Every tactic is based around a framework that decides the basic ‘shape’ of the formation by employing variations of mentality, defensive line, closing down, runs and passing settings. In order for any tactic to work effectively, these key ingredients must be set correctly. The roles of individual players are then adapted around these instructions.
Player Roles & Mentality Systems
For the most part, the frameworks are based around player roles referred to by their typical Football Manager abbreviation (left sided midfielder becomes ML, goal keeper GK etc.). However, there are four roles atypical of Football Manager position defaults that are fundamental to the design of tactics.
The MCd and the MCa
In every tactic, one central midfielder needs to be given the role of MCd (midfielder with defensive duties) and another needs to be given the role of MCa (midfielder with attacking duties).
The MCd is a holding player. He can be played in the DMC position, but does not have to be. He should be defensively minded and will generally not make forward runs. His primary role is to protect the back line when the midfield and forwards attack, and to act as the first line of defence when the opposition have attacking possession. He should be cautious, hold his position and help maintain the team’s defensive shape.
The MCa is the flip side of the coin. He is an attacking player whose role is to support the forwards when the team has possession. He can be played in the AMC position, but does not have to be. He will be more attacking, will tend to make forward runs and commonly assumes a playmaking role in the centre of the field.
Having both types of central midfielder in a side means the midfield doesn’t get vacated when a team are on the attack while ensuring there are enough people attacking to offer support. It provides defensive stability and attacking muscle.
The FCd and the FCa
This is a slightly harder distinction to recognise at first glance. It is best to explain the system with regard to formations employing two strikers, such as the classic 4-4-2.
The FCd is the link player. He drops in the hole behind the main striker to act as a bridge between the midfield and the attack. Without him, it is possible to leave the two strikers completely isolated from the rest of the team. With him, there is a staggered stage of attack. The main striker and, formation allowing, a couple of midfielders run beyond him while he holds up the ball and looks for passing options, giving the attack time to take shape. This is crucial in all systems, but especially so for those employing a counter attacking strategy. Having him hang slightly further back offers passing options to the other forwards and midfielders, and therefore keeps the play imaginative, flowing and effective.
The FCa is his strike partner. Told to stay forward at all times, he is the primary end-target of the attacking play (but not necessarily the target man). He plays off the shoulder of the last defender, tries to latch on to long balls and through balls and moves around as much as possible to create space for himself. Being furthest forward, he always offers an attacking pass option, especially for the FCd. He can, if needed, lay the ball off to deeper positioned teammates, but his primary function is attempting to finish off attacking moves.
However, this definition blurs slightly in formations having fewer or more than two forwards:
Lone Striker Formations:
In a lone striker formation, one of the MCs or AMCs plays the role of FCa. The idea here is that the lone striker’s role is more similar to an FCd than to a true FCa. He will aim to hold the ball up and lay it off to other people. He will look to keep the ball long enough for his support to arrive in the form of midfielders and wingers. In order to not leave him isolated, he requires a lower mentality. In order to ensure support arrives quickly the attacking midfielder thus requires a much higher mentality. In nearly all formations with a lone striker, you will be able to play a player with FCa mentality instructions in midfield and still employ a more standard MCa alongside him.
Three Striker Formations:
In formations with three strikers, it is beneficial to make the central striker the FCa and have both his support strikers FCds. This means that he has two people supporting him and looking to feed him through balls. This should enable all three players to stay in contact with the rest of the team, providing attacking presence and multiple passing options.
Four Striker Formations:
This is not an issue with a four-man strike force, which simply employs pushed up ML/Rs as FL/Rs.
With those terms clarified, we can continue with the frameworks.
Managerial Type & Mentality Systems
The two primary tactical instructions (mentality and creative freedom) are the most difficult to translate into real world footballing language. It is difficult to imagine a manager specifying exactly how attacking each player should be or how much he is allowed to deviate from managerial instructions to the degree the sliders allow. Such levels of precision have traditionally caused much angst and argument among FM managers and have often been heavily criticised as being too complex. In attempting to unravel these complexities, we’d like to offer a new conceptualisation of these sliders as determining manager type as much as the tactics of the team.
