Keeping it Simple

Gareth Millward is a Football Manager veteran and over the years, his ideas along with others have shaped the way Football Manager has been developed. For those of you unaware, the now legendary Tactical Theorems Appendix was written by Richard Claydon (wwfan), Gareth Millward (Millie) and the Tactical Think Tank at Sadly FM Britain no longer exists but it was once the place to go for all tactical related Football Manager stuff. Gareth still writes the odd  Football Manager thing from time to time and he’s contributed on this blog before. He’s now back with a two part mini series about keeping it simple! The first of those can be found below.

Keeping it simple – Prologue

This is an explanatory post. A reference guide, if you will. I’m writing a series of posts about some of the common tactical problems that I’ve encountered in Football Manager, and what I do to correct them. Each of the posts will refer back to this one – to give some context to the decisions I’ve made.


  • I play 4-2-3-1, standard mentality, flexible shape
  • I aim to press the opposition and hold onto possession
  • I want to make “real world” decisions, not endlessly tweak individual settings

In years gone by, I would have bought the new version of Football Manager and tried to do something extraordinary with it. Liberos, W-Ms and lopsided diamonds. I loved that stuff.

I also used to have more time – and more inclination – to spend hours watching match footage and raiding the forums for advice.

Tactics used to be about setting sliders, too. But, the interface has got progressively simpler. So, it’s not about “coding” my team to victory anymore. It’s increasingly about applying real world principles to the game.

So. Since I’m not going to spend hours tweaking, how can I go about this? How can I think more about general principles rather than delving into minutiae?

That’s not a simple answer. It’s certainly not a short answer. But what I can do is take you through some basic steps. I can offer some examples of the sort of things I do. And, sure, I haven’t won the Champions League with FC United yet – but I have had moderate success without the need to endlessly faff “under the hood”.

For that reason, this series is going to have two features. The first is “tl;dr” – a summary at the beginning of each post to tell you what I’m writing about. The second is “how do you see this in the match engine”. I will also try to include as many reference tables and diagrams as possible to make things as clear as I can.

My system

I’ve often said that I hate hearing the word “tactic” in the singular. I think it gives people the impression that a tactic is a single entity – a file to be traded on Steam Workshop which will magically unlock victories. Football isn’t like that. Football Manager isn’t like that. But since this seems to be common terminology within the game and the community, here is my “tactic”. Let me walk you through it.



The shape is a regular 4-2-3-1. The defence is standard, and what you would expect from a British back four. The full backs support the wingers, but don’t bomb forward too often. The centre backs patrol the defensive line.

In midfield, I have a ball-winner and a general-purpose passer. Again, pretty standard. The idea is that between the two of them they can disrupt the opposition’s passing game, and then find passing outlets around them.

Ahead of those two come the two wingers and the advanced playmaker. These three players are supposed to work in tandem to break down the opposition’s defence and get the ball up to the lone striker. The wingers come with a “support” duty so that they work with the team rather than focusing solely on getting up to the byline to put in crosses.

Depending on the players at your disposal, the wingers can end up as auxiliary forwards (playing like a 4-3-3), or the AMC can shoulder some of the goal-scoring duties (playing like a 4-4-1-1). I’ve experimented with both approaches over the years, but I’ve tended to go with wingers that can score goals as well as put in good crosses. At the level I’m playing at right now, this has been pretty effective.

Up front, on his lonesome, is the striker. He takes on the bulk of the responsibilities for scoring, but given that the whole team is geared around putting the ball at his feet, that tends to happen more often than not. He has a “support” duty so that he can take part in the build up play and lay the ball off to the three attacking midfielders, before getting into the box to receive the through ball or cross.


As the goal is to keep things simple, the team instructions are pretty basic. I start off with a standard mentality and flexible shape. The default settings for the 4-2-3-1 formation.

I ask my players to close down slightly more than the default. I’ve always found the “tactics creator” backs off the opposition a little more than I would like, but I don’t want my players getting too far out of position. (More on this later.)

I also want the players to hold onto possession. The beauty of a 4-3-3, especially in the lower reaches of England, is that it outnumbers the opposition in midfield. I want to take full advantage of that, and encourage my midfield and fullbacks to pass the ball around. This is both an attacking advantage – because I will have more of the ball in offensive positions – and a defensive one – if I have the ball, the other team can’t score. Most of the time, at any rate…

These two instructions therefore work in tandem. We’ve heard a lot about gegenpressing this year thanks to Liverpool’s appointment of Herr Klopp. But the principle is actually a pretty old one. We saw Barcelona do it under Guardiola and Rijkaard. Liverpool were doing it in the 1980s. It was the basis of the Dutch style in the 1970s. Press the opposition so that they give up the ball, then quickly move it out of their way and hold onto possession. As I’ve already said – it makes sense from a defensive and attacking perspective.

