Jump to content

Lines and Diamonds: The Tactician's Handbook for Football Manager 2015

Recommended Posts

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting my new guide in this thread. As I was planning and writing this guide, I had a few different goals in mind:

First and foremost, I wanted to provide a comprehensive FM15-friendly guide to the Tactics Creator and its many features. I wanted to explain what everything does, and I also wanted to make it clear why you might want to do it. Moreover, I didn’t just want to tell people what to do; I wanted to teach people how to figure out new ways to do what they want to do. As with all my threads, I don't like to set down restrictive rules for how to play. I like to encourage people to get creative and explore the game on their own terms, and this thread was written to help you do that.

Second, I wanted it to be a reflection of what I find fun about the game. Of course, playing with the tactical component is a big part of the game for me, but I also enjoy experimenting with different styles of management. For me, the most enjoyable saves are those where I get immersed in a narrative experience, and this guide is a reflection of that. That being the case, my aim here was not to lay out the most direct way to beat the game with any random club. Rather, it was to give people ideas for how to enjoy FM in all of its depth.

Finally, I wanted to provide a resource for more experienced FM players who want to delve deeper into the tactical side of football. On the tactics forum, we often get requests from people who want more background on why, exactly, sound & sensible tactical advice is sound & sensible, and even among those who have zero trouble getting a solid tactic up and running, many people struggle to learn how to confidently make tactical decisions when an otherwise reasonable, balanced tactic doesn't work. One of the biggest obstacles they face is the lack of material discussing the most basic tactical concepts. Tactical blogs tend to only focus on the latest developments in top level play while introductory coaching material tends to be too focused on technique and fitness instruction to be of much use to virtual football managers. This handbook looks to clarify the basics of tactical theory, explore them in depth and explain how they relate to different features in FM. In the earliest drafts, it was written as a sort of tactical dictionary, and much of that approach remains intact.

The handbook is divided into ten chapters. The first three introduce and discuss a manager's tactical responsibilities and the basic concepts behind tactical theory. The next four chapters will explore the tactics creator in detail and explain how to put your tactical ideas into practice. The final three chapters discuss how to work outside your basic set-up in order to control matches, create tactical advantages and deal with difficult situations. Given the length, I've decided to post one chapter every few days, though when the final chapter is up, I'll also provide a link to a complete pdf for anyone interested in having an offline version.

As I said above, this was written to be a comprehensive guide to tactics for those who were requesting one, and rather than something to be absorbed all at once, it was mainly intended as a reference that you can go back to when you forget what some feature does or what some bit of tactical jargon means. In any case, I hope anyone who gives it a read will find it informative and enjoyable, and above all, I hope it helps you find new ways to enjoy the game.


1. The Role of the Manager

2. The Elements of Play

3. The Principles of Play

4. The Tactics Creator

5. Defensive Systems

6. Attacking Systems

7. Styles of Play

8. Match Strategies

9. Tactical Contingencies

10. Management Style

Click here to download the complete PDF.

Link to post
Share on other sites

  • Replies 308
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Top Posters In This Topic



The job of a modern football manager encompasses six basic areas of responsibility:

1. Match Tactics: This involves deciding how to use principles, systems and styles of play to meet the club’s performance objectives. At a well managed club, this area of responsibility provides a foundation for all of the others.

2. Player Development: This involves developing a training programme and organising the club’s coaches to improve the individual abilities of players. A sufficiently comprehensive player development programme will improve player performance in terms of technical proficiency, physical ability, tactical intelligence, mental resilience and professional ethics.

3. Player Psychology: This involves helping players cope with the pressures of life as a professional footballer while enforcing the club’s expectations for professional behaviour. In some cases, it may also involve helping players deal with other personal difficulties that might be adversely affecting performance.

4. Player Fitness: This extends beyond training players to improve their physical abilities to encompass general methods of avoiding and managing both fatigue and injury. It involves ensuring the responsible use of injury prone players, balancing training objectives with the match schedule and advising players on dietary practices and medical treatment options.

5. Squad Development: This involves building and maintaining a squad capable of meeting the club’s objectives in all competitions. This area encompasses transfers, providing youth players with experience in the first team and repurposing players for new positions or roles.

6. Public Relations: This involves helping to promote a positive image of the club in order to attract and retain fans and commercial sponsors. For a manager, this mainly involves providing a style of football that the fans enjoy as well as interacting with the media on a weekly basis.

At a poorly managed club, each of these responsibilities will be handled in isolation from one another. Decisions in each area are made without a coherent plan, and eventually, conflicting decisions lead to inefficiencies and poor performance on the pitch. The most common example is a club that buys and sells players irrespective of the manager’s preferred style of play.


When a club’s tactics and transfer policy are at odds, new players can struggle to adapt.

At an effectively managed club, each responsibility is understood as being inseparably tied to the others. Decisions in each area are guided by a common vision for how the manager wants the club to play football. This vision is called the manager’s philosophy. In football, a philosophy is a set of ideals reflecting the type of football and players that a manager wants the club to produce.

A coherent philosophy is rooted in a manager’s preferred tactical approach. From there, it extends to all other areas of management to ensure that decisions elsewhere don’t hinder how the team is expected to operate in play. Implemented effectively, a philosophy promotes purposeful decision-making throughout the entire club with the common goal of improving the team’s performance on the pitch.


There can be many aspects to a managerial philosophy, but at its core are the principles of play that the manager chooses to emphasise in his approach to tactics and training. The principles of play are the universal tactical concepts that structure and guide the decisions of players over the course of a football match. For a player, a clear understanding of the principles of play will help him recognise good decisions in different tactical situations.

The principles provide the bedrock for tactical coaching, but their usefulness to managers extends beyond the training ground. During matches, the principles of play are essential tools for identifying both tactical problems and possible solutions. If you understand the principles of play, then you have all the tools you need to read what’s happening in a match, regardless of which playing systems and styles are being used by the teams involved.

The basic ideas behind the various principles have been in circulation among football coaches for more than fifty years, but while the preferred tactical methods of managers have changed, the theory behind the principles have remained largely intact. The exact terminology and number of distinct principles can vary from coach to coach, but essentially, there are fourteen basic concepts that can be separated into seven principles of attack and seven opposing principles of defence:


1. Penetration: The principle of penetration instructs players to move the ball forward into space behind the lines of the opposition’s defence, usually by dribbling or passing.

2. Possession: The principle of possession instructs players to simply maintain control of the ball by holding it up or safely circulating it when lacking acceptable options to advance attacking play.

3. Depth: The principle of depth instructs players to spread out into varied positions from back to front in order to pin back, disrupt and create space between the lines of the opposition’s defence.

4. Width: The principle of width instructs players to spread out from side to side in order to advance the ball through space on the flanks and create space between opposition players.

5. Support: The principle of support instructs players to offer safe passing options from multiple angles to prevent isolation and allow quick circulation of the ball in any direction.

6. Mobility: The principle of mobility instructs players to move constantly and change positions to distract defenders and prevent them from maintaining a steady shape.

7. Improvisation: The principle of improvisation instructs players to play with flair and creativity to avoid becoming predictable and allowing the opposition defence to get into a comfortable rhythm.


1. Delay: The principle of delay instructs the first defender directly engaging the player in possession of the ball to position himself to prevent a forward pass.

2. Pressure: The principle of pressure instructs defenders to attempt to prompt poor decision making from attackers by reducing the amount of time and space they’re afforded on the ball.

3. Compression: The principle of compression instructs defenders to get compact around the ball to deny space between the lines and prevent attackers from playing through the defence.

4. Balance: The principle of balance instructs defenders away from the ball to help maintain an effective shape and avoid exposing large gaps vulnerable to a change in direction by the attack.

5. Cover: The principle of cover instructs defenders to cut off passing options for the attacker in possession and protect space behind defenders stepping out to delay or pressure.

6. Consolidation: The principle of consolidation instructs defenders to recover positions in a narrow defensive shape to deny space for movement and penetration into areas in front of goal.

7. Restraint: The principle of restraint instructs defenders to avoid overcommitting to a challenge or moving out of position unnecessarily in response to a dangerous or unanticipated situation.

The basic purpose of tactical principles is to provide a framework for coaching player decisions. At any give a moment during a match, a player will be faced with a choice about what to do next, and the correct decision may not always be obvious, especially if a player is struggling to read the play. The principles of play act as guidelines for player-driven tactical decision-making, and at a very abstract level, tactics can be thought of as a way of balancing the principles to guide player decisions towards different ends.

However, regardless of the team’s tactics, all properly organised teams will observe each of the principles of play to some extent, and a tactically intelligent player will make use of each of them to guide his decisions throughout the match. If any player fails to adequately follow a principle, the quality of the entire team’s play will suffer, and the tactical shortcomings that result will quickly be exposed and exploited by a competent opponent.

Though all teams observe each of the principles of play, a manager will prioritise certain principles over others when developing and implementing his philosophy. These favoured principles define the core of the manager’s philosophy, and by extension, they greatly influence the manager’s tactical approach to each match. This will be reflected in both how the players line up on the pitch and the kind of decisions they make to achieve the team’s objectives.

Managerial philosophies differ in how intensely, narrowly and strictly they focus on various favoured principles. These differences define two distinct philosophical approaches to tactics.

A flexible philosophy will tend to be more broadly and loosely focused on a wider range of principles with a greater emphasis on preserving a team’s ability to adapt to different tactical situations. A flexible manager will be more likely to adjust to his opponents by using different systems and styles of play from match to match, and he will tend to prefer either a squad of more versatile players or, in the case of wealthy clubs that can afford a “toolkit approach” to squad building, a squad with several different kinds of more specialised players who can be deployed when needed.


A flexible manager will find it easier to work with many different types of players...

A systematic philosophy will tend to be more narrowly and intensely focused on a smaller set of key principles with a greater emphasis on perfecting a team’s ability to implement them. Though not totally inflexible, a more systematic manager will tend to stick to certain systems and styles more consistently while preferring a squad of players specifically suited to his tactical vision. In practice, a systematic philosophy is usually more difficult to implement, and it may require a manager being given more time to restructure the club before the desired results can be achieved.

While the debate over these two philosophical approaches will flare up whenever a team hits a run of bad form, both have their own advantages and disadvantages. A club managed according to a flexible philosophy may have an easier time finding and implementing a solution when things aren’t working, but the club may also suffer from indecision or poor decisions resulting from a lack of clarity over what it’s attempting to achieve. On the other hand, a club managed according to a more systematic philosophy will be able to focus its efforts more efficiently, but it faces a greater risk of the team’s play becoming stale and predictable as other clubs adapt and evolve around them.


... while a systematic manager will find it easier to identify the type of player he needs.


While the principles of play are the basic concepts that guide tactical decisions in a football match, tactics are methods of organising the team to more effectively carry out certain principles during a match. A manager’s preferred tactics reflect the core principles of his philosophy. For example, a manager who favours the principles of possession and pressure will develop tactics that help those players carry those principles out. There are two basic components of a tactic through which this is done: system and style.

A tactic’s system is the set of instructions that organise the basic positioning, responsibilities and movement patterns of the players. The two main aspects of a system are the defensive formation and roles. The defensive formation assigns defensive positions to the players and establishes the team’s basic shape when they have consolidated inside their own half of the pitch. Roles primarily assign attacking responsibilities to the players and establish the team’s main patterns of attack.

A tactic’s style is the set of instructions detailing the specific techniques and methods that players use to carry out their responsibilities within the system. There are many aspects to a style of play, but the three most prominent aspects are the defensive style (how the players look to protect their goal and win the ball back), the build-up style (how the players look to set up attacks) and the team's preferred attacking techniques (how the players use the ball to achieve penetration).

When selecting both a system and style, different choices will enable players to better carry out specific principles, so with a coherent philosophy, a manager will be able to make tactical choices that suit the ideals he’s looking to instill at the club. However, even the most strictly systematic managers won’t necessarily restrict themselves to just one style or system at all times.

