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Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 1: Choosing Formation

Forget everything you have learned about tactics in Football Manager so far. Cross the doorstep of the Tactical Development Workshop as a beginner. A new game and a new perspective.

By on May 22, 2017   61705 views   5 comments
Tactical Development Workshop - Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 1: Choosing Formation
Welcome to the first lesson of the Tactical Development Workshop.


As I said earlier, I would like you to forget everything you have learned about tactics in Football Manager so far. We will gradually restore this knowledge, but in the meantime it is very important to change Your habits, refrain from automatic decisions, and re-align your thinking about tactics.

For many years Makers of the game have explained the principle of operation of the individual elements of the Football Manager engine, what they had drawn upon when creating it, what changes have been made and why. A variety of mechanisms of action, a number of rules and enforced laws have been unveiled to us. On the other hand, players closer to the Makers have posted on countless forums and web pages hints and tips of how to play. They have often exploited the Makers’ courtesy, who supported and promoted certain projects, sometimes they actively participated in them, and they even embraced a few with a kind of patronage. Some of these initiatives even assumed the form of instructions or guides, and the widespread community applause earned them the rank of the Prescribed Readings.

I propose to forget it all, erase your own tactical ego and cross the doorstep of the Tactical Development Workshop as a beginner. A new game and a new perspective.

While designing the match engine, Football Manager Makers tried to reflect players’ behaviours and play schemes known from the football pitch. Wherever they failed, they left mistakes behind.

The difficulty of modeling the reality of a game of football is that a computer program always carries out only the commands it has been given, and executes them exactly as they have been formulated. On the pitch things are much more complicated, because people are creative (therefore their set of commands is infinite and still growing) and make mistakes (so they execute some of the commands wrong, not in accordance with given instructions).

SI resolved the first problem by creating so huge a database, that the mind of the player is not able to catalogue, organize, or find regularities in it. Guided by tutorials, instructions or hints we rely on what we are told, believing that the mastery of at least some of the rules given to us will yield good results in the game. Meanwhile, programmers dealt with the second problem exactly the same way: they created a large enough catalogue of mistakes. All the losses and misses are the result of pre-programmed commands. Their frequency and circumstances depend of course on multiple factors, mostly known to us (attributes, physical condition, weather, motivation, pitch status etc.).

It turns out that your tactics is a tool that can significantly affect the number and frequency of players’ errors, but also allows you to more or less precisely predict the circumstances of their occurrence. Time will come for details, but two examples should show you how surprising some regularities are.

First example: When a defender receives the “tighter marking” instruction, the number of mistakes made by him in this element of the game increases with defence line moved ahead.
Conclusion: if you want to mark tightly your rivals, pull back your defence line.

Second example: Effectiveness of the tackles is related to the ... playing width. The wider we play the fewer the tackles and this does not change even if we have our team playing aggressively, or individual players tackling harder. These result in the increased number of fouls, but the number of effective tackles does not change.
Conclusion: when you give the initiative to the rival and play defensively, play narrow.

I ask you to remember the motto, which will accompany us during all Tactical Development Workshop lessons:


Napoleon Bonaparte is believed to be the author of this saying, and that’s where historical references end.

Here we go.


Since the introduction of players’ roles and duties (further referred to as functions) to Football Manager, player positions on the pitch have stopped having the decisive influence on the real shape of our formation. With the allocation of specific functions for each position we can transform the 4-5-1 into a very offensive formation (2-4-4 with the ball), from the 4-3-3 the impenetrable defence can be made (4-6-0 without the ball), and 4-4-2 can be used to create a real counter-attacking machine (4-5-1 without the ball, 2-2-6 with the ball).

This is all thanks to the fact, that by placing your player in a particular position, we can at the same time allocate him a function, and as a result we will rarely see him it in that zone of the pitch. It's obvious that an anchorman (A) will be tied during the match to a defensive midfielder (DM) position, while we will see a regista (RGA) more often while with the ball in the central midfielder (CM) position, and a deep lying playmaker (DLP) without the ball in the role of a central defender (CD). The same rule applies to so many Makers-defined roles and duties, so if we would like our team to behave accordingly with the originally chosen formation, for each of the positions we would have only one or two functions to choose from.

That means our initial formation does not have the decisive impact anymore, the real formation is forged by defining roles and duties.

