For years my Wolves side had played a variant of the popular tika-taka football style implemented by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side during his time at the Nou Camp. As well as this, the squad was built around home-grown talent rather than big-money signings. And whilst this has been largely successful (the side has won the last eight consecutive league titles), a change was necessary. For years my ultimate goal has been to complete an unbeaten league season. Despite all the trophies, cups and awards, it has always eluded me. Be it a shoddy 1-0 loss at the Emirates or a 3-1 thrashing at Old Trafford, I’ve always struggled away at the other major English clubs. My possession-based football has always come unstuck away from home, and I felt it was time to re-create something a bit different in a bid to complete that illustrious unbeaten league system.
Over the past decade and a half of managing Wolves I’ve had a number of incredibly talented players come through the ranks. With this, I’ve had to adapt and tinker with my system over the years in order to ensure they fit the shape and style of the play. It’s led to me creating some very interesting tactical roles, and a number of those fit into this system. I’d like to think they complement each other.
This combination of interesting roles and talented players has really piqued my interest in Football Manager, and this in-depth analysis is something I’ve been thinking of doing for a while. It may not be your style of football, but I’d like to think that it’s still worth the read regardless.
Those of you who are familiar with the blog will already have read several sections of this piece, so you may wish to skip them. However, I’ve included them in the guide as they allow you to further understand the tactical intricacies I’ve attempted to consider when creating the tactic. If you haven’t read them before, I highly recommend clicking on the links provided.
Hopefully this article won’t just be me telling you about my 4-2-3-1. It’ll show you how you can create a tactic, and what you need to consider when doing so.
i. Strategy and Key Principles
The first place to start with any tactic is to ask yourself what you want from it. Once you’ve decided on this, it’s much easier to make and justify future decisions, particularly when you’re tweaking the tactic. My key principles were as follows:
• Length of transitions from defence to attack would be kept to a minimum.
• Players should be expected to contribute to a variety of different phases of play.
• The tactic must be assymetric with different sides of the pitch creating different styles of attack.
Keeping these goals in mind really did help whilst I was creating the tactic. They often overlapped and I had to consider which would lead to maximum efficiency from the players but I felt the second goal would overrule the others if push came to shove. It’s something that’s fascinated me ever since I began to take a serious interest in football tactics. Whilst in the defensive phase of play, the attacking players are effectively wasted. And vice versa.
The likes of Rinus Michels and his Total Football system went some way towards addressing this issue, but that’s a step too far for me. Whilst I appreciate that defenders actually are better at defending, surely they have some use in the offensive phase? A number of defenders in world football today are fantastically technical players. The likes of Philipp Lahm, Mats Hummels, Gerard Pique, even David Luiz and Daniel Agger, are all very able pushing forwards. Surely they can contribute in some way?
That’s the idea, anyway.
The tactic itself is based on the Bielsan concept of high-pressing, direct play. If there is an opportunity to push forward an attack, then the players will take that chance. However, if the opposition defence is organised then the ball must be recycled through the midfield. In order for this to work, your players really do need to be all-rounders. In order to press high they need the physical skills. When the ball is recycled, technical ability is needed in order to break the opposition defensive line. And mental attributes (in particular, the decisions attribute) are needed to decide which option is most suitable. I’m sure you’ll get bored of me saying it but it’s no good creating a tactic if it doesn’t suit the players – if you’ve got Mario Balotelli or Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front, then you can stop reading now.
As with any formation, the place to start is the shape. I decided to start with a 4-2-3-1. It’s a durable formation that can come up against any other and not get caught out, and it dominates a number of other simple shapes such as the 4-4-2. It allows you to play possession football or counter-attacking football, and this flexibility appealed to me.
However, the one major flaw I found throughout this process was the gap between midfield and defence. It’s plagued me. I dropped one of the central midfielders back into the defensive midfield role, but this then left a large amount of space on the other side where the central midfielder was not dropped back (see screenshot above). I also toyed with the idea of the defensive midfielder and central midfielder both playing in the centre of the pitch, but the two ended up in very similar areas and without setting their creative freedom to high levels, it was difficult to correct this. Eventually, I had to suck it up, change my central midfielder from CM – Support to DLP – Support, and move on.