The two polarities of managerial type are the Authoritarian and the Libertarian manager. The Authoritarian determines every aspect of the team’s play and expects each player to follow his instructions to the letter. Mentality structure will be individually tailored to the players and creative freedom will be close to non-existent. The team will play very precise, controlled football with little flair or creativity and heavily rely on set pieces and set moves to score. On the other hand, the Libertarian manager has a rough idea of how attacking or defensive his team should be for each match and gives players their heads. The mentality structure will be very generic and creative freedom will be high. The team will play free-flowing football and goals will come from all types of open-play moves.
As in real life, these two managerial stereotypes, although potentially successful short-term, are likely to fail in the long run as they are too one-dimensional in approach. The overly structured manager can take his highly controlled style of football to the top level but is often too regimented to remain there, with his teams failing to offer enough flair and creativity to break down high-class defences. However, he should be able to keep a poor squad up simply by playing percentage football. The flair and creativity focused manager will do very well with a squad full of players who can operate at the higher end of the divisional level but will fail to bring enough tactical acumen to the table to win really big matches and titles. With a poor squad, he is likely to be an unmitigated disaster, as he will ask his players to do things of which they are not capable.
As with real life managers, the successful FM09 manager will need to learn how to balance a systematic approach to formation structure with a trust in which players can be allowed the creative freedom to express themselves without disrupting his overall tactical vision. Knowing which type of manager you are will then enable you to choose or design a mentality system that best suits your style. Some systems better suit a manager at the Authoritarian end of the scale, as they can do well with restricted creative freedom, whereas others are friendlier to the Libertarian axis, requiring a lot of creativity and flair to flourish.
No matter which one you choose it is likely that they will need to be tweaked further to suit your own playing preference, managerial style and the ability of the individual players at your disposal. You might be an aggressive manager that tries to impose his particular style of play on the opposition and thus veer towards an attacking framework with low creative freedom. You might examine your opponent's strategy in fine detail and assign the majority of players to counter it whilst relying on an elite few to do the creative stuff. There is no 'best way' to play or manage. However, somewhere there will be a style of play that best suits your temperament and vision. The following section outlines a number of mentality approaches that have worked over the last few versions, alongside their relative suitability to managerial type.
The mentality systems will be presented in order, ranging from the most Authoritarian approaches at the top to the most Libertarian at the bottom. Authoritarian mentality systems assign specified mentalities and instructions to every player, whereas Libertarian ones are more simple and team-based. The mentality structures illustrated indicate how a standard match strategy would look. However, the actual player mentality values shown are just to illustrate the settings and don't have to be followed precisely. If you are a cautious manager, your starting mentality (DCs) can drop to five. If you are more aggressive, you could have a lowest starting mentality of eleven. To design a complementary attacking strategy, simply raise each value by four to eight notches, depending on your standard settings. For a defensive strategy, lower by four to eight.
NB: We recommend a maximum of eight notches between the most attacking and defensive outfield players for all mentality systems. Greater mentality gaps risk isolating the defence from the midfield and the midfield from the attack.
The Nike Defence
Manager Type: José Mourinho
Although this mentality structure is basically an adaption of the Rule of One, it is ideally suited to those that wish to play the Mourinho way. It is exceedingly control-orientated and specifies more individual mentality settings than any other system. It closely mirrors Mourinho's tactics in two ways. Firstly, it employs an athletic covering DC to support a powerful destroyer in the manner of the Carvalho/Terry Chelsea partnership. Secondly, the MCd sits slightly deeper than he would in the Rule of One, which equates to how Mourinho employed Makélélé. Like all Rule of One tactics, it suits the Mourinho-type manager as it can do well without excessive creative freedom.
