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Lines and Diamonds: Part Seven – Styles of Play

This is part seven of the series by The Hand of God.

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The key to successfully implementing a style of play is having the right players. No amount of tactical planning will matter if the players simply lack the ability or the will to actually do what you ask of them. Even managers who prefer to mix styles of play must ensure that the players they have are able to adapt to changes in the manager’s approach. This chapter provides an overview of the basic styles of play and the attributes that players need to carry them out.
7.1 PRESSING

First, we will consider the two basic styles of defending: pressing and containment. A pressing style involves having the team rapidly restrict space around the ball in an attempt to prompt poor decision-making from the first attacker. Normally, this style is associated with teams that defend in a higher block while using either a full pitch press or a three-quarter press. A team that wants to open up more space to attack for a fast transition style may also drop back and defend aggressively around the halfway line in a half pitch press.

The first aim of a pressing style is to force a mistake that leads to a change of possession, though if this isn’t possible, the secondary aim is to force an opponent to play more direct. That being the case, a pressing style is most effective at disrupting the style of a team that tries to hold onto possession, though it can be effective against any team that tries to play a short passing style with players who lack an exceptional level of technical ability, solid decision-making ability or composure on the ball. A pressing style will technically “work” against a side that is content to play direct, but it won’t be as effective at actually disrupting their intended style, especially if they can exploit a higher line with fast attackers.

A pressing style can be set up in a medium or high block. Attempting a full pitch or three quarter press in a high block is useful if you want to deny the opposition any control over the ball, though you should be confident that you can break down a defence that will be pinned into their own half. It’s particularly effective when used against a team whose defenders lack composure and good decision-making.

Attempting a half pitch press in a medium block is useful if you want to create a bit more space for launching fast transitions from midfield, especially if the opposition has technically poor midfielders who lack composure, smaller midfielders who can be easily dispossessed with a bit of physical defending or an undermanned midfield that lacks support options. To make the most of this style, you will need speed in transition or numbers ahead of the ball. If your players can’t counterattack faster than the opposition can recover, this may simply see you lose time on the ball.

With both approaches, you will often want to encourage pressure by instructing players to close down aggressively. This will not cause the whole team to push up, but it will encourage strikers to harry defenders further up the pitch. Crucially, if you use a single striker formation, it will also encourage midfielders to step out and help the striker aggressively channel play. If possible, you should also encourage the defence to make use of the offside trap in order to more aggressively compress space from back to front. The offside trap will cut off the option for a deep pass to the strikers, further isolating the first attacker and increasing the chance that he’ll make a poor decision. This is extremely effective against slower attackers who can be chased down even if the trap fails.

In the case of a half pitch press, the availability of space in the opposition half makes it more difficult and risky to try to apply pressure through the middle, so you will benefit from using opposition instructions to try to quickly show play to the outside where players can be more effectively isolated and dispossessed. Tackling intensity comes down to a matter of preference. Some managers will prefer their players to stay on their feet to allow more clean recoveries while others will simply look to unsettle the opposition by going hard into challenges.

Any role can work in a pressing style, but you should be aware that the trequartista and enganche will be more reluctant to actually close players down. They will still mark opposition players, cover passing lanes and challenge for the ball if an attacker tries to take them on, but if you are wanting a striker or attacking midfielder to chase down defenders to recover possession, you should look to other roles. Some specialist roles are well suited for a pressing style. These include the defensive forward, defensive winger and ball-winning midfielder. In the case of the ball-winning midfielder, his deliberate lack of restraint still makes it a good idea to use a more disciplined holding midfielder to offer cover behind him in the recovery phase.

To carry out a pressing style consistently for any considerable stretch of a match, each player must be able to endure sustained physical activity. Stamina, work rate and teamwork are important from the defence to the forward line. In the absence of these qualities, players will stop making an effort, and as a result, pressure will fail and your defence will be pushed progressively deeper. These attributes are especially important in the case of a lone striker since he must single-handedly harry the opposition defence and prevent them from comfortably playing the ball back to recycle possession. Good positioning and acceleration from a lone striker will also help him quickly cut off passing lanes and channel play back into areas where the midfield can safely apply pressure.

