A lot is written about tactics and training, especially on this blog, but when it comes down to it, a successful team tends to be greater than the sum of its parts. There is no quick fix to how to get the best out of players, or which player types are best, but there is enduring and sensible football logic in placing fast by slow, big by small and creative by prolific. It is combinations such as these that form the basis of all success. What they do at a basic level is protect your greatest weaknesses by allying them with your greatest strengths.
What I want to talk about here is the pitch. While not the most interesting of subjects, the pitch is one of the biggest parts of a football match (geddit) and deserves far more discussion and thought than I give it usually. It is what the football is played on and the space on it is where games are won: who exploits it, who loses it, who closes it and who opens it. That’s how football is won and that’s why the pitch should be treated as carefully as the players themselves.
Manchester United do not concede goals because Nemanja Vidic is slow or because Paul Scholes is easily bullied in the centre of midfield; they concede goals because they fail to protect these players’ weaknesses. Sir Alex Ferguson, I’m sure, already knows about both of their weaknesses but he has bigger things to think about, and the bonuses at the other end, of having attacking wingers and a creative midfield far outweigh these issues, as shown by this season’s results.
But FM is not real life and I am, unfortunately, not Sir Alex Ferguson. There would be no fun if I tried to emulate Ferguson because I would fail, not to mention the fact that I would lose most of our readers! There is a much wider topic here, and that is the importance of building a team that is so well rounded and so well considered that they don’t actually need too much input from you. I think it should be any manager’s dream to be able to send a team out that can perform brilliantly simply through the way it is set up rather than the instructions given to it.
In any team we can accept some core principles:
- Every player has both strengths and weaknesses
- Every formation has both strengths and weaknesses
- There will always be space left somewhere
I’m hoping you find it hard to deny any of these as they are basic results of the nature of football as a sport. I mentioned earlier that the pitch is a huge part of the game it is this, in a more literal sense, that affects how we should all be considering the way our teams are set up. Players and formations are marked by their ability to close down areas of the pitch and are discredited if they concede space in valuable areas. The best players have the ability to control space through speed or intelligence, and the worst have neither; the best formations concede space where the team is strongest whereas the worst concede it in dangerous areas.
I have just talked about the best formations and the best players but even those have weaknesses. Nemanja Vidic is one of the best defenders in the Premier League when fit but he has been ripped apart by Fernando Torres a couple of times over the years. The obvious issue with Vidic is that he struggles for pace and can be a little erratic when he is caught chasing balls over the top. He has been protected from these wherever possible, mainly through forging a solid partnership with the pacey Rio Ferdinand who has been able to sweep in behind a lot of time, but it is a weakness that manifests itself every now and again. It doesn’t help that the United midfield is fragile at best, and easily bullied at worst.
The above diagram demonstrates a flaw in the Manchester United defence. When Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are put in midfield together, their lack of pace and strength (both of these physical attributes prevent them from being able to assert their authority in midfield, especially when closing down) gives the opposition midfielders a lot of time and space. Space is gold, and they can use this to find a ball in behind Vidic, especially because Scholes and Carrick open up that angle.
When we can identify the weaknesses within our team, which we all can, it is relatively easy to go on to identify how your opponents are most likely, and most effectively, going to exploit it. This will be harder for the top teams as you will have to come against the really good teams – and managers – for them to be obviously exploited but most teams have gaping holes and vulnerabilities that are clear to an aware eye.
I recently started a new game with Manchester United (rather convenient considering the examples I have already used). From back to front:
David de Gea: good shot-stopper but vulnerable when coming to claim aerial balls, though improving in all areas very quickly.
Patrice Evra: a solid full-back but positionally inconsistent and losing the legs to be as attacking as he used to be.
Rafael: improving full-back in both the defensive and attacking phase but easily beaten by a clever winger, as shown by his recent torment by Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu.
Nemanja Vidic: slow but strong.
Rio Ferdinand: a solid all-rounder but beginning to lack in pace.
Nani: brilliant going forward but lazy and does little for the team.
Antonio Valencia: one of the best wingers in the world in the defensive phase, strong going forward but lacking lethality.
Michael Carrick: a good passer but lacks legs and bravery.
Paul Scholes: a genius on the ball but a little suspect without it, not to mention his age.
Wayne Rooney: hard working and brilliant in nearly every department, though perhaps not as agile and fast as Kagawa, for example.
Robin van Persie: one of the best strikers in the game; needs ball to feet rather than to run onto.
As I went through the team I noticed it became harder and harder to pick weaknesses in the squad which despite making for entertaining football, demonstrates the defensive instabilities that the Manchester United squad contains. This links to an interesting point made by Musa Okwonga in his awesome book Will You Manage?: with the onset of the 4-2-3-1 and the increased importance of tactics that has arrived with it, teams tend to be built defence-first, due to the particular caginess of some European leagues and especially continental competitions where it is now almost the norm for away goals to decide games. Ferguson has built something very different here, and the result has been extraordinary at times. (And I say extraordinary in the literal sense – it has been very odd to watch his team this season.)
