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Back to Football Managers Basics - 04 - Tactical Approach

Fourth chapter is about shaping a tactical framework. That means choosing formation, aiming for a certain style of football, defining your club's DNA, and assessing your players' strengths and weaknesses.

By on Jun 27, 2018   28659 views   0 comments
Beginner's Guide - Back to Football Managers Basics - 04 - Tactical Approach

Tactical Thinking - My Club

Well then, West Ham. What to do.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of detailed tactical instructions, I want to consider a framework within which the detail will sit. For this I need to think about the formation with which I want to play and the overall style of football I am looking to achieve.

It can be very very useful to spend a little time thinking about this before launching into the tactic creator. Now OK, in the previous chapter I mentioned different techniques of finding out your players strengths and weaknesses, or even just letting the game take control. So this can already start leading you down the path of your framework and style.

But I already have an idea about how I want to play. Whether I'll actually be able to play that way or not only time (and playing matches) will tell. So I'm going to set things up, for now, based on what I want to do. If I then find that any of my players are unsuitable for what I want, I'll:

a) make short term tweaks to accommodate those players;

b) develop my tactic and squad over a period of time to recruit players that do suit how I want to play; and

c) experiment in the meantime because you never definitively know whether a player will be suitable or not until you actually play a match.

Style of Play

Aggressive. I've had enough of tippy tappy hope you're happy football for the time being. I want a bit of edge and excitement. I'm not saying I want my players charging around like headless chickens getting themselves booked and sent off. Far from it. By "aggressive" I mean win the ball back quickly and use the ball constructively. Don't just stand off waiting for the opportune moment (that may never come) and then donk the ball in a vaguely sideways motion.

Now, whether West Ham are actually capable of that or not remains to be seen. If they are then great (looking at you Dmitri), if not then this becomes my long term development plan - and any recruitment or player development needs to be geared towards that.

So how do I start to define my style of play.

Club DNA

I intend to play in a fairly Aggressive manner. In defence I want my players to be proactive in closing down opposition players to force quick turn over of the ball. In attack I want them actively seeking space in dangerous areas to make themselves available for a pass. Again, I don't yet know for sure whether the West Ham squad are capable of doing this or not, so I need to lay some foundations - my club DNA - something I want most or even all of my players to have.

In terms of Attributes, this is how I'm defining things:
  • They need Aggression to help give them the desire to move proactively around the pitch;
  • Work Rate and Stamina to keep them doing it for 90 minutes;
  • Decisions so they know when to do it;
  • and First Touch to help them control the ball when they get there.

There will of course be the odd exception. Centre Backs and Goalkeepers don't need too much in the way of Aggression and Work Rate in the same way as a Central Midfielder may (for example) as they don't move around too much. But you get the idea.

Individual roles may get some further DNA refinements as well, once I actually set them, to help those players play in the style I want. Somebody is eventually going to need Flair in his DNA for example.


For what I have in mind, I'm going to use two different formations. I don't yet know when exactly I'll use each one I set up, but setting up the two options now will save a lot of faffing around later and allow me to experiment in the relative safety of pre-season.

One formation is an aggressive formation (the 4-2-3-1 wide) by default. Four players stationed high up the pitch lends itself automatically to a high press.

The other formation (4-1-2-3 DM Wide) is less aggressive by nature, and thus should be stronger in defence, but I can still add some aggression to it.

Those are my basic formations, which I'll then (hopefully !) shape into how I want to be playing using the tactical settings. If it turns out my West Ham team are not yet capable of playing in my chosen manner, I can always take out some aggression until I improve my squad.

This is where it's important to be patient - you simply can't force players that are unsuitable for a certain play style to play in that manner, so sometimes you need a long term development plan.

These are my initial thoughts on the two formations and player roles / duties:

4-1-2-3 DM Wide

1) Sweeper Keeper (support) - I intend to play with a relatively high defensive line (more on that later, but fits in with my Aggressive style), so a Sweeper Keeper makes sense. Need to check if my keepers are any good at "Rushing Out" otherwise I may need to tweak this role to a regular Goalkeeper.

2) Right Back: Fullback (support) - In selecting this role and duty, I need to be aware of the roles ahead of him on his flank: a CM(attack) and a Winger(support). With a Winger ahead I don't need a Wingback role, and with a CM(attack) I don't want him running too far ahead and leaving the flank exposed. If I change the role of the Winger to, say, an Inside Forward (see below) I could consider changing this role to a Wingback.