After this change, we ended up with the following shape.
This shape can be shown in FM, here:
iii. Players’ Duties
Now, this is where it gets interesting. But before I get into the nitty gritty stuff, I’d like to make something quite clear.
Without doubt, this is the most important section of any tactic creation, for several reasons. The following points are all vital in determining players’ roles and duties.
1. Combinations are the key to every tactic. I’ve worked hard to create innovative new roles, such as the Inverse Wing Back and the Playmaking Defender, but without complementary roles around them, they’re useless.
2. The players themselves must be in the right roles. I’ll use the example of Cristiano Ronaldo. Whilst he is positioned on the left-wing, you wouldn’t ever dream of playing him as an out-and-out winger. That’s simply not what he’s good at. I can’t tailor the tactic to suit your players, but I can for mine. Keep that in mind.
3. When it comes to attacking organisation, you need a means to an end – know where your goals are going to come from. Brendan Rodgers talks a lot of crap but one thing he says that makes sense is that a team needs three and a half goalscorers. I prefer to think of it as three and a half goalscoring routes. It’s also vital to ensure your attacking roles will create space.
4. Defensive organisation: how are you going to defend? How do your player roles complement this? In terms of defensive organisation, the first stage is always to consider how you want to defend. Once you’ve established whether you’re going to sit deep or push high, your player roles will stem from this.
Goalkeeper (Sweeper Keeper – Defend)
I won’t go into the role of the goalkeeper much because tactically, it’s not a particularly interesting role by any means. However, one thing to note is the high line that the tactic plays. Because of this, you’ll need a keeper who’s not only a good shot-stopper but is also quick off his line. This type of keeper is extremely hard to find in Football Manager (perhaps undersupplied in comparison to the number of sweeper keepers around in real life today). I often have to use an academy product who I can mould to the role. I use a Sweeper Keeper – Defend, but if you’re particularly happy with the ball-skills of your keeper, then it’d be a good idea to adjust it to the Support or even Attack duty.
Real life examples include Hugo Lloris, Victor Valdes and Michel Vorm.
Right Back (Full Back – Attack)
The main role of the right-back in the crooked 4-2-3-1 is to provide the width on the right hand side. As you can see from the shape image above, and as I’ll go into later, the RCAM acts as a false winger. This is all well and good, but we need some width on that side. As I said before, the tactic is all about combinations and the width the RB provides allows the RCAM to complete his obligatory attacking duties.
Depending on what your RB is best at, you can either use him as a barnstorming, touchline-hugging wing-back, or you could allow him to cross from deep. In theory, either would work well – considering the direct nature of the tactic, it’s important he can cross. But if he’s not so good at taking defenders on, then you might want him to cross from deep. I know some players like to convert ex-wingers into full-backs, and that would work excellently here – if you have a RB like Antonio Valencia, Dani Alves or Glen Johnson then give them license to bomb forward and cross from the byline. However, if his dribbling isn’t up to scratch, then make sure he has the cross from deep option set.
You’ll learn more about how this role can vary depending on the opposition in part two of the article. I want to go into it now but I’ll restrain myself, so tune in for that. It’s particularly important for the RB role.
Centre Back (Ball Playing Defender – Defend)
If you’re a regular follower of the blog, or my Twitter account, then you’ll already know what this is about. My RCB is my Playmaking Defender (if you haven’t read that article already then I highly recommend you do so, because it explains the role in detail).
Despite this, first and foremost his role is to defend. So you need someone who can head, tackle, jump, all the defensive basics. The fact that he’s used as a Playmaking Defender is to eliminate the unemployed resource that he would be in an attacking transition. To be honest, due to the direct nature of the tactic he’s not actually used a lot, but if the opposition defence are well organised then he can often provide a key pass to create an attack.
Similar real life players include Mats Hummels, Gerard Pique or Sergio Ramos.
