12 Step Guide To Tactics

Not many people understand the match engine and how it works better than guest author @BusttheNet (Rashid1 on the SI forums). I recommend that if you are a fan of my site then please give Rashidi a follow as he is criminally underrated and followed on social media. He offers guides on his website but he also has a YouTube channel where you can find informative tactical videos. His work really is some of the best out there so be sure to check him out.

STEP 1 Understand what Mentality, Shape, Roles and Duties do for your team

Mentality affects HOW a team plays, do they have a higher appetite for risk, do you want them to be more aggressive going up or do you want them to be calculated in possession? Mentality affects closing down, width, length of passing, tempo and defensive lines.

Shape affects how a team plays during transitions. On lower shape players will stick to their duties more, whilst on higher shapes a team is more likely to play as a unit. So if you want your team to play by sticking to the shape of the formation then you want to play on the more structured shapes.

Roles and duties serve to create individual distinctions in mentality, and shape acts to distribute it within the team. 

For Example:

Defensive – Highly structured – Attack duties will be further away, their risk appetites will be higher and you are likely to need them to be good at using the ball on their own. It may take time for others to come up and support them. If you don’t use the shout play out of defence you could see quick counter attacks.

Defensive – Very fluid – most of the team will be playing on the same mentality, the side will appear compressed, it will move as a unit. Since you are so calculated in your movement up the pitch, you could find that the opponent is already firmly in their defensive positions when you get the ball up the pitch.

A poacher in a Defensive Highly structured system will always have a higher mentality and a greater risk appetite to do things than one in a Defensive/Very Fluid system

As you increase mentality, the teams style of passing, closing down, its defensive line, tempo will all change. How the team plays as a unit however will stay the same, unless you change mentality or duties.

STEP 2 Analyse your squad

1. Check Season Preview to determine how you rank vs the other teams

2. Study your squad to identify strengths and weaknesses:

Use Team Reports – a simple snapshot that gives you a good indication of overall things like work rate, decisions, jumping reach etc.
Use Squad Comparison – to give you a comparison to the rest of the league, always use the highest value.
Use Squad Depth – to find out how many players you have and how they stack up on current ability. Remember to use the option to show Roles currently selected for your tactic.


Use a Club DNA view – Break your side down by attributes and analyse their strengths

3. Once you have identified your team : draw up a list of positions and rate each one with what you have

The game is all about defending space, controlling space and attacking space. To that end we need to know how the players can perform defensive and offensive tasks on the pitch.

Rate them according to how well they can perform these tasks :

a. How good your central defenders are at dealing with crosses – Jumping Reach, Heading, Positioning, Anticipation

b. How many players you have good enough to get back quickly and play on support to help out the defence – Concentration, Acceleration, Stamina, Determination, Work rate,

c. How good your players are at tight marking their opponents Concentration, acceleration, marking, strength.

d. How many players you have good enough to spot a danger before it happens – Anticipation, Concentration, Positioning

e. How many players  you have who are good enough to put in a challenge if needed – Bravery, Strength, Tackling

If you have central defenders who are strong aerially and good positionally then you can play on various mentalities. Your side can adopt defensive postures and allow the opposition to cross the ball. However if the players attributes are just average vs the league, then you will need to adapt dynamically and decide on a per game basis whether its too risky to sit back and allow the opposition the time and space to cross the ball.

When your team has low acceleration and poor positioning they are going to find it a challenge to play on higher shape settings. Determine if your players have good acceleration, determination and work rate too since these will influence whether you can play a game on higher shapes and higher mentalities as support and defend duty players may need to get back quickly when defending.

If your team is average or below average at defensive tasks, then you are recommended to play with at least a defensive midfielder so that your backline gets more support. Here you need to recognise your sides weaknesses and be prepared to deal with them if necessary.


Creating chances is all about controlling space and using space. We need to know what kind of players are at our disposal, and what they are capable of.

Players who can exploit space and what the attributes influence specific action during an attacking phase.

Those who go into and attack the spaces (eg, Players who may be expected to play either attack or support duties on the flanks or are expected to move into channels centrally )- Acceleration, off the ball, anticipation, determination, work rate.
Those who can control the ball  – First Touch, balance, agility.
Those who can control and work the space ( Players who have been given the support duty and are expected to drop deep or hold up the ball) – Strength, balance, first touch, decisions, off the ball, determination, work rate, composure.
Those who can find players in spaces – (Players who are expected to be making risky passes) First touch, decisions, passing, vision.

