in , ,

Jóvenes Diablos – The Spanish 4-1-4-1 Armada

And How to Use the Best PPM in FM20

The summer 2020 has been one of many changes at Old Trafford, both in the locker-room and tactical drawing board. As a result of endless tactical tweaking, I think I arrived at a tactic that I am finally happy with. It is a good old 4-1-4-1! This article will show you I think it is the best formation in FM20, and how one particular Player Trait can make it even better. Also there has been a veritable invasion of new faces into the First Team squad. And as you might guess from the title, most of them originating from one particular country. Before I start on that, I would like to give a quick summary of my 1st full season with Red Devils.

Previously on Young Devils Series:

Summing Up The First Season

We did it! Man United is back in the Champions League for 2020-21 season. We finished in 4th position. In achieving this, we failed to win any hardware, at least on the team level. However, on the individual level my tactics got recognition to a number of United’s players. Erling Haaland turned into a real goal machine with 41 overall goals, 27 of which were in the League. This earned him the Premiership’s Top Goalscorer Award, as he beat out Harry Kane by 6 goals.

In terms of goalscoring, Marcus Rashford also had a successful campaign with 18 goals. Which is rather impressive, considering that I used him as mainly winger support to Haaland. His task was to use his speed on the right wing to win 1v1 and cross to Haaland in center. Sometimes he chose to shoot, which shows in his goal tally. As an aside, Mata was a revelation in his Enganche role, assisting on 16 goals.

It was definitely a year that started off with a bang and ended with somewhat less of a bang. Nevertheless it was a worthwhile season despite coming away without any trophies. Getting back into Champions League was key as it will allow me to test my tactic against bigger teams. Also the season gave me valuable experience experimenting with the match engine and getting to know Man Utd players well. By May I knew better who will be integral to my Bielsa-ball system in Season 2. As you saw in my last article, the final result was the new Club DNA at Old Trafford. A clear central identity that I hope will guide all future player development and recruitment for this save.

Spanish Invasion

“I am Dutch, but I will always defend the football Spain play.” – Johan Cruyff

With the set goal of recreating Total Football I needed to look to a side that played it most recently either at club or international level. Everything directed me towards Spain, specifically its great National Team of 2010. In the World Cup Final, Spain faced off against Netherlands, in a one of a kind historic match up. At the end of the day, it was Spain that won, due to its own brand of Total Football. Branded Tiki-Taka it started at Barcelona under Johan Cruyff’s guidance. Barça’s focused on the possession aspect of Total Football while high pressing and patient short passing became its main tools. As such Tiki-Taka was never meant to be a faithful recreation of the Dutch system. Rather it took what was essential about Total Football and attempted to refine it to the point where one team’s style of play became a national symbol.

Even today, due to the legacy of Cruyff, Barcelona and Pep Guardiola’s Tiki Taka, Spanish National Team remains a staunch supported of very technical, attacking, possession-focused football. It has all the elements that made Total Football, and it is also what drives Bielsa in his own tactical philosophy. Ideally, Bielsa looks to players who are extremely fit, hard-working teamplayers. They also need to be highly technical to be able to play in his demanding systems, considering that sometimes he asks them to play roles they are not used to, turning midfielders into fullbacks and fullbacks into central defenders.

So naturally I went to Spain in my search for well-rounded Total Footballers (ones which best fit my Bielsa-ball DNA’s mold). My plan was not to replace the whole Man Utd First team, but rather to give it an injection of young talent. The talent that would power the core of my Total Football-style tactic and help mentor and shape future young players. In this, I was hoping to recreate the experience of the two Johans at Barcelona. Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, were basically the creative core of Ajax Team of the 70s. They were Total Football’s biggest proponents. It was a game-changer when Barcelona acquired them in 1973-74. You could say that Barça’s Total Football era started then. So what if Red Devils had their own version of Johans?

Lets call them the Two Mikels. Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino from Real Sociedad. They are not my only Spanish acquisitions, but they are definitely key.

By August 2020, Man Utd’s starting Spaniards De Gea and Mata were joined by José Luis Gayà (£86M, January 2020), Sergio Reguilón (Free Transfer, Summer 2020), Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino (£65M and £68M, Summer 2020).

