Exploiting the “Pocket”

“The pocket” is a term which is more readily associated with American Football, used to describe the space which is created by the offensive line and within which the quarterback operates, finding time to pick the right pass. In our brand of football, it is probably more often referred to as “playing in between the lines” or “playing in the hole”. However, these terms are either too cumbersome for repetitive use in an article or something which I have an illogical aversion to and so, for the next two and a half thousand words or so, I’ll be referring to it as “the pocket”.

Typical example of a player “in the pocket”

Here you can see a typical example of a player utilising the pocket. The opposition is playing a standard 4-4-2 whilst our AMC has picked up a position in acres of space waiting for the turnover. When this turnover is achieved, the ball is quickly fed into his feet and he immediately has three attacking passing options (yellow dotted lines) or he can simply turn and run at an exposed defence himself (the red line). A fairly typical example and a good indication of what I hope to deal with in this article.

So let’s start by laying out what is needed to make use of the pocket. At the very basic level you need three things:

  • Space
  • Passing options
  • The right kind of player

All fairly common sense really. There’s no exploiting the pocket if you can’t create the pocket to exploit; there’s little point in getting your man into the space if he can’t do anything with it; and I can’t ever foresee James Collins or a similarly agricultural centre back making an effective trequartista. These three criteria will be recurring themes for the rest of this article and should be at the forefront of an FMers mind in attempts to implement this tactic.

There are, generally speaking, three positions within the FM tactical engine that can consistently exploit the pocket – in FM terms: an MC, an AMC or an ST. In effect, they’re each going to try and utilise the same space between the defensive and midfield lines so you can immediately see that an AMC will find the space most naturally whilst an MC will need to play in a more advanced position and, conversely, an ST would need to drop deep to rid himself of his marker. These changes can most simply be influenced using the mentality and run from deep instructions, although appropriate use of creative freedom and roam from position will allow a clever player to seek out the space by himself.

3 v 2 in the middle naturally facilitates a free player

When trying to exploit the pocket with one of the midfield options, it will prove to be most successful when you have a numerical advantage in the middle of the park. It’s rather obvious but the small graphic to the right shows that two central midfielders can only cover two opposition players, not rocket science. What is worth considering, however, is that most FMers will ask the central of the three MC’s to step forward and utilise the pocket. It’s a natural human reaction satisfying our appreciation of symmetry with the two wider MC’s sitting deep and an assumption that the central of the 3 will be the one to find himself unmarked. This, however, may not prove true in-game. The AI isn’t the smartest but it isn’t completely stupid either and it will prioritise the marking of more advanced players so one of those MC’s will drop back and leave one of your sitting midfielders as the free player. Further space can be created by asking another of your MC’s to burst forward, taking a marker with him but it’s a fine balancing act with MC’s. Getting the balance right between mentality and run from deep can be difficult. For me, AMC and ST are the more natural positions for exploiting the pocket and this is why I’ll be concentrating on them.

Using the AMC

The AMC is the most natural position for exploiting the pocket. His natural positioning will encourage him to play between your striker(s) and central midfielder(s) but there are any number of variations to his instructions that will influence his movement and what he does with the ball, some of which will see him abandon his starting position in favour of an attacking thrust. There are four roles which the Tactical Creator (TC) allows you to assign to your AMC and these seem like a good starting point.

If you are using the TC, then you can choose to make your AMC either an inside forward, an attacking midfielder, an advanced playmaker or a trequartista. Each have their strengths and weaknesses; each will suit different players and different systems; and, importantly, each of them have the potential to make use of the pocket but in different ways.

The inside forward looks to exploit central space created by forwards

An inside forward, with the focus on direct running, will look to pick the ball up within the pocket but then get his head down and probe the defensive line with the ball at his feet. For me, this type of player works best when coupled with an attacking overload. One example of this can be seen in the graphic to the right. Playing two up front, each striker occupies a central defender. If your inside forward AMC can collect the ball and run directly at the defence then the defenders are forced into an awkward choice – stick with their assigned striker or come to meet the player with the ball. Do the former and the inside forward has a free run on goal, the latter and they’re relying on the fullback to help them out with the striker they’ve just abandoned or else it’s a simple pass from the AMC and we’re back to a player with a free run on goal.

A similar situation can be implemented using a lone striker and wingers looking to cut inside the fullbacks. As  ever, overloading the defence is a hugely potent tool but I would argue that it’s almost crucial when you are looking to use direct dribbling as your primary attacking tool – dribbling past players is a difficult skill and a high risk approach as failure is almost guaranteed to hand possession back to the opposition.

