Part Two – Simplicity And The Class of 99

This is the second article in the series from guest author Torskus77. If you’ve not read the first one yet, be sure to catch up with it here;

Saddlers 4-4-2, Simplicity And The Class of 99

Pros and cons of the 4-4-2

I would just like to say, these are my thoughts and opinions only, I am not stating anything as fact. I am a football fan, not a football coach. Everything I know (or think I know) about football, is from what I watched, read, hear, then I make my own decisions what I believe in or don’t.  Please feel free to post at any time, to agree, disagree, argue, I don’t mind, I wont take offence, this thread is as much about me learning as it is about giving something for you all to read. Football is a game of opinions, my main focus of the thread, is to stick to the DNA and the plan I have set out, and try to learn more as I go along, and hopefully have a lot of fun while doing so.

Pros

  • Good coverage of the football pitch

I have read about and heard this said many times, and when I look at a 4-4-2 in it’s most basic state, it makes a lot of sense.  The players are spread out nice and evenly on the pitch, forgiving that there is space between the lines in the defensive midfield and attacking midfield zones ( I will touch on this in a moment)  This is what your roles and duties are for.  When I spoke to Ray Graydon, he spoke about it too, he also mentioned the simplicity of it, and how he thought a lot of managers just over complicate things, when all that is really needed is a plan where each player knows exactly what they are doing. He also spoke about how he could pin point where the mistake had been, when a goal was conceded. He was very adamant that any goal that is conceded would be through a mistake at some point, no matter how brilliant the goal may have looked.  It then made it easy to put these things right, and yes players were held accountable.

  • Creating 2 v 1 overloads down the wings

One of the plus sides of 4-4-2 is the ability to create 2 v 1 situations down the wings, usually with an overlapping full back, of particular use against narrow formations, or formations that use wing backs. Accepting you will have one man less in the center of the pitch, this is a great way of finding space to exploit.

  •  Two Strikers Are Better Than One !

Okay, I am pretty sure that statement isn’t 100% true, but some of the greatest club sides I have seen in my life time have played with two striker combos. It is a pivotal part of any 4-4-2 in my opinion. I am thinking Liverpool of the late 70s, and early 80s (when I started watching football)  Man United of the 90s, and one of the greatest club sides I can ever remember, AC Milan of the late 80s early 90s. Dalglish/Rush, Yorke/Cole  Gullit/Van Basten, and so on. There are many ways two strikers can combine, and their partnerships are going to be key to how the 4-4-2 performs. Partnerships are important all over the pitch, something I want to talk about at some point in the future, the partnership of the front two, will to an extent dictate how the team attacks. 

Cons

  • Outnumbered in midfield

The single biggest pitfall of the 4-4-2 is surely being a man light in midfield against a lot of modern-day formations. I don’t know this for a fact, but I always assumed that the 4231, 4123 and so on, were designed to combat the 4-4-2. Wasn’t it Jose Mourinho who said he had an instant advantage over any team that played 442 against him?  Possibly why the 442 went on a back burner for some years. I’m not about to argue with Jose, don’t want him spitting his dummy out. I am sure there is a lot of truth in what he says, although the mini revival of the 442 would suggest that managers are finding ways to adapt the 442 to combat the extra man in midfield.

  • Those pesky attacking wide players

Obviously relating to above, a player in the central attacking midfield area is going to give you a problem to think about, speaking directly from my experiences playing FM, the wide men in the attacking midfield strata can cause problems too, especially if one or both of your full backs get over committed.  There are several options to deal with this, stopping the supply being the best option if possible. That said, all to often, some of the top-heavy formations can get over crowded in the attacking zones on the pitch, all about managing the space to  your advantage in any given situation.

  •  The Golden Zone

I am sure most people who follow football these days, have heard of the golden zone , also known as Zone 14. 