Aggression and bravery in midfield is helpful if you want players to be quick to put in a challenge in an attempt to launch breaks from midfield. However, this isn’t necessary if you have ample cover in midfield and simply want to pressure opposition players into mistakes, though in this case, the importance of positioning and marking will increase as you will need to keep the first attacker as isolated as possible. Though it’s unlikely you’ll find central midfielders with very high ratings in these attributes, solid anticipation, acceleration and agility will help central midfielders create and sustain the high tempo intensity that a pressing style looks to impose on the game. In the case of a defensive midfielder offering cover to the central midfielders, you have more leeway with the type of player you want to use. An aggressive, hard-tackling destroyer or a cerebral reader of the game can both work.

In a pressing style, every second matters. Quick reactions will help prevent panicky retreats.
In a pressing style, every second matters. Quick reactions will help prevent panicky retreats.

Given the inherent risks of a pressing style, it is more important to have a defender who can handle a 1v1 situation if a midfielder or defensive partner makes a mistake. Anticipation is extremely important for reading the intentions of a skillful attacker, aggression will see him inclined to quickly shut down dangerous situations and though agility is normally associated with dribbling, it will also help a defender to keep up with a slippery attacker’s twists and turns. For second defenders in the defensive line, good teamwork will guarantee they focus on their responsibilities to the first defender in high risk situations. Defenders who senselessly go chasing the ball or doubling up in a bid to play the hero can cause havoc for a defensive line in a pressing style.

Since pressing is based on a defence that will push up to compress space, a pressing style will naturally expose space behind the offside line. Regardless of the team’s defensive system, this will leave the goal exposed to attackers running onto through balls. Defenders with good anticipation and acceleration will help minimise the risk of balls over the top when the opposition has fast attackers.

It is also helpful for the goalkeeper to offer a greater element of cover behind the defence. A sweeper keeper with good acceleration and anticipation is vital along with a willingness to actually rush out when necessary. If your defenders are prone to mistakes, a strong ability to deal with one on ones is an absolute necessity.

The greatest threat to a pressing style is a team with quick, agile players who can remain composed under pressure and pass the ball into space behind the pressuring players. Against these sides, a system that offers more cover in midfield can be very helpful, and in the absence of a defensive midfielder, having at two central midfielders with exceptional anticipation and marking will ensure that supporting runs behind the line of pressure will be either tracked or cut off from the first attacker.

Below, I’ve summarised the key attributes associated with this style. Keep in mind, this isn’t all players need to be effective. For example, any player will benefit from good decision-making and concentration, but all else being equal, these are the standout qualities you will want to look for when choosing players well suited to this style of play.

Forward and Wide Midfielder Style Attributes: Positioning, Teamwork, Work Rate, Acceleration, Stamina
Central Midfielder Style Attributes: Anticipation, Marking, Tackling, Positioning, Teamwork, Work Rate, Acceleration, Agility, Stamina
Defender Style Attributes: Tackling, Aggression, Anticipation, Teamwork, Work Rate, Acceleration, Agility
Goalkeeper Style Attributes: One on Ones, Rushing Out, Anticipation, Acceleration

7.2 CONTAINMENT

A containment style is essentially the opposite of a pressing style. Whereas a pressing style looks to disrupt the opposition’s attacking organisation and force them to play at a higher tempo, a containment style looks to slow things down and make the attack as predictable as possible. It does this by stubbornly congesting space in front of the goal, remaining poised to force interceptions and forcing dribbling attackers to take on multiple defenders. Unless an opponent is desperate to get the ball forward, this can see a team struggle to regain possession, though if done effectively, it will force the opposition to come up with a moment of magic to produce a quality chance.

From an attacking perspective, the benefit of a containment style is that it encourages the opposition to commit numbers forward. Ideally, this will see them fully transition to their attacking system, and with all but the most negative opponents, this will create space for counterattacks. Of course, since a containment style will usually see the team pushed deep and most likely recovering the ball in their own third, you will usually need athletic attackers who can outpace recovering defenders and play in an end-to-end style without completely exhausting themselves. However, if you’re willing to risk less defensive stability, you can accommodate less athletic attackers by keeping them further forward in the defensive phase of play.

While balanced or mixed defensive styles tend to have more in common with a containment defence than a pressing defence, a “pure” containment style tends to defend in a low block with the defence and midfield more concerned about keeping shape and denying space in front of goal than putting pressure on the first attacker. To deny opportunities for penetration and prevent defenders from being dragged out of position, you will want to encourage the team to focus more on delaying attackers by instructing defenders to close down less. The aim here is simply to get the opposition’s midfielders to circulate the ball in harmless positions, lure players into positions ahead of the ball and wait for them to attempt a risky pass that your players can intercept. Since your players will tend to be defending close to goal, it’s also a good idea to avoid risky tackles that could lead to dangerous set pieces.