Total Football = Total Shape

“I want the ball for 90 minutes. When I don’t have the ball, I go high pressing because I want the ball.” – Pep Guardiola

Why choose 4-1-4-1 over 4-3-3 to recreate Total Football in FM20? Or for that matter, why does Bielsa himself play 4-1-4-1 at Leeds? Isn’t his favourite formation supposed to be 3-3-1-3? Part of it is probably a question of limited personnel in Championship. But I think there is more subtlety to Bielsa’s choice of shape. I think that 4-1-4-1 is one of the best, most versatile shapes in football. This is a fact that is not lost on the Argentinean manager. He has set Leeds up with a 4-1-4-1 formation that morphs into a 3-3-1-3 with the ball and a 4-5-1 without it. It is perfect as it is both capable of all out aggressive attack or impenetrable defence. All in the same match. The wingers and wingbacks go forward to form a six-pronged attack, or defensive midfielder can drop back with the wingbacks to form a solid back five.

In a 4-3-3, the wingers are well inside the attacking third of the field while in a 4-1-4-1 the wingers start in a much deeper position. This allows teams to build attacks from deep. This formation is conducive to possession-based football, something we know Guardiola favours. Additionally Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1 has been favourable to creating overloads. And Bielsa adapted this shape at Leeds United for exactly the same reason. That is 4-1-4-1’s ease to keep the ball and its inherent ability to stretch the field, creating essential overloads. Overloads and the resulting 1v1s is how both Guaerdiola’s and Bielsa’s teams score the majority of their goals. Overloads is something that I will naturally focus on in all my Young Devil’s tactics. So how does my 4-1-4-1 work?

To stay true to both Bielsa and Total Football, I went with a fluid attacking possession style. This included using minimal team instructions and specialty roles. Generalized roles such as complete forward and defensive midfielder grant players the flexibility to move between attacking, transition and defence phases without being locked into any particular task. It also allows the ball to move around organically from defence to attack. To help with this I avoided any playmaker or target man roles. Each player should get a chance to act as a playmaker dictating the game as he sees fit. Aforementioned importance of strong mental attributes such as decision-making and anticipation play into this aspect of Total Football.

Ideally, all players should be simultaneously creator, runner and tackler. Some of my players already conform to this (new transfers especially) but the whole team is not at this point yet. There is still a lot of work to be done.

In the image above, my tactic can be broken down into two general phases of play. The ball is drawn to the 1 Overloaded Flank (simply by having more support duties there) and then quickly switched to the 2 Unlocked Flank (with the only two attacking duties). The ball switch should occur via the two roles of Mezzala and Inverted Winger. Right now I am experimenting with giving them more creative freedom via individual instructions such as direct or risky passing. So far, I only left direct passing selected as I do not want my tactic to turn into a Route One.

What actually makes these two roles essential to the whole tactic are the unique traits possessed by Merino and Oyarzabal. Both have the rare “Likes to Switch Ball to The Other Flank” trait and it is probably the best PPM in the game.

The Best Player Trait and How to Use It

Once either Oyarzabal (Inverted Winger) or Merino (Mezzala) have the ball, there is a chance that they will attempt to pass to either my attacking winger or complete wingback. Both of these players are set up aggressively to take advantage of the space along the flank that could be freed up when opponent’s defenders and/or midfielders shift to deal with my overloaded right flank. Having the winger-wingback combo ready to attack the left side, could lead to 1v1 or even 2v1 against the opposition fullback. Here what looks like a harmless play quickly turns into a decisive breakthrough on the left flank. You can see clearly how the overload on the right leads to Rashford (my winger) finding space to score. Yet the key to the play was Merino’s cross-field pass. It leaves no time for the opposition defenders to regroup and block Rashford’s approach. Watch it play out below.

I consider the Switch Side trait one of the best if not the best player trait (PPM) in the game. It can be a game-changer in how with the right player it can make a good tactic into a great one. But what I love most about is in how it gives a ton of tactical instructions without further need of team or player instructions. Basically telling the player to pass more directly and to target a specific flank. Without the trait you would probably need at least 2-3 team instructions to recreate such play. In helps greatly in cutting down on useless instructions.

Some team instructions such as Pass Shorter or Play Through The Middle can even be detrimental to the side-switching passes. The only individual instruction I would give both Mezzala and Inverted Winger is more “direct passing”. And if the player already possess “more through balls” trait, it might not be needed at all.

