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Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 2: Centre of Defence

We look at the defensive end of the pitch and compare the roles which are actually worth utilizing in Football Manager, as well as considering whether we use 2 or 3 central defenders. We also pick the best roles for GK and DM.

By on Jun 04, 2017   33815 views   3 comments
Tactical Development Workshop - Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 2: Centre of Defence
Remember out motto.

Napoléon Bonaparte:
Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Welcome to the second lesson of the Tactical Development Workshop.

The famous football rule to start building your team with the defence applies only in real life. In Football Manager we have a lot of freedom in this respect, though I recommend you build your own tactics starting with the strongest formation, on which your success will depend to the greatest extent (see Lesson 1). Remember though, that the rest of your formation will depend on the one that you set up first, as several important relationships have to be taken into the account to create a coherent and solid tactics.


Thick volumes have been already written about the role, the position, and importance of central defenders in FM. Meanwhile the topic is amusingly simple, because out of the three available roles only two deserve our attention (the Defensive Centre Back is a waste of time and position), and the position of the last defender (Sweeper or Libero) in all defensive systems known to me requires so much finesse and skill from the player, that it virtually excludes it from the widespread use and effective application.

Therefore the lesson concerning central defense should be limited to a comparison of Central Defender and Ball Playing Defender functions, and consideration of setting up two or three central defenders. Nothing further from the truth. In the central defence system one should include also the goalkeeper (the zone behind the defenders) and defensively minded midfielders in the position of DM (the zone in front of the defenders).


The matter with the goalkeeper is simple, because the Makers have provided us such a small range of options (goalkeeper or sweeper keeper), and so different behaviours within, that one should conclude this fragment with single statement: only Sweeper Keeper with Defence duty (SK/d) fits into play!

I do not rule out that on your career path you will meet the goalkeeper so deprived of the skills to move on the pitch, think and kick the ball, that it will be safer for you to tie him to the goal line (GK), but I recommend with a clear conscience considering this option only in extreme cases, where evaluating keeper attributes is accompanied by a toothache on the surgical intervention level.

Because, despite what you might think, the sweeper keeper does not need too high values of passing, first touch, anticipation, concentration or composure attributes. I tested this function with great relish on both the minnows of the Norwegian Third Division and the baboons of Brazilian Serie C – successfully each time.

The essential and decisive difference in behaviour between the GK and SK/d comes down to player activity in the penalty box in two situations:

1. long balls behind our defenders’ backs,

2. playing balls from the deep by our team during positional attack.

In both these cases the sweeper keeper with the defence duty will show greater initiative than a classic goalkeeper and will provide support to own defenders. In the former situation he will come ahead to the ball in an attempt to intercept the striker, in the latter he will actively create an additional passing option for the defenders.

Contrary to the assurances of the Makers and players’ complaints, there is no difference at all between initiating quick counterattacks by the goalkeeper or playing the ball to the flanks, I also do not notice any differences in the number of irresponsible behaviours and risky passes in own penalty area. By selecting the sweeper keeper with the defence duty we gain an active 11th player in our half of the pitch.

I do not know what was in Makers’ minds when they created the support and attack duties for the sweeper keeper, but in both cases we receive a madman, whose tendency to roam outside the penalty area is not dependent on either the positioning of the rivals, or our position, or result, or even his eccentricity or decision attributes. As the result we get in this role a completely unpredictable player who will much more often bring misfortune upon our heads rather than tip the scales in our favour. I know of better ways to score goals than with a goalkeeper assist, but I do not know any worse way to concede than that in which the ball rolls into an empty goal.


The simplest answer to this question would be: two, but then I would not be entirely honest with you: I would simplify the issue too much and would be too harsh on the Makers. However, it does not change the fact that the three defender system does not resemble the one that we know from real football. The game failed to model the movement of lateral central defenders to the flanks, or protecting the flanks by midfielders, or even mutual cover.

As a result, in FM we have three classic central defenders, which requires from the player a lot of attention to make it into a tight and coherent formation. It doesn't look too bad when we employ wing-backs (5-3-2, 5-4-1, 3-2-3-1-2, 3-2-2-2-1), who, particularly in strong teams, will not be exposed to too frequent and aggressive penetration of their own flanks by the rivals, but in systems based on the securing of the wings by the second line (3-4-3, 3-5-2, 3-1-2-3-1), protecting the side sectors of the pitch is virtually impossible and FM does not offer us an effective weapon against an aggressive rival playing 4-2-3-1 Wide, or 4-1-2-2-1.