Centre Back (Central Defender – Defend)
Here you’re looking for your standard central defenders. Preferably as big and as nasty as you can find – Nemanja Vidic, Mamadou Sakho or Vincent Kompany are all ideal.
Left Back (Wing Back – Attack)
Much like with the Playmaking Defender, there’s already an article for this on the blog, here. The role is explained in good detail there.
Real life examples of the Inverse Wing Back include Leighton Baines, Arturo Vidal, and Kwadwo Asamoah.
Left Defensive Midfielder (Anchor Man – Defend)
This is one of the more interesting roles in that it’s not something you’d usually see. Since Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side won the Premier League with Claude Makelele at the heart of it’s midfield, the world has gone a little bit ball-winner mad. Whilst the Makaleles of this world were previously undervalued and underrated, their role in the side is now more than appreciated.
However, this role is ever so slightly different. Florentino Perez famously dismissed Makelele for being poor at heading, and because of this, Makelele wouldn’t be suitable for the LDM role here. This is because you need someone with a bit more aerial prowess. Over the years, I’ve found the best players in the LDM role are often central defensive converts. Whilst I usually convert a DM to play in the Playmaking Defender role, there’s generally a CB who goes the other way. Their role in the side is simple – get the ball back from the opposition and give it to the players who can do things. And the way the tactic is geared means there are options all around – the Playmaking Defender, the right touchline-hugging full-back, the Inverse Wing Back, or the man I’ll come onto next, the RCM. High positioning is vital for interceptions, whilst jumping and heading are needed for aerial duels and, tackling and marking are needed for regaining possession on the ground.
It’s a difficult role to find real life examples for as I’d argue the players who’d do it well play centre back anyway. But it’d be a very similar sort of player to the one you have at LCB, although ever so slightly more agile. Phil Jones and Vincent Kompany would be excellent options, and if you could afford to put their attacking abilities to the waste, Yaya Toure and Marouane Fellaini would also do well.
However, much like the RB role, this is a role that varies quite a lot depending on the opposition. I’ve got an entire article coming up on that soon so I won’t go into it, but sometimes it’s not really necessary to have another centre-back at DM.
Right Central Midfielder (Central Midfielder – Support)
Now, this is a role I’ve had real issues with. I said earlier that I made the change to a Deep Lying Playmaker, but I lied. The CM – Support provides another attacking option for the Playmaking Defender, whereas the DLP – Support just nullifies his impact. And as I said, combinations are vital to this tactic. The space shown in the previous image in the ‘Shape’ section, I decided was not as important as this. A key part to creating a tactic is choosing between areas you wish to be strong in, as one tactic can’t fulfill every need.
What I like to think of the RCM as, is what Lee Scott puts excellently in this article, on FMAnalysis, in which he calls the player a Linking Midfielder (highly recommend you take a quick read of that). Whilst transitions are being kept to a minimum, bursting runs from midfield to attack are vital, and I don’t think that’s provided by the DLP. As a result, I’ve stuck with the CM role. His duties are detailed in the aforementioned article.
Real life examples include Arturo Vidal, Christian Eriksen, and Jordan Henderson.
Right Central Attacking Midfielder (Inside Forward – Attack)
One thing that you will have immediately noticed upon looking at the tactical shape a few sections back, is the position of the right-winger. In a standard 4-2-3-1, he would be just as wide as the left-winger. Well, not here.
In this tactic, his main role is to play alongside the CAM (who is the side’s main playmaker), and move between the lines. He’s got a large amount of attacking freedom and will usually be a deep-lying forward convert who is capable of playing at CAM. His main aim is to score goals.
In recent times, we’ve started to see great exponents of the 4-2-3-1 use false wingers. Jose Mourinho has used the 4-2-3-1 ever since he left the shores of Portugal, but recently his Real Madrid side is the home of Cristiano Ronaldo – one of the world’s great goalscoring wingers. Ronaldo is essentially told to wonder about until he finds a bit of space, and although he plays on the left-hand side, the concept is the same. Another example of a false winger would be Andres Iniesta for Barcelona who used to play at LCAM whilst Adriano or Maxwell or Eric Abidal would overlap and provide the width. This is why I mentioned that the right-back providing width is so important for the tactic. Because if he doesn’t do so, then the opposition left-sided players are going to have a really easy day.
