Exploiting Space: The Playmaking Defender

Welcome to the second article in the ‘Exploiting Space’ series – this edition is all about the Playmaking Central Defender.

Those of you who follow the blog, or have followed me on Twitter, know that I enjoy creating roles out of nothing. The full-back was a previously underused role, so I wrote about the Inverse Wing Back – a wing back that cuts inside, often accompanied by a touchline-hugging winger playing in front of them. This drags a defense apart through its exploitation of space, and due to the relatively positive feedback I received on the piece, I thought I’d try and write another similar one.

A concept that has always interested me, in terms of football tactics, is the underutilised resources in football. Whilst the team is attacking, what do the defenders and goalkeepers do? Surely if you could find a way of getting them into the game you could gain a competitive advantage? We’ve seen the all-conquering Spanish and Barcelona teams attempt to do this with marauding wing backs and ball-playing central defenders – it’s not a new concept. Quite often, in tactics that play with high pressing, the striker is the first line of defense – they pressure the opposition defense and attempt to win possession in the opposition third. So why can’t your defensive line be properly utilised as the first line (or ‘layer’) of attack?

What is the Playmaking Defender?

The basic premise of the Playmaking Defender is that they’re a step up from a Ball-Playing Defender. In order to create this, I’ve simply altered a few of the settings of the BPD’s original player instructions, as well as making him my primary playmaker in the side, as per the team instructions. I’ve found that this has a fairly large impact on the amount of ball the Playmaking Defender receives.

As you may have guessed, the Playmaking Defender creates a very odd structure to a side. It essentially creates another ‘pivot’ in the side, from the defense. This then means that the fullbacks (or wingbacks if that’s what you’re into) become akin to the wingers in the side. This creates two separate attacking ‘layers’, as illustrated below.

As you can see, the use of the Playmaking Defender requires attacking full-backs and a box-to-box midfielder in the centre of midfield. As well as this, there are two men spare from the attacking ‘layers’ who are the CB and DM. I’ve used these as very limited ball-winners – the job of the CB is generally to find his more creative defensive partner. However, the DM obviously has more options as he’s in the centre of the pitch. His attitude generally depends on how your team operates – if you’re a possession based side then he’ll look for your Playmaking Defender, but if you play a direct passing style then he’ll often just bypass him and look to launch an attack himself.

Real-life examples of the Playmaking Defender are rare. This is because any central defenders that show the remotest sign of technical ability are often shoved into the centre of midfield. It’s perhaps an indication of my admiration for Marcelo Bielsa in that this is another style of role that he’s used, alongside the Inverse Wing Back. When he shifted Javi Martinez from CM to CB, he used the Spaniard as a Playmaking Defender.

Something else I’d like to mention at this point is the difference between the libero and the Playmaking Defender. We’ve seen numerous examples of a libero throughout history, Franz Beckenbauer being perhaps the most famous. The difference between the two is the freedom they’re given (after all, ‘libero’ does translate to ‘free’). Whilst the libero is often expected to stroll up the pitch and contribute to attacks in the attacking third, the Playmaking Defender is almost always required to sit back and simply play a role in creating and providing for others.

The Playmaking Defender in Football Manager

“The main job of the Ball-Playing Defender is to stop the opposing attackers from playing and to clear the ball from danger when required.

However, unlike standard central defenders, the Ball-Playing Defender is encouraged to launch defence-splitting through balls from deep to generate counter-attacking opportunities.”

This doesn’t really differ much from the role of the Playmaking Defender.

As you may have already realised, the role is fairly specialised. And because of this, we need someone suitably at ease on the ball as well as being defensively solid. Here’s the man.

As you can see, he’s not a particularly bad player. The first thing to look for is always the key defensive attributes. It’s all well and good having a Pirlo-esque playmaker in the Playmaking Defender role, but they’re going to leave you vulnerable at the back. Fred, however, has an excellent mix of defensive assets and creative juices.

Combinations

This is perhaps the most important section of this article as the Playmaking Defender is just that – a playmaker. Whilst the Inverse Wing Back is capable of making something for himself out of nothing, the Playmaking Defender relies on his teammates in order to give him passing options.

