One could argue that there are two main philosophies that dictate a team's style of play. You can either win by outscoring your opponent, or by conceding fewer goals than them. While managers like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Maurizio Sarri have been staunch proponents of the former, others, nominally Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone, have recently popularised the latter, forcing attacking-minded managers to adopt a more pragmatic approach. Indeed, pragmatic coaches such as Zidane, Deschamps, Tuchel, etc. seem to be the ones enjoying success in the recent major tournaments. Buoyant, sexy football is over, it's only good if you want to win over neutral fans. If you truly wish to win titles, then favouring a balanced, cautious tactic is the way to go. Is it though?
Since I absolutely despise boring, reactive football, I've tried to put together a nexus of instructions, commands, rules, and principles that will be represented in the pitch in the form of a 4-3-1-2 set up, aiming to win it all while delivering some quality, eye-pleasing football. My principles are the following:
I will win each and every game by scoring more goals than my opponent. My team needs to create more chances and score more goals than any other team, regardless of their stature in the league.
Passing game is key. Clearing the ball from defense is strictly forbidden, Dribbling one player after another instead of playing through them is punished. Crossing from deep is stigmatised.
We have to outsmart our opponent. No rush decisions. No desperate attempts. We will recycle possession till we get a good chance to score.
Our team shall not rely on a single player. We need to bring as many bodies as we can in the box, and attack with up to 8 players. Now granted, I am not expecting everyone to bag 5+ goals over the course of a season, but then again, I won't be suprised if more than 5 of our players end up with a fair amount of goals.
We will minimise our opponents' chances to punish us for our ambitious approach. We will suffocate them with smart pressing.
Football is all about spaces. We need to contract and expand spaces as if we were playing an accordion. Trick our opponents into thinking we are going to attack from a certain position, only to exploit a remote area that has as few bodies as possible. Force them to attack the least dangerous areas. Use space to our advantage.
Crosses are fine, attacking from wide areas is brilliant, but we will focus down the middle. Ideally, the ball is not gonna spend much time in the air. We will try to create most of our chances via through balls, one-twos, passing in space, etc.
So how do we go about achieving that? Can we play like this with any given team? Well, the answer is obviously no. You can't play the jogo bonito with the Fulhams and Spezias of this world. But you don't have to go with the Barcelonas and ManCitys either. Any team in the top third of their respective league is in principle a solid choice. As you will see in the screenshots below, I tried to find success with teams that were expected to do well, but with the exception of PAOK, were not listed among the league favourites. Staffing the squad is not an easy task though. Technically gifted players are always welcome, but tactically astute ones are far more important. Athleticism is key here if we are to exploit spaces as well as to stop counter attacks. Our lads need to make the right decisions, be determined, always display some top-notch teamwork, concentrate on their game, possess good stamina which will allow them to work their socks off, and be able to pass the ball even through the eye of a needle. On the contrary, we have no time for virtuosos who are renowned for their lack of work rate, and their dribble-first, pass-second approach. Now granted, our attackers and wingers must be able to dribble past their man, but only when it's the right call to make. Last but not least, since we need to play with spacing, positioning, off the ball, and acceleration/pace are defining factors in what makes a player fit our system or not.
Why the 4-3-1-2 then? Well, since we want to create as many passing options as possible, and given that ball travels faster when it's not glued to a player's foot, we need to opt for a formation that connects players with as many teammates as possible without allowing the opposition to intervene, steal the ball, and punish us on the counter. Therefore, we need to pass the ball short, and we need to be unpredictable. Our lads have to pass and move in order for them to provide their teammate who has received the ball with an extra option for his next pass. As a result, we need as few ball hogs as possible, and as many static roles as possible. Coupled with our preference to pass through the opposition defense, I have come to the conclusion that two players on each wing is redundant. A lone striker will suffer compressed between two, or even three centre backs. On top of that, controlling the midfield is pivotal in our effort to dominate possession and look for the right moment to attack. Since we need to link-up play between our lines, we cannot possibly go for a narrow 4-3-3. If we use an attacking midfielder instead of an extra forward though, the team has an extra option to pass the ball to in the final third, and a rather unpredictable player who can arrive late in the area and act as a third striker on occasion. I think we are now ready to see what our formation looks like:
Our team is instructed to play out of defense, pass short, and work the ball into the box as you might expect. We compress the pitch by playing more narrowly to open up space for our wbs, and we are looking to pass into space to create more chances via through balls. We are not giving them the time and chance to bounce back though, our tempo must always be high to allow our team to capitalise on the opponent's mistakes. We counter-press and look to hit our opponent in the counter, which works remarkably well if you have two men up front. Finally, we are not willing to allow our opponent to build up their play from defense, and we drive them to wider areas where they are a lesser threat to us.
Note that PPMs are very, very important. Player and team instructions might be the backbone of our tactic, but PPMs are the nerves and tendons of it. You need to train your players to develop their PPMs if you truly wish to maxmise the potential of this tactic. On the downside, this might take some time, and your team will not reach its peak until the second season. This of course adds to the realism, but for those of you who want to win it all and win it now, it might get a tad frustrating. Let's go through each position and see both PIs and PPMs I attribute to each role:
SK: No added PIs.
