Sparta | A Tactical Identity Journey: Part VI.chapter one – Attacking Football and Developing a Style

Recent tactical experiments saw me focus a lot on ideas revolving around concepts on defending and the systems I’ve focused on have been a consequence of maybe too much dwelling on that, so I’ve decided to try out something new, yet again, with my Sparta Bucharest side :) Attacking football is a very debatable term… is it GegenPressing? is it Route One? is it Schimdt’s overloads? is it Conte’s 3-4-3?

The whole idea of branding a style of football as attacking is based on the fact that throughout most of the match you will notice a particular progressive move from one end of the pitch to the other executed in quick successions and with a reasonably high tempo. Whether that is achieved through high, aggressive pressing, intelligent positional play, exploiting the wings or a quick passing game seems to not matter very much in the eye of the ‘attacking football’ label, although each of these ‘styles’ are achieved through completely different approaches to the game. Another often disregarded issue is that the ability of the team to execute more attacking moves in a short space of time relates a lot to:

a) how often the team is presented with a scenario where it can exercise a transition from back to front, i.e. having space to attack

b) how often the team will win the ball back and how efficient it is in recycling the possession necessary to initiate an attacking move

Consequently, my interpretation of a system that aims to create attacking football will be based on the following principles:

1. a system designed to create and exploit space

2. a balanced way of managing all phases of play (defending, possession, transitions)

3. a team layout that ensures the ball travels from back to front with minimal waste of time

These three constitute the foundation layer for the style I aim to develop, the next area of consideration is analysis of squad and design of suitable duties:

The more I play FM the more obvious becomes an issue which is fundamentally…..obvious! Do not demand something of your players that they can not execute! It really is a simple and cliche point, but the implications that it has on a system performing or not as a whole are like a domino-effect. If our attacking wingback has the responsibility of covering the whole flank alone but lacks attributes for workrate, bravery, stamina and speed – will he be able to perform the task necessary for that system? How will that affect the whole set-up? So yes, it is fundamental that the players at my disposal have suitable duties allocated to them and that the requirements of the system demand actions that they are able to perform. 

strategic considerations

– our DR and DL have emerged into top quality fullbacks for our level and they are more than capable of covering both defense and the full width of the pitch

– the number of talented players for the striker and AMC positions that we have got through previous intakes is quite big, and I want to accommodate their transition to the first team

– our AMR is our best attacking player and it would be a shame not to exploit his ability closer to goal

– we have very good coverage for center-mid positions, with a large number of players of different profiles

– one of our CM’s, and his specific stat distribution make him uniquely suited for the BWM role and he is one of our most promising talents so I want to use him

– we have a shortage of wide players, with the above mentioned AMR being one of the two available (the other is also an AMR)

squad suitability 

as mentioned above, the general attributes of the squad would need to be suitable for the style of football I want to implement. Here are the main attributes I’ve identified in that sense and their application to our best 11

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For the level of football we’re currently operating in (Romanian First Division) we show excellent ability in the required areas. The main concern is that we only have a few people who can pass the ball well, however, luckily they all play in advanced positions, exactly where we will need it the most as per my current vision. Additionally, we have the highest stats for aggression in the league which is a bonus! 

One of the trickiest parts of designing a system is that one needs to carefully balance the role and duties the players are best suited to with the responsibilities the general idea of the system requires. Here we already have a few important considerations:

– There needs to be a correct balance between players who support and attack as well as players who have more and less creative ability in order for the transitions to unravel smoothly and to maintain a healthy balance between penetration through runs and penetration through passing

players need to be positioned in a way that the ball constantly moves forward without unnecessary delay

– I want my attacking players to hassle the opposition and avoid getting too ‘artsy’ about their passing, dribbling or creative endeavors, rather keeping it simple and progressive. 

formation&roles

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– the Defensive Forward and Shadow Striker are two uniquely aggressive attacking roles that are fairly limited in their creative responsibilities and that look to challenge opposition for the ball and generally cover a lot of defensive ground on the pitch

– the DLP is the only ‘creator’ of the team as his presence in the build up from deep as well as when in possession high up the pitch is a key element to balancing play and providing penetration through passing

– the BWM on the left helps cover the gaps that the CWB leaves when attacking and does not look to run too forward. I’ve even moved the BWM to the DM strata occasionally as well as had him on ‘defend duty’, both successfully.