By slowing the speed of play, a containment defence reduces the need for difficult tactical decisions.
By slowing the speed of play, a containment defence reduces the need for difficult tactical decisions.

Some roles tend to conflict with a containment style, though with the right set-up, any role can be accommodated. Ball-winning midfielders and defensive wingers are both quick to step out of position to win the ball and risk fouls around the area, though with several more disciplined covering midfielders behind them, they can give the defence a bit more bite than the style normally allows. However, along with the defensive forward, a containment style can see them tire quickly as they will be more likely to chase the ball into areas where the first attacker has plenty of available support.

In a containment style of defence, the defending from the forward line tends to be fairly passive, if the forwards are even inclined to defend at all. Hard-working forwards are helpful, but they are not as essential as they are to a pressing style. The benefit of a containment style is that, all else being equal, it is less physically and mentally demanding than a pressing style. The drawback is that even the best defences can end up pinned to their own half for extended stretches of the match, and with the wrong mindset, frustration and frayed nerves can result in costly errors from the defensive unit.

For the midfield and defence, you should have at least 5 players who are very solid defensively, and that number rises with the calibre of the opposition. Tough personalities who don’t lose their cool or get nervous are also helpful for maintaining restraint. Tactical intelligence is always helpful, but if the midfield works together to remain organised and the defenders focus on doing the fundamentals well, a containment style should still achieve its aim of slowing the tempo of the attack and making it more predictable. This reduces the likelihood that the defence will face dangerous tactical dilemmas.

In the central midfield area, central and defensive midfielders with strength will help make things difficult for attackers who try to receive or dribble the ball in a congested area while marking and positioning are necessary to cut off the first attacker’s support and prevent the opposition from simply passing through the midfield. Since the midfielders will be most likely to be tempted to step out to pressure attackers, good teamwork will help keep the midfield properly organised. In the case of a five man midfield, the sheer weight of numbers congesting space means you can take more liberties with the personnel in midfield and usually accommodate a couple of purely attack-minded players. The same principle applies to a 5 man defence assuming it is adequately shielded by at least three players in midfield.

With a containment defence, the risks involved with committing a foul increases greatly. Aggression is not necessarily a bad attribute for a containment style, but if a player does have high aggression, it becomes all the more important that he possess the decisions and tackling ability to ensure that it doesn’t cost the team.

The risks facing a containment style depend largely on the opposition’s style of play. Against a technically skillful opponent, whether they prefer a passing or dribbling style, systems that offer more balance and cover in midfield and defence are extremely helpful. However, if the defensive system leaves space exposed for skillful attackers, then all of the requirements discussed above become even more stringent.

Against an opponent that prefers a more physical style of attack, a containment style will usually be very effective at shutting down attacks based on pace, though the presence of tall and powerful attackers who can attack the ball in the air can cause problems. To deal with balls played into the air, jumping reach and bravery are important for the central defenders. In the absence of these qualities, strength will still help them throw a leaping attacker off balance while determination and anticipation will give them a better chance of fighting for and getting to the second ball. As with midfielders, teamwork will guarantee that defenders stick to the plan and don’t engage in ill-advised heroics.

In a containment style, a goalkeeper can focus more on being a pure shot stopper, though against a physical opponent, good aerial ability and command of his area will do much to ease the demands on the central defenders. Reflexes and handling will also reduce the risk of long shots bouncing back into a congested penalty area while communication will help the defence remain organised around the area.

Since a containment style is based on keeping shape and cutting off support ahead of the ball, your choice of formation is vastly more important, and even if you are a more systematic manager, you should consider adapting your team’s defensive system against especially dangerous opponents. If you still like to keep several players forward to spring counterattacks, it’s essential that you prioritise protecting space likely to be used by the opposition’s best creative players, though in any case, attempting to play a containment style with seven or less outfield players behind the ball carries extreme risks and should only be attempted with exceptional defenders and midfielders.

The greatest threat to a containment style is a team with highly mobile, skillful attackers who have set up to intelligently exploit any space exposed by your defensive system. The best way to deal with these teams is simply to use a formation that keeps as many players behind the ball as possible. If there is simply no space in which these players can run, pass or dribble, then you can force them into increasingly risky or wasteful patterns of play.

