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How I Approach FM: Tactical Frameworks & Squad Building

An in-depth Football Manager guide by sporadicsmiles. Know yourself and know your opposition are key to be successful at the game.

By Updated on Apr 01, 2020   51798 views   3 comments
Football Manager Guides - How I Approach FM: Tactical Frameworks & Squad Building
This guide was initially posted on SI forums by sporadicsmiles, spread over numerous forum posts. Published here as one piece with the author's kind permission.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I have recently been reading “The Art of War” since it is something I see quoted in various guises all the time. While I was reading it, some quotes really caught my attention in relation to football, and how I approach Football Manager.

I realised that I had been, subconsciously for the most part, been following some of these rules.

The quote above I think is spectacularly revealing in terms of how to approach the game in a successful manner. It boils down to two things; know yourself, and know your opposition. It sounds so simple. Two things to do to be successful (on average) at the game.

Ultimately, this has inspired me to finally write up my approach to the game.

I will try to frame this as a pretty basic approach to the game. How I have ideas, and how I try to get these ideas into the game. I am by no means an expert in football tactics, nor really at the game. I have played the same way for years now.

The examples I will be drawing from are all from my main save. So everything I will show you is how I play the game myself. I hope that this will therefore prove useful for people who are looking at how to play the game, or to develop their own way to play.

I will discuss not only the tactical side of things, but how I recruit players and manage my squad, manage the squad happiness, and probably other things.

Took me a long time to realise it, but building a tactic is simple and logical. We get presented with so many options in FM that we users like to complicate matters immediately. Or we cannot see the wood for the trees.

90% of setting up a tactic is working out what you want to do and getting the roles right. The rest is fiddling with PIs and TIs to actually make it work as you want on the pitch.

After that the game becomes finding players who fit your style of play. I love well rounded midfielders who can slot into any of my 3 midfield roles, for example. And spotting what you need to change in certain situations (like running a CM(A) into two DMCs is probably not going to work).

With that relatively long preamble behind us (well done if you read all that), lets get started with the first thing you must do. Know yourself.

Knowing yourself. How do I want to play?

The first aspect of knowing yourself is to know how you want to play the game. That is not just tactical, but as a general philosophy of running a club.

Cleon has discussed these ideas previously (and on his blog), as has Rashidi. So note the things I write here are almost never exclusively my own ideas. I have drawn from SI forums, other blogs, youtube, etc. quite extensively.

So, how do I want to play. What are the key aspects of my football philosophy?
Let’s break them down point by point.

1. I want to play attractive positive football, whenever possible. I want to enjoy watching my team play, not just win matches.

2. I want to make sure every single player who plays for me leaves better than when they arrived. Be that youth players who will never play for me, or first team players who go on to bigger clubs. Player development matters.

3. I want my players to be determined and hard working. They must give everything for the club.

4. I want to try to favour youth, and try to avoid spending stupidly high wages on players.

These things give me a few rules by which I can play (more like guidelines, a la the pirate code). I do not have to stick to them religiously. I may sign an older player if he will really make my side better, for instance. This serves as a decent starting point, though, for the following discussion.

We can break these philosophies down into 3 groups, essentially.

The first is tactical. I have decided how I want to play, broadly. I have to work out how I want to implement that. We will spend a lot of time discussing that.

The second is training. I want to make my players better, so I must train them to as close to their potential as I can. We will spend less time talking about this, since it is a personal thing that perhaps others are uninterested in.

The third is squad management; keeping players happy, having players on the correct contracts, and recruitment. I will spend a good deal of time talking about this because it is something that is vital to my long term successes.

I think it is vital to have a good idea what you want to achieve in the game. Especially for tactical style and for recruitment. This can be whatever you want, there is no right or wrong. You could easily just decide to sign mercenary players and have a high turnover of players over time.

There is not really a right or wrong way to aim for (there are right and wrong ways to implement ideas). My conclusion for this first post is to understand what manager you will be, and you will find decision making later on becomes much clearer.

As I have noted, I have played this way for years now. Hence, I have really worked on how this tactic works, and I have adapted it over time. Also note that this is the basic way I will play, thinking about games where I expect to be able to win. There will be various things that I do in real situations during matches. These I will discuss later.

Now I want to show the thought process behind how to put my vision into action.

We will start with the shape.

This is the basis of everything I will do. I do not have any player roles yet, no mentality, no instructions, nothing.

How did I decide on this shape? Well, I typically play as not quite top sides to start with, so I like to have a DMC to give a bit of defensive cover. I also like to push my fullbacks high up the pitch – attractive attacking football in my head means we have lots of attacking options, including fullbacks.

It also may be force of habit. You could easily think of ways to make everything I discuss work in other tactical frameworks.