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As the name suggests, it is basically the golden area, where most key attacks either begin, or assists are made from.  If you have a player(s) in this area who are skillful, have good vision, can spot runners, or make quick passes to change the direction of the attack, then you can cause a lot of damage. The 442 doesn’t have anyone in this zone naturally, neither does it have anyone in zone 5, which would be the oppositions golden zone. This is where your roles and duties really come in to play, along with the whole set up of your tactic.   The opposition having an attacking midfielder playing in zone 14 doesn’t mean you are beat before you start though, there are many ways to combat any problem, if you think about it logically, and even with a world-class attacking midfielder, he would still need good options around him to be really effective.

I am sure there is much more that could be said about the pros and cons, and please do fee free to add your thoughts. Some things to look out for as we progress. I am sure some of these will come up in discussion.

In The Beginning there was light

So I have my squad together now, can’t say as I am over joyed with it, but with the money I had available I feel I have done alright. I still feel a bit gutted I had to sell Joe Edwards, who was a center midfielder with a great engine, and ticked most the boxes in terms of the primary stats I was looking for. Being a manager is full of tough decisions, and this was one of them. As much as he would have fitted perfectly in to my set up, him and Oztumer were the only players I could really get any money for.  No way I was selling Oztumer, he is my main attacking player, I am hoping to get him to sign a new deal at some point, he isn’t interested at this point, so we may well end up selling him later, but for now it was a straight out choice between the two, and Edwards had to be the one I let go. If I hadn’t sold him I would have been dangerously short in defence, Key decisions like this, are every bit as important as the tactics you use in my opinion. If you are managing Man City or Barcelona, then such decisions may not be forced upon you, but when you are managing a League 1 club, with a League 2 budget, these key decisions are going to have a huge impact on your success.

I played a total of 12 friendlies, most against very weak sides, local non league sides, and a couple of League 2 sides. I used all of my players including all of the youth players, and managed to win 11 of the 12 games. I somehow lost to Boreham Wood, by underestimating them, and playing to many of the 16-year-old players. No big deal I guess, but a bit of a knock to the morale we were trying to generate. Gave the team a roasting at the full-time whistle, which gained a positive response from all players, so maybe not too much damage done. I guess it’s important to see how players react when they lose, although I’d rather have won the game, but we move on.

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So we are working with the tactic above. During the friendlies, it is pretty difficult to see where you are at, we were blasting most teams out of the water, as I’d expect given the difference in class, it all looked alright, but at the same time it also felt a little disjointed at times. Maybe it was that the players and tactic weren’t fluid, but in my mind something wasn’t quite right.  I spent some time watching some of these friendly games back, and had a eureka moment.

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I will admit, I am not very good at doing the whole screen shot and explanation thing, but I will give it my best shot. Would take a whole bundle of images to give the full picture, but here is my best attempt.  On the ball is my main man Oztumer,  He has Leahy our attacking left back making his overlap, all good there, that’s what we wanted. Number 8 is the ball winning midfielder, giving the short pass option, and staying back to cover if possession is lost, all good there.  The position of number 6 who is our box to box midfielder is fine, although he is well-marked, he will make an attempt to find some space.  The wide midfield right is getting ready to attack the box from wide.  The problem I see here and I saw it a lot in the first few friendlies I played, is the distance between the poacher (number 10) and Oztumer.  In my mind when I put the tactic together, I visioned him closer to the poacher.  Okay, now it is time to earn my money as a manager, not that I get paid a lot, even in the virtual world of being Walsall manager, but let’s take a bit of pride in our work.

First thoughts, make Oztumer an attack duty, seems a reasonable option , this will surely push him closer to the poacher. This is probably in the past what I would have done, but that one little change, changes so much, and for once I did actually think about the consequences of this move.  Firstly, the overlap I wanted down the left will be gone, or if not gone, not the same as I wanted it to be. That’s not the end of the world, but it takes a bit away from what I am looking for. Oztumer, in the role I have him playing is meant to be a creator. Attack duties can be creators I am certain, but Oztumer even though he has pretty good vision flair and reasonable passing, also has average team work, and also the shoots long trait. I could easily see him turning in to something completely different to what I am looking for down that side. Also who is then going to feed him the ball? It opens up a whole new set of problems. Okay, I am going to admit, I tried it ! And it pretty much did what I said above, so that’s not the answer. 

