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The Never-ending Quest for Tactical Balance


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Intro

Recently I've read back some pieces on the amazing Ajax CL run to the semis back in 18/19. It inspired me to do an Ajax save and recreate their success. To clarify, I'm still mostly playing FM17 and I’ll use it for this game. It’ll suit me well as I have 2 seasons to build-up and develop my squad to be able to compete in the CL as well as the real-life version. 

 

Tactical pragmatism 

I believe all will agree that the football world is full of cliches and that at least half of them are wrongly used. One of my personal irritation is the usage of the term 'tactically pragmatic' when it comes to describing a manager and/or his brand of football. For most being 'tactically pragmatic' equals to 'being defensive'. How many times have we heard the that Big Sam, Mourinho, Hodgson, Moyes et all are tactically pragmatic just because more often than not they approach a game by first and foremost focusing on not losing. Well, to me this isn't tactically pragmatic.

To me, pragmatism is a simple concept and it doesn't apply only to football. But to stick only to the football world, the way I understand it is the following - to use the available players and construct tactics that get the best out of them. Whether you do this with the view to be more attacking or more defensive is a matter of preferences and/or needs for any given game.

In contrast, dogmatism or being dogmatic (another phrase that can be used here is idealistic or 'having a set philosophy’) is simply the opposite - no matter the available resources, you go for certain brand of football. Or to say it differently - you force certain tactics on your team even if some/most players aren't really suited to it. Again, whether this means you go for more attacking or more defensive approach is something entirely different. 

To me, the likes of Big Sam, Hodgson etc are far more tactically dogmatic than actually tactically pragmatic. To an extend this applies to Mourinho too. Most of the managers that are being labelled as tactically pragmatic are in reality dogmatic; they just go for the more defensive end of the spectrum.

Remember how Hodgson tried to have his Liverpool side play as his Fulham side? Well, this isn't tactically pragmatic, this is being dogmatic to the fullest. If he was really pragmatic, he would've acknowledged Liverpool had superior and different type of players compared to his previous team Fulham and would've adapted his approach. But he stuck to his core principles and just tried to force them at Liverpool - he showed himself as dogmatic as Guardiola, just in a different way and the end not being to have a free-flowing attack as Guardiola, but to make Liverpool play in a very rigid and defensive 4-4-2. 

In the virtual world of FM, I'm the type of manager who is the absolute pragmatic. I have certain preferred formation, styles of play and even type of players, but first and foremost I analyse what my current team is capable and not capable to do. Based on this I then decide on formation and style of players that my players can execute best. I then devise at least 2-3 different tactics to have us as tactically flexible as possible to be able to suit the different challenges we’re likely to face domestically and in Europe. All this with the main aim to win matches; and win as much as possible of them.

Over time I might build towards one of my preferred formations and/or styles of play. But this might not be necessary if my current team is able to play well and win enough to be able to compete for everything available with the currently devised plan (even if it’s not only of my preferred). To me this is what being tactically pragmatic truly means and I try to recreate it in FM. 

 

Tactical Balance

For many, including me, tactical balance is the ‘holy grail’ in football. It means that everything is perfectly balanced and your team is truly excelling in everything. Not having a single weak spot.

But most, again including me, will readily confirm such thing is in reality so hard to achieve, as it’s bordering impossible. Remember Rafa Benitez and his famous ‘blanket’ expression - that football is like a short blanket and if you pull it up to cover your face, your feet will now be uncovered (or something to this effect? This is a perfect example of the never-ending struggles associated with the quest for the tactical balance. But it doesn’t stop anyone - or those really thriving for it - to search it.

For me, and in the FM reality, tactical balance is really key and I’m willing to sacrifice preferred formations, styles of play and even star players in exchange of achieving as much tactical balance as possible.