So, what I need to do next is to work out how I want to score goals. How will I create my attacking attractive football? As I just said, I want lots of attacking options. I want to have many players who could score goals. This should create variety, and variety is attractive in football.

So how will I create my space? I will start with my striker. Where is there space around him? It is behind him. I want him to move into this space. So I will pick a DLF(S), who will move into this space.

So what space is going to be created by the DLF and his movement? Hopefully, he is going to drag the central defenders out of position. The aim is to make one of the CBs follow him deeper. Alternatively, if nobody does that, he will be in a position to receive the ball.

Imagine I have created a bit of space in the centre of the pitch by dragging a CB with my DLF. Who can I put into the gap I have created? Well, there are two options. I can try to put a wide player into a central position, or I can try to get a central midfielder to overlap the striker.

Let’s do both. This gives me two more roles; an IF(A) and a CM(A). I will put them on opposite sides to try to exploit opposite channels (and overload the defence). Note that they could be on either side, here I illustrate how I play when I have right footed wide players.

I now have two methods to score goals. They both rely on the movement of the DLF though. The DLF drops back and gets the ball. A CB either comes with him, or rushes to close him down because he has the ball in a pocket of space in a dangerous area. The DLF can then pass the ball either to the IF or the CM.

These two players can then either shoot or they can support each other further in creating a change. This is another good reason to have both players overlapping. They can support each other after the DLF has done his job, with a scrabbling defence. On paper, this looks very nice.

Okay, we still have many players who do not have roles yet. What shall we do with them?

Let us start with the other midfielder. He needs to be a more holding type of player since we have a movement based player next to him. What do I actually want him to do? One thing is to feed the ball to the DLF. He also needs to be able to take advantage of the space the DLF creates without passing him the ball. Or to recycle the ball if there is no chance. I have just described a playmaker to you.

I usually use a DLP(S), but there is no reason an AP(S) would not work. I typically want him slightly deeper because I am always nervous about too many players being forward. This adds another way to score goals. The DLP can pass to the CM(A) or IF(A) as they run into space created by the DLF. There is also no reason the DLF cannot also make his own forward movement to get on one of these passes.

What other space have we created? Well, the IF(A) is cutting off his wing, so we have space on the left flank. Let’s put someone in that space too. That means we need an attack minding fullback, typically I use a FB(A).

This is creating an overload on the left of my attack. The defence will hopefully have to commit players to their right to deal with this threat. If my striker drifts towards the left too, even better. More overloading, more defenders required.

Why is this good? Well, if I can force the defence to drift to my left, I have created space on my right flank. Space, incidentally, which I want to put my CM(A) into. So what about the right midfielder? You could have another IF to exploit this space, but this is typically not how I play.

If I flood the right of the defence as well, the opposition may not over commit to defending their right flank. So lets keep the width with a winger. On support, because I want him in space to start with (not pressed against the defensive line, he will be less dangerous there.

This creates another way to score goals straight up. Two ways, really. The first would be a cross from the left flank to the right, with the winger (who will drift in for such things), CM(A) or DLF all potentially available for a cross. Equally, a cross from the right wing to the left will find an IF(A), and possible the DLF. Sometimes even the left back gets super adventurous.

Who shall I pair the winger with? Well, actually, this role depends a lot on the situation. A FB(A) can also work here if I want to really overload the defence. This makes it very hard for a defending team to commit enough men to any one area.

I could also use a more defensive role if I want to have additional defensive cover, a FB(D) for example. With the CM(A) bombing forward there is even scope for using an IWB to give me another body in the middle of the park (I do not do this a lot).

There are 4 more roles to assign, only one of which is interesting. What do I want the DMC to do? Well, a little of everything. He needs to be a bit of a destroyer, not letting anyone get easily past him. At the same time, he needs to hold his position to provide defensive cover at all times, because I am set up very aggressive. Finally, I want him to act as a pivot to help recycle the ball from left to right, and vice versa (in combination with the DLP).

So I usually play a simple DM(S) here, and make sure a have (or buy) a player who is capable of doing all these things. It is a very demanding role.

Finally, the CBs are simple CD(S), and the goalkeeper a GK(D). I do not need them to do anything fancy. Just stop goals from being scored.

The conclusions to take are:

1. I have created a tactic based only one what I want to see happen, using common sense.

2. I have created at least 4 common ways I should score a goal. This is only counting what I do with possession, not set plays or counter attacks.

3. You will notice I have no talked about any team instructions, player instructions, mentality, etc. I feel this is secondary to me. I will discuss it in the next post.

So we can finally start to talk about team, player and opposition instructions. They are important to my tactical setup, but when designing a play style I typically add them afterwards to generate the football I want.

There will be situations where you will know some instructions you want in advanced based on your own ideas of how you want to play, so do not take these posts as the only way to do thing. They are just the way I like to think about problems.

