Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants

This is the first of a three part mini series inside the ‘Building A Tactic From The Beginning And Maintaining It Long Term’ project that I am doing. The three parts will consist of;

Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants – This will concentrate on looking at how I set up to play a lot stronger opposition.

The Walls Of Jericho – The second part will take a look at how I set up and try to break down the more stubborn teams who are well disciplined and organised defensively.

Eureka! – Then the final part I’m hoping will enlighten people about the differences in the styles of play that both teams do. This should explain why you can beat bigger teams one week but lose to the weaker teams the week after. It will examine and explain exactly why this happens based on the two games I discuss in parts one and two.

Playing stronger opposition can be a big issue at times – just exactly how do you set up to play against them? Well, you can play a numerous of different types of games against them. You could sit back and be solid defensively and hope you can grab a goal on the counter, or you could just focus on a counter attacking game and look to always hit them on the break when they overcommit players forward. Or you can try and attack the natural space that they leave when attacking you, which is different to counter attacking because you will be focusing on certain areas. It’s this latter method I am going to talk about now as I just played Manchester City in the first season in the FA Cup. Now I might be a decent side in League One but being drawn against City, I am the lot weaker side.

The First Game

I was drawn away against them and managed to pull off a 1-1 draw. I wasn’t outplayed at all like one would suspect. I perfectly held my own and was unlucky not to win the game. These were the match stats;


I played the usual 4-4-2 which is outlined in this post minus the shouts push higher up, close down more and stay on feet. The rest is the exact same.

And Manchester City also lined up with a flat 4-4-2.

I don’t want to dwell on the first game too much as it led to the extraordinary replay that I’ll be discussing below but I thought I best touch upon the fact it was a replay I was discussing.

The Replay

I approached this game the exact same way I did the one above (we both played the same shape again too 4-4-2 and I used the instructions set out above) but because I’ve not discussed that let me set a bit of background about the way I view the game and set up in general. I should point out as well because I’ve not mentioned it yet, I play with the control mentality.

Pre Game Changes

Some people like to make changes before the game is set up and being played – they like to look at things like form, the match odds and even the scout reports and look at the areas the opposition seem the most dangerous. Then they’ll make changes based on what they think will happen. Myself, though, I take a different approach, I don’t make changes before games ever as I don’t like to try and guess what will happen I’d rather make changes based on what I see happening in the match. One of the main reasons for doing it this way is due to me wanting to enforce my style and club playing philosophy on the opposition. If I’m always changing and trying to adapt to the opposition before a game then I don’t have a playing identity because I’m the one always trying to adapt. That’s not something I want to do, why should I be the one always sacrificing the way I want to play? So for these reasons I’d rather change based on what is actually happening in a game rather than trying to predict what might happen before its even happened.

That’s not to say my way is better though, it just works for me and how I play and view the game in general.

Opposition Instructions

For me these are the devil, they seem useful on paper but they can cause complications that the user doesn’t always realise. They can cause you to lose your shape and for players to do things that don’t seem understandable when viewing the match or highlights as he might behave different to how you instructed his tactically, due to having OI’s that make his behaviour different. For me I never use OI’s, ever! If you do use them just make sure you understand which you are using and try and understand how these will impact how you’ve instructed the player to play.

Things like ‘show onto weaker foot’ sound good in principle, but what happens if you’re forcing that player onto his weaker foot? It could mean you are forcing him to use the side the natural overlaps is on. So while in theory it sounds good in practice, it could mean something else and actually be a strength for the opposition if you are forcing him to do a particular thing, you could find the opposition actually has the advantage in some cases. That’s not to say this will always be the case but you need to understand the impact they can have on you and your side.

The First 15 Minutes

The first 15 minutes of any game are the most vital in my opinion, I can’t state just how important these opening minutes are. I always and I really mean always watch the first 15 minutes of the game in full to get an understanding of what is happening in the game. If I was just watching highlights I wouldn’t get a true feeling of what my players are doing and if they are doing the jobs I’ve instructed them to do. For most parts the majority of changes I’ll ever make will come in this time period. After these 15 minutes you can switch to highlight mode again if you feel comfortable with how your side is playing, which is something I often do.

I’ll pause the game, rewind clips, look at the stats and even change camera angles to view incidents from different angles, as you can learn a lot by doing this. Don’t panic and think you haven’t got time, always pause the game if you are unsure before making a decision. I also pause the game at random times when attacking and defending, this allows me to see how the players are playing positionally and sometimes can show things that are wrong in your own set up. For me its probably the easiest way of identifying an issue.

