The idea about this article is not to act as a guide as such but rather show you how I think and how I view football on Football Manager. This isn’t a post that will follow any rules that you might have read elsewhere, nor will it be a post that says ‘you must play this way’. It will just document my thinking behind the reasoning for the system I use and hopefully show you why it works. There are many different ways to achieve what I’m about to write below, this is just my way for this particular formation of choice.
I wanted to show people that defensive football can be great football and doesn’t mean you shut up shop and never attack. There are various types of defensive football just like there are lots of different attacking types of football. Most people on SI forums discuss attacking or controlling tactics, but what if the best attacking football is done by being defensive? Hopefully this will show you how I approached this concept.
To make things hard for myself and give me an added challenge, I decided I’d use a normal formation but one that would cause me issue down the wing and not one that we see used often in English football; and that was the narrow 4-1-2-2-1 (aka 4-4-2 diamond narrow);
I tend to normally play 3 at the back and go strikerless, but I wanted to do something more normal this time and also wanted to utilise two strikers. So this is why I choose this shape.
Team Shape: Highly Structured
I went for the defensive strategy as I wanted to show that defensive can actually be attacking, solid and create good football. It was that simple. My reason behind going very rigid was also simple; I wanted players to have less creative freedom and stick to the jobs that I give them via the roles and duties that I’ll touch upon further into this article.
If I’d have gone balanced, fluid or very fluid, then they’d be playing a lot differently than I planned. I’ll actually show you what I mean by this a lot further into the article and give you an example of this happening and how the tactic plays differently due to changing the philosophy to fluid. You’ll then understand the behaviour of the roles and what I didn’t want to happen a lot better.
4-4-2 Diamond Narrow – Team Instructions
The instructions I have decided to start off using as base are;
- Retain Possession
- Shorter Passing
- Be More Disciplined
- Stick To Positions
- Play Narrower
- Drop Deeper
I should point out that I might drop an instruction or add a new one depending on how a game is going, but these are the base that I will use to start most matches with. Any changes I make will be highlighted with an explanation to why I might have added or removed a certain instruction.
Retain Possession – The reason for selecting this is I want to keep the ball and not rush forward too quickly. I want to pass the ball around and use the space that I’ll have and be cautious. This doesn’t mean I want lots of possession though, however it can be a useful shout to use as you’ll find out shortly.
Shorter Passing – This ties in with what I was wanting above and helps me create a patient game without my players looking for the Hollywood passes that might happen, especially if I have 10 men behind the ball. So I selected this type of passing as a precautionary measure to help me pass the ball around without the risk of giving it away needlessly.
Be More Disciplined – I need my players not to be too creative. I have specific creative roles that can be expressive in the tactic already, so it’s important those who aren’t supposed to be my creative outlets actually aren’t. This will allow the more creative roles to dictate the game how I’d like them to and my less creative players to stick to their job. This is very important for what I’m trying to achieve with this defensive football set up.
Stick to Positions – Some of the roles I have selected in this tactic need players to stick to where they should be on the pitch and not stray too far away from that position. I can’t afford to have players who run the risk of being caught out of position as this would have a domino effect ripple throughout my side. If one player is caught out and in the wrong place, then that means someone else can’t do their job properly as they’d have to try to cover for the player or have to do something they shouldn’t have to do. Which in turn makes what I’m trying to create harder, as I need to be positionally strict with my players.
Play Narrower – When I attack I don’t want to make my players cover more ground than they have to. If my players tried to use the full width of the pitch when attacking, then I’d have massive gaps between players should I lose the ball. Remember I need players to be positionally strict and be hard to break down. So playing narrower allows me to keep the players closer together when attacking, which means if they do lose the ball I should be less vulnerable to quick counters as I won’t be full stretched. Something which could be a real issue especially in this narrow diamond I am playing.
Drop Deeper – I want to create space in my own half, thus by having them drop deeper I lower the defensive line and create space, so my players should in theory have more time on the ball. It will also mean I’m less vulnerable to quick/direct/long balls over the top or down the channels, which can cause all sorts of issues on Football Manager. It makes sense that if I want to be solid then this team instruction sits nicely with all the others I have selected.
Hopefully those instructions and the little bit about why I selected them give you some insight into what I’m trying to create in terms of style and positional play.