Also please note these are “default” settings that I will use when I think I can enforce my own style. I do make changes for specific matches, and I will detail some of that later.

Team instructions

So, how am I going to decide what team instructions I want to use? I can go back the first post, and think about what I want to do. My goal is to play attractive football. This is pretty airy and for good reason.

I have not yet defined what I think of as attractive football. Previously I did mention that I want to create many different types of chances to be as attractive as possible. Let’s dig deeper into what I like.

Which teams do I enjoy watching play currently? As much as it pains me to say as a Mancunian (albeit a Huddersfield fan, please pour pity on me for this season), I really enjoy watching Liverpool play.

Klopp in general. High intensity, relatively direct. I also love watching slick counter attacking goals. None of this tiki taka nonsense for me, give me a move with 4 incisive passes over one with 40.

How does this translate into FM? I can think of 3 things I will select immediately based on what I said: higher tempo and counter-press (elements of Klopp’s style that I like), and counter (I like counter attacks).

There will be some supplementary things to add on here. If I want to play a pressing game, I will set my line of engagement to higher, to put pressure on teams in their own half. I will also use a higher defensive line, to put more players into a position to press more players without getting too far out of position.

Now, I realise this is going to leave me open to balls over the top, and counter attacking. This is a risk I take willingly. I want to play attacking positive football. Sometimes it is going to go wrong, and we may concede. As long as this is not happening all the time, the risk is acceptable.

You will also note that I want to use players close to the area to play the ball to players running past them into the box. For this reason, I select “work ball into box”. I really do not want my striker getting the ball in space, turning and shooting. Ditto any other player.

I want to probe, and I want to give chance for all the things I described previously to happen.

Finally, I typically do not play with strong aerial threats up front. So I am against lobbing the ball high from my ‘keeper. Better to try to build from the back. As such, I will use “play out of defence”, and tell the ‘keeper to distribute to the CBs or FBs. To summarize the entire second and third post thus far.

See how simple that feels? I have selected only things I know that I want. I have tried to avoid making this complicated, and I know exactly why every instruction is there.

Player instructions.

Player instructions are very simple in my case. I rarely use them. I will tell my front 3 to close down more, as well as the CM(A). The latter because he will often find himself high up the pitch when we lose the ball, so he may as well help try to force a long pass.

Why do I not have more? Well, simply because I do not have a reason to select any more. If I add more, it will be situational because I spotted something during a match.

Opposition instructions.

Finally, a word about opposition instructions. I get the feeling these are not very popular. Indeed, I remember reading someone saying that OIs are for people who do not know what their tactic is doing. I am going to make a counter argument for this, based on creating pressing zones.

Currently, in the game, you cannot create zones of the pitch where you press, and others where you do not. I try to mimic this with opposition instructions, targeting specific positions. This means that my team will close down players in specific areas of the field. Which is quite nice.

I do this by selection higher pressing intensity on any player playing in the DMC strata or DC strata (and the ‘keeper). I also instruct my team to tackle these players harder. This is to really put pressure on those players. Press them hard, get a foot in, make a tackle.

Instead of the unfocused pressing you get from TIs, I have created something that should only happen in specific areas. I will also close down wingers, who I really do not want to give the time to cross if I can avoid it. In addition, I show on to their weaker foot.

Those players I do not close down, I set to be tightly marked. Why? The players who are being pressed are going to want to get the ball away quickly. They will try to make the ball go forward. If I take away as many of those passes forward away as possible, we increase the chances of winning the ball back.

That is the point of pressing. Either win the ball back with a tackle, or force the other side to give you the ball back with a bad pass or just aimless clearance to relieve the pressure. I hope I you can see why using OIs can also achieve this, and here are the settings pictorially, to make it clearer.

That deals with the basics of my tactical setup. When you think about what I have actually done, though, it is quite simple. I have just written a lot of words to explain things in a much detail as I can.

I do make tactical changes during matches quite often, and I will deal with this later. Next, however, I am going to talk to you about the players. What players do I want, how do I pick them, etc. This is something just as important as making a tactic.

Stam's avatar
About Stam

I started FM Scout for fun in the distant 2004. I'm proud of how this place has grown into a vibrant community and I try my best to improve it every year. Husband and father of two.

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Discussion: How I Approach FM: Tactical Frameworks & Squad Building

3 comments have been posted so far.

  • Kraiden's avatar
    Miles Jacobson said in an interview that a lot of players do not use OI but that they are actually very important. I find them a bit tedious to do every game personally.
  • nextqprmanager's avatar
    This Article was very interesting & hopefully helpful to me, thank you.
  • hilmz88's avatar
    with you oi you say you want to tackle certain positions hard but in the photo you show it as tackle easy ?
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