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Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 4: Defensive Systems

Recall everything you have learnt so far about formations and defenders. The setting of your defence should always be the answer to the way your rival plays.

By on Mar 14, 2021   17595 views   4 comments
Tactical Development Workshop - Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 4: Defensive Systems
Welcome to the fourth lesson in Tactical Development Workshop.

Today you will recall everything you have learnt so far about formations and defenders.

Remember: put always most attention to your next rival. There is no universal formation and there is no universal tactics, but there are effective tools against all tactics of the opponent available in the FM.

Considering the thought above in the context of creating compact defensive systems, please note that setting of the defence should always be the answer to the way your rival plays.

Truism? Yes, but gaining an extra depth when you find out that in Football Manager position of the rival’s attackers largely depends on what position will your defenders take.

When you play a deeper defensive line, your rivals immediately will move forward, regardless of their formation’s initial shape.

Usage of libero will induce their most advanced forward to go very aggressively between your central defenders.

Increasing density in the hole with defensive midfielder will induce the rival’s attackers to move perpendicularly to your defence line, even if they/he will be nominal poacher (P).

Aggressively pressing wing backs always convince AI to overlap on the flanks while setting the attackers for the game in line with your central defenders.

There are more such dependencies, so it’s worth not only to carefully observe the initial tactics and style of play, but also to watch changes occurring in the course of the match, and, above all, predict the setting of your own defence relative to the effect that you're going to achieve.

This becomes even more important when you remember that the behaviour of your defenders and positions taken on the pitch during the defence (without the ball) depend not only on their assigned roles and duties, or issued tactical commands, but also on the position and behaviour of your second line.

Here are a few examples of good defensive game systems that you can apply in certain cases.


Defensive systems with DM became very popular in Football Manager. In the opinion of many players DM is a perfect seal for the hole and quick regaining of the ball yet in the enemy’s distribution phase.

The myth of this position has already been dispelled at Lesson 2 (let me remind you: regista as a player actively receiving the ball, anchorman forming defensive triangle with central defenders and half back as a third central defender), but this does not mean that the defensive systems with other roles and duties of defensive midfielders cannot be effective.

Ideal game system against stronger opponent attacking through the middle, who actively uses his attacking midfielder (-> see our A) with penetrating position of the advanced forward looking for free space (-> CD/co).

High pressing mandatory.

If one possesses good defenders, higher defensive line can safely be used (normal is recommended), but tighter marking is ruled out , because the middle of – so far – tight defence will fall apart.

Mobile offensive players of the opponent will pull our defenders out of the established positions, and any of their players coming from the deep (IF, BBM, SS, T) will gain free space.

I advise against too deep defensive line in this system because it will allow opponent to freely play at the perimeter of the penalty box.

The task of our full backs let us counterattack effectively (team shape: fluid or very fluid), because in the transition phase they will faster move to high positions on the pitch.

Another system of high defensive line and high pressing, but this time against a weaker rival, of whom we expect to play defensively or at most with counter attacks.

Enemy’s forays will be mostly effectively neutralized (-> RGA/s), and a high defensive line along with higher pressing provide us with a quick and effective tackles during rival’s initial phase of play.

Tighter marking most advisable.

The threat here is dangerously high position of the full backs at the moment of our team’s turnover, so I advise against this system when the opponent is playing formation with the offensive wingers (AML + AMR).

In any other system the amount of threat from AI is minimal. An excellent system to control events on the pitch and play offensively (team shape: fluid or very fluid).

Another variant of the previous system, this time more conservative, so for more demanding opponents, whom we expect to play more in the attack and pass more (strong second line).

With a high defensive line and more pressing, our flanks will still be dangerously exposed in the transition phase, but the position of one of the central defenders (-> BPD/co) guarantees us to intercept most of the long balls.

Defensive midfielder in this variant is destined more for our offensive game and we should have yet in the second line someone who will seal the middle of the pitch (BBM/s, BWM/s, CM/s).

This way we minimalize the risk of our rivals pouring to our goal area in transition phase, and during positional attack we will crowd the middle of the pitch forcing an opponent to play wider and look for a free space on the flanks.

Tighter marking not recommended.

System for bold offensive play against counter-attacking rival that delivers long balls to quick and strong offensive players (wingers or strikers).

Required tighter marking and higher pressing, but our line of defence should be at most a bit higher (I recommend normal) even if we are clearly dominating on the pitch.

The biggest threat is the transition phase, but the positions of the central defenders provide careful and deep setting up in most situations, also functions of the defensive midfielder (-> HB/d) will allow many effective tackles immediately after the turnover.

Aggressive tackling will give us extra confidence in fast starting counter attacks of the opponent.

System for less fluid play (team shape: flexible or structural) against the opponent with strong second line. To use especially when one lacks good offensive wingers.

The width of the game in attack provide here WB/au, who align with central defenders during the game without the ball forming the classic defensive four.

Line of defence should be deeper (maximum: normal), and tighter marking with higher pressing used only against opponents attacking narrowly and focused on possession.

