Lines and Diamonds: Part Eight – Match Strategies

This is part eight of the fantastic series by The Hand of God.

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The previous chapters explored the different ways to develop a basic tactic for breaking down opposition defences. This chapter will look at different types of tactics that can be used as part of a broader match strategy. In terms of strategy, inexperienced managers tend to be purely reactive or overly idealistic. With experience and a willingness to experiment, a practical manager will learn to develop more effective methods of getting the most out of his preferred approach.

8.1 CREATION AND CONTROL

Tactical set-ups can be broadly divided into two types: the team’s basic tactics and the team’s match control tactics. The team’s basic tactics are primarily designed to create chances by opening up and using space in the opposition third (and in most cases, taking care to prevent the opposition from creating more chances). This set-up provides the tactical foundation of the team’s play, and in most cases, it is the closest reflection of the manager’s tactical philosophy. In the case of a more flexible manager, some teams will have a couple of different basic tactics that they alternate between based on the situation.

A basic tactic does not necessarily have to be attacking. It can, for example, be based on a more patient style that waits to lure the opposition into exposing itself before springing a counterattack. However, even for the most defensive managers, the team’s basic approach to creating chances should allow for enough attacking movement to give the team a fighting chance of breaking down a variety of opponents. Outside of cup competitions where the team has the option of taking a match to penalties, a manager cannot rely solely on being given clear cut counterattacking opportunities, especially against fellow relegation candidates. If nothing else, making a nominal effort to create chances will allow defenders to push out of their own area to rest and reorganise before dealing with another wave of attacks.

Whereas basic tactics are intended to create quality chances, match control tactics are usually more focused on shutting down the opposition attack. A match control tactic may still create chances, but its main objective is to frustrate the opposition and prevent them from imposing their own style on the match. Like the team’s basic tactics, a match control tactic does not necessarily have to be played in a defensive style. It can be very aggressive and have the team defend in a high block, though in most cases, a team looking to control a match will look to leave itself less exposed to counterattacks by assigning a less aggressive duty to one or two attacking or supporting players.

With a match strategy or game plan, a manager aims to combine different basic and match control tactics for one of two reasons. First, he might want to use one approach to set the stage for the team’s preferred tactics later in the match. Second, he might want to allow the team carry out a particularly demanding style of play without putting an unnecessary strain on the players. For example, a manager might instruct his team to play a high tempo, physical style to wear out a less physically robust opponent before resorting to a more measured approached designed to actually create quality chances when the opposition players are exhausted.

The following sections outline different types of tactics and their underlying tactical objectives. These can be combined to create comprehensive match strategies as well as contingency plans in case things go wrong with your basic approach. While a particularly idealistic manager might insist that his players always focus on creating chances in the team’s basic style, it’s often beneficial to have alternate plans to protect a favourable result or unsettle a stubborn opponent, especially if the team’s preferred approach tends to leave the defence exposed to counterattacks.

Guidelines for designing each type of tactic have been provided, but these have been left intentionally general. There are many ways to carry out each type of tactic, and in most cases, a manager’s preferred approach for controlling a match won’t deviate too far from the basic tactics that the team emphasises in training. In many cases, a manager’s preferred methods for controlling a match will only involve a few slight adjustments to the team’s basic tactics.

8.2 BASIC TACTICS

The core of most match strategies is the team’s main method of setting up goal-scoring opportunities. In a given match, this can be a trusted style and system that a team uses against nearly every opponent or, in the case of more flexible managers, a more general, baseline approach that can be easily adjusted to exploit a specific opponent’s weaknesses. For more systematic managers, a basic tactic is likely to be the purest expression of his philosophy. For a more flexible manager, a basic tactic is more likely to represent a general set of principles that are emphasised in training. In this case, the intention is simply to provide players with a degree of organisation and tactical cohesion since even tactically flexible players need a basic framework upon which they can build and adapt.

To review the general guidelines for setting up a basic approach, it will usually have some combination of three holding players, three players providing creative support, and three players making runs to attack space from various positions. The last player is usually either another outright holding player or a player who is given license to offer more creative support in risk free situations (especially when the opposition is only keeping one attacker forward).