Someone asked me why I’d use retain possession and pass shorter as team instructions when retain possession already does the pass shorter option. The truth is I’m using both as during games I might remove shouts, so if I do remove retain possession which slows the tempo down and adds shorter passing, I’ll still be shorter passing by default to having the team instruction already trained and learned. Hopefully you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.
The main reason for this is I’m trying to create a brand of football here and not just create a tactic that works. It has to work in a specific way and do certain things. By having the basics already part of the base tactic it will make it much simpler. I usually tend to alter strategy rather than add or remove shouts, but for this guide I thought I’d do things differently and do any changes via roles/duties and shouts.
4-4-2 Diamond Narrow – Roles & Duties
I should point out that these roles and duties below are just what I use as a base and for some games the roles and duties might be changed.
He’s just a standard goalkeeper and the only personal instruction he has is distributed to the defenders. The reasoning for this is that I don’t want him to kick it long or throw it quickly, as I will be playing defensive so the likelihood is I’ll have the majority of players deep in my own half. So it makes sense to take time and distribute it from the back where I actually do have players. If the ball goes upfront too fast, then I’ll not have the bodies there to make the most of it.
Both my full backs will be vital to any attacks that I attempt, as they are my only real source of width and will be the players who stretch the game and make intelligent runs from deep. This is why I’ve made him a complete wingback; I need him to be ruthless in attack and use the full length of the pitch, I felt this role suited this style more than the others.
The exact same as above and for the same reasons. Both full backs are probably the most important aspect of getting this narrow diamond to work.
Both central defenders are the same and both of them have the “pass it shorter” player instruction selected. The reasons for this is I want to encourage them to pass to the Regista rather than lumping it upfront or to the wide areas. I want this sort of play to be forced through the Regista, who is capable of pulling off such moves. I want my defenders to be old school centre backs and not to be playing around with the ball too much.
He is responsible for driving forward from deep with the ball and being the creative force of the side from a deep area. I doubt he’ll get many goals or assists as he’ll be the starter of moves rather than someone who will be seen in and around the box finishing them off. The idea behind using a Regista instead of a defensive midfielder or anchor man is that I already expect to be compact and hard to break down. Therefore I don’t feel I need to be over-cautious, which means by using a Regista I’ll push forward and he will be hopefully higher up to win the ball and better placed compared to (let’s say) a defensive midfielder. This should hopefully ease some of the pressure that people associate with using a defensive strategy.
Box To Box Midfielder
I think this is a fantastic midfield role, yet very underrated by people. It’s great if you have a player who is good all round and can be an asset in attack and in defence. Finding a player who can fulfill this role perfectly might be more tricky, but it’s a role I want to use and have players who can fit this role well enough for it to work.
Another great role that I use regularly in almost all tactics I create. Hopefully this role will provide the running and be the legs that can get beyond the attacking midfielder and help the strikers out by driving from deep with the ball or by utilising the space that might appear before him. I’m hoping I can make him a distraction for the opposition and he will cause them issues with movement off the ball which will make the strikers’ job and the attacking midfielders’ job a lot easier.
The creative license high up the pitch, the player who will drop deep, push high up and generally just roam about. When he drops deep, he’ll form a midfield three with the other two midfielders and when he pushes high he’ll be the third striker. It’s essential I have someone in the side who isn’t bound to positional strictness that I’ve adopted. This player should be hard to mark, create good chances for the runners from midfield and the strikers. He should be a real handful with his roaming and wandering between the midfield and strikers.
Deep Lying Forward
I’ve gone for a deep-lying forward here in case the Treq is heavily marked or has a bad game. I’d still need someone from high up dropping deep to create space and drag the opposition’s defenders deeper to create gaps between their defence. Not only that, but even if the Treq isn’t marked, it doesn’t hurt to have someone else create space or time for the Treq to either run into or to use in some way.
You always need someone to push the opposition’s defenders back and keep them occupied. This is the role of the advanced forward for me as I have the other striker and the Treq all playing deep roles. If this was also a deep role, it would make it easy to defend against as there wouldn’t be anyone close to the defence and making them think about things.