When I see that my rivals field three defenders against me, my joy has no limits, because it does not matter whether I play Lincoln against Chelsea or Marbella against Barcelona: two offensive wingers will become a real nightmare for the rival - just get the ball to them, and when supported by an attacking central midfielder, we have a massacre in the making.

I can only recommend three solutions to the fans of three defender systems:

1. manage a strong team,

2. set the lateral central defenders with support duty while making sure midfielders cover for them (-> wait for Lesson 3)

3. provide help in front of the box by means of a defensive midfielder.

Before we get to the DM zone it would be good to dispel the myth about the centre of defence present in Football Manager from the time when the concept of pairs and combinations by Llama3 first became popular (by the way, a very successful concept otherwise). This is the myth of the collaboration between defenders with stopper and cover duties – particularly harmful when playing three central defenders. This theory states that stoppers who play higher are putting pressure on your opponent, while covering defenders remain at the back, protecting the free zone behind the stopper.

Effectively, the distance between the two defenders depends on the opponent's style of play. When the opposition second line plays the ball from the deep, and they have strikers who can play deep, actively involved in that phase of play, our stopper will be coming out very high (in extreme cases close to the defensive midfielder), while our covering defender will stick to the defensive line designated in the team orders.

As a result, while playing with deep defensive line we will have a stopper pressing aggressively on the opposition line of play and a lonely defender far behind his back. If you ever notice that your rival has set up his defenders’ duties this way, I recommend the use of a simple manoeuvre: set your formation quite wide with the order of exploiting the middle and passing into space, and designate the poacher to play in the attack. The effect will surpass your wildest expectations. In one case before the computer found out what was going on, I scored three goals within a few minutes.

It should be noted that even against very balanced tactics (4-4-2) a pair of defenders with stopper/cover duties doesn’t even resemble those known from the football pitch. In FM they never play close enough to each other in a line, but always set up diagonally, where the distance depends on the width and attack vectors of the opponent (the wider, the worse for us), thus in most cases there is enough space behind the stopper for midfielders to run through.

Additionally, if there is an AF or P in the opponent’s squad, our second defender will be forced to watch him as a hawk, virtually taking himself out of the game. I have not noticed significant relationships between the players’ attributes and their behaviour on the pitch while performing the duties of stopper or cover, not to mention any connection with specific attributes. However, one cannot notice that defenders with higher mental attributes (off the ball, anticipation, teamwork, decisions, concentration) are better suited for those duties.

Setting the stopper/cover duties has even greater flaws when we play with three central defenders. Neither the scheme of the side stoppers with cover in the middle, nor the inverse (covers on the sides and the stopper in the middle) bring satisfactory results. In the former case stoppers most frequently are in the designated positions too early or too late, which results with the opponents’ action targeting the lone defender (because wingers are marked), or through the flanks with an early cross to the middle (our stoppers are too far, so there is an option to pass to the wing).

It looks even worse when lateral central defenders have cover duties. The offensive wingers come up out very high near the touchline level with our penalty box and either try a dribble, or cross the ball. Both cases result in a fairly large number of dangerous situations in the proximity of our penalty area. The only advantage of this solution is the practical exclusion of the midfielders in our DM area from the game.

So when to use these two duties together? As a rule, only if the rivals are strong favourites and are very strong in central midfield, but with weaker wings and not too agile strikers. Then we will effectively push their play to the flanks and crosses will be our only concern.

I also direct your particular attention to the role of the ball playing defender (BPD), because, despite what it might seem, this is not a position requiring particular technical skills and even an average defender performs perfectly in this role. Moreover, while playing a pair of BPDs you need not worry about them abandoning their position, or losing the ball. They play very cautiously and conservatively providing passes from the deep and take part in offensive play. With defensive duties differences between CD and BPD are virtually unnoticeable (CD plays better against attacking midfielders and better covers full backs), while on the attack the difference speaks strongly in favour of the BPD. I wonder sometimes why people so rarely use two BPDs playing next to each other, because the effects of such a setting in FM are excellent.


On any Football Manager site, in any guide or manual, you won’t find any in-depth discussion about securing the DM area. There are several interesting threads on the SI forum, but that's basically it. This comes from the fact that in the FM engine the defensive midfielder is already part of the offensive play, and his defensive position on the pitch at most defines his location while performing this duty.

