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The dreaded mid-season adjustment (aka "How to be the better team"?)


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In my massive Journeyman save (200+ leagues in 104 countries), I took over a team in a downloaded Honduran League (after resigning from Wigan because I spent the entire time I was there, including the summer transfer window under embargo due to a pending takeover. 4 months and couldn't even hire staff or arrange loans; the takeover completed within a few weeks of my resigning...).

I have dramatically over-performed in the first half of the season, playing a simple 4-4-2 that largely scores on the counter against teams that underestimate the speed of the my strikers. The strikers are literally the only strength of my team, in that I have 4 of them that are good to great for the top level of Honduras and range from all around good to blazing fast without much skill. I vary the striker roles depending on the player although usually both Attacking duties (I don't have any that are skillful enough to be deep-lying or support duties and want them pressing against the center backs), and the wide mids vary a bit depending on player but are always set to mark the outside defender on their side (which has dramatically helped with overloads on the wings). Nothing fancy at all, but accentuated what my team did well, especially as a relegation candidate that other teams attacked.

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But in December, teams began playing more cautiously (as I was favored home or away by this point) and while I was still largely grinding out results, the goals slowed down. After 12/31 (when I have heard that teams adjust their perceptions of other teams in the league), the next team I played (admittedly in 9th place out of 10 teams, but they hadn't played me like this before) went with the most catenaccio formation that ever catenaccio'd. And dramatically outplayed me, holding me to 4 heavily contested shots on target while scoring on both of their on target shots, getting a higher xG and deservedly winning the game (higher possession and passing %, despite me spending most of the game camped in their half). And these weren't breakaways where they caught me out of position; they slowly and carefully passed their way up the field to the edge of my box, carefully passed it around and eventually hit someone running through into the box from 18 yards out to either score directly or send a short cross over to volley. And this is despite Extremely urgent pressing, Get Stuck In and counter pressing once I realized that I wasn't getting the ball at all if I sat back and needed to try something (anything) to generate some pressure. Look at this formation they played; it was like kicking the ball at a brick wall over and over again, it always come right back out.

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I don't think the AI has "cracked" my formation or anything, clearly when I can't play on the counter and have to break into packed boxes (in the last match, the other team literally had 10 players in the box while I randomly tried through balls and crosses from just outside their area with virtually no effect), my team just lacks the skill (and I have no really good creative mids or even good passers).

 

So what to do? Thinking about it, I only see three options:

1) This was just one of those days, stick with what got you here.

I don't think this is going to work; the results had already slowed down, and if I can't beat or at least outplay one of the worst teams in the league at home when they play like this, this current setup just isn't going to cut it. We got to 1st place with fast counter attacks, but against a deep lying opponent who is happy to hold the ball and do virtually nothing with it, we are completely negated. The longer they held the ball and frustrated us, the more confident they seemed to get and the more my team seemed to snatch at chances and just randomly kick the ball into the area.

2) Really own being the better team, switch to a top heavy formation with high line, heavy counter pressing and try to score off turnovers.

I don't really see this as an option for our team as we aren't very fast or physical (especially in defense), so a high line is just dangerous for us. And it would emphasize short passing and technical skills on the attack which we frankly don't possess. Plus Gegenpress in the climate of Honduras (when using the Realistic Weather mod) is probably not the greatest plan; we already suffer poor condition and fatigue even with heavy rotation.

3) Change formation to something better suited for soaking pressure, sit back and make the opponent come to us so we have space to counter.

This seems like the best option as I think about; part of the issue with our current 4-4-2 is that it's just not that great at playing passively (or pressing high for that matter), at least not without Team Instructions that I don't use much. Our defenders are slow and frankly not that great defending on the ground or in the air so they need more help than a 4-4-2 can provide. On the other hand, our strikers are far and away the best part of the team, so I probably want to get as many of them on the pitch as possible. So I'm thinking maybe a true old school 4-3-3 with 3 out and out strikers (Pressing Forwards mostly) and a DM (BWM) to help defend the front of the box and keep them from casually retaining possession there. Defend Wide since the middle of the pitch will have a lot of bodies already, sit deep, tight mark and play direct to the 3 strikers. Something like this:

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Assuming anyone makes it this far, curious if anyone has other ideas (or a better formation to accomplish the pressure soaking/direct counter idea).

