Lots of personality but no real technical execution.

Cheers mates, and regards,


You can find the tactic on the Steam Workshop here:


DerFM’s Views On Possession Football

I’m all about sharing quality content and one of the better tactical videos lately is one made by Matthias (@DerFM on Twitter, +DerFM on Tifo). Strikerless has plugged his work before and damn it, we’ll plug it again because it is just that good. Matthias mentions how he has built a possession-based tactic, explaining in detail what he does and why he does it. I highly recommend you watch this video and if you like what you see, I reckon you should watch the other videos he makes as well. Some of them are criminally underrated.

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The evolution of my 4-4-2-0

I will try to keep my introduction short and sweet, because boy, have I got a treat for you. I am really into interacting with the people who read my inane ramblings and sometimes, these interactions result in a thing of beauty. People giving their own unique perspective on my ideas. They add their own specific flavour to the exisiting ideas and damn, it’s lovely. This time, I am proud to showcase work by Edward (@edwardbomb) and his strikerless and semi-strikerless 4-4-2. Give it a read, give it a go and don’t be afraid to comment.

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A Leicester City-Inspired 4-4-2-0

Over the past decade, people have fallen out of love with the humble 4-4-2 formation. It’s a shame really, as it’s a beautiful and effective tactic. Its beauty is also part of the reason why people tend to snub their noses at it, since it’s a rather straight-forward and simple tactic. Ranieri and his marauding Leicester City team are proving quite how effective a humble 4-4-2 formation can be. So here’s my take on a Leicester City-inspired 4-4-2-0.


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Going Down A Gritty Road; Compensating For Lesser Players By Instilling Fighting Spirit

Whilst beauty is certainly in the eyes of the beholder, not every team has the players to play Joga Bonito. It makes one wonder, is playing beautiful football a goal in itsself? What is beauty? Sometimes, beauty is being efficient and making the most of the material you do have. The results achieved by fighting spirit and team mentality rather than finesse on the ball can be as beautiful in their own way as a technical and tactical masterclass by a FC Bayern or Barcelona.

Take for instance the style of play the Uruguayan national team employs. The football character of Uruguay throughout history was established as a defensive and combative though not without some attacking flair. The mix of different European cultural immigrants entering Uruguay, combined with the spread of association football globally, meant that Uruguay, as a nation, (along with their neighbours’ Argentina) created a new and unique style of football. They turned their back on the direct game brought across by the British and developed a brand of football built around short passes, player movement and attacking play.

These technical developments mixed well a key source of pride for Uruguayans, the national characteristic of “amistad” or “friendship/togetherness.” When looking at match clips from their national team, the concept of amistad seems to be a key ingredient of their style of play. They play as a cohesive unit, even established international stars, like Forlan and Suarez, fought tooth and nail for the shirt, eschewing any of the egotistical pretensions of grandeur seen by the so-called superstars of some other nations, taking one for the team if needed.

Add “amistad” to a pretty un-South American, gritty style of football, a style sometimes physical enough to make the toughest Argentine or Italian teams quiver, and you have teams that are pretty tough to beat… So what happens when you employ such a style in FM? Is it enough to compensate for a lack of absolute world stars against the very best teams out there? @diegomendoza1969 and yours truly look into things.

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