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How I approach in-game tactical adjustments with CD Xerez: A write-up


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“In what had been billed as a close encounter,” the match report from the papers read, “CD Alcoyano were trounced 4-0 by Xerez Derportivo FC at Chapín.” Despite the praise from the media, one would have struggled to predict this outcome based on the opening phase of the match. For the first 15 minutes, neither side looked threatening. However, tactical adjustments immediately following observations proved pivotal in changing Xerez’s fortunes in the match. This post will detail these observations and the adjustments made in response to them in the first fifteen minutes and into halftime. Within this analysis, it will briefly examine how roles and duties affect pressing structures within a 4-3-3 shape.

Background:

Going into the match, Xerez lined up in our signature 4-3-3—a shape and system I had implemented after taking over at the club in June of the 2021 off-season. The tactic, dedicated to pressing and possession (nothing special and uninteresting by FM standards), guided Xerez to the playoffs that year, coming as close to promotion as possible without achieving it (long-story short:read your league’s rules). The next year, along with strong recruitment it powered Xerez to the championship and automatic promotion. Newly promoted into the Primera División, we sit within shouting distance of the playoffs, but there has been some disappointments on the pitch. After achieving promotion, I changed strategy slightly and dropped my mentality to cautious and attacked more narrowly. I also changed my pressing forward to a support role and my left central midfielder to a CM on attack thinking these would better compliment their attributes. It not only changed my attacking patterns like I anticipated, the change also affected the way my team pressed as a unit, a very key thing I did not predict. 

Observations During the Match:

Once the match began I immediately noticed my left CM pushing far forward and pressing the opposition defenders when they had the ball. In tandem with this, the pressing forward dropped back rather than pressing the center backs like I anticipated. (Fig 1) This is not necessarily bad, but I did not intend to organize my press in this way and it caught my attention immediately. I instead want all three midfielders in the midfield, not two. Putting the midfielder on attack duty, he’s more adventurous and in a higher starting position to engage the press. Combined with my high line of engagement, the LCM became the leader in the team's press. By switching the role to a box-to-box midfielder, he stuck more to his position centrally and kept the solidity I wanted and no longer engaged the opposition's defenders in their own half.

Since I did, however, want a player in the center leading the line in attack and the press, it only made sense to return the pressing forward to attack. This returned the press to the shape I intended with a striker leading the way and three midfielders hunting for the ball in the center.

During these opening phases of play, I also observed my players failed to initiate counter-attacks by playing direct balls to my forwards, who lacked size and physicality compared to their positional markers or who were too far in retreat defending. (Fig, 2) Additionally, there was significant congestion in the middle of the pitch leading to the opposition having a positional advantage. (Fig 2A) This also reduced our pressure against the opponents backline, making their job much easier.

My tactic broke down because it disrupted the natural pressing patterns of the 4-3-3 by pulling both striker and midfielder out of position; it asked my players to look for the counter rather than keep possession; (and) it put less pressure on the opposition's defenders. Though these problems seem like they may require complex solutions, they need nothing more than simple tweaks.

The first adjustment resulted in a drastic change. I achieved solidity in the middle by switching LCM to a box-to-box role and kept pressure on the opponent's backline by putting my pressing forward back on the attack. This helped complement and emphasize the natural strengths of the 4-3-3 shape by putting my players in better overall positions. (Fig 3) No need to significantly alter mentality, shape, or team instructions. 

The next step was settling our approach. Rather than looking for the counter at every chance, I instead opted to trust the judgment of my players for transitions and enabling a more patiently built attack while not being overly committed to holding our shape. Since it became clear by the 15th minute that we could reasonably expect to generate chances against Alcoyano, remaining cautious felt ridiculous, so I bumped it up to balanced. In the first half, things improved on the pitch, in the second, things improved on the scoresheet. Compare the shot maps from the two halves. During the first, Xerez created only one decent chance. In the second, we battered them with shots. (Fig. 4) All four of our goals came after halftime, meaning after the adjustments had time to settle in and become apparent. 

Xerez began the season as outsiders according to experts. We currently sit 5th in the table, well within the playoff hunt, thanks to the victory at home against Alcoyano. Though the match began as a dull, even affair surely bound for a draw, the observations and adjustments made in the opening phase of the match and at halftime proved pivotal in changing our fortunes. This was accomplished by watching the game uninterrupted for the first fifteen minutes, then watching only key highlights from there on out. I used to micro-manage so much of FM that I could hardly finish a season, but now I've learned to just be patient. I hope this guide helps other players notice things that the game is not good at revealing to you and I thank you for reading it. 

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