The Santos Experience – The 3-2-2-2-1

A  3-4-3/3-4-2-1/3-2-2-2-1 formation isn’t something we see a lot of, especially in terms of European football. We’ve seen it briefly at times with Brazil and a fair other few teams, more notably Chelsea under Conte. It’s been a big factor in their recent upturn of form (at least at the time of writing this). Not only that but it’s also a formation that I’ve used for the past five years on Football Manager but I don’t recall ever writing about it. So I thought I’d share with you my own interpretation of the formation and how I make it work on Football Manager 2017.

Before the game was released I was messing around on the BETA with Santos before starting over properly (which I’ve now done) and I was using two variations of a 3-4-2-1/3-2-2-2-1 and trying to decide which I preferred and why. These were the two tactics;



Both worked great but I didn’t really refine either of them in any way, as I wanted to save any tweaking for when I played properly. Both systems are basically the same but play different depending on the type of role the striker has and the left-sided central midfielder. Even though I didn’t mess around and tweak anything, the second image is the tactic I’ll use as it’s better balanced and focuses on overloading the centre of the pitch slightly more than the first image. So you can see the shape, roles and duties that I use above and here are the team instructions;


The idea behind the instructions is I want to retain possession until we have a useful attack and really build from the back, while at the same time putting high pressure on the opposition. But the question is does the tactic with the roles and duties I use coupled with the team instructions selected actually work like I want? The only real way to know is to watch games and analyse the matches themselves. Due to this being a new save I’m actually playing this in real-time while writing this, so the game I’m about to analyse is my actual first competitive game of the season. I aim to get the formation up and running with the style I want as soon as possible, this means I can fly through the seasons then.

The Analysis


As you’ll see I ran out clear winners and dominated the game if we go on face value which might be enough for some. But for me the type of football we are playing and more importantly, trying to create, is much more important than the initial result. That might sound crazy for some but if I’m to create any kind of philosophy here at Santos then I have to play the type of football I envisage.


On closer inspection of the team stats they aren’t that impressive at all. I always try to aim to get around 50% of my shots on target, I think the actual real life numbers are something around 34-37%. But I like to aim higher and think the 50% is a good benchmark to use.


Those are the players individual stats from the game which give us a better idea of how the players played. Although we have to be wary that we have no context to go with these stats yet though as we’ve not looked at the actual game. The first thing I notice here is the goalkeeper’s low passing completion. It’s not a shock, as I’ve not instructed him to play it short and I have mixed feeling about this anyway. Even though I want to build from the back if an opportunity is on further up the field, I’d like the keeper to start quick attacks. I don’t want to be limited in what the side can do but on the flip side, if he’s constantly looking for those type of situations then it can be a real issue as it’s giving possession away when we could have played out from the back. So it’s something I need to look at in more detail and possibly make a decision either way about fixing it or leaving it.

Another thing that jumps out is the number of crosses that my wingbacks had. Now I know to expect that in a shape like this the wingbacks are the only source of width and provide the crosses but these numbers still seem incredibly high especially taking into consideration how many were actually completed. This needs looking at and addressing straight away to determine if it’s a bug (it could be a hangover from the FM16 crossing bug), tactical issue or if it was natural. It might take some time to analyse all these crosses when I look at the game shortly.

You can see that my two central midfielders Thiago Maia and Leo Cittadini saw a lot of the ball and seem to be the engine of the team. This is something I was hoping and expecting to happen.

Something that has caught my eye though is Lucas Lima who is my advanced playmaker attempted six dribbles compared to my shadow striker who attempted just one. Maybe the shadow striker is too advanced and not able to make runs due to his advanced positions.

Overall though everything seems as you’d imagine it would but like anything, its need context to add any value to them. The stats on their own are pretty meaningless.


This is early into the match and you can see the shape of the tactic and you’ll notice a flat midfield four almost. I did consider using a flat four midfield but opted for wingbacks instead of defensive wingers so that when I lost possession I revert to a flat back five. With players in the ML/MR strata they’d never full drop back enough I don’t feel, so this is the only reason I went with wingbacks.