Experience has shown that it does these two things remarkably well in most games. For that reason, I almost always start the game with a standard mentality, even when I am the clear favourite. I then start attacking if it becomes clear that this is needed. (Again – more on this later.) The exception to this is if I’m an underdog, especially away from home. Then I will start with a counter mentality, and get more expansive if the match allows me to.

The club

One of the reasons I can do this is because I’m manager of FC United of Manchester. The club has decent resources in the game, largely thanks to its sizable membership and season-ticket-holding fan base relative to the other sides in the National League North. I can’t spend silly money on players; but I do have enough wriggle room in the budget to sign better players and maintain a reasonably large squad. In five seasons, I have managed to get to the Football League. Not a meteoric rise, certainly. But an enjoyable one, with each year being better than the last.

My transfer policies have been as simple as my tactical ones. Sign better players for the roles I need than I already have. But don’t spend so much on one or two players that the squad gets unbalanced. This is really basic stuff, but it’s vital to any long-term tactical plan. If you don’t have the players, you’re going to struggle.

I tend to priorities people who have a bit of pace. If I’m going to be pressing and passing the ball around, I need players who can respond to mistakes. A poor pass or a botched tackle can leave holes that need plugging. (Positioning for defenders helps in this regard.) Moreover, there’s no point asking a team to press if they can’t get to their opponent quickly. It would take a very skilful player for me to bend this rule.

“A bit of pace” is, of course, a relative term. I’ve been playing in the English lower leagues. So, I look for at least 10 in acceleration for central midfielders and defenders, 12 for wing-backs and wingers. As we climb the leagues, my requirements in this regard will also increase.

Otherwise, I like to have at least two options at every position. I want them to be good at their tactical roles. So, I look to have: four senior “fullbacks”; four “centre backs” or “limited centre backs”; two “ball winning midfielders”; two “central midfielders” (who have vision and passing skills too); two “advanced playmakers”; four “wingers” or “inside forwards”; and two strikers. On that final position, I’m simply after good goalscorers, and will often convert a poacher or advanced forward into a deep-lying forward to fit my tactical plans.

This, then, is the basis of my tactical plan. But it always has to adapt to circumstances. I can’t simply “plug and go”. What I can do is make changes in game without having to watch every match in minute details. How? By paying attention to the basic feedback from the match engine. This series of posts will give a little bit more detail on how to do that.

12 thoughts on “Keeping it Simple”

  1. Really enjoyed that, did what it said on the tin. Personally, and I was one of them, I think people get scared away from “standard” and “flexible” thinking systems have to be super-complex to be successful. United under Ferguson were rarely complex, they were just organised with some wonderful players all fitting into a simple system. Liverpool of old, same thing – playing to the simplicity of it all. Looking forward to the next piece.

  2. Nice work as its refreshing to see a simple approach which doesn’t necessarily have to deliver a League title immediately!

  3. Hello Cleon.

    I always had this doubt and i will ask you now if you dont mind.

    If i put an IF attack roaming from position, that will not put him away from scoring goals, right?

    And another cracking post, thank you.

    1. It can do. It’s just depends how much he roams from those goal scoring positions. Roaming is the ability to allow the player to stray from his normal position. So you can’t say where he will end up as it’s down to the player and will change constantly. It can be a good thing and it can also be bad at times.

  4. This is awesome Cleon, thank you.

    Ok can you answer me 2 questions related to FM15 please?

    I’ve read sometimes that the shadow striker role doesn’t work as it should in the game, do you agree with that?

    The other is, i’m trying to create a F9 and a Shadow Striker partnership, am i correct to assume that roaming from position in that player can mess up with the whole intention of the role?

    Thanks a lot, great work!

    1. 1- The shadow striker role works fine.

      2 – It can both be a good or bad thing yes. You’ll have to watch games to see how it impacts you. You might find its fine or you might find he’s wandering far too much from his position.

  5. Thanks Cleon.

    Well i i guess maybe if the player has the right attributes for clever roaming, most of the times it will be good thing.

  6. Hello Cleon. Great work as always!

    I’ve seen a thread from you in SI forums where you used a tactic with a raumdeuter and now i’d like to try that role because i never did.

    However you used a CM defend on the same side, would a BBM in the same side as the raumdeuter take away his space?


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