Let’s take a look at what I noticed in these opening minutes.


That screenshot is taken from the first 20 seconds of the match and already I can see that attacking I look really good and have men committed forward when attacking, which is good. It can also be an issue should I lose possession as I’d be hit on the counter. But again I’ll worry about that if and when it happens – if it’s not happened yet I’m not going to worry about it as I look good going forward and I’d hate to hamper that. As a rule of thumb I follow something along the lines of;

  • Stick to my own game plan as much as possible
  • Never panic or rush making a decision when it comes to changing stuff
  • Make small changes. Small changes are what 90% of the time wins games.

That way I never lose sight of my own style.


Remember above when I said there is no need to worry until something happens? Well it’s happened so now I’ve seen enough for me to decide my first change. While I’m happy with how I attack I can’t help but think City’s pace in their squad could hurt me over 90 minutes and I really think I have a chance of winning this game. So with that in mind;


  • Change 1 – Switch from control to a counter attacking mentality

The reason for this change is simple, I don’t need to leave myself exposed like the screenshot highlights. I mean, I have five players behind the ball so that shows I’m far too aggressive in my approach.

My defensive minded central defender has had to leave his position and move across to the ball which is problematic. He’s identified the danger and is dealing with it like you would expect but this in turn means he’s abandoned his position, leaving the full midfield exposed. He really should be hanging back more but this is due to me using a control mentality, it’s just too attacking for what I’m wanting at the minute and because City are a top side they’ll exploit this time and time again.

Everyone viewing that screenshot should be able to see the issue. Now I might like being risky against sides who are equal to me, but taking a big risk like this against good opposition could result in me taking a hammering.

It’s not all bad, though, when being attacked by the opposition, as the next screenshot will show;


This is City actually attacking me – this is my goal. But can you see all the space circled that they leave behind to be exploited should I win the ball back? This is the biggest advantage against the bigger sides as they naturally leave space for you to exploit due to their attacking behaviour. Against the lesser sides they are normally more compact and don’t attack with such numbers so this takes away the space that I’ve highlighted. That’s why we see people mention they beat a big team one week then lose to the club at the bottom of the league the week after. It’s all about space and how you use it against those sides. Against the big clubs they do half the job for you as they leave space compared to the lesser sides when the emphasis is on you creating that space somehow.

It’s normally during those sort of games that you’ll get a real understanding of how your roles all link together to give you the end product. So it’s not too unfamiliar if a lot of people get caught out here, and their tactic shows a flaw in which it creates and uses space. I’ll be touching upon that and showing examples from attacking sides and the more defensive ones in another article.

Back to the above screenshot though, I’m hoping the change to counter attacking mentality will make me concentrate on these areas more when we win the ball back and have a counter on. My complete wingback should make the most of it and I expect the roaming playmaker to take advantage of it too due to what the role is about – A creative box to box player.

After a few minutes I already see my side are doing better in the space I highlighted above;


My left back plays the ball into the channel where my raumdeuter is already making a run between the centre back and fullback, he’s in clear space. The three City players highlighted have issues here, the one nearest the touchline is already running towards my left back so he’s totally unaware of my player next to him. The second highlighted player is running across to cut the ball out but realistically he isn’t going to even get close to it. And the third one is even more interesting – you’ll see me mention from time to time if you’ve followed my stuff before about making the opposition make a choice – well this is a good example of that, the defender has two options here;

  • 1 – He can try and cut out the ball and move across towards the raumdeuter
  • 2 – He can track the runner at the side of him who is looking to get beyond him

Now it doesn’t matter which option he really chooses as it will be the wrong option. Whichever player he tries to track, it will leave the other one in acres of space. Play like this wins you games, there is no two ways about it. Forcing the opposition to make a decision whilst you have the advantage regardless of what that decision is, is hard to do, but this is why role allocation and being able to understand how all the roles and duties you’ve chosen all link together is important. I know I bang on about that quite a lot but I can’t stress how important it is.

The  deep lying forward has dropped off so he plays in front of the defender, and the raumdeuter is roaming around, looking to be aggressive and utilising any kind of space he sees. He’s quite tricky to mark and these are the types of areas you should see him attacking frequently. The DLF is the support, and this support can be in the form of a passing option or creating the space/occupying the defender.

The next screenshot shows the next stage of the move.


