The Spartan Way – A Tactical Identity Journey

This is a piece written by guest author LPQR who is quickly becoming one of my favourite FM writers. His content is high quality and very informative. Give him a follow on Twitter at the above link. You can also check out his blog which is very much a work in progress at the moment https://fmasymmetric.wordpress.com/

Hi everyone, in this article I will try to go through the process of developing the aspects I believe to be the most important when attempting to build a tactical identity for a team. I have noticed a lot of focus on issues like ‘club strategy’ and ‘club identity’ in FM forums lately and would like to build on the already fantastic existing content relating to these issues. I will go through new posts and ideas as I progress in my career thread with the youth-based Sparta Bucharest project

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club identity based on youth, athleticism and discipline

The tactics/systems that I’ll be looking to develop while managing this club will be undoubtedly be based on a set of attributes that reflect this philosophy and when it comes to tactical identity, our squad will look to exploit a key set of attributes in our players:  stamina, natural fitness, bravery, team work, aggression and work rate

Part I: Tactical transitions

When it comes to developing a long-term club-identity there are situations where what is required the most is an ability to adapt and think on the long run. For example, in the first few years of this project my squad lacks the necessary attributes to fit into our philosophy. This will be achieved through years of training and shaping the squad via team selection and youth intakes. So for now, the best thing to do is trying to get the best out of the current squad and slowly move towards the direction of this club’s identity.

Being heavy underdogs in most of the matches in our first few seasons, and having a very young squad who lacks physique, we employ a system that revolves around the idea of relying on a superior number of players in the defensive strata to compensate for our lack of physicality and recover the ball through player positioning and interceptions rather than one-to-one duels. The attacking side of the game revolves around Casap, our best player who will pull the strings from midfield, as well as getting involved to finish off moves in the final third. In possession, we have three midfielders forming a passing trident in midfield, with the wing-backs providing additional options out wide. Speaking of wing-backs, they are absolutely crucial to this system, as the team relies on them in every phase of the game: covering and marking the wide players when defending, providing passing options in midfield and stretching out play when in possession, and attacking the wings either through runs or crosses in the final third.

Mentality: Standard 

Team Shape: Flexible

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After 6 years of using this system with slight variations and molding through specialized training the very young squad at our disposal to reach the desired attributes that are required by our philosophy, I decide to change the system based on a few key issues:

  1. We only have two defenders good enough for a starting spot – Andone and Ștefan, with the next best option being hugely inferior, thus, playing a back three would be problematic
  2. We have a number of talented young players (5* potential) that have come through the past few years intakes that could really use some game time. The majority of our current starting 11 have reached their potential already and ‘investing’ further game time in them doesn’t make sense if we’re looking to improve the overall quality of the squad. While the young ones are currently not as good as our elder players, they have the potential to exceed their ability by miles, so taking the risk in playing them could help us finally make that step up in quality.

The new generation

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Constantin Ivan                                                                                                          Cezar Dobre

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Ciprian Kereszy                                                                                                               Tiberiu Vlădilă

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The system:

The concept behind the new system is to exploit the strengths of the current squad while being slightly more adventurous in our style of play given the increased technical ability of the players that have come through the latest generation of youth intakes.

A more fluid type of football that aims to heavily involve the midfield (our most promising department) in the attacking phase and relies on the physicality of the defensive minded players at the other end of the pitch:

Sparta defense vs. league average defense 

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Sparta midfield vs. league average midfield

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  • Player movement designed to help the team position itself in a number of shapes during different phases of play as well as pull opposition players out of position through asymmetry
  • A more balanced approach than the more rigid 3-5-2, who was over-reliant on wing-backs and had a limited number of ways of attacking space
  • Allows us to field a really strong block of defensive players in their best roles/positions

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  • Two playmaking roles in Vlădilă(AML) and Ivan(DM) who are the two players in our squad with superior technical ability and potential. Assigning creative responsibility to these two helps us achieve a balance of play in a number of ways:
  1. Reduces the number of errors committed by technically limited players trying complex actions above their ability (i.e. risky passes, dribbles, incisive movement)
  2. One player taking control of the game at the back to help us ‘play out of defense with more stability’ and one who makes the important decisions upfront, in the attacking build-up

Set-up

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this is how the team looks to move from a defensive shape   the most usual player positioning when in attacking shape

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in-match example of defensive shape (white kits)

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in-match example of attacking shape(brown kits) – Kereszy played as the AP(A) in this match

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The decision has paid off as we start the season with a dream run, including a sweet derby win, to place us top of the table for the first time in Sparta’s history :)