Protecting space with sheer numbers will pose a tough problem for any attack based on mobility.
Protecting space with sheer numbers will pose a tough problem for any attack based on mobility.

Beyond that, a team executing a containment style needs to be wary of long shot specialists, tall forwards who can beat defenders in the air and creative attackers with a knack for the unpredictable. The first two are the aforementioned more direct means of penetration, and the most efficient way to deal with them is simply to push up the defensive block slightly. This will create more room for runs behind the defence if your opponent also has fast, mobile attackers, but you will need to make a judgment on which is likely to be the greater threat.

A highly creative attacker who can unlock a packed defence is always a problem, but if he’s the only major threat, slightly disrupting the organisation of the defence to deal with him can cause even more problems for the opposition’s attacking system. Opposition instructions can be very useful depending on the qualities of the attacker, and in extreme cases, assigning an athletic player to man-mark him can see the creative player completely removed from the game.

On that note, opposition instructions are also very useful for channeling play to the inside or outside in a containment style. Channeling play to the inside is normally most effective against a side that relies on playing crosses to powerful attackers. Channeling play to the outside is normally most effective against a side that prefers to work the ball into the box with smaller, more skillful attackers.

Below, you’ll find a summary of the key attributes associated with this style. Again, general tactical attributes like decisions and concentration are always vital for avoiding errors, but all else being equal, these are the standout qualities you will want to look for when choosing players well suited to this style of play.

Forward Style Attributes: You have more flexibility here compared to the full team defending required by a pressing style, though it’s helpful to have a striker with the Aggression, Determination, Work Rate and Balance needed to reliably fight for clearances and hold up the ball.
Wide Midfielder Style Attributes: Anticipation, Acceleration, Pace, Stamina (to help them quickly and reliably move up to support the forwards in attack as well as recognising opportunities to do so before they actually happen)

Central and Defensive Midfielder Style Attributes: Marking, Positioning, Teamwork, Strength. These requirements, along with the demands on their ability to physically keep up with mobile attackers, rise if the team’s formation offers less cover and balance to the midfielders. However, a five man midfield or four-man narrow midfield can usually afford to have one more attack-oriented central midfielder (at AMC, MC or DMC) if he’s backed up by at least two defensively capable midfielders.
Defender Style Attributes: Marking, Bravery, Positioning, Teamwork, Jumping Reach, Strength. These requirements rise with the amount of cover and balance that the formation provides to both the midfield and defence.
Goalkeeper Style Attributes: Aerial Ability, Command of Area, Communication, Handling, Reflexes

7.3 FAST TRANSITIONS

Next, we will move on to looking at styles used in possession. Given the variety of possible attacking patterns, the stylistic demands for build-up and attacking play are less stringent, though there are some basic guidelines you should consider. For a team that looks to play a fast transition style of attack, much depends on the space available and how many players are kept forward to spring the counterattack.

Assuming the right conditions are in place to make this style effective, it is first useful to have at least one strong, balanced, aggressive and determined striker who is willing to persistently chase down and fight for loose balls and clearances. Though a transition style doesn’t necessarily need a big man up top, good composure and balance is also important to help a striker or attacking midfielder quickly receive the ball out of defence. Truly exceptional agility and dribbling will help him work the ball into space when being pressured by multiple defenders.

Midfielders who have been instructed to move up in support of the forwards should have good acceleration, stamina and, ideally, pace. This will allow them to cover a lot of ground quickly even late into the match. Solid dribbling ability will also help them drive into space on the ball with less risk of making a bad touch. For the most attack-minded midfielders, anticipation will also help ensure that they recognise when an opportunity to break forward is developing before it actually happens.

For the players looking to receive the ball out of defence and set up chances for breaking teammates, vision, passing and technique will help them see where the space is available and guarantee the technical ability to properly weight a pass to a sprinting attacker. The attackers looking to run onto these passes need a good first touch to control a fast-moving ball.

In a fast transition style, keeping a playmaker forward will increase his influence on attacking play.
In a fast transition style, keeping a playmaker forward will increase his influence on attacking play.

A fast transition style of attack mainly benefits from players who are good at taking on defenders in 1v1 situations. Roles that encourage dribbling, like the winger and inside forward, are especially well suited to a transition style, and if you have a big striker who is good in the air, wide roles that encourage crossing will provide him with the supply he needs. With that said, you can attempt a fast transition style based on quick passing and off the ball movement, but you will need players with exceptional all-round technical and mental abilities to make this work.

