The Development of My 4-4-2

_41705404_4_4_2_416Tactically, I’ve been in somewhat of a flux lately. Many of the tactics I’ve tried have worked to an extent, but there’s just been something missing from them. Those of you that have followed this blog for a while now will know (and those of you that have just started reading will quickly learn) that I am pretty much incapable of doing things simply in Football Manager when it comes to tactics. Tactics are 95% of the reason I play Football Manager. I love having an idea, or some inspiration and having it play out and work on FM. Whether this be the Central Winger, or the 4-5-1-0 with Eibar, or the 1-2-4-1-2-0 I used with Leverkusen last year, with such ridiculous effect.

However, this just hasn’t been happening so far on FM16. Part of it is naturally that this is the beginning of the cycle of FM16, and at the in the early part of the game, I’m less inclined to try things that are utterly crazy and instead am simply feeling out the game. Still though, this doesn’t explain my problems with getting a basic possession orientated 4-3-3 to work, or a counter attacking 4-1-4-1 to work. It’s affected the saves I’ve been having too, as I’ve become more and more frustrated by my inability to fully ‘figure the game out’.

So, I decided I was going to look at the (supposed) most basic of football formations, 4-4-2. 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 strikers. Supposedly boring, bland, formulaic (and if the media would have you think it), defensive. The 4-4-2 I’ve created is anything but these things, and is the first tactic I’ve created that I feel works exactly as it should, and yields the results I’m looking for. This article will cover the theory behind my 4-4-2, and analyse why it’s been working so well in game.

Firstly, I had to figure out what I wanted the 4-4-2 to actually do. It’s all well and good saying I wanted to create a 4-4-2, but if I had no idea what I wanted the 4-4-2 to play like, it would likely be an incoherent mess, and it would certainly play like one.

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In terms of player movement, this is what I’m looking for. I want a rather standard front 2, with a pacey Advanced Forward type to lead the line, and a more creative striker to drop into the hole and link the play between the midfield and the attack. Out wide, I want the left sided midfielder to be a playmaker, and float into the centre of the pitch in order to further link up the attack and the rest of the midfield. On the right, I want to re-create a John Robertson type winger, that leaves defenders constantly guessing whether he will go inside or out, but more than often cuts inside to devastating effect. In the centre, I want a classic holder/runner combo, although I don’t want this to be too cavalier. I want standard centre backs, and at full back I’d like both players to provide width, but in slightly different ways. In particular, I’m looking for the right full back to be higher up the pitch earlier, whereas I’d like the left full back to join the attacks late. The left back/left midfielder partnership is based on the Robert Pires/Ashley Cole partnership from Arsenal’s Invincibles side, with Pires dragging full backs inside and drawing attention, before freeing Cole out wide to cause chaos.

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I also want the style of the 4-4-2 to be very influenced by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. I want it to be very compact horizontally, in order to compress the central space, and avoid one of the issues with 4-4-2, in that it can easily be exposed in central areas simply by packing it with bodies. This midfield compactness also means that the wide midfielders should be sitting narrower than the full backs, a feature of Simeone’s side.

I do want to press, but in a very different way to the Ajax/Barcelona school of pressing. I want to press in order to win the ball back in central areas, or to force the AI to play the ball out wide, where we can deal with them. You’ll notice watching Simeone’s Atletico (particularly his great la Liga winning side) that they press in order to open up the counter attack. It’s part of what has made them so deadly, and how Simeone has gotten the best out of players like Thiago, Gabi and Diego Costa. Their pressing also has the added effect of making them so difficult to play through, because the opposition simply doesn’t have time on the ball.

Furthermore, our pressing should again keep teams from exploiting out central weakness, allowing us to effectively surround and swarm on the ball with a narrow midfield 4. From there, we should hopefully be off to the races with 2 strikers, a wide playmaker, and a dangerous wide player on the right.

But enough of the theory. How does this actually translate into Football Manager?

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Well, here’s what I’ve ended up with once I’ve applied what I want from the various positions to the roles that are available on FM16. I’ve gone for a standard goalkeeper, who is asked to distribute to the centre backs, in order to aid with ball retention. I want to be narrow and compact and I’m not necessarily looking for possession football, but I don’t want to just give the ball away. Ahead of him are two CD-D’s, with a WB-S at right back, who will move higher up the pitch at a faster rate than the FB-A at left back, who will join the attacks later, overlapping on the left.

