A tactical vision to re-ignite my joy of FM

"What do you mean I can't ask my team to play any wider" "You already used that shout, André. Doesn't get wider than that" "You what? Just 3 width settings?! Madness!"

I’ve been in a bit of a grump with the game recently. I’ve just finished writing a fairly extensive piece for Clear Cut Chance, the burgeoning Football Manager quarterly, which is largely negative about the game and the direction that the match engine is taking. I’m entirely un-enamoured with the new tactical interface, the removal of sliders and what I see as an inexorable removal of the human player’s control on the pitch.

Therefore, when I was reading my latest football book (“The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches“), and my mind inevitably wandered to re-creating some of the concepts within Football Manager, my mindset was immediately negative. The match engine is too restrictive, I thought, to even bother trying to implement my idea(s). I’d be the new Michels, Kovacs, Happel, Sacchi and Guardiola all rolled into one if only the sodding game wasn’t so hell-bent on stopping me…

… but then, thankfully, I stopped myself and realised that I may be prejudicing myself out of a challenge. How do I know it won’t work if I don’t even try? Well, here’s me trying…

"If this fud thinks he's going to emulate me he's got another think coming"
“If this fud thinks he’s going to emulate me he’s got another think coming”

As I post this, I have yet to attempt the tactic in any way, shape or form. This post is made right at the start of my tactical meanderings – conception. Typically, I’ll jot a few ideas down on a scrapbook and then add a few arrows, rub a few things out, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat… So here, for better or worse, is that process in written form. After this is complete, I’ll go about testing, tweaking, tearing it up and reverting to my old tactics but at least I’ll have tried it, right?

So my vision was prompted by reading the book on Van Gaal’s tactics but I want to make it clear from the start that I’m not trying to re-create his exact tactics. For one, I don’t believe that his tactics have been consistent across the various clubs he’s managed. In fact, he says so himself in this FIFA article:

It’s a footballing philosophy more than a system. A system depends on the players you have. I played 4-3-3 with Ajax, 2-3-2-3 with Barcelona and I can play 4-4-2 with AZ. I’m flexible. The philosophy stays the same though.

In a similar manner, the book has just ignited an idea, a philosophy in my mind and it is that which I will try to implement into my current FM game with Alavés. Those who have read my previous blog articles will know that I’m very fond of the 3-4-3 shape, although usually morphed into 3-1-4-2, 3-1-4-1-1 or 3-1-4-2. It is this general shape which I will be bastardising to create the system and I can only hope that my efforts are not retarded too greatly by the default assumptions within the current tactics engine.

The basis of my vision is going to sound disgustingly familiar as I hop on the bandwagon of all bandwagons and look at creating a possession hungry tactic akin to the traditional Ajax philosophy. However, in keeping with that Ajax approach, I’ll also be looking to consistently employ high wingers to stretch the play and a deep-playmaker who controls the game and is responsible for directing operations. But let’s start with defending…


There’s nothing majorly spectacular here. We’ll be asking our front 3 to close down heavily from the front but try to maintain a disciplined shape at the back. Employing zonal marking across the board, I really don’t want the back 3 to get out of position at all. I want them to stay back at all times and I had considered asking them to ‘close down less’, however this is apparently unavailable for the “role and duty selected”.


restricted“Ease off tackles” is certainly another option. I don’t want these players diving in to needless tackles. I’d like them to stay on their feet and shepherd the opposition into less dangerous areas. This is allowed in the new system and I’ll be considering it during the tactic’s development.

The wingbacks are primarily responsible for defending the flanks and, again, I’m considering ‘ease off tackles’ for these guys as a defensive instruction. It may become apparent that this is an option I wish to employ throughout the team and therefore use it as an overall instruction rather than a personal one.

Lastly, the two central midfielders should provide a screening job… and this is where my first area of concern is apparent. As I’ll detail later, I want one of these midfielders to bomb on and will therefore be giving him an attacking instruction. With just 2 central midfielders, and one a more offensive option, will I be easily outnumbered by opposition teams, thereby ceding possession and running against one of the clear tenets in my original vision? Possibly but worth a try.

The choice of a sweeper ‘keeper should be fairly self-explanatory. With a possession hungry system (and just 2 in midfield), I’ll be looking to compress play high up the park with a high defensive line. The sweeper keeper should be there to help protect against straight long balls over the top, with corresponding instructions to play it short to the defenders and maintain possession.

And that, in a nutshell, is the starting defensive approach. As things move further forward, we start to get a little more complicated.

This, for example, is the sort of shape I want when we’re in possession.

with ball

The back 3 are, as ever, required to split a little wider to provide the defensive base for the rest of the players to get forward although I really wish they didn’t go as wide as the current match engine makes them.