A few people who’ve seen this shape have been a little taken back with how aggressive the full backs and the defensive midfielder roles and duties are. Just because I’m being defensive doesn’t mean I can’t still have attacking roles. If I’m too cautious, then I’ll invite pressure which will always be hard to defend against in the hope that I can nick a goal late in the game. What I am aiming to do is create something that is defensive and solid, yet at the same time when attacking causes the opposition lots of issues.
You’ll also notice that I don’t use many personal instructions for the players either and this is because I like players to play as part of a coherent unit and any changes I need to make I’d rather do via shouts, role changes or strategy changes (doesn’t apply to this guide). This is because it’s easier to change stuff quickly and be a reactive manager without it becoming to time consuming.
Adjusting the Defensive 4-4-2 Diamond Narrow against various formations
What I will do is now focus on how and why the above setup works and then take a look at a lot of games and see how it played against certain types of formations, teams who are higher up the leagues than myself and also those games where the opposition sit back and defend. So we can see a wider spectrum of games and see how diverse this shape is.
Facing the Bogey 4-2-3-1
First up we’ll take a look at a match against my bogey team on that save and get a feel for how it plays out and have a look at what the roles are actually doing. That team is Colchester United; they cause me more issues than any other side and I’m never sure why. So the game against them would make a good starting point.
Let me give you an example of a little change I made for this game against Colchester. This came natural to me and just seemed like a logical sensible way of thinking;
For this game I removed the “play narrower” shout and that was the only change made. The reason for this was as I stated above Colchester are my bogey team and I want to try to use the space between the Inside Forwards and Full Backs that they have when I’m attacking. This will mean I occupy their full backs and keep them busy. If I’m narrow I could run the risk of being doubled up down the flanks if I lose the ball and get hit with a quick counter. So to try to reduce this risk happening, I felt a more normal width would be better suited. A fullback with nothing to do defensively is a dangerous fullback when they break quickly as they’ll not be out of position or be being picked up.
It was that simple and very effective, it’s not the big changes what win games and make the difference in my opinion. It’s the smaller subtle changes that have the biggest impact on the outcome. I try to take this approach with everything. Normally I only tend to make changes in games based on what is happening, but just wanted to highlight this important bit above as I actually did this before the game this time, as I already knew it would be an issue if I didn’t start the match in the correct way.
My wingbacks, Regista and the other two central midfielders saw quite a lot of the ball, as expected. It also looks very attacking due to the complete wing backs positioning high up the pitch close to the halfway line, which is what I want. Just because I want to play defensively doesn’t mean I have to be camped on the edge of my own box.
There are various different types of defensive games you can play, it all depends on what it is exactly that you are wanting to achieve. For me it’s clean sheets and to win as many games as possible. It might seem a bit weird to some that I claim to want to play defensive, then use roles that can be deemed aggressive like the Regista or the complete wingback, but this can also help.
On the average positions map I have seven players in my own half which means I am compact and deep in general. But it also means my midfield is almost a flat four with the two wing backs and both central midfielders making this flat four. Then I have the regista just behind them, so that’s a five man midfield in essence which will always be hard to break down regardless. And if we add the Treq dropping deep at times then I have a six man midfield.
If the complete wing backs weren’t positioned so high, then the opposition’s wide players would have a free run until they got closer to my 18 yard box, which will invite unnecessarily pressure. So I’d rather avoid that if possible and make it easier for myself.
This shows what I was speaking about above. You see how deep the Treq is and the numbers I had in midfield? In fact would you believe that the above resulted in an actual goal and it was finished off by the Treq? You can view the full move here;
There are actually a lot of things going on in this video. We can see the midfield six like I mentioned. You can see the deep runners from midfield. You can see us use the width of the pitch. The DLF dropping deep and linking up with the AF who stays in the gap between the defender. And you can see the complete wing backs bombing forward to provide extra support.
All of this can be seen in this screenshot take from the above clip;
Then we can see runners creating space and the support players using the space wisely in this next screenshot;
This is why myself and others can’t stress enough how important creating space is and having players who can use it and who run from deep positions. Space opens up and the opposition always struggle to deal with late runners or players who use space intelligently.
