Hello, and welcome back to Football Manager Ambition. I've got several treats in store for you today!
Great Football Manager Quotes
A hilarious insight from the Tinkerer himself, Claudio Ranieri!
An update on FM Ambition's SWFC save; the end of season 2027-28, and transfer window shenanigans.
It's getting silly now...
Tactics School: Defensive Dilemmas
A deep dive into the tactical dilemmas of central defenders.
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GREAT FOOTBALL MANAGER QUOTES
"If it is the case that you just need a first eleven and three or four more players, then why did Columbus sail to India and discover America?"
~Claudio Ranieri bemoans the complexity of squad management.
Season 2027-28 finished with an odd mix of success and failure. For a long time we were chasing first place in the Premier League, and it looked like Man City would beat us to it. But they hit a rocky patch toward the end of the season, and failed to capitalise on games in hand. In the end, I won the league by a comfortable 8 points.
I was knocked out of the League Cup on aggregate in the semis by Chelsea, but wasn't too worried. But the biggest disappointment of the season was getting trounced out of the Champions League in a 5-2 aggregate romp from Barcelona which included a 4-0 humiliation at the Nou Camp. It came as a shock, as my style of play is usually pretty successful against the top European sides. It was somewhat made up for by a long overdue FA Cup Final win against a strong Man City side. Anyway, a haul of five trophies for the season isn't too bad...
Results from January to the end of the season:
As the season closed, I had a number of incoming transfers lined up, and some big money spent:
If you've been following the blog for a while, you might be surprised to see 34-year old Eric Dier coming back to the club. He's not showing the expected signs of deterioration, and there just isn't anyone else available who can do the job I need as well as he can. So he's back with me - on less wages! The purchase of Adam Cherry means all three England keepers are now at my club. That should be fun. Newcomers to this blog might be wondering, why do I want all three England keepers? See my previous explanatory post about my FM Ambitions.
The chairman is rightly happy with the status of SWFC within the footballing world:
As Stan Lee might say; Excelsior!
The saga continues. I keep making bids for this lad, higher or lower depending how much I've got in the bank at any given time, but it just doesn't matter what I offer. They will not sell. I've been chasing him for several seasons, and doing everything I can to unsettle him. Nothing works. In real life, I would have kidnapped him by now. Never seen anything like it on FM.
TACTICS SCHOOL: DEFENSIVE DILEMMAS PART ONE
Okay, defensive decisions are complex. The following article is a bit longer than what you normally read on FM Ambition.
Defenders. At the risk of stating the 'bleedin obvious', you can't play with a four-man defence if you're going to have five in midfield and three up front. (It's a maths thing.) How many players you put into your defensive line depends on your overall formation, clearly (see Tactics School in blog #9). Your overall defensive strategy ('strategy' should, rightly, refer to an overriding ethos, whereas 'tactics' refers to particular match plans), should be built on the understanding that how you defend depends on how much you are willing to risk to win a game. The better your players and tactical nous, the more you can afford to risk.
When deciding what to do with your defence, you've got to consider the very obvious: central defenders and wide defenders, the fairly obvious: will you employ one or more defensive midfielders, and the slightly less obvious: how does your overall team formation, shape and mentality affect the back line? It's a tricky business, and books have been written about how to handle this in real life football. Here, it's worth looking at a few high-impact decisions you can make to ensure you get your defence organised on Football Manager in the way you imagine it in real life.
Unless you're playing some kind of avant-garde tactic that eschews established roles and duties, the first decision you're going to have to make here is do you go with 2 or 3 central defenders. Football goes through cycles with tactical fashions preferring one option over the other. But if you go for 3 central defenders, you're going to be faced with the eternal tactical question that the TV pundits love to debate: what are your wide defenders (wing-backs or full-backs) going to do? Are you operating a 3-man or 5-man defence?
If you don't get the answer to this right, you're either going to leave yourself vulnerable to counter-attacks in the wide areas (because you're full-backs are too far forward), or you're going to abdicate numerical influence in the midfield or forward areas (if you keep your full-backs deep).
Of course, if you happen to have three world-class centrebacks on display, this is less of a problem for you. Especially if your FBs / WBs have world-class pace, stamina and anticipation. But that's not going to happen for most of us.
A 3-centreback system generally works best with FBs / WBs pushed forward, when your team is way better than the opposition and / or if you're confident you can really dominate possession, thereby mitigating the risk of counter-attacks in the wide areas.
