I’ve been lucky enough to be able to host this series. It’s not my own work, it all belongs to The Hand of God who is a Sports Interactive forum moderator like myself. His work is really in-depth and fascinating so to host this, is a real pleasure 🙂
First and foremost, I wanted to provide a comprehensive FM15-friendly guide to the Tactics Creator and its many features. I wanted to explain what everything does, and I also wanted to make it clear why you might want to do it. Moreover, I didn’t just want to tell people what to do; I wanted to teach people how to figure out new ways to do what they want to do. As with all my threads, I don’t like to set down restrictive rules for how to play. I like to encourage people to get creative and explore the game on their own terms, and this thread was written to help you do that.
Second, I wanted it to be a reflection of what I find fun about the game. Of course, playing with the tactical component is a big part of the game for me, but I also enjoy experimenting with different styles of management. For me, the most enjoyable saves are those where I get immersed in a narrative experience, and this guide is a reflection of that. That being the case, my aim here was not to lay out the most direct way to beat the game with any random club. Rather, it was to give people ideas for how to enjoy FM in all of its depth.
Finally, I wanted to provide a resource for more experienced FM players who want to delve deeper into the tactical side of football. On the tactics forum, we often get requests from people who want more background on why, exactly, sound & sensible tactical advice is sound & sensible, and even among those who have zero trouble getting a solid tactic up and running, many people struggle to learn how to confidently make tactical decisions when an otherwise reasonable, balanced tactic doesn’t work. One of the biggest obstacles they face is the lack of material discussing the most basic tactical concepts. Tactical blogs tend to only focus on the latest developments in top level play while introductory coaching material tends to be too focused on technique and fitness instruction to be of much use to virtual football managers. This handbook looks to clarify the basics of tactical theory, explore them in depth and explain how they relate to different features in FM. In the earliest drafts, it was written as a sort of tactical dictionary, and much of that approach remains intact.
The handbook is divided into ten chapters. The first three introduce and discuss a manager’s tactical responsibilities and the basic concepts behind tactical theory. The next four chapters will explore the tactics creator in detail and explain how to put your tactical ideas into practice. The final three chapters discuss how to work outside your basic set-up in order to control matches, create tactical advantages and deal with difficult situations. Given the length, I’ve decided to post one chapter every few days, though when the final chapter is up, I’ll also provide a link to a complete pdf for anyone interested in having an offline version.
As I said above, this was written to be a comprehensive guide to tactics for those who were requesting one, and rather than something to be absorbed all at once, it was mainly intended as a reference that you can go back to when you forget what some feature does or what some bit of tactical jargon means. In any case, I hope anyone who gives it a read will find it informative and enjoyable, and above all, I hope it helps you find new ways to enjoy the game.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. The Role of the Manager
2. The Elements of Play
3. The Principles of Play
4. The Tactics Creator
5. Defensive Systems
6. Attacking Systems
7. Styles of Play
8. Match Strategies
9. Tactical Contingencies
10. Management Style
Part 1. The Role of The Manager
1.1 MANAGERIAL RESPONSIBILITIES
The job of a modern football manager encompasses six basic areas of responsibility:
1. Match Tactics: This involves deciding how to use principles, systems and styles of play to meet the club’s performance objectives. At a well managed club, this area of responsibility provides a foundation for all of the others.
2. Player Development: This involves developing a training programme and organising the club’s coaches to improve the individual abilities of players. A sufficiently comprehensive player development programme will improve player performance in terms of technical proficiency, physical ability, tactical intelligence, mental resilience and professional ethics.
3. Player Psychology: This involves helping players cope with the pressures of life as a professional footballer while enforcing the club’s expectations for professional behaviour. In some cases, it may also involve helping players deal with other personal difficulties that might be adversely affecting performance.
4. Player Fitness: This extends beyond training players to improve their physical abilities to encompass general methods of avoiding and managing both fatigue and injury. It involves ensuring the responsible use of injury prone players, balancing training objectives with the match schedule and advising players on dietary practices and medical treatment options.
5. Squad Development: This involves building and maintaining a squad capable of meeting the club’s objectives in all competitions. This area encompasses transfers, providing youth players with experience in the first team and repurposing players for new positions or roles.
6. Public Relations: This involves helping to promote a positive image of the club in order to attract and retain fans and commercial sponsors. For a manager, this mainly involves providing a style of football that the fans enjoy as well as interacting with the media on a weekly basis.
At a poorly managed club, each of these responsibilities will be handled in isolation from one another. Decisions in each area are made without a coherent plan, and eventually, conflicting decisions lead to inefficiencies and poor performance on the pitch. The most common example is a club that buys and sells players irrespective of the manager’s preferred style of play.
At an effectively managed club, each responsibility is understood as being inseparably tied to the others. Decisions in each area are guided by a common vision for how the manager wants the club to play football. This vision is called the manager’s philosophy. In football, a philosophy is a set of ideals reflecting the type of football and players that a manager wants the club to produce.
