Understanding The Opposition

The purpose of this article is to help people see the difference between sides who play attacking against you and sides who are willing to sit back and hit you on the counter attack. It focuses on how both strategies give you different types of space to play in and the defensive shapes they take up on the pitch. It will also shows you some examples that should be able to help you identify this in your own saved games and makes things more clear tactically for you. If you remember correctly I did two previous articles about this and said the third and final instalment would be a collection of them both combined. Well this is that but with some new stuff added too 🙂Understanding what type of opposition you are playing is really important in Football Manager as it determines how you need to play against them. Not all teams play the same way so this means if you don’t know what’s going on in a game then you’ll struggle to get the result needed. On the forums, blogs and on Twitter, I see posts that mention one week they beat top of the league then the week after get beat by the clubs near the bottom of the league, while playing the same way they did in the previous match. People can’t seem to get their head around why it happens so I thought I’d shed a bit of light on why it happens. The two main kinds of team you’ll face during the season are;

  • Sides who are happy to attack you
  • Sides who like to defend deep and hit you on the counter

If you can learn to differentiate the differences between the two then Football Manager can become a lot more enjoyable because you can ensure you have the correct game plan in place or at least know what different things you can try to get the result you need as the approach to beating both teams is vastly different. A large proportion of people would probably go more defensive against the stronger sides and more attacking against the weaker ones, but it’s not that black and white as there is always different ways to beat the opposition, there is not one set way.

Sides who attack you

From a defensive stand point playing against sides who attack you often during the match can be a daunting prospect especially if they are superior to your own team. But the up side is, they’ll leave lots of unprotected space for you to play in and use to your advantage. This can do done by mentality changes or just a simple role change.

What’s Important

The key aspects to take into consideration against these type of teams and to take advantage of space are;

  • Look for open space and vulnerable areas when the opposition commit men forward
  • Try and spot patterns in their play, i.e is one side of theirs more attacking than the other
  • Try and overload the vulnerable areas by being more aggressive.

By focusing on the vulnerable areas you see you can really take advantage and hurt the opposition. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about;


In this screenshot we can see that the team in the black kits (Corinthians) are playing a high defensive line and positioned high up the pitch. Now because they are a better side than me they are being quite aggressive against me and committing men forward. As you can see on the screenshot they actually have five men inside my own half and this includes their two central midfielders (they are playing a wide 4-2-3-1 shape) but if you look at the space they’ve left behind the midfield between the defense you’ll see there is lots yet I don’t actually have a player in that area to take advantage of it. Robinho who is marked with the number 1 icon is playing an advanced playmaker role on a support duty, so he’s moved down field to help out. However if I did a simple duty or role change and made him more attacking then he should be looking to use the space marked in red on the pitch. Ideally he should be taking up a position more in line with the number 2 icon rather than where he currently is.

By ignoring this and not trying to take advantage of it then I risk making it far too easy for their defense, as it currently stands you can see how easy they have it and they are just spectators currently with nothing at all to do. But by making one little change I’ll be making them do some work and getting in behind their entire attack and midfield which can only be a good thing. The opposition will then either have to be less aggressive against you making it easier to defend against or they’ll continue to do the same making it easy for you to attack them.

After changing the role to an attack duty rather than him being on support you can notice the change instantly in this next move.


This is more or less identical to the first screenshot but now look at the difference. By him being more advanced in the area I highlighted earlier he becomes more involved and should he get the ball, he is un marked and can either drive forward with the ball or he has passing options. The important thing is he is un marked though as this will allow him to dictate the game. Corinthians midfield due are their weak point in this set up and they aren’t picking him up at all. This is what I was on about further up the article when I mentioned looking for patterns, this is a regular occurrence through the match.

The next screenshot shows them attacking me and getting dispossessed and leaving their left flank exposed if I can get the ball out there quick enough.


Their back four is quite disjointed due to the left back bombing forward and then them losing the ball. This immediately opens up the full left side of their pitch and allows me to be able to exploit the space left down my right.

Those are just a couple of simple things you can look out for during a match, how you take advantage of them though is down to you as there is more than one way of achieving success against these sides. If you wanted you can do a role or duty change to be more attacking or you could even change the mentality and go more attacking if you find they are leaving lot of space. This bit could be risky though as then you yourself, would also leave space naturally. Another way of doing it would to be sit deep and hit them on the counter, allow them to come onto you and commit men forward, win the ball back then attack them in the space they’ve left behind with pace.

At the end of the day it comes down to how you play the game as some managers are braver than others, it comes down to what you think is an acceptable risk vs reward.

