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Total Football Journeyman: How To Break Stubborn Defences

I pick up where I left off last time. Searching for the central striker role to complete my 3-4-3 Diamond formation. For this I will take a step back and look at the original inspiration for Louis van Gaal’s 3-4-3 formation. That is, Johan Cruyff and the Barcelona team of late 1980s and early 1990s. Also I will take a somewhat unorthodox approach to constructing my 3-4-3 Diamond Tactic. We will deconstruct the attacking formation by looking at defensive positioning. What is that you might ask? Stick around, we will get there eventually. But first lets take a look at how to break even the most stubborn defences in FM20. Diamonds are the hardest things known to man, after-all.

Part 3 is here:

Historical Background

He got a blackboard and drew three defenders, four midfielders, two out-and-out wingers and a centre-forward. We looked at each other and said: ‘What the hell is this?!’ This was the era of 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. We couldn’t believe how many attackers were in the team, and how few defenders. He single-handedly introduced a new way of playing football in Spain. It was a revolution.

Eusebio Sacristán in reference to Johan Cruyff introducing his 3-4-3 Diamond to Barcelona squad in July of 1988, when he first became its manager.
Since his first day as Barca’s manager, Cruyff’s presented as an iconic figure, especially in his eternal grey trench coat.

The now legendary Cruyff’s 3-4-3 was indeed revolutionary and weird at the time of its introduction. It came in the era when most teams played with some kind of 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. Both were popular in England and Italy respectively. There these formations had a major advantage in attack and defence with their 2 strikers and 4-3 defenders. But Cruyff being Cruyff, saw to the heart of the matter.

Johan Cruyff had a clear vision of how to win in football. That is because he realized that to win any match, you had to control the ball in the midfield. It was not so much about controlling possession, as it was about simple geometry. The most efficient way to get the ball up the field was via the midfield. And if you had a numerical advantage in the midfield you could do this easier than your opponent. While the three defenders nullified any advantage the opponent had with the dual strikers. Thus Cruyff’s Diamond was born.

Johan Cruyff adapted his 3-4-3 from the Dutch 4-3-3 used by Rinus Michels with Ajax and Holland in the 1970s. And if you think about it, Cruyff’s Barcelona did not play all that different from 1970s Ajax. Similarly to Cruyff in his False9 role, Laudrup dropped deep while the three midfielders, spearharded by Bakero, bombed forward into the space liberated by the withdrawn forward. At the same time Guardiola, dropped back to help out Koeman in defence. At Barca, Cruyff used wingers to stretch the opposition wide, while at Ajax this task was done by the wingbacks. In the end, the result was the same, as the opponent had to contend with at least five, and sometimes seven, players moving in on goal. Total Football, Total Chaos for most organized defences of the time.

To recreate either tactic was rather tricky in Football Manager games prior to FM19. But now I believe we have the right tools to not only recreate them but also combine the two strategies. But to do this, we need to understand how Cruyff’s diamond worked. And to understand the diamond in 3-4-3, it is probably best to hear it from Cruyff himself. For this, we are fortunate to have videos like the one below.

Attacking and Defensive Formations

So it’s a little known fact in Football Manager, the formation in your tactics screen is actually your defensive shape. What we think of as the team’s actual formation, and the images TV pundits and journalists use, is in fact its attacking formation. When in possession and your team is attacking up the pitch, we see that attacking shape. So when you want your team to play in a 4-2-4 shape, it’s best to set up as a 4-4-2. This will be the “defensive formation”, and what you will see in the tactics screen. While attacking 4-4-2 can be recreated as 4-2-2-1-1 in defence (with two DMs, wingers in MR/ML strata and a shadow-striker).

In possession, the wingers will quickly move up as wide attackers while the shadow striker acts as a second striker. Its a little counter-intuitive but its worth it to think of your tactics in terms of defensive positioning first. Thus the movement that you see on the pitch will more closely reflect your initial tactical plan. Initially, It is very important to view the games on at least comprehensive highlight mode. The attacking formation is the one you see in the little screen below. And depending on what you see, some adjustments to the defensive shape might need to be made.

Team analysis screens will show your team’s attacking shape which is dynamic and will change with the roles and team instruction changes during a match.

The above image is actually the snapshot of how your players position themselves when they attack. The effort of understanding this and setting your tactic up accordingly will yield benefits on the pitch. Especially when it comes to more accurate historic tactic recreation or just improving how well your players defend. As another example, lets examine the classic 4-2-3-1. Both of the formations below will attack the same, except the one on the right will be more defensively solid. All it takes is deeper starting positioning on the wingers and midfielders to ensure that they drop back to defend. While their roles will still ensure that they get up the field during attack.

And adding Attack duty on the wingers or an appropriate Team Instruction (like focus play down the wings), will ensure that wingers in MR/ML strata will still attack like AMR/AML wingers. So that the 4-4-1-1 you see above will actually evolve into a 4-2-3-1 once you get the ball.

Learning From Mistakes

When it came to recreating Cruyff’s (and van Gaal’s) 3-4-3, I initially tried using the attacking formation variant above. And for the first two months the results were less than satisfactory.