This is a mistake. As far as the movement of the defensive midfielder on the FM pitch when we are on the ball is clearly related to the position of the second line and its defined playing style, while playing without the ball the defensive midfielder moves in a coordinated manner with the location of the individual defenders. Therefore it should be noted with great regret that only three roles of defensive midfielders (out of seven) are effective defensive tools. Others give a lot of benefits to the team while attacking, but are virtually useless while defending.

In light of the above, the greatest disappointment is the role of the classic defensive midfielder (DM). He is set very deep, but in defence he is stuck in the central zone of the pitch, rarely responding to events in other sectors. Meanwhile forcing him to aggressively attack the ball, or to mark midfielders is virtually impossible. In defence he is a mere observer of events, and the area of his activity without the ball is surprisingly small in relation to the area of action on the ball. He wakes up only on the ball. In comparison to the universal and comprehensive individuals encountered on football pitches of the world, in FM we have instead a boring one-dimensional character whose main business is hauling ass and playing ball. However, the DM role works marvelously in systems relying on keeping the ball. If you build up a tactics, in which possession of the ball must not drop below 70%, a defensive midfielder is a must.

The ball winning midfielder (BWM) brings similar disappointment, but his behaviour is almost impossible to understand, because his counterparts playing exactly the same role but in the second line behave totally differently. I don't know if it slipped Makers attention, or it is an intentional move, but the BWM in the defensive midfielder slot behaves like a wounded bull: he fights everywhere and with everyone, trying to tackle the ball away from wingers, midfielders, strikers, even defenders. He gets in positions of other players, leaves the DM zone without a warning and without a clue. There's no way to predict or plan his behaviour. It’s getting slightly better when with support duty we order him to keep his position, however this does not change his behaviour: it's still a wounded bull, except that now he's in a cage. The target area of his fury will be limited to the midfield and the DM area, but he still won’t be where you need him at least in a few annoying moments of each match.

The roaming playmaker (RPM) and the deep lying playmaker (DLP) do not require a comment, and we will get to them during the lesson about playmaking.

In practice, in Football Manager there are three roles for defensive midfielders that are excellent defenders, creating one unit with the defensive line, which are predictable and possible to plan and set up:


Strangely enough, one of them is the regista (RGA), which I consider an accident, because the role intended to be a reflection of Andrea Pirlo’s work on the pitch, is ideal for active and effective sweeping of the DM area. Without the ball the RGA has all the features of the BWM except that he perfectly secures all the DM zone while remaining in proximity of two central defenders.

Cooperation between those three is the key to aggressive pressing in front of our penalty box. If the RGA also gets support in his defensive duties from one of the central midfielders, we will have the middle of the pitch practically sealed. Only a remarkably skilled and quickly playing midfield will be able to get through it, and still only in a few cases out of dozens of attempts.

This role gets my recommendation especially as the RGA has more to offer in the offensive play than any other midfielder in FM. And the stories about the outlandish attribute requirements for this position are just fairy tales – any average skilled player will do, provided he is equally skilled in offensive and defensive duties.


The anchorman (A) is the opposite of the role of the DM – he loses interest in the ball the very moment he receives it, so it is both a one-dimensional and wearisome character, though outstanding in securing the DM zone. He does not ever move away from the pair of central defenders and offers something more: a defensive triangle! He always (and I mean it: ALWAYS) sets up on the pitch above the central defenders to form the top vertex of the defensive triangle.

This way we gain a fairly impregnable trio moving in the central area of our defence, which does not leave much space for the rivals to move the ball freely by keeping it tight between one another. As a result, opponents either go back to patient passing of the ball around the perimeter and from the deep, or choose to pass it quickly to the wings. It's not hard to guess that the anchorman if perfect for matches against narrowly playing rivals, keeping the ball and trying to dominate the middle of the field.

The anchorman is also ideal in counterattacking tactics, because immediately after receiving the ball he either quickly gives it to the playmaker, or opts for a long pass. He holds the ball as rarely as he passes it behind.

Unfortunately, he is virtually useless against wide and offensively playing opponents. Then he is a waste of time. Just check out his activity in such matches and you'll see that he is always where he should be, but his stats are significantly lower.