That also means that by applying specific functions to our players, in fact we choose two formations:

- WITHOUT (when we are without the ball, the so called defensive formation),

- PLAY (when we are with the ball, the so called offensive formation)

There is also the so called transition phase formation, which is used in between taking the ball from the opponents and positioning for the attack, but while playing Football Manager we have only four tools to manage it at our disposal (mentality, tempo, width, and passing directness), among which only two really decide the shape of the transition phase (tempo and passing directness), while the other two are so firmly related to the place of recovering the ball, that we rarely have the opportunity to enjoy them (mentality decides players’ behaviour after recovering the ball in the opponent’s half, while width determines what the team is going to do while recovering the ball in our own half). Therefore concentrating on the design and management of the transition phase doesn’t make much sense, because we have too little (or none) influence on how it will look in the majority of situations.

Let’s focus then on the selection of our two formations: without the ball (WITHOUT) and with the ball (PLAY). Personally I do not like to call them defensive and offensive, because in the FM practice they don’t have such a clear character. Of course our initial formation will more clearly define the WITHOUT formation, but don’t be surprised when our defensive forward with defensive duty (DF) will position himself on the pitch deeper than our attacking midfielder (AM), and the wide target man with support duty (WTM) will jump down each opponent’s throat, while the attacking Winger (W/a) will rush to get back in his own half.

Different functions of the players are manifested not only by their behaviour during the play with the ball, but also during the play without the ball. The choice of roles and duties for each position and not the choice of the starting formation determines the shape of the game. Remember this, because we'll get back to it in subsequent lessons. But let's return to the formation itself. 


You have to start somewhere while selecting your formation, as, against all appearances, this is not a neutral choice.

The first screen (or, more precisely, screens) we should visit before making the decision on which of the initial formations our team will play, is the one showing the comparison of our and our opponents’ skills.

Discovering our strengths at the same time reveals our rival’s weaknesses. It may be of particular importance if it turns out, that we have a clear advantage in one of the key tactical areas of Football Manager:

- centre of defence (CD/DM) –> play out of defence, slow tempo, narrow playing field, discipline

- centre of midfield (DM/CM/AM) –> ball possession, pressing, more tactical freedom

- wings (B/WB/M/AM LR) -> wide playing field, faster tempo, direct passes,

- attack (AM LRC/ST) -> roam from positions, pass into space, crosses.

This way we get some information on what to put emphasis while designing our formation, and in which area our strong points are located. Playing to your strengths is every manager’s duty.

More important information can be found in the profile of the opposing manager. These are: information about the formation he uses and (what’s equally important) his preferred mentality. Since many editions manager attributes have been responsible for how our rivals would play:

- preferred formation (that’s how he will begin most matches),

- playing mentality (how he will play against the rival of similar class),

- pressing style (responsible for offensive line and aggression),

- marking style (organisation of the individual defence tasks),

- 2nd formation (that’s how he will begin remaining matches),

- defensive formation (that’s how he will protect a favourable score),

- offensive formation (that’s how he will try to turn the things around).

Even most spectacular player transfers by your rivals are not as important as a change of the manager. Unfortunately, attributes precisely describing managerial style are hidden (all of them!), but one can access them both with the official database editor as well as with any scouting program. Most important of these attributes are:

- width (determines ball distribution and creating the action in the certain pitch areas: 1-7 play through the middle, 8-13 mixed play, 14-20 – play down the wings),

- directness (determines the length of passes and the tempo of the game: 1-4 short slower passes, 5-11 mixed style,  12-15 direct passes, 16-20 quick, long balls),

- attacking (determines the attitude against a opposition of similar quality: 1-4 defence, 5-8 counter-attack, 9-12 standard, 13-16 control, 17-20 attack),

- flamboyancy (decides about the shape of the transition phase: 1-4 whole formation rigid and defensive, 5-8 organized, though wingers and strikers are allowed to roam, 9-12 fluid, with the support from the wings and playing out of defence, 13-16 dynamic, with lots of movement in the midfield and position switching on the wings, 17-20 very fluid with place swapping in all positions depending on the needs and situation).

While choosing the formation pay attention not only to who will be defending or attacking against you, but also HOW your opponents will play. It will be very difficult to close the lateral pitch sections without wingers’ support, if most of the rival managers are playing wide and quickly in the offensive phase. If defensively the opposition plays mostly deep and with aggressive pressing, one will need the help of players running from the deep as well as the place-swapping wingers. If opponents play narrow possession game, you will need at least 3 central midfielders, and if the rivals tend to use the offensive trio in the centre, you should think about 3 defensive players in front of your goal area.


While setting the values of player attributes, Makers have made one major mistake: they forgot to give their researchers indications regarding functions (roles and duties), which at least players of the first squad should execute well, which means having attributes in agreement with their ability to play in certain roles. As a result in FM there are many teams unable to play according to their manager’s style (sic!). In other words: there are conflicts between the manager’s style and his players’ attributes, that rule out the use of certain functions, even though his preferred style and chosen formation would suggest such a solution.

