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FM19 Guide: How to defend with a high line

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It looks like you’ve got enough men back. The next thing you know, someone ends up ghosting behind your flabbergasted defence. Your first instinct is to blame your players, but the game’s animation often makes players look slower, or less alert, than they actually are.

Your next instinct might be to change your centre-backs; either in personnel or roles.

Nothing wrong with this at all. That said, without suitable protection, isolated centre-backs in a high line will always end up focusing primarily on the space behind them. To stop your enemies playing any football, the centre-backs must focus on keeping their positions!

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What to focus on

It’s too easy to focus on trends you enjoy seeing in real life without appreciating the bigger picture. For instance, if you want to put a half-back between your centre-backs and throw both your full-backs forward, bear in mind that in FM19 your centre-backs will often stay split if you lose the ball.

This can create uncertainty and a gaping hole in the middle of your defence. Obviously, there are ways to mitigate that problem, but generally teams aren’t as flexible in FM19 as they are in real life. The best approach is to be as objective as possible. Focus exclusively on the evidence of what each role and instruction does.

Having said that, you might think I’m doing precisely the opposite with my defensive instructions:

Defensive instructions

This is categorised as a ‘risky’ defensive setup on Tea and Busquets. While it undeniably poses risks, this relentless style of football relies on every player being shadowed as far as possible. In addition, there are a plethora of options to choose from when executing these instructions.

While interesting, the analysis in that piece suffers from one central flaw. It stems from this passage:

“Therefore – the more urgently you press, the more disrupted your defensive shape will be; and vice versa – the less urgent pressing is, the more stable the defensive shape is.”

By that logic, the writer figures that urgent pressing, tight marking and hard tackling is less risky with a low defensive block. However, it just can’t be correct. If your defensive strategy is to stand off your opponents, it follows that when you press, you’re deviating from your defensive shape. If you’re defending in your opponents’ half, though, your defensive shape will be disrupted if you don’t press; you’re deliberately taking the risk of leaving open spaces for the opposition to exploit.

As a rule of thumb, the higher your defensive line, the quicker your defensive shape should aim to thwart your opponents’ build-up. As we covered, this prevents them from utilising the space that the shape in its static form leaves open.

Conversely, if you have a low defensive block, marking tighter and tackling harder gives your players a higher chance of being drawn out of position. The block aims to deny space in dangerous areas as much as possible; they need to instantly adjust to wherever opponents move the ball, without being preoccupied by what one of their teammates is doing.

How I’ve implemented this

Now, here’s how I’ve implemented these instructions:

WBA tactic

As you can see below, in our last 12 games, my WBA side have kept seven clean sheets. We have only conceded more than one twice; these were against the eventual PL champions and FA Cup winners, respectively.

WBA results

Specific steps to take

I know it’s not that spectacular, but how has this been achieved?

  1. Be careful with your full-backs.

As I mentioned earlier, in real life players can seamlessly rotate in and out of different positions. You might think ‘can’t players do this in FM19 with their role and duty?’ Not exactly.

Let’s take our earlier example: the half-back.

Half back

It’s clear that he comes deeper in possession, splitting between your two centre-backs. However, off the ball, the only positional protection he provides is holding his position. There’s no way in hell that this is enough protection if Raheem Sterling robs your right-back off the ball on the half-way line. If you’re not careful, while this happens, your left back might be hanging outside the opposition penalty box waiting for a cross-field ball. This kind of setup is easy to exploit because, off the ball, half-backs are not third centre-backs.

Want to know another side effect of the half-back forcing your centre-backs to split? The centre-backs take time time to adjust when you’ve just lost the ball. Attackers can be in behind before you know it! I had to learn all of this the hard way; hopefully you won’t.

In any event, half-back or not, for the most part player roles only directly impact a player when your team are in possession.

Regista

I’m indebted to FM19 for breaking TI’s and PI’s down so clearly. Hopefully, you can now see that only pressing urgency, tight marking and tackling instructions affect the player when the opposition has the ball. Obviously, though, these actions have a consequential impact when your team lose possession.

The only clear way to drag a player into another position off the ball is by utilising the ‘mark specific player’ and ‘mark specific position’ features. Fancy doing that? Me neither. There must be less restrictive ways of keeping a tight defence.

The easiest way to end my reliance on the half-back was to make my full-backs more cautious. I initially tried full-backs on support, but now I’m contend with wing-backs on defend.

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Wing-backs go further forward than full-backs. Even on defend, this holds true. As they’re set to perform all the duties of full-backs and wingers, they’re naturally adventurous. They always ‘run wide with ball’.