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While we’re doing really well in attacking space and creating chances, I’m worried we’ll encounter a few problems defensively, as the season unfolds. The above system is a fairly complex one and we don’t have enough depth to make it work with any first 11 that we field. Additionally, it’s a riskier type of football and we could see it backfire more often than our tried and trusted 3-5-2. Still, I’m happier winning one game and losing two rather than drawing three times in a row, and I’m happier playing youngsters with 5* PA rather than more mature players that are stuck at 2*

Part IIfrom Shield wall to Phalanx

Shield wall – Spartan Defensive Formation                                                                          Phalanx – Spartan attacking formation

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2017-20                                                      2020-22                                                       2022-23                                                      2023-24

standard/flexible                                     standard/flexible                                         standard/fluid                                          standard/fluid

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The last couple of years have marked our successful transition from a team that has to focus on defending in order to survive the majority of the matches to one that can afford to try to test the opposition a bit more and even control play when the occasion arises. This happened mainly thanks to the much improved technical ability of the new generation of players that came through the youth ranks in the past 2-3 years. Last season was the main step up in that sense, as we shifted from half a decade of using a conservative, quite rigid system, mainly in the forms of the above shown 3-5-2/3-3-1-1-2 to a variation of 4-1-4-1 that allowed for more fluidity and variety in our football. This season I’ve decided to push our luck even further for a number of reasons:

  • Kereszy and his development in the attacking side of the game meant he would be much more useful in a more advanced position. He impressed immensely in his first senior year as a CM(A), but his lack of defensive skill meant he wasn’t really performing the duties I wanted from a player sitting that deep. Additionally, he grew to be our most technically gifted player in the team and not to use that would have been a shame. Changing him to a shadow striker has been a bit of a compromise, as, technically speaking the AP(A) role would have suited him more, however the decision was made based on the overall functioning of the system – two key issues here: 1.we already have two playmaking roles in the DLP and WP and they balance the play nicely already. 2. as we only play with one forward and two players in the AM strata, we need more incisiveness in the final third, i.e. more players focused on finding space and making runs into it rather than spraying passes around and dictating play.

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  • Dobre‘s amazing development as well as him being equally capable of playing with both feet pushed me to shift the playmaker role from Vlădilă on the left, (who is actually much more suited to a winger or IF role) to the right side of the pitch, where Dobre would play as a WP. Now what I really like about the WP role is that it makes the player run both, inside and wide depending on the situation and how he judges it. That, along with the increased influence on the game that the role implies is the perfect change from Dobre’s previous role as an industrious, quiet WM(S)

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  • The DLF role has been changed to F9 to ease off the emphasis on physique as well as increase mobility, as I felt our best striker, Nica, would be much better at performing the latter of these tasks given his inability in the air and lightweight build.

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  • The left wingback role was very important for the previous system(s), as it was supposed to cover the left-wing entirely in both defense and offense. This required a much more hard-working, intelligent and technically gifted player to actually fulfill the task required to make the system work as I wanted, which unfortunately we didn’t and still do not have at our disposal.  This opened up the issue of how to cover/attack the left flank. Now previously we had the AP(A) on the left side of the pitch, and the way this role plays it actually spends very little time on the wing. It drifts inside and even stays in the middle of the pitch for large portions of the game. So I’ve changed the role to a IF(A), given the above mentioned issue of changing the playmaker focus from left to right and that has partially solved the problem, as the IF still drifts inside as I want my wide player to do, but stays wider for longer and is (surprisingly) more defensively responsible at tracking back on the wing too. The left-wing back has been pushed lower as a result, aligning with the other defenders to form a classic back 4. I’ve read on a few forums that there seems to be a bug that reduces the performance on the wing backs on this version of FM, as they pretty much never cross for some reason. Definitely witnessed that happening here too and didn’t think of it much before I read about it, just attributed it to the appalling quality of the players I have playing at that position. Might consider changing to a FB(A) and see how that works.

The new formation means we’re a bit more spread out on the pitch than before, however that issue is countered by the increased fluidity as well as pushing the d-line a notch higher to compress the team and minimize the space left between the lines. We have some really fast centre-backs in our squad for that level, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue in tracking back in time to catch up with speedy opposition players. We play pretty wide so that we can cover as much of the pitch as possible and also have our team stretch the pitch to create enough open spaces for our players to run into.