In the best teams on the continent this issue is not that noticeable, because players there are “overpacked” with the attributes’ levels (incidentally unnecessarily), but outside the elite things are much worse. As a result, Mainz of Tuchel is not able to play as Mainz of Tuchel, Śląsk of Pawłowski as Śląsk of Pawłowski, Fiorentina of Montella... etc., and so on. What is the conclusion? While playing Football Manager we rely too much on our TV-provided impressions and real teams, while relying too little on the tools offered to us by the game. Discussion fora are full of topics about how to play like Wenger's Arsenal, Guardiola's Barcelona, or Klopp's Dortmund. Of course it can be done, but first, one would need to bring in several new players, who are better suited in the game for a given style/role, and secondly, it quickly turns out that once we chose the preferred style, FM does not offer produce performances that we knew from the pitch.

In any case, this is a characteristic of people playing Football Manager and unique in the world of computer games: they try their best to imitate reality, while the game not only has its limitations (some of them insurmountable), but above all its own quirks and peculiarities (sometimes unbelievable). FM provides us with tools that we do not use, although in the game are very effective (e.g. two offensive central midfielders in the roles of false nines), because we don't know them from real football. We do not use certain solutions, though the game proves their value (e.g. two central ball playing defenders), because no one does so in the real world. We are afraid to reach for unconventional measures (two poachers in the attack), because we are trying to mimic real-life managers, and they just don't do this.

As a result, guides, tutorials, blogs, forums, and internet articles are full of references to the real world of football and tactical schemes and strenuous efforts to substantiate (validate?) the assumption that Football Manager is almost a football simulator and a Mecca for tactical enthusiasts. The game and real life are two different things. Football Manager as a game is full of basketball-sized holes. You just need to hit them. While some do it by accident, I came across them gradually through careful experimentation.

So let's get to it.

Looking at the skills of your players (but also rivals) do not rely exclusively on the “star” assessment of attributes or colors indicating effectiveness in certain position, or even the ability bars for performing particular roles. If you learn how to identify key and significant attributes for a particular function (keeping in mind Borys Struski's discovery, that conditioning and physical attributes have an advantage over the technical and mental ones!), then you will be able to quickly make a judgment whether your nominal defensive midfielder will perform well in the role of the left back, despite his "clumsiness" in this position and red bars for his ability to play in that role.

I do not encourage you to throw the baby out with the bath water and stand the entire team on its head, but I strongly suggest you utilize your resources more courageously than in the formula adopted by the gaming community. If the assessment of your rivals and your potential suggests starting a formation with an attacking central midfielder and you have someone in the squad who meets the 90% of your requirements to play at that position, that is all all the reason you need to use him this way. You'll be surprised how slightly his performance will differ from the players "perfectly"suited for their positions and functions. You will have even fewer complaints about his actions during the game.


The last element, which we should take into account when selecting the starting formation is our star players. Regardless of the competition level, in each team we will find someone with the skills beyond the level of the league, or at least of your team. The more of them (two-three), the better. I recommend you make them the workhorses of our team. In a real world it does not work that well, but in Football Manager it does. You need only to create the right conditions for those players to play.

If your star is a central defender, do not hesitate to make him the first playmaker. If it is one of the midfielders, let him be the director of your play. If it is a flank player, create him conditions (a corridor) to move in both directions. If it is a striker, let the team target him with their passes. After many years in the world of real football their cult of teamplay has reigned supreme.

Brilliant players without support are easily taken out of the game, and if their team does not have much more to offer, the match is usually a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile in our game above average players may continue to enjoy the freedom and respect of the rivals, because FM still does not provide an effective tool to neutralise their threat. Tighter marking, aggressive tackling, man marking, pressing, or double marking with properly selected functions - nothing seems to work against them. This is also partly due to the fact that differences in attributes (even those significant) in themselves do not cause corresponding differences in the behavior of the players on the pitch, as it happens in reality. Only the collective potential of the whole team that surpasses the rival produces a difference on the FM pitch. In any other case, the game engine eliminates these disparities.

So, let’s try to:

- set up our star players first (ATTENTION! This does not mean choosing their optimal roles!) in the roles ensuring the full use of their potential,

- adapt the team’s style of play to the skills of the key players (the team should play for them),

- utilize their strong points.

This way we will be rewarded with numerous assists, interceptions and important goals. I guarantee that.


While choosing the starting formation we answer the following questions:

1.In which zone of the pitch we are stronger, or equal to the rivals?

2.Which formations will we have to counter in the league?

3.How do the managers of the opposing teams tend to play?