This was especially disappointing considering the status of the team I tested it with. Given their dominant status in Portugal, I expected Benfica to have more goals and wins at the start of the season. Finally getting crushed 0-5 by Man City in Champions League was the last nail in the coffin of that tactic. Something went seriously wrong and somethings had to be changed for me to keep the job. Now lets fast-forward time and look at a seemingly different formation, but with almost the same Team instructions.

The main difference in the 2nd formation was in the roles. I changed them to reflect their actual defensive positioning and not their “future” attacking positioning. Again, I cannot stress how important careful role selection is in Football Manager. Whereas pre-FM2014 the game was all about sliders, it is now ALL about the roles. Your attacking formation’s movement is completely dictated by your players’ roles, their duties, personal traits and attributes. So to create a successful tactic you must look at your tactic screen (as it shows the defensive formation) and try to predict how the players will move and position themselves during attack. This is dependent on the combination of all of the above factors. And even then what we see on the virtual pitch might not completely mirror what you visualized in your mind. That is the beauty of the game.

The Benfica Test

Ultimately, my experience with Benfica taught me that sometimes recreating historic tactics too faithfully, doesn’t result in optimum game experience. It also made me realize that some of these tactics were mostly successful within the context of their era. So for the 3-4-3 Diamond, the advantage was in shutting down the predominant two striker formations of the 1980-90s. Both Cruyff and van Gaal knew this when they went against the grain of popular tactical systems of their time. But this might not work in modern football and in FM20 especially, because it is a simulation of modern football. Historically, people learn from their mistakes. Most current managers learned from the experience of previous managers such as Cruyff, to give more attention to their midfield. The more traditional “hoof it and forget about it” 4-4-2 is a tactical dinosaur as much as the managers practicing it.

Sorry Tony Pulis! Also how I felt during my first month in Portugal. Aye Caramba!

And who is not using some kind of defensive 4-1-4-1 DM or 4-5-1 these days? Parked buses everywhere.

So it is not surprising that in Portugal I faced a lot of formations fielding multiple Defensive Midfielders. It’s a classic parked bus strategy, to sit deep and try to outnumber your opponent in defence and midfield. For how else do you overcome the overwhelmingly stronger team, except by denying them their midfield advantage? I learned this the hard way as Benfica with my old 3-4-3. In the screenshot below I am actually using its strikerless variant, out of desperation.

One of the many parked buses I faced during the first half of the season at Benfica. Despite maintaining +60% we just couldn’t overcome Boavista’s 2 DMs and 3 CBs.

But in my frustration, I learned a valuable lesson in how to best break down such parked buses. Enter my new and improved 3-4-3 Diamond!

It may look dramatically different from the historic one, but in practice it preserves the essence of Total Football. High pressing, possession, relentless attacking, dynamic rather than static defending and multi-touch passing. It’s also my attempt to marry the best aspects from the 1970s 4-3-3 Total Football and its 1980s 3-4-3 version. So if you rather experiment yourself and figure it out as you go, then go ahead and download it here:

Download Link –

Important Note Before Trying

But if you are interested in the nitty-gritty details then keep on reading below.

Also as a word of caution, I must say that this formation is not for the faint of heart. It is a Total Football system through and through. Meaning that it puts attack before defence. Basically you play so aggressively that you shell-shock your opposition into submission. At the same time because you dominate possession, you don’t give them time to mount any serious threat. That requires a pretty specific team of well-rounded, highly technical players. It is definitely not one to try with a mid-level club or one that just got promoted. Although it could be successful with a team that is not world-class, I would only try it if you are sure your players have the attributes and the traits for it.

Attack Before Defence

While setting out on this tactical experiment, I had a few things in mind. Things that I would not change no matter what.

  • Playing with a three men defence. I believe that it was key to both Cruyff’s and van Gaal’s formations. It allowed them much more freedom with their attack. One must remember that Totaalvoetbal started as a predominately attacking strategy, and not as slow in its build-up like its modern cousin, Tiki-Taka. As you can see below, it was more direct than we like to think today.
  • Secondly, I needed a striker that dropped deep and aided with the compactness in the middle. One that would work hard to help out with defence and the midfield battle, freeing my midfielders to be more offensive. But at the same time I wanted him to make forward runs to contribute to our attack. At first, this might seem a bit contradictory or a bit too much to expect from one role. But then you have to keep in mind that Cruyff did exactly that in his role as False9 for Ajax and the Dutch National team in 1970s.
  • Finally, between the central forward and my defence, the core of the tactic, its midfield diamond, was key. It was an essential requirement, no matter what formation I would choose.

Shadow Striker and Libero – Keys to the Tactic

Before settling on Shadow Striker, I tried several other supporting roles for the striker. The False9, Trequartista, and Pressing Forward seemed to make sense on paper, but none worked as I envisioned Cruyff operating. Either they would not go forward enough (False9) or drop deep enough (Trequartista) for my taste. And Shadow Striker interestingly enough is a role completely build on mental attributes. Similarly to Raumdeuter, it is primarily a role for an ultra intelligent and hard working player to excel in. Although of course having good technique and decent physicals is always of bonus. Coincidentally, AS Roma just happens to have the best young Shadow Striker in the game. And his name is well know to most football fans in Europe by now.