Keep in mind, this is only a general rule of thumb reflecting the most common set-ups in the modern game. There is room for variation and innovation, though with more or less aggressive methods of assigning duties, you will need to strike a more careful balance with the team’s system, style and personnel. In some leagues, you can even resort to very rigid and simplistic systems of play, though there will be inevitably be limitations to how far such an approach can take you.

At any level of the game, good movement and support will create a dangerous and versatile attack.
At any level of the game, good movement and support will create a dangerous and versatile attack.

Match strategies involve supplementing the team’s basic tactics with various control tactics. It’s not always a good idea to have the team dive right in with their preferred approach or try to run up the scoreline when a favourable result has already been achieved. In these situations, you may need to use tactics to create more favourable conditions for your players or simply give them time to rest as opposed to running them into the ground right to the final whistle. For example, a very direct, high tempo style will tend to work best when an opponent is demoralised or physically exhausted, so when playing an opponent who uses a similar style, it can be advantageous to let him run himself ragged first. Similarly, a physically demanding approach can leave your own team tired and exposed late in a match, so to avoid late opposition comebacks, you should do what you can to keep your players as fresh as possible for the often intense demands of extra time.

When planning his tactics ahead of a match, the greatest error a manager can make is thinking of things too abstractly. Tactics are not played out in a perfect world, and all players are people with flaws and limitations. They can tire, lose their focus and mope like anyone else. A manager who ignores the human aspect of tactics will constantly create problems for himself. After all, the physical and mental condition of the players is at least as, if not more, important than the systems and styles of play that look to harness their abilities.

Over the next several sections, we will look at several different types of tactics used for controlling matches. In most cases, these sort of tactics can be characterised as negative or defensive, but this perception is shortsighted. “Negative” tactics can be used for “positive” purposes, and a well executed match strategy can very easily provide more goals than a poorly executed attacking tactic.

8.3 OBSTRUCTION TACTICS

The aim of an obstruction tactic is to check the tempo of a match and keep play contained in a safe part of the pitch. Essentially, it involves playing a containment defence in a slightly higher block. In addition to keeping players in a better physical condition without the risk of putting the defence under constant duress, this can frustrate an opponent attempting an elaborate build-up style or stop a physical opponent from running your players ragged with end-to-end play. An obstruction tactic usually operates by congesting the central third of the pitch while building any attacks in a manner that results in frequent stoppages in play.

Normally, a team carrying out an obstruction tactic will defend in a medium block with a strong emphasis on delay. This can be achieved by choosing the appropriate defensive block setting for your mentality and instructing the team to close down much less. The idea is to remain well organised and keep play contained in the midfield without exhausting the players by having them chase the ball. To help with this, it’s usually beneficial to play a formation that offers balance in midfield (the 4-5-1 is a common choice), though if the opposition has a player who is easily pressured off the ball, some teams may choose a formation that intentionally space exposed in his attacking area along with instructions to close him down immediately. These traps are especially effective when used against wide players. In any case, central midfield players who read the game well and excel at defensive positioning are the key to a good obstruction tactic. If the opposition starts resorting to risky passes that your players can easily intercept or recover, then you know the obstruction tactic is working.

An obstruction tactic will be most effective against two types of teams. The first type are teams that averse to taking risks on the ball or provide few support options ahead of the midfield can be contained very easily with minimal effort. The second type are teams that try to play a very technical dribbling or passing game without a sufficient calibre of player. These teams can usually be goaded into mistakes resulting in quick interceptions.

There are two main threats to an obstruction tactic. The first is direct play with balls either being played over the top of the defence from deep or to a big forward who can flick it on to a faster strike partner. Thus, relatively quick and attentive defenders are helpful, though if necessary, you can drop the defensive line slightly (though not so deep that the opponent will be able to start playing direct balls into the area or force clearances by pressing you inside your own third). The second are teams with excellent off the ball movement who can either overload your midfielders or simply evade their marking with ease. In the first case, you should be especially wary of teams playing in a diamond. In either case, you should watch for balls being played behind your midfield and forcing your defence into a panicked retreat. This situation can easily knock on to even more space for the opposition to attack, and if this is what you’re consistently seeing, you may need to either adjust the formation to provide more effective cover in midfield or adopt another tactical approach altogether.

Obstruction tactics are frequently a key element of match strategies in cup competitions.
Obstruction tactics are frequently a key element of match strategies in cup competitions.