A coherent philosophy is rooted in a manager’s preferred tactical approach. From there, it extends to all other areas of management to ensure that decisions elsewhere don’t hinder how the team is expected to operate in play. Implemented effectively, a philosophy promotes purposeful decision-making throughout the entire club with the common goal of improving the team’s performance on the pitch.
1.2 TACTICAL PRINCIPLES
There can be many aspects to a managerial philosophy, but at its core are the principles of play that the manager chooses to emphasise in his approach to tactics and training. The principles of play are the universal tactical concepts that structure and guide the decisions of players over the course of a football match. For a player, a clear understanding of the principles of play will help him recognise good decisions in different tactical situations.
The principles provide the bedrock for tactical coaching, but their usefulness to managers extends beyond the training ground. During matches, the principles of play are essential tools for identifying both tactical problems and possible solutions. If you understand the principles of play, then you have all the tools you need to read what’s happening in a match, regardless of which playing systems and styles are being used by the teams involved.
The basic ideas behind the various principles have been in circulation among football coaches for more than fifty years, but while the preferred tactical methods of managers have changed, the theory behind the principles have remained largely intact. The exact terminology and number of distinct principles can vary from coach to coach, but essentially, there are fourteen basic concepts that can be separated into seven principles of attack and seven opposing principles of defence:
THE PRINCIPLES OF ATTACK
1. Penetration: The principle of penetration instructs players to move the ball forward into space behind the lines of the opposition’s defence, usually by dribbling or passing.
2. Possession: The principle of possession instructs players to simply maintain control of the ball by holding it up or safely circulating it when lacking acceptable options to advance attacking play.
3. Depth: The principle of depth instructs players to spread out into varied positions from back to front in order to pin back, disrupt and create space between the lines of the opposition’s defence.
4. Width: The principle of width instructs players to spread out from side to side in order to advance the ball through space on the flanks and create space between opposition players.
5. Support: The principle of support instructs players to offer safe passing options from multiple angles to prevent isolation and allow quick circulation of the ball in any direction.
6. Mobility: The principle of mobility instructs players to move constantly and change positions to distract defenders and prevent them from maintaining a steady shape.
7. Improvisation: The principle of improvisation instructs players to play with flair and creativity to avoid becoming predictable and allowing the opposition defence to get into a comfortable rhythm.
THE PRINCIPLES OF DEFENCE
1. Delay: The principle of delay instructs the first defender directly engaging the player in possession of the ball to position himself to prevent a forward pass.
2. Pressure: The principle of pressure instructs defenders to attempt to prompt poor decision making from attackers by reducing the amount of time and space they’re afforded on the ball.
3. Compression: The principle of compression instructs defenders to get compact around the ball to deny space between the lines and prevent attackers from playing through the defence.
4. Balance: The principle of balance instructs defenders away from the ball to help maintain an effective shape and avoid exposing large gaps vulnerable to a change in direction by the attack.
5. Cover: The principle of cover instructs defenders to cut off passing options for the attacker in possession and protect space behind defenders stepping out to delay or pressure.
6. Consolidation: The principle of consolidation instructs defenders to recover positions in a narrow defensive shape to deny space for movement and penetration into areas in front of goal.
7. Restraint: The principle of restraint instructs defenders to avoid overcommitting to a challenge or moving out of position unnecessarily in response to a dangerous or unanticipated situation.
The basic purpose of tactical principles is to provide a framework for coaching player decisions. At any give a moment during a match, a player will be faced with a choice about what to do next, and the correct decision may not always be obvious, especially if a player is struggling to read the play. The principles of play act as guidelines for player-driven tactical decision-making, and at a very abstract level, tactics can be thought of as a way of balancing the principles to guide player decisions towards different ends.
However, regardless of the team’s tactics, all properly organised teams will observe each of the principles of play to some extent, and a tactically intelligent player will make use of each of them to guide his decisions throughout the match. If any player fails to adequately follow a principle, the quality of the entire team’s play will suffer, and the tactical shortcomings that result will quickly be exposed and exploited by a competent opponent.
Though all teams observe each of the principles of play, a manager will prioritise certain principles over others when developing and implementing his philosophy. These favoured principles define the core of the manager’s philosophy, and by extension, they greatly influence the manager’s tactical approach to each match. This will be reflected in both how the players line up on the pitch and the kind of decisions they make to achieve the team’s objectives.
Managerial philosophies differ in how intensely, narrowly and strictly they focus on various favoured principles. These differences define two distinct philosophical approaches to tactics.
A flexible philosophy will tend to be more broadly and loosely focused on a wider range of principles with a greater emphasis on preserving a team’s ability to adapt to different tactical situations. A flexible manager will be more likely to adjust to his opponents by using different systems and styles of play from match to match, and he will tend to prefer either a squad of more versatile players or, in the case of wealthy clubs that can afford a “toolkit approach” to squad building, a squad with several different kinds of more specialised players who can be deployed when needed.