Sides who defend and hit you on the counter

One of the main reasons, we find it more difficult against these types of team is because they don’t give space away too easily in the final third. Space is the key to everything, if a player has space then he also has time and allows him to take his time and pick out runners. Against a side who defends deep and is quite compact, it’ll be really hard to play through balls, balls over the top, crosses and so on into the box as there will be no real space for the player to gain that half of yard they need. So you need to think of different ways to break them down when the above isn’t working.

What’s Important

The key aspects to take into consideration against these type of teams to break them down are;

  • Space
  • Movement
  • Width
  • Don’t overcrowd areas of the pitch than can work in your favor by being less aggressive.

To achieve all of these and make the most of those I always play on a low mentality, so either standard or counter. Obviously the roles you select will also play a part but for most parts if you can create and use space then you’ll force the opposition into making decisions. Which in turn will mean people have to leave their position to deal with the threats you pose. Movement is important because it snowballs and causes a chain reaction of events plus its harder to mark someone who is moving (especially from deep) compared to someone who is static or too advanced to really do anything. By using a lower mentality it alters my tempo, defensive line and closing down to match meaning I can be more patient in my build up. And from what you can see above it works due to the movement and space both in creating and using it.To achieve width you can either changes the roles/duties of the players or do what I did above and used the exploit the flanks shouts. That is all I did. If you don’t concentrate on your own side and always over think things then you are endlessly changing things that you might not need to change. Plus you then have no real identity or style because you constantly give in to the AI. So for me I always base any changes on what I see happening in a match and never try to guess what might happen by changing stuff before. I’d much rather change due to being forced into the change as then it means I can stick to my own style that I’m trying to create plus I have faith in the tactic I’ve made. I want the AI to worry about me not the other way around, after all they’re the ones being defensive

A lot of people like to go more attacking when sides sit deep but for me this only makes the issue even worse because you are making the little space you do have even more compact. That’s not to say it doesn’t work for some but for me it’s not really something I would do. The way I see it is if you push players further up the field space is reduced and its less likely you’ll have anyone making any runs that will really stretch or hurt the opposition due to their compactness. Let me show you an example of what I’m talking about:


This side was more than happy to defend deep which means all the space I have to work with exists in front of the defense and I’ll struggle to get in behind them. I was playing with a low mentality here in this game but if I’d been more attack minded and had players in the positions were the numbers are on the pitch it would become even more congested. Now this might give the opposition a bit of defending to do and needs them to keep their concentration but for me that’s no way to play, hoping the opposition makes a mistake or has a lapse in concentration. It also means where would my late runners be arriving from or where would I get movement from in general that could hurt the opposition if I was higher? Plus we are ignoring one major significant fact here, you’d also leave yourself vulnerable to counter attacks. Ever seen a post by someone claiming they dominate the game with 20+ shots and fail to win because the AI has 3 shots and scores 2 from them? It’s because they get hit on the counter. I don’t like to play this way and like to use space that I have to create movement and get runners from deep involved and also minimise the risk of being hit on the counter. So what I like to do is play deeper myself, so I can use the space in front of the opposition that they give up so easily and have no interest in defending properly. This then allows me to commit men forward from deeper positions which can instantly put the opposition onto the back foot, defenders dislike players running at them no matter how good/poor the players might be. They risk giving fouls away and even picking cards up and risking the dreaded red card. Let me show you an example of what I mean:


The opposition are happy to have eight men back behind the ball here. The solid red arrow shows where my player will run and the broken arrow represents a passing move my side will make.This is a video of the move;

It results in a under hit pass and the move comes to nothing on this occasion but do you see the use of space I was talking about and how quickly stretched the opposition became? Let me show you another example but this time when my team is pushed up playing high.


The circled players are too advanced to cause any real issue and the Rochdale defense is quite solid. So when Baxter gets the ball he doesn’t really have a clear option to pass to in front of him. The two circled central player aren’t options at all because he can’t see them and they’re marked even if he could.

He’s on the wrong side of Baxter so again he’s not a realistic option. The ref is blocking his view here but even so the player next to the ref (less so than the 2nd player tbh) or the one player on his own outside the box can easily move across and cut out the pass.

If Baxter controls the ball well the first time then this could be an option. But with the refs positioning and the seemingly free roaming Rochdale players, I don’t think he is a safe option. This leaves number 4 as the only real possibility because I have three static player positioned way too high up the pitch.

The lack of movement and runners from deep is a big issue as I’m relying on the opposition making a mistake before I can do anything useful. I’d much rather take matters into my own hands and be in control, so I play a less attacking mentality against sides who sit deep, I normally go Standard or Counter instead. The next screenshot shows what I was talking about a little earlier about leaving myself exposed if I am positioned high up the pitch.


