I have been playing Football Manager since 2013 and year after year I still see the same questions pop up regarding Player Preferred Moves (PPMs or also known as Player Traits). Why do they not work how they should? My player has “Plays with back to the goal” but I never see him receiving passes and holding up the ball? How come my centreback with “Brings Ball out of Defence” does not dribble into the midfield? The game engine must be broken right? Wrong, what you see is the divergence between what his role is instructing him (including any idiosyncratic traits he possess) and the general team and/or individual player instructions. This guide will examine some popular Player Traits and explain how they can work together and be applied to a typical 4-2-3-1 tactic to enhance overall possession and scoring.
A few years back Mesut Ozil made it look easy when he decided to round Ludogoret’s keeper in the Champions League. In the game, as well as in reality, there are quiet a few complex factors that combine on the field to make the occurrence of such artistic moves more likely. In on itself, rounding the keeper might not be a game changer or even tactically significant, but it shows that in the sport of football we must take into account that each player is an individual with unique traits and idiosyncratic tendencies that a good manager must carefully pay attention to. Even though the whole match is a team performance, it consists of numerous individual performances that add up minute after minute. Thus, one can never know how one player’s single moment of brilliance could affect the flow of the rest of the game. Foremost, a competent manager must be a good manager of individuals and know each players very well, before they can claim to be a good manager of the whole team.
The above statement is one reason why I prefer to work with small squads that I can study and get to know very well during the preseason. Managing large squads with multiple substitutes per position and large reserve and junior teams actually scares me. This is one reason that for the last couple of iterations managing AS Roma has always been a big temptation for me. They have one of the smallest and most focused First Teams in FM 2019.
Prelude: Brazil’s 4-2-3-1 – The Magic Formation
As promised in my last Shadow Striker article I will be taking a deeper look at the famous 4-2-3-1 formation. In that article I argued that this well-known shape had its origins in Brazilian leagues in the 1950s. Over the years this formation evolved into the more familiar, and very Brazilian, “Magic Box” 4-2-2-2 formation. In the Magic Box the two advanced midfielders play behind the strikers, giving the formation its pronounced narrowness. The only width comes from the two fullbacks, giving one of the reasons why this role has become so important in Brazil with some of the best fullbacks and wingbacks in the world coming from the region.
Yet the 4-2-3-1 as played by Brazilian teams between 1950s and 1980s, was essentially the classic Magic Box formation in everything but name. While separate on paper, the two formations became interchangeable in Brazilian football as 4-2-3-1 would transform into 4-2-2-2 in its attacking phase. This is thanks to the two inside forwards tucking in to play through the middle (essentially as central advanced midfielders) and the shadow striker moving up to play beside the deep-lying central forward.
As result of all this movement and rearrangement, you end up with three distinct banks of players playing closely together and sharing tasks. You have the four attackers in the front mostly tasked with attack and having more creative freedom than the rest of the team to craft out moves and exercise their flair. Next there are the two defensive midfielders and center backs focusing on playing the high defensive line and preventing the opponent from advancing into our own half. The defence is definitely more structured and disciplined than the rest of the team.
Finally, you have the two fullbacks, acting as the key pivots in the tactic, linking the defence and attack. They probably have the most important roles on the team, both offensively and defensively responsible in running up and down the field for the full 90 minutes. I prefer one to be more defensive than the other (usually on the side of my more attacking winger).
Having broken down the team into these three distinct area, one can see how important it is to have players with complementary roles as well as the PPMs to suit them. This is especially true for your four front attackers. Speaking of those attackers, in my last article I gushed all over the Shadow Striker role, specifically when in partnership with a Deeplying Forward. Unfortunately that article turned into a theoretical analysis of these roles as I did not have enough game time to run a proper test save. Presently, after putting the tactic to a test for almost a full season with AS Roma, I can confidently say that a Shadow Striker role works as well as envisioned, if not better. I also discovered that there are some PPMs that make this role more potent when slotted into a short passing high-possession tactic.
One, Two …. GOAL!
In the following video, can you count the number of passes between the halfway line and the goal? The whole play takes less than fourteen seconds and is a typical example of a play that I see a lot with my latest 4-2-3-1 tactic.
While testing tactics, I tend to watch most of my matches in full or at least in comprehensive highlight mode. Trust me, it helps a lot when trying to tweak your roles and instructions. Thus I was able to see the efficiency of my 4-2-3-1 tactic improve drastically from when I first tried it with Fiorentina to my move to Roma. My goals scored have increased (while at same time keeping more clean sheets) and the team has started playing a much more beautiful brand of football, almost like Tiki-Taka in its approach with one key difference. As you can see in an above video, it is a possession-heavy style with plenty of short, quick passes but it is far from being stale passing for the sake of passing and pointless possession that people tend to attribute with Tiki-Taka. Rather I will join the football hipsters in borrowing the term “Vertical Tiki-Taka” to describe how this tactic plays. Vertical Tiki-Taka is a more aggressive style of possession football where the emphasis is as much on keeping the ball as it on moving it up the pitch as quickly as possible. It is brand of “liquid football” that brought celebrated managers like Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri a lot of success in recent years.
But how did I achieve this? It is not because Roma’s squad is better than Fiorentina’s. For the most part, it is not. With the exception of its fullbacks, Fiorentina is technically equivalent. While the Giallorossi are predicted to finish in the top 5, they do not possess a world-class squad and have little depth outside of the first team. Also, I barely changed the team instructions and roles between the two saves. So why is Roma playing so good after only half a season? I believe the answer to that lies in the player’s player traits.