4.How to use the skills of our star players in the best way?



The lesson is finished. Black Cats are only an example, which we will use to analyse and test these theoretical considerations, so without further ado let's get to answering these questions:

1. We are the strongest in defence, so it is our defence we should use to support our play without the ball, but it should also actively participate in the playmaking (->playing out of defence, slow tempo, narrow width, discipline). It does not mean the defensive style of play at all, because without the participation of the defence in the offensive play one loses a lot of quality. What does it mean to us? While choosing the formation we should consider only those offering play with at least four, preferably five players in defensive positions (playing with three defenders is out of question). We will ensure positional switching and mutual protection with proper functions (individual roles and duties).

2. We will clash most frequently with three formations: 4-4-2 (we will call it A), 4-1-2-3 DM Wide (actually 4-1-2-2-1, we will call it B ) and 4-2-3-1 Wide (further referred to as C). Considering dangers resulting from those choices (aggressive wings and offensive midfielders in B and C, as well as probable playing out of defence and overload in midfield in A and B ) best choices for us (remembering still point 1) should be 4-4-2, 4-1-2-2-1 or 4-1-4-1. All those formations allow us quite easily to oppose awaiting threats, because all position our players exactly in the danger zones, so without extensive working on our players’ functions we will have players in the right places, ready to fight.

3. The majority of the managers of our direct rivals (so forgetting the leading six, they are beyond our reach, and hence beyond the area of our greatest care) play quite openly (offensively and risky), with strong pressing interchanging with tight marking (close to us), so while careful to look (the lower regions of the table) before leaping (avoiding relegation) we should forget about defensive and offensive mentalities from the onset. The former will reduce our role to being passive observers of events (-> nails), the latter to pounding our head against the wall (-> baldness). Control is not acceptable (see our technical attributes), so from the start we are destined to use the standard or counter mentality.

4. We have one star player (taking into account the criteria mentioned above), but I will mention two names, because in the light of the three points above, it becomes clear that it is in the defensive ranks one should look for someone able to kill two birds with one stone: Jermain Defoe (S) and Jan Kirchhoff (DM) are emerging as key figures in the team, Defoe because of his attributes, Kirchhoff because of the wonderful combination of defensive and offensive attributes. That is why not only I rank them both above average at the Stadium of Light, but I'm sure they would find easily place in the most Premiership sides. So we should make sure that both these players are utilised as best as we can. For Defoe, we need to provide as many balls as possible (playing of the ball, technique, dribbling, finishing) and Kirchhoff should be not only the heart of our defense (marking, tackling, strength, positioning, concentration), but also the first playmaker (passing, decisions, first touch, technique, anticipation).

Having it all in mind we begin like this:

Knowing however about the difficulties of English pitches and the handicap for the hosts, against rivals ruthlessly attacking us and stronger hosts we will use this away formation:

The time will come for the analysis of the above presented selection of roles and duties (first, when we discuss the various formations, second, during the preparation of the team playing schemes “with the ball” and “without the ball”), but at this stage I would be pretty happy listening to your predictions, analyses, opinions, concerns and praises. I will be also glad to discuss the selection of executors of the tasks above, in the meantime ... to work, meaning a few words about how we have entered the season.


Already before the first friendly match, thanks to a tip from IWABIK, a 28 year old Brazilian appeared in the team. Ariel Cabral is known from… Legia Warsaw.

Bought for 2.8 million euro from Brazilian Cruzeiro, he is going to play the role of an advanced playmaker in our tactics, so he will create situations (i.e., provide the ball to Defoe). When he settles in the team, and FM stops punishing us for his lack of knowledge of the English language, he should make more assists than it appears at the first sight. Let's set our prejudices aside. This is not real life, this is FM.

Though the pre-season did not provide any spectacular fireworks, I knew from the first friendly on that our tactics would not have any big gaps, and they would not need extensive corrections. Just a few individual orders added, a few others removed. Unfortunately, Kirchhoff and Khazri were excluded from the majority of the preparations and joined the injured list (Borini, Mannone, Gibson, Cattermole, O’Shea, Jones, Larsson). However I must learn those names by heart, because when they are fit again I will have difficulties in taking them into consideration, while all of them are strong first team players.

In the second round of League Cup we have drawn Northampton from League 1, so I expect to score at least four goals against them.

In our league debut Hull played 4-2-3-1 Wide with Kamil Grosicki on the left wing and Berbatov as the striker, while we played OVL with an advanced playmaker in the centre of the pitch.

West Brom at home chose 4-4-2 and Tony Pulis was probably surprised seeing two BWMs in our second line (TIM version), and Jermain Defoe has proven that he only needs a half chance to score . With this striker at the front no team has to worry about relegation.