Combination One: The Midfield Runner

As you can see from the pitch image posted at the beginning of the article, your central midfielder is required to make runs in order to give the central defender another option.

Originally, in the early stages of developing the Playmaking Defender, I played with a Deep-Lying Playmaker in front of Fred. This was because it was that midfielder’s best role. But it’s always more important as to how the team as a whole plays and the system functions much more fluidly if he were a Box-to-Box midfielder.

Not only does the central midfield runner give the Playmaking Defender an extra passing option, but he also helps to link the two layers of attack, between the Playmaking Defender and the Advanced Playmaker at CAM. Since making the switch from DLP to BTB I’ve seen miraculous differences in the team’s results as well as Fred’s performances.

Combination Two: The Wide Options

This is fairly self explanatory because I’ve already explained the majority of it in previous sections. However, its the area in which the majority of your Playmaking Defender’s passes will go so it’s important to consider.

Two of the potential options in the first layer of attack are your full-backs, as illustrated by the pitch diagram above. Therefore, you need to make sure these players are going to offer a threat, offensively. In my setup, I have my LB as an Inverse Wing Back and my RB as a touchline-hugging Wing Back which creates different options for the Playmaking Defender. However, any type of attacking fullback would work equally as well, I’m sure. Just make sure they’re more than capable going forward.

Combination Three: The Layer Bypass

This combination is even more simple, but I feel its worth mentioning because it really does make a difference if you have suitable players for the role(s).

As I may have already mentioned, the Playmaking Defender plays with a fairly direct passing style. His job is to spot through balls and play them, creating counter-attacking opportunities for the side. Whilst this is often through the first layer of attack, it isn’t always.

In some cases, the Playmaking Defender won’t have good enough options in the first attacking layer. When this is the case, he will either attempt to recycle and wait for a new phase of attack (see next combination) or bypass the first layer and look for one of the players in the second layer of attack – any of the three attacking midfielders or the striker. Which options he picks will depend on the type of players you have in these positions, and what your team instructions are. If you have a striker who is excellent in the air and is set as your team’s primary target man, then of course you’re going to see the Playmaking Defender bypass the first attacking layer more. If you have two wingers who love to hug the touchline and create space in the middle of the pitch for your CAM, then he’s likely to receive the ball more. You get the idea.

Here’s a beautiful pass from Fred which bypasses the first layer of attack.

As you can see from the image above, there’s a limited number of options available for Fred. It’s usually only at these times that he’ll attempt to make a ball like this, but it’s certainly helpful when he does. The three attacking midfielders are all marked out of the game, the midfield runner has two men besides him and the two fullbacks are also being marked due to QPR’s well-drilled 4-3-3. Fred could play the ball to the anchor man in front of him who would then either recycle the ball and create a new phase of attack by passing back to the limited defender, or launch the attack himself by exploiting the space on the left of the pitch (from a run from the Inverse Wing Back). However, he plays a pin-point pass through to the striker, Neto.

Conclusion

I’d like to think that’s the role completely covered but in reality there’s probably a large number of factors I haven’t even considered. One of these is how the opposition’s tactics and strategies affect your usage of the Playmaking Defender. In reality, it’s possible for a team to nullify the threat fairly easily.

However, this often leads to an opposition team creating a weakness elsewhere that didn’t previously exist, and is often win-win for you. If you have a Playmaking Defender in your side, then it really adds another string to your bow. For example, if you encounter a team that plays two up-front then it’s difficult to create time for your Playmaking Defender to play effective passes. However, this means that they’d have to use a 4-4-2, 3-5-2 or go completely unorthodox. If they go 4-4-2, you shift your playmaker to where the Box-to-Box midfielder was, but instead use a player who is more of a creator than a runner. If they use 3-5-2, then make your team exploit the flanks and ensure your full-backs are properly utilised – this will create an overlap and allow your wingers more time on the ball.