For the role we’re looking at (ie. a goalscoring false winger), real life examples include Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale (recently), and Jefferson Farfan.
Central Attacking Midfielder (Advanced Playmaker – Support)
The CAM in the crooked 4-2-3-1 isn’t a particularly interesting role – he plays much the same as a CAM would in any 4-2-3-1. His main job is to create chances for the ST and RCAM, whilst also feeding the likes of the LAM, LB and RB who will also create chances. He’s the main man in the second attacking layer, as illustrated below.
Real life examples include Mario Gotze, Philippe Coutinho and Luka Modric.
Left Attacking Midfielder (Winger – Support)
This is another fairly one-dimensional role, however it’s surprisingly important in both defence and attack. Oddly enough, the role is incredibly similar to that of the right-back – the LAM is required to hug the touchline and provide the width. If you play with an aerially strong striker (again, combinations are vital to tinkering the tactic) then your LAM will be one of your most important players. My LAM at Wolves has 20 dribbling, 20 crossing and not much else – but it allows him to play the role incredibly well, particularly when I start with my big striker.
In defence, the winger is also fairly important. This is because the Inverse Wing Back often wonders forward, which can leave the left flank fairly vulnerable. On a support duty, a hard-working winger will often track back if the potential for an opposition counter attack arises. Wingers who operate in this way are Angel Di Maria, Stewart Downing and Antonio Valencia.
Striker (Advanced Forward – Attack)
This is another position I had a bit of a problem with in determining the role. However, due to the direct nature of the tactic I eventually decided that Advanced Forward would be the best. This means he plays as high up the pitch as possible, and as a result is looking for balls over the top as well as balls played into his head and chest to hold up. On numerous occasions, he’s by far the furthest man forward and as a result, it’s vital he’s able to keep possession until his teammates provide a decent passing option.
He needs to be able to score from crosses (from the LAM and RB primarily, although others will obviously contribute too), as well as from interplay with the CAM and RCAM. Because of this, he really does need to be an exceptional player, and most of all – a goalscorer. Ideally you’d have someone like Didier Drogba, Romelu Lukaku or Robert Lewandowski.
iv. Attacking Movements
When it comes to attacking movements, you need a means to an end – know where your goals are going to come from. Brendan Rodgers talks a lot of crap but one thing he says that makes sense is that a team needs three and a half goalscorers. I prefer to think of it as three and a half goalscoring routes. Also ensure your attacking roles will create space.
In the above tactic I have three and a half distinct goalscoring routes (I like to think of the half as a ‘miscellaneous goals’ type deal). They are as follows, and in no particular order:
1. The Inverse Wing Back
This is covered in my article here. I won’t go further on this one as there’s plenty of information there. If the left-back isn’t the man scoring the goals, then he’s usually the one assisting. He’s topped the league tables for assists on numerous occasions.
Because of the direct nature of the tactic, the team puts in plenty of crosses. The main source of the crosses is the left-winger, who has been ordered to hug the touchline in order to create space for the Inverse Wing Back. However, the attacking nature of the right-back means he also makes an impact in the assists tally. Occasionally the RAM will drift out wide and play crosses into the middle, however this isn’t as regular as the left-wing or right-back.
3. The Trio
However, the main source of goals is attacking interplay between the CAM, RAM and ST. As obvious as it sounds, these three need to be excellent footballers. The striker in particular needs to be incredibly well-rounded in order to score a number of goals from interplay with the two attacking midfielders, as well as being strong aerially. Someone like Didier Drogba is perfect.
Well, if you’ve made it through that then you’re a hero. I hope it gave you an idea of the fundamentals of tactic creation on Football Manager, as well as an insight into my own 4-2-3-1.
There’s also second part to come on how you can change the tactic depending on the opposition’s approach. Stay tuned.