The following continues my guide on creating Possession-style tactics. My hope is that by putting it in a more systematic way, this process can be made easier. Creating Tiki-Taka or Total Football (The Holy Grail for us FM possession freaks!) tactics is never easy. Hopefully some of the tools and tips presented in this and previous articles, can make this process more intuitive and transparent. So read on if you want to learn how to create your very own Total Football tactics in FM21!
Important Note Before Reading
As an important note, keep in mind that my method is not the only way to create Possession football in the game. It is only one alternative. And it is one that is working well for me. But not to say that you cannot have an effective Possession tactic with a Positive team mentality. In fact that worked very well for me in the past and probably still does in FM21.
I’m going to argue that Possession-style football in FM works very well on lower Team Mentalities (specifically Cautious). By its very nature, Possession football is all about keeping the ball away from your opponent. To take a real life example, Guardiola’s tactics have always been about slow build-up and probing your opponent, not all-out attack. Although Pep’s approach to possession changed somewhat from days of Tiki Taka to its current Man City iteration. In order to suit the expectations of his current League, his style might have gotten flashier and more reliant on physicality. Yet the central tenet of exercising control over the ball, and hence your opponent, always remained.
Possession = Ultimate Control
Possession = ultimate control. That is control in patiently waiting until the right moment to strike. The time when you can make that lethal jab into the exposed area of weakness. Furthermore, playing possession-style to its fullest blurs the line between defensive and attacking football. In the sense that Possession football is both of those things. By maintaining control over your opponent you are playing the best attacking football possible. But also the best defensive football, since you leave little time for your opponent to craft their own attacking plays. Johan Cruyff would even say that the ultimate goal of all possession is to take control of space on the pitch.
Possession, Best Form of Defence
You could even say that Barca’s Tiki Taka was more of a defensive strategy than Italian Catennacio. To put things in context, lets compare Possession Football with the two styles famed for their defensive approach. In theory, possession football should be just as hard to break down as Catennacio or Park the Bus. Except Parking the Bus is an “Off the Ball” defensive strategy and Catennacio is a counter-attacking strategy. Whereas Possession Football is an “On the Ball” defensive strategy. You defend by keeping the ball away from your opponent. Again, complete control = complete defence.
But while Possession tactics can be great at stifling your opponent’s play, they are far from defensive. Quite the opposite. Keeping the ball away from opposition is the realm of top-level technical teams. It is not for the underdog, sitting deep and hoofing the ball. No, in possession football you play with the highest defensive line to both control the ball in the opposition half and to defend there. But one false move or missed pass can spell disaster. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Because successful possession football requires readiness to play on the edge and use your available tools to their very extreme.
In the game too, one can use seemingly Cautious team mentality, to generate both attack and defence. It is all a matter of smart role and instruction selection.
Dreaming of Possession with Intent
I have to admit I had a few problems with my Possession tactical systems in FM20. Overloads weren’t working as envisioned. Scoring goals was another one. Simply, I did not have the easiest time breaking down defensive underdog sides parking the bus against us. Playing as Benfica, Portuguese football giant, probably did not help. But at the same time we had no problem maintaining possession and keeping clean sheets. In fact I think we set some kind of record with only 14 goals conceded during a regular season.
So you might ask, if I had so much trouble breaking down opponents before, why choose Conservative Team mentality now? Wouldn’t that accentuate the problem even further? The most obvious answer is that it might have been the case in FM20 where playing possession football on anything below Positive seemed like a recipe for frustration. But in FM21 there have been a few significant changes in Match Engine. As I tried to show in my last article, changes to focus play have made overloads a viable strategy again. But for them to work effectively there is even more need to take team and individual player mentality into consideration.
From my observations it appears that in FM21 the effect of individual mentality on the overall tactic has been accentuated. The result of this has become most apparent in possession-focused tactics. Things like defenders endlessly passing the ball between each other and the goalkeeper have been largely toned down. And players operating on higher mentalities (from the team mentality) are just that much more likely to act decisively or creatively. This is most apparent when playing with roles like Sweeper Keeper or Ball-playing Defenders who are essential to high-pressing possession systems. They all appear to work better in FM21. Designated playmakers too tend to perform better. They actually move and pass in the direction of your Play Focus now! Number 10 Playmaker in AMC position is actually viable now.