The Libero Defence
Manager Type: Fabio Capello
As with the Nike Defence, the Libero Defence is a reworking of the Rule of One. Like Mourinho, Capello is very specific about how he wishes each of his players to perform and always employs a deep holding midfielder. However, unlike Mourinho he encourages one of his DCs to advance forward with the ball in the manner of a classic Libero, as seen by Rio Ferdinand's performances under Capello for England. Allowing a deeper defensive line than the Nike Defence, the Libero Defence better suits the type of controlled, possession football Capello prefers in contrast to Mourinho's direct, muscular approach.
Rule of One (RoO)
Manager Type: Martin O'Neill
The Rule of One plays roughly in the same manner as a Martin O'Neill tactic. Like Mourinho and Capello, O'Neill is very fastidious about tactics and expects each of his players to fulfil a specific function. However, he has had much less chance to work with genuinely world-class players, which has led to him employing a more generic system into which players of lesser quality are able to operate. In applying detailed specific mentality and player instructions, O'Neill can overachieve without the need for highly creative or flair players in his attacking line. Relying on detailed tactical structure enables him to employ lowish levels of creative freedom without a drop in performance.
Bands of Two
Manager Type: Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex is the first manager that deviates from a very tight control methodology. Manchester Utd's system, most especially in the Queiroz years, operates through four bands of play. While the central defenders are predominantly instructed to defend (unlike when playing for Capello, Ferdinand stays back) the full backs and defensive midfielder offer deep support for the front line alongside their defensive duties. The attacking midfielder and wingers have become virtually interchangeable, switching roles in the high support band, and are usually allowed their creative heads. The final band is the spearhead forward, ideally a complete player who is comfortable playing with the ball at his feet or in the air.
Credit: wwfan & Millie
Manager Type: Arsene Wenger
Moving towards the more expressive mentality systems, in which control structure meets individual responsibility, we find Arsene Wenger. Unlike the other systems, here the mentality matches the player role within the team's overall match strategy and thus changes depending on how many players are assigned to specific roles. When playing an attacking strategy, the five attacking roles are on the same mentality, whereas when playing a defensive system, five roles are assigned defensive mentalities. The player's role rather than his individual skills or team system becomes the most important aspect of play. When everything fits into place and all the roles interact perfectly, the football is magical.
Defensive Roles: 8
Supporting Roles: 11
Attacking Roles: 14
Credit: wwfan & Millie
Manager Type: Marcelo Lippi
Lippi's teams have traditionally been some of the more expressive in Italian football, partly to do with his charismatic manner generating team spirit, but mainly due to his flexible approach to tactics. The 2-6-2 system allows considerable flexibility in the middle of the park, with six players interlinking as support group for the attack and defence. As with most Italian approaches, this system can frustrate opponents by dominating possession deep on the pitch as the back two interact with the midfield in an eight player passing system prior to instantaneously turning defence into attack as one of the front players is suddenly picked out in space.
Manager Type: Rafa Benitez
Although Benitez doesn't come immediately to mind as a Libertarian, his structural approach to tactics is a simple one, relying on five players to defend and five to attack. Although he has transformed Liverpool into a team that is very difficult to break down, criticisms remain with regard to his attacking intentions and lack of width. In typical Spanish manner, Benitez wants his front five to play with creativity and flair, unlocking opposing defences via quick-fire passing interchanges. Without players who have the vision and touch to unlock defences in tight areas this translates into many efficient but dour matches. However, with the right players and creative freedom allowances up front, scintillating attacking play will complement resolute defence.
Manager Type: Kevin Keegan
Global mentality suits a manager who is willing to give players their heads and relies heavily on motivation techniques to get the best out of them. When the team is playing well, the global system is capable of outstanding football. However, its relative lack of defensive cover and a tendency to be compressed means that, when things are going less well, it can be outflanked on the counter and squeezed out when attacking. To combat that it requires heavy levels of creative freedom and players who can make the best use of it alongside excellent team discipline and determination. For a manager confident of his team-talks and media interaction it can be a great system.
