Toulouse – The 4-3-3 in detail

I was going to do a piece on Rapid Wien’s real-life tactics today but after they put in a quite depressing performance against Admira Wacker I’m no longer in the mood. Instead, I’ve had a few questions over Twitter on the tactic that I’ve been using with Toulouse so I’ve decided to make a detailed post on how it works, why I’ve set the various instructions within the tactics and the type of players that are required. I’ll also attach the tactic to the end of the post for anyone who wishes to try it out for themselves.

The tactic, as can be seen to the right, is a 4-3-3 of sorts although we utilise a deep midfield of 3 DMC’s and the front 3 is split into a targetman striker and inside forwards out wide in the winger positions. If you want to read through the development of the tactic then you can read through the game updates by clicking on this link and starting from the bottom up. If you’re just interested in knowing about the tactic, then read on.

By the way, if you just want to download the tactic and not read my ramblings, then there’s a download link at the very bottom of the page. 🙂

So I’ll start by laying out a rather pretentious general philosophy for the tactic before splitting the tactic down into how it defends and how it attacks. Of course, attacking and defending are two of the most basic concepts of tactic building but so-called “transition” phases are just as important, i.e. how you are set up when you manage to win the ball back or when you lose it. Rather than cover transitions in isolation, they’ll be rolled into the two main topics as it’s easier for me to explain that way.

Similarly, rather than have a distinct section, I think it makes more sense to include details of the type of player that suit each position within the body of the article covering what I consider to be key attributes and beneficial PPM’s. So, let’s begin…

The Philosophy

I want to not concede many goals, right? But also score lots of goals, yeah? Got it? Ground breaking stuff. Some more detail? I want to make this more likely by having lots of shots and making sure my opponent has very few shots. Ok, I’m being stupid but the point I’m trying to get across is that I can say almost anything here and try to pick out some buzzwords or copy phrases I’ve read on Zonal Marking et al to make myself sound all clever but it really doesn’t mean very much without specifics.

So specifics… well I really do want to concede very few goals. I’ve had a few games recently where I’ve played very attacking football and simply looked to out-score my opponents. The last few tactics that I have released, such as The Sexhibition and Pink Panther, have been very attacking. In line with my original analysis of the Toulouse squad revealing a strong defensive base, I decided to make this tactic more about establishing a solid defensive system first and then tackling the offensive movement later. The most basic way of doing this is defending in numbers, however even at an early stage I was aware that I don’t simply want to gift possession to the opposition and line 10 players up in front of our own goal; nor do I want to keep so many players in defensive positions when we have the ball that we provide no attacking threat. So it’s a case of trying to find a way to defend in numbers but also attack in numbers.

My initial plan was to use the 3DMC’s to maintain domination of the ball and aid our quest for conceding as few goals as possible by keeping the ball from opponents. However, the PPM’s of two of my deep midfielders precluded that and lead me into an alternative method – simply restricting the amount of time the opposition can have the ball in dangerous areas but allowing them to keep it where they can’t hurt us. More on that later.

When we have the ball, I favour attacking from various angles to confuse the AI and drag defenders out of position. We all know that the match engine heavily favours extreme pace up front but I’m keen to try something different and attempt to build a tactic that uses a physical targetman that looks to take defenders out of the game by holding the ball up and developing the move for the other players that move around him.

So that’s the basic idea of the tactic… now on to how it’s supposed to work.

The Defence

As I’ve said above, the defence was what I wanted to sort out first. As you can read in my initial assessment of the starting squad, a back four was pretty much a given. We also had / have enough pace in our centre halves to allow us to play a high backline. This is something that I often employ on a reactive basis but is not in the starting tactic. It’s easy enough for me to push the back line up by using the “play higher” shout so I pick and choose which games I use it rather than over-ride the default instructions.

