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Total Football, Total Balance: The Most Important Attribute

Young Devils Guide

Football Manager is a cultural phenomenon because it is a game that is built around numerical statistics and spreadsheets. And at the core of all the stats, are player attributes, representing their technical, mental and physical ability. Which in on themselves are simple collections of numbers. Yet they can make us whoop with joy, when you first see that wonderkid regen with green 16+ values across the board. Or sigh in frustration when confronted with down-pointing red arrows in the development screen. So when asking FM players, what in their opinion is the most important attribute in the game, responses will likely vary. I have been playing the game long enough, across its many versions, to form my own opinion. I believe Balance is most important to good tactics. And here is why.

Previously on Young Devils Series:

Discovering The Winning Formula

As my second season with Manchester United draws to an end, I find my tactic is moving further away from pure Bielsa tribute, while retaining some of the features that are very Bielsa-like. These include maximizing possession, creating overloads on the wings and high defensive line pressing. Essentially, I am still trying to follow Bielsa’s central obsession: quest to achieve Total Football with any club. And it is amazing what he has achieved with a club like Leeds United in only two years. Also with Man Utd, my aim is beautiful attacking possession at all costs.

As I continuously tweak my tactics in over 180 hours with FM20, I am starting to see patterns that lead to success. Because in essence FM tactics are collections of attributes (aka statistical values) put together in a meaningful way (your formation and roles). So when you pinpoint the right combinations of attributes that win games regularly then you have proof that you have a recipe for victory. It seems deceptively simple. And after I break it down in this article it should be. Hopefully after reading this, you will see a formula that can be applied to any club, from the world-class champion to a lowly backwater underdog.

Winning one game is simple, it is replicating that success that is the hard part in Football Manager. So why do some teams win more often than others?

Tactical Evolution

As you might recall from my last piece, the summer transfer period brought an invasion of Spaniards to Old Trafford. I also started experimenting with a 4-1-4-1 shape, similar to the one Bielsa is using at Leeds. Inspired by Bielsa’s style, my 4-1-4-1 attacks with three banks of three plus the free player, our enganche. Our three banks are the three runners, three holding players and three defenders.

My formation went through a series of changes. Starting like this at the start of the season:

Then moving to the one below a few months into the season. I made some roles more aggressive and others less so, while bringing the mentality down to Balanced. Also as you can see from the zoomed in winger instruction, I started to implement the Split Block. But more about this later.

As you can see the general structure of three distinct groups of attack, support and defence is maintained despite some changes in roles. Essentially the three players on attack duty act as my runners. The CF, BWM and Winger are supporting the attackers. While the three defenders (including the right wingback) maintain solidity in the back.

Finally the third evolution of the tactic happened during the Winter break. It is definitely the most successful iteration where we finally achieved the balance in attack and defence. The balance was achieved by making sure that there is equal distribution of runners, support/creators and defenders in the formation. The wingers were moved into more advanced positions to make them more attack-minded whereas before they tended to stay back too much despite Positive team mentality. At the same time their advanced positioning, allowed me to implement inverted wingbacks. Because what is a Bielsa-inspired tactic, without inverted wingbacks?

Bielsa’s inverted wingbacks are probably the hardest to recreate in the game. At times they operate like standard wingbacks hugging the flanks. At other times they will cut inside to overload the midfield or help with possession. The latter is how the inverted wingback role in the game behaves. Usually they will cut inside and play more central, rarely diverting from this rule. As long as there is another player on the wing directly in front of them. But if that player is in the advanced winger position, the inverted wingback will sometimes break from his programming. He will move up like a regular wingback to occupy this freed up space. Thus he will unwittingly act more like Bielsa-style hybrid between a wingback and midfielder. It is too much for me to go into here, but inverted wingbacks when used this way are probably my favourite part of the tactic.

This winning formula has allowed Manchester United to go on a three months unbeaten streak both domestically and in Europe. As of March 23, we are holding 2nd position in the league (with only 3 points behind Man City). The victories against Arsenal and Manchester City were the highlights during this time.

Balance and Strength

The third and final version of the tactic maintains the same three equal banks structure. Categorized by duty, you still have the runners (attack), ball holders (support) and defenders. The player that does not fit into any of the three groups, is our sole playmaker. He is usually designated as the enganche (“pivot”) in any Bielsa formation. It is a role that is indispensable to Bielsa, as it is the player that is not tasked with any defensive or attacking duties. A free player in all sense of word, a pure playmaker. Free to do what he does best, create and dictate plays.

What makes a great enganche is not in where on field he is positioned, but how he behaves in that position. This is where the importance of Balance attribute is first revealed. Enganche is first and foremost a playmaker. Secondly he is a stationary playmaker that relies on balance and not agility of movement like a trequartista.

Balance is very important to all playmakers because it is the attribute that defines how well they are able to resist the force exerted by opposing players trying to take away the ball. It’s simple, the more time your player gets on the ball, the more chance your team has of winning. Its a basic tenet of Total Football. But a playmaker who is told to hold position like an enganche or deep-lying playmaker needs to have exceptional balance to offset the strength of the opponent’s press.