I mention the half back (HB) only briefly and merely for the reason that he can be useful in a very specific situation. After losing the ball, the HB plays rather high, positioning himself like the anchorman, and so he creates a defensive triangle with the pair of central defenders. This, however, as the rival enters our half and approaches the final third, flattens out until the moment the opponent manages to get near our penalty box. Then the HB is barely a step, maybe two steps in front of our defenders, who leave him space by moving towards the full backs. Thus we suddenly play with a line of five defenders. It is a very useful thing when playing against "Barcelona", which is forced by the coach to exchange a minimum of 25 passes before the ball crosses the halfway line.


1. A sweeper keeper with defence duty.
2. A ball playing defender with defence duty (preferably two).
3. A central defender with defence duty (classical).
4. A regista, an anchorman or a half back.

Feel free to forget about the rest.


The lesson is finished.

In the next one we will look at the lateral sectors of our defence and we will consider connecting roles and duties in a coherent defensive system.

Meanwhile let’s have a look at the Black Cats after an impressive start of the season.


The Fourth Round of the League Cup match against Chelsea (4-1-2-3 DM Wide, then 3-5-2) was a game of mistakes from both sides. That does not change the fact that once again, I could be happy with our attitude. Advantage in the middle of the pitch, well covered defensive zones and a lot of chances created. The apparent lack of quality in our team and a great day for Hazard (here's why it’s worth to have star players in the squad) decided the game.

A trip to Southampton (4-1-2-3 DM Wide) was difficult, because the centre of the Saints midfield is strong technically and difficult to dominate, and both their wingers rely on their pace, which caused us a lot of difficulties. I accept the result with humility, although I admit that having a bit stronger squad in the future will make it enormously difficult for Southampton to repeat this result.

West Ham (4-2-3-1 Wide) couldn't possibly lose against us for the same reasons as above. The high setting of the midfield line together with our narrow and deep defence makes it difficult for us to get through the centre of the field, while the opponents do not have problems with the game in our DM zone which is always dangerous. Today the goals were scored from free kicks, but the lesson is that while playing against 4-2-3-1 Wide we should change our system.

It happens so that that now we have ahead of us two matches against the teams that use the dangerous 4-2-3-1 Wide tactics (Leicester, Arsenal), to which we are quite vulnerable. Drawing conclusions from our lesson and from the clash with West Ham for the match against Leicester (4-2-3-1 Wide) we came out playing wider, higher and faster (4-3-3 wide).

We did not have to wait long for the effects, though of course, our formation created more risk in defence while increasing opportunities in attack. Never mind goal effects, please note how our team statistics changed in relation to the game with the Hammers. Foxes attack predominantly through the middle, so our higher defensive line causes them more problems in getting into our penalty area, while we attack mainly down the flanks, taking off the pressure from the midfielders and stretching the opponent’s defence.

In the away match against Arsenal loaded with stars (4-2-3-1 Wide) I didn't expect miracles, but I was interested mainly in the statistics that should confirm the previous conclusions. Starting therefore from our more defensive formation, we used the same manoeuvre of moving the game balance to the flanks, compacting the front line and overclocking the pace of our actions (4-3-3 via). As in the case of the clash with the Foxes, now I also suggest you do not look at the result, but at the statistics. We won this match tactically, and a goal scored by the hosts on the counter (yup!) is the best proof of that.

For the match against Everton (5-4-1 Diamond WB) we went back to our usual formation (4-3-3 tim), because playing this way against our system I saw no way for the hosts to carry the game. The pitch very quickly confirmed my expectations and if not for the merciful nature of our offensive players Everton would have been severely punished.

I draw your attention to the fact that in the second half the hosts changed the formation to the 4-2-3-1 Wide (although this was just slightly noticeable and could escape a more careless observer). The Toffees gave the signal to attack to their full backs (probably CWB/a) and moved their line of defence to the front which resulted in their second line also moving higher, which roughly speaking changed their formation to a very offensive and dangerous 4-3-3 system, so we immediately switched to 4-3-3 via as an antidote, for the reasons which have already been mentioned.

Watford (5-3-2 WB) seemed to play defensively very similar to Everton (5-4-1 Diamond WB), and their two attackers really get our panties in a twist, but I knew that this time I have to deal with Mazzari, who likes to take risks, so he would be willing to move his formation forward. One click of a mouse in our 4-3-3 tim (less pressing) can draw the guests into their own trap. At the end of the match desperate Mazzarri did not have any other choice but to switch to 4-3-3, but this time it didn't work out.

Tottenham (4-2-3-1 Wide) was not outside our reach, but our wingers refused to work offensively, and our central defenders defensively. They played without conviction and despite the best intentions of the manager and good stats, we had to recognize the superiority of our rivals.