Heading into midfield, I want one of the central midfielders to sit deep and orchestrate events. He’s the creator, the primary playmaker and the man that everyone should look to when they’ve run out of options. Supporting him on either side, I want the wingbacks to cut inside and stay fairly deep. I want them to provide an out-ball for the wingers but not to overlap (or underlap) them. They should be able to cycle the ball very quickly from flank to flank: winger to wingback to playmaker to wingback to winger. This should allow us to quickly alter the angle of attack.

I want the wingers to stay wide but I don’t necessarily want them just getting the head down and running at the opposition fullback every time they get the ball. They are there to stretch the opposition line, constantly offering a wide threat.

The centre forward should look to drop off the line in a creative sense, similar to the recent false 9 trend but staying central and looking to work closely with the advancing central midfielder. I get the feeling that it is the latter who will be crucial to getting this tactic to work. He needs to do a bit of everything but be more offensive than your regular box-to-box midfielder. This is the role that Jari Litmanen performed for van Gaal and we all know what a legend that lad was.

As you can see, it is quite convoluted. So how should I go about effecting this?

Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not 100% sure. So here are my initial thoughts and we’ll see how it pans out.

Project - Version 1
Project – Version 1

From the back then, the sweeper-keeper is already covered (along with his sole personal instruction to distribute to defenders).

A flat back three is an orthodox start, with a ball-playing defender in the middle of the three with licence to play more direct passes – another trick borrowed from van Gaal’s Ajax (although in that case in back 4). The only starting amendment to the default instructions is for the ball-playing defender to ‘ease off tackles’. As he’s the covering defender, he’s basically last man and diving into challenges really is a massive no-no.

The wing-backs are a bit more tricky.


As I’d said above, I want the wingbacks to form a line of three with the playmaker when we have the ball. Therefore I don’t want them stuck out on the flank isolated from the DLP. I’m a bit unsure on the ‘defend’ instruction but my hope is that this will discourage overlaps and too many dribbles forward. I have to admit that I am HUGELY confused by both ‘dribble more’ and ‘dribble less’ being “unavailable for the role and duty”.


In central midfield I’ve gone for a DLP(D) – CM(A) split. My first concern is that the horizontal split of the players will stop them from maintaining dead-centre positions on the field when we have the ball. Hopefully they move to cover when their instructions take them to different vertical areas of the field.


As you can see, there’s really not a lot you can do to amend the DLP(D) although I have selected one of the few options – “more direct passes”. I wanted to use a deep-lying playmaker on “defend” to encourage a deeper position and a complete lack of forward runs but I do want him to provide incisive passes and the ability to spread it wide quickly which I hope this shout will do.

I did, however, consider using the ‘hold position’ shout. My experience with DLP’s is that they will tend to move from channel to channel (although very deep) to support the play when the ball is wide. I want the DLP to stay central with the wingbacks on each side providing the deep support to the wingers. Perhaps this will happen automatically but for just now it’s…


The DLP’s partner gave me quite a bit of thought. Essentially, I want a more attacking box-to-box midfielder and there’s a fairly good chance that I will come back to this role before long. However, I wanted the “attack” duty of the CM(A) to really encourage the forward movement (besides, there aren’t any other attack players in the team!). For the moment, I haven’t given this player any personal instructions but I have considered both ‘roam from position’ and ‘get further forward’ for fairly obvious attacking reasons but it could be that PPM’s are utilised here.

PPM’s such as “arrives late in opponents’ area” and particularly “gets into opposition area” should be particularly effective. For the moment, generic efforts will have to do.

PPM’s could also be effective for the wingers. I’ve given them a “support” duty because, as already mentioned, I don’t want an Aaron Lennon type winger who just tries to use his pace to get round the outside and then swing it in. I want a team player with a good connection to the attacking central midfielder and striker, as well as getting good support from the wingback.


“Stay wider” was a gimme given all that I’ve already said but “hold position” is a bit of a punt. My initial thought is that I’m trying to get them to go wide and stay wide so the instruction will stop them coming inside but I’m also concerned it will prevent them from using their brain to exploit space. This is one which could change.

What I’d really like, though, is a couple of two-footed wingers with the PPM “plays one-twos”. Playing so wide, the wingers should be isolated against their fullbacks or, when we get good, double-marked by the opposition. A simple one-two with the wingback holding his position should help create space against compacted defences… maybe.

And finally, up front I’ve gone for a supporting Complete Forward. A ‘false 9’ was and remains a possibility but I’m concerned that we may only end up attacking with 2 players through the middle and into the box. I’m hoping that the more rounded instructions of a complete forward will provide more of a direct goal threat… again this is one which is really subject to change.

TeamAnd then there are the team instructions.

With just one ‘attacking’ duty in the team, I felt I could afford to push the scale up a little in term of the mentality from the team as a whole. The attacking mentality will also help to keep the tempo quick and defensive line high, both items which I wanted to employ anyway – in fact, I want to employ a particularly high line hence the additional instruction being used.