He’s decided he’ll go wide with the ball rather than drive inside. By doing this he’s split City wide open and now it is down to the player to choose the correct option. He can either drive forward towards the byline or he can pass to the player who will be in acres of space in the next second, who then also has a passing option next to him too. Sadly on this occasion he goes towards the byline which is the wrong option, but not to worry too much as the player isn’t the best player going (despite what I’ll have you all thinking!) and seeing that my side can open up teams like this is a major positive and this is still all happening within the opening first two minutes of the game.

What comes next is a really well worked goal.

The goal shows me being calm and using the full length of the pitch and also using the areas I highlighted at the start that I thought I should be attacking more. If I was still using control mentality then this goal might not have happened as I’d have been higher up the pitch to begin with and play would have been more rushed compared to the slow build up play of a less aggressive mentality.

Jose Baxter is my roaming playmaker and you can see he is the calm head in the centre who then makes the move. He looks to get the ball forward and is making himself available as an option too. When he initially receives the ball from my centre back (Butler) at the start of the move, you can see him drop deeper to give himself space to be available for the pass. Then once he received the ball he instantly looks to make something happen and uses the width of the pitch. Not only that but he plays the ball to wide playmaker who is drifting inside into acres of free space (the space I highlighted further up the thread).

Then a little later on in the move Baxter is once again the player looking to make something happen and plays a fantastic through ball between Manchester City’s left winger and left fullback. It really is a quality ball. On a side note, I’ve seen people say these type of balls don’t happen in recent days, but this is clear evidence it does with the right set up.

It’s a great goal and I’m more than pleased with that. It came about due to the space they leave open when attacking – they seem to have a total disregard for being compact as they are concentrating more on their attacking play as they are the stronger side. This is why it can be easier to score against the bigger sides because they all do it (if they think you’re much weaker).

Not long after the first goal I get my second from the penalty spot when the wide playmaker is brought down.

All of this has all happened within the first 14 minutes and 50 seconds.

The other 75 Minutes

Now I had a dilemma, do I carry on watching in full mode or do I switch to highlights? If I go highlights it’ll pass by quickly but if I watch the game I’ll know exactly how I am playing and be in a better position to react to any changes that City do. In any other game I’d have more than likely reverted to highlights as I know my team is playing well and looking dangerous on the attack, however, I expect City to really go for it now and make some changes at some point so I stick to watching the full game.

Being 2-0 up is hard against the bigger sides because you are sat waiting for them as you know changes are coming and they’ll look to make something happen. This can also be a good thing, too, because as they chase the game they’ll take even more risks, and I normally score a few more goals when this happens due to the amount of space they leave and players who are caught out of position.

The rest of the first half passes without much else happening. At the end of the half the shot count looked like this;

  • Sheffield United 8 shots 5 on target
  • Manchester City 5 shots 2 on target

I don’t think those stats are that bad in all honesty and I seem to be playing well. I’m actually surprised at how poor Manchester City seem to be playing. The side they’ve put out isn’t that weak – they are playing names like Lampard, Milner, Kolarov, Jovetic, Zabaleta and Fernando, so it really is quite a strong line up. I’ll not lie, though, I was expecting a bit more from them.

Three minutes into the second half and City grabbed one back. My players’ positioning was awful in the build up to it;


I’m hit on the counter-attack and my left back is caught way out of position due to the role he has. As he is a complete wingback he gets in very high positions, which can be great when attacking, but makes it harder to get back into position should you lose the ball and the opposition break quickly.

To make things worse one of my central defenders were out of position too. So add this to the fact my full back is out of position too, then I have one central defender who is being run ragged here as highlighted in the next screenshot.


Just look at that space undefended and Manchester City are really punishing me here. This is what happens when attacking players who are aggressive in their play going forward get caught out of position. This is terrible defending and I’m not happy about this one bit. So I make change number two here;


  • Change number two – I make both full backs become wing backs on support duties rather than the complete ones they currently are.

Even though I was playing well and look a threat myself going forward, the game has now changed compared to when it was 2-0. City are back in this and if I don’t take precautions then I’ll lose the game, its as simple as that. I needed to do something before it was too late. I have some friends (no I really do, I can’t believe it either) who wait until the final twenty minutes to make any changes regardless of what is happening. Why would someone do that? I’d much rather react earlier while I still have a chance of winning the game, if I waited another twenty minutes I could be losing the game at that point. I’m more proactive and prefer to try and prevent things before they happen if I know something they are going to be an issue.

You can actually see the difference immediately after the change takes effect in the next attack;


Normally they’d be slightly higher when I lose possession and City attack me quickly, now I’m much more solid and my back four are all playing as a unit for the first time in the match. It should mean I’m much better placed in the wide areas to deal with City’s wingers and full backs.