In possession, obstruction tactics can be combined with a possession-oriented approach to further slow the pace of play or a more direct approach that attempts to get the ball into an area where attackers can try to buy a set piece. A possession approach will be most effective when an opponent is not defending aggressively while a direct approach will be safer if the opposition tries to press. It can also be a good idea to encourage the team to play narrower, so the players can reestablish their defensive compactness quickly after losing possession.

Obstruction tactics generally avoid committing midfielders and defenders forward quickly since this can turn the game into a contest of end-to-end counterattacks. That being the case, you may wish to drop an attack duty player to a support duty, and if you want to be particularly cautious, drop a support duty player to a defend duty. However, against an opponent defending in a pressing style, you should carefully avoid having too many restrictions on off the ball movement since this could simply see you boxed into your own half and pushed back to your own goal.

8.4 RUSH TACTICS

Rush tactics are essentially the opposite of obstruction tactics. The aim is to turn the match into a purely athletic contest by forcing as much end-to-end sprinting as possible. This can often end up looking like open, attacking play, but the objective of a rush tactic is to simply wear down the opposition, not create quality chances. This is particularly effective against sides that lack match fitness or have been exhausted by fixture congestion. It can also be effective against demoralised, uninterested or complacent sides that aren’t up for an energetic game.

In possession, rush tactics are based on direct, high tempo penetration, often directed down the flanks since this is usually the fastest avenue for getting the ball up the pitch. However, the quality of penetration is less important than the fact that this forces opponents to chase the ball. Instructions like “Go Route One,” Pass Into Space” and “Much Higher Tempo” are ideally suited to this approach.

Out of possession, a team should ideally be able to just drop deep, consolidate in front of goal, invite the opposition forward and then try to rush the ball back up the pitch. Though against an opponent trying to slow play and hold onto possession, it may be necessary to force them to play more direct by pressuring them (but not necessarily compressing space) high up the pitch. You can do this by instructing any role to close down more, though the defensive forward and defensive winger roles are ideally suited for this sort of

In terms of formation, you have flexibility. Your main concern will be getting pushed deep and allowing the opposition to dictate the tempo of the game inside your own half, so it is helpful to provide multiple outlets for a long ball out of defence. A pair of strikers is the traditional approach, though a big striker supported by attacking midfielders or a wide forward can also work.

The main threat facing a team using a rush tactic is the risk of the team getting stretched and disorganised. It is of absolute importance that the players are athletic and mentally ready to play a physical game. With these sort of tactics tending to open up depth in midfield (intentionally, to some extent), holding players and defenders who can maintain concentration, put in an aggressive tackle and excel at 1v1 defending are vital. Against skillful opponents who can quickly cut through the middle of the park, it is also helpful to play on a poorly maintained pitch to make precise ball control more difficult, though the overall benefits of doing this depend on how a rush tactic fits into your overall match strategy.

When setting up a rush tactic, you may wish to assign an additional support and defend duty to keep things rigid and compact at the back in anticipation of the opposition’s counterattacks. Up front and out wide, additional attacking duties can provide more runners for direct passes, but if you’re not the least bit interested in creating anything, you can just hoof the ball to a striker and hope for a defensive error. Generally, the nature of rush tactics makes support play less important, though you still need players who can get the ball out of defence and supply balls for the tactic’s runners.

8.5 POSSESSION TACTICS

A possession style can be a means towards creating chances, but they can also have several other uses as part of an overall match strategy, even for a team that normally prefers a more direct style of play. The most common use of possession tactics is defensive in nature. By keeping the ball and controlling the flow of the match, you prevent your opponent from asserting their style upon the game, and assuming your players don’t lose the ball in dangerous positions, this will deny them opportunities to create chances.

A possession tactic can also be used to goad a cautious opponent into taking up a more aggressive defensive posture in an effort to win back the ball, and against an opponent defending aggressively, a composed and technically skillful team can use possession play to tire opposition players by forcing them to chase the ball. By the same measure, a possession tactic is also useful for allowing your players to rest on the ball.

An abundance of support options in midfield is the foundation of an effective possession tactic.
An abundance of support options in midfield is the foundation of an effective possession tactic.