That is just one aspect of one goal I scored. It doesn’t look very defensive when attacking, does it?! Well that’s kind of the point. I could sit back and absorb 30 shots from the opposition in the hope we can sneak up the pitch and snatch one late on in the game. But the risk with this is that the players could buckle under the pressure early in the game and then the original plan needs to be changed as you’d be chasing the game. Or they could make a mistake which is just as costly, so why not just be solid when defending only and lethal when attacking? This is the defensive style I have created.
The Defensive Mechanism of my 4-4-2 Diamond Narrow
Still on the same match against Colchester.
In that screenshot you can see the space down my wings which we already knew was one of the main weaknesses of the tactic, but that doesn’t mean I will get battered down the wings, far from it. You can see that positionally my players are placed very well to deal with any threat and I have players looking to cover the gaps already, should any appear.
This screenshot is actually misleading as it makes out my complete wingback is caught out of position and that the defender on the near side isn’t covering the space. What actually happened is the complete wingback has already seen the danger of the ball being played and has stepped up to head it away already as he’d anticipated where the ball would go. The defender is actually jockeying across the pitch and is dealing with the player behind my wingback and covering for him just in case he doesn’t get the ball.
As you can see, the players had the situation under control and covered well. You can see how deep the defensive line is and can see the back four dropping deeper. This helps dramatically with balls over the top, as normally the defence should be able to deal with situations like that without any real issues. Though it does mean at times the opposition might have the ball in front of them while playing a passing game. But that doesn’t matter or bother me because if I stay compact and players do the required job they won’t be able to break me down.
The next image shows the opposition trying to use the full width of the pitch as I haven’t allowed them much space, so they try getting the better of me by switching play to the opposite flank;
That is the very start of the move. You can see how compact I am and have players covering their opponents and should be able to deal with any kind of threat.
This is the video for rest of the move;
There just isn’t anywhere for the opposition to go as everyone is covered when it matters. There is one part of the video that it looks like I’ve been cut wide open though, but let’s take a look at it;
It looks bad doesn’t it? When he gets the ball he has a lot of space to play in. I actually don’t mind this as long as the team keeps its defensive shape in my final third; that is all I care about. Remember it’s a narrow shape I use, so when the opposition uses the full length of the pitch my players need a few seconds to readjust. The opposition cannot hurt me in this area because my back four are well spread and should be able to deal with any kind of through ball from this situation.
After this part of the move, you can see my players get back into position and become compact again and give them no real target to aim for or give them any viable option to create a scoring chance. You can’t really cut out or prepare for switches in play like this; that cause you to become stretched. What you can do is ensure your defence is rigid and solid though and start from a position that allows them to retain their defensive shape.
I’m happy for the opposition to control the game from higher up the pitch as they can’t hurt you from those kind of areas. I don’t need high amount of possession and I don’t need to close down aggressively and risk losing my initial shape. So I can afford to be patient. If this happened in my final third, then it would be different but it didn’t, so there is no real threat here even though it might initially look like there was. It’s all about context.
Dealing with another 4-2-3-1
The 4-2-3-1 can cause a few issues if you don’t account for the fact you have little cover down the flanks. If I ignore this fact I’ll be punished.
There are many ways to play against this shape as it depends what type of roles the opposition is using. Just because someone might be using a 4-2-3-1, it doesn’t mean all those shapes play the same. One formation might use playmakers wide (this case) and another inside forwards (Colchester case), so it’s best to watch a little bit of the game to get a true idea of what the opposition is actually doing.
For this game against MK Dons I made the following changes;
- Added the team instruction Higher Tempo
- Removed the team instruction Retain Possession
- Removed the team instruction Play Narrower
The reason for this was I have the numbers advantage in the middle of the pitch, so wanted to make the most of it. As I’m playing a higher tempo game, I expect my possession numbers to go down slightly, so that’s why I removed that as I want to attack space faster this time and not have players retain the ball. This makes for faster transitions as the 4-2-3-1 leaves a lot of space behind the two central midfielders and also in the space between the wide attacking midfielders and the fullback. I also removed play narrower due to the reasons given when I wrote about Colchester further up.
You can actually see the effects of faster tempo right from the kick off. I manage to score a goal by being quickly with the use of the ball;
See how much faster my players are moving the ball around and looking to make something happen? This is the change of tempo at work which increases the urgency.
