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Non-League Legends: Magpies Take Flight

As you might remember last season, I extensively covered Total Football. Naturally, writing about highly technical, possession-focused system, inspired some complicated tactics. And the teams I tested with, while not world-beaters, were mostly in the higher end of the league pyramid. Leading an elite club has its challenges of course and winning any trophy is never a sure thing. Not even when you’re the top club in the country. With Lower League Management (LLM) the challenge becomes rather different in FM21. Not only do you have to contend with low budgets but also shallower talent pool. Yet the feeling of satisfaction and gradual build-up with each success is like no other. And it’s something I would like to showcase with Non-League Legends series. As you read the series, you will see the process of how to promote any club from Non-League to Premier League Glory.

My ongoing Non-League Legends FM21 Series will be covering everything about 4-4-2. From its secret history to everything you need to know before setting up this formation in Football Manager 2021. Part 1 can be found here:

Legends of The Lane

Ask any kid what he knows about Notts County and he’ll tell you they’re the oldest football team in the world. By the time I’ve finished he’ll know a lot more.

Jimmy Sirrel, upon becoming the manager of Magpies in November 1969

Much like the club legend, Sirrel, I would like to teach you something about the historic club that is Notts County. In 1969 Jimmy Sirrel inherited the team that was languishing near the bottom of the English Fourth Division and in less than 4 years led them to Second League promotion. Then after a short stint with Sheffield United, he came back to finish the job and bring the Magpies back to the glory of First League, English highest tier at the time, in 1981. And he did this in style, securing promotion by beating the struggling Chelsea side, 2-0. It was the first time Notts County reached top flight since 1926. It also turned out to be almost the last.

Jimmy Sirrel and Jack Wheeler – The two legends of Meadow Lane

Under Sirrel’s leadership, County stayed in top flight for three seasons, but ended the 1980s back in the third tier. Then briefly Neil Warnock masterminded play-off successes in 1990-1991 that saw the club promoted back into the top flight. However they were immediately relegated the next season. Thus missing out on the first-ever season of Premier League football in 1992. Something that I hope to remedy in FM21.

No idea why he is holing up an inflatable banana

Winning Colours

So what do kids these days know about Notts County Football Club? They might know that it was one of the founding members of the English Football League. And the club that is the oldest of all association football clubs (although some claim otherwise). Although it has never been in the Premier League. Despite Sirrel’s and Warnock’s valiant efforts. To this day, Notts County’s 3rd position in 1890-91 First Division remains their highest ever league finish. A club record not broken in 130 years!

How about being a club, whose home kit was  “borrowed” by a younger footballing brother? A club that has since, in a tradition of younger brothers everywhere, went on to do better and bigger things. And what was this club you ask?

Zidane was one among many superstars to play for the Italian giant over the year and one who was proud to wear the famous black and white stripes.

You guessed it, Juventus. In 1903 Turin-based club was so impressed with the Notts County black and white shirts that they asked one of their team members, Englishman John Savage, to supply the whole team with them. At the time Juventus, was looking for a kit that was rugged in both physical and metaphorical sense. Since their traditional pink shirts started to fade after multiple washings. And so the Italian club has worn the black striped kits ever since, considering the colours to be aggressive and powerful. One cannot prove whether this assertion is true. But the fact of the matter is that Juve definitely won a lot of trophies while wearing the striped kit.

Interestingly enough, in 2011 to mark the opening of their new stadium, Juve invited Notts County for an historic exhibition match. After a spectacular opening ceremony, the game ended 1–1 with goals from Luca Toni and Lee Hughes.

Why choose Magpies in FM21?

You might ask why out of all the English clubs, I chose Magpies? Surely, it wasn’t because of their home kits? Honestly, I’m a big Serie A fan and the colours definitely influenced the choice. But more importantly the current Notts County squad is special for another reason. With this series I wanted to showcase a progressive evolution of 4-4-2 formation. Showing how it can be applied across different division levels and leagues. And as a result it can play a little differently depending on your players. And the Magpies just happen to have a very suitable squad to showcase the beauty of 4-4-2.

The true beauty of 4-4-2 shape comes through its versatility. Depending on the players at hand, it can play very differently. The player attributes and unique traits ensure that no two 4-4-2 will look exactly the same on the pitch. Even a 5th division club like the Magpies shows a good example of this.

From the very first look at its squad, I can tell right away that the Magpies’ strength comes from its forwards: the strikers and the attacking wingers.

Cal Roberts – capable of playing both wings. His strengths definitely lie in his dribbling, first touch and passing, as well as acceleration and pace. It is rare to find a good inside forward in the 5th division, but Roberts is definitely one. A rather unique quality, that has also been recently rewarded in real life.

Enzio Boldewijn – Cal’s partner on the wings. He is an interesting choice as he can serve as both more attacking or support/crossing option depending on which flank you play him on. He can be a dangerous threat on either flank. Enzio also possesses excellent pace for National League.

When it comes to strikers, there is no lack of talent in Notts County. And both youth and experience are on display. Our main duo is no doubt Rodrigues and Sam. Ruben Rodriguez is a Portuguese poacher with a real eye for goal (8 goals already in 3 games!). He is perfectly complemented by the Belgian Elisha Sam. The Belgian’s attributes are great for this level of competition. He has everything he needs to perform well in the Targetman role.

