Hello all, and welcome to GC's guide to formations and tactics in FM. The general aim of this guide is to inform you of some of the formations available to you in FM through looking at real-world formations, as well as looking at how you can implement them into FM. More seasoned players may find this guide a little simplistic, so that's a warning to you. Either way, thanks for taking a look, I hope I can make it worth your while and not too dry for your tastes. Well then, let's get started.
1) An introduction to formations and tactics
Formations and tactics are the fundamental basics of your team. They set out how it plays, where it plays, and how effective it is. The right tactics can make or break a team. Good tactics can make relegation battlers into safe bets, mid-tablers into title contenders, and good teams into truly-great ones. Conversely, poor use of tactics can ruin a side, waste players and break seasons. As such, it's one of the things that people spend the most time on in FM.
In both FM and real life, tactics are discussed and obsessed over. Tactical coaches have employed varied and interesting tactics across history. Ranging from coaches such as Arrigo Sacchi, who brought an attacking flair to a defensively-minded Italian league with great success, to Guus Hiddink, whose successes with South Korea at the 2002 World Cup mirror the defensive, solid tactics of Otto Rehhagel, who won EURO 2004 with Greece at impossibly long odds.
Equally, however, tactics can also be employed with the bare minimum of effort. Harry Redknapp, with his bluff, traditionally English style of management turned Tottenham, in the space of one season, from lower-league obscurity into Champions League high-fliers. Redknapp's disdain for tactics has come as a breath of fresh air for stars such as Rafael Van Der Vaart, who has enjoyed a role free of many of the strings he had to contend with playing for Real Madrid. Redknapp during his revolutionary season at Spurs, employed a typical English 4-4-2 formation, with flying wingers and a big man/small man combo up front. He minimised tactical instructions, with my personal favourite being his instructions to a warmed-up, ready to come on Roman Pavlyuchenko. Pavlyuchenko turned to him and asked what he wanted him to do. Redknapp, with a sigh and a gesture, told him to "go on and fecking run around a bit", more or less the Holy Grail of minimalist tactical instructions.
So much for a short run-through background of tactics. Let us move onto the nitty-gritty FM aspect of things.
2) Standard Formations
What a manager first needs to consider when selecting a formation is what one he's going to choose. There are two routes he can choose: choosing a formation around his team, or picking a team around his formation. With the former, formation choices can be limited. With the latter, you are limited only by your budget. As a result of this, the former is more usually chosen, with only the very richest or those with the most complete squad allowed a completely free choice of formation. Below, I shall give you a few starting points with two of the most standard formations in world football.
2.1) 4-4-2 (and variants)
The 4-4-2 is one of the oldest in modern football, and also one of the most basic. I should mention, before I go any further, I must recommend the excellent Tactical Guide by Max, mostly dedicated to this most English of formations. It is a superb read, I recommend it completely. As said, the 4-4-2 is a typically English formation. Throughout the 90s it was the dominant formation in English and indeed often in world football, and remains effective today. Let's go over the basics.
A 4-4-2 consists of two full-backs, two central defenders, two "wide men", two central midfielders and two strikers. The links and different roles of all of the players make this one of the most flexible formations in football. For example, the wide men can be one of two things: traditional wide midfielders, hard-working players with good crossings skills that supply the forwards as well as protecting their full backs. The other type are out-and-out wingers, the type the aforementioned Mr Redknapp deployed in his 4-4-2. These are speedy, tricky players who rely on their skills and pace to get by defenders, providing more of a direct goal threat at the expense of full-back cover. For the purpose of this, though, I will go with the traditional English 4-4-2.
In the standard 4-4-2, there are two tall, strong central defenders flanked by two full backs. Ahead of them are four midfielders strung across the pitch: two wide midfielders, with two central midfielders in the centre. Generally, one of those central midfielders is more creative and attack minded (the creator) and the other more concerned with shielding his back four and breaking up opposition play (the destroyer). Up front are two strikers, traditionally a "big man/small man combo" or in FM terms, a poacher and a target man. The target man opens up space for his partner, occasionally dropping deep to win the aerial battles. He is generally tall and strong, able to go toe-to-toe with defenders. The small man, or poacher, plays off the shoulder of the last defender, feeding off scraps and flicks ons from his strike partner. He is usually fast, and more of the out-and-out goalscorer of the two.
This is, of course, just one varient of the 4-4-2. The many different types are too many and varied to list here, but here's a couple to try. The 4-4-1-1 is the same, except with a striker dropped back to play the role of an attacking midfielder. Likewise, the 4-4-2 Diamond is a 4-4-2 with the central midfielders in much more extreme roles, with the destroyer one pushed back into a holding role, sitting in front of the defence. The creator is pushed up behind the strikers as extra support. As I said though, you should mix and match to fit your side.
2.2) 4-3-3 (and variants)
The 4-3-3 is the dominant formation in football today. The greater solidity and variety an attacking midfield trio offers is combined with greater ball retention in the centre of the park thanks to another trio of midfielders. As such, the 4-3-3 is now favoured by most major teams in the world.