Nicolo Zaniolo – New World-class talent emerging out of the shadows. In more ways than one.

His attribute distribution is perfect (check those mentals!). And he is only 19 at the start of the game. He might not be the new Cruyff, but he does possess the intelligence and determination to operate well in both attack and midfield as only the best shadow strikers can.

So with Zaniolo as the spearhead of my diamond, we must now turn to its solid base. This is where my libero comes in. Before settling on the libero, I also had several choices for this part of the diamond. My two main choices were the Half-back dropping from DM strata or Deeplying Playmaker (Defend). But Half-back I found to be not as creative nor aggressive as I needed for this role. And DLP while creative enough would not drop deep enough to cover defence as a third centreback. There is really only one role that starts in defence and then quickly transitions into midfield while in possession, libero.

Libero comes in two flavours, on support or attack duty. I decided to play it to the max. This way we can maximize his presence in the midfield. Hopefully we can rely on the role’s natural tendency to still retreat to its starting position when defending. For this, a player with good acceleration and pace is always best.

For my next article, I plan an experiment of retraining a midfielder for this role and see how he fares. Roma’s Amadou Diawara seems like a perfect candidate. He has equal measures of technique, intelligence and physicality required for the role. And most importantly he still has a lot of untapped potential to grown into this demanding role.

Midfield Partners in Crime

The two corners of the diamond, CM(S) and BBM, are two players who are both very similar and very different.

The CM (Support), originally Mezzala (S) in the early version, is basically the old #10 playmaker transported to the midfield. I put Lorenzo Pellegrini here. I’m fortunate because he is more suited to this role than any other attacking central midfielder. Lorenzo started his career as a centreback, before making his way up the field to attacking central midfield (where he plays under Fonseca). Naturally he is more at home as a typical Box-to-Box Midfielder.

Lorenzo “The Magnificent”. At the start of FM20, probably the most complete playmaker in the game, who is still 23 y.o or younger.

A former central defender in his youth, he is also an effective ball-winner, which enables him to break down possession. While his vision and technical skills allow him subsequently to carry or distribute the ball and provide assists for his teammates. His wide range of skills thus enable him to contribute at both ends of the pitch, and make him effective in linking both the defensive and offensive aspects of the game in a box-to-box role.  

Lorenzo Pellegrini’s unique style of play according to his Wikipedia entry.

But I want him to have a more creative job than just shuffling between the two boxes, maintaining possession. I want Lorenzo to act like a playmaker, in everything but name. A creative link between midfield and attack. Meaning he cannot roam as much as a typical BBM, and instead make himself available for passes from teammates. It’s essentially a Recycler role from my earlier 4-3-3 tactic.

On the other hand, Pellegrini’s midfield partner, Jordan Veretout, is a more standard Box-to-Box Midfielder. He provides equal measures of defensive grit and offensive spark, backed up by world-class Teamwork, Workrate and Stamina. Your typical tireless dynamo should go here. Think Johan Neeskens in his prime. And for those born after 2000, N’Golo Kanté.

Many speak of how great #14 Cruyff was, but #13 was not far behind. Where Johan Cruyff was the brain of 1970s Total Football, the other Johan were its tireless lungs.

In Totaalvoetbal fashion, the typical workhorse BBM is also the mold that I use to scout for my two wingbacks. Essentially, the player that I use as my BBM should be able to play in my wingback slot, and vice-versa. Similar Player Trains would apply to both positions too, eg. plays one-twos. In fact, as I mention in my previous articles, plays one-twos is my sort of universal Total Football PPM. I make sure to teach it to all my attacking and midfield players, including the wingbacks. When you have a bunch of smart, technical players, it is one of the best ways to break down stubborn defences and pass your way to goal.

First Results

Speaking of breaking down stubborn defences. The new tactic is doing just that. Since the switch it allowed Benfica to dramatically improve their rate of winning against parked buses. For instance, remember that Boavista 0-0 draw from earlier in the article? In our first meeting they stifled our attack with their 2 DMs and 3 CBs. This was the result of our rematch. A much different score! Not only did we dominate them though possession (as was case before) but created more chances against their packed defence. And most importantly four out those five goals were from open play.

But one game cannot be enough proof of tactic’s efficacy. Right? So let’s take a look at the rest of the season. Keep in mind that the switch to the tactic happened after the Rio Ave 1-3 loss. Since then Benfica’s results improved greatly, with only 2 loses, and 1 draw in 14 games.

While we can still lose occasionally, Benfica has mostly been walking all over the weaker teams. And in all, the libero (Ferro) has rose to the occasion, getting several key passes every game. The same could be said for the shadow striker (Pizzi). By the end of Januray he has scored 17 goals. The early signs are encouraging. So far the tactic did I needed, turning my season around and saving my job at Benfica. But it is still early to tell if it can take Benfica, or Roma to the next level.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this then please follow us @ Dictate The Game’s Facebook and Dictate The Game’s Twitter. And check out our other articles:

Written by crusadertsar


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