– there is a good balance between ‘runners’ and ‘passers’. We have the BBM, CWB, W and SS mainly focused on exploiting space through runs while the DF has the instruction to ‘hold up ball’ and support on-running players and the BWM and DLP act as support options from deep. The furthest support option is the right FB, which stays even deeper than the DLP and rarely joins attacks in order to maintain good defensive coverage.

team instructions, mentality &shape

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– as mentioned before, I want as quick of a transition from back to front as possible, and hence the higher tempo

– I’m still wary of defensive responsibility so I’ve adopted a tighter marking scheme, which forces players to track back more and stay close to the opposition players. That also helps us regain possession through player positioning rather than relying on exhausting hassling and physical duels all the time

close down more and preventing short GK distribution makes our forward trio press the opposition defense even higher up the pitch

– my side midfielders need to cover width occasionally, hence the balanced setting there, which is actually fairly wide under attacking mentality influence

– I want my attacking players to take a man on and pressure the opposition with a number of players running at them, hence the run at defence instrucion

pass into space relates to exploiting open spaces that the opposition are bound to leave behind and relies on the promise that we will have a player attacking that area in most cases

– I want a balanced and varied approach in the way our attacks unfold, so it could be either through a defence-splitting long ball or a short pass combination between the front 3/5, so mixed passing

– I want my squad to have space in front of them to run onto, so the defense line is set at normal. Given the attacking mentality and high closing down setting, however, my team will push a little bit higher, just enough to pose a considerable challenge to the opposition in their own half, and integrate the counter-pressing element into our style of play

– the attacking mentality relates to numbers 1. and 3. outlined as principles, and it aims to increase the risk the players are willing to take in moving the ball forward, as well as the aggression of the squad as they look to transition up the pitch

Ok, so to elaborate and summarize on the principles I have set out to embed in my approach:

1. a system designed to create and exploit space

space will be created by a number of factors: 

a) the overload we create on the right side of the pitch, with increased numbers of players attacking that area. This forces the opposition to commit players towards that zone and thus leaves spaces elsewhere, which we can exploit if we maintain good coverage of the pitch. Here comes why having the correct player for the CWB roles is so important – if he wouldn’t be quick enough to be in an advanced position on the left side, we wouldn’t be able to exploit width/space in that area.

b) the variety in player movement – as mentioned above, we have runners and passers, players who hold up the ball, and players who dictate from deep, so we have a number of ways in which we move on the pitch in order to de-stabilize the opposition and create/exploit space

c) the shape, formation and roles which aim to have the squad close enough to each other in order to interact however spread out enough in order to move the ball quickly without having to spend time on running

2. a balanced way of managing all phases of play (defending, possession, transitions)

Here I aimed for a balanced coverage of duties being performed around the pitch in different situations of play. As mentioned above, this relates to choosing the player roles in correspondence to the general idea of the system as well as in accordance to each other. For example, I am able to manage good defensive coverage because the BWM fills in for the CWB when the latter is caught up the pitch. I am able to manage possession well because I have a good number of players in the midfield area that are performing the correct duties (think DLP dictating from deep and BBM running in the box). I am able to manage transitions well because the support/attack duties as well as the movement that the players make on the pitch are complementary.

For example I have instructed the SS to roam from position in order to drift out to the open space on the left occasionally, which adds a further dimension to our style, as he would alternate between central runs and cutting inside. This helps the CWB be better supported too.