The principles of play are universal, and that means they are not strictly tied to a specific system or style. A philosophy represents the key tactical principles that are emphasised at the club, but all the principles are flexible enough to allow managers to adapt to different situations with different tactics without abandoning his core ideas. Viewed as an application of the tactical principles, a system or style of play becomes a tool with a clear purpose and function as opposed to a rigid procedure blindly followed due to tradition or a lack of genuine understanding about why it works.

This underlines the benefits that an understanding of the tactical principles brings to a club. At a poorly managed club, a manager will stubbornly stick to specific tactics from a narrow minded belief in “what works,” but this will leave the manager poorly prepared for the inevitable situations when “what works” doesn’t work any longer. This sort of blind ideology is less of a tactical philosophy than an indication that a manager is out of his depth.


Whether a cunning pragmatist or visionary ideologue, all managers make tactical adjustments between and during matches. Over the long term, managing the club’s tactics involves implementing a tactical philosophy on the pitch, but in the short term, tactical management mainly involves developing and implementing strategies for individual matches. While a philosophy defines the kind of tactics that a manager will prefer generally, a strategy is a means of putting those tactics into practice over the course of a single match.

A match strategy is a plan for using tactics to secure a desirable result from a match. This does not necessarily mean a win. Depending on the circumstances, it could also mean a draw, a win by a certain margin or a loss that maintains a favourable goal differential in a competition. A match strategy may also incorporate considerations from other areas of club management. For example, a match strategy may be set up to maintain player fitness or give youth players more experience with competitive play.

The key to an effective match strategy is knowing what you want to achieve and how you intend to go about achieving it. The strategy itself looks to achieve a certain kind of result, but at the tactical level, the individual tactics that make up a strategy usually have more precise objectives. A tactical objective is a tactic’s intended effect on play. A tactic may have multiple explicit and implicit objectives, and there are many different kinds of objective. Common objectives include stifling the opposition attack, creating a certain type of goal-scoring opportunity, dominating possession, etc.

Tactical objectives aren’t formal tactical concepts like the systems and principles of play, but their importance shouldn’t be overlooked. If you don’t know know how a tactic is supposed to pan out in play, then your match strategy will be little more than a hopeful gamble. From philosophy to strategy to tactics, the key to effective management is having a plan with a clear aim, and when developing a tactic, articulating what you want to do is the first step to figuring out how to do it.


Link to post
Share on other sites

This sounds great and I like the fact your hoping to direct your writing to experienced players aswell as new players. I'm always looking for food for thought (Y) looking forward to seeing where you take this. Especially defensive systems, management styles and principles of play.

Link to post
Share on other sites

It's already finished, I'm just serialising it for convenience.

Or for the hype factor to build momentum :D ! Come on just release it already, I want to read more :applause:

Link to post
Share on other sites

Allen Wade, right?

Yes, Wade was the first to formalise them, but they've been periodically refined since the 60's. There are also a couple of ideas that I chose not to include since they're more about player qualities. For example, some clubs will include "Communication" and while you could say that corresponds to things like the teamwork attribute and team cohesion in FM, it's not something that you have a lot of control over in the TC.

I had the pleasure of reading this earlier and thought it was fantastic. No doubt in my mind this will become one of the best threads ever on these forums. Great work mate :thup:

Thanks, mate.

Or for the hype factor to build momentum :D ! Come on just release it already, I want to read more :applause:

Hell is formatting long articles for bbcode. :(

Link to post
Share on other sites

Awesome as ever THOG. Really comprehensive and i hope will provoke lots of discussion.

I guess one of the great things about FM, is it allows us in someways to be "the perfect manager" - Its not easy, but if we try we can excel in each of the 7 parts of management you have laid out much easier than any real life manager.

If you were to create a matrix of those 7 areas and rank the best managers in the world, very few would tick every single box. Football management is that difficult. There are some very well known managers who perhaps excel in 4 or 5 areas, but really lack in some of the others. Harry Redknap, for example, is clearly very good at player psychology and public relations, but utterly woeful at squad management and probably a touch lacking in tactical ability. Other examples could be the other way round, some of the revered "tacticians" of world football clearly fall short in other areas. Bielsa, i think you might have to say, lacks a bit of squad building abiilty. Benetiz, well public relations not necessarily his best skill. We could go on :)

The flip of that is that I have been finding through a couple of saves this year, that you can still achieve pretty good success, and great enjoyment, without needing to (or being able to focus on) all 7 aspects. For example the recent simplicity experiment has meant me not being a great "match tactics" manager, but by focusing to the maximum on the other areas, i have massively over achieved. Prior to that i had the unique challenge of Athletic club - So not so much a managerial fault, but a limitation - At Bilbao you cannot be a good "recruitment" manager because of the limitations. Yet by focusing massively on development, tactics, squad management, you can overcome that.

There are plenty of other people im sure with other examples of how having 6 out 7 might be enough :)

Link to post
Share on other sites


This is why I'm really excited about the possibilities that were opened up by the new attribute system for player-managers. It's obviously at a very early stage right now and not quite the full scale difficulty level modifier that it can potentially become, but it opens the door to better representing the imperfections of different managers and creating more distinct challenges for players.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Fantastic! This is the kind of documentation that 110% needs to be included in the game, especially so the moderators of this forum aren't constantly bombarded by the same questions over and over again.

This is football (as you are american, soccer). These are the fundamentals of a manager, everyone should possibly have. It's not about "what this button does", it's understanding the game (read as soccer, not FM) before even clicking any button.

It's the approach, the method, the mindset. An effort you need to put by your own as a fan of this sport.

It's like asking EA to put in Madden a 100 page manual with all the fundamentals of football from the head coach point of views, philosophies (spread, option, west coast etc...), playbooks, formations etc...

Do you need SI to spend time writing and describing with 20 lines the differences between tactic and strategy?

Link to post
Share on other sites

Fantastic! This is the kind of documentation that 110% needs to be included in the game, especially so the moderators of this forum aren't constantly bombarded by the same questions over and over again.

Well, it's job security at least :D

Link to post
Share on other sites

I love these...

I must be real old school as I have a LOT of difficulty in absorbing lines of text on a computer. It just does not get in. Let me print it out as a hard copy and I am fine. I'm very lucky in that we have a book binder at work so I print these all of these out and bind them up into a book. Makes for great reading when you are on the throne and as a reference to pull out when you are playing the game. Really looking forward to the full brief THOG :)

Link to post
Share on other sites

I love these...

I must be real old school as I have a LOT of difficulty in absorbing lines of text on a computer. It just does not get in. Let me print it out as a hard copy and I am fine. I'm very lucky in that we have a book binder at work so I print these all of these out and bind them up into a book. Makes for great reading when you are on the throne and as a reference to pull out when you are playing the game. Really looking forward to the full brief THOG :)

I'm the exact same Taipan, I've also printed it out. I'm the same with all things I read, I believe I'm one of the rare people (or so it would seem at times) who still use libraries and bookshops rather than downloading them digitally :D

This thread gets better each time I read it :)

Link to post
Share on other sites

Actually reading it over again, i think there is one more aspect you might touch on, and i think its a very important and often missed aspect of management, both in real life and more often in FM.

Staff building - Every manager, especially at the higher levels of the game, needs to build a strong support network of staff around themselves. Guardiola, for all that he is likely the best in the world at his profession, relies heavily on his staff. Manel Estiarte and Domenec Torrente are vitally important to Bayern, as they were at Barca. Lorenzo Buenaventura likewise is key. Could any Pep team play how they do without his brilliant knowledge of conditioning? Then there is of course Carles Planchart, who does all the video analysis which is a massive part of the modern game, especially for a man like Pep.

The irony of the important of that staff, is that you are unlikely to find much about any of these men on "wikipedia" (other than perhaps Estiarte and his Water Polo career).

So does that translate into FM? Partly i would say. Clearly video analysis is not relevant to the game, and things like assistant advice really need a refresh. However i have spent a lot of time in some saves building a staff. Finding the right balance of attributes, personality types and coaching styles. It maybe makes a 5% difference at most, to go from a standard staff at a club like Athletic to a fully balanced, well spread staff with great personalities. However 5% can be a difference maker, and the impact is even more when compared to having a "bad" staff.

Would love to hear your thoughts on it in game THOG, and see if there is anything you would add/guide on in that area of the game :)

Link to post
Share on other sites

Actually reading it over again, i think there is one more aspect you might touch on, and i think its a very important and often missed aspect of management, both in real life and more often in FM.

Staff building - Every manager, especially at the higher levels of the game, needs to build a strong support network of staff around themselves. Guardiola, for all that he is likely the best in the world at his profession, relies heavily on his staff. Manel Estiarte and Domenec Torrente are vitally important to Bayern, as they were at Barca. Lorenzo Buenaventura likewise is key. Could any Pep team play how they do without his brilliant knowledge of conditioning? Then there is of course Carles Planchart, who does all the video analysis which is a massive part of the modern game, especially for a man like Pep.

The irony of the important of that staff, is that you are unlikely to find much about any of these men on "wikipedia" (other than perhaps Estiarte and his Water Polo career).

So does that translate into FM? Partly i would say. Clearly video analysis is not relevant to the game, and things like assistant advice really need a refresh. However i have spent a lot of time in some saves building a staff. Finding the right balance of attributes, personality types and coaching styles. It maybe makes a 5% difference at most, to go from a standard staff at a club like Athletic to a fully balanced, well spread staff with great personalities. However 5% can be a difference maker, and the impact is even more when compared to having a "bad" staff.

Would love to hear your thoughts on it in game THOG, and see if there is anything you would add/guide on in that area of the game :)

That's a very good point, though I would say (arbitrarily but I'd say it nonetheless ;) ) that staff building is part of the other six areas (which I just noticed got numbered 1 to 7 when I copy/pasted over from the pdf...). It's definitely something that's worth a mention though. If you think of anything else you would like to see included in a future update, suggestions are very much welcome.

With that said, I don't spend a lot of time looking at the other areas in later chapters. The first part was more to underline the point that how you want the team to play should always be at the forefront of your mind, even when you're thinking about things like squad size and training focus. Chapter 10 will touch a bit on things like squad rotation and playing style, but from here on out, the focus turns to getting that tactical foundation in place.

And being a tactical handbook, it's naturally biased against, to use your earlier example, the more personnel-oriented Harry Redknapp approach. Someone else will have to write The Deadline Day Handbook: How to Spot and Tap Up Good Lads, Top Lads and T'rrfic Prospects.

Link to post
Share on other sites

One further thing I would say is that, in FM, one thing that could be better represented in the future are the effects of your staff's own tactical preferences. Right now, coaching ability is generic, so if you have a coach who is good at coaching defending, he's good at coaching all types of defending. In real life, having coaches whose philosophy aligns with yours (or who are basically your proteges) matters much more, and this is why attacking clubs with defensive issues never listen to requests to "bring in a defensive coach." Training sessions are usually divided up to focus on different phases of play, but it's still important that it's all working towards a common approach. Spurs could bring in someone like Steve Clarke, but if his coaching is all based on consolidation and a low block while Pochettino wants the opposite, you're just going to have mixed messages and wasted time.

Anyway, yeah, lots of food for thought there, keep it coming. :)

Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm the exact same Taipan, I've also printed it out. I'm the same with all things I read, I believe I'm one of the rare people (or so it would seem at times) who still use libraries and bookshops rather than downloading them digitally :D

This thread gets better each time I read it :)

Thank god for that! I thought I was the only one who did this. I put it down to my age(43).

Fantastic article and can't wait for pt2.

Link to post
Share on other sites

And being a tactical handbook, it's naturally biased against, to use your earlier example, the more personnel-oriented Harry Redknapp approach. Someone else will have to write The Deadline Day Handbook: How to Spot and Tap Up Good Lads, Top Lads and T'rrfic Prospects.