Another problem I saw a lot, which probably can’t be picked up from one still screen shot, is the box to box midfielder wasn’t finding space, he was running in to the defensive forward more than anything, and there was a big gap the other side, between the BWM and the Poacher. So I swapped the sides of the Defensive Forward, and the Poacher. Now the defensive forward started to link up with the left side where Oztumer is, and the box to box midfielder started moving in to the space the Poacher vacated. An added bonus which I never saw coming, was an overload it created down the right hand side. The poacher, even though he didn’t have move in to the channels ticked, still did move out wide a lot, and created this deadly combo with the Wide Midfielder (A) on the right hand side. It literally transformed how it looked in action, I’m not going to lie, this was a sweet moment. I wish I could show it better in images.

So that was it, we are all ready for the season to begin, pretty happy with our pre-season work. All players are fully fit and in good condition, tactic is 90% fluid in all areas, morale is good, team isn’t properly gelled yet, but that will come I am sure. We have ironed out some creases in the tactic, but we wont truly know where we are at until we have got some competitive games under our belts.

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First month of the season went amazingly well.  Better than I could have expected to be honest. Including two wins v Good championship teams in the league cup. I am fine with 1-0 wins, that is what Graydon built the success on, I think we won a record amount of games 1-0 in that 99 season. I monitored closely the BWM role, as I thought it could be too aggressive in a two-man midfield, but it seemed fine, added a bit of bite to a set up that wasn’t over aggressive. Broke up attacks nicely, and came across well to cover for the attacking left back quite often.  Was over the moon with the win against Villa, I wouldn’t say they are rivals as such, they aren’t on the game, but they are probably the biggest club local to us, and where I grew up in Walsall, it was full of Villa fans, so it was a sweet victory for us, although it came in extra time, which I could have done without, but it was well worth it.

Moving forward, the next month…

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Can’t argue with the results as such. First defeat to Oxford, they are a useful team, and it was just an odd game, I wasn’t over disappointed with the performance. Started to leak some goals now though, which is a concern. I made two changes in this month. First one, If you notice on my tactic, I have a defensive center back on the same side as the poacher.  We were creating quite a few chances by him just launching the ball over the top, and our ridiculously fast poacher racing on to the ball and either getting in on goal, or centering it for the defensive forward, who would pretty much always be there in the middle waiting for the cross. I decided to give my right full back the defensive full back role, in the hope he could offer similar balls. I thought about just giving him more direct passing, but I was a little intrigued by how the defensive full back would work. I didn’t really require him to off any kind of overlap. It worked really well, he still goes forward and offers a ball backwards if needed, he did indeed offer more balls down the right side, which caused all kinds of havoc for our opponents.

Second change came after the Oxford defeat, nothing as such to do with the defeat, we just starting to conceded goals, and it was noticeable it was down our left side. I kind of expected this, as firstly we had an attack minded full back down that side, and secondly he was pretty awful defensively anyway. I had some injury problems and ended up having to play our 37-year-old DM in the BWM role, he has premier league mental stats, aggressive, all that is needed, but he is really slow, and wasn’t getting there in time. Changing him to CM (D) Didn’t work, I tried, it cut his pressing down, but that just made it worse.  So I changed something to do with personnel. Leaky Leahy was moved in to the WM (L) slot, he has decent attacking stats, reasonable crossing relative to the division, good team work and work rate.  Not so much the creative type like little Oztumer though, so it is quite a big change. Oztumer gets moved on to the right hand side as our Wide Midfielder (A)  He has no rating for this position at all, so starting from scratch. He definitely has the stats to play there though. He is left footed, so it will change the dynamic quite a bit, I still have my right-winger on loan from Swansea to play there too when needed.  I didn’t add cut inside player instruction, although it did happen naturally of course.  This change transformed the team even further. Leahy was just superb on the left of midfield, putting in beautiful crosses, coming in on the back post to score goals, and still feeding our other left back on the overlap. Oztumer became probably the best performing player in the league of the coming months, so much so, bigger clubs were starting to take notice.   You will notice a nice 5-2 victory v Sheffield Wednesday , the scoreline flattered them, they just couldn’t handle our attack down the right hand side.