In the cup match against Northampton (5-3-2 WB) we played Kirchhoff and Khazri, both returning from injury, as well as some reserve players, but that only affected the minutes in which the team scored, as the game itself did not change. In the next round we are matched against Wolverhampton. Anyway, we can check this cup off the list, as we have already met the expectations of the board (third round).

I intended to spoil Jose Mourinho’s party, when his Manchester United (4-1-2-3 DM Wide) arrived in Sunderland. It was only a partial success. Jose will have lots of troubles with his team this season. Another mismatch of attributes with roles, and roles with formation.

Away match against Swansea (4-1-2-3 DM Wide) should be pleasant and fruitful, as – first – we were shown live on national television for the first time this season, and – second – Paul Clement played like Mourinho. He just had worse executors.

Another away league match, this time at Burnley (4-4-2), should bring us even more satisfaction and even more spoils of war, because Sean Dyche didn’t pull off any surprises, but it quickly turned out that his defensive attitude and crowding several pitch zones can create a lot of problems for us. Apart from the result I haven’t noticed anything troubling on the pitch.



Using the next few matches, I will try to show how the theory presented above translates into practice. Roles adopted in our Sunderland tactics guarantee that the actual formation both in the phase of defense and attack will often differ from the initial and schematic 4-1-2-2-1. A lot of issues enriching those topics with new details will be discussed in the subsequent lessons. Today we will focus on how players position themselves in the different phases of the game and how it affects the formation and resulting team’s opportunities in defense and in attack.

For this purpose both the 3D view and the traditional "balls" of the 2D simulation will be used. The latter have the advantage when discussing tactical issues, as they allow to observe simultaneously events around the pitch, and hence to make a thorough analysis of the position and behavior of all 22 players. For this reason, that view will be the one that I use much more often.

Of course there are two teams on the pitch, and one’s play significantly affect the behavior and performance of the other. Today, however, this element will not be of our particular interest. We will focus only on own team’s play with tactics shown above. Therefore, to maintain the reliability and consistency of the image I won’t make any changes in formation, mentality, style, roles, functions, or individual orders during the matches, and if I do, it will be described in the text with the justification for it.

The results are important, but they are not the main purpose and reference in Joint Story 4. First of all, we want to comprehensively discuss step by step a broad topic, which is tactics in Football Manager. Our career is bonus to increase the accessibility of the story, add a belletristic element and the thrill of rivalry, but above all to provide and verify on virtual pitches the hypotheses presented in the text.

In addition, throughout the cycle of the Tactical Development Workshop I will try to show the strengths and weaknesses of our tactics. You, of course, are encouraged to discuss, comment and critically analyze it. Tactical Development Workshop was constructed for readers and certainly would not be created without them. So write courageously and speak freely, what you like and what you would like to change, why and how. Ask questions. This will help us to match the following lessons to your needs and expectations. None of us regards himself as a person who knows everything and does not make mistakes.

In the next round of the League Cup we played home against second tier Wolverhampton. Let's look at the first picture. The rival has just stripped us of the ball in his own half and tries to attack through the center of the field. This is not a quick counterattack but a positional attack, so we've set up a defensive formation with the following shape:

Actually this is a 4-1-4-1. The formation is very difficult to get through, and if you look more closely, you will see that at least in this case, the player with the ball is actually not having a single option to pass forward. The only thing he can make is a long and risky pass to the wing, that must be very accurate in order not to be intercepted. The player on the ball decides to dribble, then plays the ball to the wing and although he has a little bit of freedom, and the action may initially seem dangerous, in fact the threat is non-existent:

To clarify:

- the black marker will be used to indicate positioning for the players;

- the yellow marker shows the actual play selected by a player on the ball;

- the orange marker indicates alternative options;

- the blue marker shows the movement of the player without the ball.

The only real passing option is still to the rear. A cross, which eventually was the choice of the opposition player, would have to outsmart the goalkeeper and three defenders. Of course, it will not always work as intended.

Now we move on to the offensive phase. 4-1-2-2-1 seems to be rather a defensive formation, but the only players with defensive roles and functions in our tactics are central defenders. Full backs are very offensive, and the formation is narrow (positions of the wingers). As a result, the midfielder who is on the ball in the opposition penalty box, has more possibilities than just a back pass, and the opposition defense has its hands full. Again, our formation does not resemble the initial settings:

Together with the ball carrier, we have six players directly in the attack zone, including players entering from the deep. In these circumstances the defending team has a lot of problems to cover all of them. Ultimately this action did not bring us a goal.