Over time I’ve recognised that almost always this is impossible to achieve at once; or with only one fixated tactical approach (again, the short blanket example). So it’s better to have set of separate tactics to suit the different challenges. Especially in the modern football, where oppositions are so different and tactically flexible too, it’s enough if you’re able to counteract each different opposition with the suitable tactical approach. It might not be suitable for another opponent and it’s fine - you don’t need to use it there. You just change to another set of your tactical pack. The so called ‘horses for courses’ approach.

It’s the combination of all these different formations and/or styles of play that will give you the craved tactical balance. It’s just achieved in doses, in parts. Which is why over time I’ve come to realise that being tactically flexible/pragmatic is even more important and practically useful.

 

Squad overview and initial tactical thoughts

The first impression of my Ajax team in FM17 is a simple one - I have plethora of talented players but most of them are still very young, meaning they're currently underdeveloped and lacking in some/most areas. Long-term this isn’t a major issue as over time it should rectify itself out - as players start to develop etc. But for the moment, this is something I need to account for.

A bigger issue that will never fix itself automatically is the rather imbalanced nature of the squad; mainly in terms of profile of players, if not strictly positionally. There are two main ways to overcome this:

a) transfers - buy players who will increase the tactical versatility and overall balance of the squad;

b) account for the available type of players and current imbalances and use tactics that will get the best out of the available strengths and mitigate for the weaknesses. 

The first approach won't be possible for now. I always play with the option that disables transfers in the first transfer window (to increase the realism of the game). Meaning that at least for the first part of the season, I’ll have to made do using the second approach.

Going through the initial Ajax squad and this were my initial thoughts.

Starting from the back, I have good squad depth at CBs but I don’t have attacking FBs. Only Sinkgraven is decent as attacking LB but at RB Tete and Veltman (whom I view more as CB but will fill in often enough at RB given the lack of other options) aren’t really skilled going forward. Most of my CBs are able to play LB but they are equivalent of Veltman - CBs able to fill in at FB but play no more than a linking/supporting job from there.

It won’t be an Ajax team if the midfield zone isn’t full of capable ball-players. The issue here is the opposite of the defence - with the exception of Riedewald, there aren’t any ball-winners. And while he is competent as a purely defensive DM/CM, even he is more technical and less of a pure destroyer. In time he should develop as a Carrick-like figure who will defend mostly through intelligence and not via running hard and tackling around.

Schone is my best playmaker in terms of technical abilities and mental attributes but he lacks the physicality and mobility. This might not have been a big problem in that I could’ve devised a plan with him being the main conductor from deep but his main issue is the low stamina. This means whatever role in whatever approach, I decide for him, he won’t be able to play it more than 60 mins and for sure I won’t be able to use him in every game (despite his high natural fitness).

The likes of de Jong and van de Beek are obviously talented but for now can’t be entrusted with too important roles. Serero is the reverse Schone - inferior in everything but his physical attributes.

Going forward, the main issue is that I have only wide men who are the type of inside forwards. But the main issue is that all of them are either too selfish (low team work) and/or not creative and/or intelligent enough, so suit only IF/a roles. At least for now as I hope in a 2-3 years, most of them could develop and become a more rounded versions of themselves. But all of them are also too young and simply not clinical enough to build the whole side around them being the main finishers.

The centre-forward zone is problematic too. Dolberg is obviously a player with very bright future but as of now - and especially at 18yo - is too raw in all aspects to build the side around him too. Cassierra is an inferior option.

That leaves us to my two key men - Ziyech and Klaassen. Both are developed enough to be an important figures but the issue is they have diametrical abilities. Ziyech is my most creative player in terms of the 4 key playmaking skills - vision, passing, technique and flair. But he isn’t the most intelligent (low anticipation, composure and decisions) and is simply too selfish to be the main playmaker/creator. With his low finishing and off the ball he can’t be an attacking #10 too.

Klaassen is the opposite - good mental and teamwork, far less creative but with skills and traits as a proper false 10/attacking #8.

So, how do I combine all this pieces and make them a well functioning team able to win domestically and be competitive in Europe?