The greatest obstacle to a fast transition style is an opponent who simply keeps numbers behind the ball in attack. If attackers attempt to transition quickly into 1v2 or 1v3 situations, they will be easily dispossessed, and teams that only counterattack when good openings arise can get dragged into a very negative, cagey game against an opponent who is very cautious going forward. If you play in a cautious style that only looks to break quickly when clear openings arise (such as the defensive or counter mentalities), then you should be sure to also consider how your players will build more complex attacking patterns when you are facing a more cautious opponent.

From a defensive perspective, if you don’t want to sacrifice your attacking threat when facing an opponent who excels at fast transitions, then you should look to use defenders who excel at 1v1 defending (discussed in the section on pressing). You should also give a lot of attention to setting up your holding players in a way that will create more problems for the opposition’s forwards and attacking midfielders.

Hold-Up Striker Style Attributes: For a striker who will fight for clearances and hold up the ball, you will want good Aggression, Determination, Balance and Strength. Jumping Reach is also helpful.
Transition Creator: If you use a smaller, more creative player to receive the ball out of defence and quickly supply a more mobile striker, he should have exceptional Passing, Technique, Vision, Agility and Balance. Dribbling is also helpful.
Midfielder Style Attributes: You have flexibility with holding players (at least on the attacking end), but midfielders looking to move forward quickly should have good Anticipation, Acceleration, Pace and Stamina. Solid Dribbling and a good First Touch are also very helpful.

7.4 COMPLEX ATTACKS

A complex build-up style will tend to place more of an emphasis on mental and technical attributes throughout the entire team. The team’s creative players will need significantly more vision and technique to spot and follow through on opportunities to break down an entrenched defence, and the players looking to take up shooting positions will need good composure and off the ball movement to find the limited space they’ll be given and make good decisions with the limited time it will provide. Physical attributes are important, but if you’re not asking players to sprint from end to end after each successful tackle, you have more leeway when it comes to accommodating slower or less fit players.

A team attacking in a complex style may often look to play the ball back to the defence to recycle possession and try a different approach, especially when facing a deep containment defence. In this case, a decent first touch and competent passing ability from back to front becomes more important. Good decisions and composure in midfield and the defensive line will also help ensure that mistakes aren’t made when passing the ball around at the back. If the defence is not well suited for recycling possession, good off the ball movement from both holding and supporting midfielders can reduce the need to play the ball back when the midfield comes under pressure.

Against an aggressive, pressing defence, these qualities are absolutely necessary to avoid being pressured into mistakes or clearances. If this isn’t possible, then you should consider creating options for attacking patterns that look to quickly play the ball into space behind the defence or midfield. This will play into the hands of the pressing team to some extent, but it will give you the best chance of allowing more complex patterns to coalesce.

Against a containment defence, a complex build-up will be able to advance out of their own half more easily, but they will have fewer opportunities to create chances with simple patterns unless there’s an enormous difference in ability between the two sides. Instead, they will have to work the ball into tight quarters with complex patterns ideally pulling defenders out of position to open up space for goal-scoring opportunities.

From a defensive perspective, the best way to disrupt complex attacks is to defend on the front foot and press them before they can even transition into their preferred attacking patterns. If you can disrupt their intended style of attack, then you can often throw them off their entire game plan, especially if they don’t have the personnel to carry out fast attacks that aim to get behind your defence. If this isn’t possible, congesting space in midfield and taking care to set up in a way that will obstruct their attacking patterns as much as possible is the second best option.

Attacker Style Attributes: First Touch, Passing, Composure, Off the Ball
Creative Support Style Attributes: First Touch, Passing, Technique, Composure, Decisions, Off the Ball, Vision
Holding Player Style Attributes: First Touch, Passing, Composure, Decisions

7.5 PREFERRED TECHNIQUES

In addition to the team’s style of build-up, the attacking style is also informed by the techniques that the players use to move the ball, especially those used to set up chances in the final third. Most managers prefer for players to make use of a variety of techniques, but some more systematic managers may wish the players to carry out a more distinctive technical style and only allow one or two players to use other techniques. In terms of preferred techniques, there are basically three styles: one-touch passing (or a pass & move style), a dribbling style and a direct style.

