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How to break defensive teams down in FM19


Score goals while not conceding any from counter-attacks or set pieces.  Simple enough, right?

Not quite. Any Google search on this topic is littered with results, from SI Forums, Reddit, and any other FM-based domain you might think of. Some people say trying to dominate games, so it becomes attack vs defence, is an inherent problem. After all, your squad might not be good enough; this style arguably hands opponents more opportunities to create clear-cut chances!

However, what fun would this game be if we couldn’t pretend to be visionaries? It’s fun to imagine what teams play like when they’re built in our image. We’re not promising that you’ll know more about football than your club’s manager after reading this. But it’s close!

Breaking defensive teams down in FM19


Defensive teams are characterised by defending deep and not taking many risks. They only try to score in open play when there’s a clear counter-attacking opportunity.

Obviously, that’s an over-simplification. It works as a rule of thumb, though; it’s important to set a template for the side you’re expected to beat. Here’s an example:


My defenders, including full-backs, have all the time in the world. However, my inside forwards are too wide to cause immediate danger. My striker’s also offside, and my midfielders’ passing lanes have been restricted. My attacking midfielder has had to drop deep to form a midfield three. Matt Phillips has also drifted inside to find better passing options.

In other words, Milwall and other defensive teams try to restrict your players. They hope these players won’t be effective in their most dangerous areas of the pitch. Here are some steps to help alleviate that pressure:

  1. Be careful with picking playmakers
Advanced Playmaker

Resist the temptation to fill your side with them. All of them have ‘take more risks’ as a fixed player instruction. Some have ‘move into channels’, ‘dribble more’ and ‘roam from position’ too.

Now, this sounds like a good thing. It can be in moderation; someone needs to provide that telling pass, thumping shot, or creative dummy. However, playmakers are often systematically crowded out. Players dedicating their entire game to finding those tiny bits of space play into the opposition’s hands.

Advanced playmakers work best when there’s enough space in the number 10 hole. Deep-lying playmakers work best when you can predict the movement ahead of them; they’re never expected to join in attacks. Roaming playmakers work best as the heartbeat of your team. Like the other playmakers, they predominantly play killer passes, but they also roam up and down the field. You can never rely on them for positional discipline.

Roaming Playmaker

When your team is dominating the ball, patience and movement is needed to unlock the opposition. The centrepieces of that probing can’t only perform one function. Even if you don’t select ‘move into channels’ as one of their instructions, that’s what the feisty playmaker does anyway. They’re looking to play that one killer pass. That objective is often impossible to reconcile with circulating the ball and giving the opposition no signs of encouragement!

  1. Look for every opportunity to create space.

Circulating the ball and being patient is essential towards unlocking these defensive teams. However, it needs an end product; there must be a deliberate, discernible way to open up these mean defences.

I pick standard roles for many of the most active positions. By that, I mean the positions which receive the ball the most. Players in these roles judiciously balance the situation before making their moves. This handy clip’s a great example of how these facilitators create room for others:

Believe it or not, that’s the same 4-4-2 we’re playing against! Milwall are simply terrified of being opened up. When their left-winger couldn’t keep up with Oliver Burke, their left CM went rampaging up the field to stop Phillips releasing the ball. There are two key elements to Milwall’s fear:

  • The amount of space my three midfielders are in, even if their CM hadn’t closed Phillips down.
  • The players in threatening positions beyond them.

My poacher, Diego Rolan, is clearly drawing the opposition backline deeper. Knowing he’ll take advantage of any hole in Milwall’s backline, their defenders have become uncertain. Even standing offside is useful, provided Rolan’s onside enough to be an active threat.

Burke and Rodriguez having inside forward roles is also crucial. Unlike an advanced playmaker, their starting position is out wide. In addition, as they’re wide forwards, they’ll make late forward runs if there’s an opportunity. Lastly, the inside forward will take advantage of the space available, and allow for overlaps, by running inside.