 

Phase 1: 4-1-4-1 and full focus on Klaassen

Managing Ajax means my main aim will be to win most domestic games, for which I need to play a style of play that produces goals. The question -  how to do that when 90% of my attacking players aren’t capable (yet at least) attackers and/or goal-scorers? The answer - build around my best attacker.

From my initial analysis, it was clear Klaassen is my best goal-scorer. The combination of Anticipation 15, Off the ball 16, Decisions 16, Work rate 16 (Bravery 16 and Balance 14 also complement this set of skills too) in addition to his traits to ‘Get into Opposition Area’ and ‘Moves into Channels’ means  he is someone who can be trusted to spot and move into goal-scoring positions on a regular basis. Finishing 13 and Technique 12 might be a bit too low for a clinical finisher but I’m confident his overall intelligence - underlined by Composure 15 - and somewhat simpler approach to football (Flair 10) will be enough for him to put away most of his chances. And to be fair, Eredivisie defences aren’t really top quality.

My initial thought was to make him the focal point of my side in a simple 4-4-1-1 approach with him as a proper false 10/shadow striker. But then I realised he isn’t mobile enough (Acceleration 12, Agility 13 and Pace 13) and able to get out off tight spaces (Dribbling 12, Flair 10) to play in the most congested space on the pitch - Zone 14.

A Shadow Striker role will expect far more mobility and dribbling (and while being primarily attacking player, the SS role expect a big creative contribution too) from him than he is able to provide. So there was no point trying it at all. The alternative was a simpler AM/a role but again my concern was using him from a #10 position as per the above.

To be perfectly sure I played one friendly with him as a AM/a in both 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations in each half but I wasn’t pleased at all. In the 4-4-1-1 he needed to be far more involved for him to be a true focal point (which is why this formation suits the SS role but he doesn’t suit it at all). While in the 4-2-3-1, the presence of advanced wide men made him even less involved.

My initial thinking that he needs space to be created for him and for him to move into it relatively unchallenged was confirmed. If I can’t do that with him playing as the 10 and he can’t play out wide or upfront, the only remaining alternative was him starting from deeper but becoming the main attacker, the one who will finish most of the attacks. Therefore a Mourinho-esque, mid-2000s, 4-1-4-1 with him as a CM/a was born:

1548115533_4-1-4-1Ws.thumb.png.df0992eba43a61de1eb3389907a2dc42.png

 

This formation and overall approach suited the nature of my squad as of now. It had Dolberg as a simple DLF/s who is tasked to drop in and vacate the FW zone; the wide men were supposed to stay wide and stretch the play, dragging the opposition wider to create space for the central trio (2x CMs and the DLF).

With support role, the wingers won’t turn into primary attackers who would  interfere and take up the space meant to be created for Klaassen. In addition, while they were used in a winger role, they were naturally inverted (i.e all of them played on their ‘wrong’ side), so they were coming infield to combine and overload often enough too.

The back 4 and the DM provided the cover to let the front 5 shine in attack.

It was a simple approach but it was working efficiently. We won the first 10 league games and qualified for the CL group stage. Klaassen scored 10 league goals in that period too, so all was working as expected too.

However, there were some issues too. The main focus and biggest strength of this formation and approach - making Klaassen the focal point and the player the rest of the team worked for tactically - was also its main weakness. In some games, the lack of variety and flexibility in attack was clear and there were times where we won mostly because of the inferior opposition, not because we outplayed them and truly deserved to win. If the opposition was too defensive and they somewhat minimised the space for Klaassen, the only other avenue for scoring goals were through individual magic and thanks to opposition errors. And neither is a sign of a well-working team. Especially if I want to overachieve in the CL.

In addition, while this approach got the most out of Klaassen, it didn’t really let anyone else shine. While for most of the team this wasn’t a problem as they were still rookies not really deserving a more prominent roles for now, I felt Ziyech’s contribution was well below par. As a CM/s he was supposed to be a disciplined ‘jack of all trades’, Klaassen’s sidekick.