Hopefully you can see how I'm not just focusing on a single role and hoping it will work. Everything needs to work with everything else and be balanced. This is very important.

3) Left Back: Wingback (support) - As above, I'm considering what is happening ahead of this player. A Raumdeuter is going to be sitting narrower, looking for runs inside, thus giving a Wingback more room to operate in. It also has an attack duty, and two attack duties on the same flank isn't always a good idea. I also have an Advanced Playmaker on this side of the midfield, which may not be all that great defensively. I may consider changing the Raumdeuter to an IF, but that won't affect the role selection here.

4) Centre Backs: Central Defender (defend) - Nothing fancy here. I do however want them to be comfortable on the ball without just mindlessly punting it forwards, but at the same time I don't need them to be taking the role of a pseudo-playmaker. The Central Defender role will cover this well, and no need for a stopper or cover duty.

5) Defensive Midfield: Defensive Midfielder (defend) - Kind of similar to my central defenders, just in the DM position. Comfortable on the ball, but no mindless punting. Also prepared to aggressively move to cut off attacks, but not overly so. I just plain don't like the Half Back role; the Anchor Man is a little too passive (no additional closing down by default); while the Ball Winning Midfielder is a little over the top and can run the risk of getting caught out of position too often.

NOTE - How do I know these things? Because I look at the Player Instructions that are set by default. When creating a tactic I wholeheartedly recommend everyone to read the PIs when selecting all roles and duties - it tells you a lot about how that role should play in matches. You can learn so much from this. Look at the differences between AM, DM and BWM:

6) MCL: Advanced Playmaker (support) - Now we're starting to get into the "Pizazz". I'm actually a little undecided here and a Deep Lying Playmaker may work better, however I'm prepared to experiment. Given the players ahead of my AP (a Raumdeuter and an F9), they will be looking to run the channels (read their PIs). So I want a player here who will look to make through balls (aka "More Risky Passes"). An Advanced Playmaker is set up to do that by default, whereas a DLP is not. I'm a little concerned here about defensive duties, but I plan (hope!) to cover that by my player selection - in this case, Mark Noble. Check his attributes (key attributes for an AP highlighted):

The guy has a phenomenal work rate with good aggression and stamina. He can also pass the ball and has complimentary PPMs. Perhaps not your first thought about what an Advanced Playmaker should look like, but I also want to get across the principle of adapting and being creative with player selection. You don't have to follow what the game tells you, think about what you want the player to do. In this case I want Noble to be a "creative terrier" on the pitch, relentless in defence.

7) MCR: Central Midfield (attack) - This is where I see Dmitri Payet playing. This could be a risk and backfire on me, so I have to watch how this plays out. What I want is a player getting in and around the box from midfield to both support attacks and be a goal threat. I'll also give him a PI to play More Risky Passes (aka through balls) as people ahead of him are mobile and messing around in channels. Payet has great attacking attributes and Flair, but he lacks drive and aggression, so goes against my club DNA. Whether I can support that type of player long term or not remains to be seen and (shock) I may end up selling him. We'll see.

8) AML: Raumdeuter - If you want to know what type of player makes a good Raumdeuter, look up Thomas Müller. He is the Raumdeuter. I want this player to be running the channels, using his Off the Ball movement and intelligence to get into pockets of space prior to shooting. I couple this with a False 9 striker who should help open this space for the Raumdeuter who then gets fed the ball by the Advanced Playmaker. That's the theory anyway. Whether I have the player to be able to handle this role or not I'm unsure (Enner Valencia looks ok but lacks some mental attributes) so I may end up changing this role to an Inside Forward until I have someone better. I'll see how it plays out.

9) AMR: Winger (support) - Variety in attack can be important. A Winger staying wide and making crosses gives me a nice alternative to all that channel running and through balls. It also gives me something else - helping to create space for my CM(attack) runner from deep. A Winger staying wide should pull the opposition Fullback wide, which would (hopefully) help to free up space for my CM(attack) to take advantage of. The support duty will help defensively with tracking back.

10) STC: False 9 - I want somebody who is going to be a goal threat; someone to create space for others; someone who isn't shy of dropping deep to help link attack with midfield; someone who can create chances for others. I'm starting with a False 9, but whether the likes of Carroll and Sakho are capable of performing this role remains to be seen. I may end up changing roles here.

4-2-3-1 Wide

NOTE - please ensure you have a quick read through of the 4-1-2-3 DM Wide description above before reading through this 4-2-3-1. Principles are discussed there which may not be repeated below but are still important to understand.