Understanding what the players are capable of will influence your decisions on what kind for tactical formations you can use and how you can use the space. If you opt to use a structured shape, then players in attack duties will be expected to either attack space or control them, depending on the role. If their roles demand they dribble or move into channels then you will need to make sure they have the attributes to do their roles well. Technical attributes such as crossing, dribbling, finishing will need to be taken into account for specific tasks you have in mind for them.

For example, I want to play a winger in a structured shape and I want him to attack the space out wide. Then I will need him to have 

Go into and Attack Space – Acceleration, off the ball, anticipation, determination.

Once he gets there, I need him to control the ball – First Touch, balance, agility. 

Finally I need him to dribble with the ball go down the flank and cross – Dribbling, Crossing.

When you have a systematic way of analysing whether a player can perform a role within an overall shape it becomes a lot easier.

In more structured shapes, players in attack duties are more likely to wait for support, these players will need to be able to attack the space and control the ball.  In more fluid shapes, players will need to be able to move around, control and work the space.

Regardless of shape you will always need players to find others in spaces, these will most likely be your playmakers, or any role that has been assigned risky passing.

Why is this important?

You’ve heard the advice, “give passing options”, “defend against the cross”, but how do you do this effectively? Understanding how a play breaks down gives us insight into what actions could have failed.
– Did a player get closed down too fast and lose the ball, because his support players didn’t come up quickly enough?
– Did his control of the ball let him down?

Knowing if your defenders can deal with the cross allows you to use defensive strategies more effectively. Knowing that you have players who can win balls in the box and clear them allows you to play a conservative strategy, knowing fully well that on defensive strategies you give up the flanks. Understanding how attributes kick in on defensive and offensive phases will help you. FM18 also makes it easier for you to compare players in specific roles along key role attributes. Click on a position in the tactical grid, now go to the squad list and drag someone over and study the comparison tab that pops out on the right. 

STEP 3 Create a balanced tactic with more than one route to goal

Tactics don’t need to have 10 attacking duties to score, a tactic with no attacking duties can do just as well, provided you have considered carefully what your players are capable of.

Always think about how you are doing to defend the spaces vacated by your attacking duties. If you are using a Complete Wingback, understand that he will venture forth aggressively on an attacking duty. So how do you defend that space in his absence?

Is your tactic capable of creating more than one type of goal? Don’t be too one-dimensional with your tactics. You could create a tactic that has one flank delivering crosses while you have another flank crafting short little passes that serve to drag a team around. 

A balanced tactic is all about controlling the space. Worry about keeping a clean sheet first. Sort out your defensive shape before you create your attacking shape. The with and without ball screens only give you a general guide on what your team looks like in attack and defence.  Look at passing network diagrams in Team Reports to see what your key pass combinations look like to make sure players are using the space effectively.

When you create a tactic consider how you place your duties first. When deciding how to set up your duties, account for the attacking duties and make sure that you have adequate support to cover for them when they go off attacking. When creating a balanced tactic, we are always trying to balance duties to make sure there is enough cover to account for these attacking duties. For example if you choose to use an attacking duty on a side midfielder in a 3 man midfield, consider using a support duty behind him to cover for him when he goes attacking. This way during a transition from attack to defence, you will have cover on that side of the pitch. Once you have distributed your duties, you can then think of the roles that your tactic may need.

Remember that you have the option of using Match Plans in FM18, this powerful tool gives you the ability of saving pre-sets of your tactic with different team instruction combinations. This allows you to create scenarios to make subtle changes to your system under certain circumstances.

STEP 4 Adapt the roles to the player

Many roles in the game may not suit your players strengths and weaknesses. Use the player instructions to fine tune the players skill to the role requirements. If a player can’t dribble, then choose a role where you can get him to dribble less. If he has poor vision and decisions then don’t give him a role which requires him to take risky passes.

You can even look at your tactic and set specific roles for specific players in your formation. If you are playing a 442, then one player can be set up as a Winger and if you have a plan b, where you need to bring on a defensive winger in the second half, then set a specific role for the second player in the player instructions sub panel. This way you don’t need to fiddle with player instructions each time a player is brought on. 

STEP 5 Focus on how the roles and duties work together in your tactic

Roles and duties can work together to create effective passing triangles on the pitch. If you want a tactic that attacks space in wide areas you may want to use attacking duties in wide areas.  Duties can be combined together to make sure you have as many players split across different stratas of the pitch. For example you could have one defend duty in defence followed by a support duty on a fullback. 