I’m not going to watch the entire game back as tactical familiarity still isn’t fluid yet but I’ll be looking at aspects of the game to get a general feel for things. If you’ve followed my stuff for a while you’ll know I normally do it over a three game period. I’ll be doing the same now and providing an update further down the line. But I still want to do some analysis of the good and bad things from this game, especially the stuff I mentioned further up.

Keepers Passing


As I wanted to determine if the keepers passing was an issue or not, I went into the analysis tab and have clicked on his passing. The green arrows are completed ones, red ones are ones hit out of play and finally, the orange ones are intercepted. In total he completed nine passes, eleven were intercepted and three put out of play. What I need to do now is click on the intercepted ones and see what my players positions are like when the keeper is hitting the ball long. This should determine if I need to restrict him or not. I’ll not write about them all but I’ll show you an example of what I’m looking at.


It’s clear here that there was no opportunity to hit them on a quick break. Well, there was I should rephrase that. The keeper held onto the ball for far too long and this allowed the opposition to retreat and get back into position. So this killed any kind of move. If he had released the ball earlier I wouldn’t mind if he gave possession away as it’s worth a gamble for me. However dwelling on the ball and killing the move then hitting it long is a hindrance as we could build from the back much slower and that would be more beneficial.


If he’s attempting to distribute the ball long then ideally he should be doing it here after receiving the ball instead of waiting like in the first screenshot. I’ve checked the other intercepted passes and they all seem to follow the same pattern as this one, so it is a concern. I think I will need to change it but like usual I’ll use my three game rule before implementing any kind of changes.

The wingbacks

As I touched upon earlier the amount of completed crosses from the wingbacks is a worry. When using a shape like I am then it’s inevitable that the wingbacks are the width and it’s expected they’ll provide crosses to the forward players. However on the face of it, it looks like there is an issue with the amount and quality of the failed crosses so now I have to figure out why and then find a possible solution.


In total on both sides of the pitch we had a total of twenty-nine crosses intercepted. On Football Manager 2017 the great thing about the analysis tab is when you click on an event on the screen on the pitch you can choose to view the events linked with the move. This will show you how the move started, who passed the player the ball and so on. It’s a great way of seeing the bigger picture before actually viewing the clips themselves.


Now I’ve watched all the clips of the crosses that are intercepted and twenty-five out of twenty-nine of them all follow the same pattern. The player picks the ball up in this kind of area, then dwells on the ball and starts going towards the byline by dribbling slightly away from goal then crossing.


See what I mean? That’s still the same move but he’s running towards the byline via the touchline which is away from goal. He had plenty of space to attack in front of him rather than drifting wider. There’s a few reasons to why this might happen, it could be attribute related, it could be down to a PPM or it could be a tactical issue. However the player’s attributes are fine and he has no PPM’s that would make him do this. So that leaves a tactical issue or does it? I decided to go back and look over the behaviour of my wingbacks on other saves I had on the FM17 beta and noticed the same thing time and time again. It seems to me that the wingbacks are reluctant to releasing the ball early and instead dwell when there’s no need.

I must have viewed about six hundred failed crosses or more and they all follow what I’ve outlined above regardless of the quality of the player and regardless of tactical instructions. It would appear that this is a bug and when I get time I’ll do a proper detailed bug report because I think the wingbacks are being wasteful and not even attempting to release the ball early when a chance is on. It’s like the player is running at pace, he gets time to attack but as soon as he gets the ball in these kind of areas he slows down or switches off time and time again. Rather than pass early or attack the space in front of him, he goes away from goal and then attempts a cross. This is happening on both sides of the pitch and I’ve noticed the AI doing the exact same thing. It seems that the wingback role isn’t intelligent enough and is rather robotic. I should note that the behaviour is still the same without the retain possession shout.