With so many personal instruction implemented and a fairly strict playing shape in mind, I felt that it was best to stick to the rigid fluidity. This may cause me problems with the fullbacks as they may not have enough creative freedom to perform the pseudo-midfield role I wish them to when we have the ball but we’ll have to keep an eye on that.

“Shorter passing” is self-explanatory, although I have augmented it with the use of a ball-playing defender and a personal instruction for the deep-lying playmaker – both attempts at mixing it up and providing the occasional direct pass.

“Run at defence” is a slight punt but it’s my early attempt at mitigating against a stagnation in possession with a short-passing, rigid system. Beating a player with a 10 or 15 yard dribble takes a defender out of the game and will create space somewhere in the pitch as the opposition react to fill gaps. I’m hoping that this instruction will encourage just that and help prevent us getting bogged down in what Wenger calls ‘sterile domination’.

I had considered two other options: using a team instruction of ‘be more expressive’ to help prevent that stagnation but the solid shape I want to keep precluded that; and ‘play narrower’ to help keep a better connection between the wingbacks and DLP. I could easily counter this with the ‘stay wider’ instructions for the wingers to maintain the width but, sadly, the play narrower should also encourages your team to play centrally… not something I want.


So that’s the idea. It’s truly sad that I’ve written this in just over an hour but that’s how these things tend to work with me. I have an idea and I need to sketch it / write it out to really test my logic as to whether I think it’ll work.

There are concerns before I’ve ever started:

  • will the 2-man midfield be able to cope against aggressive or possession-centric teams?
  • will one centre forward with one midfield runner be able to produce enough attacking intent?

My current thoughts are that I have 2 clear goal-scoring outlets in the centre forward and running midfielder, with occasional 8-a-season support from the wingers and then set pieces. I plan to make set-pieces a priority. With the wingers staying wide I can see us getting a lot of corners and making the most of these could prove crucial if we don’t create a lot from open play.

So thanks, as always for reading. Any thoughts? Do you think that sounds ridiculous? Have you attempted similar systems?

Over the next few weeks and in my game updates I’ll provide extensive feedback on how I think the tactic is working (or not) and the alterations that will inevitably be required.

I look forward, as always, to any feedback you have.

19 thoughts on “A tactical vision to re-ignite my joy of FM”

  1. I have a feeling this will take a long time to figure out what works and make everything perfect, but this is a great endeavor. Hope it works out well!

  2. Very interesting read. These kinds of musings are what I think we get the most out of FM from. Slightly disheartened though you may be with this year’s version, posts like you are making here are inspiring for players like myself, and ‘hearing’ your thought process in setting this up has been insightful, particularly in considering PPM’s and how the individual instructions may or may not end up affecting things.

    I’m also curious to how you will then implement a philosophy like this in light of the types of players you actually have at your disposal as I find that it’s always a tricky thing to work out, especially with smaller clubs where you may not have the financial means straight away to try and bring in the most desirable players to carry out your vision. I find it difficult to know sometimes whether player behaviour is actually a reflection of an error in the tactic somewhere. I would be curious to know how you analyse the ‘realization’ of your tactic during play if things aren’t going exactly as planned, considering the possibility of having players with poorer mental attributes at lower clubs.

    I suppose the real heart of successful tactic design is in knowing the in’s and out’s of your squad, particularly on the side of mental attributes and realistic individual capabilities.

    1. Thanks. It’s nice to think that these ramblings might be of use to someone other than just me trying to articulate my thoughts into some coherent strategy.

      The point you make about the standard of my players is a valid one, particularly in terms of the forward players who may not be smart enough yet to create the opportunities I need with so few numbers. We’ll just have to wait and see…

  3. I’m actually enjoying this new way of looking at things you seem to be doing, I think you’ve added something different to your blog and the general style of writing as a whole that isn’t represented in the FM blogs I follow. The articles/posts you seem to do now are a lot more informative and highlight your thought proccess a lot better. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy what you’d done before because I did, I just think in the last few weeks you’ve stepped up a level and got better 🙂

    The book you are reading is absolutely fantastic too imo but I’m always biased for Ajax/Crujyff/Gaal stuff though.

    I played something similar but mine was more of an Ajax version and slightly tweaked. The shape is the same as yours but the roles uptop differ as I went with a F9, Winger and IF.

    Will you be adopting Van Gaal’s idea of when playing against 2 strikers you have the keeper distribute the ball to the wide players due to lack of numbers advantage in the centre and its more likely they’ll be pressured compared to out wide. And against lone striker formations he preferred to play from the central players due to having the advantage.

    Great read though and I can’t wait for the next update.