You just reminded me of a Redknapp quote I heard yesterday when chatting about a possible move abroad for Raheem Sterling... "keep ya nut down and keep workin' 'ard".

A classic English managerial approach in microcosm.

Link to post
Share on other sites


This chapter takes a step back from the topic of club management to look at the basic tactical concepts that a manager should know before setting out to develop his own approach. It will look at the tactical structure of a match, the common aim of all attacking and defensive tactics, and the various attacking patterns that are most often used to set up scoring opportunities.


From a tactical perspective, a football match is structured according to an ongoing cycle of four phases: an attacking phase, a defensive phase, and two transition phases that link the attacking and defensive phases. These phases of play divide the match according to changes in possession and the resulting tactical reorganisation of the two teams.

This idea is the foundation of all modern approaches to tactics and training. When developing tactics, an overall system has distinct defensive, attacking and transitional components. When training tactics, most sessions reflect these distinctions by focusing on positioning, movement, techniques and responsibilities in a specific phase, whether that be the phase as a whole or a particular match situation within a phase. These divisions have become increasingly prominent in tactics and training as more managers and coaches at all levels of play move away from the rigid formations of the past to adopt more complex systems of play.

The first phase of play is the defensive phase. This phase begins when a team has fully reorganised to carry out the team’s intended defensive approach. This is mainly associated with where the team will set its defensive block. The defensive block refers to the collective positioning of the team in terms of where they will attempt to limit any further advance of the opposition attack. In other words, it sets the area of the pitch where the defence will try to make its stand and win the ball. There are two lines that serve as points of reference demarcating the defensive block: the line of restraint and the line of confrontation.

The line of restraint denotes the general area in which the defence will try to hold the offside line. This is the line to which the central defenders and fullbacks will willingly retreat (and, when necessary, to which they’ll push up), and it denotes the position they will attempt to hold as the midfielders and forwards apply pressure. In theory, this idea is relatively straight forward, but in practice, a lot can influence how much the line of restraint actually comes into play.

For example, if a team has been instructed to retreat to a deep line and has moved high up the pitch to attack, it will still try slow the pace of build-up play and prevent the attack from rushing onto them if there’s no immediate threat of penetration from a direct ball. As another example, a team with a high line of restraint will still end up getting pushed back if pressure isn’t applied effectively by the forwards and midfielders.


A deep defensive block can force an opponent to rely on more complex patterns of attack.

Normally, “defensive line” and “line of restraint” can be used interchangeably, but for the sake of clarity, the term defensive line refers specifically to the deepest group of outfield players. A defensive line may or may not be positioned along the instructed line of restraint, so when you see the phrase “high line,” this means a high line of restraint as opposed to a defensive line that just happens to be positioned high up the pitch at a given moment. Additionally, offside line refers to the line beyond which an attacking player would be positioned in violation of the offside rule.

At the other end of the defensive block, the line of confrontation denotes the point beyond which the team, starting with the forwards, will begin to apply immediate pressure on any attacker in possession of the ball. Ideally, a forward will apply pressure and win back the ball, though with most formations, pressure from a forward is intended more to force the ball into an area where the midfield can safely apply pressure to win back the ball outright. With that said, the way a defensive block actually operates depends greatly on the team’s defensive or attacking system.

Generally speaking, the line of restraint and line of confrontation give you a sense of where the defensive and forward lines will be positioned in the defensive block. The midfield, then, will be positioned in between, though it is often the case that the wide and advanced midfielders will step up or even briefly stay up to help the forwards put pressure on opponents near the line of confrontation as covering midfielders hold position behind them.

Defensive blocks are described as high, medium or low, though in practice, there are also extreme and intermediate variations. A high block will set the line of restraint near the halfway line, position covering midfielders near the edge of the attacking third and set the line of confrontation just outside the opposition penalty area. A medium block will set the line of restraint near the edge of the defensive third, position covering midfielders near the halfway line and set the line of confrontation just inside the middle third. A low block (or deep block) will set the line of restraint near or even at the 18 yard line, position covering midfielders near the edge of the defensive third and set the line of confrontation inside the defensive half.


A high defensive block allows the team to regain possession quickly and exploit errors at the back.

Normally, a high block is associated with a pressing style of defending while a low block is associated with a containment style of defending. Pressing occurs when every player moves towards the ball to compress the space around it in an attempt to force an immediate change of possession. To clarify, pressing is not the equivalent of pressuring or closing down. While pressing almost always involves at least one player quickly engaging and pressuring the opponent in possession of the ball, players can and often do apply pressure when the team is not pressing. An easy way to remember the distinction is to say that a team presses while a player pressures.

Containment means the team stands off and maintains the basic shape of the formation in an attempt to discourage and cut off attempts at penetration through the midfield or forward lines. These two approaches aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. At times, a team that presses aggressively might need to reorganise and just contain the opposition attack, and a team that nearly always drops back in a containment defence might occasionally press if specific situations allow it. However, a team that favours pressing as its basic method of defending is said to play a pressing style while a team that favours containment as its basic method of defending is said to play a containment style.

Immediately after a team has regained possession, the build-up phase begins with the team transitioning from defence to attack. This phase mainly involves players repositioning themselves to move the ball into the attacking third of the pitch. The duration of the build-up phase depends on exactly where the ball has been won and how quickly a team moves the ball forward. If the ball is won high up the pitch, the transition to attack can be nearly instantaneous whereas a team that gradually works the ball out from its own half will see a more gradual and complex transition to attack.


Your defensive block also decides where you intend to start building attacks.

Teams that aim to minimise the amount of time spent in the build-up phase are described as playing a transition style. The premise of a transition style is that it is more effective and efficient to attempt to carry out the attack before the opposition has fully transitioned to defence. This can be achieved with either very direct, long-range passes or a quick succession of short, penetrating passes. It should be noted that a transition style can be combined with any sort of passing style, so a more technical, short passing style does not necessarily equate to a possession-oriented style of play.

Other teams are content to take advantage of the build-up phase to move more players forward and attempt to pin back the opposition. This complex style of attack is achieved with a longer sequence of passing, and to be successful, it normally requires the team to be prepared to use a greater variety of attacking principles and techniques. A complex style of build-up is often associated with a possession-oriented style of play, but this is not always the case. Complex styles can be very aggressive with a heavy emphasis on the principle of penetration, but the distinguishing characteristic is that the approach is based on breaking down a settled defence with more varied and intricate patterns of attack.

The attacking phase begins when the team has successfully repositioned itself to carry out attacks in the final third of the pitch. The aim of the attacking phase is to create a chance that will result in goal, though failed attacks may require the attacking team to recycle possession by moving the ball back into a deeper position before bringing it forward again.

Immediately after a team has lost possession, the recovery phase begins with the team transitioning from attack to defence. As described above, this involves the team reconsolidating into its defensive block, though the movement of players back into their defensive positions must be carefully balanced to ensure the opposition isn’t allowed to freely advance the ball before the defence is prepared to deal with it. This usually involves the forwards and more attacking midfielders carrying out the principles of delay and cover to cut off forward passing options for the opposition players. As this is done, they either gradually retreat while facing the ball or wait for the deeper players to recover positions and then apply pressure.

In some situations, a team may immediately pressure and compress space around the opponent who won the ball in what is known as a counterpress. A counterpress is often the first step in a full blown pressing style with the team transitioning rapidly to a high block, though it is also becoming increasingly common for teams to counterpress over a short period before recovering into a lower block if the initial wave of pressure proves ineffective.

The length of the recovery phase is naturally associated with where the ball has been lost, the team’s defensive block and the distance that the more advanced players have to cover to get back into position. Normally, a high block involves a shorter transition while a low block following a loss of possession in the final third will see a longer transition. In all cases, the aim is to have the team recover into its defensive posture before the opposition can complete its attacking transition. If the defending team fails to do this, it will find itself in serious trouble.

Throughout the match, both teams will cycle through each of the four phases, but it is not the case that the two teams will enter the various phases at the same time. A change of possession will always prompt the beginning of a transitional phase, but from there, the speed of build-up and recovery may see one team fully prepared to attack before the other is fully prepared to defend (or vice versa). A transition style of attack aims to exploit this possibility as it is generally easier to break down defences that have failed to recover promptly.

When designing tactics, a manager should always consider how his approaches in different phases of play might support or detract from one another. Effective tactics organise instructions in a way that ensures that the team’s actions in one phase of play do not hinder its ability to do what’s expected of them in another. The way a team attacks should always take account of how the team will look to defend while the way a team defends should always take account of how the team will look to attack.


Goals win games, but from a tactical perspective, it’s up to the players, not the manager, to actually score. The manager’s responsibility is to help players score goals by developing tactics that create quality chances.

Quality chances depend on players being given enough time and space to shoot with adequate precision and power. The exact amount of time and space needed depends on the type of shot attempted and the quality of the player attempting it, but in any situation, a player who is outnumbered and under pressure will usually not have a good opportunity to score.

A player attempting to score needs time in order to control the ball, position his body correctly and put adequate power into the shot. To do this, he needs space both around him and in front of him. He needs space around him to actually move the ball and maneuver his body parts, and he needs space in front of him to ensure the shot will not be blocked before it reaches goal. Without adequate time and space, a team may still attempt a lot of shots, but they will almost certainly be speculative efforts that end up being inaccurate, blocked or collected easily by the goalkeeper.


Quality chances arise when tactics are designed to create space for the team’s goal-scorers.

Shots are divided into three types. The first type is a clear cut chance. These are basically sitters in which a player receives the ball unmarked either at close range or around the central edge of the penalty area with only the keeper to beat. This doesn’t necessarily mean the player is beyond the last defender; it just means that he’s open and has had the opportunity to attempt an unobstructed shot on goal.

The second type of shot is a half chance. This is a lower probability opportunity where a player makes an attempt on goal from a favourable position while he is under pressure or the path to goal is obstructed by defenders (or even poorly positioned teammates). Half chances usually result from a player receiving the ball while closely marked, challenging an opposition player for the ball or attempting a shot from distance when the penalty area is well defended. Shots taken under these circumstances have much lower conversion rates than clear cut chances.

The third type of shot is a speculative shot. A speculative shot occurs when a player attempts a shot despite being under heavy pressure from multiple defenders, being positioned at a difficult angle or distance from goal, and/or having the path to goal obstructed by numerous defenders. Speculative shots are not classified as chances since they have a very low probability of resulting in a goal. This distinction between chances and speculative shots should not be overlooked since it may very well be the case that a small number of clear cut chances will have a greater total probability of resulting in goal than an enormous number of speculative shots.

The principles of play discussed in the previous chapter are all focused on creating or denying time and space in some way. The attacking principles are all means of increasing the space and time available to players attempting to control and move the ball, and the defensive principles are all means of limiting the opposition’s opportunity to comfortably do the same. This is obvious in the case of principles like width and compression, though even concepts like possession and improvisation are fundamentally focused on things like giving teammates time to reposition themselves for a pass or pulling opposition defenders out of position by provoking defenders into challenging the player with the ball.

The principles emphasised in a tactic will determine the exact way in which the team uses time and space to create and prevent chances. Some methods of using time and space will suit certain players over others while some methods will tend to be more effective against certain opponents. A manager’s task is to find the right balance for each match to increase the likelihood that the quality of chances being created by both sides favours his team.


The way in which a tactic shapes player decision-making will cause play to settle into organised patterns of play. The idea of patterns of play underlines the importance of training and preparation in a team’s tactics. During a match, the pace of play does not allow for much intellectual deliberation, so a player’s grasp and use of tactical principles must be intuitive and nearly instantaneous. For the same reason, a player must maintain his concentration to remain aware of the situation developing around him, and he must have some sense of what sort of decisions that his teammates will make.