In central midfield, I’ve gone for a CM-D as the holder. Those of you that are regular readers of this blog will know that the CM-D is one of my favourite roles in Football Manager, being able to cover the space in the DM strata, whilst also being a central midfielder when we have the ball. It’s one of the most versatile roles in the game, and with the right player it can transform your team shape. Beside him is a CM-S, who will support attacks and get forward, but will be far less cavalier than a Box to Box Midfielder. Whilst the Box to Box might give more attacking impetus, I also feel there’s the potential that it could expose the CM-D, and end up asking him to do too much.

On the left there’s a Wide Playmaker, who is set to ‘attack’ and will float inside into important half spaces, much like Koke does for Atletico. Then on the right flank I’ve tweaked a WM-A attack in order to produce the ‘Robertson-role’, asking him to dribble more, roam from position, cross from byline, and cut inside with ball. This is still very much in development, but it’s been working well so far. It will probably thrive with a more two footed player than I currently have. Upfront, there’s the classic tried and tested FM combination of the DLF-S and an AF-A. An old fashioned provider and goalscorer, although I’d like the DLF to still chip in with goals too. However, his main job is to drop deep, create and provide for the AF-A, who I want to live on the last shoulder, but contribute to the build up more than a Poacher would.

When you look at the tactic, it still looks like a fairly standard 4-4-2, but with some careful tweaking and instruction selection, it’s turned into a completely different beast, that has my Newcastle team playing some fantastic football. If you’ll remember last year, I attempted to create a high pressing, narrow 4-4-2. Well, this is slightly different and is more Simeone/Mourinho than Roger Schmidt, but the basic principles of the narrow structure and pressing are still there.

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Here you can see that we’ve got exactly the structure I want. The wide midfielders have come narrower than the full backs to compress the central space, and Norwich have very little room to play through us. Our CM-D has dropped slightly deeper than the other 3 midfielders, giving us depth that our standard 4-4-2 denomination wouldn’t suggest. Despite that, we still have two solid banks of 4, probably the best defensive structure in football. What’s more, you can see that only one of Norwich’s attacking players is in an even remotely dangerous position (by that I mean our half). In addition, there’s very little link between this one striker and the rest of Norwich’s team, with 3 players extremely close to each other, but behind our midfield 4. In this situation, there’s really very little threat.

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Here you can see our defensive shape in the same game against Norwich, but they’ve moved further forward into our half this time. Again, you can see our two solid banks of four with the two CM’s stepping forward to press slightly (as Gabi and Thiago do for Atletico). Furthermore, you can see how narrow we are, with our wide midfielders barely wider than the centre circle, giving Norwich very little room to play through. Furthermore, the right midfielder is sitting narrower than the right full back, and whilst the left full back may be just as narrow as the left midfielder in this instance, this is still a fantastic defensive shape. Norwich do have more players higher up the pitch than in the last screenshot with their front 3 marked by our backline, but we’re still well in control of the situation.

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Here you can see an image from a tough away game at Old Trafford against Manchester United. United are playing 4-2-3-1, a formation that really should exploit the weakness of our 4-4-2 – getting into the pocket. However, here is where you can see the effectiveness of the CM-D role that I love so much. Darmian has the ball at right back, and we’ve pushed over to their right side of the pitch, in order to combat their width whilst remaining compact. You can see that Anita in the CM-D role is marking Mata, playing at Number 10 for United. Furthermore, you can also see that we’re in close proximity to press almost every forward pass that Darmian can make (I ask the side to ‘close down much more’), and we’ve marked their striker, meaning that the long ball over our defence isn’t available. Although United manage to pass forward and work the ball to Mata, he is dispossessed by Anita (who ended the match with an 8.1 rating), and we can counter, with the WM-A in particular in a fantastic position to counter, should the DLF-S or AF-A get the ball.

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Of course, we can’t always win the ball higher up the pitch, and there are instances where we have to sit deep, and defend well. Here is such an occasion where Manchester United have us pinned back deep, with 7 men thrown forward in the attack, with Luke Shaw at left back sitting slightly deeper to cover (who he’s covering though I have no idea). Mata has driven into the centre of the pitch from the wing, but encounters two banks of bodies and plays the ball out to Darmian at right back. Our whole team then shifts across to cover, with Wijnaldum at WP-A pressing aggressively, stopping Darmian in his tracks and forcing him to play the ball back inside to Carrick. Here, Anita in the CM-D role steps up to press Carrick, and an attempted through ball is intercepted by our defence, and we can try and counter again (counter being the strategy I’ve selected for this tactic). Furthermore, you can see our threat on the counter, with both of our strikers effectively one on one with their opposing centre back. When one of those strikers is Ayoze Perez, you’ve always got a threat on the counter. Siem De Jong has also proved to be effective at DLF, and regularly plays passes in behind the centre backs for Ayoze to run onto (he also has ‘tries to beat offside trap’ which really helps our play). Again, this narrow structure, pressing whilst deep and counter attacking threat is very reminiscent of Atletico.