All Players: 11
Effective Strike Partnerships
Although we have specified two types of forward, the mentality frameworks only specify one FC setting, despite the requirement for the FCa to play higher up the pitch than the FCd. The reason for the omission is the difference in instructions for Attacking, Standard and Defensive mentality systems.
In all systems, it is important that there is a reasonably large mentality split between the two forwards. This stops the opposing defence from being able to hold a single line that denies both forwards space. One FC drops deeper to find space in front of the line, whereas the other plays higher to try and move into space beyond it. In a defensive system, the mentality framework directly links to the lower FCd settings, with the FCa being assigned a higher mentality to ensure he is playing on the shoulder of the last defender. In an attacking system, the mentality framework directly links to the higher FCa settings, with the FCd being assigned a lower mentality to ensure he drops deep into space.
Using the suggested mentality setting of the DC as a base (x) we recommend the following settings as a rough guide for an effective strike partnership.
FCd (x + 5); FCa (x +
FCd (x + 3); FCa (x + 7)
FCd (x + 1); FCa (x + 6)
However, for a Global Mentality System the formula is slightly different:
FCd (x); FCa (x + 4)
FCd (x - 2); FCa (x + 2)
FCd (x - 4); FCa (x)
These settings can be altered depending on the ability and speed of the forwards, the starting mentality of each system and the specific managerial vision.
Player Roles & Forward Runs (FWRs)
When assigning forward runs to your players, it is important that you are very clear as to their role in the team. Player roles are defined in the following way:
The player will focus heavily on defensive duties
The player will perform both defensive and attacking duties
The player will focus heavily on attacking duties
Asking your players to make forward runs defines how often and by how far they will deviate from the assigned formation position. If a player is told to make Forward Runs Rarely, this translates into the match engine as an instruction to hold his formation position and be ready to cover any counter-attacks. Assigning Forward Runs Mixed translates as instructing him to help out with attacks but not to stray too far from his formation position so he can quickly get back and help out the defence as and when needed. Forward Runs Often tells the player to move into attacking positions as soon as the team has the ball. With the above in mind, forward runs should be applied in the following manner:
- Defend: FWRs Rarely
- Support: FWRs Mixed
- ttack: FWRs Often
To keep things simple, we will restrict early discussion of player roles to the three most basic match strategies, Defensive, Standard and Attacking. Every tactic requires enough people defending and enough people attacking to be stable, but attacking flavours require more attackers and, conversely, defensive tactics need more bodies in defence. Hence, roles are assigned in the following manner:
- Defensive: 5 defend, 2 support, 3 attack
- Standard: 3 defend, 4 support, 3 attack
- Attacking: 3 defend, 2 support, 5 attack
Such a system assigns player roles into a basic configuration of 3 Defend, 2 Support and 3 Attack, which repeats through all the match strategies. The manager then decides on which two players he wishes to ‘float’ between the three. These ‘floaters’ will be classed as Defends in Defensive match strategies, Supports in Standard match strategies and Attackers in Attacking match strategies. For most formations (including 5-3-2, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1 etc.) the likelihood is that these players will be the full backs or wing backs. For systems without full backs, the manager needs to be more creative. Once you’ve identified which players you are going to ‘float’ it becomes simple to scale the instructions and create all three strategic flavours of any tactic.
When assigning these roles, it is important to recognise the forward positions as being attacking by nature. As such, they do not require having FWRs Often/Mixed to be classified as an Attacker/Support. Indeed, assigning FWRs Often to both FCs in a two-forward formation will often lead to their being isolated from the midfield and uninvolved with play. As specified earlier, one FC (FCd) will need to operate in a deeper, support role to link the attack with the midfield, whereas the other (FCa) should be looking to play on the shoulder of the last defender. Correctly assigning their forward runs is fundamental to having your attack operate as a unit:
- The FCd can be classed as attack/support with no/mixed FWRs
- The FCa can be classed as attack with mixed/often FWRs
To evaluate whether you have the correct FWRs instruction assigned to your FCs, use the Match Stats to check on the offside count and FC involvement in play. If the offside count is high, then it is likely that your FCa is making runs too early and his FWRs should be Mixed. If the FCd isn’t seeing much ball, it is for one of two reasons. He may not be dropping into space to pick up easy passes from midfield, or the pitch might be so small that this space is being squeezed and he can’t get into the game. For the former, you will need to reduce FWRs from Mixed to Rarely. For the latter, you will need to have him operating higher up the pitch, so increase FWRs from Rarely to Mixed.