1) Sweeper Keeper (support) - As 4-1-2-3 DM Wide above.

2) Right Back: Wingback (attack) - Balance is a key word, and the aim here is to balance the right flank with this role and duty. MCR has a defend duty (see below) so can provide adequate cover if this Wingback is caught out of position high up the pitch. An Inside Forward is placed higher up the flank, so the Wingback should be able to provide good overlaps.

3) Left Back: Wingback (support) - With an attack duty player positioned high up this flank, giving this Wingback a support duty helps to maintain balance in addition to supporting runs when in possession.

4) Centre Backs: Central Defender (defend) - Nothing fancy here. I do however want them to be comfortable on the ball without just mindlessly punting it forwards, but at the same time I don't need them to be taking the role of a pseudo-playmaker. The Central Defender role will cover this well, and no need for a stopper or cover duty.

Note - with no player positioned in the DM position, it's important to make sure one or both central defenders don't get sucked into this area to close down opponents. That can lead to sudden gaps appearing behind in a very dangerous position. Something to watch out for during matches and make adjustments if needed.

5) MCL and MCR: Deep Lying Playmaker (defend) + Central Midfielder (defend) - I'll mention these two together as quite frankly they are the key, in my opinion, to the success or failure of this formation. Whilst it is perfectly feasible to not have two defend duty players in central midfield for this formation to do well, it becomes harder to balance properly and is just not necessary. With this formation, you don't need a runner from midfield as you already have 4 players stationed high up the pitch to take the lead in final third attacking play. They're already there, so let them get on with it. And don't forget one or both wingbacks will also be helping out.

So both roles given a defend duty, with one role as a creator, the other as a play breaker-upper (technical term). Both should play a full part in protecting the central defence and provide cover for any wingbacks that happen to go walkabout. Club DNA will be super important for these players.

6) AML: Raumdeuter - Again, I want this player to be running the channels, using his Off the Ball movement and intelligence to get into pockets of space prior to shooting. I'll need to watch the interaction with the DLP and AMC (see below) to make sure passing techniques work (ie., through balls). Whether I have the player to be able to handle this role or not I'm unsure (Enner Valencia looks ok but lacks some mental attributes) so I may end up changing this role to an Inside Forward until I have someone better. I'll see how it plays out.

7) AMR: Inside Forward (support) - Variety in attack can be important. Whereas the Raumdeuter is looking to move into space to receive a pass, the IF will be running at defenders with the ball, using his dribbling skills and deft passing to move into dangerous areas. I'll be looking for good interplay between the IF, the AMC and the striker, so something to watch and tweak if needed. The support duty will help defensively with tracking back.

8) AMC: Attacking Midfielder (support) - My first thought here was to use the Advanced Playmaker role, however I want this player to not only provide good close support to the striker, Raumdeuter and IF, but also to provide a goal threat himself. The Advanced Playmaker role, whilst still a goal threat from this position, may be perhaps a little too support oriented, so changing to an attacking midfielder with perhaps a PI to increase risky passes (through balls) seems like a good compromise. I'm expecting big things from Payet in this position.

9) STC: Complete Forward (attack) - I'm a little undecided here, so to begin with I'm hedging my bets and going with the jack of all trades striker. I'm also unsure how my two main strikers (Carroll and Sakho) are going to work out, so tweaking may be the order of the day. Support and Attack duties are both options here and will play an important part in how the two wide attackers work out.

On the one hand having an attack duty striker can help to keep opposition defenders deep and so open up space in front of the defence for my AMC/L/R players to take advantage of. On the other hand, giving him a support duty can suck defenders higher leaving space behind them to exploit. On balance, and as I have a player in the AMC position, I start with the idea of pushing defenders deeper to open space in front of the defence where my players actually are. From that point of view, telling my AMC to increase through balls may be a bad idea, so I need to watch this interaction carefully.

Hopefully you can see my thought processes and understand that everything needs to balance as everything interacts with everything else. Sometimes just the smallest tweak (like taking out the more risky passes PI or changing a role) can make all the difference. Flinging roles without much thought at your formation rarely works out well.

As ever, taking a little time to read through the default Player Instructions and role/duty tooltips can really help improve your understanding of how roles are designed. It's well worth spending a little time doing that now rather than scratching your head later if something doesn't work out. The more you understand up front when creating a tactic will immeasurably help you later when trying to fix something.