Possession tactics normally emphasise support in midfield, depth and, as you would expect, possession (at the expense of penetration). Support is necessary to ensure the players circulating the ball actually have options for simple passes, and with many support options around the players looking to hold onto possession, a team will also have the option of making the ball’s movement unpredictable with opponents being forced to guess who the next likely recipient will be.

Depth helps open up space for the support players to receive and circulate the ball. This has two benefits. First, it reduces the risk of an interception in midfield, and second, it reduces the risk that the team will get boxed into their own half. In the latter case, a team that finds space little space for safe passes in midfield can be forced to play it further and further back until the it has to be cleared.

Defensively, a possession tactic does not necessarily have to press high up the pitch. Much depends on the build-up style of the opposition. Against an opponent who plays direct and tries to get forward quickly, there’s no need to press high since the will be coming at you regardless. Against an opponent using a more complex build-up style, a high press will help you win the ball back much more quickly and also prevent you from being boxed into your own half.

On that note, a possession tactic also helps to mitigate the physical strain of a pressing style. Simply, your players will not exhaust themselves defending since they will spend less time doing it. On the other hand, in the rare instances where both sides are content to let the other hold possession in deep positions, it may be more beneficial to just let the opposition do the possession work for you assuming their forays into your own half are being easily turned back.

To execute a possession tactic effectively, players must have excellent ball control skills, composure, anticipation and decision-making. If a player is prone to misplacing passes or being pressured into mistakes, possession play can become very risky, though this will be less of a concern if the opposition is sitting back. Against an opponent pressing aggressively, agility and good movement also become increasingly important.

When looking to create possession for the sake of possession, a manager may wish to discourage improvisation if he wishes to focus purely on no-nonsense passing. The ability to improvise is important when looking to create chances with a possession style, but defensive “keep ball” benefits from keeping things simple. Similarly, a defensive possession tactic may also benefit from moving a team’s playmaker to a more restrained role.

A style of play based on keeping possession (in the sense of not losing possession when you have it) is best represented by the lower and mid-range mentalities, and the lower you go, the more inclined your players will be to just circulate the ball instead of playing it forward. An attacking style can yield lots of possession on account of its aggressive pressing, but if you are trying to defend or rest on the ball, you will not get the benefits of a style that emphasises keeping the ball as opposed to quickly winning it back after promptly losing it.

When the defence is being pressured, “Play Out of Defence” may be necessary to discourage defenders from looking for the direct pass out of the back. “Roam from Position” is also helpful for encouraging midfielders to find space to receive while a lower tempo will see players take as much time as they can to find a safe pass. In terms of formation, you have flexibility, though it’s important to choose a set-up that won’t see your midfield overrun when they are trying to hold onto the ball. In terms of roles, roles that encourage dribbling can see players driving forward on the ball and trying to take on defenders, so these may not help you achieve what you want.

In terms of assigning duties, a possession tactic can benefit from moving an attack duty player (or two) to a support duty. This will encourage these players to hold off on forward runs and focus on making themselves available for simple passes. However, this will increase the risk of the ball being pushed back, and if taken to an extreme, it can see the attack become too compressed.

The greatest risk you will face when playing a possession style is a high block. This can deny you space to safely maintain possession, and at worst, it can see the opposition gifted opportunities to break from inside your own half. In these situations, it may just be a good idea to look for an alternative approach, but if that’s not an option either, the best means of avoiding being pressured into direct play or mistakes is to provide as much support around the ball as possible.

8.6 DISRUPTIVE TACTICS

A disruptive tactic looks to proactively break up the flow of play and prevent the opposition from asserting their style on the game. Tactically, the objective is to deny the opposition time on the ball in midfield, but psychologically, disruptive tactics attempt to annoy or even physically intimidate opposition players. This can be effective at frustrating or demoralising sides with weaker players or teams that simply lack mental resilience. Disruptive tactics are often decried as cynical and even antithetical to football itself, but for practitioners of the dark side of football tactics, they can be a powerful tool for leveling an uneven playing field.

Sitting back in front of your own goal isn’t always the best means of stopping a dangerous attack.
Sitting back in front of your own goal isn’t always the best means of stopping a dangerous attack.