So I’ll have to think of a potential solution to this or stick with the flawed behaviour. The wingbacks get assists and goals (based on my previous saves and in this first game) but the overall behaviour is weird. Look at your own saves and you’ll see a similar pattern. I’m unsure how this would play out in my overall style and need to decide if it fits or not. I presume it wont. 

On that note I think I’ll leave the analysis for now as I don’t want the series to be analysis heavy or the main focus. Plus I need to have a think now about what do I do next in regards to the above. I’ll do another analysis piece and give you an update a little further in the series but I want to focus on the players in the next article and the early development.

15 thoughts on “The Santos Experience – The 3-2-2-2-1”

  1. Very interesting behaviour from the wingbacks, have you tried them as a different role with the same instructions? Would be interesting to see how a fullback attack would react in the same area on the pitch? I like the idea you have on your two and usually try and go with a cmd and cms just so as they keep shape for me so seeeing a bbm and bwm and hoping you keep shape of the ball and seeing how you accomplish this is very interesting to me.

    Nice start cleon , I’m hooked

    1. Fullbacks don’t offer what I need. However every single wingback role all has the same issues I posted about 🙁

      1. Have you looked into other positions having the issue or not? Because it’s something that’s always been bugging me, though already in FM16 and not sure if since the new ME started, that players with the ball in those areas do tend to keep the ball too much, wasting a lot of opportunities to make the cross or pass in acres of space, letting defenders get on top of them.

  2. Glad someone else has had a similar experience with the wing back problem! The reluctance to release the ball is so frustrating! Especially when the moment to cross is obvious. If you need any corroborating evidence let me know as I have multiple examples myself. Other than that, great post, looking forward to more of the same.

  3. Do you think that the wingbacks holding onto the ball and dilly dallying on the ball prior to crossing could be due to the retain possession instruction? Maybe initially they try to keep hold of the ball but then release it when under pressure? Do you think turning on hit early crosses would help with them getting balls into the box earlier? That would however lead to more crosses if I remember correctly. However great post. I usually use a 3-1-5-1-0 with wingers and I haven’t really had issues with the wingers defensively. But that could be down to the numbers I have in midfield.

    1. No the wingback behaviour is purely a bug. Even without retain possession activated they still hold onto the ball for far too long before releasing the ball. I think the actual issue is how the role is coded it’s not forward thinking enough in the final third. Up until the final third everything works but then when he received possession of the ball it’s like they stop dead.

  4. Cleon, I noticed the same thing with the wingbacks. However, I am just thinking abou this now, you believe that a “hit early crosses” instruction would help on this issue?

    1. That would make them cross early. I don’t want them to cross early, I want them to cross in the positions I showed above but at the right time rather than delaying the cross. Hitting crosses early wouldn’t help me as my striker drops deep so there’d be no one to aim for.

  5. Great post as always! I love reading these as they really get my desire to play FM going.

    Sad to see about the crossing bug. I would have thought that stuff would have been ironed out prior to release as it is a key and core component.
    I know you have answered it already but I would try early or deeper crossing and see how that acts with the bug being in place.

    Best of luck either way.

  6. I noticed the same issue for sure. I put it down to using FB-A with “Run wide with Ball”. Also I felt too many blocked crosses after the head-down-and-run-towards-the-cornerflag.

  7. Same issue here. I am using wingbacks or fullbacks as only source of width and they providing the width that I need. Even if they are free and has plenty time to cross they can not cross well.

  8. Have you tried to change the complete wingbacks to wingbacks?

    I believe, from their description, that the complete wingbacks dwell on the ball more than the wingbacks.

    Complete Wingbacks description: “The Complete Wingback loves to attack, and whilst he is capabale of occupying his defensive duties, his natural inclination is to affect the game in the opposition ‘s defensive third.”

    Wingbacks descritpion: “(…) In attack he must be prepared to run at his man and put in agressive crosses (…)”.

    It feels like the complete wingback will try to hold possession more than the wingback. Like playmaker vs winger

    1. If you notice I use a wingback and when I was showing examples it was the wingback who was the biggest culprit 🙂

      It’s the same regardless of the role used.

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