For me, this is the FM role which would best suit Leo Messi which gives you some idea as to the kind of player you are looking for.

The other three options (attacking midfielder, advanced playmaker and trequartista) have more emphasis on passing than dribbling and, for me, the trequartista is the polar opposite of the inside forward with the other two falling somewhere in between. In fact, considering the four roles on an incredibly crude sliding scale from runner to passer, I’d think of it as inside forward > attacking midfielder > advanced playmaker > trequartista. Therefore, I’ll focus on the latter to highlight the greatest alternative to the inside forward.

Trequarista’s “player instructions”

The first clue as to what we can expect to see from a trequartista comes from the player instructions that dictate what he does when the team has the ball.

For me, the key instructions to note are running from deep rarely and hitting through balls often. Combined with the high creative freedom and instruction to roam from position that is attributed to the trequartista, you should see little vertical movement from your AMC. Instead, you will see a player who tends to stick within pocket and look to probe the ball with his passing ability rather than carrying the ball himself.

As such, movement is absolutely key to a trequartista’s success – not just the AMC’s own movement but, perhaps more crucially, the movement of the players around and in front of him. A trequartista will automatically be selected as your team’s primary playmaker and other players will look to get the ball to him as often as possible as quickly as possible but there’s very little point in doing this if he can’t do anything with it once he gets it. Therefore, trequartistas are best used when you have a variety of attacking options in front on him whether that be in behind two strikers who are looking to break the defensive line, trying to find wide inside forwards that are looking to get inside their fullbacks or even looking to slide in a winger and playing the “assist for the assist”.

Trequartista passing map and average position heat map

This is fairly typical of a trequartista’s contribution to a game. One thing to note is the high pass completion, this is crucial. You do, of course, want your AMC to provide an offensive threat but he should be clever enough to know when to play the forward pass and when to simply recycle the ball, feeding the ball wide or playing it back to an open player. This brings me to another use of the trequartista style player, as an enganche. For a better explanation of this role, I’ll simply point you in the direction of Lee Scott’s excellent FM Analysis blog and his Mechanising the Play: Using the Enganche.

When playing the killer pass, it’s the movement from the other players in your team that comes to the fore. Thinking of the players around him, you want to enable as much space as possible for the trequartista to utilise. Therefore, it wouldn’t make much sense to me for you to utilise a deep-lying forward in front of him or an advanced playmaker behind. Instead, you’ll want the vertical connections to be stretched a little to encourage as big a pocket as you can. For me, your striker(s) should be looking to get in behind the defence so a more advanced selection would be prudent. Width gives your AMC additional alternative options and gives the defence yet another thing to worry about. This is why, for me, a 4-2-3-1 is the ideal formation for a trequartista and the way that I use it personally with a winger on the right, an inside forward on the left and a poacher up top providing the varied angles of attack whilst a defensive midfielder and a deep-lying playmaker provide the deeper holding roles. I’m not suggesting that this is the “best” set-up or this is the “right” way to do it but it works for me and is one example of how to maximise the passing options for your primary ball-player.

This is the sort of thing that you’re looking for from your trequartista – finding space and receiving the ball to feet, as Arsenal’s left centre half tries to close him down he leaves a gaping hole in the backline, a gap which our striker exploits by holding the line and receiving Ramirez’s excellent through ball.

Considering the type of player that you require, it’s all about technical expertise and the ability to pick a pass. For me, physicals are secondary here to passing, creativity, anticipation, decisions, first touch and flair. Wesley Sneijder is just about the perfect player for this role.

Using the striker

A common alternative tactic is to use a striker who drops off the defensive line, looking to lose his marker and make himself available for a pass into feet or draw his marker with him and leave a gap for others to exploit.

In FM, these roles are summarised in the TC as the deep-lying forward, trequartista and targetman roles. The trequartista has already been dealt with above although he will obviously play in a slightly more advanced role here and I wouldn’t recommend choosing this option for a lone striker. For me, it is best used in conjunction with alternative striking partner options or even in a front three.

To my mind, the deep-lying forward and targetman roles will be looking to achieve the same end result in this case and so I’ll deal with them together (for clarity, I’m talking about using both these roles with “support” duty which would facilitate the deeper positioning). Many striking positions will aim to get the player into goal-scoring positions as often as possible, playing high up the park, looking to run into channels or split the defenders and get in behind using their pace and movement. In contrast, these two roles are more self-sacrificing and play a greater role in developing the move for other players rather than necessarily finishing it themselves. That is not to say that they are strictly creative roles, although the deep-lying forward would certainly lend itself to this more than a targetman. Rather it is about forcing the opposition defence to move out of its comfort zone and break the defensive connections that prevent you from creating chances.