But Ziyech isn’t really a selfless box-to-box midfielder, he is the complete opposite - a selfish creator. A couple of times I tried him as a AP/s but while this increased his involvement, it further showed me that he isn’t someone whom you want to funnel most of the play going forward due to his selfish nature and average intelligence. Several times he ruined promising attacks due to going solo and either dribbling or shooting from range (he had some goals and assists too but even they confirmed my concerns and were mostly from set-pieces or due to poor opposition).

After a while I tried to add a bit of variety by starting using Singkraven as a FB/a at LB with the LM becoming WM/s (with de Jong preferred here). It did work out fine enough as there was extra midfield overload and more consistent overlapping down the left. But again, if Klaassen couldn’t find room to get up and receive the ball into goal-scoring situation, the team was mostly blunted.

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Phase 2: Klaassen’s injury and the switch to 4-3-3

Still, I was content enough that despite the visible tactical issues, it seemed we would do fine this first season. We have already secured a nice league lead and were doing well enough in the CL (alongside Barcelona, Man City and RB Salzburg).

But as often happens in football, **** happens out of nowhere. Klaassen got injured at the end of October for around 2 months. He would’ve missed the remaining 12 games (in all comps) until the winter break. What made this a huge issue is that I didn’t have a proper replacement for him. As mentioned already, Ziyech lacks the required attacking skills, while van de Beek was simply a very underdeveloped Klaassen-lite version.

Plus, I thought this was the perfect chance to try something new and see if a different approach might be able to get us at least similar to the initial 4-1-4-1 and Klaassen-led tactics outcome.

After removing Klaasssen from the picture, the key point of my squad was the lack of a reliable goal-scorer. In such situations my approach is simple - instead of having one key, focal point, divide the goal-scoring burden among the rest. One of the best formation for this is the 4-3-3 due to its natural ability to promote inter-positional interplay, overlapping patterns and merging of roles; all this on top of additional possession fluidity and increased passing and pressing.

I didn’t have the players  (in terms of current skills and abilities) to pull it off perfectly but I thought it was worth the risk, more so as I couldn’t think of another possible formation and/or approach that would suit my underlined aim to boss games and win most of them.

4-3-3.thumb.png.08da6e34cd2f484256a93768f3ac94fe.png

 

The above is what I came up. Style-wise it adopted a more patient approach to give the deeper players time to push on and join the attacks; while still having enough cutting edge and not be too passive.

The main idea was to have enough versatility and different points of attacks, runners coming from all angles to compensate for the lack of proper goal-scorer. Then have Ziyech, now in an AP/a role, as the de-facto focal point in build-up and attacking transitions with him given increased freedom to create (attacking mentality and naturally higher creative freedom due to team shape and role). In addition I was hoping him to become more attacking and involved will lead to increase in his production of goals and assists. Previously I needed him as more of a link-up player, leaving both the final chance creation and goal-scoring to others. But his low team work was really harmful on this front. Now, the idea was to have him as our main creator with extra freedom to attack too.

The benefits were clear - this 4-3-3 has indeed increased our overall fluency and flexibility. In contrast to the initial 4-1-4-1, the pressing was more consistent too, which in turn led to our greater control over the games in and out of possession. In turn this led to more chances to attack with our increased versatility.

The problem was the expected one - we lacked clinical finishers to finish off what we created. We scored some good goals, after some sublime attacking moves; but we missed several big chances too. True, this didn’t prove too harmful results-wise but this was mostly down to the opposition, especially domestically. We finished the year well on top in the league and even somehow lucked our way out of the CL group (Man City should’ve beat us easily in the last, deciding game, at the Etihad, but some big misses and the posts helped us to a 1-1 draw).

All in all, I wasn’t convinced this was the path forward, not until most of the players develop and become more consistent and rounded in the next 2-3 years (at least).