At first glance neither the position (14) nor the game system (5-4-1) used by Crystal Palace should worry us. And yet as you can see in the picture below both teams negate each other in the middle of the pitch. Here is the reason why our 4-3-3 tim had no chance to get through a weaker opponent in front of the home crowd. This example shows why the tactics that is effective in many cases can still fail. One system is not a solution to two different problems. In the future, against such rivals, we must choose a wider play and bolder engagement on the flanks.

If in the above match Peter Sebastian decided to stop Petroff’s hand from making changes, to show our students how a bad tactical choice can make things awkward even against a weak rival, then against Liverpool (4-2-3-1 Wide) he changed his mind, this time to prove that perfect solutions bring great results even in a confrontation with a clearly stronger team.

The Reds play with a formation against which we have already found a remedy (4-3-3 via), but they differ from previous rivals in two things: they play quick and wide, which with highly technically trained players means that our pressure in the middle of the pitch has little chance of success. At Anfield they also have an extremely strong and compact defence centre, where it will be hard for Defoe to find room to strike.

The first problem was solved by slightly decreasing pressing (-> sometimes), which moved away our players from their rivals and thus improved our zonal defence. The second problem was got rid of by moving the weight of our play from exchanging passes on the ground to passing to the flanks, but this requires the abandonment of greater discipline, because we would unnecessarily deny our wingers freedom in individual actions. The rest will be solved by direct passing. And never mind the result of the match – look at the statistics.

Learning our lesson after the Crystal Palace game we should approach the clash with Stoke (4-4-1-1) almost exactly as we have done it at Anfield. This time, however, we modify our 4-3-3 wid, because rival is clearly inferior, so we can play bolder. However, again we utilised mainly the flanks, with less pressing. If Liverpool conceded three goals in such circumstances, how many can a twice weaker team concede? That many:


Central defence is one of the fundamental areas in football. An effective game in own penalty box and just in front of it makes the functioning of the whole team easier. Though there are many equally good ways to play football, and Football Manager leaves us a great freedom in this respect.

An effective defensive play on the virtual pitch can be a smooth road to success, especially when our team is not a league giant and could have a lot of problems with dominating most opponents. Even a relatively weak team can hope to concede fewer goals, which doesn't necessarily mean the use of a defensive mentality.

Apart from obvious aspects such as skills (attributes) and team cohesion, position and movement of individual players without the ball influence the quality of the defensive play. To a large extent we can shape them by selecting the formation, roles, functions, and individual instructions.

There is one more way for an effective defence. It is the possession of the ball according to the principle that as long as the team is on the ball, it cannot concede. However, this approach, although slightly easier to apply in Football Manager than in real life, is connected to a greater extent with other elements of the game, especially with the build-up stage, and we will still have the opportunity to discuss it.

The issue of defensive game is so broad, that it must be broken down into more than one lesson. Today, therefore, given that I have touched upon only a small part of it, the analysis is limited. Therefore, in addition to the behaviour of the centre of the defence on the example of Sunderland, in the later part our new tactics will be shown.

However, before we get to that, I will devote a little time to set pieces, which many times decide the fate of the match. More than one manager has already gone bald seeing his carefully devised tactical plan fall apart with a goal from a corner. Today in keeping with the topic of the lesson, defensive set pieces will be discussed. I will come back to the offensive ones in the future.

I won’t propose here any solutions that you could copy for your teams and once and for all forget about the problem. There is no setting that protects you from conceding a goal with 100% efficiency, or would protect us from a penalty caused by one of our players fighting for the position. Hence, among other things, it surprises me that among the Steam achievements are, among other things, such as keeping a clean sheet for 20 or even 30 games in a row. Achieving them seems actually impossible.

Also, within offensive set pieces, in contrast to some earlier versions of the game, there is no setting that would lead to a ridiculously high number of goals. In view of the above, I will turn my attention only to some regularities and general rules that you may use at your discretion.

Although Makers some time ago (probably before the 2016 version ) praised the new set piece creator, it still lacks the ability to create schemes and shape footballers’ behaviour.