While improvisation and unpredictability certainly have their place in football, patterns of play help players develop mutual understanding in the team, and it allows them to combine their individual abilities to greater effect. A well-coached player will be able to recognise his team’s patterns of play, and this will enable him to make better and faster decisions in tandem with his teammates. A tactically intelligent player will also be able to identify patterns in the opposition’s play, and this can potentially give a tremendous advantage to even technically and physically limited players.

A team will follow certain patterns in each phase of play. There are defensive patterns, build-up patterns and recovery patterns that are all practiced in training and, on occasion, developed spontaneously through player ingenuity. In the case of the attacking phase, patterns are based around creating chances.

An attacking pattern is an organised sequence of attacking play in which players employ various techniques and tactical principles to create a chance on goal. This means different patterns result from players attempting to create and use time and space in different ways, and the fundamental aim of any attacking pattern is to free a player to attempt a shot on goal. In practice, freeing a player for a shot requires either enabling him to get into undefended space beyond a defender or drawing defenders away from him before supplying him with the ball.

The latter approach normally involves creating overloads. An overload is a situation where attackers have numerical superiority around the ball with any present defender momentarily responsible for dealing with two attackers at once. Overload situations in vulnerable parts of the pitch will result in either one of the overloading attackers being left free to shoot (or play a pinpoint pass/cross) or a defender leaving a third attacker open for a shot by moving out of position to offer cover to the overloaded defender.

Attacking patterns can be simple or complex. Simple patterns usually require fewer passes and less coordinated movement by the team, and they are most effective (often devastatingly so) when implemented with a quick transition from defence. Complex patterns normally involve a higher number of passes with more coordinated movement on the part of the entire team. Complex patterns are useful against more defensive opponents who are careful to keep numbers behind the ball, though even in a side that favours complex patterns, tactically astute players will recognise when it’s better to keep it simple.

The first and most simple pattern is based on an attacker using individual skill to create space on his own. Attacking patterns based on creating 1v1 duels involve supplying the ball to an attacker and relying on him to get past his man into space to either set himself up for a shot or overload the defence to free up a teammate. There are several means by which this can be done. The most common examples involve a player using dribbling or pace to get beyond a defender, but it can involve anything from using strength to roll defenders or aerial ability to beat them to crosses. A forward or midfielder resorting to speculative shots from distance to bypass defenders also falls into this category.

For this type of attacking pattern to work consistently, two things are necessary. First, the attacker must have the necessary skill to either beat his man or comfortably draw defenders off a teammate before supplying him with the ball. Second, the defender must be isolated against the attacker in a true 1v1 situation. If defenders are able to double up on the attacker or cover space behind the first defender without freeing up a second attacker in a dangerous position, it is unlikely that even a world class attacker will be able to consistently create chances for either himself or a teammate. This means that a team relying on this pattern must either transition to attack quickly before defenders can reorganise or commit sufficient numbers forward to keep multiple defenders away from the player attempting to beat his man.

A through ball involves playing the ball behind the defensive line with the hope that an attacker will reach it and attempt a shot with only the keeper to beat. Normally, this requires having pacy attackers attempting to break the offside line, and it is most effective against defences that attempt to compress space by pressing high up the pitch. Against a defence using a low block, a through ball is far less likely to be successful since the defence will minimise space for attacking runs and the goalkeeper will be better positioned to deal with any ball that gets behind the defence.

A simple overloading run involves a deeper player, usually one who is not being adequately marked, creating a numerical advantage in an attacking position by moving forward into an area already occupied by another attacker. While more complex patterns may also create overload situations, simple overload patterns mainly consist of just getting numbers forward in an attempt to overwhelm defenders in the final third, and it is most clearly seen late in a match when a desperate team has resorted to pumping the ball into the box at every opportunity.


A simple overloading run down the flank can force central defenders out of the penalty area.

This can be effective late in a match when defenders are tired, but against a composed and well organised defence, it can leave the team exposed to counterattacks. When looking to avoid being caught on the break, simple overloading runs are most likely to be effective as a means of targeting an uncertain or defensively lax opposition player, especially one who has not been provided with adequate cover by the defensive system as a whole.

Breaks occur when a player receives the ball and is immediately able to move into space before a defender is able to directly engage him. This usually occurs when a player recovers possession in an advanced position with several opposition players stranded upfield and incapable of recovering into position in time. Breaks are closely associated with a counterattacking style of play, though they can occur in any system.

Unlike other attacking patterns, breaks are more dependent on the manner in which the team defends. Breaks are more likely to occur if a team pressures opposition defenders aggressively and keeps players ahead of the ball when defending. It also typically requires the opposing team to keep fewer players behind the ball when they attack, though even then, a break may occur if a defender commits an error when in possession of the ball.

One of the more common complex patterns is a switch of play. This involves drawing the defence into a wide area of the pitch before quickly moving the ball to an attacker located on the opposite flank. Normally, this is done with a sequence of one or two quick passes to ensure the defence is not given time to shift over and reorganise on the other flank. A switch of play may frequently segue into a different pattern, though ideally, it will find an attacker wholly unmarked. In this case, the attacker may be able to attempt a shot before the defence can adequately react and reorganise.

The switch of play normally requires committing enough attackers forward to force the defence to concentrate heavily into a single area of the pitch. If this is not done, defenders will tend to remain positioned in areas in which they can easily react to a switch or even ensure the intended target of the switch is marked before it can be completed.

A cutback (not to be confused with the dribbling technique of the same name) is similar, but it mainly involves using depth as opposed to width. The cutback involves pushing the defence back before playing the ball back to an attacker in a deeper position. This pattern is very effective at getting the most from a player skilled at shooting from distance. However, this again requires committing enough attackers forward to force the defence to concentrate its attention away from the player who will eventually take the shot. Otherwise, a cutback will tend to be easily intercepted.


A steady supply of cutbacks can turn long shot specialists into prolific goal-scorers.

A combination play involves two players quickly passing the ball between one another with the player who has just passed the ball quickly moving forward to receive a return pass in a more advanced position. This allows the player moving forward to attempt to beat his marker off the ball which is especially useful when space for dribbling is limited. Successful combination plays will often result in one of the players being left free to shoot or move forward to overload a deeper defender.

An overlapping run is similar to a combination play though it involves a deeper player quickly running beyond an attacker ahead of him to receive a penetrating pass. As with the movement in a combination play, the aim of the overlapping run is to allow the deeper player to beat his marker off the ball, though the overlapping player does not necessarily have to be the player who initiates the play. If his run is not tracked, this can result in the overlapping player creating an overload or even being left free to shoot. Overlapping plays are most often seen on the flanks, though they can occur between central players as well.

A third man combination is an advanced variation of a combination play. In this pattern, a third player initially positioned away from the ball makes a diagonal or lateral run to receive the ball in space behind defenders occupied by the interplay between the first and second attackers. As with the overlap combination, a failure by defenders to track this run can result in the third man overloading a deeper defender or being left free to shoot.

A rotational run (or switch run) involves two or more players swapping or rotating their attacking positions to open up space in which one can receive the ball to shoot. Rotational runs can be performed by players with or without the ball. The first aim of a rotational run is to lure a defender out of his area to leave the arriving attacker unmarked in a shooting position. This is normally done with a centre forward dropping deep or pulling wide with a teammate immediately moving to attack any resulting gap as he does so.

An adequately trained zonal defence will be resistant to the more obvious danger presented by a rotational run with the attackers either being passed on between markers or simply tracked man-to-man (and the defenders effectively swapping positions themselves). However, this can still create a variety of opportunities for the attack. First, the act of passing on the attackers will often leave a window of opportunity in which they will be poorly marked. Second, this can result in an attacker dropping deep to create an overload in midfield which allows him to receive the ball before moving forward to take on or even overload the initial defender.

A tactic is unlikely to produce just one pattern of attack while an effective tactic with good players will seamlessly combine different patterns to confuse the opposition defence. When developing tactics, you should have a sense of what sort of patterns it will tend to create, and you should be sure to consider how effective those patterns will be against the opposition’s system and style of play. For example, a tactic built around supplying through balls may work well against an opponent holding a high line, but it will be far less effective against a defence that consolidates into a deep block.

To understand how different patterns develop and break down during play, it is necessary to understand the decision-making of the players on an individual basis, and this requires a solid grasp of the tactical principles that fundamentally shape player decisions. Once these elementary tactical concepts are understood, specific systems and styles of play can be analysed in more detail.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for the kind feedback, everyone.

As I said to Jambo, if you have any ideas about something you would look to see included in a future update, don't hesitate to mention it.

You've given yourself quite a remit here... an explanation of all of football, including things you can't control in FM. Righto

There are a few things I considered excluding (namely, the bit on counterpressing), but ultimately, I wanted to incorporate anything that would help someone understand what they're seeing in a real football match as well.

Link to post
Share on other sites

This last chapter on tactical theory is also the longest and most in-depth, so I've decided to break it up into two parts and post the section on defensive principles tomorrow.


This chapter will explore the tactical principles in detail. During a match, these guidelines help players understand their responsibilities at any given moment. This allows them to make quick and effective individual decisions that maintain the team’s tactical organisation. For a manager, the principles also serve as a way of understanding the underlying structure of tactics, and this allows him to quickly identify and understand any tactical problems that might emerge in play.


The principles of attack and defence directly oppose one another. The purpose of the attacking principles is to create the time and space needed to allow for a scoring opportunity, and the purpose of the defensive principles is to limit the amount of time and space in which attackers can control the ball.

At any given moment during a match, each player is involved in this struggle over the creation of time and space. With the basic attacking patterns discussed in the last chapter, you can see some of the basic methods with which players try to open up space for a shot, but effective attacking patterns require a collective effort to use each principle of attack to stretch, distract and disorganise the opposition defence.

It is often said that football is a game of small margins, and this is especially true of attacking play. A consistently effective attack cannot just rely on a good dribbler or a simple overlap pattern to create a chance. It also requires collective, diversionary movement to disrupt the defence as a whole. Each attacker must do what he can to buy every possible inch and second for the player who will eventually attempt the shot.

Collectively, the principles of attack illustrate how players do this, and with a solid grasp of tactics and the team’s patterns of play, a player will know when and how to apply the principles to good effect. The exact conditions under which a player applies specific principles are organised through tactics. This is done both by structuring the tactic to support specific principles and directly encouraging players to take more or fewer risks when carrying them out. However, all teams make use of each of the principles of attack and defence to some extent.

Before reviewing the principles of play in detail, it is important to understand how the responsibilities of both attackers and defenders are organised based on their position in relation to the ball. At the most fundamental level of play, both attackers and defenders are divided into three groups: the first attacker/defender, the second attackers/defenders and the third attackers/defenders. At any given moment, each player will be a first, second or third attacker/defender depending on how they are positioned relative to the ball, and these responsibilities will change constantly as the ball and players move around the pitch.

The first attacker is the attacker in possession of the ball while the first defender is the nearest defender (who is responsible for directly engaging him). The second attackers and second defenders are the players around the ball responsible for providing close support and cover to, respectively, the first attacker and defender. The third attackers and third defenders are the players positioned away from the ball. They are responsible for controlling both the shape of the defence and the effective size of the playing area. For the third attackers, that means creating width and depth. For the third defenders, that means shifting their position to close gaps in the defence and setting the position of the offside line.


The first principle of attack is penetration. This simply means advancing the ball towards the opposition goal. It is the first principle since moving the ball forward is the first possibility that the first attacker should consider. There are several means by which penetration can be achieved. The first and most common is a forward pass. Whether the pass is short or long, placed to a teammate’s feet or into space, it achieves penetration if it advances the ball towards the opposition goal.

However, penetration does not only concern passing. Dribbling and shooting are also important aspects of penetration. Dribbling is especially important in tactics where an attacker is expected to directly create space for himself in a 1v1 duel. In the case of shooting, even shots that do not result in goal can potentially yield a corner or a loose ball in the penalty area. Beyond dribbling, shooting and passing, sheer physical ability can also be used to penetrate a defence. For example, a player can attempt to outmuscle or outpace a defender after knocking the ball forward, though these applications of pure athletic skill are less effective at the higher levels of the game.

