How would a team with players of below-the-league average quickness perform in the Premier League? Would they cope against the likes of Adama Traore and Raheem Sterling? Or manage to penetrate through defensive monsters like Virgil van Dijk and Aymeric Laporte? In this Football Manager 2020 Experiment, let’s see if I can surpass expectations using players with limited pace and acceleration within a league known for its end-to-end action.
After doing some calculations, I decided to manage the club with the lowest average ‘pace’ and ‘acceleration’ attributes combined in the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, this was Burnley, with said averages of 12.00 and 12.29 respectively. To ensure that my squad would continue to compete below the entire league’s average pace (13.13) and acceleration (13.07), I self-imposed two additional player restrictions:
- existing Burnley players must have either pace or acceleration of no more than 13; and
- new Burnley signings must have pace and acceleration of no more than 12
These restrictions intended to establish a middle ground between having sufficient existing Burnley players to manage, while still remaining as the slowest Premier League team.
I realized that this would be an interesting but challenging experiment, as pace and acceleration are two highly valued attributes in modern football (…just look at how overpowered they are in FIFA!).
Nevertheless, it got me thinking of potential ideas to hopefully compensate for a lack of quickness. In terms of my players, I figured that they would need to be strong in areas such as:
- Anticipation – better reading of the game
- Decisions – know when to press and when to retreat
- Positioning – avoid getting caught out of position and not having the speed to get back
- Teamwork – more team-oriented and work as a unit
- Work rate – more willing and eager to contribute in both attack and defence
- Agility – still be as nimble as possible
- Stamina – have enough gas in the engine to push through the entire match
In terms of the likely playing style and tactical setup:
- Compact – make it harder for the opposition to find space
- Sit deeper defensively – reduce the amount of long balls over our defence
- Conservative build-up play – with limited speed in the team, we can’t simply hoof the ball forward to chase after
- Make use of strength and aerial presence – giving us another form of physicality advantage
- Make use of set pieces – goes hand-in-hand with the point above
Does that ring a bell? Sound a bit like Burnley’s real-life way of playing? Regardless, the plan wasn’t to replicate their system, but simply document an experiment that perhaps explores more niche options in the transfer market, player selections, and in-game tactics. The success of this season-long playthrough would depend on the ability to achieve respectable match results and ideally exceed the board expectations of fighting bravely against relegation.
The current squad
After sorting my initial Burnley squad by highest to lowest acceleration, the players highlighted failed to satisfy the experiment’s requirements as they either exceeded the pace or acceleration limit of 13 or had 13 for both attributes.
As you saw, with half my squad not being allowed to feature in this experiment, I was expecting a busy, busy pre-season…
Surprisingly, we managed to receive a whopping 80m in player sales. Sounds good doesn’t it? You’d think, with so much money available, surely I’d be able to bring in high enough caliber players to exceed board expectations… Ha! I wish it was that easy!
I did, however, make the most of the funds we had by splashing out 83m on 14 new players including two free transfers. As anticipated, I did have to pay more attention to other particular attributes in hope of compensating for the pace and acceleration player restrictions.
Here are some of the key signings from defence to attack:
With the high number of transfers in and out of the club, I arranged plenty of friendly matches to help the team gel together as soon as possible. At the end of pre-season, I wanted to have three tried and tested tactical variations to utilize against teams with varying ability in the Premier League. Hence I made sure to arrange friendlies with a mix of high, medium, and low reputation teams.
The development of our tactics
I started off with a flat and fairly standard 4-4-2, and watched entire friendly matches to assess how things went. This formation was short-lived. In attack, the link-up play between the midfielders and strikers was poor. Ensuring our forwards had adequate support by teammates in turn made us prone to being counter attacked. Defensively, I didn’t feel comfortable with only have two players in central midfield as many Premier League teams use a 4-2-3-1 formation. This would mean their central attacking midfielder would find dangerous spaces between our midfield and defensive lines. Sadly, switching the center back pairing to a ‘stopper’ and ‘cover’, or having one central midfielder’s duty set on ‘defend’ created their own set of problems. Back to the drawing board!
Positive tactic 2.0
Perhaps I was making a subconscious attempt to emulate Burnley’s way of playing in real life. Was the flat 4-4-2 really the best option for us? I decided to take another look at my players such as their strengths, weaknesses and player traits. Here was my second iteration.
Yep, not really a formation that I’ve tried before either. But hey, it certainly looked encouraging (for the time being…). I wanted to make use of our abundance of mentally strong players in the midfield while also acknowledging our limitations out wide. This set-up offered much greater resilience centrally. Another opportunity that arose was the space created for our attacking right WB on the overlap. With Tom Rogic and Bacary Sagna operating on either side of Chris Wood, this addressed the lack of support that our strikers were previously experiencing in the 4-4-2. Let’s take a closer look at how this tactic played out on the pitch.