Especially in the case of indirect free kicks a worryingly small number of options is offered. In this case, our only options in defence are:

1. Go back – player will mark zonally in the penalty box;

2. Stay forward – player will stay around the centre of the pitch, hoping for a counter-attack and drawing the attention of at least two rivals;

3. Man mark – player will mark individually;

4. Form wall – player will stand in the wall;

5. Stand on near post – player will mark the near post of the goal;

6. Stand on far post – player will mark the far post of the goal.

Apart from these general instructions we do not have the possibility to decide where exactly we want to position our players. First of all I suggest to focus on the defensive end and do not order players to stay forward. Rarely will we be able to carry out an effective counterattack after a long pass, and regardless of the team we manage our main advantage in defensive set pieces is numerical superiority. Not always do we have physically (strength, jumping) and technically (heading) good players at our disposal, but always there are more players defending than attacking and the greater this advantage is, the better.

The player staying forward and focusing the attention on himself won’t typically help us a lot, because the common sense orders the opponent to leave at least two players for cover, and even if a lone striker receives the ball, he will have problems to do something useful. For such situations to be fruitful, there should be more players lined up further up the field. Relying on counterattacks after opponent’s free kicks almost certainly will cost us more goals in the long run than it produces for us.

Man marking should be limited mostly to players who have good marking attribute. Most frequently those will be defenders and also defensively minded midfielders. A player with the marking attribute below 12 will perform better in zonal marking (the Go Back instruction). Concentration also has a big impact on the effectiveness of this element.

Setting players at the posts is fully optional. While during corners it is worth to position players this way, during free kicks the similar decision has both clear advantages and disadvantages, because after free kicks the play is more often stopped due to offside. Considering also the players assigned to the wall, during the free kicks I prefer personally not to set players at the posts, and instead direct them to fight with rivals in the penalty box .

Some more possibilities are offered to us during defensive (and attacking) corners. Above all, they let us at least place some of the players exactly where we want to, and that's a significant improvement. Our options are as follows:

1. Go back – player will mark zonally in the penalty box;

2. Edge of area – player will stand approximately 16 meters from the goal;

3. Stay forward – player will take up a much higher position, in the centre of the pitch hoping for a counterattack and will absorb several rivals;

4. Man mark – player will be man marking;

5. Mark near post – player will stand at the near post of the goal;

6. Mark far post – player will stand at the far post of the goal;

7. Mark tall player – player will individually mark a tall rival, which is a default setting for the central defenders;

8. Mark small player - analogically as in the previous option, player will individually mark a smaller rival, in most cases with a lower jumping attribute;

9. Close down corner – player will stay close to the corner, making a short pass problematic;

10. Zonal mark in the penalty area (there are five options here which precisely define the player’s position: near post, near centre, centre, far centre, far post) – the player will mark zonally, close to the goal.

The first rule is the same as for the free kicks. Defensive corners are there to defend against conceding a goal, and not to look for opportunities to counterattack. It does not make sense to set the players in advanced positions up front. However, you might want to set someone in the vicinity of the edge of the penalty box, as this will facilitate collection of at least some balls kicked out of the penalty box. Anyway those are interceptions that are critical for increasing the effectiveness of the offensive corners, but I'll write about it some other time.

For individual marking it is good to designate only those players who are strong in this element. There are fans of man marking during set pieces, but it really does not make much sense for, let’s say, a striker or a winger with marking at a level much below 10 to mark anyone this way. Those players will perform much better when marking zonally and it’s worth using them this way.

Another rule is, as I mentioned earlier, to place players at the posts during corners, although you can try other solutions. Full backs are positioned there by default and they may stay that way. The exception is when you want to use them for man marking. Then you can set other players near the posts. Footballers at the posts are the last instance and although sometimes it may seem that they are not useful, you will appreciate each of their successful intervention rescuing team from the goal loss.

As a rule, there is no use to direct any player to close down corners. This obviously means one player fewer in the penalty box without any benefit (opponents do not play corners this way) and practically taken out of play, thus reducing our numerical advantage. However, revealing a bit of mystery, our virtual opponents are obsessed with the use of this instruction when encouraged, so they are worth encouraging.

The foundation of good play during defensive corners is zonal marking in the penalty box. This command with five variants leaves us a lot of possibilities in terms of setting players in specific places near the goal. Watching the corners performed by players in Football Manager one may notice that the ball relatively rarely reaches the far post (many aspects affect this, including the activity of the goalkeeper), but very often it is directed at the near post (counting the majority of unsuccessful crosses). A player marking zonally in the penalty box at the near post clears a huge number of such balls and is more or less an obligatory choice.