Of course, penetration is not always the best option, and the purpose of the team’s style of play is to clarify the conditions under which penetration may be attempted and the techniques with which it may be attempted. If penetration isn’t an option, then the first attacker must look to the follow the principle of possession as the second and third attackers apply the other principles to create an acceptable option for penetration. This illustrates how the principles shape player decision-making.


A tactic based on penetration will encourage players to adopt a high risk, high reward mentality.

The defining characteristic of a team focused on penetration is the urgency with which they move the ball forward. An extreme emphasis on the principle of penetration will see passing and movement progress along more direct, vertical lines, though it is possible that a team will play a short passing style in which the majority of passes are quick, vertical/forward passes. A greater emphasis on penetration will also see players take more risks when choosing whether to dribble or shoot. In Football Manager, an “attacking” style of football is mainly defined by the team’s emphasis on penetration, though it’s important to remember that playing an attacking style does not necessarily mean you have an effective attack.


The second principle of attack is possession. This simply means keeping control of the ball by either holding it up or making simple lateral passes until better options are available. The basic idea underlying the principle of possession is that you can’t score if you don’t have control of the ball, and moreover, your opponent can’t score if they don’t control the ball. Possession, then, has a defensive purpose as well, and in several ways, the principle of possession is at odds with the principle of penetration. While possession is a precondition for all of the other principles of attack, pursuing possession for its own sake can result in overcautious and ineffective attacking play as opportunities for penetration are sacrificed to maintain control of the ball.

On the other hand, possession can be used tactically to create space. It is natural for many players to become increasingly nervous and frustrated if there is a long sequence of play in which their team has had no opportunities to attack, and if the team lacks discipline, this can cause them to make increasingly aggressive and rash decisions in an attempt to win the ball back. Using possession tactically attempts to exploit this by luring impatient defenders out of position to open up space for penetration. This is often combined with the principle of depth to control possession in deep positions and vertically stretch the defence as much as possible, though a team with exceptional technical ability may also be able to pull this off when the attack is pushed higher up the pitch.

A tactic that heavily emphasises possession will tend to see the team building up gradually from the back with a lengthier transition to attack. The team will also tend to recycle possession more often with attackers being more selective when choosing whether to attempt a final ball or play it back into midfield to start another attack. The downside to this is that it gives the opposition time to recover positions and reorganise. A team strongly favouring possession will often need to rely heavily on principles such as improvisation, mobility and width to create space against disciplined and mentally resilient defences that are content to sit deep and cede control of the ball.


The third principle of attack is depth. This is one of two principles that concerns the immediate dispersal of players off the ball to quickly utilise as much space as possible. Effective dispersal requires both vertical/forward and lateral/wide movement, and creating depth requires spreading out vertically. Ideally, depth will already exist from the moment possession is won, but if it doesn’t, players must promptly create it to allow for a penetrating pass.

At the most basic level, creating depth simply means not allowing the attacking shape to become too flat and compressed. For the second attackers immediately surrounding the ball, the principle of depth requires positioning yourself at a diagonal angle to the first attacker. For the third attackers positioned further from the ball, this means positioning yourself to offer immediate depth should a second attacker receive a pass. In this way, creating depth offers both a means of advancing the ball in quick succession or, if necessary, quickly moving it back away from pressure.

Underlying the principle of depth is the idea that the first attacker should look to pass the ball along a diagonal angle, and this requires players around him to avoid sitting in flat, rigid lines. Diagonal passing will allow the team to maintain the momentum of the attack. A compressed attack cannot penetrate quickly since the ball will be forced to travel at the speed of the advancing players, and it also allows the opposition defence to stay more compact and better positioned to intercept passes. Square passes bring forward movement to a halt, and they also present the risk that an intercepting defender will be able to immediately bypass both attackers upon controlling the ball.


Creating depth will give a central playmaker the space he needs to orchestrate the attack.

Extending the principle to the entire team, the tactical use of depth means trying to vertically stretch the opposition to create as much space as possible between the lines of the opposition defence. A tactic that heavily emphasises the principle of depth will see a combination of players dropping deep, pushing up against the defensive line and positioning themselves between the lines as these intermediate spaces open up. This creates defensive dilemmas in which defenders must choose between pushing up to compress this space as a unit, leaving the attackers operating there open or disrupting the team shape to mark the attackers individually. This also gives the first attacker a greater variety of passing options since the effective use of depth will create superior options for both simple possession passes to the second attackers and direct passes to the third attackers.


The fourth principle of attack is width. Like depth, this concerns the dispersal of players off the ball with the aim of either getting attackers into undefended space or stretching the opposition defence. In this case, it involves players moving laterally into positions close to the touchlines. Combined with depth, width creates the option of advancing around the defence with a penetrating pass down the flanks. At the same time, it presents a dilemma to defenders who must choose between protecting space closer to the ball or leaving an attacker completely open in a wide position.

In most cases, a disciplined defence will opt to remain concentrated around the ball while leaving attackers in a wide area opposite the position of the ball unmarked. If the ball is played out wide, the defence will shift to the flanks to restrict space around the player in possession, but until that happens, width will serve as a reliable source of space for attackers looking to free themselves up for a pass. Alternately, if a defender does position himself wider to remain close to a player in a wide area away from the ball, the defence will become stretched with passing lanes through the middle opening up as a result. Ideally, width combined with the threat of a quick switch of play will create uncertainty and indecision that will disrupt the shape of the defence and open up a variety of options.


The flanks offer a more reliable source of space, but the touchline will limit a creative player’s options.

A tactic that heavily emphasises the principle of width will tend to concentrate its attacks in wide areas, though this can be done for very different purposes. One team may anticipate that the defence will stay more compact while relying on a skillful winger or quick flank overloads to beat an isolated fullback ahead of a cross, another team may try to stretch the defence by luring out individual defenders in the hope that it opens up space in the channel that allows for penetration into a more central area, and another team may try to drag the whole defence wide with a view towards playing a cutback to an onrushing midfielder or a quick switch of play to a teammate attacking the far post. A sufficiently versatile and creative team will utilise a combination of approaches.


The fifth principle of attack is support. Support essentially means offering safe passing options to the first attacker. If the team is observing both the principles of depth and support, an outfield player should reliably be given safe options for an angled lateral, back and forward pass with players positioning themselves in what looks like an interlocking series of diamonds. In a situation where the most advanced attacker receives the ball, the option of a forward pass may need to be created by a teammate running into space behind the defence.

At the most basic level, the idea is to give the first attacker a safe passing option in every direction. This prevents the player from being isolated, and in the absence of an acceptable option for a penetrating pass, this allows him to more easily maintain possession and avoid being pressured off the ball. Providing support effectively will allow the team to easily circulate the ball between players which, against an aggressive or undisciplined defence, can result in defenders chasing the ball fruitlessly with gaps allowing penetrating passes opening up as a result.

Carrying out the principle of support may require a teammate to move closer to the player in possession. Assuming the player’s marker doesn’t follow (and potentially up space for a penetrating pass), this allows for an easier pass, but it also sacrifices a more penetrative option. In this way, players must be careful to balance the need for depth and the need for support. Players need options near the ball to offer the safe option, but they also need options establishing depth away from the ball to both offer the option for a more dangerous pass and to ensure that there is immediate forward support should a teammate in a more advanced position receive the ball.

With too much emphasis on support, a team’s efforts at penetrating the opposition defence may grind to a halt with the attack becoming too compressed. Taken to an extreme, an excessive emphasis on offering safe options can see the attack pushed back with a series of back passes towards their own goal as a lack of depth deprives them of an outlet capable of receiving a deeper pass.

On the other hand, an excess of depth at the expense of support will see certain players isolated from one another with the player in possession potentially forced to pursue riskier options that may lead to a loss of possession or, worse yet, an opportunity for the opposition to break on the counter. An attack that looks to create extensive depth in build-up play must be careful to organise supporting options in a way that prevents the opposition from effectively isolating and outnumbering any key part of the attack before they are ready to attempt a more ambitious pass.

A tactic that heavily emphasises the principle of support will tend to see the team’s build-up play progress in a more compact shape with more players looking to offer safe, short passing options around the player in possession. This can help the team maintain possession, though to allow for penetration, a resulting lack of depth may require the tactic to focus more heavily on other attacking principles to open up gaps for a quick series of combination passes through the opposition defence. For teams that place a lot of importance on support, it is often the case that there is also a strong focus on mobility and width to create space in which players can combine to advance the ball with quick passing and movement.


This bring us to the sixth principle of attack: mobility. Mobility means moving to create space for both yourself and others. Effective mobility will see players opening up more space to receive the ball while pulling the defence out of shape and forcing defenders to commit positional errors. Essentially, the aim is to not let defenders rest for a single second. Constant attacking movement forces defenders to constantly reposition themselves and think carefully about choosing their next action. Over time, this proves physically and mentally tiring for defenders which, in turn, increases the chance that they will make poor decisions when choosing whether to track an attacker’s movement or avoid opening up gaps in the defensive formation.

At the most basic level, mobility simply means not standing still for long periods and allowing a defender to comfortably mark you out of the game with minimal mental and physical effort. Even under a tactic that demands a more rigid attacking shape, mobility serves as an important way of supplementing support and penetration. When marked, an attacker can make things difficult for his defender by persistently checking to and away from the ball, attempting dummy runs, slipping over to the defender’s blindside and simply moving away from the player in possession to keep space open around the ball.


As a club’s reputation grows, the ability to find and use space becomes increasingly important.

The more complex tactical applications of mobility involve allowing players much greater freedom of movement. Examples of more advanced uses of mobility include attackers rotating attacking positions, diagonal runs to or from the flanks, crossover runs between attackers and overlapping runs from midfielders and defenders. This introduces a third problem to the dilemma that mobility creates for defenders. Whereas basic mobility forces them to choose between tracking players and protecting space, greater levels of attacking mobility also force them to make careful decisions about which player to track (or not).

A tactic that heavily emphasises mobility will see the team operating in a highly dynamic attacking shape with constant movement between positions. Rotational runs, overlapping runs and third man combinations are common features of a highly mobile attack. These attacking patterns can be very difficult to defend against, though the effective use of mobility is highly dependent on the abilities and attitude of the players. In addition to ideally being quick and agile, the players must be energetic and hard working to sustain the constant effort that mobility demands.


The seventh and final principle of attack is improvisation. Improvisation means being unpredictable, creative and tactically deceptive. The aim of improvisation is to confuse the defence and catch them off guard in the hope that this will lead to rash decisions that open up space for the attack. A team that attacks with invention and guile prevents the defending side from falling into a comfortable rhythm, and over time, the increased tactical demands this places on defenders will pose a difficult test for their discipline and mental resilience.

At the most basic level, improvisation involves playing with flair and style. Feints and tricks performed by a player on the ball are not simply done for show; they can also send defenders onto their wrong foot or even lure them into rash challenges. An attacker who only knows one way to beat his man will quickly become predictable, and no matter how well he’s mastered his favoured technique, he will find it increasingly difficult to pull it off effectively if the defender can always anticipate his next move.


A player with an eye for the unexpected can throw any defensive system into disarray.

At the broader tactical level, improvisation involves making the team’s patterns of play more unpredictable and varied by mixing up the specific techniques used to carry them out. A team that carries out its patterns in the same manner over and over will tend to become predictable, and over time, this allows defenders to settle into a steady rhythm where they can comfortably predict the first attacker’s next decision. A sudden shift in the way a pattern has previously been carried out can serve to throw the defence off guard, and if effective, this will prompt rash challenges or poor reorganisation that can open up space for a chance.