Some Thought’s On Set Pieces

I have played FM for many years, without really paying any attention to set pieces. I have always scored what I’d consider a normal amount of goals, and got mildly annoyed at times by how many I have conceded from corners in particular. I’m not going to go in to too much detail about this, but I do know that one of Graydon’s biggest bugbear’s was conceding goals from set pieces. So I thought I would spend just a little time seeing if I could do anything with it.  Focusing mostly on defending corners. For attacking corners/free kicks, I am not going to bother talking too much about them for now, I am just going to say , I became more focused on making sure we didn’t get caught on the break from them, rather than finding a way of scoring a couple more goals a season. This again in line with how Graydon would have thought, was all about the clean sheets.  I still scored more than an average amount. Personally I feel scoring a lot from set pieces is as much about the quality of the player delivering the ball, and the people attacking it, regardless of how you set it up.  I can’t remember getting caught out on the break too much from clearances with the set up I used, other than one game when my corner taker didn’t play, and I was left a player short at the back, noted, wont happen again.

Defending Corners

The age-old question, players on the posts or not?  In this instance, I am talking about FM only, I’m not certain about real life examples, I guess it depends on how you plan to defend the corner. Personally from watching many games on FM i don’t remember too many examples of players clearing the ball off the line. I want to defend the cross so the ball doesn’t get there in the first place. There is a lot of talk about Zonal Marking on set pieces in real life. I think for a real life Example, Liverpool have come under scrutiny for it several times, under a few different managers.  There are some managers, or football pundits that believe marking space is never going to work, because space doesn’t score goals right? There are plenty of top class managers that have got this to work over the years though (possibly not so much in England) It is more about the execution and the players understanding of what they are doing. I decided to try a zonal marking set up for defending corners, with no real idea what I was doing :thup: 

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Not reinventing the wheel here, or coming up with any genius tactical revelation. A simple set up. All Zonal Marking Options ticked. Center Backs covering the most central areas, although I did consider having one on the near post to head near post corners away, watched how it worked, and it seemed fine as it is. Then 3 players just set to go back, including the bigger and stronger of our two strikers.  Oztumer left on the edge of the box, to pick up lose balls and possibly start counter attacks. He is 5 foot nothing and pretty useless for defending a corner anyway. Our speed demon left up front on his own, to battle for long clearances.

I will say now, without spoiling too much the rest of the write up, we conceded only 3 goals from corners all season, and scored probably as many on counter attacks from them. So all in all, pretty happy with that. Not sure how that compares to just leaving it as it was, but it was an extra bit of fun along the way.

January Transfer Window

So the end of the year, we are still doing amazing well, starting to pull away at the top, well clear of 3rd place. Can’t remember exactly cos I lost the screen shots, but I think it was something like 13 points clear of 3rd spot, with Blackburn in 2nd place, about 8 points behind us. Pretty good considering the difference in resources between us and Blackburn.   I had some nice transfer clauses I was hoping would get cashed in. Over recent years we have sold on some players with clauses attached. We managed to get 100k in for Tom Bradshaw playing 50 games for Barnsley, which Bonser actually allowed me to keep 80% after I requested the amount was increased. The bloke is just an open wallet honestly :rolleyes:  Rico Henry at Brentford has some great clauses attached. 500K For 25 appearances 3 times !  Great apart from the fact they didn’t play him for the first 3 months of the season, he was just a handful of appearances short of triggering the first one, but wasn’t going to happen in January.  Also one other big one, which we actually missed out on in real life several times now. Troy Deeney, 15% sell on clause, and he is valued at 20 million, this would be quite a big hit for us, there were teams interested in him, but no one bid. I can only hope at some point he gets sold, or the club negotiate a buy out clause. His loyalty is somewhat annoying !