What We Can Learn from Team Mentality
What this all means is that your choice of Team Mentality for your play style is more important than ever. Also for players to work well within your system, you need to pay even greater attention to their individual mentalities. Because even before you decide on the team instructions, numerous tactical details can be conveyed by team and individual mentalities.
In a way Team Mentality is somewhat irrelevant if we speak of it in isolation from individual mentality. When you select Cautious or Attacking mentality for the whole team, all you are doing is setting a general trend for your players to follow.
Each player will try to the best of their ability to approach the team mentality and play with more or less risk according to that mentality. In its essence mentality is a risk slider that goes from the very low risk (very defensive mentality) to highest (very attacking). But when you select “Very Attacking” for the whole team, it does not mean that all your players will be playing at Very Attacking/Risky mentality. Under the tactical hood this is what the player individual mentality map looks like.
This is irrespective of the overall team mentality. As you can see not everyone is on Very Attacking. Rather the individual mentality ties in with players’ roles and even some team instructions (etc. Overlap). Your forwards will definitely be very direct, more prone to make forward runs and take risky low-chance passes. But the defenders will still be rather conservative even on the riskiest team mentality. Their risk-taking will be capped to a certain level because of their defensive roles. So even the most “risky” traditional defender role, Ballplaying Defender on Stopper Duty, is still only “Balanced” on Very Attacking team mentality. I say “traditional” defender in order to distinguish it from Libero (Attack). As Libero in the game is really a unique role, essentially a DM playmaker playing in the centre back position.
What I love about the Mentality system in FM21 is in how it ties in with the tactic creation. At its most basic level, when crafting a tactic I will always consider the Team Mentality first. Making the right choice here saves on a lot of tactical tweaking later. For example with Possession Football, whether Cruyff’s Totaalvoetbal or Barca’s TikiTaka, what’s the style of football we want to see? Do you want direct attacking with lots of crosses and long-shots? Probably not. Most associate Possession-focused style with patient build up and domination of the ball. Quite the opposite of wasting ball possession on low-chance crosses and long balls. Also this puts Possession football on the more defensive side of the style spectrum. So going with Cautious, just one tier below Balanced, seems like the right choice to me.
Tactical Focus Points
So the first step is setting Conservative Team Mentality. This sets the general way that I wish my team to play. For the most part. The next step is looking at the roles and their individual mentalities to set the Focus Points in the formations. These will be my more creative players who I want to play at higher mentality to direct the flow of the ball. There are two important concepts to remember here. Players with similar individual mentalities (or very close ones) will tend to play closer together. And secondly, to reiterate point made previously, players at higher mentalities will make riskier decisions. This is number one reason why on more Attacking team mentalities you don’t want too many players with Attack Duty. This will not only make your play too direct and wasteful but also create a big gap between your attack and midfield/defence.
Even before we look at individual mentalities, you will want to define the focal points in your tactic. That is players who will be involved in dictating the play and directing the ball movement. They also be the ones who will take most risks to take advantage of any space opened for attacks. In my tactic these players are outlined here. Usually you will want these to be your best players, since they will be taking the most risks.
As you can see most of the players in defence and midfield operate on relatively similar mentalities. Its their job to keep defensive shape and build the overloads. For this you want a patient, relatively conservative approach. Except for my striker, AMC and playmaker in midfield. I want them to operate on higher individual mentalities to create passing lanes between them. Also they need to be ready to take advantage of any attacking opportunities. That is also the case with my Left CWB(A) – the Deep Shadow Striker role discussed in the previous part of the guide. There I used the example of Chelsea’s Pulisic but your choices are many, depending on your club. For instance La Real’s Ander Barrenetxea has the potential to be moulded into a perfect Deep Shadow Striker for my system.
The advantage of putting players into groups depending on their mentality is in how passing length and decision-making can be differentiated between them. So the players told to play more conservatively will take more time on the ball. They will also pass shorter and stick closer to others with similar mentality. This will help create the overloads. The ones with higher mentality will also stick closer to those on same mentality during attack but will make more risky decisions like changing tempo and passing the ball long to the other flank. They will also exploit the space liberated by the overloads.