In several ways, a disruptive tactic is a more aggressive counterpart to an obstruction tactic, but whereas obstruction tactics tend to be based more on the principle of delay, disruptive tactics are based primarily on pressure, cover and a general lack of restraint. Disruptive tactics usually play in a medium or slightly higher block with players encouraged to stay tight on their man, pressure aggressively and not hold back when attempting tackles. To achieve this, you would use instructions like “Tighter Marking,” “Close Down Much More” and “Get Stuck In.” Opposition instructions are also an effective means of targeting specific opposition players as are roles like the defensive forward, defensive winger and ball-winning midfielder.

A disruptive tactic usually doesn’t concern itself with recovering possession for the sake of possession. Rather, it’s mainly concerned with preventing the opposition’s time in possession from being productive. In most cases, fouls will be necessary, so defending slightly further up the pitch is necessary to avoid giving away free kicks in dangerous areas.

The importance of cover relates to the aggressive style of defending. Tight marking and aggressive pressure will open up space in the defence, so having numerical superiority in the area where you want to disrupt the opposition’s play is vital. A good defensive midfielder can be the lynchpin of a disruptive tactic even if the central midfielders are the ones you expect to be doing the tackling. In terms of personnel, disruptive tactics benefit from strong, aggressive players in midfield. Unsporting personalities can also be beneficial if you are looking to take a disruptive approach to the extreme.

In possession, a disruptive tactic can be combined with a team’s normal attacking approach, though given that disruptive tactics usually have second defenders marking tight, support options can be lacking when possession changes since the opposition will then be able to immediately get tight on your players. In that case, encouraging a higher tempo game in an attempt to launch fast breaks from midfield can be helpful.

In a more defensive disruptive tactic, a manager may wish to see the ball quickly funneled high and wide. This will give the team time to reorganise, and it puts the ball in a position where an aggressive striker can more easily isolate and harry a defender. The “Clear Ball to Flanks” is especially effective at encouraging this.

8.7 BUNKER TACTICS

Bunker tactics take the principle of consolidation to its furthest extreme. The aim is to strictly deny space at the back by keeping players behind the ball and having the defence get compact in a very low block as soon as possession is lost. Bunker tactics are purely defensive, and thought the aim is to keep things secure at the back (like a bunker protected from aerial bombardment), the mental and physical demands of absorbing attack after attack requires focused and mentally resilient players to carry out for any extended stretch of the match.

Bunker tactics tend to be most effective late in a game when your opponent’s attacking players are tired and low on confidence, particularly if their attack relies mainly on pace as opposed to skill. However, bunker tactics always carry their own risks. Against a mentally weak opponent, they can prompt further demoralisation, but there is always a chance that bunker tactic will renew a determined players’ confidence by making them feel as if they are taking control of the game.

If you start a match using bunker tactics, the same ideas apply. Against a nervous opponent who is desperate for a result, bunker tactics can prompt a quick spiral into frustration, but they can also give the opposition time to calm down and get into a comfortable attacking rhythm. And, of course, there’s always the risk that dropping deep and allowing attacks to come at you can backfire completely.

Bunker tactics depend greatly on both defenders and midfielders who can maintain their concentration and nerve. Rash decisions by one player can send the entirety of a deep defence careening into panic and indecision. This is especially important when facing skillful, creative sides. For this reason, you generally want to avoid sending a nervous group of players into a match with instructions to take an ultra-defensive posture. Nervous players make mistakes, and mistakes in the defensive third tend to have severe consequences.

Assuming you have the right personnel for the job and can trust your players not to give away cheap fouls, the chief threats to a bunker tactic are midfielders who can shoot from distance, set piece specialists and forwards who like to attack the ball in the air. Tall defenders who are willing to put their body on the line can help mitigate the latter threats while a manager concerned with long shots may need to push a player up into the attacking midfield position to mark the edge of the area.

When defending deep, keeping solid dribblers on the flanks will reduce the need for clearances.
When defending deep, keeping solid dribblers on the flanks will reduce the need for clearances.

The main element of a bunker tactic is a very low block which can be achieved with a contain, defensive or counter style. Whether you want to instruct players to keep shape or close down quickly is a matter of preference and need. If you’re worried about shots from outside the area, you might consider instructing players to close down more. If you’re more worried about conceding fouls around the area or opening space up to allow a creative passer to set up a chance, you might consider instructing players to close down less.

