Push Them Wide

FM14 Tactics and Training Blog

I hate numbers. I was always terrible in maths, especially when we got to the formulas and stuff; I wondered where the hell would we be using in the rest of our lives? After the 3rd year in high school, I had zero idea of what our maths teacher was talking about in front of the blackboard. Honestly. Now I’m even dizzy when I have to write down a phone number.

What I do like is simplicity. Luckily, that can also be found even in maths, sspecially in the parts of the “science” that are actually useful, like 3 is more than 2. True, right? Football uses those simple principles as well. I remember a few years ago Marcello Lippi interview, when he explained his tactics with Italy against Czech Republic said that “I knew the Czechs play with a lot of midfield players, so I decided to pack mine as well”. The idea stuck, but in FM I couldn’t really manage to utilize it properly until now. The following descriptions will be from 2 saves, both first seasons with Valencia and Arsenal where numerical superiority in midfield gave my teams unforeseen victories.

To accommodate the many similar midfielders Valencia has this season, I looked at Ancelotti’s Milan tactics of 4-3-2-1, with the pyramid shape from midfield. Now, I really don’t like the formation. The full-backs managed a pretty good season, playing mostly in this shape and doing their job very well. Strangely the problems start at midfield. There were a lot short and futile passes. Of course, we enjoyed good possession rates in the opposition’s half, but the play was not direct enough. Most of the time they just pass the ball around until they lose it.

Anyway it did secure me the 3rd place in the league, and some pretty memorable victories in the regular low-key games. For example I never managed to beat either Real or Barca in my first season with Los Che except this time at the Mestalla. Mourinho brought his expected side and formation; they never had a chance. My solid bank of 3 central midfielders neutralised their attack completely and with the roaming of the 2 AM-s, the advantage multiplied. They didn’t manage to create a single proper chance. Considering the difference in quality and chemistry this could have only been due to the simple mathematics of my numerical advantage.

The formation did well against other tough opponents, too. More and more though during the latter stages of the season, I adapted my tactics to the opposition, especially if they gave me a clear target to disarm in midfield. Against Manchester City, the team was deployed in what I call “the Lyon formation”, 4-1-2-2-1. The idea in this is to envelope the oppositions playmaker in a pocket of my own midfield, thus basically trapping and isolating the creative sparks of the opposition. The 2 wingers are a bit detached from the midfield trio, but they provide penetration, and are free most of the time, acting as satellites of attack, to spray the ball to. City were dispatched relatively without a sweat in the return leg of the round of 16 of the CL. This principle and formation is very effective on many occasions, and in general, the team looks much more stable with a holding midfielder.

Now on to my beloved Arsenal. I struggle a lot with this save but I’m currently in March of the first season.  We are currently 2nd in the league and out of both domestic cup-runs, waiting on a return leg at the Parc du-Prince against PSG.

Against Juventus we got beaten fair and square at the Emirates thanks to the principles previously described. As you can see it in the picture the puzzle fits perfectly. My midfield got trapped in their defensive triangle, and the team never looked like pulling anything from the game. We were both trapped and outnumbered.

Giroud was hopelessly lost in the tumult of defenders and the wingers didn’t manage to cut in, because of the strength in numbers in midfield. Later this tactic shown here was modified after coming across a few good articles about Jürgen Klopp, and his concept of the formation. The key to it of course is the 2 central midfielders, and right now it’s still my default with adjusted roles depending on the opposition, and occasionally switching the AMC to a DMC, to form the pocket.

The real victory for the numbers concept is the first leg 2-0 victory against PSG. Formations without AM-s or DM-s, like this one used by Ancelotti, tend to get rigid and the lines easily bypassed  This formation is direct and quick, admittedly, but it lacks dynamism and it’s very unilateral. At first I thought about copying Barcelona’s recent Champions League strategy by targeting PSG’s weakest player on paper: Jallet. I quickly reconsidered by looking at the two MCs though, who are so vulnerable that they are like lambs waiting to be slaughtered. I couldn’t field the 4-2-3-1 because Nainggolan is injured; neither Ramsey or Arteta are fit or fast enough to chase the game for 90 minutes; Coquelin is too raw to trust him in a 2-man midfield against such opposition. So I set the team out with the pocketed 3-2-3-2, and the results were staggering. The team was in complete control of the match, and PSG didn’t even create a decent chance as they were were overrun for posession, and couldn’t hold onto the ball long enough to play any effective passes. It turned out that with 2 partners next to him, Coquelin bossed the midfield around, scoring after 14 minutes before Theo finished again 20 minutes later. At the break I pushed up Wilshere from the DLP position into an attacking CM to assert our numerical superiority and exploit it to the maximum and also gave the instruction to play narrower, concentrating the game where the French side were most ill-equipped. PSG were effectively extinguished and the young Frenchman Coquelin was man of the match.

What really inspired this post from me was in fact the defeat prior to the PSG game. Millwall, of all the clubs beaten in this post, were the team that eliminated us from the FA Cup. At the first game I set the team out for the first time in a 3-4-3, hoping to dispatch them quickly and conserve stamina. We scored quickly, but failed to add to our lead, and an individual error resulted in them drawing level. In the return leg they used the 3-2-3-2 as well, and it ended again in 1-1. In the penalty shootout they were the luckier team (Arteta is the designated spotkick taker, and believe it or not, he has managed to miss every single penalty so far for the team). On both occasions Millwall fielded a 5-man midfield in a straight line, with a lone striker upfront. We just couldn’t break them down. To do the same against a much more superior team in the same way cannot be a coincidence. But look at what I learned from that failure.

There are exceptions to the rule of course – it is not always numbers in the middle of midfield that make the difference. That’s the beauty of football. For example, there was the last group game of the CL against Benfica, where the team and formation they fielded was more than fit to overcome my starting 11 filled with squad players. The nervy game was settled by 2 goals from Marica, but they drew first blood.


The plan was to overload both of their flanks, as the Iberian country’s clubs are not famous for their rock solid defences and their full-backs lack the discipline and support needed to neutralize quality wingers. The team was instructed to play wide to drag their midfield apart. So a lot of a proper exploitation of a basically good tactics depends on the exact instructions. Details are something I’m also not good at, so sometimes I get it right, others times not so much.

So think in concepts. Most of the times simple logic is enough to neutralize a fearsome opponent. I’ve been using the “Pocket-trick” successfully for years, and the game with the numbers is even more logical and simple.

Last updated on May 2, 2013

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LPB is a long-term reader of Push Them Wide and he has kindly contributed a number of articles to the blog in the past couple of years.

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  • Poma

    What’s the “Pocket-trick”?

    • John D. Hernández Rey

      the way he creates the space for his midfielders to play “around” while the opponent’s ones are “enclosed” there.