Players lined up that way not only clear crosses, make it difficult for opponents to get near the goal, restrict the freedom of the attacking team's players near the goalkeeper and block some shots. When you look at the way corners are defended by the best opposing teams in this respect, you will notice that they usually have four (rarely five) players zonally marking in the penalty box and I recommend a similar solution, with the most important players on the extreme positions (near and far post) and near/far centre. That’s why default settings of set pieces offered by the game are poor and it’s worth changing them.

It’s best to set the other players to go back or allocate them rivals for man marking depending on the player's predisposition and your preferences. This does not mean that you cannot effectively defend in a different way, for example with three players in the penalty box. It is worth experimenting, as ultimately the most important factors are numerical superiority and greater freedom in directing the ball after a rebound than the attacking team has. The way the opponent sets corners can also have an impact on the efficiency of our solutions, because the possibility of setting variants in the offensive is much greater, but I have not yet met anyone who tried to adjust that way to the opponent. Above all, remember under no circumstances to intentionally restrict your own numerical superiority, because goals are too often conceded after crosses from the corners or free kicks can be very frustrating.

Another important aspect present in the full version of the game (not in FM Touch) is match preparation, in which we can focus on practicing offensive or defensive set pieces. Devoting much attention to this aspect can bring many benefits to the team and scoring even a dozen league goals a season from corners alone is possible.

I would like at this point to touch the issue of sweeper keeper with defence duty, which actually seems to be the best choice offered by the game.

In the past there have been some problems with it. Still in the 2014 version the goalkeeper set up that way would make strange decisions going for the ball played from the deep but stopping the moment he would reach the edge of the area, which only made the striker’s task easier because, in effect, he had an empty goal in front of him.

Fortunately this has been fixed and today the only situation in which a sweeper keeper with defence duty may cause problems is when he goes for the ball around the edge of the penalty box and kicks it immediately instead of catching it. Because of the game algorithms even from this position he happens to kick the ball into the middle of the DM zone, where if the opponent intercepts it, he will have an empty goal ahead. A good decisions attribute of our goalkeeper won’t help us eliminate the risk of making such a mistake.

However, those are very rare situations and if you lose as an average of one goal per season in such a way, one may conclude that you have bad luck. The benefits of using this role and duty surpass the risk.

Coming back to Sunderland, this is how our new tactics looks like:

The formation, roles, duties, the mentality, and the style of the game are exactly the same as in the other two tactics. Only instructions are different, significantly modifying the behaviour of the team on the ball and without it.

In the away match against Hull (4-2-3-1, offensively) I relied on our 4-3-3 wid tactics. Rival played wide and left the wings unprotected, turning them into highways for our full backs and after a cross from Manquillo Defoe scored already in the second minute. In another action you can see what effect our wider setting than in the tactics discussed last time has. Not only full backs, but also wingers are set much wider. A stretched out defence moves in the direction of the ball. As a result, on the other side of the pitch we already have numerical superiority, and we are not without a chance to fight for position in the centre, either.

These are the main differences in our offensive game. Many patterns remain the same, but due to a different setting of the opponent we try more often longer, direct passes and instead of exchanging a lot of passes in front of the area, we spread the game more often to the flanks. There is not much to show on the defense, because in the first half the rival did not carry out a single attack (zero shots). During the break, Hull made a significant change by going to 4-2-4 and almost immediately reduced the distance to one goal, but we have gained an overwhelming advantage in the middle of the field and the fact that the Hull drew the game in almost the last action of the match after a million crosses does not change the fact that we were a lot better and we should have won.

Next day we received a non-negotiable offer from Liverpool for Khazri:

The offer was very unsatisfactory and did not reflect in any way the value of the player. Because of this it was rejected.

The next day we received an offer of a new contract from Sunderland, but we're just at the halfway point in the season. We have time, and the board would do better not bothering us before the match at Old Trafford, where we went back to the 4-3-3 tim.

I signed Kirchhoff to a new contract, because it was to expire after the season, and he is our key player and would certainly draw vultures from all around the league.

Manchester United played through the middle with inside forwards but they had a lot of problems with our 4-3-3 tim. For a long time we reduced them to shooting from distance, yet we had our own problems with creating scoring chances. If not for the loss of the ball near opponent’s penalty box and a deadly counterattack, we would have probably saved a draw in this game. But this time, skills and cards shifted the balance in favour of the hosts. On top of that we received a disciplinary punishment from the FA.

