Many football manager players attempt to create tactics that fit their ideals; that could be through attempting to replicate what their favourite manager or team does, or simply imposing their intrinsically preferred style of play. In a game where the tactics engine is the only part of manager’s job set out in a similar level of detail to real life, basing your managerial style around it is advisable. At a face value, it makes complete sense to prioritise ball retention when creating your tactic, especially as it’s seen to be synonymous with having a footballing identity.
Yet, the difficulty of managing to create a successful adaptation of this can just leave you with an incredulous stare. Players can hit the ball long without you telling them to and shoot from ridiculous ranges; even if they do manage to keep the ball sufficiently well, the opposition often create more chances than your team. In the voice of Michael Owen, you could just tell yourself that opposition players are “outswarming” (sic) your team and the tactic makes them vulnerable to counter-attacks, but that doesn’t explain why they can’t be patient and tire the opposition out.
Before we go on to explore this outrageous denial of justice, it’s important to consider why we’re using this style of football and the permutations behind implementing it. As outlined in I Am the Secret Footballer, the main benefits of possession football are: you can’t concede when you have it, you retain energy by doing less of the running, and with the ball you’re better equipped to probe for an opening and drag an opposition player out of position. Without these objectives, the relationship between ball possession and scoring more goals than you concede is likely to be lost.
As for the permutations, the most suitable team instructions are commonly understood. Obviously, ‘retain possession’, ‘shorter passing’ and a low tempo are all advisable, along with ‘play ball into box’, ‘dribble less’ and generally high pressing settings. However, the marginal gains tend to come from being able to draw opposition players out of positions, without leaving too much space for them to counter-attack. In such a slow, patient system, those opportunities are hard to come by; if the pass in released too late then the threat is likely to have been dealt with. In addition, the player about to receive the ball could be offside, or could’ve vacated his space so much that the opposition can counter-attack. The quantity of opportunities can be at the expense of their quality.
How do you solve these problems?
- Use your formation and team shape to minimise their opportunities to counter-attack. This helps ensure the opposition players start chasing the ball, rather than trying to control space.
For instance, I often use this or a similar variation in games where my Everton team are favourites. While the roles are rather aggressive, inviting risky passes, the tactic should ensure that enough players are back when the ball is lost. The wing-backs are on defend so that they cover wide channels, and don’t have a fixed player instruction of ‘get further forward’. This could mitigate the impact of the ball-playing defenders stepping up or losing the ball; that is also achieved through the half-back protecting the centre-backs when they have to filter out wide. Once these counter-attacking routes seem covered, highly aggressive pressing tactics and opposition instructions are less likely to cause chaos. The opposition are more likely to worry about what will happen when the ball gets through to my three strikers, than look for ways to exploit easy gaps in my defence; this in turn encourages them to play reactively and my Everton team to probe forward.
- Ensure you have clear ‘out-balls’ in every zone of the pitch.
The above tactic has a lot of similar types of players: ball-playing defenders, deep-lying playmakers, and complete forwards. Is this because they’re all playmaker-type roles? Partially. The main aim of the tactic is to patiently probe, drag players out of position, and exploit a gap whenever it’s found. However, another purpose of filling the side with ‘facilitators’, rather than having some players with less multi-faceted roles, is that they’re likely to always be available when the team have the ball. I only want players to run out wide when there’s a clear space to exploit; the same applies for going beyond the complete forward in possession and running behind the defence. Unless the system is designed for the team to keep the ball until they reach the final third, José Mourinho has a point that the team with it is the most vulnerable.
- Use opposition instructions to create even more opportunities
This might seem crazy, I know. If the opposition manage to exploit it through long balls, your team are highly likely to concede. That said, possession football is usually ineffective if the opposition are not constantly worried about what you’re about to do with it. It’s important to recover the ball as quickly and high up as possible, without clearly leaving any channels open, to pose a sustained threat. In addition, ‘always’ is not usually taken literally on this game; it tends to be applied as ‘always when you’re in a similar zone to them’. I wouldn’t necessarily advise using this setting, as opposition instructions are a precarious balancing act, and players can be dragged out of position so much that attackers can gain a free sight at goal. Sometimes, I try only setting them on defensive players, but the results have been… mixed. More than ever, due to the risk involved, the exact instructions set should depend on trial-and-error, but opposition instructions are an invaluable possession tool to consider on the whole.
- Spend time setting up set pieces.
When a team has lots of possession, they’re more likely to be fouled consistently. This could be explained by the amount they have the ball, the tiredness of the opposition, opposition players not wanting to be caught out of position, or the reactive side intentionally using aggressive tactics. That explains why free kick routines are so important. Furthermore, as possession relies on players finding space to some extent, those players are likely to filter out wide sometimes, even if the tactic doesn’t ask them to. This should result in more corners… you get the story. With possession football, you want to maximise the quantity of openings to score.
The other reason your set pieces are so vital is that the opposition can see them as a counter-attacking opportunity. Don’t remind me what that looks like.
From my 37 goals this season, corners and indirect free kicks have yielded 7 of them each; that’s the best in the league in both categories. The quality of opportunity a well-rehearsed routine can provide explains why low-possession sides rely on set pieces so much. Allan Nyom described Tony Pulis training his West Bromwich Albion team like “militants” on them.
These screenshots show my main set piece instructions. Like anything, they vary. The most crucial part is having enough players forward to push the opposition defensive line back, causing confusion, and playing the ball into an area where there are lots of players. If balls are played to the near or far post, the attacking player is relying purely on their strength and heading to beat their counterpart, which is usually a 50/50 unless there’s a mismatch. Also, the complexity of connecting with the ball could be accentuated by their focus on making a clean enough contact to score. Playing the ball into a place where someone can peel off their marker and create space is the safest bet.