The defensive “plan” can be summed up using two basic criteria:

Defend in numbers

The simplest and most obvious defensive tactic is to pack the dangerous zones with a lot of your own players, thereby negating space for the opposition to work in and limiting the number of shots they can take from high percentage areas. We can see an example of that here:

Defend dangerous zones in numbers

You can see in the above screenshot that Liverpool have the ball out wide and are looking to get a cross in to create an attempt on goal. The most dangerous zone in this screenshot is that squared off by the purple box and the space between my defensive line and the ‘keeper. Liverpool have 3 players looking to attack a cross whilst we have 7 players in the same zone and so have a clear advantage. The entire back four and the 3 DMC’s have all dropped back and there isn’t an opposition player there who has any chance of finding space unmarked in the middle.

Assist analysis

The trade-off for maintaining this strength in the box is that we concede a couple of “weak zones” – i.e. the two grey highlighted zones on the left flank and edge of the box. To me, though, these are less critical than the penalty box and we are mitigating any weakness there. The weak zone out wide can only really lead to a cross into the box, any player looking to cut inside will be met with the defensive solidity in the middle. With the numbers that we have in the middle this is going to be a low percentage play for the opposition. In fact, as you can see from the assists analysis to the right, we’ve conceded just 6 goals from crosses in the last 50 games which proves the point.

This leads me to the first judgement on the players required. It’s fairly standard for centre halves but aerial presence is key to ensuring that you aren’t courting disaster by inviting the opposition to cross fairly frequently. Similarly, aerial presence in the DMC’s, who drop back into box, can be an added bonus.

The second “weak zone” above is that on the edge of the box and this is the one that concerns me most. I’ve written a fairly lengthy piece on exploitation of the “pocket”  and any ball from out wide into a player holding his position in this pocket is going to invite a shot from distance. Although this is a relatively low percentage play, it’s still dangerous and is mitigated slightly by the DMC’s who will press out of the box when the ball is moved centrally. The biggest problem with leaving this zone empty, though, is that we are surrendering possession more often than not when a cross is cleared by the defence. Again, this is just a trade off for the numbers we maintain to defend the box.

A potential way to counter this is to use one of the DMC’s to man-mark the opposition’s deepest midfielder. Although you will lose a defender from the box, you may prefer the safeguard against the shot from distance and the benefit of being more likely to pick up possession from a clearance. Up to you which you prefer.

Zonal Marking and low closing down

The second defensive tactic is to maintain my defensive shape by employing relatively low closing down in the back four and central DMC. With the wider DMC’s given more license to close down and thereby help protect the flanks, we still maintain a solid base of 5 rather than allow the players to leave potential gaps behind them by pushing out in a rash attempt to win the ball back early.

It’s not all low closing down though as the front three all have very high closing down. This is my attempt at the simple ploy of winning the ball back early high up the park but it’s also a way of trying to give the defence time to return to their positions without allowing the opposition time on the ball to pick a long pass whilst we’re disorganised. With the fullbacks being asked to push high up the park when we have the ball and the wider DMC’s also getting forward, there are obvious gaps during the turnover phase. Just by forcing the opposition into a couple of sideways or backwards passes when they first win the ball, I can try to minimise the opportunities for defence splitting passes.

With a similar purpose, the ‘keeper is set to a “sweeper ‘keeper” role. With the strength through the middle when we don’t have the ball. With the strength through the middle and a solid shape maintained in a relatively high defensive line, there is very little scope for short passing through the centre of the park. One of the few options left to the AI from open play is a long ball into the channels…

Solid defence leads to long ball being last resort

And this is where the use of the sweeper ‘keeper is key. That long ball now has to be perfect. Too long and the ‘keeper gets it. Too short and one of my defenders will be there. Which brings me to another requirement in the defence – at least one of your centre halves HAS to have good pace, I’m talking 14+ for acceleration and pace. This is to provide the necessary cover at the back.

You also have to think about the attributes of the ‘keeper. The game highlights pace and rushing out as key attributes for sweeper ‘keepers and I think this is fairly obvious but I’m also keen on anticipation and decisions being important here, along with the regular goalkeeping attributes such as positioning, handling, etc.

Leaving the wingers high

The last little piece on the defensive side is that I like to leave my wingers quite high up the park. This is simply to aid counter attacking opportunities in the hope that they will already be goalside of the fullbacks when we turn the ball over. This will force a centre back to come across and deal with the threat of the winger, thereby giving you more space in the middle for the targetman and the midfield runners to exploit.