One-touch passing is often associated with possession football, but with the right calibre of players, it can be combined with a fast transition style. For the most part, a one-touch passing style will create chances through various combination patterns and overlap patterns as well as quickly switching the point of attack. The keys to a good one-touch passing style are exceptional technique and movement, and when facing a stubborn defence, the ability to circulate the ball at a very high tempo is essential.

On top of great composure and off the ball movement, attacking patterns based on combination passing require the attacking players and any supporting forwards to have exceptional first touch, passing, anticipation, vision and teamwork for the moves to actually come off. Anticipation is needed to ensure the players know what their teammates intend to do, vision is needed to see a pass into a tight area and teamwork is needed to ensure the players are actually inclined to combine instead of looking to shoot or take on their man individually. Having a cohesive squad where the players know one another well is also vital.

When basing attacking patterns on one touch passing and movement, you should be careful about using roles that will play too direct in the final third. If you are looking to promote high tempo ball circulation and switch of play patterns, roles that will see players attempting crosses or ambitious dribbles into the area can see many attacks end prematurely. For the same reason, you will want to encourage support and attack duty players to pass the ball short and look for close support, though giving holding players a more direct passing range can help them carry out a quick switch of play.

Advanced midfield and forward roles that are well suited to this style of play include the wide midfielder, the raumdeuter, the attacking midfielder, the deep-lying forward, the support and attack versions of the central midfielder, the box-to-box midfielder, the support version of the advanced playmaker or wide playmaker, the enganche, and the support version of the wingback. This style also benefits from a deep midfielder who can successfully execute a switch of play. Still, a one-touch passing style will usually benefit from allowing one or two more advanced players to use their dribbling skills to create space for the runs of teammates.

A dribbling-based style needs space to thrive, or it risks becoming wasteful and inefficient.
A dribbling-based style needs space to thrive, or it risks becoming wasteful and inefficient.

Attacking patterns based on close control dribbling need to create space in which the players attempting the dribbles can comfortably receive and control the ball without being put under immediate pressure. This is most easily done by using space naturally exposed by the opposition’s defensive system in leagues where teams tend to leave more attackers forward, but it can also be done by focusing heavily on creating width and depth. A slightly more direct passing style can also help quickly get the ball to dribblers finding space between the lines or on the flanks.

Dribbling styles can incorporate a wide variety of attacking patterns, and it can also be combined with either a fast transition or complex build-up style. A fast transition style based on dribbling will usually have a strong emphasis on creating 1v1 duels against isolated defenders. In a complex style, the idea is to use dribbling to force defenders to commit and expose space for teammates. Against a very defensive opponent, selfish dribblers playing in a complex style can prove costly.

Assuming the player has space from which to run at defenders, mazy dribbles into congested areas require exceptional technique, agility and, of course, dribbling. Passing and teamwork are also necessary if the dribble is mainly being used to open up space for a teammate to take a shot while a good first touch will help receive the return pass and a good long shot will help the player test the keeper even if he fails to get close to the goal. Balance will help dribblers shrug off defenders, and bravery will help them ride aggressive challenges.

Roles that will promote a dribbling style include the winger, the inside forward, the roaming playmaker, the attack version of the advanced playmaker or wide playmaker, the trequartista, the shadow striker, the false nine, the advanced forward, the complete forward, the complete wingback and the attack version of the wingback. However, even in a style of play that heavily emphasises dribbling, you don’t want to overdo it, and you will want midfielders who can quickly receive and move the ball away from the defence if a dribbler gets into trouble.

Patterns based on playing more direct balls into the box are usually associated with a fast transition style, but this is not always the case. A team can build up gradually and attempt to instill panic in an undermanned defence by launching crosses into an overloaded area. This is difficult to pull off, not to mention very risky, and it can require a lot of patience against defenders who are good in the air. To do this consistently, you will need at least one attacker with the jumping reach, strength, aggression and bravery to challenge defenders in the air. Determination will also ensure they keep fighting if the game turns into a grinding, physical battle. Around the player looking to win the first ball, players with good anticipation, determination and acceleration are ideal for attacking the second ball.

When facing a containment defence with a more direct style, it is possible (but difficult) to try to get the ball behind a very deep defence for pacy attackers. However, the attackers cannot simply be pace merchants. They must have exceptional finishing, technique, composure and balance to attempt first time shots with balls being played quickly across the goal. It is also usually the case that you cannot rely on through balls being played from central positions unless an opponent is holding a higher offside line. Instead, early crosses and quick, angled through balls from out wide will be more likely to find their target. Though effective on the counter, low crosses from the byline are unlikely to find their target when played into an entrenched defence.