Our game in the middle of the defensive block (and not only) was discussed quite extensively in the previous lesson, so now this topic will not be particularly extended in the graphic analysis. I will only use pictures from the match at Old Trafford, because the Mourinho style of play, despite the adverse result, is perfect for this, and we did a lot to keep a clean sheet.

This is a typical action played through the middle. Our RGA creates a triangle with central defenders, and two BWMs with their teeth bared attack opponent’s central midfielders. This ends with a foul and that's how the whole match looked like. Plenty of hard play and fouls from both sides, especially in the central zone.

Another situation:

The RGA again brilliantly greatly the zone in front of the central defenders and does not move from it too hastily. Two BWMs apply strong pressure and force United to move the action to another area of the pitch (finally they had to pass the ball back).

This carries a risk mainly during the attacks from the wings, as seen here:

Our BWMs are out of position, focusing too much on midfielders, which gives too much freedom to Martial cutting to the centre. That itself would not be a big problem, but he pulled our RGA with him, so that in effect he is too far from the centre of the defence. Ander Herrera, who receives a pass a moment later, has a lot of freedom in the empty DM zone and only by sheer luck we do not concede after several consecutive first touch passes.

Finally we concede after this move:

One can immediately see that it will be difficult to defend here. An earlier pass from the center was blocked and went straight to the feet of Martial. A bit unfortunate, but this risk I already wrote about in the previous lesson. Our tactics, without exception, may lead to such situations.

In the FA Cup against Hull we struggled a little, because rival played a much more cautious 4-2-3-1 than before on the wings, and besides we fielded many substitutes. 4-3-3 ovl tactics gave us the lead, although not much was happening on the pitch. In 4-3-3 via we had a few more chances, but all in all still nothing special was happening on the pitch. A typical boring 0:0 or 1:0 game.

Another club that made a non-negotiable offer for Khazri was Villarreal. The Spanish offer was as bad as the one from Liverpool. I do not know what they hoped to achieve by submitting an offer below the player’s value. Maybe they expected that Khazri would complain and try to force a transfer, but fortunately no such thing happened.

Against West Brom we played 4-3-3 via, which is quite defensive, but engages the wings to a greater extent than ovl and at the same time, in contrast to 4-3-3 wid, leaves strong pressing in the middle, which we needed in this match. WBA played 4-2-3-1 wide, but carefully, narrow and with short passing. Initially I regretted that, contrary to the text above, I did not tweak the default set piece settings, though the goal was conceded after a blocked cross was returned into the area, but later things got better. The rivals defended well, but we created enough chances, and even an accidental own goal couldn’t deprive us of victory.

Before the match against Bournemouth, Villarreal returned with their laughable offer for Khazri, while Wolverhampton wanted to loan Mcnair for free. This was not the way to convince me to make a deal.

Ndong, Kone, Khazri and Djilobodji left the club for international games, and several other players had minor injuries, so we could not afford losing anybody that easily. Against Bournemouth and their 4-4-2 we played our tried and tested 4-3-3 tim.

We lost a goal at the beginning of the match (again, the player with the ball cutting inside from the wing was the key), but with time we began to dominate slightly and we equalised from a corner, the settings for which I changed during the match, because we rarely threatened the opponent, at the same time opening ourselves to counterattacks way too much. After the halftime we were already a bit better and Defoe was able to give us a lead, but the match ended in a draw after the rival switched to a very offensive 4-4-1-1 and created enough space on the flank.

The current table:

We are no longer top of the table, but still close enough and one has to remember this is a team that was supposed to fight to avoid relegation, so losing points is nothing unexpected and will happen again. At the same time we have a deadline in January to strengthen the squad with one player.


4-3-3 via
4-3-3 wid


Save dated 21.01.2017 (45 MB)

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Discussion: Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 2: Centre of Defence

3 comments have been posted so far.

  • hich9797's avatar
    I love the lesson but i have a remark.
    The makers made no mistakes.
    Some things are supposed to have less chance to succeed.
    example the 3 men defense... that's why it's less used now compared to the 90's and 80's
    very few goal keepers world wide can play Sweeper keepers , that's why Pep is struggling to find his new main GK.

    I think the makers took the frequency of usage of strats and roles into consideration... same for liberos, sweepers, 5 men defense...

    You have the best chances to win with 4-5-1 or 433 than any other formation..
  • Piotr Sebastian's avatar
    @Maradonna Sooner than later.
  • Maradonna's avatar
    Looking forward to the next chapter
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