The downside to this is that it tends to leave any over-lapping fullbacks free. The AI doesn’t utilise this as often as it should but when it does your own fullback can be over-loaded. If you are finding this to be a particular problem then ask your wingers to man-mark their corresponding fullbacks but I tend to leave it given our strength in defending crosses (see above) and the benefits it gives to the turnover.


Ok, the fun part. Well. the overall attacking philosophy can be neatly summed up in one video:

Ok, so we didn’t score and it was a rather tame shot but it does show the following:

  • The targetman – he comes deep to offer himself for a pass to feet, dragging a defender out of position before laying it off to a holding player or, as in this case, a runner from deep. He then spins and makes his way into the box looking for the cross or a through ball.
  • The AMR / AML – whilst the ball is on their side of the pitch, they assist with the wide play and pick up a position within the channel, able to go outside or inside the fullback. Meanwhile, if the ball is on the opposite flank then they come inside to provide a second striker looking to get on the end of a cross or cut back.
  • The fullbacks – offering the real width of the tactic, in this case the right back overlaps with purpose and hugs the touchline giving the opposition fullback a dilemma of whether to close him down or stick with the winger who is holding a more central position. Meanwhile, the fullback on the far side holds position 30-40 yards out in a good position to intercept any defensive clearance to maintain offensive pressure and yet close enough to the defence to get back into position should the opposition manage to counter.
  • The wide DMC’s – you may need to re-watch the video to spot this but Capoue, on the near side, supports the fullback and inside right forward on the flank whilst Sissoko on the far side provides vertical penetration from midfield and provides yet another attacking presence in the box. As I said earlier, defend in numbers and attack in numbers.
  • Finally, the central DMC – he just holds his position deep, around 40 yards out, always available for a pass to recycle possession should the advanced players get into trouble. Similar to the far side fullback, he’s in a good position to intercept a defensive clearance and/or come to meet an opposition runner who is starting to counter.

I think that neatly sums up how each of the positions work with the exception of the inside forwards who I think aren’t really done justice there. Their role also has a lot to do with carrying the ball with direct dribbling at the defence, cutting inside and looking for a through ball. You can see a simple example of this here:

Bulut has collected the ball deep, pulled a defender out of position in his targetman role, laid it left to the inside forward and then run forward to look for the return ball. Djaló cuts inside and lays a simple ball through for the on-rushing striker to finish easily. Simple and effective.

So that’s the attacking in open play in rather general but comprehensive terms so what sort of player should you be looking for to make the most of the tactic?

  • An excellent over-lapping fullback

    Fullbacks – these guys will get up and down the wing all day long, covering a lot of ground so stamina will be key in-game and natural fitness handy to ensure they recover in time for the next game. Attacking attributes such as dribbling, crossing and off the ball will be handy as well as decisions so they only attack at the right time. Pace is important too to ensure they aren’t left behind during quick attacks but don’t ignore defensive attributes as these guys are also responsible for protecting their flanks when you don’t have the ball. If you’re looking for PPM’s then gets forward at all times is a handy one.

  • The playmaking central DMC – he’ll sit deep and look to spread the play so traditional playmaker attributes like passing, creativity, decisions, first touch, technique, anticipation and teamwork are key here. Again, he performs a key defensive role so positioning, work rate and tackling are going to be handy. In terms of PPM’s I would absolutely avoid gets forward at all times here and I’d shy away from tries long range passes and instead look for stays back at all timesplays short simple passes and does not dive into tackles. The last will help ensure that he stays on his feet and doesn’t expose the defence during any opposition counters. Physical attributes aren’t as important here as he isn’t required to break through defensive lines but I would say that a tall player who is good in the air would be a nice bonus here. He’ll see a lot of aerial challenges from goal kicks, and winning these can only help.
  • The perfect box-to-box DMC?