Baxter attempts the pass but the Rochdale player cuts it out and then I get hit on a quick break. I am still playing attacking in this screenshot btw to highlight the issues and show why I avoid being so aggressive.


One simple ball down the channel and I’m completely exposed. I’m lucky in this instance and the sequence comes to nothing. Yet when you are high up the pitch or over commit men forward, this is the biggest risk you face and something you’ll see often should you give the ball away cheaply. If you’ve noticed one prominent thing so far in all the examples and all the screenshots is Baxter seems to be involved in everything. The reason for this is the amount of space he has to play in, he’s basically unmarked due to the opposition not caring about giving space away due to them sticking to their strict positions and being deep. The next screen shows the amount of room he actually has during a counter attack that I have just done myself but now the opposition are trying to clear their lines.


Even if the opposition do clear the ball like they intend on doing the chances are Baxter will still end up with the ball. He has lots of space and time and doesn’t come too high up the pitch. He actually does get

the ball and smashes it home to make it 1-0. This is another example of Baxter’s influence in a move started from deep. You can also see me attacking with numbers.


This shows Baxter yet again pulling the strings after we break from deep. The raumdeuter has checked his run, the complete forward is going to drop off to create space which the wide playmaker (haha just noticed on the image I put RPM instead of WPM opps) will run into and the complete wingback is busting a gut to get forward. Baxter passes the ball into the wide playmaker’s path who then feeds the complete wingback in.


Then my complete wingback has a few options, he can put in the cross (which he does) or he can pull it back. Either way I’ve created space and broke them down by movement its why I always bang on about space and movement, its this what wins you game.


The short version of the above is, the attacking sides naturally give up space so they do half the job for you. Even if you have a tactic that isn’t that great you should still be able to create chances against these type of sides. If you come up against the more stubborn sides though who sit back and hit you on the break, then creating and using that space falls solely on you and your tactic and this is when tactical set ups can be exposed and show faults. You need to create lots of movement both on and off the ball 🙂

28 thoughts on “Understanding The Opposition”

  1. I absolutely love this sort of thing. Thank you!

    One of the things that always destroys me is when opponents press and kick the he## out of me. How do you adjust to an aggressively pressing side?

      1. I can try that. Do you find that a faster tempo (to move the ball more quickly to try and avoid challenges) or slower tempo (to allow time for better decision making) works better against an aggressive team? I usually struggle most once my wingers or strikers get the ball, and they get battered and I can’t make the free kicks work for me (or the pitiful ref AI doesn’t hand out cards like it should.)

        1. It depends because you can have different types of aggressive teams so each one would be approached different. Normally I’d see how the game was going and then make changes based on that, so if I thought higher tempo would help I’d use it and so on.

          1. Thats the problem, what do you see? and what do you change. What make you use higher tempo? and what make you use lower tempo.

  2. Thanks again for another great article. I read the first one but as you say this has more info. I have a few questions for you if you don’t mind.
    Q1. When is the best time to pause to see how the opp Defence line is E.G Deep or pushed up?
    Q2. In the example above where your opp left back was exposed a few times you said to exploit the flank. In the TI is exploit Left/Right flank does the left/right refer to your flank or the opposition.
    Q3. After your first article on this subject I started lowering mentality when the opp just sat deep to try and force them to come out. Even though I was on defensive mentality with slow build up I was still pinning them back and couldn’t create space even with my overlapping wbs. what would you suggest in that case?

    1. 1 – All the time, any time when you have possession is a good time.

      2 – It refers to your flank.

      3 – Defensive mentality doesn’t pin them back its too deep to do that. What other TI’s was you using?

      1. Ok thanks. The TIs that I used were Hold position, More disciplined, Short passing, Retain possession and look for overlap. I was Rangers in the Scottish Championship so for a lot of the matches I was heavy favourite and teams would just sit and not move. The formation I used in these games was 4-2-3-1.

        CWB(s) CD(d) CD(d) CWB(a)

        CM(s) DLP(d)

        W(a) AM(a) ISF(s)


        As I say it just looked like in game that I was still pinning them back and they wouldn’t commit men forward. Not sure if it was the fact I was such heavy favourites in these games?

  3. Really great piece again Cleon, thank you for your continued contributions!

    The games i find hardest to read/work out how to counter are against teams that keep a fair few numbers back but also attack with pace and directness. For example often when I play Chelsea their front 6 absolutely tear me apart but their back four “play safe” which makes it hard to counter them … i end up keeping a fair few numbers behind the ball but then can’t “get out” as their back four and deep lying midfielder just swallow up my forward passes, and i feel like i need to get my team to pass it forward quickly because their front 4 usually press relatively high! Your tweak of roles to exploit space in behind the midfield in this article has got the grey cells going though and given me some ideas to try. Do you have any other advice on how to counter teams like this? Sorry i know that’s quite a general question as they could be playing a number of ways which would affect your decisions …

    1. I’d focus on where the space appears so in your example above then the gap is the midfield areas, so I’d look to capitalise on that just with a simple role change to be more aggressive in that area. I wouldn’t change much else as I believe you force the AI to adapt to you rather than you adapting to them. So I always set out with this in mind.