Around the 60th minute mark I score my third goal of the game from a freekick to make it 3-1.

It’s at this point that Manchester City switch to a 4-2-4 formation pushing the ML/MR up to AML/R. I love it when teams do this to me as I normally grab a couple more goals myself. As soon as I see they’ve made the change I counter this by making changes myself.


  • Changes number three – I take off the shouts retain possession, shorter passing and play out of defence.
  • Changes number four – I then add more direct passing.

The reason for the changes I said I made in number three is simple: I was playing a possession game of some kind and trying to retain it as much as possible, but now City are using AML/R’s and are being a lot more attack-minded – It’s like they are on overload now, and I don’t want to risk giving the ball away in dangerous areas. My players are tiring and aren’t that strong mentally to begin with, so now that City will close me down more aggressive from the front as the AML/R’s allow this more due to the natural positions they take up, and it could force my players into some kind of mistake.

The change I did in number four is so I get the ball from A to B quickly. This is because City now have a huge gap between their fullback and the players in the AML/R positions, so there is lots of space here and my defenders and midfielders should hopefully make the most of this by being more direct.

I guess a lot of people would also add exploit the flanks here but I haven’t for a very good reason. Exploit the flanks makes fullbacks/wingbacks more attacking, which is not what I want. I need them to hold their position better by being deeper – now that City have pushed their wingers up, it is even more important they do so. So anything that changes them from support to attacking will have a big consequence to the way they act. By being on a support duty it should mean that when defending they’ll be in front of their marker rather than behind him, and if they got caught out of position and ended up behind their marker, then that player would be free to run wild and one of my centre backs would have to cover. It’s a bit like the scenario I discussed earlier in the article when I talked about making the AI make a choice.

Not long after these changes I score my fourth goal. It all started with a throw-in.


The throw-in goes to the most defensive midfielder who then passes it back to my left back who took the throw in.


He then puts a ball into the complete striker who dwells on it for a few seconds while the deep lying forward times his run, and he then passes into his patch and the DLF taps it in to make it 4-1.

Not long after this, it’s 5-1.


The right back gets the ball and puts a simple cross into the back post where Diego, my complete forward, is making a run to tap it home to make it 5-1.

Then three minutes before full time, a simple little dink just inside the box from the DLF to the striker, results in another goal to make it 6-1.


As you can see I more than held my own and totally deserved the win in the end. In the second half I played exceptional.

I won this game due to what I did at the very start in the opening few minutes, and changing strategy from control to counter attacking paid dividends. The changes I made when the opposition changed shape can’t go understated either. No matter how you view the game you always need to be aware of what the opposition is doing, and keeping an eye out for them changing shape or changing their playing style is crucial as this is what really catches people out!

14 thoughts on “Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants”

  1. Loving this. Great job! May I ask about your team shape? I would guess structured or perhaps even highly structured considering the amount of specialist roles, but what do I know?.;)

      1. Thanks for the reply. Really enjoying these articles. I am finally seeing some success myself in the game using what I have learned from your many quality threads and articles:)

          1. Question about the TI`s you use. Seeing as the passing structure of the control mentality will make your defenders pass shorter, I always thought TI`s such as “play out of def.”, “retain poss.” and “shorter passing” would be too restricting and perhaps risky unless you have great defenders with good technique, composure, anticipation, passing and vision. My thinking beeing they might dwell on the ball and focus on keeping possession at all cost also under alot of pressure. What is your take on that? Perhaps I`m overthinking this…

      2. You didn’t actually go into your decision making for that, did you? Would you?

        I think I may finally be past the hump where the more I read, the worse I do. I think I’m finally up to doing better the more I read.

  2. Have be playing quit a few matches now with control mentality and the TI`s I asked about and not seeing any issues regarding passing and defenders so i guess you could just overlook my former post:)

  3. Excellent article again… loads of points I was nodding my head to and agreeing with, which means your knowledge is sinking into my brain

    I also had a few “ahhh bisto” moments with how you changed when they did.

    Thanks Cleon.

  4. Typically I am late to the party but a wonderful article Cleon. Must be my age but I find it near on impossible for words on a screen to sink in, so I printed it out and then bound it up into a small book. Makes for wonderful throne reading material :p

    1. I struggle myself and prefer actual books to anything on the internet. I’m one of those people who refuse to use Kindle and still actually buys physical copies of book 🙂

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