    Wider DMC’s – stamina, stamina, stamina. These guys cover a hell of a lot of ground, around 12km average for my players so unless you fancy subbing them in every game stamina is going to be key. As they’re going to provide the vertical penentration for your side, pace, decisions, off the ball and anticipation will see them make the necessary runs at the right time whilst passing, first touchteamwork and particularly work rate will assist them in providing a box-to-box role, albeit from a deeper starting position. The gets forward at all times PPM can be handy, I’d certainly avoid anything that restricted their forward movement and if you can find anyone with arrives late in opposition area then I think you’re on to a winner. Lastly, they do provide a key attacking presence with the occasional effort from range so long shots combined with the decisions mentioned above and technique could make for a useful combination.

  • AML/AMR – for the inside forwards you’re looking for more of an Arjen Robben than an Antonio Valencia, someone who will be comfortable coming off the line and running at the defence. Pace, dribbling, technique, flair and off the ball are the critical attributes here. However, he has to do something with the ball when he finishes his run so don’t discount passing, anticipation or creativity and he’s also going to contribute to your goal-scoring so finishing and composure will definitely help. In terms of PPM’s, unless you want to provide an alternative threat then I wouldn’t use a player that has a contradicting movement PPM such as hugs touchline but anything such as gets into opposition area is going to be very useful.
  • A little different from your typical FMers striker

    Striker – remember that this guy is all about providing space in the defensive line. Because he’s set to be a targetman, it assists the team in getting the ball forwards into the final third quicker and using the targetman as a fulcrum for the attacking movement. So he’s going to receive the ball into feet an awful lot making first touch a very important attribute. I’d also heavily favour off the ball, strength, teamwork and workrate so that he’s constantly looking for the ball and able to hold off the defenders before laying it off using the passing, anticipation, creativity and decisions. Let’s not forget typical striker attributes such as finishing and personally I want him to be strong in the air, being tall and having good jumping and heading as the fullbacks in particular will aim for him with their crosses. Moving on to PPM’s, absolutely do not look for anyone who has tries to break the offside trap or anything else which will look for him to play too high or beyond the defensive line. Comes deep to get the ball or plays with back to goal are going to much more useful.

Still reading? Well I think I’ve got just one more area to cover… alternatives.

It’s all well and good having a starting system but only an unsuccessful manager relies on Plan A without having a back-up system. My first back-up revolves around a more typical FM striker with lots of pace looking to get in behind the defence. Usually when the opposition are looking to chase the game to equalise or grab a winner, they’ll push right up and leave a lot of space in behind. If your inside forwards aren’t having much luck then it can be very useful bringing on a quick striker, changing his role to “poacher” and setting him as a targetman with “run onto ball” set. By changing the wider DMC’s roles so that they sit deeper but with more scope to play the through ball (perhaps another “deep-lying playmaker”) then you can try to make the most of his pace. This is why I tend to leave Amadou Soukouna on my bench, a very one-dimensional and limited striker.

Other regular reactive tactics I may make are to use the “exploits the middle” and “retain possession” shouts when we’re ahead in a game. Particularly against two-man midfield systems such as a standard 4-4-2, this can help you choke the life out of the game by keeping the ball between your 3DMC’s aided by the striker dropping deep.

Turning words into results

Other than that my reactive tactics are… well… reactive and it’s difficult to articulate what I’d do in certain situations because they’re all different and will depend on the opposition as well as you’re own players.

So does it work? Well if you’ve been reading this blog then you’ll know that I had a successful first season with Toulouse whilst developing this tactic. Despite a catastrophic last 6 weeks to the season, we finished 3rd in a very competitive Ligue 1 whilst maintaining the joint best defence and scoring the 4th highest number of goals. This season… well I’ll save that for an update on the save itself but we’ve really started in fine form including results like the one to the right.

I think that it just about that. I hope I’ve explained everything but if you have any questions at all then please let me know and I’ll try to answer them. Lee Scott from FM Analysis has very kindly offered to do a review of this tactic and I’ll link it in here once it’s done. Hopefully he’ll be able to provide some more detail and also some suggested improvements. If you haven’t read his blog then I’d recommend you do so as it is excellent. In the meantime, I think I’m finished.

So for anyone wanting to try this out, you can download it yourself by clicking here.

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