But anyway, that’s enough cover of the defensive structure and our counter attacking threat, how do we do when we actually have the ball? Sure we can sit deep and counter, or press and move the ball quickly, but what does our shape and progression look like when we have the ball for prolonged periods?

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Well, here’s an example of what we can do when given the chance to attack quickly. Mbemba at CD-D has stepped in to make an interception in the middle of the park, and has then laid it off to the other CD-D Lascelles, who looks up early and sees our WM-A (in the Robertson role) Thauvin, who has slipped in behind his full back and has plenty of space to exploit. Lascelles quickly makes the decision to pass to Thauvin, and the ball goes forward towards him. Although I like patient build up, if we have the option to attack directly and quickly, I want the players to take it.

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Thauvin manages to bring the long pass under his control, and flicks it on inside to De Jong in the DLF-S role. Now, we’re really off to the races, and De Jong spots the run of his strike partner Ayoze Perez in the AF-A role, slips him in, and we score to take the lead at St. James’ Park. Yes it’s direct, but it’s fantastic football. One long pass to Thauvin, a flick on, and a defence splitting pass to Perez – goal. Although I like ball control and spells of possession, I loved watching this sequence as it proves our attacking is multi dimensional. Fast, direct and vertical. Exactly the kind of football I love.

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Here’s a goal we scored against United at Old Trafford, and it’s different to the goal scored against Norwich, but it’s still fantastic for very different reasons. This is a goal where we do play the short, intricate passing game that we’re set up to play, and it’s a wonderfully worked goal. Thauvin picks up the ball out wide, and plays it into De Jong in the DLF-S role, in tons of space. At this point, Perez at AF-A drops deeper to come and support De Jong.

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At this point, De Jong slips the ball into Perez at AF, and Van Rhijn at WB-S makes his run forward to support the attack out wide. You can also see the layering of attack we have, with players in close proximity to each other, with plenty of shape to the team with the varied roles used in the tactic. Once Ayoze receives the ball, he plays the ball back to De Jong, who again finds himself in plenty of space.

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Here you can see the space that De Jong has once he receives the ball back. What’s more, he has plenty of players ahead of him making runs into the box. In the end, he selects the WB-S, who ends up in acres of space on the right wing, with Depay choosing not to track back with him.

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Van Rhijn at WB-S then ends up all alone on the right wing with all day to play the correct cross into United’s box. He plays the ball to the back post, and meets the run of Ayoze at AF-A, who taps it in to give us the lead. It’s a fantastically well worked goal, beginning deep and moving from out wide to the centre, and then creating space back out wide when we force United to defend centrally. It’s a perfect example of how we attack, and players like Ayoze Perez are not going to miss these chances.

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For what it’s worth, we also won the match 4-2. It was an all round performance, only blighted by two extremely random ‘insta-reply’ goals from United. We defended well, gave them very few real chances, and were absolutely lethal when we went forward. It’s a game that showed the true strength of the 4-4-2.

Despite this, I still think there’s areas it could possibly be improved. One particular area I’m questioning is central midfield, where I think I might have been a bit too conservative with the CM-S. I think there’s a strong possibility that I could be more adventurous with this role, but the issue is that I don’t want to knock the rest of the side out of sync, by having a more adventurous midfielder getting in the way of the WM-A, or by installing a playmaker and preventing the ball going into the WP-A or the DLF-S as much, which is what makes this tactic tick and work so well in attack.

However, I’m extremely happy with it right now, hence why I decided to do an article on it. It’s the first tactic I’ve created this year that I’ve really been happy with, and haven’t felt the need to constantly tinker with. Furthermore, I was getting the itch to do a purely tactics post, rather than my standard save updates that have become the bread and butter of this blog. I don’t know if I’ll end up blogging about this Newcastle save or whether I’ll end up going back to the TSV save, but I must say that I’m enjoying the Newcastle save far more right now, simply because the ideas I’m putting in place seem to be working. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my tactical ideas, and how I’ve developed a tactic, and as always thank you for reading. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask via the comments section of this blog, or you can catch me on Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again.