That's plenty long enough for now. I'll post detail on the tactical settings I'll be using next.

Tactical Settings


I won't write too much about mentality as there are other detailed guides out there.

Suffice to say, Mentality essentially boils down to risk. In other words, how much risk you are prepared to let your team take on the pitch. Each Mentality change you select is merely a step change along the risk taken.

But what actually is "risk"? In summary:

Dr. Hook:
Defensively, risk relates to how willing players are to make tackles, press the opposition, sit deep and make long clearances from dangerous situations. The lower the risk from the chosen mentality, the more likely players are to stand off the opposition, sitting deep and holding their shape. Defenders will also clear the ball long to relieve pressure. In more risky mentalities, the opposite is true - your defensive line will be set higher, players will close down more aggressively and look to play the ball out from the back.

When in possession, risk dictates how patient your build up play will be, how narrow your team will play and the rate at which they go about their business. Less risky mentalities will encourage your more advanced players to pass the ball at a slower tempo, making shorter passes to each other and playing without any great width. Overall this should result in fewer goal scoring opportunities, but of better quality. More risky mentalities are the opposite - players will move the ball around with greater urgency and length, playing wider to stretch the opposition. The number of shots may be greater, but can generally be of lesser quality.

You can visually see this in action - click on Team Instructions, select a mentality, then select a different mentality. Watch how different Team Instructions change simply by switching mentality. Take a look at how the Defensive and Attacking mentalities compare:

"Passing Directness" can be a little hard to see as defenders and attackers have their individual passing adjusted, but hopefully you get the idea.

Applying this to my Club

So, given that I've stated I want to play with an Aggressive style, and what we now know about mentality and risk, should I pick a Defensive or Counter mentality, or an Attacking or Control mentality? Or something slap bang in the middle (Standard)?

If you said Attacking or Control, take +1 internet.

I'm actually going to start with Control. West Ham are not exactly the best team in the division (yet!) so going the whole hog and selecting Attacking would, I think, be over ambitious at this stage of the clubs' development. Once I start playing matches, I may even find that Control is too much so may possibly have to bring it down a notch to Standard, especially against the big clubs. We'll have to see. For now though, Control will be my starting point for both the tactics I'm developing.

Something else to remember - the two different formations have naturally different levels of aggression simply from the positioning of players. So whilst I say on occasion I may need to tone down the mentality, actually I may only need to change formation. Again, we'll have to see how it plays out, but something to bear in mind.

Team Shape

Team Shape seems to confuse a lot of people, but it's actually relatively straightforward.

What it all boils down to is creativity and space. Or, more precisely, creative freedom and vertical space. In other words:

The more Fluid the selected Team Shape is, more creative freedom is added to each of your players and the more compact your team will be from front to back.

The more Structured the selected Team Shape is, less creative freedom is added to each of your players and the more spread out they will be from front to back.

OK, so what the hell is "creative freedom"?

Dr. Hook said:
Creative Freedom affects how willing and by how much a player will deviate from their assigned task. With more Creative Freedom, a player can rely more on his own mental attributes (eg. decision making) to decide when to attempt something "outside of the box" which would more usually be dictated by your own tactical settings. You may see a player attempt more risky passes; dribble more; off the ball runs. This can lead to a loss of structure in your team but of course can lead to greater rewards.

So, for example, in my 4123DM formation, I have a Defensive Midfielder selected. If I now make my Team Shape "Very Structured" I can expect the gaps between him & the central defenders and him & the central midfielders to increase slightly. I can also expect him to very rarely deviate from the instructions of his assigned role (his PIs give you a starting point for that). The benefit of this is he should go about his business in an orderly fashion, remaining part of a collectively strong unit.

But if I select Very Fluid instead, those gaps are going to reduce a little and he'll start thinking outside of the box - so I'd better make sure the player is actually capable of doing that.

So what am I going to start West Ham with? It's tempting to go with Fluid, to allow my players to get creative, and eventually I may do that. However, I still want to retain some control myself and not let them completely off the leash just yet, so I'm going to start with Flexible for both tactics.
I'll also add this thought - if you have any doubt of what to do, select Flexible.

Team Instructions

Team Instructions are used to refine your style of play. If you've read the section above on Mentality, you'll already know that different mentalities have different Team Instructions set by default. So if you want to play with a high defensive line (for example) and have selected the Attacking mentality, then you already have a very high def line without needing to add in a TI to make it even higher. You can add it on if you really want such a high def line, just be aware of your starting point.

