This is my fourth season in charge at União da Madeira, taking them from Portuguese Third Tier up to the Primeira Liga in my first two seasons. After a respectable lower mid-table finish last season, I was looking to make improvements and finish in the top half this time around. If you haven’t already, you can read previous editions by following the links below.
This time around I decided to switch up my tactics. Taking inspiration from Thomas Paine’s excellent piece on Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side, I decided to take a punt on a fluid 4-4-2. Seeing how well he had done with a less fancied side over in Italy, I attempted to replicate his success over in Portugal. I was not disappointed.
When Sacchi took over at AC Milan in 1987, they hadn’t won a title in 9 years. Three years later, they had won 9 trophies, including back to back European Cups. Sacchi took Milan from a side who were second best in Italy, to the peak of European football.
His tactical style was almost an Italian version of Total Football, drawing inspiration from Rinus Michels’ Dutch National side of the 1970s. A dynamic fluid 4-4-2 which was technical, hard-working and dynamic. Players such as Rijkaard, Van Basten and Gullit brought the Dutch influence to Milan, whilst defenders like Baresi and Tasotti kept them solid at the back.
Positional sense was paramount for Sacchi. He would often take training sessions without the ball in order to improve Milan’s defensive line and offside trap. This fluidity within the team combined with defensive positioning and their pressing game made Milan a very impressive side.
Sacchi was one of the first managers in the world to employ an intense pressing game, seeking to win the ball back immediately after the ball had been lost. If the ball was lost high, the team would be high, seeking to press the player in possession to force them to make a mistake. Should Milan lose the ball whilst playing out from the back, they were compact enough to press the player deep, and win the ball back quickly. This high intensity pressing game worked because of Milan’s compact 4-4-2, and culminated in a 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid, in the European Cup Final.
“Great clubs have one thing in common. They owned the pitch and they owned the ball. That means when you have the ball, you dictate play, and when you are defending you control the space.”
Sacchi’s style can be condensed into these essentials:
- Dynamic 4-4-2 formation
- Proactive, attacking football
- High intensity pressing game
- Compactness – 25 meters from defence to attack.
- Universality (Total Football)
Building the Squad
I took Thomas’s tactic and tweaked it slightly for my own team, you can see it below.
As we’re attempting a fluid style of football I don’t want too many specialist positions such as Playmakers. Rather, a basic formation and shape which I can add instructions or that players can interpret as they see fit.
Arrigo Sacchi was a huge fan of complete footballers. Similar to Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, Sacchi defined a complete footballer as a player with:
- Technical Ability – First Touch, Passing, Technique.
- Intelligence – Composure, Concentration, Decisions, Off The Ball.
- Work Ethic – Determination, Stamina, Work Rate.
Over the past two seasons, I have tried to find players possessing attributes in these key areas.
Taça de Portugal Semi Final v Vit. Guimarães (H)
Having gone deep in the Taça de Portugal, beating Braga, Boavista and Portimoense along the way, I felt we could make a real go of it. We were chasing a top six place in the league so I opted for a second string side for our first leg of the semi final.
Vitoria are lining up with a 4-3-3, a pretty conventional shape in the Primeira Liga. We should be able to outnumber them on the flanks, so I’d be tempted to add Overlap and/or Focus down Wings instructions.
Here you can see our Deep Press, two banks of four protecting the edge of my box. We are Compact and Narrow, not allowing much space for the attackers. My Mezzala presses the player with the ball, who, with no other option, passes it to their Left Back. My right winger is quick to press him, forcing a poor pass, which allows us to regain possession.
Here we can see the High Press in action. Their DM has the ball and as you can see there is an opportunity for Vitoria to overload our left flank. However, due to the Pressure on the Ball from our WM (19), Alfa is forced to go short. They play a few quick passes in the midfield, before their number 20, under pressure again, tries a speculative ball out to the right. By this time, my WM is back in position, and the pass runs out for a União throw.
In another scenario, we force Vitoria back to their goalkeeper. You can see how Compact we are, really attempting to implement that 25 metre rule.
Playing Out of Defence
These are the main passing triangles which present themselves when playing out from the back. In this situation, Sousa plays it out to Derlan, my DCL. As he does this, my DLP moves across with the play, and my DL and ML make themselves available to receive the pass.
Attacking Down the Left
Moving the clip on, Derlan makes a pass into Nujud, my ML, who drives inside looking to find the overlapping Wing Back Jorginho. The shape almost changes to a 3-4-3 / 3-5-2 when creating the overload on the flank. This has been a really good attacking outlet for me, with my DLs providing a lot of crosses. This attack plays out a little differently.
Jorginho picks up the ball under pressure from Vitoria’s DR and AMR. He finds a pass back to my DLP (Luis) who has a lot of space. You can see that if we can switch the play quickly, we can create an overload on the right. As Luis plays the ball back to my DCR, my Mezzala is closed down by the opposition DL, which opens up space on the right for Major, my MR.
Attacking Down the Right
Justiniao looks up and sees Bellegarde, my Mezzala, in a bit of room. A few quick passes through the centre and we have overloaded the right flank successfully. I switched the Car or CM-Su for a Mezzala for exactly this purpose. As he drifts wide, he occupies the opposition left back, leaving space out wide for the MR. The opposition AML goes to close down my DR, and Major is left in acres of space. Major finds the cross, my ML attacks it from deep and we break the deadlock. 1-0 União
This fluid attacking football was important to replicate, and the fluidity of the 4-4-2 means we can play down the wings or through the middle, depending on what we are facing.
We finished 5th in the league, qualifying for European football. This was really good for us, considering the media predicted we would finish 14th. Where this tactic really shone was during big games and in cup competitions.
The compact structure and high press allows us to control the space well, and win back possession quickly and effectively. Going forward players are flexible and dynamic, moving with play to exploit the space and create opportunities.
Overall, this tactic worked wonders for my team and we massively out-performed expectations. The fluidity and flexibility means that you can look to exploit opposition weaknesses, rather than play a particular way, which is definitely my preferred approach on FM. The philosophy must be considered when recruiting players. Intelligence, Technical Ability and Work Rate are imperative in order for the tactic to work properly.
With better players I can only see this tactic improving. I think the one thing I lack is technically adept defenders, able to bring the ball out comfortably, as Franco Baresi did with such success at Milan. Sacchi’s side were ruthlessly efficient in defence and technically brilliant going forward. If we improve our players, I believe we can replicate their success and challenge for a title next season.
“I didn’t want solo artists; I wanted an orchestra. The greatest compliment I received was when people said my football was like music.”
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed my piece. More are on the way, you can also check out more of my content here. Check out DtG Social Media below.
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