Let’s look at one example:

The deep-lying forward draws a centre half out of the defensive line

In this screenshot, Gavilan has dropped into the pocket and received the ball into feet. Rather than allow him time to turn, the left centre half has stepped out of the defensive line to close him down. Now, instead of the space being in the pocket, the deep-lying forward’s movement has managed to transfer this space to a more dangerous zone without any defensive cover. Again, the movement from players off-the-ball is crucial here. The highlighted danger zone only comes into play if there is another player willing to exploit the space, as our right forward here is by making the bending run inside the fullback.

Alternatively, a less creative role and something for which the targetman role is particularly useful is the concept of a “wall striker” where simpler, shorter passes are made to advancing creative players. Again, Lee Scott has explained this much better than I ever could in his Mechanising the Play: Layering Your Attack article and I’d recommend giving that a read to get a better idea of its efficacy.

Unlike the striking trequartista option, I believe these roles can be effective for a lone striker but, as always, should not be considered in isolation and it’s important to set up the rest of your team to make best use of a forward who drops deep. Specifically, you need to consider where the forward impetus is going to come from – if you play a lone striker who drops deep but there’s no-one trying to get “beyond the line” then his only option is going to pass it backwards. Whether this comes from strike partners, wingers or midfield runners is entirely up to you but I assure you that you’ll need someone with forward runs and an attacking mentality.

I’d also recommend that you read FM Analysis’ Mechanising the Play: The False 9 and FM Tactical Newspaper’s Big ‘n’ Small articles which provide further information on use of forwards who drop into the pocket to create space for others.

 A Confession

I love players who play in the pocket. It’s part of the reason that I chose this subject to return to writing tactical articles for FM as it’s a topic I could talk about for hours. Bergkamp, Riquelme, Valeron, Messi, Rui Costa, Boban, Moller… I could go on and on. These are the players that I love(d) to watch and what brings me back to football year after year. For me, there is nothing more enjoyable in football than watching a player who, seemingly effortlessly, finds acres of space deep within opposition territory and routinely dissects defence after defence. This love has transferred into FM and use of the pocket is something that I try to implement with nearly every tactic I create. For me, an effective trequartista is the pinnacle of FM tactics – I just bloody love AMC’s. Hopefully this article has passed on some tips for you to recreate a similar tactic in your own game but, if not, let’s hope you can at least enjoy the sight of a master at work. If this doesn’t inspire you to use a trequartista then nothing will…

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39 thoughts on “Exploiting the “Pocket””

  1. How far down the leagues would you say a pocket style tactic could work? For example, could it work for mid-table sides in nPower League 1?

    1. I don’t see any particular reason why it wouldn’t work at any level althuogh I think I see what you’re getting at. You will need a certain standard of player to make the most of a trequarista role and a lower-league player might not be particularly effective here.

      However, at lower levels it is more likely that the majority of teams will play 4-4-2, a formation which leaves itself very susceptible to use of the pocket. With the opposition defence likely to have poor positioning, anticipation and decisions it could mean you would get a lot of joy from using an AMC – either one who runs from deep or one with more limited vertical movement.

  2. Amazing post Shrewnaldo!

    I would like to know how would you use your AMC in a 4-1-2-1-2 narrow diamond and how would you setup the other 2 MC’s? Because i’m having some troubles with that formation. Thank you and very nice read!

    1. Well, as with anything, it depends.

      How are you setting up your two strikers? How are you setting up the midfield behind the AMC? I assume the fullbacks are looking to bomb up the line and provide the width? Do you want to play short passing football, a direct counter attacking game, etc etc?

      What player do you want to use as your AMC? What are his strengths and weaknesses?

      Too many variables for me to simply say that I would play a narrow diamond a particular way in every situation.

      1. Thanks for the reply. Well one of my strikers is a pocher and the other one is a complete forward support. My AMC has the the right attributes for the treq. role. 2 MC’s are box-to-box but i know that they should be playing better. Sometimes some of my midfielder are on the same place and thing get a little clogged up but if i put rare FWR in my 2 MC’s they also stay too static and less dangerous

    2. If you really want him to play as a trequarista behind the other two strikers then have you considered pushing the DMC into the MC line but continuing to use him defensively. This will help push the two box to box midfielders wider and out of the space that your trequarista wants to use. You’ll get more space between your midfield and defence but should be able to push your defensive line up (check pace in defence) to bring them closer.

      What are the issues that you’re coming across? Lack of space for the AMC the biggest problem? Is he seeing enough of the ball to make him effective? It might be worth looking back at your last game and using the match analysis tab. Check the passes for the AMC and click on the red ones to bring up the highlight. See if you can figure out a pattern as to why he’s giving the ball away.