A manager’s tendency to encourage improvisation comes down to a question of whether he favours unpredictability or precision in attacking play. While an emphasis on improvisation can make the attack difficult to read, it can also lead to several problems if implemented with a team poorly suited to playing a highly flamboyant and technically demanding style. First, it can lead to a loss of cohesion and organisation if the attackers themselves are not capable of reading one another’s intentions, and second, it can lead to more attacks breaking down due to attackers pushing their technical limitations and overcomplicating their play.

On the other hand, an attack that lacks a necessary element of improvisation can become too workmanlike and predictable. Their attacks may end up being more efficient at getting the ball forward, but against a well organised defence, players instructed to keep their play simple and sensible may end up merely playing the percentages or relying on opposition errors to find their breakthrough. In such situations, attackers will need a lot of luck or a significant gulf in ability to consistently carve out chances for themselves.

Collectively, the principles of attack relate to one another in complex ways, and when developing tactics, managers should be careful to balance their use to ensure they enhance rather than conflict with one another. It’s also important to understand that each of the principles of attack carries its own defensive cost. While there is often truth to the adage that the best defence is a good attack, careless attacking play can gift chances to the opposition. Managers should always remain aware that space created in the attacking phase is also available to the opposition in the transition phase, and when combined with reckless attempts at penetration or sloppy possession play, a careless effort at creating and using space can quickly result in the opposition breaking forward against an exposed and poorly prepared defence.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Another fantastic update. This is a great reference thread so far for those people who have no knowledge about football and might not be familiar about the game. Excellent work mate.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm loving this thread, and we're still not even half-way through! I'm looking forward into how the different tactical ideas are implemented into FM especially the High, Medium and Low Block as I don't think the current tactics creator is specific enough in how to implement them.

Link to post
Share on other sites

:applause: this is an incredible in-depth thread THoG.

Quick question though, in article 2 (2.3) you mention the "rotational run (or switch run)", will this situation occur if I choose to have the PI "swap position" activated?

for an example, playing a pretty standard 4-3-3 (4-1-2-2-1), having AMR swapping position with the striker through out the match, would the defenders (if set to man mark on striker) follow him out wide during the switch, while the AMR would have loads of open space to run into?

Or would they simply, as soon as the "swap phase" sets in, see the former AMR as the striker and man mark him and then leave the striker (now AMR) to the fullbacks and wider players?

Link to post
Share on other sites

They would just see the AMR as the striker. Swap positions basically works like any other tactical change and isn't something that happens spontaneously during play. To get this sort of movement spontaneously, you need to encourage a lot of mobility, so you'll want roaming strikers instructed to move into channels combined with roaming midfielders on an attack duty. This will encourage the striker to drop off or drift wide with midfielders attacking the resulting space.

Link to post
Share on other sites

They would just see the AMR as the striker. Swap positions basically works like any other tactical change and isn't something that happens spontaneously during play. To get this sort of movement spontaneously, you need to encourage a lot of mobility, so you'll want roaming strikers instructed to move into channels combined with roaming midfielders on an attack duty. This will encourage the striker to drop off or drift wide with midfielders attacking the resulting space.

:thup: Thanks

Link to post
Share on other sites


The principles of defence help players defend as a team in an effective and well organised manner. For a player, the defensive principles help him to decide how to best make himself useful given the current situation and his position in relation to the ball. Like the attacking principles, the defensive principles guide players towards tactically appropriate decisions, though in the case of defending, the decisions concern how to best win back the ball without conceding a chance to the opposition.

For a manager organising the team’s tactical approach, each individual defensive principle can also be understood as a means of negating a specific attacking principle. However, setting up a defence is not as simple as negating every aspect of the opposition’s attack nor is it as simple as just focusing all of the defence’s efforts into carrying out a single principle. Defending is fundamentally a question of limiting the time and space needed to set up chances, but it is not possible for the defence to simultaneously protect every part of the pitch. The challenge of defending is choosing where to focus the team’s efforts, and this requires balancing the principles of defence in a way that channels the abilities of your players to cause the most problems for the opposition attack.

Players can consolidate deep in front of their penalty area, but this cedes the depth of the pitch from which attackers can dominate possession and quickly make use of width with penetrating passes to the flanks. Alternately, players can try to compress the playing area and deny space for building up attacks by pushing the defence as high up the pitch as possible, but this will leave more space behind the defence exposed to more direct means of penetration. Players may also take a balanced approach, but guarding against everything in equal measure leaves you exposed to everything in equal measure. Though regardless of which principles a manager favours, every team relies on each principle to some degree.

3.10 DELAY

The first principle of defence is delay. This means the first defender nearest to the ball should immediately position himself to prevent it from being passed or dribbled forward. The key to carrying out this principle is proper defensive positioning by the first defender. If the first defender fails to position himself in a way that prevents him from being swiftly side-stepped for a simple pass or turned by a dribbling attacker (or worse yet: nutmegged), the first attacker will be able to easily move the ball past him.

Delay has two tactical purposes. The first is to allow the other defenders to get organised before the opposition attack can advance. The second is to try to slow the attack by forcing them to pause and consider their options. Just as the principle of penetration is the first principle of attack, delay should be the first option pursued by a defender. This is especially important in the recovery phase where the first defender must halt the threat of a counterattack and buy time for his teammates to consolidate into the team’s defensive block.


When lacking cover, delaying an attacker gives teammates an opportunity to get into better positions.

In deeper positions, delay is still a vital principle. By forcing the attack to choose between either overly safe possession passes or overly risky passes, it can prompt hesitation in attackers and kill the momentum of an attack. Unless an attacker can come up with a moment of genius, this will make the attack much easier to read and force them to rely on either sheer ability or high risk attacking patterns (such as simple overloads) to beat defenders.

Delaying an attacker is the first step towards applying pressure, but if a defender is wary of overcommitting and being beaten by his man, he may choose to continue standing off from the first attacker and attempt to encourage the first attacker to play the ball into a less risky area (usually, this means the flanks). This often occurs when the team has not yet dropped into its defensive block. In these situations, the first defender will simply look to check the pace of the attacker’s advance as the defence retreats rather than trying to put him under greater pressure.

A defence built around the principle of delay will tend to focus more on intelligent positioning and interceptions as opposed to pressuring opposition attackers into mistakes. However, no team can delay an attack indefinitely unless the opposition never makes any attempt at penetration. If an attacker tries to beat his man or comes within shooting distance of the goal, a defender must begin applying pressure.

The benefit of delay extends beyond its immediate effect on the first attacker. It also has a cumulative effect when practiced consistently and effectively. In addition to making it more difficult for the first attacker to immediately dribble or slip a pass by him, a defender attempting to simply delay will typically be better positioned if a quick pass suddenly changes the point of attack. Since he will usually be closer to his defensive position, he can quickly drop back into shape to offer cover or balance to his teammates. This means the defender can quickly assume his new responsibilities as a second or third defender, and this ensures the team will keep its shape more consistently and be able to quickly reorganise around the new location of the ball.

While waiting for opposition mistakes will normally allow them more time on the ball, slowing the tempo of the attack through careful delaying tactics will reduce the likelihood of defensive errors and make the opposition more dependent on producing a moment of inspiration to break down the defence. This highlights the way in which time can be a double-edged sword for both the attack and defence. For both, reducing the amount of time in which decisions must be made increases the chance of mistakes whether this is done via pressure by the defence or a conscious decision to play at a high tempo by the attack. The question for the manager, then, is how to balance the risk of a defensive error with the need to win back the ball, especially against opponents who may very well have the vision and technical ability to unlock a stubborn and well disciplined defence.


The second principle of defence is pressure. This is an extension of the principle of delay that aims to limit the opposition’s possession of the ball. Whereas delay concerns positioning yourself against the attacker in possession to prevent penetration, pressure involves the first defender quickly closing down the first attacker to minimise the time and space in which the ball can be controlled. At the most basic level, the purpose of pressure is to force the first attacker into making a hasty decision, and even in a defence playing a containment style, recognising when you need to apply pressure is a vital aspect of shutting down a potentially dangerous situation.


Putting an opponent under pressure can prompt panic and poor decisions.

While pressure may result in an attempted tackle, this is not necessarily the main intent of applying pressure. Ideally, pressure will lead to a change in possession as a result of the attacker miscontrolling the ball or attempting a bad pass. This reduces the risk of a foul being committed which can potentially lead to an even more dangerous situation.

A defence built around the principle of pressure will focus on rapidly closing down attackers as soon as possible. In this case, the aim is to win the ball back as quickly as possibly by forcing mistakes as opposed to waiting for them to occur. Normally, a style of play based on quickly applying pressure is combined with a high defensive block in a pressing style, but this is not always the case. Some teams, especially at lower levels of play where players lack the technical ability to either cope with pressure or exploit depth behind pressuring defenders, might find it advantageous to apply aggressive pressure higher up the pitch while the defensive line retreats to a deep line of restraint.

The risk of emphasising pressure is that, while it seeks to force mistakes from the attack, it increases the likelihood of mistakes from the defence. Asking defenders to apply pressure more quickly and in more advanced positions gives them less time to observe the developing situation, and this can lead to a loss of shape, restraint and organisation if the defence as a whole doesn’t react quickly enough. Additionally, a pressuring defender can be promptly beaten by a quick, skillful attacker, so without sufficient cover, a failed attempt at applying pressure can quickly lead to an exposed defence. A final point to consider is that applying pressure quickly and persistently is physically taxing for defenders, and if defenders’ energy levels aren’t carefully managed over the course of a match, relentless pressure increases the risk of everything from defensive errors to injuries.


The third principle of defence is compression. Along with the principle of consolidation, this is one of two principles based on the broader concept of compactness. At the most basic level, compression means reducing the space around the first attacker by having second and third defenders shift towards him. This allows the defence to establish numerical superiority around the ball, obstructs the passing lanes separating the first attacker from his supporting teammates and ensures both the first and second attackers have minimal space in which to receive and control it. In other words, the aim of compression is to get compact around the ball, isolate the first attacker and tighten the angles along which any attempt at penetration must be attempted.

Compression towards the ball involves players shifting their positions both laterally and vertically. This reduces gaps in the defensive shape, including the crucial gap between the midfield and defence. Proactive shifting by the defensive line in particular reduces the amount of depth available to the opposition attack when midfielders attempt to win back the ball. This has two main benefits. First, it increases the amount of precision needed to properly place and weight a forward pass. Second, it ensures deeper defenders are better positioned to promptly deal with any attempt at penetration. As a result, interceptions become more likely and the attack finds it more difficult to construct precise passing plays through the defence.


Beating a high block requires a willingness to get players and the ball behind pressuring defenders.

However, the idea that a defence cannot cover the entirety of the pitch is particularly relevant for the principle of compression. While one of the aims of compression is to keep the defence and midfield from being stretched apart, an attack that looks to create extensive depth presents a dilemma to the opposition defence. A defence can attempt to push up to compress the onside playing area as much as possible, and while this makes it more difficult for the attack to construct effective passing combinations, it exposes depth behind the defence to the runs of quick attackers. In these situations, defenders must be careful to keep the lines compact without allowing too much risk of a through ball potentially bypassing the entire defensive block in one fell swoop. If this isn’t possible (most likely due to a failure to pressure effectively), a defence should recognise that it must drop back and consolidate.

Compression is the responsibility of each defender as they must reduce space around the ball and cover passing lanes from all sides, but it is particularly important for the defensive line as they look to leverage the advantage offered by the offside rule. A defensive line that is too hasty to retreat or too reluctant to push out behind a pressuring midfield will tend to expose depth. This can leave a team exposed to quick, positive passing combinations as it looks to guard against the threat of a long ball.

A defence focused on compression will tend to operate in a high defensive block that sees the defence push up quickly to close depth before retreating as a unit in the event of successful penetration behind the midfield or an anticipated direct pass. In deeper positions, the defensive line will be faster to push up with the midfield to press a back pass. While this opens the possibility for a ball played behind the defence, this is exactly the point to some extent. Just as creating depth in attack looks to open up a variety of options for the player in possession, effective compression negates those options to force the player in possession to choose between the overly cautious and the overly ambitious.