I wasn’t really looking to buy anyone to be fair, everything was going smoothly, I fancied our chances of promotion, without adding to the squad. Maybe looking ahead of myself a little too much, cos we had achieved nothing yet, but the quality of players I could attract now, may not be good enough for the Championship next season (fingers crossed) so it could possibly be a waste of money, and disrupt the dynamics of the team, which was now starting to come together nicely.  Oztumer was now starting to drop hints he saw his future away from Walsall, and with his contract running out at the end of the season, and no chance of him signing a new deal at a wage we could offer, when I managed to get an offer of £1.1 million with a sell on clause attached from Middlesbrough, I couldn’t really turn it down, as gutted as I was to lose him. He was by far away now the most productive player in the division in his new Right Midfield role, and it was going to hurt us for sure. Again, decisions that need to be made. I am sure I could have got through January without selling him, but would he have been happy about it ? I doubt it, plus that kind of money is just too much for us to turn down.  I also had a 650k offer for George Dobson, with some good add ons. He had been playing a mix of BWM and Box to Box midfielder, mostly BWM. He had done “okay” but when Aston Villa offered that kind of money, I said yes pretty quickly, I had a decent replacement in mind for him, that I was about to sign on a bosman for next season. I ended up having to pay 40k for him to get him to come now, but chicken feed in comparison, and I feel he will be a better player for the role than Dobson anyway.  Bonser sneakily had dropped my cut back down to 50% without me even noticing, not that it really mattered, I had no plans to use much of the money. I signed a right-sided midfielder to kind of replace Oztumer,  Josh Windass, from Rangers, he wasn’t really a replacement as such, ended up being a bit of a panic buy, as I was struggling to find someone. I felt I could at least make a profit on him in the future, and he would fill the gap for the rest of the season, along with Daniel James who was on loan from Swansea and doing pretty well when he had played instead of Ozzy.

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This is the lad I got in for the BWM role, almost perfect. Work Rate, Aggression, Team Work , Bravery, good mental stats all round mostly. Plays short simple passes, which is want I want him to do. He looks like he can still improve too. His decisions don’t look too good, I wouldn’t mind him being a bit quicker and stronger maybe, but then again I wouldn’t mind a 20-year-old Gary Lineker as my poacher either. For 40k and £1200 a week, just about as close as I am going to get to a perfect match. Resolute character shouldn’t go unnoticed either, will be ready to tutor within the next year or so.

End Of Season Review

I am not going to go on too much more with this season now, it is a little pointless as it all run very smoothly, and I didn’t come across many problems. The sometimes problematic mid to end of season slump never really happened. We threw away a couple of 2-0 leads at some point, I had some awful injury problems, mainly because I made some mistakes with my training set up, and had players on a hard work load, when I thought they were on medium. My main poacher, the speed demon, he missed a lot of games, and my only real option was to play a 17-year-old kid, who looks like he has some potential, but he is nowhere near ready, it made a big difference, but we still did okay. There were times when I had 2 or 3 young kids filling in, and still we did reasonably well. When these players were playing in defence, it showed a little, we started to concede more goals, but the whole set up remained a good one in my opinion.  I am sure I will have much more to talk about next season. I’m not sure how much of the money I raked in from Oztumer and Dobson I will be given to spend, but I am pretty sure it will be way behind what the other teams in the Championship have to offer, plus with our poor reputation wont be easy to attract players. The plus side being, we should be able to continue to play against teams on the break.