WB: PIs: Cross from byline, shoot less often, stay wider, close down more, mark tighter. PPMs: Gets forward whenever possible. Given that our wbs are the only players out wide, we need them to stretch the pitch. We also don't want them to take many shots, and more specifically we detest poor shot selection, and we also favour a patient approach so we instruct them to only cross when they've reached the byline. Mark tighter and close down more is a PI I use for every player on my team, as I don't want my team to concede any space for our opponents. Finally, since they are the ones providing our team with width, they are expected to go forward on a regular basis. Why a wb in lieu of a cwb? Well, because first I need them to be a tad more defensively-minded, and second because they shouldn't be as fluid a player as your run-of-the-mill cwb. Their role is run up and down their respective line. Your wbs need to be pacy and possess above average stamina to be able to cope with the demands of their expanded role. They must also strike a remarkable balance between their attacking and defensive attributes.
CB: PIs: Mark tighter. Similarly, why not a bpd? A bpd tends to play longer passes and generally take more risks. What I need from my cbs is to pass the ball securely, take as few risks as possible, and be able to contribute if need be to a patient build-up. It is imperative that the combine a strong aerial presence with a high speed, as well as to be able to pass the ball like a midfielder. Don't be afraid to spend big here.
DLP: PIs: Dribble less, mark tighter, close down more. PPMs: Tries killer balls often, plays one-twos. This guy is the main hub through whom ball passes on almost all attacks. He needs to be able to protect the ball, find the right man to pass it on to, have an eye for through balls, all while he must deliver some top notch defensive performances. His rating is always going to be low (as with all players in the centre of a 3-man line), but that shouldn't discourage you. We need someone with impeccable passing, stamina, positioning, decisions, etc. He is the pacemaker of our tactic, and therefore he should be a player that's gonna have as few flaws as possible. Our pass-and-move principle is served by the PPM "plays one-twos", and our desire to play through balls is similarly served by the other PPM "tries killer balls often". He is also our last man while we are attacking, so he should minimise his dribbling if we are to avoid being hit on the counter.
MEZ: PIs: Dribble less, mark tighter. PPMs: Tries killer balls often, plays one-twos, moves into channels. Oh, the mezzala. As you might notice, our left hand side is structured in a way that will create as many overloads as possible. A midfielder that drifts wide, and attacker who drops deep and connects play, and a wing back that pushes forward. This will hopefully lure opposing defenders, opening up space for our other players to attack. Is that all the mezzala does though? The answer is no. He is a crucial player, one who both scores and assists at above average levels. Hence his instruction to move into channels. He should be the most attacking-minded and gifted midfielder, often times a converted attacking midfielder/false 10 like Bernardo Silva, Trust me, you will fall in love with whomever plays that role.
BBM: PIs: Dribble less, mark tighter, stay wider, get further forward. PPMs: Tries killer balls often, plays one-twos, moves into channels. Since our right hand side will typically enjoy more space, we need a guy who's gonna run from deep and cover that space, and what better role than a BBM. He is also expected to provide the team with a solid defensive effort. You will notice that his PIs are a bit different. He is also expected to dribble less and mark tighter, but this guy needs to attack the box as often as he can, as well as to stay a bit wider so that he can exploit the overloads on the left hand side as well as to link up play with the rb, even to overlap. Needless to say this guy should be your best athlete.
AM: PIs: Roam from position, mark tighter, move into channels: PPMs: Tries killer balls often, plays one-twos, moves into channels, shoots with power. Oh look, someone who's finally not discouraged to dribble. Well this lad here is what makes the whole tactic work. Find a good player, and he's gonna reward you with 15+ goals a season. Find a bad one, and he's gonna infuriate you. You need a great team player, a Di Maria rather than a Neymar. He should act like a third striker when the ball reaches the area, but he should also act like someone who can receive the ball, protect it, open up space in the most contested area, and pass it out wide. He shouldn't be confined to a specific area of the pitch though, on the contrary he needs to roam from his starting position and find himself the space he needs. Oh, and he should be able to blast the ball into the back of the net, since the current ME doesn't favour Thieryhenresque precise finishing.
CF: PIs: Mark tighter, stay wider. PPMs: Tries killer balls often, plays one-twos, moves into channels, shoots with power. Now mind you, none of our strikers will be playing as the lazy forward who's expecting his teammates to do the dirty work for him. Both will drop deep at points and help create many passing options. But this guy will do so even more often, and as a result will be the least prolific scorer (albeit the most creative) between the two. He will also be staying wider both to overload the left hand side, and to open up space for a marauding AM. Think of Karim Benzema during Ronaldo's reign at Madrid.
DLF: PIs: Roam from position, mark tighter, stay wider: PPMs: Tries killer balls often, plays one-twos, moves into channels, shoots with power. Our main scorer, our go-to guy when we need a goal. Similarly to his partner in crime, he needs to drop deep, drift wide, and help in creating chances. That excludes players such as Inzaghi or Van Nistelrooy, but then again he doesn't have to be the complete package. A hard-working striker with limited ego is good enough.
Now let's see what I have accomplished thus far:
I tried this tactic while managing Real Sociedad, as they possessed two great strikers in Willian Jose and Alexander Isak, as well as a world-class attacking midfielder in Oyarzabal and a great false 10 in David Silva. Once my players glued together, we finished the season second behind an unbeatable Read Madrid team.
After being gutted by the board's insistence to sign Basque players, I started a new save with Roma. We won the league on our first season, all while improving vastly on the second year and securing the title very early on. (Mind you, the season isn't over yet.)
Last but not least, managing PAOK was a great challenge. Can this tactic work in a weaker league? The team struggled in the first season, finishing second in the league, being very profligate up front and insanely leaky behind. We went down and made some changes in the roster, and this happened:
I was at a loss for words.
I don't need to iterate that this is not a finished project, nor is it a plug and play tactic. If you like the idea behind it, feel free to tamper with each and every one of its elements. You might make it worse, but you might also improve it. I'd love to hear your thoughts!