    1. Thanks, Cleon! I thought this might prove to be a bit of a useless monologue for people as it initially started as just a written sketchpad for the general thoughts I was having about the system.

      A false 9 is a possibility but I definitely want to keep two wingers and keep the play stretched for some proper interaction through the middle. As Lee and I were tweeting today, the key will be the wingbacks. If I can get them to defend wide and play narrow when we have the ball then it’ll work. If not then I’ll have to look elsewhere. I’m considering a 3 DM line with anchorman – DLP – anchorman but getting the 2 anchormen to drop deep and wide when defending may also prove impossible.

      A further option I’ve considered is to drop the striker back to AM and make a strikerless version. This should partly help in providing numbers through the middle for defending… Just some ideas, I haven’t even had a chance to try a full game with it yet!

  4. Just a thought, can you recreate any role with individual instructions? Ie: per tactical restriction 3, could you recreate the style of play you want from a DLP by choosing a, for example, CM (D) but with additional individual instructions? Not something I’ve ever considered/tried to do but it just occurred to me as I read through.

    1. My thoughts are, this year, no it would not be possible.

      The reason being two-fold:

      1. Roles are now so restricted with even the additional shouts that you can select limited to what someone else’s logic deems to be ‘proper’. You just cannot significantly alter what the default setting is and create what you want.

      2. The roles now (as some did last year) come with facets that could not be implemented by a slider. The half-back, for example, dropping between the centre backs has an impact on his own instructions as well as those of the CD’s. Playmakers will come short for the ball depending which side of the pitch the play is on – you could not do this taking a CM(D) and then adding instructions.

      Customisation is becoming nigh-on impossible.

  5. I have used a formation like that a lot and I have found that an aggressive sweeper works wonders in possession. He gets more involved than if he was part of a flat 3. With the midfield settings he can step up and form a diamond too.

    Just food for thought

    1. Thanks, I’ve been thinking about sweepers but I would like to utilise the CD’s covering the pitch for just now. With a sweeper getting beyond the defensive line, the CD’s will either have to come narrower or we’ll leave the suicidal gap down the middle that comes with the HB just now.

  6. Looking forward to seeing this develop. Some small thoughts for consideration:
    1. With a high defensive line is playing a covering central defender wise? You might be susceptible to breaks in behind by wide players if the covering defender plays them onside?

    2. Does the ball playing central defender step forward when in possession? In which case would he interfere with the space the DLP has to work in? I think it may help to try and solve for the lack of personnel in midfield by getting one of the defenders to step forward in possession like a libero perhaps

    3. You might consider asking the wingbacks to “sit narrower”. That way they might set up the way you want rather than staying too wide in possession.

    4. If you use hold position for the wingers, I have a feeling it is telling the match engine you want them to wait for the fullbacks to overlap, so it may be counter to what you want to achieve. The wingers look a little isolated at the moment and the wingbacks positioning will be key to ensuring they have a passing option available.

    5. The only other point is that only your CM has an attack duty. I have found with this match engine, the more players you have bursting into the box the better, especially when playing with wingers. If you could get one of your wingers to attack a push on a bit more it may help in this regard, but of course could turn the tactic into a far more direct force which is not what you are trying to do.

    Anyway some ramblings of my own, they probably won’t work so don’t waste too much time on them!!

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      1. The cover instruction shouldn’t be too apparent when we have the line that high to make it dangerous as you outline. When we’re at the halfway line, the wide CD’s should cover the wide areas and the central CD should also be on or around halfway.

      2. He shouldn’t step forward, no. At least not when I’m playing DM’s who are already in that zone.

      3. Already doing that 🙂

      4. I think you could be right and early experiments have seen ‘hold position’ removed.

      5. I may well tweak as I get further into the tactic but I first want to get the general shape sorted then tweak to make a solid defence then tweak to get the goals flowing. I’m hoping that the wingers should cut in a little when the ball is on the opposite flank and offer an option toward the back post but that will all come with time.

  7. I quite like the idea of this, and i feel your pain with the lack of flexibility in the game, when trying something away from the norm, personally wanted to try a the cruyff system after watching him on you tube, but hopefully this will change in the future.

    1. It may change but personally I only see the game becoming more restricted through the removal of attributes and players becoming rated at particular roles and given some general other grouped attribute star values (3 out of 5 for pace; 4 out of 5 for movement). Hopefully I’m wrong but I really don’t like the direction that SI have chosen for the game.

      1. I hope they don’t as i see that as a step backwards, there is plenty more they can work on in the game, and especially on the tactical side of the game.

  8. Another thought… are you finding any struggles against 4-2-3-1 formations? The opposition’s 2 CMs / DMs could sit quite deep and have lots of time on the ball, particularly given your CMs are being told not to press. If your CMs do press then they will leave gaping holes in behind for the 3 AMs to exploit. Just so this as a bit of a structural weakness.

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