So we have Vidic and Rio who are slow; one winger who is terrible defensively but good going forward and another who is sort of the opposite; one midfielder who is mobile and another that is clever. There are strengths and weaknesses in every area, sometimes within one player and sometimes within partnerships. That is inevitable and it wouldn’t be a good team if players were the same across the board. There does need to be more co-ordination so that each player serves a clear and useful purpose in relation to those around him.
Establishing the perfect angles
I wrote perfect in the heading there, but as we all know, nothing is perfect in football.
For me, it is all about dealing with the biggest vulnerabilities in your side whilst making the smallest sacrifices; this a process that is always ongoing for the forward-thinking manager as he improves his side with players that have fewer weaknesses than those they replace. Replacing a slow centre back with a younger model that has all the strength and aerial ability but with the pace to boot: that is what it is all about and that is why FM is so glue-like in its hold on us virtual managers. You can keep going forever if you have the time.
With that in mind, this is my starting system:
Okay, okay, I went a little crazy on the annotations but it’s far better to see the system within FM than this11 isn’t it? The arrows show the expected movement of each player, when their preferred moves, attributes and instructions are taken into account, as well as how I would ideally like them to move in my head. I actually made a diagram similar to this in this11 when I was planning out my ideas for the save and it serves a great purpose as it showed me what I really wanted and how it would look in friendlies and the opening games of the season. A reference point that you can look to for guidance and to jog your memory is super motivating, at least for me.
As you can see, Paul Scholes isn’t in midfield next to Michael Carrick, so I sort of cheated but this is a result of what I just said about rebuilding a squad and amending the biggest vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, Scholes was probably the biggest, and he will have to fight it out with Carrick to get a starting spot in midfield. No way is there room for both of them in there!
Nemanja Vidic and Rafael are probably my biggest defensive concerns. Vidic is a bit clunky and vulnerable when faced by a fast striker and Rafael is improving but still like a deer in the headlights when tracking back or when being ran at quickly. As a result, I have made provisions for both of them.
My deepest midfielder is Michael Carrick as he is put in a really defensive and deep-lying role which works towards his mental strengths of intelligence and wily positioning. Let me bring back a diagram I used earlier on:
The biggest threat to Vidic is a diagonal ball from midfielder, as Carrick is too slow to close down and when he was next to Scholes, our midfield became very stretched by pace and drive. With Carrick dropping into that space in front of our defence – and quite importantly, on the right side of the centre because diagonal passes are more of a threat and would have to come from their left - that ball is blocked somewhat because he has the intelligence to intercept anything other than a floated ball over the top. “Well”, you might say, “what about if they drop deep and send one long?” Sandro is a great addition for this, as his role as a ball-winner means that he has full license to chase anything down that he can and put pressure on his opponents. Sandro goes forward and acts as the first protection, while Carrick sits deep and soaks up any passes that manage to get through. If an opponent can float a ball past a Sandro challenge and Carrick’s positioning, he sure as hell deserves a goal. (And Vidic might get to it anyway).
You might also notice the small forward arrow in front of Vidic on my screenshot. That is how I expect the Serbian to step up and out to win headers as he so often does, and confront any body who gets through. It is this style that exacerbates the problem of the space behind him, but seeing as that is an issue that is almost ironed out with the support of his midfielders, I am happy for him to be the unofficial stopper. Note that I haven’t given him a “Stopper” duty: this is because he has such high aggression and bravery that he will naturally be quicker to step up than Rio who is more of a sweeper by nature. There is also a reason for Vidic being positioned behind Sandro which is unrelated to Carrick’s position. If Sandro is closing down the most of any player, he is going to concede an awful lot of space behind him and it would be chaos to have a covering centre back there as there would be acres of space for any intelligent attacking midfielder to drift into. Vidic’s aggression covers for this somewhat.
The young Brazilian at right back is less of a problem to us because he is improving with every game he plays. He still shows the naivety of youth every now and again and it is always handy to be able to take care of young players by taking the pressure off them, so that they get into as few potentially dangerous situations as possible. That is good management.
Luckily the best defensive winger at the club, and perhaps in the league, Antonio Valencia, is a right winger and can offer some terrific protection to Rafael. What I really want to see is them both supporting each other in both phases with one going inside and one going outside. Valencia is tremendous at this and has often been cited as a potential central midfielder because of his strength and discipline. This is why I give the Ecuadorian a “Normal” wideplay instruction which encourages him to tuck in; giving us the ability to shuffle across and cover for the left-winger and allow his right-back to overlap.
I led into this article talking about the irrelevance of tactics in a well-managed team. And it’s true. It’s absolutely true, because when your strongest players are next to your weakest ones, your fastest next to your slowest and your oldest next to your youngest, you can create a truly stunning team. Add to this intuitive planning for the ways that any clever opponent might beat you and you make something special.
Last updated on May 19, 2013