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As you can see, we were one of the lowest payers in the division, we were actually the lowest, but after our dabble in the market pre season and then again in January, pushed us just above Rochdale. Although we made almost 2.2 million in net profit for the season. Wigan and Blackburn both had a salary per annum of over 7 million, that is some way beyond what we could dream of.  Very much in line with what the class of 99 did, achieved success without the big financial resources of the bigger clubs.  Lets hope before deciding our budget for next season, Mr Bonser takes in to account the money we have brought in, and maybe gets a visit from the ghosts of Walsall Past, Walsall Present, and Walsall Future.

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As you can see, we won the league with some ease, whilst Blackburn and Wigan with their huge resources, had to settle for the play offs. Blackburn did a big bottle job, they were on our tails for a long time, but faded badly in the end. We did reasonably well in the cups too, in particular the carabao, with some nice wins v Championship sides. Eventually Leicester just had too much quality for us, same in the FA Cup v Swansea. Was a little disappointed to not win the Checkatrade cup, would have been a nice trip to Wembley, and we wont be able to play in that competition now, providing we don’t come back down. Can’t have it all though.

I could post a whole load of images of how well some of the players did. Our Poacher was joint top scorer for the league, despite missing a lot of the season. Leaky Leahy excelled in his left midfield role, I am sure when I click continue I will have a fair few players in team of the year, a few surprising ones too, that I never expected to do so well. 

We broke the points record for League 1 (just about with a win on the last day) all in all, a very satisfying season, with all the hard work ahead, but looking forward to the challenge.

Season Observations

To conclude, a few thoughts on the season.  With the changes I made in pre season, the right side of the pitch was deadly in attack, it just killed teams, I don’t think any team really found a way to deal with it. Teams stopped playing 4-2-3-1 against us, I assume because we had the measure of it. Any team that played wing backs, we were playing with an advantage without any doubt. I have checked up on the stats, and it confirms this. Teams that played formations like 4-1-2-3 did a bit better against us, but nothing of any major concern yet.  Ngoy;s pace in the poacher role was just devastating, but at the same time, we coped well without him, and was still effective.  Towards the end of the season, we must have started to gain a bit more respect, because teams weren’t leaving much space in behind, and our possession stats went up, especially at home. Our best performances of the season were when we had less possession. 40% seemed to be a sweet spot, we gave Wigan two real hidings, 4-0 at home and 5-1 away, both with 40% possession, beat Blackburn away 3-1 could have been 10, same kind of thing.   We still did alright when teams sat back against us, but I will need to keep an eye on this in the future, may be I have to adjust some things, like passing length and tempo, and maybe look at other ways to open teams up.

Noticeably, even with one of the strikers with a defend duty, he still stays up top most of the time, and your team needs to be able to compensate for this, which I feel I have so far. Looking to the distant future, if we actually have more quality players, and are at a higher rep for the division we are in, I may look at changing the Defensive Forward and dropping that slot in to the AM strata (Still on the left side) Not for now, still very much focused on the flat 442, but it is always good to have a long-term vision, and having different options is always good, when I have more resources, it will probably be possibly to have both options available to me.

My apologies this didn’t turn out to be the post I had hoped it to be, but I have had to put double the effort in to get this up. I hope you found in enjoyable to read.

Within the next day or so, I am hoping to make a post including the following…

  • Thoughts on how to approach next season
  • Recruitment plans
  • Thoughts on any tactical adjustments for next season
  • Partnerships on the pitch
  • Managing Team Morale

3 thoughts on “Part Two – Simplicity And The Class of 99”

  1. Excellent write-up. Would be interesting to try out your tactic if you upload it. Especially to see how it fares against lesser opponent in the Championship but with enough quality to off-set your counter tactic.

    1. Just to qualify the praise. I like how you cover the basic tactical principals of the 4-4-2 and how you employ and tweak it to suit your own style of play.

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