Sparta | A Tactical Identity Journey – Part III: Evolve and Assess

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 and 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. 

 2017-20  standard/flexible   

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2020-2022  standard/flexible

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2022-2023 standard/fluid

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2023-2024 standard/fluid

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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 wing back 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, aggresion 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 does the team cover different situations of play?

-how do I exploit my team’s strengths and minimize pressure on weakness?

– 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?

This change in systems, coupled with the impressive development of our new generation has brought a delightful and unexpected success to the club this year, as we won the league title for the first time in the club’s history. Starting with a media prediction of 13th and with 750-1 odds to finish first, the adjustments in the system have been a great success 🙂

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