 

Phase 3: the return of Klaassen and the move to 4-2-1-3

Klaassen was back from his injury at the start of February. By then I was quite convinced the above fluid 4-3-3 in’t the way forward but wanted to try it with when Klaassen was available to be 100% sure. I played him as the CM/s for 2-3 games and while he did his job well enough, I didn’t see anything too different to change my initial feelings towards the system.

During that time we lost to Real M in the CL 1/8 final and with the title all but confirmed officially, I thought it’s time to spend the remaining around 2 months in the league to experiment for the future.

Obviously, with Klaassen back, I could’ve gone back to the initial 4-1-4-1 but I thought there was no point doing this. I already knew what the system can provide and unless I secure a proper replacement for him, the system will be always heavily dependant on his availability. So another injury to him and I’d have been back to scratching my head what to do.

I thought about using some back 3 formation but neither a 3-5-1-1/3-4-3 diamond or any 3-4-2-1 variant appealed to me as I lacked quality and well-rounded wing-backs. So any back 3 with my current full-backs/wing-backs would require some balancing, which will inevitably end up with the same dilemmas/issues I was having by now.

After some pondering I decided to try a 4-2-1-3 approach. Earlier I was thinking along the 4-2-3-1 lines and using Klaassen as a false 10 but his usage as the CM/s in the 4-3-3 led me to the 4-2-1-3 variant which initially I wasn’t even considering. My idea was to blend a typical 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 into one, hence the term 4-2-1-3.

This was because I liked the overall better control and pressing of the 4-3-3. And that I already ruled out using Klaassen as a false 10 type of player.

4-2-1-3.thumb.png.7822d89337bace01aab2cb0468e38e12.png

 

Here the idea was to retain the front 3 of the 4-3-3 but split the midfield unit in a way that would still be the platform for the front 3 but will provide a bit more direct attacking support. Using Klaassen as AM/s was precisely to put him higher up the pitch but in a still supporting/linking role. Instead of him being the first to run forward and get beyond the CF (as SS or AM/a), he would’ve been a bit deeper and help provide for the front 3, then make some late runs (thanks to his attributes and traits).

It was immediately clear from the first 1-2 matches that most of the things were working. While the players still kept missing some chances, we started convert more chances too. Part of the reason was very simple - the players have already started develop and improved their skills. But the other reason was the change of Dolberg’s role.

So far, in both the initial 4-1-4-1 and the subsequent 4-3-3, I’ve used him as the DLF/s as his role was mostly to drop in and move in a way to create space for others. By February he had already started growing and developing and the shift to 4-2-1-3 was the perfect time for me to try him in a more attacking, and in the meantime demanding, CF/s role. In contrast to the DLF/s, while still a support role, it’s more attacking and gives him the freedom to decide whether and how to move and whether to be the supporting or the spearheading player. And he actually thrived in it, getting into a run of 12 goals in the last 10 league games (i.e. since the switch to 4-2-1-3).

Also, the change from a Fluid 4-3-3 to a Structured 4-2-1-3 resulted in a small, but still notable, redistribution of the front 3 roles with the CF/s now more of a focal point and the left IF/a becoming less of the direct attacking threat he was previously.

Another reason for which I deemed the move to 4-2-1-3 a success, was that while individually Klaassen didn’t shine as much as in his time as CM/a in the 4-1-4-1, he helped the team achieve that extra control and versatility that was clear in the 4-3-3. As I mentioned earlier, the 4-3-3 led to increased pressing and overall game control, something that was not so evident in the initial 4-1-4-1. Now, while the team was playing in a 4-2-1-3 that on paper is more direct and naturally doesn’t lend to the same possession control as any 4-3-3, it actually further refined that control.