This does not mean that the formation never resembles the initial settings. However, one of the very few such moments are dead ball situations. Only here you can clearly see the actual initial formation of both teams:

Of course we will not always have six players up front and we will not always defend with 4-1-4-1 (4-5-1, when the regista moves higher to press), but appropriate circumstances must occur for this to happen. They can be created by the events on the pitch (fast attack, especially through wings and playing through balls) or tactical decisions (changes of roles and functions, or the mentality). In addition, depending on the situation on the pitch, formations can look very different in transition phases, that is right after losing the ball or just after winning it.

In contrast, let's take a look at a different move by the opposing team, playing more carefully:

4-4-1-1 (2 DMs) is a formation resistant to attacks. However, even here in the attack phase more visible is formation 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-1-3. Using the same image again, you will notice how well we are lined up at the back. As the result of our 4-1-4-1 opponent has huge difficulties in creation of a real threat. Their offensive players are either tightly marked, or are in such a place, where they can be quickly closed down by several of our players. Their striker is in the most difficult position, with four Sunderland players around him. He is directly guarded by two central defenders, but a player marking the opposition number 10 (attacking midfielder) is near, and the player pressing the rival on the ball cuts the passing line to both most advanced Wolves players.

The regista perfectly (at least in this case) performs his tight marking duty. The only player that is quite far from "his" opponent (right midfielder) is our left back, who must additionally secure the midfield in case of a successful dribble by the player on the ball. He only seems to be out of position, however, because before the ball reaches the winger, our left back will be able to greatly reduce this distance, and then block the cross.

The image also shows why wingbacks play such a crucial role in modern football - they provide an advantage, playing as in our tactics and only securing the action from the back with functions in Paul Lambert tactic (probably WB/d).

Going back to the transition phase, I suggest you pay attention to the move in which Pienaar (AP) made an inaccurate and risky pass to Krusnell (CWB). The opposition had a rare counter-attacking chance when we lost the ball while in the 2-4-4 formation (also very common in our tactics). In this situation, the only chance to cut the threat is a professional foul or instant and effective pressing. If the rival can cope with our attempt to regain the ball, he will have the chance of creating a good scoring situation. Engaging many players in the attack preparation phase is both the strength and the main weakness of our tactics, that may be exploited by stronger rivals.


The further course of action is rather obvious. Get the ball to the left wing, cross it to running players and shoot on goal. An attempt that failed, but it is this kind of situation that we need to expect. Appropriate shift into defensive positions depends on the momentum, formation and the zone of the pitch in which we lose the ball. In general, it should be noted that we defended well, and the goal we lost from a corner is something extremely difficult for us to have full control upon. After we lost the goal and our rivals started to play with one player fewer, of course I decided to attack much more boldly (offensive mentality, IF with attack rather than support, higher defensive line). We equalized after a set piece and the game went into the extra time, where we played a bit more cautiously, though still offensively because of our numerical advantage on the field (control).

We waited for a long time for another goal against the guests who parked the bus in their own penalty area, but in the end we found a gap in the setting and a long pass by Pienaar was turned into a goal by the substitute Khazri. We finished the game playing the initial tactics.

In the next round, we were drawn against Chelsea at the Stadium of Light.

A very typical setting in the action-building phase (here in our match against Bournemouth, 4-4-2) in the starting formation of the 4-1-2-2-1is 2-1-4-3 or 2-5-3. In the picture below, the narrow setting of the formation (team order) is particularly visible. Not only IF, but also W is positioned far from the sideline, leaving plenty of room for the full backs, who make up the playing width. This is important, because many people doubt whether a very offensive full back can play together with a winger without crowding each other out. As you can see, this is possible. In a later action phase Januzaj (W/s!) comes even more inside with the ball and will plays a through ball to Defoe. Similar behaviour will repeat many times in this match, despite the fact that the winger has default individual orders "stay wider" and "run wide with ball".

There is yet another characteristic element for our tactics. Apart from the poacher additionally having the individual instruction for “moving into channels” there are no players who would aggressively attack the penalty area. Neither the inside forward nor the winger do this with the supporting duties. Likewise, widely positioned full-backs will not do this. When Defoe stands with his back to the goal having a defender close by, it is almost never possible (not only in this play) to execute the attacking pass despite the fact that apart from him there are still four players in very advanced positions. He must pass back the ball to the playmaker and only then can the play be further redirected.

Absence of players arriving late in the penalty box from the midfield or the flanks is one of the few weaknesses in our tactics. We have a lot of ball possession in front of the penalty area and near the corners, as in ice hockey, and there are few risky passes opening the way to the goal. It is not the lack of players capable of making such passes, but rather of capable recipients – apart from the striker. Therefore we shoot a lot from a distance.