      1. Thanks a lot. I will do that, pushing my DMC to MC so my 2 MC’s will have more wider space. Yes the biggest problem is space for my AMC but i guess that will help. Thank you

  3. Excellent article. I will definitely try to implement what I just read into my tactics in FM13.

    I got one question though. How would you try to counter an opponent using a DMC, tightly marking your AMC?

    1. Depends how effective the DMC was proving to be. I’d probably stick with it for 20 minutes or so and if the DMC was really on top of the treq then I’d consider switching it up a bit and getting the AMC to get forward more often, taking the DMC with him.

      This would then allow me to either bring the striker deeper so the AMC was bursting beyond him or switch my 2 MC’s around so that I kept a purely defensive one sitting deep and using an advanced playmaker to become the team’s focal point.

      Quite difficult to say exactly what I’d do because it would depend on what the rest of the opposition was doing. e.g. if the DMC was part of a narrow diamond (4-1-2-1-2) then I’d probably ignore the above and simply get the ball wide to go round the midfield.

  4. What would you recommend to create space? I play a pretty possessive style, so keep it narrow with the defense pushed up to maintain 60-70% possession in the opponent’s half. As a consequence, neither the AMC (a false 10) or a the forward ahead of him (a false 9) get a huge pocket to “exploit”.

    I’ve managed to free up a little space by making sure that neither MC runs from deep but that’s all I’ve found that works so far.

    1. Keeping your MC’s deep might actually be doing you a disservice. I can see your line of thinking but getting a midfield runner to break from deep and worry the defence is going to help you offensively and can also take a marker out of the zone you want your AMC to operate in.

      Failing that, you have a couple of options. Read this at FM Analysis http://footballmanageranalysis.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/mechanising-the-play-emptying-space-and-discovered-attacks-part-one/ and keep an eye out for further parts would be options one.

      Option two is to try and use your main passer in deeper or more advanced areas. If the opposition are successfully countering your primary outlet then it’s time to give your team options. Attack down the flanks to bypass the central strength or move your primary ballplayer out of the area that they’ve squeezed, either deeper in an Arteta role or in a creative forward role as advocated here http://pushthemwide.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/the-creative-forward/

      Options… options… it’s what’s great about FM / football.

    1. Thanks.

      And I know re trequartista but it’s one of those things I have a massive mental block with. There are a few – despatch and dispatch; dependent and dependant… you’d think I’d have learned by now but my fingers just don’t seem to want to type that way now. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve just stopped noticing now. Maybe I should go through and change them all…

  5. Shrewnaldo,

    Terrific article. I learned a ton and have already noticed a big difference in my tactic when I change the AMC in my 4-2-3-1 from an AP(S) to an AM(A). It can really help to unlock a defense by keeping him forward and has already swung a couple of results my way.

    Question re: playing the AMC as a Trequartista, which is the next thing I plan to try. I play a pressing style with a high defensive line. How would the Treq fit in? Is it a bad idea to try to press with a Treq, given he is basically a passenger during the defensive phase?

    Thanks,

    MJ

    1. Thanks!

      Re the trequarista / closing down problem, I can absolutely see where you are coming from. Personally, I prefer my team to close down as a unit and so I manually change the treq’s closing down to match the players around him. His ‘on the ball’ instructions remain the same so he still drops into the pocket and looks to play through balls, he’s just slightly more aggressive in defence.

      Even if you decided against this then I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes lesser teams can afford to carry a really creative player because their other midfielders are more journeyman, shall we say? A good example would be Le Tissier at Southampton where his lack of defensive work rate was accepted due to the exceptional talent that he had – take him out of that club and put him with the England team and suddenly everyone is talented and his low work rate becomes more apparent and perhaps an issue…

      It’s worth considering also that an AM(A) will probably only close down when the ball is in front of him. Due to his high mentality, once the ball is goalside of him then he’s likely to give up and just stand ‘high’ waiting for the ball to be cleared.

      1. Advice very much appreciated. I have a phobia of manually overriding TC instructions but with your blessing, I will give it a go haha

        Thanks again,

        MJ

  6. A little late but just read this having recently got back into FM. By some miracle I managed to sign Isco for my Cardiff side and will probably try using him in that Treq role as he seems perfect for it.

    Also, I’ve been a huge follower of your blog. Decided it’s time to post a comment.

  7. Hey Shrew, long time lurker here, and I realize this blog hasn’t been active in about a year, but I’m still playing 13 and I’ve been having an issue utilizing a Trequartista in the AMC position. If you can give me a hand, great, if not, thanks for all the great reading anyway.