You can actually see it again in another goal from the same match;
I use the width of the pitch to great effect and the players look really snappy like they are trying to make things happen quickly.
In the next screenshot you can see what happens when the opposition has the ball and there are no real passing options;
He has nowhere to go, he could go backwards but there isn’t really a threatening ball he could do because my players are well placed. So what the player tries to do is pass the ball to the other flank;
But my wingback cuts across and deals with the threat. I can defend like this all day long, they can’t really hurt me if players are marked or back in their own half.
Here is a different move where they try to stretch me by using the width of the pitch;
The dotted line shows the ball and where the opposition plan to stretch me quickly and play in the runner from the midfield. It’s actually a really good slick move.
However, my players both saw and tracked the run and dealt with the situation brilliantly. You can view the full clip of this here;
The match ended up being 3-0 to me;
Dealing with the 4-4-2
When playing against a 4-4-2, the main threats are the wings as that’s how the 4-4-2 excels. It relies on supply for the front two from the wide players. Dealing with the central midfielders isn’t really an issue, as I can match them man to man and have the extra protection of the Regista.
The changes I made for this game were as follows;
- Changed the role of my complete wingbacks to those of WB support and WB attack like I did for the Colchester game.
The reason for this change was the same as before; I need the wingbacks to keep position against the 4-4-2 as I can’t afford them to be too advanced and risk getting caught out by the opposition’s winger and full back overlapping them. So by being more cautious I can stop this happening and ensure the full backs that I use hold their positions a lot better. I know I keep banging on about strict positioning, but this is vital to keeping clean sheets and being a good solid defensive unit.
This is a screenshot showing the opposition out wide with the ball;
As you can see, I have every single player back in my own half and everyone except the advanced forward really deep picking up open space and runners. So when the opposition players get the ball out wide, they have nothing to do but cross the ball;
And my towering centre backs can deal with crosses like that without too many issues.
The next screenshot shows a rare counter attack by the opposition after I gave the ball away up field;
As you can see, the opposition is going to attempt to switch play fast again and it actually looks like I’m in real trouble. Which is correct but only if the cross is accurate and he needs to cross to the player making the run with the arrows to take any advantage of the space I have open.
What happens is he picks out the player in the middle who then lays it off to the other player making the run;
But luckily for me the player has a rush of blood to the head and shoots from distance. This could have ended up a lot worse, but you can’t really defend or plan for these type of attacks from the opposition. It’s why I adopt a more cautious approach to reduce the number of counter attacks made against me, as these are what truly hurt people on Football Manager from over committing men forward leaving you exposed at the back. I wasn’t actually left short here, but I couldn’t cover the switch in play fast enough from one side to the other.
This is why I changed the full back roles before the game, as I was fully aware of this happening and it would happen a lot more if my full backs got caught out of position. You can’t defend against things like this, but you can try to reduce the risk of these happening.
I ended up winning the game though and restricted them to either long-range shots or shots that weren’t really going to test my keeper;
Dealing with the 4-5-1
A flat 4-5-1 isn’t that hard to play against for me due to it being quite defensive really. It doesn’t have an attacking midfielder, so my Regista should be able to dictate the game more and just be a spare man to track runners that my midfielders can’t. They also don’t use a defensive midfielder, which means my Treq should have quite a bit of space to play in. The tricky part is getting past the flat five in midfield.
The changes I made for this game were;
- Removed the retain possession shout
- Added the higher tempo shout
- Removed the play narrower shout
The two shouts I removed are for the reasons I’ve mentioned before. Higher tempo was added so I could look to get in behind Preston faster when I was attacking and try to utilise the fact they didn’t have a defensive midfielder in the side.
This is from a goal kick and you can see my defensive shape clearly on this image. While I’m not marking the players tightly, my players are aware of them and know what they have to do and are positioned well to deal with this. I initially win the ball, but my box to box midfielder heads the ball straight to the Preston midfield which results in this happening;
Laird has just had the ball played to him and is going to drive forward. Even though my players made a mistake just look at the numbers I have back and there seems to be little penetration from Preston.
He doesn’t have many options and only has one realistic target he can aim for, but I have bodies back to deal with the situation and there is no way barring an error that they can score from here.
And just like that my defender heads the ball clear….