Edited by woolymuffler
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If the idea of your first tactic (442) is to play a simple direct counter-attacking football, I would only switch the LWM's duty to support and the LB's role to WB on support (or automatic). 

In terms of instructions, perhaps slightly narrower attacking width to put more focus on the 2 strikers attacking space quickly and potentially also more direct passing. 

The second tactic (4123 narrow) unfortunately seems to be in need of a lot more tweaking (IMHO).

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Facing those sorts of formations suck, but I'm not sure the best choice of countering it is using three strikers. The space to exploit is out wide, but going narrow is committing to where they are strongest. Another thing you can consider when facing parked buses is that slowing the tempo down can be beneficial. Just some things to consider.

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I agree with @NotSoSpecialOne, that narrow 433 would play right into the hands of the 3-6-1 you unfortunately encountered. 

I think in future you should attempt to create overloads down the flanks. Focus play down the flanks, overload the wingbacks and get crosses/cutbacks in there 

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This has happened in my Sampdoria Serie B save, early in the season I'm taking teams apart by 4s and 5s, and then the 'smaller' teams adapt and play this cautious bank of 7 with the wingbacks and 2 strikers, where they begin to counter my positive, narrow 4-3-1-2 formation...and I start drawing and losing games, fair enough. 

So I switch to a wide 4-4-2, with attacking wingers and CM/s + CM/d central midfielders, whilst filling those spaces they counter attack into with inverted fullbacks, and it seems to work.

I have to say that in this version of the ME I have a lot of joy with BBM on the cutbacks for the from wide areas.

I'm also, for the first time, trying to limit the number of TI's I give in favour of PI's, letting my mentality dictate the rest.

Edited by rich10
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Thanks for the feedback all! (the last time I checked, this had been sinking down the forum without comment, so I though maybe the fact that I was basically rambling without asking a clear question was dooming the thread to oblivion).

@Experienced DefenderI thought about just tweaking the 4-4-2, but I was already struggling to stop attacks up the middle with only two MCs and I had just sold my best MC destroyer (he was in decline at 31, only played in half my matches due to fatigue from international duty and I got $250,000 for him which is LOT of money in Honduras). I had been engaging in shootouts the first half of the season, which is fun but stress-inducing (including a 5-5 derby draw where we equalized in the 89th minute after being down by up to 3 goals and conceding 3 penalties (two converted)). My DCs are really not good and I just don't trust them any more without significant cover from MCs, even on this level; the fast(ish) ones are weak and poor in the air, the ones with jumping reach are weak and slow. Not ideal and I felt like they needed more help in front of them, because if our forwards had an off game, we lost.

@NotSoSpecialOneI definitely am playing wider to stretch the defense, but I have actually increased the tempo a bit to get the ball to my forwards faster. I thought about trying to retain possession and suffocate the other team, but we already had poor possession stats and I just didn't feel like we had the technical midfielders required to hold onto the ball. I do that late in a match I'm leading of course, but honestly it just seems to increase the pressure on us without noticeably improving our possession, while cutting down on our chances because we aren't getting the ball to the forwards with space to run. To help mitigate the narrowness in attack, I have the outside pressing forwards set to "play wider" as well as specifically marking the opponent's fullbacks. They only mark intermittently, but they do it enough to help out my fullbacks and keep them from being overlapped as much. I do find that the running channels hard coded movement for PF(A), narrows the attack a bit more than I would like, but it's actually been pretty effective. Probably more to do with the level of the Honduran league than any real merit of the formation.

@LHurlzInterestingly, I am actually getting more crossed goals now than I was with the 4-4-2. If the initial lightning counter-attack fails and the ball comes back out, my FBs push up the pitch and send in deep crosses with 3 strikers in the box. I didn't expect or plan for this, but it's been working. With the 4-4-2, my outside mids would get to the byline and send in a cross, but half the time there was no-one in the box or a single heavily marked striker.