With the rival playing direct style I recommend less pressing, which will allow to maintain the shape of our defensive formation even in transition phase, and the only exception should be RGA, whose task in any variant of the game should be as soon as possible to regain the ball.

Universal variant of play, which can be applied to various rivals (strong and weak) under the condition of restricting the tactical freedom of the team (team shape: structural) and normal defence line.

Suitable for use in both defensive (less pressing, tighter marking) and offensive formations (more pressing, both of the CWBs with attack duties).

The defensive triangle here blocks the attacks through the middle, and the conservative roles of central defenders supplemented by supporting them CWB/su effectively restrain the wingers as well (see: structural team shape).

The greater fluidity of play in this defence system will result in vast free spaces, especially in transition phase.

Another system, which can be successfully applied against weaker and stronger rivals.

In a more offensive variant (team shape: flexible or fluid) one should move the line of defence ahead, along with the order of higher pressing, and in the defensive variant (team shape: structural or flexible), the defence line should be normal with less pressing.

In both variants tighter marking should be used, which particularly in transition phase sets our defenders closer to the rivals.

In the offensive variant offside traps work perfectly (note! With tighter marking also for both WBs!), but not with the rival playing 4-2-3-1 Wide, as this exact formation is the only one amongst AI tactics that causes the position of both offensive wingers being too high for the offside trap to work.

System for the enthusiasts of getting own goalkeeper and supporters off (team shape: structural mentality: defensive).

With this setting, the order of higher defensive line and lower pressing virtually excludes creating any goal chance by the rival. As a result, the AI is going crazy continuously crossing into the penalty area, or shooting from distance.

I do not recommend to use it against equally strong or weaker rivals (sic!), because less offensively oriented opponent tends to play narrow and from the deep, which results in higher positions of our defensive midfielders and defenders on the field when in possession, and in turn may create even with such a system enough free space behind the defenders to provoke a long pass to the striker cutting loose.


In Football Manager a lot of successful game systems with four defenders, without the help of a defensive midfielder, can be created.

Do not forget that the task of cleaning our hole and crowding the middle part of the pitch during the game without the ball must be carried by one of our central midfielders (BBM/, BWM/d or s, MC/d or s).

A great game system to defend against a weaker rival, that will attack rarely, but in a various ways.

For normal or deep defence line (team shape: fluid or very fluid), one can try to order higher pressing and tighter marking, but with the defence set higher (team shape: flexible or fluid) I advise to reduce the pressing and abandon tighter marking.

Due to the high initial position ball playing defender, especially in transition phase, requires a covering of someone from the second line (recommended roles: DLP/d, BWM/s).

The system of impenetrable defensive game against a stronger rival playing wide, using offensive wingers (team shape: flexible).

In this model, it is best to set moderate commands for the defensive line (normal line, occasional pressing without tighter marking) that you can set more aggressively if the opponent will play narrow or withdraw a little (a bit higher line, tighter marking by central defenders).

As in the previous proposal the defence requires someone in the second line to seal off the hole (BBM/, BWM/d or s, CM/d or DLP/d).

Another variant of a good solution against a stronger rival, allowing to keep higher fluidity (team shape: fluid or very fluid) provided the involvement of at least two midfielders in the defensive game.

It is also necessary here to preserve the normal defence line with concurrent tighter marking and higher pressing, in order to reduce the space between the lines of defence and midfield, and thereby to nullify the free space to play the ball by opponents, who will be creating positional attack. It is ideal to play with the counter attack, providing an active participation of our full backs (-> FB/au).

Quite a versatile system that one can easily and quickly convert depending on the strength of the opponent, but is dedicated for weaker opponents.

With less absorbing rival (team shape: fluid) presented variant requires us to have in the second line only one assisting midfielder (BWM/d or DLP/d) so that one can play with higher defensive line and higher pressing.

More demanding rival (team shape: flexible) will require from us lower pressing and at least two assisting midfielders in the second line.

Absolute classics against equal opponent (team shape: fluid or elastic).

When a rival plays through the middle trying to keep the ball and build the attack, one has to slightly withdraw a defensive line (normal or deeper) and release the pressing (sometimes or less).

When rival relies on the playing through the flanks and rather direct style of quick attacks, it’s better to pull out the defensive line to the front while increasing the pressure.

In both cases tighter marking is contraindicated due to the difficulty in maintaining a defensive formation during transition phase.

With such setting, we will need help from one (deeper defensive line), or two players (higher defensive line) in the second line.

Either very offensive (team shape: fluid, and at least two midfielders in the second line support the defensive play) or balanced variant (team shape: flexible and one assisting midfielder).

In each variant it requires to shorten the playing field and lower the pressing, and for these two reasons I recommend to use it against weaker opponents, who will be playing defensively without using offensive wingers.

The perfect solution against opponents playing classic 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 or 4-1-4-1.