When setting up a bunker tactic, you want to keep players back, even if that means sacrificing any attacking threat. Normally, this means adding defend duties at the back, so the organisation of holding players goes from 2-2 or 3-1 to a 4-1 or 3-2 or even a 4-2. With that said, it can still be defensively advantageous to keep an attack duty or two in midfield, especially on the flanks. Though a bunker tactic typically doesn’t look to pose much threat in attack, having players who will quickly move out of the defensive third and support the striker going forward can buy time for the rest of the defence to take a breather and reorganise. For the same reasons, a striker who can win and hold up the ball is invaluable, if only for the defensive benefit.

8.8 OVERLOAD TACTICS

Overload tactics are the opposite of bunker tactics. The aim is to get numbers into the area to provide more targets for crosses, pin back the midfield to open up space for shots from distance, and ideally, instill a sense of panic in the opposition defence. This is an inherently high risk approach intended to help a team force through a desperately needed goal, though assuming you are able to get numbers forward (which, keep in mind, depends very much on whether the opposition can keep your attack contained further up the pitch), this invariably leaves the team badly exposed at the back.

Overload tactics can be based off of the tactics creator’s overload style, but this is not necessary. Overload tactics are premised simply on getting deeper players forward before attempting the final ball, so they can be based on either a more patient or a more direct build-up style. In some cases, a more patient style may actually ensure that the final ball isn’t played before deeper players actually have an opportunity to attempt overloading runs. Essentially, it comes down to a choice of whether you’re more concerned with getting the ball forward as quickly as possible or getting as many players forward as possible before attempting the final ball.

Just as bunker tactics take the principle of consolidation to an extreme, overload tactics do the same for the principle of mobility, but this isn’t just a matter of rushing attackers forward in rigid lines. Against an opponent sitting deep and compact, an effective overload tactic must do more than just pump the ball into a crowded area; it also has to create space when the opposition is investing all of its efforts into denying it. Width, depth and support must all still come into play if you intend to effectively overload the defence as opposed to just pumping the ball into the box.

When designing an overload tactic, you generally want to increase the number of attack duties in defence and midfield, but you do not necessarily want to just instruct everyone to pile into the box. Depth in midfield and support play in the final third are still important, and forwards with support roles can be especially helpful at dragging defenders out of position and setting up chances for their teammates. Good support play up top can also help ensure that deeper players are able to keep up with play.

Defensively, an overload tactic will be extremely vulnerable to counterattacks, so it’s important that the few holding players are athletic 1v1 defenders who can read the game well and safely put in a last ditch tackle if necessary. Given that overload tactics look to encourage runs from deep positions, the holding unit of an overload tactic typically resembles a 2-1. Keeping one midfielder back is particularly helpful for carrying out switch of play patterns when the defence is dragged deep and wide, though in extremely aggressive approaches, the deeper midfielder may still be a relatively mobile regista or support duty deep lying playmaker.

8.9 BASIC MATCH STRATEGIES

In addition to the ideas discussed in the previous sections, there are countless tactical combinations that you can use to formulate different strategies. In this section, we’ll consider some of the simplest strategies. The most rudimentary yet nonetheless common strategy is simply to deploy your basic tactic, gain a lead and then focus on controlling the match. As noted in the previous sections, this does not necessarily mean attack high up the pitch and then drop back to defend. For example, it could mean you secure a goal on the counter then switch to a possession style that involves pressing your opponent in their own half. Whether defending in a low or high block, the important thing about a match control tactic is that it creates problems for your opponent’s attack.

When playing a physically demanding style, a sensible match strategy will help prevent injuries.
When playing a physically demanding style, a sensible match strategy will help prevent injuries.

A second common strategy does the opposite. It begins by feeling out the opposition’s style before committing to a more dynamic tactic. This strategy is often used by flexible managers who want players to assess their opponent before deciding on how to best exploit their tactics. Obstruction tactics are often the basis of this kind of strategy, though depending on the opponent, a disruptive tactic operating in a medium block might be more effective at denying them any early opportunities.

A riskier strategy involves flying out of the blocks with an overload tactic in an attempt to grab an early goal before reverting to a more measured approach. This can be effective if you expect your opponent to be complacent, nervous or just demoralised at the beginning of the match, and it can be doubly effective if your own players are in good spirits. Of course, there is always a risk that this approach can backfire horribly.