I said “overloads” above because it is indeed possible to create more than one. This is why I want to introduce a slightly different system in this article. To show you that overloads are possible with a variety of formations. Including one made famous by Johan Cruyff himself. But first lets look closer at the formation I hinted at in the last article.
Real Sociedad Experience
Here I’m going to use a club different from the one in Part1. It’s to show that Overloads can be created with clubs of different level. And not just the world-class ones. Sorry to disappoint any Chelsea fans reading this after Part 1.
I just couldn’t resist the temptation to go back to Real Sociedad, the club where my Total Football experiment started in FM20. La Real has always been an interesting choice in FM due to its unique history. But in the last few FM versions they have become my go-to favourite starting place for any possession-based tactics. While it’s not Barcelona or Man City, Sociedad still managed to amass a ton of young technical talent well-suited for Total Football. They also have two modern archetypal Total Footballers, the Two Mikels.
Above all, I am excited to find all the pieces needed for my “Overload and Isolate” Tactic already present in their squad. My key role, focus points that I wrote about previously. The midfielder dictator in the form of one of the Mikels, Mikel Oyarzabal. David Silva – my creative fantasista at the head of the formation. Then the offensive workhorse to lead the line in the guise of Portu the Shadow Striker. And of course, Barrenetxea the Deep Shadow Striker. In order to suit my players I changed Pressing Forward-Trequartista partnership but the dynamic should still remain the same. In the Trequartista-Shadow Striker duo we still have one very hard working attacker paired with one very creative one.
And on the topic of highly creative players. I have to applaud Sociedad’s acquisition of David Silva, the most underrated technical wizard of the modern era. It was easily one of the reasons that made the Spanish club into my essential Total Football side in FM21. In my opinion he is the Michael Laudrup of our generation, possessing the same elegant touch and as equally criminally underappreciated as the best Danish footballer of all time.
I am still in the middle of testing the tactic with my new club. So far in the preseason, it creates the desired overloads but the long-term consistency must be tested. If there is enough interest then I will put out more updates on this Total Football experiment, besides my main Non-League Legends series. For now, I would love to hear what you think of the tactic. You can download it from this link: https://ufile.io/tyuqc472
3-4-3 and Cruyff’s Gambit
I was criticized for playing three at the back, but that’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. What we needed was to fill the middle of the pitch with players where we needed it most. I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0.Johan Cruyff
The genius of Johan Cruyff has always been in his way of thinking outside the box. In his time he was the true outsider in the game which was starting to get stale and predictable. So in the way of all geniuses, he decided to rewrite the rule book.
You have what the opposition don’t, and therefore they can’t score. The person that moves decides where the ball goes, and if you move well, you can change opponents’ pressure into your advantage. The ball goes where you want it.You guessed it. Cruyff, again
When Cruyff started using 3-4-3, he rewrote the book on football defending. Or on NOT defending to be exact. For when you are dominating possession (as Cruyff’s Barca did through the 90s and later in early 2000s under his protégé Guardiola) who needs to defend in the traditional sense. Supremacy in Possession has become Barcelona’s trademark ever since. But that association did not exist 30 years ago. We have Johan Cruyff to thank for that. And while many agree that Barca is now famous for dominating the ball, few realize that Cruyff started this possession revolution with a wacky formation using only one traditional centre back.
So as a little bonus, I present to you the “B Side” tactic to my main Overloads tactic discussed above. Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3.
Definitely not one for the faint of heart. You will need a very technical side, capable of dominating possession a la Cruyff’s Barca, to implement it properly. And it is rather experimental at this point. I thought it up as a sort of fun experiment to push the limits of the current Match Engine. And so far it has definitely kept me on the edge of the seat, giving results like this!
The most impressive thing about that performance was not actually the final goal count. But the fact that we achieved it while being one man down for half of the game.
For now, I’ll use it for the easier matches until my team is fully moulded into the Total Football template. Actually on the topic of training. That is most likely the next subject I will need to discuss. How important it is to set-up a suitable training system as a first step in developing a Total Football tactic. So stay tuned for that!