Most roles can work in a more direct style, though it is especially accommodating to restricted specialist roles like the target man. Wingers are often used as well, but fullbacks and wide midfielders can use combination passing to set one another up for crosses. It’s also important to keep in mind that the qualities of the players will have a big effect on how a direct style actually plays out. If you use big attackers, teammates will be more tempted to play the ball in the air. If you use more technical attackers, teammates will be more likely to drill balls along the ground. Usually, a direct style based around big attackers will be more effective against a containment defence that lets them get into the box as much as possible. A direct style based around faster or more technical attackers will be more effective against a pressing defence that leaves space behind the defence to attack.

A final technique to consider is the long shot. This can be combined with any other style, and if you have the players who can pull it off, it’s extremely useful for dealing with a stubborn defence playing a deep containment style. If emphasising attacking patterns designed to set up shots from distance, the players making the shots should obviously have a very good long shot attribute though you will also want good decisions to prevent them from simply snatching at every chance to test the keeper. For players coming in off the flanks, good technique can help them get some much needed curl on the shot.

7.6 PERCENTAGES AND THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

A team’s style is also defined by the players’ willingness to attempt more ambitious and unpredictable techniques. A manager who emphasises the principle of improvisation will encourage his players to play in a more flamboyant style that aims to use more ambitious techniques to deceive and unsettle defenders. A manager who discourages improvisation prefers for his players to keep it simple, make no-nonsense decisions and avoid overplaying the ball. Generally speaking, improvisation makes an attack less predictable, but it also increases the risk of an attack breaking down from players trying something they can’t pull off. On the other end of the spectrum, an ultra-disciplined style will tend to make an attack more predictable, but it will also see the attack proceed in a more controlled manner with players relying on more straight forward means of penetration.

A disciplined style can help check a promising talent’s tendency to overestimate his abilities.
A disciplined style can help check a promising talent’s tendency to overestimate his abilities.

Since a more expressive style of play will encourage players to be more on ambitious on the ball, it is important that players have the technique to actually match their heightened ambitions. In the absence of good technique, good decisions will help prevent them from trying to play beyond their actual ability level.

With a more disciplined style, you do not have to worry about technique and decisions as much, though if the manager does not allow for any role that permits some degree of improvisation, the team will have to compensate for the lack of a creative element with pure ability. This means the players responsible for setting up chances must be able to cross or pass with exceptional precision to work the ball around defenders who are not being tested mentally. Still, good decisions and vision will nevertheless help them choose the best of their limited options.

Similarly, the players getting on the end of chances will typically need exceptional finishing and a great first touch if their ability to deceive defenders and buy themselves space has been restrained. Exceptional physical attributes will also help give them more of an edge.

Flair will also have a significant effect when implementing either a highly flamboyant or highly disciplined style. Flair represents a player’s natural tendency to improvise, so it can either provide a counterbalance to the manager’s preferred approach or take it to a greater extreme. Normally, a manager who bases his tactical philosophy on improvisation will prefer players who naturally play with flair. More disciplined managers will tend to take one of two approaches. Some might prefer for a designated playmaker to be a natural flair player whereas others will simply prefer an entire team of workmanlike, no-nonsense players, perhaps even forgoing the use of a playmaker altogether.

7.7 INDIVIDUAL BATTLES

The effectiveness of your style will depend greatly on how the systems used by yourself and your opponent match up players in individual contests. Though attacking players may roam and make runs into different areas of the pitch, there are usually one or two opposition players who each player will be contending with for the majority of the match. Giving a thought to these match-ups can work to your advantage when you are looking to get the most out of your key players or avoid seeing the best of the opposition’s key players.

There are many ways individual battles can play out depending on the personnel and the tactics used, but there are a few standard guidelines to consider:

• When an opponent is not sitting deep and you have an attacker looking to use pace to either beat his man or make runs behind the defence, he will benefit most from being matched up against a slower and less agile opponent.

• When an attacker is mainly relying upon skill to beat his man, he will benefit most from being matched up against an opponent with poor positioning (to create space to receive the ball), tackling (to avoid being dispossessed), anticipation (to avoid having his next move read) and agility (to ensure he can’t quickly turn and recover if beaten). An aggressive opponent who lacks good decision-making can also be lured into fouls, though there is a risk that this could see your attacker injured. If the attacking player lacks good balance, he will also benefit from being matched up against a weaker defender.