As this great Football Manager Guide states, this PPM really allows your team to break down stubborn defences, especially parked buses. Creating the overload is often the easy part. The more tricky part is in how you take advantage of the opposition that already shifted to one side. In this case a simple player trait can help shift the focus of your attack to the side that momentarily has more space available. But to take advantage of this space, you still need some pretty special players. Here are where my other Spanish acquisitions come in. Jose Gaya, is currently one of the most complete wingbacks in the game. He is fast, great passer, crosser and very solid in defence. He could slot into midfield box-to-box role just as easily. His backup is Reguilón who is another example of a Total Footballer and can even become better due to his potential.

Marcus “Rush Hour” Rashford

Ahead of Gaya, I have my fastest, most dangerous winger, Rashford. His best quality is probably his speed and off the ball movement. And he is probably another key to the system working so well. His four goals this season so far are a fair indication to how well the setup works. In our typical attacking play, Rashford is often found unmarked on the left flank and with loads of space open for him to cross or run towards goal. He managed to get 4 goals in two games before getting injured. I am hoping that Martial will work as well in the meantime but only time will tell.

And here is another beautiful goal by “Rash Hour” (from the same 5-0 dismantlement of Fulham). Rash actually managed to score a natural hat trick there, one with his left foot, one with right and a header. Cannot wait for him to recover from his injury! What a tremendous player.

This is the Premier League table just before going into September international break. The new tactic is shaping up quite well. Its far from fluid but I really like what I have seen in our four victories so far. It may not be Bielsa-ball yet but further testing will show. So thank you for reading and let me know what you think of my 4-1-4-1 by downloading it and commenting below. It is always welcome to have more people testing it with in different league levels. Happy managing and Merry Christmas!

4-1-4-1 Bielsa-ball Tactic Download –

BONUS QUESTION: Can you tell which Man United players are in this photo?

Feel free to follow and like us @ Dictate The Game’s Facebook and Dictate The Game’s Twitter

Other articles you might like:

Written by crusadertsar


Leave a Reply
  1. For the last 6 monts I’ve been reading carefully your different tactical recreations and I didn’t take time until today to comment on your article. Partly because of my poor english skills.

    So thank you for the time you spend to dig into tactical history and DNA. Its really interesting and part of the reasons I came on this blog.

    I have tested for a few games your new 4-1-4-1 with my Union Berlin’s side in 2.Bundesliga (I’m stil playing Fm19) and I would say it’s stunning even though my players are not really fitted for this tactic. For instance I have no great CWB, Mez or CF neither.
    Next steps are, at first, winning 2.Bundesliga to bring new more suited players next summer, and then, create a youth system development that does not exist at Union Berlin in game.

    I was not entirely convinced of your 3-3-1-3 shape for the reason you mentioned : lack of flexibility. Nevertheless my own attempt to recreate this starting and evolutive 4-1-4-1was endless for the reason I was choosing too much team instructions (as everyone does !).
    It seems you find the right balance.

    Now to go further on this tactic, I wonder how to adapt facing a stronger opposent and a to reintroduce those so particular Inverted Wingbacks.

    Thanks again for your work and Merry Christmas.

    • Sorry for the late reply. Was busy with Christmas celebrations. Thank you for the long and detailed comment! Its great to have feedback like yours as it allows me to further improve my tactics. Indeed playing as an underdog and how to best use inverted wingbacks is something that I am still working on and hope to write about in the near future.
      Merry belated Christmas and Happy New Year friend!

  2. So, I have FM20 for Stadia, and although it’s mostly great, one of the things I miss is the ability to export and import tactics. So, is the fmf that you posted have the same roles, duties, and team instructions as the picture you posted? And, are there any player instructions? You mentioned now direct passing on the IW and the MEZ.

    Anyway, I’m loving the articles. Terrific stuff, and thanks for writing them!

    • Thanks for the kind words! It inspires me to continue for sure.
      Actually since I abandoned using Personal Instructions as I simply wasnt seeing that much difference. Just make sure you have great passers in those positions. And if they have “switch side” PPM, thats even better

2 Pings & Trackbacks

  1. Pingback:

  2. Pingback:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FM20 Tactical Planning

Three in One Tactical Planning – Colours of the Flag

Red Star Alliance: The Revolution Begins