Of course there's nothing to stop you adding in a higher def line to the Defensive mentality if that's how you want to play. It all adds up to creating your own style.

NOTE - different Mentality starting points + the same TI do not end up with the same end result. Lets follow through that def line example: Defensive mentality + higher def line TI does not give you the same height of def line as Attacking mentality + higher def line. It'll actually give you a similar def line position as the default Standard mentality.

This is true for many settings. Think of it in these terms: you have 5 mentalities to choose from (excluding Contain and Overload) and with many TIs you also have 5 different settings. Each single step in TI change results in (roughly) where the default setting for what that TI would be in the next mentality. TI changes will also cap out.

To demonstrate:

Select Defensive mentality and look at Tempo. You can increase the default TI tempo instruction to Higher or Much Higher. In this example, Defensive mentality + Higher Tempo results in roughly the same default tempo setting as the Counter mentality. Likewise, Defensive + Much Higher tempo = roughly the same as the default Standard mentality tempo. But you can't go higher than this. You can't set a similar tempo that the Control or Attacking mentalities set by default from your starting point of the Defensive mentality.

This follows for other TIs as well, so always be conscious of your starting point and the maximum you can achieve from there.

I'll caveat that slightly as there are other settings in the game that can impact the end position of certain settings such as Passing Directness and some Player Instructions, but as a general rule of thumb you can follow this principle.

My Team Instructions

I'm going to maintain some commonality between both tactics to compliment my chosen aggressive style of play. There will also be a subtle difference between them.

Common Team Instructions
1) Shorter Passing - With the Control mentality, team width (when in possession) is pretty wide by default. Tempo is also quite fast and it allows my more attacking players to be quite direct with their passing. Whilst this can lead to that "pizazz" I mentioned earlier, it can also be quite wasteful (that's the risk element). To counteract this risk a little, I'll use this TI which will bring my players a little closer together and slow the tempo down a bit. Nothing too drastic, just a little.

2) Roam from Positions - This should encourage my players to find pockets of space to be available for a pass they may not otherwise be available for. This can help possession and building attacks. The downside is if they roam too much they'll get caught out of position, so I need to be aware of this when watching matches.

3) Dribble Less - I want the players passing and moving, not dribbling the ball. Certain roles that set high dribbling by default (eg., Inside Forward) will continue doing so, but the last thing I want is my DM trying to dribble his way out of trouble.

Unique Team Instructions: 4-1-2-3
Push Higher Up - As we know, the Control mentality sets a pretty high defensive line by default. However, having someone positioned in the DM position will the push the def line a little lower than normal. This TI pushes the def line back up to roughly where it was.

Unique Team Instructions: 4-2-3-1
Close Down Much More - With an aggressive formation I'm happy to increase the amount of default closing down which the Control mentality sets by default (which is quite a lot). This may be a step too far as too much closing down can result in the team losing shape, so I'll need to watch this. Central defenders especially can be prone to mistakes with too much closing down set.

That's essentially it for Tactical Settings. What I'm attempting to demonstrate here is I really just have one way of playing - one system if you like - but two ways of playing it. The two tactics are essentially the same, just subtle variations between the two of them.

Player Instructions

Use Player Instructions to put the icing on the cake. Your final flourish as it were.

I'm not setting many:

Sweeper Keeper - Distribute to Centre Backs; Roll it Out; Slow Pace Down. Keepers can lose silly amounts of possession by simply kicking the ball long all the time, so these TIs are designed to address that issue.

Support Duty Fullbacks and Wingbacks - Cross Less Often. My system is based on pass and move, not ping it into the box and hope someone gets on the end of it. I want my fullbacks and wingbacks supporting possession by offering a wide passing option, then passing it on to somebody else (hopefully) in a more dangerous position. Asking them to cross less should help that.

Central Midfielder (attack) - More Risky Passes. To encourage through balls in keeping with my pizazz and player movement.

Attacking Midfielder (support) - More Risky Passes. Same as above.

Set Pieces

I won't go through the minute detail of everything I set up, but I'll mention some general principles I follow:

  • Have a man on each post when defending corners.
  • Leave someone forward when defending corners and freekicks.
  • Have someone disrupt the wall when taking free kicks.
  • Have two players stay back when taking corners and free kicks.
  • Have a player lurk outside the area.
  • Have someone challenge the keeper, and someone else attacking the near post when taking corners.

Further Reading:
Back to Basics - 03 - Pre-Season
Back to Basics - 05 - Training Explained

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