However, there are two clear advantages to playing with wing-backs on defend when playing with a 4-1-2-3 DM Wide and a possession-orientated system with a high line. One is that the wing-back holds his position. He mainly stays deep, for the direct purpose of offering protection against the counter-attack.

The other advantage is that, if you want, he can stay narrow. If your team’s looking to circulate possession, this wing-back becomes an easy option. He can do this while providing width; he’s set to ‘run wide with ball’. This also offers further protection against the counter-attack. While the defensive wing-back can only sit narrower when your team have possession, this can indirectly affect his positioning off the ball. Opponents now have less space to get past him with runs or passes!

Inverted wing-back

Inverted wing-backs roam from their position far too much to be relied on as anything close to protection for centre-backs. While they can brilliant in the right circumstances, they stretch the definition of full-backs; they only really stay out wide when there’s no other option.

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Introducing defensive inverted wing-backs was a good idea, but the less said about the execution, the better. It’s very confusing where they actually do their defending; doesn’t the description suggest they only cover wide positions when they need to? Regardless, inverted wing-backs on any duty look to affect play in the middle of the pitch as much as possible.

I hope you understood my point throughout this ramble. Be acutely aware of how each full-back role will affect your side’s balance, consider your formation and how the opposition will be able to counter-attack, and err on the side of caution! If you either have a back three, two defensive midfielders, or a very specific tactical manoeuvre involving at least one of your full-backs flying forward, this advice might apply less. Your team’s mentality is also highly relevant; players on attacking duties might take less risks on a more cautious mentality.

  1. Resist top-heavy formations.
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Bearing the preceding analysis in mind, you can see why forwards can’t be directly relied upon to support the midfield out of possession. Likewise, midfielders cannot be directly relied upon to support the defence out of possession.

When you want to play tika-taka on FM19, there are three suggested formations: 4-1-4-1 DM Wide, 4-2-3-1 Wide and 5-2-2-1 WB. This style is based on relentless pressing and possession, and none of these formations have more than one striker. My formation above compensates for this by having two Raumdeuters, who will thrust themselves forward like poachers if they smell any danger. They’ll also not allow the opposition to play out to their full-backs.

I love watching this, time and time again:

https://i.gyazo.com/a244bc7fc20c7d15689727613fd7fce7.mp4

Try to ensure that every area for potential counter-attacks is covered. To compensate, I’d use attacking player roles, combined with aggressive instructions, to ensure your team can still win the ball high up the pitch.

This is a good example:

https://i.gyazo.com/03af7f4bfdb6d9e399de771cae09a105.mp4

Even with three players closing down Lloris, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, my right-sided Raumdeuter, is still covering Tottenham’s left-back. Think about every opposition player before going into a game. How much space do they have? In systems with high defensive lines, your side’s stability depends on being able to disturb the opposition’s build-up and prevent easy out-balls. Therefore, the more space an individual opposition player has without being closed down, the harder your tactic will be to build.

  1. Understand your players before putting them into roles.
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In training, I categorise players according to where I see them being most useful, and make sure they’re accustomed to the role on matchdays:

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If you’ve picked the right role for your players, they should improve if trained and played there. Getting players from 100% to 101% is the aim here. It’s worth making mistakes and losing some games.

When everything about a tactic is built from your ideas, it’s easier to learn from anything that goes wrong. You know why you made the choices in the first place, and what you were aiming to do with them.

I know the essential attributes required for each position. Wing-backs must have aggressive instincts and be good defensively. In Harper and Field, I have two natural Mezzala’s who are accomplished in defensive midfield and have good physical attributes. It’s also vital that each player is on their strongest foot.

My Regista’s have similar requirements, in being adventurous while also good defensively. However, I put more weight on their technical and mental attributes, and less weight on their physical attributes and preferred foot. That’s because they have a lot more creative freedom, and less of a requirement to cover an entire flank.

You probably get the picture from here.

Grover Castro’s being trained at centre-back because the two training at wing-back are better fits. Castro’s also formidable in the air, for someone so young and unaccustomed to playing at centre-back.

As a side note, my last tip is to pay attention to a player’s preferred foot in every central position. If possible, I like to have a right-footed player on the right and a left-footed player on the left side. You can get as close to that as you need to.

My ultimate aim is not to have square pegs in round holes. The alchemy of the team must be comfortable and disciplined in what they’re set to do for this risky playing style not to blow up in your face.

We’ll see how this ends up in the next episode! I have 27 new players lined up, although if it helps you think I’m less crazy, most of them are future prospects.

As usual, thanks so much for reading!

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Written by Ben

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