      1. Thanks for the reply Cleon, those were my thoughts too, hopefully i’ll get some time to play FM soon and put these ideas in to action 🙂

  4. Great article Cleon! Lots of stuff i didnt know! I would love to share this article with my Dutch FM-colleages at FMInside. Is it ok if i translate this article for them in Dutch? With a link to you original article offcourse 🙂

  5. This is great, but is there anyway to identify trends, etc in game without the 3d match engine. My laptop isn’t powerful enough to play with it, so I find it hard to see anything apart from the odd feedback from my assistant?

    1. Exactly the same way in 2d. You can still see where the space is. You can still see what kind of defensive positions someone takes up and so on.

  6. Hi!

    Great article and very enjoyable to read. I love how I can always learn something even after years and hours of play.

    Question; Do you ever look at the opposition Manager tactic traits to help setup a match?

    I never do it as much as I should as I do not know how it translates in games (if they are favourites or not vs big or small teams etc).

    I’ll give more of an example as to what I mean.

    I am Arsenal (real life fan) in 2021 and have become a legit strong club to play against. I have a home match VS Newcastle who is managed by Pepe Mel.
    Looking into Pepe Mel he wants his team to play a closing down, attacking game with a style of passing (it to feet or around possession?) and zonal marking.

    Soooo, I would assume that is what to expect and would plan to play counter/standard play, deep line, with to feet, quick passing. Maybe with a lot of roaming play?

    Obviously, I also assume that as they are away and not to be favourites for the win, this would change and in-game adjusting would need to be done on the fly?

    Be happy for your thoughts and discussion 🙂


  7. Thank you, this is the best article yet! Particularly true as I am sure that all have found half way through the season teams will start to play differently against you… I guess it’s normal if you are leading the league at Xmas – you’ll find many teams may park the bus.
    Couple of Qs:
    1. Exploiting the space behind the fullbacks. You can see the opposition pushing on in those positions and you want to get in behind on those sides – is a role change to Ramdeuter, or Winger (A), Advanced Playmaker (A) the best solution? The TIs you mention are Play wider, Exploit Flanks though does this not push your full backs up and mean you expose yourself there?
    2. In the above scenario, is the player to find the RMD a player with good vision and decision making, playing deep ie a DLP or RPM for example?
    3.Counter attacking/transition: in general, when counter attacking I find my team feed my CF too soon, he’s miles away from goal (not going to beat 2 defenders!) and has to wait too long to get support and gets dispossessed. Would it be slowing the tempo that will prevent this? Changing a role of one of the midfielders? appreciate that this is a bit vague.
    Great article, since this I am starting to watch the games in full for at least the first 15mins. Its amazing how much you miss…

  8. Great stuff! I really appreciate the more conceptual approach rather than just plug and play rules (which often do not work).

    But I did have one question after reading the the party series that culminated with this article:

    You started (against man city) in a control mentality but changed to counter because they were attacking heavily and leaving space behind.

    Then, in your second piece, playing a lesser opponent you changed (or started) in standard or counter because they were sitting back and leaving space in front.

    So when, then, do you keep a control mentality? My suspicion is it may work against roughly evenly matched teams that are willing to attack you at least some (of course I don’t mean this as a steadfast rule). Is that roughly right though?

    I’m just trying to see if there are general things to look for that would indicate to keep (or change to) a control mentality.


    1. i base the changes I make on how I see the game going. In the past 8 season’s I’ve completed on my current save I’ve never actually changed to control/attacking once.

      I guess, you’d want to be more aggressive if you felt you lacked any real bit in the final third and was just playing around with the ball in your own half or in none dangerous areas.

  9. Hi Cleon, what a masterpiece!
    I struggle to see whether a team is willing to attack me or to sit back.
    I know it is something I have to learn by myself but Would you mind giving me some tips?


    1. If they’re willing to attack you then you’ll see them attacking you frequent. If they’re sat deep and not venturing forward much then they’re sitting back and happy for you to hit you on the counter.

  10. Yesterday I played one game , after I studied this blog..suparnik I attacked from the right side , defended himself left stranu..po logic I should attack the right side , however my goal fell right ie . His left ! ! So that his left side defense was bad

Leave a Reply