A more complex strategy involves having players periodically make unpredictable adjustments to the tempo or intensity of play. Often, this will see players alternate between playing patient possession football and playing very high tempo, attacking football. Especially in leagues where weather conditions or fitness issues present obstacles for certain styles, this allows a manager to use his preferred tactics without exhausting the players early in the match.

Other common strategies revolve around the use of specific players. For example, a manager might use faster, more mobile attackers to tire attackers over the first stretch of the match before bringing out a powerful forward to test their resolve for the last 30 minutes. Another method of using impact subs looks to exploit the tiredness of attacking fullbacks by matching them up against pacy wide forwards after they’ve endured an hour of running up and down the flank. In both cases, a broader strategy designed to exhaust the opposition can make these adjustments even more effective.

With any strategy, you should always consider how a change in tactics might require a change in personnel. If you plan to begin the match in a more defensive posture before adopting a more cavalier approach, it can be helpful to keep your best attackers fresh until you actually need them. Similarly, when switching to a possession tactic after securing a lead, it helps to bring on a cool-headed leader who can calm his teammates and comfortably control the tempo of the match.

8.10 PREPARATION AND TACTICAL FAMILIARITY

In full simulation mode, you have to choose how to prioritise tactical preparation on the training ground. Realistically, managers do not have enough time to train players to carry out every conceivable style and system of play in a seamless manner, so they must focus on training only a few systems and styles in training. This makes little difference to highly systematic managers, but it can create a dilemma for more flexible managers who like to adapt. In addition to ensuring that the players have the basic attributes to carry out various styles and systems, more flexible managers must also consider the risks of asking players to adopt new tactics without much preparation.

Tactically intelligent players will make this a lot easier, but there is always a cost to be considered. Low tactical familiarity can lead to mistakes, hesitation and disjointed play as players try to wing it. This can prevent a tactical adjustment from having the desired effect.

In terms of roles and duties, attacking systems can usually be adjusted fairly seamlessly, but style and defensive formation pose a greater challenge to the flexible manager. For his style, a flexible manager can benefit from training a more balanced approach that can be easily adapted to many different situations. For his formation, a flexible manager can benefit from ensuring each of his prepared tactics trains a different one. Even if he plans to swap formations between the different prepared tactics, this will guarantee the team is comfortable making the switch.

When choosing which formations to train, the abilities of the players should always be the first consideration, though versatile players who already know a lot of different positions can usually be retrained fairly quickly. After that, a flexible manager should consider the style and systems prevalent in the competitions in which the club will participate. For example, a league dominated by wideplay and powerful forwards will tend to make things more difficult for a narrow formation whereas a league filled with skillful, agile attackers who like to work between the lines will tilt the balance towards using a defensive midfielder. As always, there are many possibilities and factors to consider, but a cursory review of your opponent’s preferences will help you plan for the season ahead.

In terms of what types of tactics to prepare, it is advisable to train at least one tactic well suited to creating chances for your players and one tactic that will allow your players to comfortably control matches. Again, these do not have to be “attacking” and “defensive” tactics nor do they have to be particularly different from one another. Rather, your basic match strategy should reflect your philosophy of play, the qualities of your players and, to some extent, the realities of your relative standing in the league. When managing a weaker side, you don’t have to abandon your principles and park the bus every week (unless those are your principles), but you should give a lot of thought to how you intend to control matches and frustrate superior opponents, especially when these teams look to grind you into submission.

Football Manager allows you to prepare three tactics, and your third tactic will generally be a reflection of your overall approach to tactics. A flexible manager might want to use this to train a very different style of play suited to specific opponents in the league, a more cautious manager might prepare a different method of controlling matches, a more adventurous manager might prepare an extremely cavalier variation of his basic tactic and a highly systematic manager will often just prepare a slight modification to his preferred approach.

Of course, it’s not necessary or beneficial to strictly limit yourself to your trained tactics. All players can adapt to a reasonable and measured change of plans, and when you spot a clear opportunity to create a tactical advantage (or lessen a disadvantage), the effects of slight adjustments shouldn’t concern you. At times, it may even be necessary to throw out the playbook altogether and try something bold. The most difficult challenges a manager faces are those moments where a strategy goes up in smoke, and he must choose between letting the situation fix itself or trying something new to turn the situation around.

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