The fourth principle of defence is balance. This refers to players’ responsibility to help the defence remain compact by closing gaps as they arise. Balance is usually carried out by the third defenders away from the ball as they focus on helping the first and second defenders maintain the team’s shape. Balance allows the first and second defenders to get tight around the ball without exposing too much space around them in the process, and in doing so, it serves as a binding principle that holds the defence together and allows the other principles to be carried out effectively.

Balance involves protecting space opened up by a teammate being pulled away from their basic defensive position. This is most frequently seen when the defence is pulled wide and the wide players positioned away from the ball shift into a more central position. This shifting allows the first and second defenders to isolate the attackers near the touchline without exposing a direct path towards the goal through the centre of the pitch.

By preventing the defence from getting stretched laterally when the ball moves wide, balance primarily serves as a means of protecting against width-based attacks. While this leaves attackers on the opposite flank unmarked, their distance from the ball makes them less of a threat compared to the danger posed by opening a gap through the middle. Simply, if the area directly in front of the goal is exposed, then a simple pass back into the centre could result in a clear cut chance. Balance prevents this by ensuring that players are positioned to protect this area at all times.

The principle of balance is also carried out in other instances where an individual teammate is pulled out of position. For example, if a player in the defence steps into midfield to delay or pressure an attacker, a midfielder may need to drop back to restore balance to the defensive line. Similarly, in the recovery phase, players must make recovery runs to fill the most vital positions near the ball in the event that a teammate who normally occupies that position is unable to do so.


In this image, a winger and fullback (highlighted) have shifted to the centre to balance the defence.

Promoting balance in a tactic always requires a compromise. Since balance is most effectively offered by teammates already sitting in the same positional line (i.e., the defensive line, the midfield line or the forward line), offering more balance to various units of the defence is mainly done through the manager’s choice of formation. For example, a flat 4-5-1 offers more immediate balance to the midfield line whereas a 5-3-2 sacrifices balance in midfield for an extra man at the back. However, choosing a formation that adds numbers to one unit of the defence requires removing players from a different position.

Since balance helps prevent a line of defence from being bypassed through width, choosing where to offer more immediate balance will have a significant effect on how often each line of defence is called upon to deal with threats. Adding more players to the forward line, then, will help support a team’s efforts at disrupting the opposition’s efforts at building up play from the back. Adding more players to the midfield line will help support a team’s efforts at containing the attack in front of the midfield. And adding more players to the defensive line will ensure that there are always four at the back screening the entire face of goal if a defender steps out of position.

On the other hand, offering balance to one unit of the defence increases the demands on players in another. Keeping three players forward may prevent an opponent from comfortably switching the ball across its defence, but it will also require players in the midfield and defence to cover more ground once the ball gets beyond the forward line. This normally requires players in these positions to have a higher level of physical, tactical and defensive ability to cope with these increase demands.

In each case, focusing on balance to counter width typically means having the defence playing in a smaller number of flat lines. This means the defence sacrifices cover between the lines in exchange for better protection against width, and as a result, the defence will be more vulnerable to supporting attackers utilising this exposed depth.

3.14 COVER

This bring us to the fifth principle of defence: cover. Also often referred to as defensive support, cover involves denying options to the attacker in possession by marking attackers and protecting space around the first defender. The primary aim of cover is to negate support, though it also serves to keep the principle of compression in check by emphasising the need to maintain defensive depth and protect space behind the first defender. Basically, this means that the first and second defenders should avoiding sitting in a flat line when engaging the first attacker regardless of whether the team’s defensive formation has them sitting in a flat line by default.

Covering defenders have two main responsibilities. The first involves marking which involves positioning themselves to cut off passes to supporting attackers. Normally, second defenders who play in the same positional line as the first defender should first mark supporting defenders behind the first defender since this cuts off the penetrating pass. Generally, marking involves trying to remain goal-side (on the side of the goal) and ball-side (to the left/right of the second attacker depending on which is closer to the ball). The basic idea is that you want to maintain visibility of both the marked player and the ball while being in a position that allows you to both react to an attacking run and step out to intercept a pass. However, this is not always possible (for example, if the ball is moving rapidly in a very central position), and in a pressing defence, it is often the case that the second defenders will proactively move to cut off the passing lane to the second attackers to isolate the first attacker.

The second responsibility of covering defenders is ensuring defenders are positioned to protect space behind the first defender in the event of successful penetration (for example, by the attacker dribbling around him or playing a pass behind him). This is simple if there are free defenders not responsible for directly marking a support option for the attacker in possession, and in the case of an attack reluctant to commit attackers forward, covering defenders may be left free to help directly pressure an attacker by doubling up. Though against an attack quick to commit players forward, this may require a defender to mark his man less tightly to try to position himself to guard against both a possible pass to a teammate and a possible dribble beyond the first defender.

In other cases, a supporting attacker operating between the midfield and defensive lines can create a dilemma for a covering defender who must choose between covering the man (and the space behind) or leaving this player to teammates in a deeper positional line in order to remain better positioned to respond quickly if the attack moves into his zone of responsibility. In practice, the correct response is not always obvious, and while managers will often coach a specific response, these kind of defensive dilemmas highlight the importance of having experienced players who can intuitively read and anticipate the intentions of the opposition attack.

As with balance, a defence must choose where and how to offer cover. In the past, teams relied on man-to-man coverage in which a defender tracked a single attacker across the pitch, but against an opponent properly carrying out the principles of attack, this method makes it impossible to maintain a compact shape. It also required the use of a free defender (known as a libero or sweeper) to maintain zonal cover and defensive depth in the space behind the rest of the defence. However, new tactical methods and modifications to the offside law eventually rendered this solution to the man-marking problem unviable at the top levels of the game. Now, nearly all professional teams rely on zonal marking in which all defenders are expected to drop off into covering positions depending on their position in relation to the ball while only marking attackers who enter an area/zone they’ve been assigned within a defensive shape that, in theory, remains compact at all times.

A consequence of zonal marking is that some attackers can be left unmarked as the team is more concerned with covering space close to and behind the ball. However, as we saw in the section on the principle of balance, leaving some attackers unmarked allows balancing defenders to focus on shifting to cover gaps that arise if the first and second defenders are pulled away from their basic defensive positions. Still, this means that a zonal defence will tend to naturally leave some areas exposed to attacking movement.


The natural cover offered by a box midfield is effective at stifling a dribbling or short passing style.

After a team has recovered into its defensive shape in their own half, the defensive formation will determine which areas are covered more effectively. Along with how the team uses balance, this will greatly influence how the defence tends to channel the opposition attack, and if employed judiciously, focusing additional cover in specific areas can seriously disrupt the opposition’s attacking system by isolating and overrunning key players.

Assuming the defence has carried out the other principles of defence adequately, defenders should be able to eventually offer cover behind the ball with any formation, but in practice, luring players forward will tend to create depth behind them since it takes time for a player to track back into a covering position. Additionally, if opposition attackers make runs from deep or out wide in an attempt to overload space around the ball, more advanced players may be required to track them to offer more cover.

In these situations, coverage of the second and third attackers is maintained by tracking their movement, but this also means marking the man can come at the expense of other defensive principles, particularly balance. The need to track attackers must be kept in check to ensure the defence doesn’t lose shape and become unbalanced (which can result if a team is stretched either laterally or vertically). This requires communicating with other defenders to pass on or exchange marked attackers when necessary as well as potentially leaving them unmarked altogether if they drop deep or move towards a flank away from the ball.

A defence that focuses on cover will tend to accept a slightly greater risk of becoming unbalanced. In most cases, this involves using a formation where either an attacking or defensive midfielder is positioned between the lines to continuously cover that protect space against attackers taking up supporting positions in depth. In more extreme cases, a team focused heavily on marking supporting attackers will lean more towards man-to-man coverage and have defenders sticking close to attackers at the expense of defensive balance and compactness. This is often done by teams that rely more on physicality and tackling than disciplined positioning and interceptions.


The sixth principle of defence is consolidation. This is the second of the two principles concerning compactness. This means recovering positions in a narrow shape behind the ball to protect against direct penetration towards goal. The basic aim of consolidation is to establish and maintain numerical superiority behind the ball in the most vulnerable areas near the goal. In some ways, it overlaps with the principle of compression in that both will see the defence become more compact, but whereas compression involves collectively restricting space towards the ball, consolidation concerns collectively restricting space towards one’s own goal. In this way, the two can be at odds with one another, though tactically intelligent defenders will be able to balance the two by pushing up and dropping back as the situation demands.

Since consolidation involves establishing and maintaining numbers in the more central part of the pitch, it is not uncommon for the principle of consolidation to be presented as a means of preventing width from stretching the defence, but whereas consolidation is largely intended to force the attack to rely more on width, it is more accurate to understand it as a means of directly negating the threat of mobility. While width does look to disrupt consolidation and stretch the defence laterally, balance is needed to actually protect against width if the defence is consolidating properly. On the other hand, consolidation protects against runs into and through the vulnerable spaces nearest to the goal.

When properly consolidated, there will naturally be less space between defenders, including between the defensive line and the goalkeeper. In this way, like compression, consolidation will see the defence get compact, though in a more passive manner that cedes depth ahead of the defence. As a result, the defence as a whole will be better positioned to collectively deny both the second and third attackers the opportunity to freely move and receive the ball in opportune shooting positions, though it will struggle to prevent the opposition from dictating play from deeper positions and sustaining the attack by recovering clearances.

A key idea behind consolidation is that the defence should focus its efforts toward the flanks instead of from the flanks. In other words, the defence should always anchor itself centrally and direct the defence outward from the middle. Even in teams that focus heavily on compression, this aspect of consolidation is important since it highlights the importance of directing play into less threatening areas on the flanks. With the touchline cutting off half of an attackers’ options, channeling play to the flanks allow them to be more effectively isolated and pressured.


A tactic based on consolidation requires players who are tactically disciplined and mentally resilient.

Assuming defensive consolidation is maintained through balance, it prevents defenders from individually having to cover too much space. This is done by ensuring there are no immediately accessible spaces in front of goal through which either passes can be made or supporting attackers can move without being immediately covered by another defender. Additionally, physically crowding space in front of goal through consolidation prevents attackers from comfortably maneuvering at pace when either attempting a dribble or a run.

A team that focuses heavily on consolidation will look to retreat into their defensive shape and congest the vulnerable areas in front of goal as quickly as possible. This normally involves keeping more players behind the ball at all times as well as being quick to drop deep to keep defenders behind the ball and protect the central space behind the defence. This can make a defence very difficult to break down, but especially against similarly cautious opponents, it can also compromise both a team’s attacking potency and ability to win the ball back quickly. However, against an aggressive opponent quick to commit attackers forward, an emphasis on consolidation can play a vital role in tempting the opposition to expose space that can be exploited with a fast transition.


The seventh and final principle of defence is restraint. Essentially, this means remaining defensively organised for as long as possible, especially when facing an unexpected development in play that threatens to provoke panic or indecision in the defence. Sticking to the team’s established patterns of defensive play keeps the defence operating as a cohesive unit, and it helps prevent creative and clever attackers from luring individual defenders into mistakes. Of course, there are times when a last ditch tackle or even a tactical foul may be the best decision, but while individualistic defending can often earn the plaudits of the crowd, it’s can quickly spiral into a catastrophic series of defensive errors. This principle underlines the idea that an organised and disciplined defence will reduce the need for high risk defensive actions by diligently stifling the creativity of the opposition attack.

The underlying aim is to reduce the likelihood of certain types of defensive errors. The most significant of these errors is the act of overcommitting. This involves rushing into a challenge or attempting a particularly risky challenge (for example, a diving tackle) when either lacking sufficient defensive cover or simply a good reason to try to win the ball back immediately. Overcommitting increases the chance of being beaten by your man. This can confuse or unnerve teammates by suddenly forcing them into a more precarious defensive situation.