I won the game 2-0;
Being the Underdog against the 4-1-2-3 DM Wide
The semi finals of the League Cup pitted me (Sheffield United) away to Liverpool for the first leg. Let’s take a look at the formations;
As I’m the away team and Liverpool are using a strong side against me I made two very important and crucial changes for this game and that was make my right back a wingback on attack and my left back a wingback support rather than using complete wingbacks. The reason for this change was simple, Moses and Suarez are tricky players with pace and I didn’t want to risk my own players being too aggressive and getting caught out high up the pitch when attacking. I need them to be even more disciplined than usual. But I still need them to contribute to attacks and provide width, I just need them less gung-ho. This was also why I had the leftback on support, as I felt Suarez is more of a goal threat than Moses, so he needs to be even more aware of his surroundings and take no chances.
Again we’ll be working backwards as we’ll be able to see the result in the screenshots anyway, so let’s look at the stats from the game;
I wasn’t totally outplayed like you’d expect; I more than held my own and while 2-1 is a great result, I am slightly disappointed that I didn’t win by a bigger margin in the end.
You can see on the average positions from the game just how much deeper my full backs became compared to the Colchester game.
This is Suarez being dangerous, but he’s doing it from a deep position which means due to my wingback being restrained should he decide to pass and move, my wingback should easily be able to pick him up. If he was closer to Suarez, then Suarez has the mental and technical skill to beat my mediocre wingback. Instead he plays it into Aspas.
Aspas has no passing options and he can’t lay it back to Suarez as he’s already made his mind up to run at my defence. He has no other option available because the 4-1-2-2-1 that Liverpool are using can make it easy for me to defend against a lone striker as they have no attacking midfielder, so my Regista becomes a spare man and can roam around. The threat I’ll have is out in the wide areas, hence my change at the very start. But I will gladly defend like this every day and allow him to drive forward if he wishes as I don’t believe he can hurt me in these kind of areas.
In the end, Aspas has no option but to shoot from 20 yards out because he lacks any kind of support and is outnumbered by my defence and midfield. What other option does he have? He can do this all day long for me as I’m confident my keeper can deal with these kind of shots.
This time a different move but the same story; only Aspas to aim for and nothing he can really do but drive forward even if he managed to get the ball…
Which he didn’t as any type of direct ball my defenders will just head clear. On this occasion it was the wingback who cut across to head clear.
Not only am I defending well and causing Liverpool all sorts of issues and frustrating them as they can’t find a way through, but I’m also looking really good from an attacking point. This next video will show you what I mean. Again it is some lovely football being played by my team, the club two leagues lower;
No doubt I frustrated them massively in this game. I don’t mind people having possession or shooting from no dangerous areas.
The idea is I’m not trying to stop the opposition from having possession or shots. The focus is stopping the opposition from having possession in dangerous areas or having shots inside my own box. That’s the key to being defensively solid in my opinion. If I wanted more possession and to stop shots all together I’d have to play a higher, aggressive game and that can cause all sorts of issues with long balls over the top, clever through balls, runners from deep and so on.
I tend to get a lot of PM’s or responses from people asking me what the best settings are for something. Now I don’t think like that as I don’t believe there are such things as best settings because it’s the context of the overall final product that matters. People should learn to think logically about stuff and getting someone to think differently isn’t something I can do. I can show them how I think and approach things, but it’s down to them to make the change and be more open-minded themselves. All I can do is show them how I do things, the rest is up to them.
I’d never dream of telling someone they have to play a certain way. The user is responsible for that and it’s down to them to think about what’s the best way of achieving what they want. I will guide them as much as a I can, but I do it by questioning someone’s thinking and asking them why they choose something. This is because it’s the best way for learning by asking questions and challenging someone’s thought process. That is always my aim.
You see me mention logical choices quite a lot. Now to me this kind of thinking comes natural after spending a lot of time learning what something does/doesn’t do via trial and error. I don’t believe it’s something I can teach someone but by putting down my own thought process it might make people think differently and question their own reasoning.
With this guide, I just wanted to show people who you still have options even when playing defensive football. I’ve seen people talking about defensive football having the wrong idea about it and thinking it’s all about absorbing insane amounts of pressure. There are many different styles of defensive football and isn’t one set way to play. The style I created is just one type, there are many more.