However, this is also a side effect of a compromise which we managed to achieve between ball possession and defensive positioning. For example, more offensive wingers with the attack duty often do not provide enough support for full backs, when the team does not have the ball.

As evidence of the above, take a look at our activity when in possession. Positional activity is highly concentrated in one area of the pitch, where the team makes a lot of passes, and the activity on the wings is fully dependent on the FBs.

Three midfielders exchange a huge number of passes between each other – Lee Cattermole left the pitch in the 74. minute, and attempted 105 passes, 99 of them successful. Pienaar, having replaced him, added further 21 passes before the final whistle. A total of 126 passes for the advanced playmaker alone. If you want to seek similarities with real football, such figures were often beyond the reach of the absolute master playmaker, Xavi, during Guardiola days in Barcelona, and yet we've had "only" 58% of ball possession in this match. Paying attention to this statistic, remember that Football Manager calculates time on the ball in a different way than in real football.

We’ve won the match 1:0 after Oviedo scored from a free kick.

Before the match against bottom-of-the-table Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1 2 DM’s, pressing, tighter marking) we were considered to be merely slight favorites due to the fact that it was a “derby” match.

Although our style of play could be extremely boring to watch (120 passes for Ariel Cabral, even though we do not use the "retain the possession" instruction), its effectiveness is undeniable. This is a very good tactics, which is best evidenced by our team statistics. Opponents had only 1 (ONE) shot at goal, which was blocked far away from the danger area. The fact that we scored from a distance, and the second goal was an own goal, is irrelevant. The most difficult matches and tests for our defense are still ahead of us, coming soon, there's no point in complaining. After seven games Sunderland is at the top of the Premier League table. Just ahead of ...Burnley.

Antonio Conte with his bizarre 5-2-2-1 did not begin this season perfectly. Perhaps because, as already mentioned, Football Manager is different from real life, or perhaps because the virtual Conte tactic does not completely correspond to the tactic of real Conte. Apart from their focus of the game in the middle of the field, as well as poor support for their full-backs and lack of their own wingers can be a problem in the confrontation with our style of play (this time with two BWMs) and high attributes in themselves may not be enough. Anyway, I expected a difficult match that would test both our defense and the ability to attack. The more so as before the matches with rivals that are theoretically beyond our reach we lost Januzaj.

This is the beginning of the move that resulted in the opening goal, which explains why Chelsea sits in the bottom half of the table:

Kirchhoff has a lot of freedom on the ball. He can pass to Cabral, who is also unmarked, and he will be able to do a lot with the ball. It is easy to predict what he has done, because our superiority on the wing is obvious. It is enough that Terry fails to provide support on the flank and a clear position for the cross is easily created.

Khazri played on the near post to advancing Defoe, who finalised the move. This required high accuracy, because our striker still theoretically should be marked by two central defenders, but he dealt with them successfully. Importantly, it was not a counterattack and I have no doubt that the real Antonio Conte would not permit such holes in his defensive formation.

Chelsea gameplay usually looked similar. They played wide and looked for crosses, which rarely reached their intended target. No surprises there as their preparation phase usually looked like this:

Our defensive setup looks like a 4-5-1. What can Pedro do with the ball?

1. Two rivals are marking him tightly.

2. Moses on the right side is marked.

3. Diego Costa is closed down by two central defenders.

4. The channel to Willian is cut off.

5. If he manages to turn back with the ball, he may be able to pass to Hazard.

6. No chance of passing to the only unmarked player in the attack, the left back Gaya.

Two seconds later, we recovered the ball thanks to pressing.

Our advantage in the first half was undisputed. After the break Conte moved his only wide players in his formation further upfield (WBs to ML/R) and so he switched to 3-4-2-1. He made a few changes in the mentality and instructions, which could be guessed but are not important for us now. The situation on the pitch had changed:

There's no need to draw any lines on the screenshot. We still defend as 4-1-4-1, but now Chelsea has got numerical superiority in midfield, and their wide game provides many more options to move the ball around. This is, however, the phase of action building in the middle of the field. Closer to the area, when it is getting crowded, they still could do little beyond pretty desperate crosses, and they paid for risking a three-man defensive line with the second Defoe goal, who tried to exploit Chelsea defensive weaknesses by taking on individual defenders. This time the goal was scored from counter-attack after a pass from the back.

This is not a scoring action (after a quick attack we created a clear chance deflected by Courtois, and the third goal was scored from a corner), but I want to show you the risk of playing with three central defenders without the support on the sides. Defoe all the time stood right next to the Cahill, who could not count on the help of his partners, because they were way too far, ordered to support the flanks during the transition phase. All they can do is hope for the offside trap to work.