Strength attribute is Balance’s constant nemesis. It is the defensive attribute that defines how well a defender can exert himself in forcing the ball away from his opponent. Technically smart and physically strong defenders will always have an advantage over playmakers who might be elite in their technique but weak in Balance. A real life example would be a player like Neymar who is an exceptional attacking playmaker as his profile in FM20 would reflect.

Yet his biggest weakness are his relatively low Balance, Work Rate and Strength (14, 10, 10 respectively). At first look it might not seem so bad, but one needs to keep in mind that because of his reputation, Neymar will naturally draw more defenders to him. And when coming up against strong, hard-working defenders, Neymar is often pressured off the ball or worse. Neymar will never be a good player in Bielsa-ball system. Sorry Junior!

The Belgians were trying to keep him upright but all their skill could not do it.

So at its essence, most tactics come down to a battle of Balance versus Strength. Of course there are other attributes that play an important role, but at its core the team that can win the Balance battle, can get an advantage over their opponent. Which is why my front four (including mezzala) are going to be my players with the best strength and balance. Being part of the split block they will need strength to press the opposition hard while the balance will help them to retain the ball once they win it. Enganche, while not involved in the press, will be another balance player and the most important player in the system.

Un Enganche y Tres Punta

FM2014 was my first ever Football Manager game and as such will always have a special place in my heart. I will always remember it due to some memorable saves, such as my first promotion with Manisaspor in Turkey and the regen only saga with Rostock. One of my most memorable players from 2014 version, has to be Riquelme. It was the last Football Manager that he appeared in. Sadly, I never got to manage one of the most unique playmakers in any FM game. Looking back at his attribute distribution I do not think we will get one like him for a while. At least not a few years until Messi starts to slow down in the latter half of his 30s. So what made Riquelme so unique and so sought after by FM14 tactic aficionados?

As you can see above, despite the degeneration of most of his physical attributes, Riquelme’s Balance remained high. So while he was one of the great playmakers of his generation, his name became synonymous with the role of enganche.

In Football Manager definition, an enganche is the team’s prime creator, and a hook that joins midfield to attack. This playmaker holds a static pivot role behind the striker(s) and the rest of the team moves around him. Unlike other playmaker roles like trequartista, it is a relatively stationary role. Meaning enganche acts a focal point for passes and starts plays. He does not move into space or tries to get involved in attacks. He will not create the space but instead take advantage of the space created by others moving around him. For such a static role, high Balance is essential. It will help the player stay rooted to his position despite heavy opposition pressure. And while he is pressed, space will be invariably created elsewhere that enganche’s more mobile team members can exploit. As such the enganche is the most important role in a Bielsa system.

No matter which team he manages or which formation, Marcelo ‘El Loco‘ Bielsa never moves away from one basic formula. The setup of his front four attacking players is always the same. The formula is always three attacking midfielders (one No.10 playmaker and two wingers) behind the centre-forward. The so-called ‘un enganche y tres punta’ or “the hook and three points” is as much a product of Bielsa’s Argentine Football upbringing as his adventurous attacking style. You can take Bielsa out of Argentina but you can never take Argentina out of El Loco. And enganche is as much a part of Argentinean football tradition as regista is Italy’s. One cannot talk about the history of football in either nation without at least mentioning these two iconic roles. In this sense, Riquelme did for Argentina what Pirlo did for Italy.

Looking for a Perfect Hook

I’ve been trying to fit this free creative element into my current formation, by actually using a playmaker role, other than the game’s enganche. I find FM20 enganche’s position to be too advanced to have significant influence on the build up play. In reality I believe traditional enganches, such Riquelme, started much deeper in midfield. This allowed them to have more time on the ball and more space for their passes. Thus my ideal playmaker is not one that sits right behind the attackers as the game would suggest. Instead I want him to be a deeper creative presence. This is where my Bielsa-ball tactic will diverge from the pure Bielsa recreation. Although I hope the spirit of Total Football shall be preserved.

Juan Mata – my current perfect enganche

How do you know that your team has an enganche? It is not just a question of whether you have a classic No.10 Playmaker (although its part of the role). Enganche is a pretty unique and special role. One that goes against the merciless logic at the core of the game. A good enganche could be a young player or one that is well into his 30s. It is probably the only role that actually gets better as the player ages. Typically a playmaker’s technical and mental attributes will keep on increasing while his pace and acceleration decrease. Fortunately, balance, and strength are among the last to go. So given Messi’s current level of balance, he will turn into a pretty amazing enganche in a few years. Maybe even better than Riquelme at the same age. Mata is my current enganche and he is still going strong despite being 32.

Manager’s Dilemma – Constant Tactical Balancing Act

This is probably the reason why I feel so much affinity to Bielsa. I suspect that El Loco would be as obsessive, if not more so, if he was a Football Manager player.