• When an attacker is mainly relying upon making off the ball runs to get on the end of intricate passing moves, he will benefit most from being matched up against an opponent with poor marking (to avoid being tracked), positioning (to create space for a run being opened and avoid having the pass intercepted), anticipation (to hopefully gain a yard on his man) and concentration (to hopefully see the defender switch off altogether).

• When a player is relying on being given time on the ball to pick out a pass, he will benefit most from being matched up against an opponent with poor marking (to increase his chance of being open to receive the ball in space), positioning (to create an opening for a pass) and acceleration (to give him more time before being closed down).

A quick second striker can be a nightmare for the slow half of a defensive line.
A quick second striker can be a nightmare for the slow half of a defensive line.

• When a player is relying on physical prowess to shrug off an opposition player, he will benefit most from being matched up against a player who lacks strength (to avoid being pushed or eased off the ball) and balance (to allow him to more effectively exert his own strength).

• When a player is looking to beat an opposition player in the air, his ability to actually win aerial challenges will benefit most from being matched up against an opposition player who lacks jumping reach, strength and balance. Additionally, being matched up against an opponent who lacks aggression, bravery and determination may see him get on the end of more free headers.

• When a player is primarily looking to draw an opponent out of position to create space, he will benefit most from being matched up against an opposition player who lacks good decision-making (to increase the chance that the player will close down at an inopportune time) and teamwork (to increase the chance that the player will disregard the team’s tactical organisation). Poor positioning by a pressuring player can also help create more opportunities to play a ball directly into the space behind him.

• When bringing on a substitute late in the match, the above considerations apply, and you might also find it beneficial to exploit poor concentration and work rate.

• Finally, you should keep an eye on the player’s body language during a match. A frustrated, aggressive or fired-up player will be more prone to rash decisions. This will make them vulnerable to being drawn out of positions or into fouls. A nervous, complacent, uninterested or demoralised player will be more likely to avoid pushing himself and attempting difficult challenges or techniques. In possession, this will make them easier to rattle with intense pressure and aggressive defending. Out of possession, this will make them vulnerable to being strong-armed by a physical player as well as increasing the chance that they will make little effort to stop a skillful player.

7.8 TEAM STYLE AND PLAYER PREFERRED MOVES

Player preferred moves represent innate stylistic and tactical tendencies. They do not represent how comfortable a player is with a specific style of play or how good he is at carrying out a specific style of play, so if you wish to maintain the tactical versatility of your players, it is not necessary to train preferred moves to fit your style of play. However, it is very important to consider whether a player’s preferred moves will prevent him from effectively playing certain roles or styles.

For the most part, identifying conflicts is fairly simple. For example, a striker who comes deep to get the ball won’t consistently create depth for an attacking midfielder, and a striker who likes to play as a penalty box player can’t be relied upon to drop off as a link-up player. In terms of style, a player who plays no through balls will tend to be a poor choice for a playmaker, a player who tries long range passes can disrupt a short passing style, and a player who plays killer balls often can frequently undermine a possession tactic.

The most potentially disruptive preferred moves are those concerning player mobility. A player who likes to get forward whenever possible or get into the opposition area cannot be relied upon to act as a holding player and, when playing as a midfielder or forward, a linking player. Simply, they will look to burst forward when they can, and this can see them neglecting the principle of support or exposing the central defenders to counterattacks.

With a single pivot or back three system, the holding midfielder is relied upon to act as a distributor and often help switch play to the opposite flank. A player who prefers to only play short, simple passes can end up being too cautious if the support ahead of him take up wide or more advanced positions. Similarly, stops play and dwells on ball will give the opposition defence more time to react to the switch of play.

The opposition’s system and style of play can also affect the influence of a preferred move. For example, a player who likes to try to break the offside trap will be less likely to take up good attacking positions against a deep defence, and a player who likes to play his way out of trouble can be a liability against a pressing defence.

Keeping an eye on opposition players’ preferred moves can also work to your advantage. A player who avoids using his weaker foot will be much easier to jockey into nonthreatening areas, a player who marks opponents tightly can be more easily dragged out of position by a roaming attacker, and a player inclined to play ambitious passes can be more easily pressured into making risky decisions. Even when you don’t have a direct means of exploiting a preferred move, it’s always advantageous to know exactly what you can expect from a player.

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