Ideally, the attackers should be in more primitive roles to create space. This should tire the opposition out, while providing for more openings when your team are circulating the ball. Drag the opposition back to help your team collectively swivel forward!

  1. Make the tactic as aggressive as you can.

In my tactic, the most aggressive defensive settings are applied to team instructions, player instructions, and opposition instructions. The reason? To prevent the opposition from playing out of the back. Trying to get out their own half should become a hopeless dream at that point!

You may’ve noticed that my GK and CB’s aren’t in standard roles. The GK is a sweeper-keeper on attack and the CB’s are ball-playing defenders on stopper. The reasoning is two-fold. As players in those two positions will have the most space when they receive the ball, they need to be the bravest players. Also, no one can drop off. My CB’s should keep the opposition in their cage. Close the channels before the opposing attackers get a sniff of the ball. The attacking sweeper-keeper must also be ready for the opposition to break your offside trap. It will inevitably happen.

This is what your defending should look like:

Executing such a fluid game plan requires intense concentration. What you ideally need is an interchanging system, where the opposition don’t have a pass on and don’t exactly know who they’re facing. If any of the attackers received the ball, where were they going to go? Milwall’s only passing options were backwards. Our high press would obviously make sure that ended with them clearing their lines.

To pull this off, each player’s task should be as clear as possible.

  1. Pre-plan how set pieces should end up
Newcastle v Man City.png

This is intended as a slight variation of ‘spend time setting up set-pieces’. We hope it’s more salient, even though it’s similar in substance.

In football, it’s not enough to assume set pieces will be scored because you have a lot of players forward. The same applies for defending them. Contrary to what commentators might tell you, set pieces aren’t all about individuals either. A good marker might lose his man and a good technical player might make a bad delivery.  There doesn’t have to be a hero and a villain!

Making use of the rowdy boxing arena that is the penalty area takes some work. You have a plethora of different options when it comes to choosing where the ball will go. It requires some forethought and planning. Before electing to take short corners, have a designated player coming short. Before electing to take them from the edge of the area, have a passing option dropping off into space.

Attacking Corners

I’ve found the far post to be the most reliable delivery area. I can put two men there, with others wrestling for the ball around them. As the furthest from where the corner’s taken, it’s also the most likely area for an opposition defensive lapse. When the corner’s taken, everyone will be looking away from the man on the far post. In addition, if the ball hangs in the air as much as possible, others are more likely to get caught under it.

When a player wins the ball at the far post, it’s more likely to create a goal scoring opportunity than a flick-on. To create space and divert markers, it’s vital to have sustained threats at both posts, though. Take full advantage of not having to worry about offsides.

With free kicks, similar principles apply, but with offsides considered:

Attacking Free Kicks

Throw-ins are vital. If taken quickly, they’re a great opportunity to bewilder the opposition:

Attacking Throw Ins

Getting these nimble forwards breaking away into the box, while my defenders occupy the opposition backline, is a tantalising sight! In FM19, I’ve had a problem where the man marking the opposition GK ends up staying back. It’s sometimes the same for players staying forward. Just try and tweak players around to see what works!

Now, defending set pieces:

Defending Corners
Defending Free Kicks
Defending Throw-Ins

I might sound like a hypocrite here. I suggested earlier that you shouldn’t assume a set piece will be defended against because enough players are back. However, with the free kicks, zonal marking might set my defensive line too deep. Using strict man-marking might work, but might also go horribly wrong. What if the wrong player is assigned to the wrong opponent? The man-marking system for free kicks in FM19 doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence; for some reason, only one player can specifically mark a tall opponent! I also want my players to be in the best position to counter-attack when they recover the ball.

Here’s my direct free kicks:

Attacking Direct Free Kicks
Defending Direct Free Kicks


Remember that breaking down defensive teams in FM19 is incredibly difficult. It can be useful to treat games like training matches, so you can tinker as much as possible. Working out what each role does can be about as difficult as predicting what the opposition’s next pass will be.

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Written by Ben


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