As some of my readers found out by now, I am a pathological FM tactics tinkerer. I admit that I have a problem. I probably spend more time fine-tuning my tactics then I do actually simulating games. That is probably the main reason why I still have not finished second season with Manchester United after two months with only one save. While I see some people already post pics of Messi and Ronaldo as club managers. But the problem is that the moment I balance one aspect of my tactic, I discover that there is something else that could be improved. It is a never-ending process of small incremental improvements. At least that is what I like to think. Sometimes after changing a role or instruction, the whole system is made worse. It is a risk. But without experimentation there is no discovery.

The Attribute Method

When I looked at my 4-1-4-1 from the start of the 2nd season, I realized that I was lacking focus, both in roles and in its style. How did I want this tactic to attack and defend? What roles did I want to use to achieve this? Pressing is a key element in all of Bielsa’s tactics. There are a number of methods by which pressing can be achieved in the game. One that I have had success with in FM20 is the split block. Its a style of pressing where the front attackers are told to close down much more than the team’s default level of pressing. I achieve this through using individual instructions, as you probably saw in the tactic pictures above.

The players that I want to be part of the split block are the striker, wingers and mezzala. As such their attribute distribution is very important. Overall they should be well-rounded in both attack and defence. But their Bravery, Workrate and Strength attributes should be among their best as these attributes control how strongly and how often they will press the opposition. As I mentioned above, balance attribute is also key in the battle for the control of the ball. It defines the ability of a player to maintain possession despite heavy pressure from opponent’s defenders. Balance is very important for any attacking player as it helps determine the quality of cross/shot/pass made while under pressure. The defender’s strength attribute acts as the counter the attacker’s balance as a fast, strong defender can throw even the most nimble attacker off balance when closing him down.

Thus my front four need good levels of both balance and strength. Strength for their pressing while out of possession and balance to control the ball in possession when faced against opponent’s defence. This is how I set up the front four players.

1) The Brunt of Attack will come from the AML (inside forward), and the Mezzala. 2) The Support will be from the Central Striker and AMR (inverted winger). The left side can afford to be more attacking because of 3) the holding playmaker, our enganche, on that side. Similarly on the right side there should be nice interplay between the inverted winger and the attacking mezzala. With the inverted winger dropping back and creating cut backs for mezzala surging beyond him. The right inverted wingback is also close at hand as a passing option.

The collection of supporting roles on the right side should naturally lead to an overload. On the left flank, we have the inside forward and inverted wingback taking advantage of the space liberated by the overload to create 1v1 or 2v1.

Our holding playmaker (deep enganche so to speak), is essential to this whole attacking movement. Not only does he provide support to the runners on the left but also covers the left space while they advance. He does not need to be the most defensive player as he will not be involved in the press. He does need a good level of balance since he will be holding on to the ball quite a bit. The Ball-Winning Midfielder, our midfield destroyer, is also there to secure the exposed flank. More importantly he will try to win back any balls that get through our frontal press. To be effective BWM needs to be among our most physically-imposing players with very good tackling and positioning attributes. I instruct him to hold position.

Achieving balance in your tactic is not just about balanced distribution of roles but also about positioning of those roles on the field. Sometimes how the player acts in his role is fully dependent on where he is on the field and how strong he is in a certain attribute. Next step is identifying those players and making sure that you play them to their strength.

I hope this gives you a little idea of my Attribute Method to tactical creation and balancing. In an upcoming article I will be showing how this method is further defining my Total Football DNA and influencing a whole new generation of stars at Old Trafford. Thank you for reading and feel free to follow and like us @ Dictate The Game’s Facebook and Dictate The Game’s Twitter

For those wondering, the header picture for the article is in fact the great Riquelme in action for Villareal.

Tactic Download Link:

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Written by crusadertsar


Leave a Reply
  1. Hi,
    So I’ve downloaded the tactic and given it a go and I’ve had mostly positive results with it, although I still have a couple questions.

    1) Do you still tend to have majority of the ball because I’m finding I rarely do, even having as low as 34% but my players always manage to create more chances regardless. Is this something that could be remedied or just a result of the change in player roles and lack of team instructions ?

    2) Speaking of team instructions, is there a particular reason why underlap right is on but not underlap left in the download file? Is this deliberate and what’s the logic behind it if so?

    • Possession is really player dependent in this tactic. It helps if you have strong players with good composure and balance and teamwork. Regarding underlap, it was remnant of tactic testing and shouldn’t be there. I removed it since. Hope this helps. Also I wouldn’t worry about possession numbers. Game was always weird in calculating it. As long as you are getting good chances and goals.

      • Thanks for the reply. Overall I’ve enjoyed using this tactic and the chance creation numbers are particularly impressive (I’m Man Utd too). Job well done 👍🏾👍🏾

  2. Really loving your content! Been following the series from episode one. I really appreciate the story you’re telling and how you tell it. Keep up the goid work. Cheers

  3. Hello! Great content and new to the site and will be checking out more articles!

    Would you mind sharing the most final iteration of the tactic with some screenshots?

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