The 2-centreback system remains the standard for most teams. If you stick with it, does it mean you can't let your full-backs attack? Not at all. In fact, getting forward is expected even of defensively minded full-backs these days. The difference is only about how often and how far your full-backs get forward. When deciding how to fine-tune your central defenders, you have to have one eye on what you intend to do with your wide defenders, and also on what the midfield will be doing, and indeed, how much pressing your forward line will do.
Your key consideration here is what happens when your attacks break down? How likely are you to be hit on the counter-attack, and how bad will it be?
Once you know how many central defenders are going to be in your formation, you have to decide on the roles and duties you will assign them. It's not straightforward, due to the peculiarities of Football Manager, and there are many different thoughts about how to go about this. What follows is simply my opinion, based on many years of intense playing of Football Manager.
Central Defender, Ball Playing Defender, or Defensive Centre Back? You can either go with an option for each defender that gives them the fullest, shiniest green disc on the tactics screen, or you can fit your players' roles to your system. I would always recommend the latter.
Defensive Centre Backs
There is a tendency for some FM gamers to apply the DCB role if the defenders aren't technically good, and if you're playing a long-ball game, relying on physicality rather than finesse. This isn't necessarily the right thing to do. In real life, Steve Bruce won honours with Manchester United, playing as a defensive centreback, in a team that played great football.
If you've got a central defender that isn't technically gifted, you might want to keep him playing short, simple passes, not just lumping the ball back to the opposition. However, you don't just want him to give the ball away in front of your own back line, and this is why you have to decide where your wide defenders and defensive midfielders are going to be positioned in relation to the centrebacks; you need to give these DCBs a safe short passing option.
Ball Playing Defenders
This is another role that some gamers get wrong, although it's easy to see why.
The BPD is an odd role that has gradually entered the public consciousness on the back of mould-breaking players like Franz Beckenbauer, confusion over the nature of the Sweeper role (more on Sweepers shortly), and a lack of appreciation of how much a defender can or cannot express themselves is driven by the tactical decisions of the manager - something that prevails more every season, it seems.
People like to use BPDs in possession-based systems, in which the ball is played out from the back. They might want to se their BPD playing little one-twos around opposition forwards in a slow build-up. However, if you read the guidance on Football Manager, a BPD is expected to play long, defence-splitting passes. You might find a BPD works best in a direct system (when I say direct, I don't necessarily mean route-one to Andy Carroll. Although that could work). A great BPD can help you get the ball forward quickly and accurately, which is great if you are wanting to play a central midfield of two ball-winners. A great solution if you don't want to play too direct is to have a centreback who is naturally suited to a BPD role, but assign him a simple Central Defender role. Exactly how he goes about playing the ball will then be dictated by your fine tuning of team instructions. Try it and see.
The Central Defender role remains the go-to instruction for me. I like to play well-rounded players in my team, so my centrebacks can usually pass a ball with competence. I like to have a couple of natural BPDs in the squad, but the role instruction remains Central Defender for them. With lower-quality players, the DCB option may be more useful. I would only recommend assigning the BPD role if you have a definite reason for doing so, based on all the other considerations in your tactical plan. This is based on my experience that as soon as you give a player the BPD role in Football Manager, they seem to lose a few points of their artificial IQ when it comes to actually defending.
So, you have three duties to choose from for each central defender; defend, stopper or cover. Let's start with 2-centreback systems. A long running debate exists among FM gamers as to what is best; a paring of two CDs with defend duty, or a pairing with one on Stopper, and one on Cover. Again, you can just go with what gives your players the shiniest green disc on the tactics screen, but I wouldn't recommend it. I have seen gamers use systems in which there is one centreback on Defend duty, and the other on either Stopper or Cover. I see this is a bit avant-garde, if not pretentious, and I'm not aware of these systems ever resulting in consistent success. The decision should be between two on Defend duty, or the Stopper / Cover combination. And your decision must be based on what you're going to do with your wide defenders if you want your defence to be any good.
If you go for a Stopper / Cover combination, the Stopper will push forward to close down, and the Cover will drop off to spot and deal with anything getting pat the Stopper. This means you are sacrificing a solid defensive shape on the understanding that you believe your defenders can dominate the opposing forwards, and, in combination with your midfield, can force the opposition to make errors in attack. Your stopper will keep quiet which ever attacker is the focal point of a move, and your covering man will mop up any balls that get through. However, if you are pushing FBs / WBs forward, leaving a vulnerability to counter-attack in wide areas, your 2-man Stopper / Cover combo is going to get run ragged, pulled out of shape, and you're going to concede a lot of goals from crosses. A 2-man Stopper / Cover combo works best with full-backs on Defend duty, or even better with Defensive Full-Backs. Having said that, you can mitigate the vulnerabilities of the system slightly by using one or more defensive midfielders, and you will have less problems against teams who only play narrow. No tactical decision happens in a vacuum.