The Arrowless Match Engine
With the removal of arrows, the Forward Runs slider has become significantly more important. In combination with mentality, it is now the major method of instructing a player to advance from his formation position and move into attacking areas of the pitch. It is important to clarify the benefits of this change.
There is a common misperception as to the functionality of arrows. Arrows were not player runs. Nor did they specify exactly where a player should be running, either with or without the ball. What they did was specify two possession-related static positions. As soon as a team won possession, a player would robotically follow his arrow to move into his assigned attacking position. Once there, he would make a play related move. When the team lost the ball the same would happen in reverse. During this movement, the player was following a pre-set instruction that kicked in no matter what was happening on the pitch, taking the player out of the game and impairing his ability to react to the action.
Replacing arrows with forward runs ensures that player movement is far more dynamic and directly related to on-pitch events. Despite a seeming loss of lateral control, which, as with most arrow-related moves, was largely illusory, the new system ensures dynamic player movement, fluid football and realistic transitions from defence to attack. A well thought-through forward runs pattern will lead to some truly excellent passing combinations and quality attacking play.
Closing down translates as how quickly and how far a player will leave his defensive position to deal with an attacking threat. Setting it too high throughout the team will lead to defensive structure disintegrating as players chase their opponents all over the pitch. It will also result in a lot of tired legs and defensive errors during the latter stages of a match. Setting it too low will see players backing off and backing off, allowing the opposition time and space to make through passes and set up for shots in dangerous positions.
Generally, closing down will work best if players perform it in relation to their position. Forwards are positioned high up the pitch, so need to close down more aggressively than their defensive counter-parts. Midfielders will be somewhere between the two. With this in mind, it is advisable to use your goalkeeper and central defensive pairing as a base and grade upwards from there. For lower level, poorly conditioned and ill-disciplined squads you should veer towards the lower end of the closing down spectrum. For quality, hard working, fit and disciplined sides, you should veer towards maximum settings.
Using the DC’s mentality as a base (x), closing down should roughly conform to the following minimum to maximum settings:
- GK/DC: x
- FB/WB: x + 1 to x + 4
- DMC/MCd: x + 2 to x + 6
- MCa/AMC/Wingers: x + 3 to x + 8
- FCs: x + 4 to x + 10
As highlighted above, when choosing the correct settings for your team, it is important to recognise whether the closing down structure is too aggressive for the type of football your players, in terms of fitness, tactical discipline and technique, are capable of playing. A key indicator that closing down is too high is seeing your players running around like headless chickens and finishing games in a state of semi-exhaustion. This is likely to be quite common for high pressing tactics in lower level football. If you notice your players, either individually or as a unit, closing down to the extent that your defensive formation shape suffers, reduce individual closing down settings until you are happy with performance. Alternatively, you might decide to play a more cautious game or conserve player energy in easy matches, which will also require the reduction of closing down. The indicator that you have gone too low is seeing the opposition having time and space in front of the back line to pick their through balls and compose themselves to make consistently effective long range shots. In more defensive systems, you might have to apply more closing down than the guidelines suggest, especially for central midfielders with a low work rate.
It is also important to recognise the distinct closing down patterns in different footballing cultures, with sides from hotter countries more focused on conserving energy than pressing the opposition at pace. In contrast, colder countries generally employ far higher levels of closing down.