 

I've now played four matches with the new formation and it's worked better than I expected (so far). With my 3 "star player for the Honduran league" level strikers, even if one or two of them have an off day, the third usually goes off. I'm not thrilled with the amount of time the opponent spends trying to break into my penalty box, but the the DM destroyer plus two MCs pressing heavily have helped cut down on the long shots or casual through balls from the 18 yard line. And I felt like I had to lure them out to make space for the forwards to run, but needed a formation that could withstand the pressure better.

And when we attack, we have been quite lethal. Either the forwards score on a breakaway, often assisting each other, or the ball comes back out, the FBs push up and receive the ball and send in a deep cross that we head in. I had a stuttering start (including a 3-3 draw we lead 3-1 in the 90th minute as I had the wrong player at DM for that match and my backup GK let in two long shots late), but once it I got the right DM destroyer in place, we are getting scores similar to the first half of the season, despite low possession numbers.

Again, I think this says more about the level of my opponents than anything about this tactic being great, but it seems to suit this team at this moment, If I didn't have 3 "star player" strikers (for this level) I never would have even thought to try this, but if I was going to lose anyway, I may as well have my best players out there and make it interesting. Any good team would just annihilate this tactic, as it wouldn't stress their defense that much and they would actually make the possession near my penalty area pay off. And I have a match against my bogey team (2nd in league) coming up, so I feel like the tactic may get undone there, although they are a pacy counter-attack team themselves, so maybe my packed defense will slow them down.

 

First match with new tactic against lower table team; not pretty but got the job done late (with 37% possession!)

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Second match with new tactic; were cruising to victory and just absolutely threw away the points. Furious with my backup keeper (who had been starting after my first choice let in 4 out of 4 in the first half against bogey team)

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Third match with new tactic against 3rd place team (derby rival who led the league until I overtook them late in first half of the season and have much better players than us); the first goal was an unexpected direct free kick goal (first of the season and scored by my DM destroyer) but the rest were textbook counters. This is the team that I had my epic 5-5 derby draw with earlier in the season (still playing 4-4-2), spending most of the second half Very Attacking with basically Gegenpress (once I was down 4-1 and the 4th penalty of the game had been given between the two teams, I figured what was the worst that could happen staying as far from my penalty area as possible?):

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Away against the last place team (the last time I played a low ranking team, at home no less, I lost and was outplayed). I was actually losing at the half but guessed the correct magic talk to inspire the entire team and just slaughtered them second half (4 goals in 7 minutes while still inspired by the half-time talk). The tactic can't really claim credit for that although it did have the players in the right place to score the goals I suppose.

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Edited by woolymuffler
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Well, it looks like the party is over. After scraping a 4-3 away victory over another derby rival, the striker that really makes the whole thing work (Central TM(A), has scored 8 goals in the last two matches) is out for 4 to 6 weeks. So I no longer have three "star strikers" to overwhelm the opponent and I think the experiment is over. I do have a fourth striker who is certainly not bad, but I don't think it will be the same. It's a shame, I was curious if this massively unbalanced formation could actually win the playoffs. I'm switching to a very similar 41221, which just replaces the outside strikers with outside attacking mids. I won't even need to change many instructions, although I imagine the deep crosses into 3 strikers in the box are going to be missed.

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My tactics when playing a team that's parking the bus is to force them to play the entire game in their half and defend the entire width of the pitch. Bump your LOE and DLine both up one notch to play the game more on the front foot while keeping good compactness. Then I go to maximum width and check be more creative (or extra creative freedom, I can't get to FM at the moment to remember what it's called!). The idea is we're going to play the game in your half, stretch you out as much as possible and try to create gaps between your defenders that our attackers will take advantage of and our midfielders extra creative license will exploit. I'd also drop more direct passing for mixed or shorter passing, we want to keep the ball and knock it around instead of pumping it long to our strikers who are going to be constantly outnumbered

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