If you go for a pairing of two centrebacks on Defend duty, you will get a more all-round reliable defensive performance, that will more easily adapt to different opposition threats. You will feel more comfortable against counter attacks, particularly if you have your wide defenders set to a Support duty, in which case you'll usually find only one of them will go bombing forward at a time. (Incidentally, a book I have recommended many times; Flat Back Four, explains how a four-man defence usually ends up being a three man defence in this, the most commonly used back-line system.)
We've already talked about some of the limitations of a 3-man central defence. As you might have gathered, I'm not a fan (on Football Manager at least). However, if you decide to go for it, it does allow you some interesting combinations. Most gamers going with a back three will either have them all on Defend duty, or two on Stopper and one on Cover. In real life, I believe I'm right in saying that many years ago, Crystal Palace played a match with a back three, employing one Stopper and two men on 'Cover' duty (although a pundit described it as 'two sweepers'). I think it was used against Liverpool. (Any Palace fans out there care to confirm or correct me?)
Another real life example, again from a long time ago: I was fortunate to work with a guy who was coaching a leading women's team (before women's football had its current high profile). He had proper coaching badges, and I wanted to pick his brains about defending, to help me with my struggling men's Sunday League side. He explained that at the level we were playing at, you didn't need to deploy four defenders. He explained a 3-man (or -woman) system, in which one acted as a Stopper, always attacking the ball. Another went to whichever opponent was the focal point of the attack. The third played in Cover mode, mopping up the ball. Midfielders were expected to track back and mark opponents supporting the attack. I changed my men's side's system to this, and before long we got our first win of the season. In Football Manager, this would translate as one defender on Stopper duty, one on Defend duty, and one on Cover. I tried it once on the game, and it was a disaster. FM does not equate to real life.
It's time to talk about Cover duty and...
I'm not aware that any two people have the same opinion on exactly what a Sweeper is. The first time I started thinking about Sweepers was during the 1990 World Cup, when Bobby Robson's England switched to a back three formation, at the request of the players.
A lot of pundits started talking about Sweepers, which were a bit of a thing in Italy. Two pundits, I recall, gave two different definitions of a Sweeper. One said he plays behind the defence, and sweeps up loose balls. The other said the Sweeper is a defender who takes possession of the ball, and carries it into attack, 'sweeping' forward. They were both, in a way, correct. It turns out there are different types of Sweeper, and the legendary Franz Beckenbauer could carry out both those activities expertly.
Essentially, a Sweeper starts off as a safety net behind the other defenders. In theory, it allows the other defenders to play aggressively, closing down more - basically becoming Stoppers to some degree or another.
Football Manager allows for two types of Sweeper. One is the basic Sweeper on a Defend duty, who remains behind the defence. You might want to use this option in a 3-man defence with full-backs pushed on. The other type is the Libero - the one who 'sweeps forward', available with either Support or Attack duties. In real life, done well, it can be a very exciting role. But it still leaves you with all the vulnerabilities of a 3-man system, as discussed above.
One of the great limitations of the current Football Manager tactical system is that it does not allow a defensive role which is actually reasonably common in real life: the non-Sweeper central defender who 'sweeps forward'. The club I support, Sheffield Wednesday, has had two excellent exponents of this role in the past: One was Paul Warhurst, who later made his name as a striker.
He joined SWFC as a central defender, after playing as an attacking full-back for Oldham. At Wednesday, he effectively played the way he did as a full-back, but in central defence; getting the ball and dribbling at blistering pace through the middle of the park. It was stunning stuff.
Years later, we signed Madjid Bougherra, who, while lacking Warhurst's pace, still marauded forward with the ball.
Neither of them had a Sweeper's starting position, though. It would be nice for FM to extend the Libero role to non-Sweeper centrebacks. But as Wednesday sometimes found to their cost, leaving one central defender back while letting his partner roam forward can leave you very prone to counter-attacks.
Putting Football Manager terminology to one side for a moment, it's simple to say that a defender on Cover duty is actually sweeping up. The whole Defend duties v Stopper / Cover duties hinges on how aggressively you want to defend in the last third, and how important keeping the defensive shape is to you.
Is there one 'best' defensive set-up? Of course not. But you can only succeed if you understand to pros and pitfalls of your choices, and keep them in context with your decisions for your midfield and attack. Which leads us quite nicely to the subject of full-backs and wing-backs, which we'll cover in the next Tactics School.
Thanks for visiting. I'll see you next time.