As already mentioned in Lesson 2 in Football Manager game systems with three defenders are designed for strong teams, because the real nuisance in their case is to is seal the flanks, and the lack of defensive midfielder makes an easy prey from them for the teams playing with three offensive midfielders (AMC + AML + AMR).

It does not change the fact that one can set pretty tight defence system against the formations used by the AI.

Defensive game system based on the deeper defensive line and much higher pressing assigned individually to all three central defenders.

Essential here is one ball winning midfielder (preferably BWM/s), which will be the securing action in the middle of the field in case of turnover.

Thanks to keeping a slightly deeper position of central defenders during the game without the ball they are not much exposed to fight single duels in defence, as if it would take place with the higher defence line.

However, in this system it is crucial to transit from attack to defence, so I do not recommend the use of it against rivals playing direct passes with an active use of quick wingers.

The number of dangerous actions on our flanks can be the sufficient to make this system collapse.

A slightly more conservative system capable of better securing our flanks thanks to the deeper position of wing backs, but mainly thanks to the fact that the two lateral central defenders take a bit deeper positions than (often going forward) ball playing defender.

That does not change the fact that the system requires a much deeper defensive line while concurrent higher pressing.

Paradoxically, this system favours the tight marking and does not require from our second line so much work on the defence.

Using it, however, against stronger rival very soon will reveal too much free space in the hole (when the opponent attacks through the middle), or too much free space on the flanks (when he attacks through the wings).

The only one amongst treble systems known to me that seals the hole while retaining a moderately good securing on the flanks when playing against a strong opponent.

The disadvantage of this approach is that on both our flanks on the second line, we cannot use offensive wingers, and the positions of the ML and MR we are forced to choose between wide midfielder (WM) and defensive winger (DW).

Neither a classic winger, nor wide playmaker can find such a position during any defensive game phase, that makes them able to interfere with opponent’s raids, not to mention covering overlapping full backs.

Deeper defensive line and more pressing are still expected.


The discussion on the role of libero in Football Manager blew itself out along with changes in FM15 engine, which brought the last significant change in offensive formation play.

As a result of these changes, most players prefer to allow one player more to offensive tasks than try to seal own backfield, because, as rightly concluded, the position of libero is not so significant on for the security of our defence that we can do without the rest of the defenders in their positions.

Consequently, the libero position has disappeared from most of published tactics, and game systems using libero tested by me yielded only two settings that allow to exploit his game potential without a harm to the offensive play.

In the scheme above libero during the defensive will be spreading central defenders on the sides creating five defenders’ line (including full backs), and the only difference in his behaviour will be staying two steps behind the defence and the perpendicular movement in the direction from which the enemy action will approach.

He secures this way both positions of the central defenders and full backs.

It excludes from the presented scheme not only deeper defensive line (I recommend: higher), but also less pressing (I recommend: more) because in both cases players would be hot on each other’s heels.

Undoubtful advantages of this game system is the ability to resign from defensive midfielder, and an additional player in front of the opponent’s penalty box, because libero during the game on the ball will adopt the nominal position of central midfielder, and in certain situations will come from the deep into the opponent's penalty area.

System allowing to effectively oppose the weaker rival playing through the middle.

The positions of the full backs will not be vulnerable to quick counterattacks in the transition phase, and libero will be positioned deeply enough to help in the quick regain of the ball in the middle zone.

In a classic positional attack (much higher defensive line and higher pressing) rival won’t have room for a quiet distribution, and the flanks will be well protected.

This system has one more advantage: it allows the other five players to fully devote to offensive game without giving them any supportive or securing tasks.

Third is a system once presented on FMScout, which however contains a few inaccuracies about the attacking game, in libero issue not only does not commit any error, but is a textbook example of how smoothly you can move around the world of tactics in Football Manager by creating effective defensive solutions using given tools.

In presented scheme the defensive line should not be deep (I recommend: slightly higher), and pressing should be higher, however tighter marking here would be a mistake, particularly when rival plays narrowly.

In the transition phase this will cause players responsible for the width of the game (RPM + DM) and securing both flanks (both CDs) not to position wide enough to prevent passing into space to advancing opponent’s player.

Lesson finished.

In the next one, quite unexpectedly for everyone, we move on to the attackers.

We will discuss ways to build offense, finish the action, cooperate between the attackers and break the rival’s defence.

After discussing the ways to attack, we will move on to the second line and learn how to convince our midfielders to connect the defensive and offensive formations.

This way of looking at the tactics in Football Manager seems to me to be the most appropriate, since it reflects best the construction of tactics.

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Discussion: Tactical Development Workshop - LESSON 4: Defensive Systems

4 comments have been posted so far.

  • Ta31_a's avatar
    With the introduction of Wide Centre Backs, are you going to update this?
  • MFVitor's avatar
    Thank you so much, Piotr. I'm looking forward the next posts. This series has been awesome so far.
  • Piotr Sebastian's avatar
    Thanks. Next lesson in the coming days...
  • Szlomo's avatar
    Hello, Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. I personally don't like to use "ready" tactics, and after reading this my team improved a lot with proper defense setup. Great work!
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