The explanation is that the advanced #8 does a CM/s role but from slightly ahead. In contrast to any #10 roles (be it the playmaking ones or the false 10 ones), he is participating in all phases. While we were playing in a 4-2-1-3 with Klaassen as the de-facto #10, during defensive transitions and when defending, he would drop in very deep and help out (which was further underlined by his attributes too). This was useful defensively but also when going the attacking transitions as his deeper position would lead to greater passing options to play out and link up play in addition to the freedom for the front 3 to peel off forward without sacrificing a valuable link between the zones.

With all of the above, it’s easy to imagine why and how we really seemed unstoppable in those 10-games stretch and I can say the football we played was the best for the whole season.

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The Ziyech issue

But there was one major issue - what to do with Ziyech. As one of my supposedly best players, I kind of felt obliged to find room for him even if on some key levels he just didn’t suit the team.

In some matches I used him as the AM/s but his different profile meant he played the role differently to Klaassen. He was still mostly going solo and while he showed admirable work rate defensively (thanks to Work Rate 15), his lack of intelligence and low team work was really hurting us during the transitions and in the final 3rd.

He could’t play as part of the midfield pair, so the alternative was to use him on the flanks. He could play an IF/s role from the right but as I don’t have attacking RB and my first choice defensive CM/DM is left-footed (Riedewald) it would have shuffled too much my current structure; and for the worse. And Ziyech isn’t capable to play as the IF/a I’m using on the right.

Using him as IF/s on the left wasn’t an adequate option either. Him being left-footed, I wasn’t sure he would roam infield enough. And using him in a typical winger role would be problematic with an attacking LB in behind. The only way to make sure he would cut/roam infield enough was to play him as AP/s but this would’ve congest the centre and make either him, the AM/s or the CM/s redundant.

In short, with him - and no matter the role - the whole team’s outlook would’ve changed for the worse.

 

Phase 4: Ziyech as a proper #10 in a 4-2-3-1

Then came the season break and during the summer preparation, I decided to make one last try to fit him in somehow before making a final decision on him.

After thinking about Ziyech I thought perhaps his best role, given his strengths and limitations, is some sort of an attacking creator - not too attacking as a pure false 10/SS role; but not too focused on merely linking and supporting others as an AM/s or AP/s would do. I remembered how using him as the AP/a in the 4-3-3 brought some good moments out of him, so I decided to take it further and make him the central focal point in a purer 4-2-3-1.

Earlier I talked about how I merged 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 to create the 4-2-1-3 with the key being that the #10, as AM/s, was more like another #8 but in an advanced position. Now I thought going the other way and increase the importance of the AM by changing it from AM/s to  AP/a with the hope this would suit Ziyech even more than the same role but from a CM position in the 4-3-3.

4-2-3-1.thumb.png.d39544d67cc790415f17ca3e152f919f.png

 

As talked before, the 4-2-1-3 proved very solid with Klaassen playing an hybrid role as the AM/s to participate in all phases and bring some many things to the overall balance. I was expecting a drop off in overall control and stability but was hoping a potential increase in Ziyech’s influence and getting more out of him would compensate for this.

At one hand, I was right about the increase in Ziyech’s importance. Using him as the de-facto chief creator and sort of secondary attacker, did indeed increase his overall involvement. Some passages of play with him having a central role in the final 3rd were really good to watch. But as a whole, I can’t say he really bossed games and was the driving force of our team.

But at the other hand, I was wrong about the drop off in overall balance and stability - in that I’ve underestimated how badly it’ll effect the rest of the team. The first thing that was clear was how Ziyech and Dolberg started to kind of duplicate each other. As an AP/a and CF/s role, respectively, they were mostly roaming into the same space (that central square between the lines) and doing the same thing from there (dropping in and picking up the ball and either dribbling forward or looking for someone to pass to, before making an off the ball run in and around the box).