Pitch size will also play a factor. On a huge pitch, players will have to run much further to close down the opposition, so are less likely to get there in time for the instruction to be effective. They will also tire rapidly. On such a pitch, the closing down gradient needs to be gradual, with the whole team having very similar settings and targeting a certain area of the pitch to try and win back possession. On a small pitch, high closing down settings can majorly restrict the opposition's chances of playing possession-orientated football. The closing down gradient will be steep, with the forwards having far greater settings than the central defenders, with attempts to regain possession happening all over the pitch. Think about what level of closing down best suits your players when deciding upon pitch size. However, wherever you play and at whatever level, it is important to maintain some degree of grading.
There are two major areas to be thinking about when setting passing patterns. The first is to make sure each player has plenty of passing options when he is in possession. The second is to think about what type of football you would like your team to play.
Passing length determines the options that a player will look for. Too short, and players won't have enough free options within range, leading to the player getting confused and hoofing the ball clear. Too long and the player will tend to play too many speculative, Hollywood balls, making it difficult to hold onto possession. At the bare minimum, a player should always be able to look up and see two easy passing options. Ideally, there will be three but this might be difficult to achieve on small pitches, against entrenched defences or under heavy pressure. A common error is to allow a player no obvious forward passing options at all. If you ask a full back to play very short passes to an aggressive midfield, all of whom are looking to get forward at every opportunity, the chances are he will look up and fail to see an obvious pass. He will be able to pass it inside, but that will not initiate an attack and often leads to the back four being dispossessed by a pressing front line or punting a directionless long ball up field to avoid being caught in a dangerous position. Common signs that this is happening are players dawdling on the ball when under little pressure or players with short passing instructions banging it long.
Make sure that each defensive player can look up and hit a lateral ball, forward ball and a diagonal ball without too much difficulty. For a player high up the pitch, the forward ball might be very difficult to pick against a packed defence, so he needs to have lateral, diagonal and backwards options, which enable the team to retain possession and look for a new opening. Check on the positioning settings of the players around the passer (mentality and forward runs) and adjust his passing instructions so he can hit passes to any of the required lengths. That might mean giving him longer passing instructions than you would have first expected. Individual player attributes are influential when assigning passing instructions. A player of great passing ability should find some kind of passing option no matter his instructions, as long as his temperament is up to his being able to play his way out of danger. However, someone who struggles to control his passing might be better suited to longer 'clear the ball' instructions so that he doesn't make poor, hurried passes from dangerous positions.
Although all passing systems can and should be tweaked to best suit the players at your disposal, there are two basic passing strategies from which you can build. One is focused on keeping possession, controlling the ball and breaking down the opposition in the final third. The other is more counter-attacking orientated and looks to clear the lines before catching a retreating defence out of position and vulnerable to the quick break.
Possession/Breaking Down the Opposition:
Such a system requires a solid base from which to launch attacks. It is the job of the defenders to ensure possession is retained until a chance opens. Hence, defenders and more defensively minded midfielders should be looking to play possession-friendly short passes. The more creative players will be looking to move the opposition about and open up space in the final third. Hence, they will be playing a far more direct game. If they lose the ball and it is cleared, the defence reorganize, reset the base and the move can start again.
This system requires the opposite approach. The defence is expected to be under pressure and its main aim is to clear the lines and, hopefully, initiate a counter while doing so. Hence, defenders’ passing settings will be direct, looking to bypass the midfield and feed the forwards, as a short pass to a deep-lying midfielder can be extremely dangerous if he is immediately closed down and loses possession. Direct passing instructions ensures the whole team is in passing range for an under pressure defender, offering multiple clearance options. The forwards’ job is to try and counter before the opposition gets its defence back into position. Hence, they will be looking to play short passes to their strike partner and supporting midfielders in the hope of quickly working a good through ball opportunity.
The above systems will need to be adapted to pitch size and match strategy. For example, on a smaller pitch, the direct passes of the attacking players might be over hit too often and need to be adjusted accordingly. Likewise, to see out a match with a possession mindset might lead to a manager asking a second central midfielder to play short passes to help with ball retention duties and only having four players probing for space in the final third. With a poor side, both systems may need to be based on longer passing instructions to ensure players aren't making foolish and easily intercepted passes in dangerous positions.