A systematic philosophy will tend to be more narrowly and intensely focused on a smaller set of key principles with a greater emphasis on perfecting a team’s ability to implement them. Though not totally inflexible, a more systematic manager will tend to stick to certain systems and styles more consistently while preferring a squad of players specifically suited to his tactical vision. In practice, a systematic philosophy is usually more difficult to implement, and it may require a manager being given more time to restructure the club before the desired results can be achieved.
While the debate over these two philosophical approaches will flare up whenever a team hits a run of bad form, both have their own advantages and disadvantages. A club managed according to a flexible philosophy may have an easier time finding and implementing a solution when things aren’t working, but the club may also suffer from indecision or poor decisions resulting from a lack of clarity over what it’s attempting to achieve. On the other hand, a club managed according to a more systematic philosophy will be able to focus its efforts more efficiently, but it faces a greater risk of the team’s play becoming stale and predictable as other clubs adapt and evolve around them.
1.3 SYSTEM AND STYLE
While the principles of play are the basic concepts that guide tactical decisions in a football match, tactics are methods of organising the team to more effectively carry out certain principles during a match. A manager’s preferred tactics reflect the core principles of his philosophy. For example, a manager who favours the principles of possession and pressure will develop tactics that help those players carry those principles out. There are two basic components of a tactic through which this is done: system and style.
A tactic’s system is the set of instructions that organise the basic positioning, responsibilities and movement patterns of the players. The two main aspects of a system are the defensive formation and roles. The defensive formationassigns defensive positions to the players and establishes the team’s basic shape when they have consolidated inside their own half of the pitch. Roles primarily assign attacking responsibilities to the players and establish the team’s main patterns of attack.
A tactic’s style is the set of instructions detailing the specific techniques and methods that players use to carry out their responsibilities within the system. There are many aspects to a style of play, but the three most prominent aspects are the defensive style (how the players look to protect their goal and win the ball back), the build-up style (how the players look to set up attacks) and the team’s preferred attacking techniques (how the players use the ball to achieve penetration).
When selecting both a system and style, different choices will enable players to better carry out specific principles, so with a coherent philosophy, a manager will be able to make tactical choices that suit the ideals he’s looking to instill at the club. However, even the most strictly systematic managers won’t necessarily restrict themselves to just one style or system at all times.
The principles of play are universal, and that means they are not strictly tied to a specific system or style. A philosophy represents the key tactical principles that are emphasised at the club, but all the principles are flexible enough to allow managers to adapt to different situations with different tactics without abandoning his core ideas. Viewed as an application of the tactical principles, a system or style of play becomes a tool with a clear purpose and function as opposed to a rigid procedure blindly followed due to tradition or a lack of genuine understanding about why it works.
This underlines the benefits that an understanding of the tactical principles brings to a club. At a poorly managed club, a manager will stubbornly stick to specific tactics from a narrow minded belief in “what works,” but this will leave the manager poorly prepared for the inevitable situations when “what works” doesn’t work any longer. This sort of blind ideology is less of a tactical philosophy than an indication that a manager is out of his depth.
1.4 STRATEGIES AND OBJECTIVES
Whether a cunning pragmatist or visionary ideologue, all managers make tactical adjustments between and during matches. Over the long term, managing the club’s tactics involves implementing a tactical philosophy on the pitch, but in the short term, tactical management mainly involves developing and implementing strategies for individual matches. While a philosophy defines the kind of tactics that a manager will prefer generally, a strategy is a means of putting those tactics into practice over the course of a single match.
A match strategy is a plan for using tactics to secure a desirable result from a match. This does not necessarily mean a win. Depending on the circumstances, it could also mean a draw, a win by a certain margin or a loss that maintains a favourable goal differential in a competition. A match strategy may also incorporate considerations from other areas of club management. For example, a match strategy may be set up to maintain player fitness or give youth players more experience with competitive play.
The key to an effective match strategy is knowing what you want to achieve and how you intend to go about achieving it. The strategy itself looks to achieve a certain kind of result, but at the tactical level, the individual tactics that make up a strategy usually have more precise objectives. A tactical objective is a tactic’s intended effect on play. A tactic may have multiple explicit and implicit objectives, and there are many different kinds of objective. Common objectives include stifling the opposition attack, creating a certain type of goal-scoring opportunity, dominating possession, etc.
Tactical objectives aren’t formal tactical concepts like the systems and principles of play, but their importance shouldn’t be overlooked. If you don’t know know how a tactic is supposed to pan out in play, then your match strategy will be little more than a hopeful gamble. From philosophy to strategy to tactics, the key to effective management is having a plan with a clear aim, and when developing a tactic, articulating what you want to do is the first step to figuring out how to do it.
NEXT: THE ELEMENTS OF PLAY