Initially I thought that it might actually be a good thing to have this duplication of roles as it might further overload the opponent. Sometimes it did happen and the two of them even combined between each other well; but this was the exception, and not the rule. So instead of becoming a problem for the opponent, this duplication made my team worse. Dolberg was barely visible and a shadow of what he achieved in the same CF/s role in the 4-2-1-3 in the last 10 games of the previous season.

The second thing was that it somewhat ‘broke’ my team - previously with Klaassen as the AM/s, there was natural and easy link between everyone in all phases. And given his attributes, Klaassen just made everything tick over in a very efficient way.

In contrast, Ziyech was just too direct and too selfish in most of his actions to play such a role. This was to be expected given his attacking role and the combination of low intelligence and low teamwork; but this didn’t make it any less displeasing. Klaassen, now as the CM/s, mainly compensated for this in that he now shouldered an even greater responsibility - due to him merging his previous AM/s and current CM/s role into one. But it was still a visible issue and I didn’t like how my team functioned as a whole.

The third major problem was that with Dolberg now less involved and the #10 player becoming more attacking and more involved (but without actually shining that much), the inside forwards’ impact diminished too. Both Kluivert and David Neres really started to improve/develop and hit top form once I switched to the 4-2-1-3 at the end of the season. So to see them back being peripheral figures really made me far from pleased.

 

Additional brief thoughts on the old-school #10 role, a.k.a. the AP/a

However, the above tactical problems didn’t really surprise me at all. Without going too much into detail here (otherwise it’d need a separate thread on its own), I’ve always viewed the AP/a role as the tactical heir of the creative forward from the 4-4-2 that initially got broken up for the #10 to be born sometime ago.

We know that the 4-4-2 didn’t have any inside forwards and attacking midfielders, so by extension the initial 4-4-1-1 didn’t have too. So by actually having a proper #10 (a.k.a. the AP/a) in a 4-2-3-1 that had more to do with a 4-3-3 and not a purer 4-4-1-1, I was already pushing up the limits too much.

Instead of attacking forward (AF/a, DLF/a, CF/a or even Poacher) that would push forward and increase the space between the lines, I had one who did completely the opposite; so it was like - more or less - playing with 2x #10s and no-one making the reverse movement (i.e. without a proper #9). Instead of both being in supporting role, deeper and wider (as in a proper 4-4-2/4-4-1-1) I had my wide men higher up and cutting infield, with one of them as the de-facto #9 but from out wide, as a IF/a.

So it was never going to work and on a theoretical level I knew it from the start. But as said earlier, I just wanted to keep most of the 4-2-1-3 unchanged and try to find a way for Ziyech to function within it.

My 4-2-3-1 and Ziyech as the AP/a worked best in some friendlies against teams who were coming at us and played more attack-minded and/or aggressive style of football. This left us more space on the break and this papered over the issues as my front 4 enjoyed this space to kind of split around and work it out themselves. But as soon as the league started and teams started to play more defensively against us, the above issues were painfully visible and my team got stuck.

After the first 3 league games, I decided to try one last thing just to ensure all options were tried. I’ve gone backwards and decided that if I was to have Ziyech as an old-school #10, then I need to create a tactical context that suits him in such a role. Therefore I needed to change my 4-2-3-1 and make it as a 4-4-1-1 lookalike as possible: namely change to attacking CF, and supporting wide men with only one of them as IF/s (to suit my attacking LB).

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I played the next league game with the above 4-2-3-1 and on some levels it was a success. Ziyech was finally far more involved and actually produced key passes (made one assist too). The whole team function in a way for him to both have the space and options around to be able to pull the strings.

The problem was I didn’t like the overall football played - it looked rudimentary and too one-dimensional. Dolberg was very isolated and rarely participated in any passing moves; there was next to zero positional interplay as the wide men were sort of detached (not to mention neither of my wide men suited a winger role). All was going mostly through the #10 with little contribution from the others. Tactically it felt very ‘90s or early 2000s.

By then Ziyech actively wanted to leave the club too, in order to play in a better division. This - and something else - made my decision what to do next much easier.

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