When in possession, the wide players cut inside and compress the width so that our players are closer to each other when passing the ball. An important issue: the supporting player on the right-wing sits slightly narrower than the attacking player on the left, as the WP’s main duty is to spray clever passes in midfield, and the IF’s is to find open space to run into the final third while still being close enough to the ‘passing diamond’ so that he’s not isolated from the game. Additionally, when it comes to covering space efficiently, I rely a lot on a few attributes that are strictly tied to the identity I am trying to develop for this club: stamina, natural fitness, bravery, team work, aggression and work rate. These are stats I pay particular attention to in my squad selection and they represent the foundation on which this team has been built from the start, aligning with our core philosophy: youth, discipline and athleticism.

Our best 11’s current stats for these categories

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As you will notice, the new tactic relies a lot on focusing play centrally, with Ivan(DLP), Kereszy(SS), Dobre(WP) and Grigoraș(CM) forming a mini-diamond in midfield when the team pushes forward in possession. This means our creative side of the game relies almost entirely on these midfielders’ ability to congest or twist space in order to provide the team with attacking options (usually exploiting the fullbacks when congesting the midfield and looking to play on-running players like the IF, F9 and SS through when space is available centrally) and there’s a specific reason why I wanted that to happen:

Our midfield is our squad’s strongest department and we have some of the best stats in the league for decisions, vision and passing, all key for the type of movement and passing I want the above mentioned 4 players to create 

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Typical heatmap

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25 out of our 62 assists came from the center of the pitch, while our IF and WBL have been impressively prolific in assisting on the left side of the pitch as well. Worth noting that 40 out 62 assists came as a result of through balls or passes.

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The central focus of play also shows in the location of the goals scored. Additionally, shifting play towards mobility and movement rather than physique has been successful as we relied on placed shots and clever moves rather than our non-existent heading ability or muscling power amongst our attackers

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Example of defensive situation (brown kits) notice our diamond pressing the opposition for the ball and the left wing being correctly defended

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Example of wide players drifting inside to help attacking build up and possession management in final third

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The next screenshot illustrates a number of issues discussed above about the general functioning of the system. Here you can see how a number of key issues such as team width, player instructions/roles and the movement they perform all interact with each other.

The passing trident in midfield as well as players moving inside from wide positions draws opposition players in the middle of the pitch. this forces the opponent to concede the flanks, which we look to exploit via the fullbacks as well as through general team width

Managing the attacking A-line: the front three formed by the SS, IF and F9, all roles which imply a lot of runs into space and players being generally mobile as well as getting involved in the build up due to them being roles that are playing close to the midfield

Managing balance and support/attack duties: the passing diamond is formed by three players who have roles and duties that give them the responsibility of supporting the more attacking players as well as the SS who acts as the arrowhead of the diamond as he alternates between helping the WP, CM and DLP to maintain possession and making runs in the box, with an inclination that favors the latter. Should the front three not be positioned favorably for a pass, the fullbacks provide the secondary attacking option.

The support/attack duties are distributed so that they create the correct balance in how the players interact with each other – for example, having the F9 on support duty helps the SS(A) and IF(A) who are positioned on each side of him be supported better in their attacking moves. Given that the F9 is a role that still drifts around a lot and makes plenty of runs, we don’t lose too much from his attacking threat.

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Example of team staying compact and having pretty much all of our players in our own half when defending

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Example of defensive situation which shows why having a hardworking player with good work-rate and speed for the CM position is so important for this system.

Due to the space created between the IF, who pushes high up and the WB who stays a bit wider, the player has a lot of ground to cover, especially in defensive situations. When the team attacks the space between players is compressed due to wide players drifting inside and he has less ground to cover, however his combative attributes are absolutely key when the wide players stay wide when the team is defending.

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Overall, when designing this system, or any other, for that matter, I think of a few key areas:

  • How does my team manage width in specific situations of play?
  • How does my team create/attack/defend space?
  • Is my system balanced enough so we don’t compromise on exploiting too much of one aspect of the game and too little of others?
  • How do the player roles and their interpretations of them make them move with the ball and off the ball?
  • How do I cover as many situations of play as possible along with exploiting as many of my squad’s strengths as possible?
  • Are the players’ duties complementing each other’s movements and is the support/attack/defend assignment of duties set up in an overall balanced way?
  • How do the combination of TI’s, PI’s, player roles and PPM’s all interact with each other and influence all of the above?