    This is a little complicated, so i’ll try to be brief but get all the key points. I’m playing a counter attacking 4-6-0, with attacking full backs, a deep lying playmaker dmc, two box to box mids, two inside forwards, and a trequartista (AMC). We’re pretty solid defensively, as we force teams down the flanks with our 3 shielding mids and have strong aerial CBs, but I’m struggling to create chances or any sort of possession (not that possession is the goal, but when youre struggling to pass its never good). It’s a lot like the formation you ran at Foralpi, come to think of it.

    The attacking action im looking for should be pretty simple- Treq drops deep to pick up the ball, IFs cut into channels between FBs and CBs, DLP hold position in front of the defence, FBs bomb forward to provide width, b2b mids (i’ve tinkered with their settings a bit, and often change their roles based on the opposition) offer support to the man on the ball, then run from deep once the balls been played forward. Easy enough, right?

    But there’s one huge issue- my Treq, despite his role description and apparently despite his settings, is far too focused on contributing defensively. Rather than drifting around looking for space between the oppostions defensive and midfield lines, preparing to offer a quick, advanced option should we win the ball, he tracks way back, of collapsing to the top of our own penalty area, and often being level with the dm. This means when we do win the ball back and play it out to our IFs, there is no support, and we inevitably turn it over. So we never create chances and just invite wave after wave of pressure (at least against quality opposition).

    I can’t see what in his settings would cause him to do this. He’s not set to roam, his closing down is set to minimal, he has a rather attacking mentality, and his marking instructions are zonal, so its not as if he’s tracking his man. I’ve tried slashing his creative freedom to 0, as i thought maybe he was ignoring his instructions, but this didn’t work. Neither did maximizing his mentality, or setting his marking to man. I even changed his role to inside forward, as i noticed my wide men were staying high, but to no end.

    So then i figured it might be the player im using (Coutinho). While his work rate and teamwork are pretty high (14 and 15, so he does want to work hard and help the team), they’re surely not high enough to override his individual settings to such an extreme degree, and he’s not a particularly aggressive player either. I checked his ppms too, just in case, but there’s nothing there that could be an issue.

    I know I could probably half-ass what i want by setting him to mark a cb or dm specifically, but then he wouldn’t be in space when we win the ball, and that sorta defeats the purpose. I also know that using a striker tq would work better, as i’ve done it with other teams, but this doesn’t suit the personnel at my command.

    Any thoughts on how to make the AMC act like a Treq defensively, fellow addict?

    1. Hey RMassive. First of all, thanks for reading and leaving such a detailed comment!

      It seems like an odd problem and not something I ever recall coming across. My treq would always stay quite high although the thing about “never closing down and just looking to find space at all times” was (and is) just SI garble as it never really happens. The players always close down, just to varying degrees.

      Anyway, I’m a little stumped for ideas as you seem to have checked everything I would suggest – specific attributes, PPM’s, etc.

      My only other suggestion is try a different role in there? Maybe an AP(S) would do something similar to what you want?

      1. Hey Shrew, thanks for the quick response, I really appreciate it. On further reflection, I feel my team settings (namely rigid, stick to position, stand off) may be dragging him deep to maintain the shape of the midfield diamond as his colleagues collapse towards our box. We’re almost to the end of the season, and with Andy Carroll coming back, I think I’ll just push the AMC up to striker and retrain Coutinho and co to give us the option of using a TM if it seems appropriate next season. I’ll try out the AP(s) as well as tinkering with the team instructions and see what happens.

        I’d noticed the bit about the TQ closing down as well, and was a little disappointed. Not that I mind him closing down CBs and DMs, but its a bit annoying to be mislead by the descriptions, and for me the floating looking for space is what makes the role unique from the other AM roles. Oh well

  8. Well, no dice with the AP(S), or with switching to balanced and default for the team settings in question. Frustrating. Could it really be that a player with a modest workrate and teamwork (15 and 14 for Coutinho right now) won’t stay high in the AMC position?

    I’m struggling with this tactic in general right now, although we’re doing pretty well in the league. Allen, Henderson, and Leiva all have short simple passes PPM, so we’re not as incisive as I’d like, while using shouts to get more direct results in too many high balls that I can’t recover due to my lack of aerial prowess up front. I think I’ll shelve the tactic for now and come back to it with another team

    Thanks again for all your help

    1. No problem, shame we couldn’t get it to work better. It could be down to the work rate etc of the player but it would seem odd that it drags him so deep. I’ll have a think about it but without seeing the games (and even then I doubt it), I don’t think I’ll be any help.

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