Important Side Note on Attributes

One thing I learned since starting with Lower League Management is adjusting my expectations in regards to player attributes. Whereas 15+ may be ideal attribute value when managing at Premiership-level, one cannot expect it of players in National League. For a team of 5th division caliber, any attributes above 10 would be average while anything that is 15+ is exceptional. From this perspective, you can see why I am get so excited looking at profiles of players like Cal Roberts.

The beauty of 4-4-2: Adapting to the Opposition

The beauty of 4-4-2 lies in how it can play very different depending on how you set up your winger roles or even which players you place there. Even if you keep the same Poacher/Targetman partnership upfront. As that will only set the directness of the game, not how the ball gets to them. So for a classic “cross to the big man” 4-4-2, I can set up with Enzio on the right and Cal on the left. Their preferred footedness and traits will ensure that they will mostly stick to running up the flanks and crossing to my Targetman. Simple enough, but rather effective.

But what to do if my opponent is really packing the backline with tall centrebacks or has fast fullbacks? My earlier direct crossing strategy might not work as the opponent intercepts every cross coming in. Or their pacey fullbacks simply give no space to my wingers. This is good opportunity to make a few tweaks to the formation to make it play differently. Firstly lets switch the two wide players. Starting Enzio on the left will ensure that he will cut inside on his preferred right foot while Cal has the trait to cut inside from the right.

With two players cutting inside behind the strikers, the nature of the tactic changes. Now it becomes much more focused on central play and passing through the opposition midfield and defence. Thus by tweaking the wide roles and switching players, you change the way the whole tactic play out.

Swiss Knife Player

I made a decision to not use my transfer budget in the first season. Firstly, we barely have any transfer budget (some 39000 pounds) to begin with. Secondly, I believe that our team is already more than good enough for National League (with many players being League Two-ready). So I would like to use the first year to test the strength of my current squad, to better see what changes we will need make going forward. Finally, I wanted to avoid the temptation of signing half a dozen loanees from higher league, as is usually the case when starting a LLM save. Well almost. I did make one loan signing.

Ateef Konate from Nottingham Forest. Funnily enough his yearly salary matches exactly our current transfer budget! Honestly it’s a bit of a coup, considering his attributes and the fact he comes from our bitter city rival. As you can see, he is an ace of a player so I definitely don’t mind full wages for him.

Ateef is not exactly an impulse buy. I expect him to be our potential star. If we manage to keep him as we move up the leagues. He is also going to be our Swiss Knife. In almost all FM saves, I have a Swiss Knife Player. In other words a highly versatile player that can slot in several tactical strata and multiple positions. I find its almost a necessity to have 1-2 such players in any squad. It helps greatly when you want to keep the squad small, manageable and easy to rotate. And Ateef can play in both central and attacking midfield, as well as on both wings.

Early Tactical Impressions

As you can see from the following screens, we are performing rather well. The early results with initial version of my 4-4-2 tactic look promising as we sit 1st by middle of January.

I really love the new tactical analysis screens, especially the attacking efficacy one. It gives a perfect visual representation of just how clinical the Magpies have been.

And so far this season we have not actually lost a single League match! Not bad at all.

For those interested to test this tactic with your own team, here is the download link: https://ufile.io/x4maoive

Please keep in mind that this is the very earliest version which is bound to change as my team make-up changes and we move up the English leagues pyramid. There are also a few minor tweaks that I made in this final download, compared to the screens above. For example now there are fullbacks on both flanks to give more defensive solidity. Also its not a full-blown Maslov recreation. Simply because I do not have the personnel for that yet. But that remains the plan for the future.

Do Sleeping Giants Dream of Trophies?

Notts County may not be the biggest sleeping giant. Not in a traditional sense at least. It is not a club with a trophy-filled cabinet dreaming about its illustrious past. Something that its city neighbour Nottingham Forest knows all too well. But in my opinion, Notts County is a former giant nevertheless. Maybe even a fallen one. And a club with a history like no other.

For not a lot of clubs can claim to be the oldest association football club in the world (founded in 1862 no less!). As well as being one of the twelve founding members of English First Division. A division that was England’s top flight for most of the existence of professional football in United Kingdom. And Magpies finished 3rd in that division on two occasions (1890-1891 and 1900-1901). At the same time they won the FA Cup in 1894 and were runners-up in 1891. Not a bad record at all.

Notts County team that won the FA Cup in 1894.

So for the purposes of this series Notts County is an ideal club. As I was looking for an older club with a long history. But also one that did not win a lot of trophies in its past. Although perhaps one that came close to winning the top honours, but not quite. Always a bridesmaid, but never a bride as they say.

Also I needed a Non-League club. And thanks to Magpies timely relegation in 2019, the club starts this season in the National League. That is the 5th highest non-league division outside of the 4 EFL division. Notts County’s lowest starting position in its history. A perfect jumping off point for a long FM21 series where I plan to focus on my own youth academy. It is also a great opportunity to try more simple tactics, starting in a “simpler” league. My ultimate goal is to show that you do not need to go overboard with tactical complexity to build a successful and effective system. A tactical system to not only succeed in the Lower League but also to survive the test of the Premier League, eventually.

So can I bring this Sleeping Giant to Premier League for the first time in its 150 plus year history? I certainly hope so. And I hope that you, my dear readers will stick around for the long read and stay with us for this tactical journey back into football history.

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Written by crusadertsar

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