As you can see, Vertical Tiki-Taka, as played by Sarri’s Napoli is similar to Pep’s vision of the more dynamic Tiki Taka in how it relies in creating overloads on one side of the field in order to unlock a very attacking player on the opposite wing (in this example, Callejon). So how do PPMs fit into it?
With Giallorossi, my overall strategy is shaped by the fact that for most domestic matches I am the favoured side, required to play through dense enemy defenses. In order to win against parked buses I have come to rely on tactical overloads (a concept I covered extensively here) and specific Player Trait combinations. I’m not going to go back and explain the three ways in which I create overloads. With Roma I decided to keep a symmetrical 4-2-3-1 formation while using only two overload methods: specific supporting roles and team instructions to overload our left side.
While overload itself is easy enough to achieve, switching the ball to the right “unlocked” flank turned out tricky. Initially, I found that managing a top side like Roma can make it difficult to find space behind the opponent’s defensive low block and score goals. To do this more consistently I crafted my tactic to take advantage of the PPM “Likes to play One-Twos”. Luckily the squad already had a few players with this trait and I started promptly to train all my attackers in it. The video below will give you a good idea how one-two passing helps to “play through” defenders.
One-Twos work similarly in the game. Like any Player Preferred Move, they increase the likelihood of an action. In this case, the likelihood that the player will pass short to a teammate before making a forward run into space with the intention of quickly receiving the ball back. One-two passing works especially well in a short-passing possession tactic. It can help your team to use short passes and superior off the ball movement to play through stubborn opposition. So where the more direct diagonal passes and crosses are blocked, high-speed running and passing is harder for defenders to contain. It you have a team full of good passers and attackers with above average (15+) off the ball and decision-making , then one-twos become an essential compliment to playing possessive football.
Breaking the Bus with Roma
I am going to argue further that when facing a parked bus, possession football is exactly what you need to play, and not a more direct attacking approach. Many FM players also make the mistake of sitting back and hoping that the opponent will come forward more and expose gaps behind their defense. While this might work as a counter-attacking strategy when you are the underdog, when you play as the favoured side it only gives the defensive opponent more time on the ball. In the game this translates to instances of very high possession for the defending side who sit back and the hog the ball while hoping for a draw. Early on in my FM career the amount of boring draws I would get infuriated me. Its one of the reasons I started playing around with overloads and other ways to break the bus.
After hours of experimenting with various teams, I found that the best way to break down a low defensive block is to keep possession and dictate how the game should go. When you maintain high possession while overloading one side, it allows your central forwards and/or wingers to get more involved in the play. It keeps your attack tight and spaced close for short passes so even if there is little room behind the opponent’s defensive wall, you can break through it via a series of short passes and runs into space.
A video example from my save is probably the best way to show how this works. In the clip above notice how initially we overload the left side before advancing rapidly up the field via short passes and off the ball runs. I can count at least three one-twos in the final third. What you cannot tell from the clip is that Cagliari was a very stubborn side playing exemplary negative football for the whole 90 minutes. So when it finally came, this beautiful goal, by none other than my golden boy Nicolo Zaniolo, arrived in the last minutes of extra time. Better late than neve. Our patience paid off with the goal allowing Roma to advance to the next stage of the Italian Cup.
To create more one-two passing between them, I have my two inside forwards play as close to the shadow striker as possible. It helps if they have “Cut inside” trait. By staying close to the center it should allow the inside forwards exchange one two passes more frequently with the shadow striker or even my deeplying forward. Having One Twos trait on the inside forwards is probably even more important than on the central striker pairing because there is inherently more space on the wings to take advantage of this PPM. Also having overlapping fullback and wingback with the same trait provides another passing avenue to our attack.
The image above is my easy-to-use visual guide on how I mold my team into playing an attractive brand of possession football. The 4-2-3-1 is a perfect formation for it, and I had a lot of success with it. That is provided you have capable players with the right PPMs. As you can see in the picture, I’m in the process of defining the core PPM selection for the roles in my tactic. The ones listed above are by no means exhaustive as there are other traits that can work. However I believe these ones are essential to how my 4-2-3-1 functions. They enhance my tactic and help it to work well with fewer instructions. I chose Roma for my test as their team already has at least one player in each position with one or more of the required preferred traits. The rest I can train. Essentially, I ask all my wingers, and shadow striker to play one twos and move into channels while the central striker absolutely needs to have “comes deep to get the ball” in addition to playing one twos. With adequate training most of my team should possess these traits by the end of 1st season. I will be bringing other suitable candidates via transfers. You can see the team instructions I use but keep in mind that the tactic is still a work in progress. Although feel free to try it out for yourself as I include the download link at the end of the article. In future entries, I plan to go in more detail on how I set up 4-2-3-1 formation as well as how we performed in the 1st full season in Serie A (SPOILER – We did quite well!).
Nicolo Zaniolo – Future Imperator of Roma
Nicolo Zaniolo has been responding to my training especially well. After six months, as my primary shadow striker he already learned to play one twos and possesses a veritable arsenal of other traits that make him excel in the role. He is currently my top goalscorer (with 14 goals, not bad for a 19 year old rooky in his first competitive season!) and as you can see attribute-wise he is shaping up into one of my most potent offensive weapons. Ave Nico!
I’m truly excited for what he will bring to my 4-2-3-1 tactic as I chronicle his rise (as well as Rome’s 2nd conquest of Europe) in my future articles. Thanks for reading and hopefully you will continue to follow my new Roma-inspired guide series titled Running with the Wolves!
Tactic Download: https://ufile.io/xnwyx9ef
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