Part III: Simplicity equals Efficiency

We’ve been sticking to our fancy, knee-twisting 4-1-2-2-1 for a few years now, and it has undoubtedly been one of the most successful and interesting as well as challenging systems I’ve developed in FM. Very tricky to get right when it comes to getting player movement/roles set up correctly, however I feel we’ve done more than a good enough job in the last 5 years using it. This is the final version of the system that won us 5 trophies in two years:

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Compared to the previous version, which used a SS(A) and a F9(S) instead of an AM(a) and DF(s), these changes happened for a number of reasons:

Kereszy needed to have more influence in midfield due to his great passing skills and lack of finishing/off the ball, thus a change to AM seemed perfect. Now what we lacked was that incisiveness in the final third I kept talking about. Changing the striker role from F9 to DF seemed to alter the height of our A-line, as the forward would come back really deep to defend, thus Kereszy(AM) would be positioned ahead of the forward in most of the counter-attacking situations. Given that both of them were still not close enough to the opposition goal to provide an effective threat, the D-line has been pushed up a notch. The defensive forward role was what got Nica, a club legend, however a third-rate striker by Liga I standards to score 44 goals in 55 appearances two years ago. He drops deep, roams from position and is everywhere on the pitch helping the team create extra pressure when chasing the ball.

So yeah, all well and good, why change what works already?
While we were creating some beautiful attacking moves (I’ll post a couple of gifs later) and pulling players out of position like mushrooms from a basket, we had a few defensive problems:

  • The left flank was a massive problem, as I needed my IF to be on attack duty, and thus the fullback supporting him and defending the miles of space the IF leaves on the left wing. Now our best player in that position, Ivan, is actually incredibly bad at defending:

tackling – 7; positioning – 10;, marking – 11; bravery – 9

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The fullback role wasn’t making him advance enough forward, while the wing-back role made him very (very!) irresponsible in defence, as well as having that crossing issue discussed earlier. Additionally, that gap on the left put a lot of pressure on the LCM who had to commit to the left a lot, leaving open space in the middle for the opposition to exploit

As much as I loved watching the football we where playing, I had to accept the fact that our players might be good enough to pull off that kind of style in the league, where the opposition would be more or less of our level, however even there it was far from perfect. We made a lot of mistakes due to players not making the right runs, decisions, dwelling too much on the ball, and so on. These are issues related to the overall tactical and technical ability of the players and it was plain to see we were missing the quality to make it tick like it was supposed to tick.

Our increasing presence in European Football means we’ll face, in most cases, opposition that is better than us… most of the times miles better. So we need a system that is articulated to that position and allows us to exploit the best out of our team with minimal chance for error.

One of the key players for this system, the WP is actually better suited for a Winger role due to his relatively poor passing(12) and much better crossing (14)

We’ve had a number of exciting prospects at CM or DM positions come through the intakes in the last years and I want to exploit that

Pastures New

Having re-analysed the squad, I noticed that most of our central midfielders have a really good physique and defensive skills whilst also being able to perform in the DM positions too. This means I can spread out the defensive responsibility a bit more, by providing further cover to our defensive line using my midfielders. Two of our strongest players (Vladila and Dobre) are wide players and they’re most suited to the Winger role due to relatively poor physique, but good technical stats and speed. Additionally, we’ve improved a lot technically over the last few years and we have some really good overall stats for passing and decisions as a team, and especially in midfield.

So this is the new set-up

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  • Stay narrower as a team and relatively deep to form a compact block of players defending and looking to quickly transition to attack when getting the ball back. The fluid team shape helps us in both scenarios
  • Wide players are positioned fairly narrow when defending to help the team challenge for possession in midfield if needed,  but run wide when attacking
  • The DM’s get further forward when the team is in posession or attacking transition, especially the right DM who has PI to ‘get further forward’. The player in that position (Nicola) has very good stats for speed, as he will have to act as a defensive minded box-to-box midfielder in this system
  •  Kereszy’s creative ability is exploited to its’ maximum in this system as he is the central focus of the attacks. Dropping in holes, dictating play, making decisive passes, as well as getting into the final third, he really is the key player of this system.
  • The focus of the attacks will look to alternate between channeling play centrally via our playmakers or exploiting the pace and technical ability of the wide players, depending on the situation of play
  • The CWB’s are the initial experimental idea for the full-back role, as both the FB and WB role configuration and how they made my players move have really disappointed me so far. Given the additional protection we get via the DM’s we can afford our players in that position to venture forward a bit more and contribute to the midfield too when in possession or attacking
  • Simplified player movement and roles, allow for a reduction in the number of mistakes that over-specialization and too much reliance on complex player movement brought before. Stay disciplined as a squad and look for space to pass into with a calm, normal tempo.

typical transitions

defensive phase                                                                                              attacking phase

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Example of narrow, compact shape when defending:

10 men behind the ball and the AP getting involved in challenging the opposition for possession

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Example of team being spread out in attacking situation:

Notice the RW and LW making wide runs and the DM(S) steps un midfield to help the team create pressure in the opposition half

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