As you can see, with this formation our DLP Rico had clear passing options both ahead and behind him. The most exciting part of this tactic was the lob-sided right WB (number 18). His confidence to bomb forward largely came from having sufficient nearby cover from the BWM as well as a sort of back three shape due to our much more conservative left full back.
By changing the initial two-man striker partnership to a striker-and-attacking midfielder pairing, the attacking midfielder (number 25) facilitates the build-up between midfield and attack. I also deliberately kept our striker on the right side rather than the usual 4-4-1-1 set-up. Firstly, this enhanced his link-up play with our marauding right back. Additionally, most of the time he tended to only face one opposing center back rather than being sandwiched in between two. This increased his chances for winning duels and holding up the ball successfully, and at times helped occupy his opposing center back which left space for our attacking midfielder to run into.
I know what you’re thinking – surely my right WB would get doubled-up by the opposition, right? Well, for most of the friendly matches that this tactic featured in, it actually wasn’t that bad! When the opposition attacked down their left, my right-sided ball winning central midfielder (number 17) would close down endlessly.
However, this wasn’t sustainable as I unsurprisingly struggled against stronger teams when using this tactic. Facing higher quality players meant they were quicker – in passing, dribbling, and running into space – and found it easier to threaten down our right. No better time to start developing an underdog tactic!
From my accumulated Football Manager experience and general football knowledge, my go-to defensive formation is the flat 4-1-4-1. As you can see in the team instructions, we didn’t set up to play in a typical ‘hoof and chase’ manner. Due to our entire team’s limited pace and acceleration, I didn’t want to create an overly expansive and risky counter attacking style of play. The shorter passing style and a narrower attacking width were selected to help players compose themselves after winning back the ball. We didn’t want to rush things and lose the ball immediately. Without us having a single player on the ‘attack’ duty, limiting our options in the final third, players are given the right to attempt a shot when the chance arises.
In general, we sit in quite a compact unit. Regardless of the opposition, my wide players are told to close down less and opposition instructions are used to encourage opposing players to go infield. This reduces ill-discipline pressing that might risk us being caught out of position. Despite our apparent narrowness, the team instruction of defending wider allows us to engage and shift collectively towards our opposition’s wide players when they are on the ball. Worst case scenario, our defenders’ ability in the air and strong mental attributes makes us good at dealing with balls crossed in from out wide.
Once again, our sole striker was placed off-center and its effect on field can be seen above. Most opposition teams have a two-man central midfield, with one usually more advanced (number 10 in blue) than their counterpart (number 21 in blue). This is where I believe the positioning of my striker makes a difference. By placing him on the side of the opposition’s more advanced central midfielder, my striker has more time to control the ball and lay it off to a teammate.
League results thus far
Despite the overwhelming number of losses, personally I don’t think we’ve done that badly. Bearing in mind our large number of pre-season transfers, I was sort of expecting the inevitable rocky start.
Our two biggest defeats came very early on, but even then I’d argue that the scorelines didn’t do our performances justice. Firstly, Hanno Behrens’ sending off prevented us from hanging onto our half-time goalless draw and we ultimately collapsed in the second half.
Most of the matches that followed were marginal defeats; nothing to be ashamed of for a team expected to finish in the relegation zone (18th). I ended up using the underdog 4-1-4-1 tactic more than I had expected – against mid-table teams and upwards, and/or for most away games. One tactical change I often made if I was only one goal down in the final ten minutes of a match was to eagerly throw men forward in hope of earning a draw.
Fortunately, the home game against Liverpool was when I started to see visible improvements from the team. Though we lost, our team was relentless defensively and this upturn in performance shortly helped us secure two more wins. Both goals came from Chris Wood early on in the match, allowing us to then sit back and hang onto our lead.
More wins to come?
After 13 league matches, the team now sits in 14th place. The back-to-back wins have also slightly lifted our team’s morale. Improved tactical familiarity and greater team cohesion means that more positive results should soon follow. With £11m transfer budget and £120,000 wage budget available, I could potentially make one or two signings in the coming winter transfer window.
Once I reach early February, the second article of this three-part experiment series will then be released to highlight how I got on. Can I sustain our recent good fortunes, or were the last two matches just sympathy wins? Stay tuned for part two!
Article written by Nicolas Breant
Did you enjoy this? Here are some other interesting articles for you:
- Want to up your defensive game in FM? Check out: ‘The Art of Defence
- Who better to learn defending from than El Cholo: Simeone’s Symphony
- Prefer the more possession-based, attacking football? Check out: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love 4-3-3