As you may have guessed, the Playmaking Defender also works best if you yourself play a 4-2-3-1, or a similar variant. I’d love to see it attempted in other formations, but I operate almost solely with this 4-2-3-1 (I don’t really need to change my formation as the use of a Playmaking Defender means I can make tactical shifts and still gain an advantage) – if you want to try it with another formation, then be my guest. I’d love to hear from you.

And I hope you’ve enjoyed the guide. Please tell your friends.

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15 comments

  1. Thomas Paine

    Nice use of images and well exposed content, I’d love to have a competent CB to try your ideas, basically you’ve built a Bonucci kind of CB with your settings.

  2. georgerroscoe

    Love this article. I’d just created a 4-2-3-1 about 5 minutes before discovering this and decided to tweak it to see how it works.

    Here’s the formation, team instructions default although I’m considering “More direct” passing:
    http://gyazo.com/6dd8a22a1c9af986aaea563e97237cf6

    The Playmaking Defender, not ideal but good:

    http://gyazo.com/f418cbe00d0bac3edd4aed118b9c5fe1

    First game vs Blackpool:

    http://gyazo.com/7c99c7183fa0515b2adf877f70a07f26

    Hummels:

    Pass Completed – 50 out of 61
    Key Passes – 0
    Tackles Won – 6 out of 8
    Headers Won – 10 out of 11
    Key Headers – 7
    Interceptions – 8

    http://gyazo.com/23e9386ad44a953d8bee68127b54efeb

    Will continue testing, looks great!

    • Eds

      Oh, nice one. Hummels is probably one of the existing players actually capable of pulling it off.

      Delighted to see you’ve had a go at this too. If you’re finding the Playmaking Defender is getting disconnected from the rest of the side, then it might be worth bringing the BWM back to DM. However, I haven’t actually tried it with a flat 4-2-3-1 so your way may work just as well. Keep me updated!

  3. Shrewnaldo

    Interesting article and a different approach for people who may be struggling with frustrated attempts to use a libero.

    I wonder how effective this might be in a back 3, using the central of the 3 CB’s to step out knowing he should have a simple “out ball” back to the covering CB’s if needed.

    Anyway, what I most like about this approach is the impact it has when playing against sides that sit deep. As your team pushes up and the opposition drop off, if your attack grinds to a halt through sheer weight of opposition numbers then your team look to play it back to your primary playmaker -the DC. What then happens is the opposition push out a bit to try and close the space and enable someone to challenge the ball carrier. This then pulls their defence back up the pitch and opens up the space in behind that didn’t exist a couple of passes ago…

    Another excellent article.

  4. Stu UBJeff

    Great stuff Eds, exactly the sort of thing I had in mind to re-create the Libero, due to the lack of decent SW in the game. Certainly a different way to create attacks!

  5. ianc5571

    Very good article Eds. Looks like you have reinvented the whole libero role with using a CB which sits back and commands the passing from the defence. Excellent writing.

    • missrayon

      second. i’d especially like to see what kind of mentality and creative freedom you give them. great post btw. very creative

    • Eds

      I don’t usually like to show exactly what I do as I like to allow others to create their own attempts. I’m by no means perfect and it’s more than likely I’ve made a mistake somewhere – seeing others’ attempts at the role would probably confirm this. But just this once.

  6. Tiago

    Eds, nice article!

    I assume creativity is really important right? Because i have an awesome central defender who could be fantastic for a playmaker defender apart from….creativity. This makes me really sad because i’ve never had a central defender with playmaking ability. This is the closest one i ever had but i guess he’s missing on of the most important attributes for that.

    Passing – 16
    First Touch – 17
    Technique – 17
    Anticipation – 19
    Composure – 19
    Creativity is only 12….

    Your player is amazing tough!

    Cheers!

    • Eds

      I’d think he could do a good job. His creativity isn’t ideal but you’d think with 20 decisions he’d pick out what he’s capable of. Because he’s got such good decisions, I don’t think it’d be a risk. Excellent composure and anticipation too. I’d definitely say it’s worth a go, even if he’s unlikely to pick out a wonderball.

  7. Pingback: Tactical Analysis: crooked 4-2-3-1 | The Coffeehouse: FM Discussion
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