Together they have been offset to provide support to each other. The same holds true in a two man strike partnership. One striker could work off another, as one striker could play a deeper role holding up the ball for another player who is in a more attacking role. 

When you think of roles and duties you need to think of effective combinations that work the ball seamlessly through transitions.

STEP 6 Use Team Instructions Wisely

Team Instructions allow you to create styles, but not understanding what they do can be even worse. When in doubt, don’t use any instructions. If you are not sure what these do, choose one at a time and watch the effects. Most of the Team Instructions are self explanatory. 

There is no hard and fast rule on which team instruction to use in the game. As long as you think about it logically and keep it simple you should be fine.

Whenever you play with a fluid setting always remember that higher defensive lines combined with offside traps can be risky as you are compressing your side even more. The best option when using team instructions is always to keep things simple by observing how these changes affect your team and do these changes liberally in pre season.

STEP 7 Analyse the Opposition

Before each match, check the weather conditions and check the scout reports on the opposition. Pay close attention to their key pass combinations and try and identify how they move the ball around and who their creative players are. 

You can elect to use a strategy of shutting them at the source or defending against their threat. If you choose to shut them down at the source then you want to isolate key pass combinations that indicate where most of their support play is occurring and this will be the area you disrupt, either by overloading or by reducing the influence of their creative players. 

If you plan to sit back and defend against their threats then you will need to focus on roles and duties in the team that can perform this task by being positionally good and/or aerially strong. 
For example, you could adopt a plan to sit back and defend, by allowing them the freedom of the flanks. Here you could be playing a game of sit back and soak, without the need of countering. A suitable mentality may be defensive/fluid. Then you would be making sure that your defenders are aerially strong and positionally  suitable for the task. It’s definitely one way of playing if you are the sort that like to shout “backs to the wall”.

STEP 8 Understand Transitions

So we have analysed our players, now how do we know when our tactic isn’t working? We need to look at how our team transitions the ball from defence to attack and how the team transitions from attack to defence. 

When attacking we want to see a seamless move from defence to attack. Whenever each move breaks down we need to find out what has happened. Once the event occurs we need to look at it carefully and track back a few moves. You could have conceded a goal, not because your defender failed to tackle a player in time but a midfielder 5 moves back could have failed to move into position allowing the ball to be intercepted.

When you have identified these transition failures as I like to call them, then you should revisit Step 2 and try and use those guidelines to understand how and why those transitions failed.

STEP 9 Don’t be rigid in your approach, prepare to adapt

This means you may need to change your approach in a game. If the AI is attacking you down the left, you may need to change duties there to compensate. Or you may find that the opposition is sitting back and this may require you to push up, go wider or even get more players up in support.

When the AI scores a goal its prepared to change mentality, shape even roles and duties to maintain the lead. When it expects to win it could even decide to go attacking and fluid on you. The AI manager plays dynamically to get a result, we should be prepared to do the same whether its a slight change to roles and duties or a significant change like changing the style of play altogether.

Get into the practice of trying strategies where you push up to try and score a goal and then sit back to defend. You can make tactical changes to play more defensively by telling your team to retain possession and work ball into box to encourage your side to hold onto the ball. Or you could have a strategy where you switch to counter and structured and pass into space if you expect the opposition to push forward for the flank.

STEP 10 Learn to use Opposition Instructions

Opposition Instructions act to target a specific opposition player as opposed to player instructions like tight marking and closing down which are more zonal. Consider using OIs to put opposition backlines under pressure. You can also use them to hard tackle dangerous crossers of the ball, put players under pressure who are unfit or even tackle harder players who are carrying an injury. Who said we have to be nice?

STEP 11 – Have a bench strategy

The players on the bench can present an effective change in strategy for you. If you find that you need to stick a strong player upfront to hold the ball up and play others in. Don’t be afraid of thinking of different players who can perform different roles to create varied styles of play.

Consider as well, the possibility that you may want to bring on players just to waste time to hold on to a lead.

STEP 12 Never ever forget to set up your set pieces

If you have a player who can take long shots then set him lurking at the edge of the box, and hurl corners to the penalty area for him to take strike. You can also set corner routines up to help with keeping possession of the ball. And never forget to check attacking routines to make sure you have enough cover in case the opposition launch a quick counter.

2 thoughts on “12 Step Guide To Tactics”

  1. Another great article!! You clearly understand how real teams are built to win. I do have a question for you however. With all your writing, do you actually have time to play the game for fun?

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