Beyond the risk of the first defender overcommitting, restraint also instructs the second and third defenders to avoid defensive errors by reminding them to focus on their current defensive responsibilities. While these defenders need to remain aware of what the attacker in possession is doing, this should not come at the expense of the team’s need for balance and cover. Examples of such second and third defender errors include exposing space by overzealously tracking an attacking run and being lured towards the ball when it is not safe or necessary to double up on the attacker in possession (the latter of which is also a form of overcommitting).

More than the other defensive principles, restraint relies heavily upon the experience and temperament of the players, though skillful man management can also help create and maintain an ethos of teamwork and tactical discipline. Still, a tactic can put a greater emphasis on restraint by discouraging hasty and aggressive challenges. This may give the opposition more time on the ball, but against a properly disciplined defence, they should find fewer opportunities to actually make anything of it.

With a solid understanding of the principles of defence, a coach can more easily identify why a defence failed in a successful attacking play. For each of the seven principles of defence, there are corresponding defensive errors that can be attributed to a failure to adequately observe one or more of the principles. However, in play, defending is always a matter of finding the most efficient way to manage different threats, and it is important for a coach to remember that these errors may not always be obvious to defenders until after the fact. Football is a game of fine margins that cannot be predicted with absolute certainty, so it is the responsibility of the manager to organise the defence in a way that helps the players reduce the likelihood of defensive mistakes.


With a solid understanding of the principles of play, you will be well equipped to begin learning how to analyse each moment of a game in terms of the individual tactical decisions of the players. A manager’s ability to read a game in this way is an extremely important aspect of tactical management. A good reading of the game allows a manager to identify where things are going wrong, why they are going wrong and what needs to be changed.


Offering more balance to the defensive line can reduce the risk of errors in high risk situations...

An important aspect of this is being able to distinguish between simple player errors, player deficiencies and systemic deficiencies. The question here is whether a player made an avoidable mistake, a player lacks the ability to properly carry out the team’s tactics or whether the team’s tactical approach has some structural shortcoming being exploited by the opposition. This allows the manager to make a good judgment as to whether to keep things as they are, change the personnel or change the team’s approach to create a more favourable situation.

To give you a sense of how this can be done, here is a summary of how the principles are often applied in terms of a typical progression of play. First, the team in attack:

Upon taking possession of the ball, the first attacker should look for an opportunity for penetration. This can include passing, dribbling or shooting. If no acceptable opportunities are available, he should next do what he can to maintain possession until better opportunities open up. At this point, it is the responsibility of the second and third attackers to create those opportunities.

Away from the ball, the second and third attackers should look to open up the field by giving the attack width and depth. This will create the option of moving the ball into another area of the pitch with a direct pass while opening up more space in which the supporting attackers can operate. As this occurs, the second attackers near the ball must also look to offer support. Even if this does not allow for penetration, it at least provides more options for maintaining possession.

Finally, with attackers dispersed and properly positioned, both the second and third attackers must offer mobility to force the opposition to continuously reorganise itself to deny options for penetration. If all else fails, we return to the first attacker who must improvise if there are no obvious avenues for progressing the attack. Typically, a less creative player will simply attempt a speculative shot or pass intended to just get the ball upfield, but with the right players, these moments of desperation can inspire a stroke of genius.

In response to the above progression, the defending team will exercise the appropriate defensive principles to negate each action in an attempt to eventually force an error from the attack:

First, the defender nearest to the ball becomes the first defender. It is now his responsibility to immediately position himself to delay any immediate attempt at penetration from the first attacker as his teammates reorganise. Positioned correctly with adequate cover behind him, he may also begin to pressure the first attacker, though he should be careful not to overcommit if his teammates have not yet consolidated into a good defensive posture.

Away from the ball, the second and third defenders should immediately move to consolidate defensively. First, the second defenders nearest to the ball must provide cover to the first defender to support his efforts at delaying, isolating and pressuring the first attacker. Meanwhile, the third defenders must reestablish balance to the team’s shape and keep space around the ball as compressed as possible to prevent too great a gap from opening up ahead of the defensive line.

At this point, the team will have consolidated defensively, and the first attacker will find it difficult to advance the ball in a direct path towards goal. The defence will then either gradually retreat into a deeper defensive block (allowing controlled penetration towards their goal but ensuring the team can maintain consolidation in the event of a direct pass) or maintain its current position in an effort to win back the ball. However, in either case, maintaining consolidation requires continuously observing the other principles, and to do so properly, the defenders must remain disciplined and practice restraint in response to every development in play.

In any stretch of open play, the above sequence serves as a blueprint outlining each player’s responsibility at any given moment. When reading a game tactically, the central question that comes up at every moment is whether players are adhering to the relevant principles of play. If not, the manager must then ask himself whether this is due to players simply making the wrong decision, the players lacking the ability to carry out the relevant principle in the current circumstances, or the tactical system & style imposed by the manager creating a tactical weakness by directing too many players towards different responsibilities.


... while offering more cover behind the midfield line can prevent high risk situations from emerging.

From this vantage point, the cause of common tactical problems can be identified:

If first attackers are hesitating to exploit gaps and giving the opposition defence time to consolidate, the manager may need to encourage more ambitious efforts at penetration.

If attackers are making rash decisions and losing the ball unnecessarily, the manager may need to encourage more patience in maintaining possession.

If the attack is becoming too compressed and lacks options for playing a direct pass or a pass between lines, the manager may need to provide more depth in attack.

If the attack is becoming too concentrated and lacks any space to advance the ball forward, the manager may need to encourage more width in attack.

If an attacker is getting isolated against multiple defenders, the manager may need to provide more support around him.

If the second and third attackers are comfortably being marked out of the game, the manager may need to encourage more mobility.

Finally, if the attack is just too predictable, the manager may need to allow more improvisation.

Conversely, if first attackers are beating defenders and dragging them out of position too easily, the manager may need to encourage the defence to try to delay them and wait for cover.

If first attackers are being given too much time to control and pick out passes, the manager may need to encourage the defence to focus more on quickly pressuring them.

If attackers are finding too much space to receive and control passes ahead of the defensive line, the manager may need to encourage the defence to compress space more readily.

If attackers are finding it too easy to drag central players wide or switch the point of attack into dangerous areas, the manager may need to balance the team’s shape more effectively.

If attackers are finding it too easy to bypass a defender with simple passing plays, the manager may need to offer him more cover in front of or behind his defensive zone.

If attackers are finding it too easy to make direct plays into space in front of goal, the manager may need to take more measures to ensure the defence consolidates quickly.

Finally, if defenders are losing discipline and making elementary mistakes, the manager may need to encourage more restraint.

A manager should always keep in mind that finding the best solution is not simply a question of looking at tactics in abstraction. The individual quality and abilities of the players must always be considered. The theoretically appropriate response to a tactical problem is utterly irrelevant if the players available are simply incapable of properly implementing it. In those situations, a team may be better off just playing to their strengths while an astute manager with a nuanced understanding of the cause and effect of different patterns of play will be able to come up with alternative solutions.


An attacking pattern results from applying the tactical principles through the use of various techniques. The precise manner in which a manager goes about encouraging different patterns can vary. Some may drill meticulously structured patterns of play in which players have highly specific instructions and expectations. This is typically the case among more authoritarian managers who have little tolerance for improvisation. Others may take a more loosely structured approach in which players are instructed in various techniques and tactical principles with a view towards allowing them to develop their own tactical solutions. This is more often the case among managers for whom improvisation is a key principle.

In either case, even among players permitted a greater degree of freedom in play, the key principles embraced by the team as a whole will tend to naturally lead to specific patterns being used. 1v1 duels, for example, tend to result from a strong emphasis on penetration, depth and width. Depth and width are relied upon to create space for individual attackers and isolate them against individual defenders. Penetration serves an important function at both ends of the play. First, it encourages deeper players to quickly supply attackers with the ball before the opposition defence can close ranks around them, and second, it ensures attackers receiving those passes are encouraged to quickly take on their man.

Through ball patterns are a product of mobility and penetration. Simply, mobility encourages players to attempt runs into space behind the defence while penetration encourages players to supply those runners with defence-splitting passes. Width is also helpful as it ensures players are placed to supply angled through passes from wide positions in addition to potentially stretching the defence to open gaps for runs and through passes from the centre.

Simple overloading runs result from encouraging forward mobility from multiple players in a particular part of the pitch, either down a flank or through the middle. The idea here is that you want multiple attackers making deep, successive runs to quickly overwhelm a defender before the defence as a whole can react and neutralise the overload threat. Width is also helpful as it can help stretch the defence and isolate the individual defenders being targeted by the overload pattern.


Aggressive, energetic midfielders and a pair of strikers are a lethal combination on the break.

Break patterns are unique since they are, by definition, based on transition play and tied more closely to certain defensive principles. Specifically, pressure is needed to recover the ball in a manner that allows the first defender to quickly get past his man as he goes from being the first defender to the first attacker. Breaks can occur in a less aggressive defence if the ball is intercepted and the opposition is recklessly sending players forward, but if a team wishes to proactively prompt dangerous breaks, pressure is key.

Additionally, once the ball is won, having multiple players immediately offering depth in attack is helpful to ensure there are players ahead of the ball dragging defenders out of position and offering options for a pass. This requires discouraging certain players from consolidating too readily by instructing them to stay forward in attacking positions. Using more forwards and attacking midfielders will see more players positioned to break effectively in addition to ensuring players are positioned to apply pressure in positions where recovering possession can prompt a break.

Moving on to the more complex patterns, switch of play patterns result from an emphasis on width, depth, possession and mobility on the flanks. The idea here is that the attack will look to push defenders deep and wide but not attempt to force the issue in the midst of a compact defence. Instead, they must be willing to invite pressure out wide before playing a deep pass back to unmarked midfielders (or, in some cases, central defenders) to allow the switch to occur. A cutback pattern basically stems from the same principles though here it is helpful to encourage mobility on the part of central midfielders to promote the late runs that a cutback pattern looks to utilise.

Combination patterns primarily rely upon providing ample support around the ball. Promoting mobility around the ball can also be helpful, though a coach must be careful here to ensure that mobility is used to serve support and doesn’t leave the first attacker isolated by teammates making premature runs ahead of play. Specifically, it is helpful to allow for mobility in the form of greater freedom of movement to allow second attackers to evade their markers.

Overlap patterns, on the other hand, look to take advantage of exactly those sort of deep runs ahead of play. In this case, it is helpful to emphasise support on the part of players who will initially be in advanced positions while emphasising mobility on the part of players who will initially be in deep positions. The idea is that the more advanced players will sit back to offer themselves for simple passes while the deep players look to burst forward as the advanced players receive the ball and, ideally, draw defenders onto them.

Third man combination patterns are similar to standard combinations in that it is vital to provide support around the ball, though in this case, there must also be mobility from players initially positioned away from the ball to encourage the run of the third man. An emphasis on penetration via passing is also helpful to ensure the first attacker will look to supply a player who will likely represent a riskier option. The idea here is that defenders are drawn towards the first attacker and his support before a third attacker makes an incisive run into any space exposed as a result.

Finally, rotational/switch run patterns result from a heavy emphasis on mobility. Players must be able to move freely and alternate positions with teammates. To aid this, it is also helpful to encourage support on the part of a centre forward while encouraging the wide midfielders or wide forwards to forgo width by coming inside into a more compact forward line (meaning the wide defenders will normally be relied upon to provide width). As with any pattern in which attackers effectively swap positions, having the attackers in close proximity will increase the likelihood that the pattern actually creates a marking dilemma for the opposition defence.


Link to post
Share on other sites

The terminology used isn't exactly the same, but here's a flow chart from Liverpool's academy that might give you a better sense of what a tactically intelligent player's decision process should look like:


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...