Chelsea managed to finally score only once, exploiting one of the few risks involving our style of play, which I mentioned earlier.

In our own half we have only two central defenders. Defoe loses the ball in a situation in which Chelsea has plenty of room to counterattack. A loss of possession in this phase of the game, when most of our players are already engaged in the offensive, but the ball has not yet been moved into the penalty area, allows opponents to overload one of the flanks and set up a decent chance. We are late getting back into our own half and this is how it ends:

Three goals by Defoe plus one from a set piece and the course of the match confirms my earlier observations that during the attack we are very heavily dependent on our poacher, and other players rarely look for a way to finalise attacking moves in the penalty area. But first, Defoe was supposed to be a star after all and so he is and, secondly, in games in which rivals take many risks, it is not much of a problem. It is a pity that our injury list is growing longer again, as Lee Cattermole, who has recently returned to full training, is out for another three months (injured in the second minute of the match).

An away match at Manchester City (also 4-1-2-2-1) was a game we were supposed to lose heavily (odds for Sunderland 11.00, for City 1.17), beginning the descent back into our proper place in the league table. However, even City, despite their great movement off the ball and passing accuracy in front of the penalty area, found it hard to create clear-cut scoring chances. Again they were left to shoot from the distance, relying on set pieces, crosses by Zabaleta, who was very good at fooling his marker, and ball recovery in the transition phase. However, it was us who scored the goal. After a throw in deep into the City half we had many players in their penalty area and Anichebe managed to find a gap in the enemy defensive line. We conceded after the break, but not due to an error on our part but rather Silva's brilliance in hitting the target from outside the box. The only real threat to our goal was posed by such situations as this (I've selected an extreme example on purpose) and it was hard to fully prevent them:

This is an example of something that we often do. De Bruyne cuts inside from the wing, dragging too many players with him. In this case he was followed by both Oviedo and Anichebe. As a result, Zabaleta has way too much free space. There was no goal this time, but it was close. They were to score later after a similar move down the other flank, after Guardiola had modified his tactics.

Our equaliser was a fluke. A long ball between the defenders was intercepted by Clichy, who passed it to the goalkeeper, but his pass was so weak that Defoe, who waited exactly for such an opportunity, was left with a simple finish. Because we had trouble playing decent football under pressure for long periods of time, passing the ball around in our own half and pumping it long up the field, in view of the result I shifted to a much more defensive setting for our full backs, waiting for the final whistle.

And so we come to the end of the first lesson. Although its main topic was the formation, we also touched upon other issues we will return to in the future. Meanwhile, we leave you with the Premier League table, which looks unlike anything even Sebastian Petroff could expect. Please remember that the season has just begun, though.


4-3-3 ovl
4-3-3 tim

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Discussion: Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 1: Choosing Formation

5 comments have been posted so far.

  • LVKLTR's avatar
    Hi, just wanted you to know that I really appreciate your work.
    I am currently on FM18 Beta after missing out on FM17, and will this year I try to have a more hands-on approach and rely less on my assistant.
    This read is definitely going to be a great help. Cheers!
  • damato's avatar
    @Znachor @Piotr Sebastian - don't worry about the language, at least we'll learn how to name the roles and shout instructions in Polish :)
    Looking forward to the next lessons!
  • Znachor's avatar
    damato - thanks for kind words. Regarding Your remarks - wait for the next lesson(s) ;-)
    We were aware of the possible issue with Polish screens. We will try to solve this, at least partially. We hoped that leaving some Polish screens does not harm the content of the text. Changing all of them is a massive task, sometimes impossible to achieve ("Polish" version of TDW is far ahead, and "reverting" some screenshots with changing the game language back and again for capturing screenshots takes a lot of time). We hope for Your understanding.
  • Piotr Sebastian's avatar
    @damato - You have to wait for second lesson I explain the regista is a player actively receiving the ball (!) despite a different definition existing a common perception.
    According screens: unfortunately we play polish version of FM in our original series of articles on and I have no time to prepare special screens for FMScout edition.
    I've already asked our polish readers to switch on english version starting from fourth lesson. We wait for comments.
    Polish is not so tough anyway..
  • damato's avatar
    Hi guys, I just want to say that you're doing absolutely great work with this. I've been waiting for years for something like this to come up here. Regarding questions/suggestions, seeing that you opted for regista in dm strata, which isn't a holding role, did you considered choosing a defensive duty in central midfield position, someone like bwm(d) or cm(d) to help you with the defensive transition?
    P.S. Please consider changing the language when doing screenshots, there aren't a lot of us who are fluent in Polish
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