3. a team layout that ensures the ball travels from back to front with minimal waste of time

it’s difficult to talk about the three points in separate ways, as you can obviously see how inter-relational these concepts are. And…. it’s supposed to be like that! Football is highly complex mechanism and you can’t just separate one thing from the other and pretend it’s not there. A lot about how I plan to achieve point 3 has already been talked about, relating to player roles, duties, mentality, tempo and so on.  A key aspect of point 3 that has not been mentioned above, however, relates to team shape: I have chosen flexible because I literally want my team to be….flexible :) I don’t want them too close to each other and neither too spread out. I don’t want my defenders playing through balls and neither my forwards coming too deep to defend.

I want a balanced shape that would allow me to ensure good coverage of the pitch and quick progression of the ball, without running into extremes. 

 The flexible team shape also means that our more attacking players contribute less defensively, and thus are able to commit higher amounts of energy to the attacking phase.

In-match examples:

the BWM (here in DM strata with support duty) covering for the CWB caught up the pitch in attacking move. Here you can notice the ‘domino effect’ that complementing duties can have. The DLP drops deep to cover the central area that the BWM leaves exposed due to drifting out wide, while the SS drops into midfield to cover the area that the DLP left exposed. Flexible team shape ensures good balance of these ‘covering’ situations

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example of a) good space coverage – notice width and number of players looking to make runs into space. b) possession management – the duties that the midfield trio perform: the BWM looks to make a simple short pass to the creative DLP who will either launch a direct ball to either of the runners or pass it shorter to the BBM who will either look to make a run himself or pass to close running options

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example of creating space – the DF is challenged by 3 opposition players and chooses to protect the ball and make a pass to an on-running player. Notice there are four of them making runs into space. the central runners exploit the space left by the midfielders that challenge the DF, the W tries to beat his man in the box and the CWB is advanced enough to be a forward passing option in the above mentioned left side of the pitch :)

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example of good defensive shape, as the SS drops deep to mark his man, thus creating an important numerical advantage for us in this situation. Notice that the DF and W are positioned high enough up the pitch in order to attempt out-running their opponent if they are on the receiving end of a direct pass.

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Goals & Style of Play

quick transition& using deep passing option (AMR-BWM-SS)

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quick transition& fast exchange of short passes (CWB-SS-DF)

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drawing opp. players in centre of the pitch and exploiting the left wing via CWB+ AMR attacking far post

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quick counter-attack (SS-BWM-CWB-DF)

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I used this system with slight variation when necessary for the second half of the season – i.e. dropping the BWM to DM or changing his duty to support, playing narrower, or more disciplined if necessary. Don’t forget that the ME reacts to how you play and if you don’t react to them you will lose! So, this isn’t about a magic formula, this is about developing a concept and adapting if necessary. The results however, have been mesmerizing:

an unbeaten run that saw us score for fun in the league as well as beat the likes of Arsenal and Milan, both giants compared to us:

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a domestic quadruple:

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some excellent performances over the course of this year’s CL campaign:

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which ultimately led to a first ever appearance in the Champions League final for a club that was predicted to be knocked-out in the groups:

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We did end up losing 2-1 in the final to what was an astronomic Man City side featuring 2 Ballon D’or winners and some of the best players in the world at this point in the game. Other than that, our overall performance this year ranks amongst the best any Romanian team has ever had, and surely our best and most ‘overachieving’ yet. 

In the next chapter of this part I will discuss ‘adapting’ your system and style to different situations as well as how to integrate exploiting your best players in your style of play.

A Romanian ‘hai noroc!’ to all of you and I hope you’re enjoying this series as much as I do 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Sparta | A Tactical Identity Journey: Part VI.chapter one – Attacking Football and Developing a Style”

  1. Very interesting read. I love asymmetrical tactics and usually tend do create one on each new FM iteration. I would just think a defensive forwards and a shadow striker would pretty much occupy the same space? Is there any specific instructions that make this work within the tactic?

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    1. the DF and SS are both responsible for occupying and covering the center-left of the pitch. they alternate movement between each other, i.e. when the DF drifts out wide the SS will attack through the center and vice-versa. they also perform different duties – the DF closes down opposition more and the SS drops deeper to link-up with the midfield. I use no OI if that is what your last question refers to 🙂

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