The most standard 4-3-3 is the standard back four playing behind three midfielders with distinct roles. The destroyer/creator axis of the 4-4-2 has had another midfielder added, the "passer". If we take the Manchester United side of 2010, you can see what is broadly the 4-4-2s axis with Fletcher (destroyer) and Scholes (creator). In a 4-3-3, someone of the mould of Michael Carrick is brought in, as the "passer". Whilst the other two roles are fairly straightforward, the passer's role is to keep things simple. Generally proficient technically, the passer is the link between the destroyer and the creator, as well as moving balls out wide. His primary job is to retain the ball, however.
In front of these are three attackers, one out-and-out striker flanked by two wingers. The striker's job is to score goals, most simply, as is generally the team's main goal threat. In this he is aided by both the creator and the wingers, who are far more attacking than their cousins in the 4-4-2. They play higher up the field and aim to provide a goal threat as well as crosses, more as extra strikers rather than old-style wide mids.
This is the most standard version of the 4-3-3. However, another extremely popular (some would argue more popular) is the 4-2-3-1. My favourite formation, the 4-2-3-1 offers defensive solidity as well as the opportunity to field four attackers.
As you can see above, the passer has been dragged back into a defensive midfield position, whilst the creator has been moved farther forward into an attacking midfield role. Many large sides now use this formation, and it dominated the recent World Cup. Of the two defensive midfielders, the destroyer plays his normal role, breaking up play from deep. The passer does this as well, but has slightly more license to get forward to distribute the ball to the forwards. The creator has a free role, drifting around behind the striker, both scoring and creating goals.
Other variants of the 4-3-3 include the out-and-out 4-3-3, in which a four man defence plays behind three midfielders and three out-and-out strikers. Whilst this is rare in real life, it is often used by experienced FM users (or just attack junkies) who want to squeeze three strikers into a formation. Another variant is the attack-minded 4-3-2-1, in which three midfielders play behind two attacking midfielders and one striker.
3) Unusual Formations and Real Life Examples
Once in a while, some managers will set out with an exotic and otherworldly formation in order to bamboozle his opponent or play to his strengths. Coaches like Marcelo Bielsa in the recent World Cup, who played a super-attacking 3-3-1-3 formation, or Luciano Spalletti with Roma, who played a "strikerless" formation, manipulate their team into unusual formations with varying levels of success. As well as this, I am expanding into realistic formations and how they can best be portrayed both in FM and in real life.
Recently being employed to some success in Serie A by Napoli, the 3-4-3 is a formation which manages to be extremely attacking and yet very defensive at the same time. Let's start with the basics.
The centre of defence is a trio, with one defender playing deeper than the rest. He is known as the sweeper, and is generally proficient at "sweeping up" balls, winning second balls from the centre backs and using his athleticism and reading of the game to intercept through balls. (A note: when using a sweeper, it is generally accepted that the team defends deep. A high defensive line with a sweeper often leads to trouble) In front of him are the two normal centre-backs, flanked by two wing-backs. Wing-backs are a portmanteu of winger and full back, and must be treated exactly like that. If you like, these are wingers who start from deep, and fly up the wing before retreating back into a defensive formation if the ball is lost.
In front of them are the two central midfielders. Depending on how attacking/defensively your team plays, these may be attacking or defensive players, but normally they do a bit of both, as supporting players. Finally, in front of them are a triumvirate of forwards. Role-wise, however, these are slightly different from normal. As the wing-backs fulfil the role of the winger, these wingers can cut inside, making outside to in runs in support of the striker. The 3-4-3 can be extremely dangerous if used correctly, as well as utterly hopeless if used incorrectly. If you want to try this, try using Napoli as a starting point. 3.2) 4-6-0
The 4-6-0 is a highly unconventional formation, almost unique in the sense that it employs no recognised striker. Luciano Spalletti (a minor hero of mine) stumbled across this when injury problems forced him to play Francesco Totti, a trequartista, as a lone forward for Roma. Being a trequartista, Totti dropped deep to recieve the ball and left the defenders with nobody to mark. In real life this can be devastating. In FM? Hard to implement, harder to make work.
On the surface everything is more or less normal apart from one crucial difference. The striker, highlighted in yellow in the picture, has been pulled back to an attacking midfield position. This leaves the opposition defence with a decision: follow the striker, and get pulled out of position, or stick to their position and allow him space and time. Hence, in real life this formation can completely bamboozle opposing defences. On top of the confusion in defence it causes, the extra man in midfield allows your side to dominate possession even against sides playing a three-man midfield. Against a 4-4-2's two man midfield, possession of over 65% is not unusual.
The entire formation revolves around a creative attacking midfielder. The three midfielders behind him work in their normal way, but the wingers perform as inside forwards, cutting inside into the space he leaves. I have not yet found a foolproof way to make this formation work in FM: if you can, hats off to you and drop me a PM!
Holy crap. Someone played that?
Yep. It could only come from the mind of Marcelo Bielsa, a superbly attacking, aggressive, pressing formation created by a maverick coach. During the 2010 World Cup, his Chile side played a high-octane risky tactic which worked, taking them out of the group only to lose to joint-favourites Brazil. Let's sort out this mess.
So we have the trio of defenders with a defensive midfielder ahead of them. Slightly ahead are two wide midfielders with unique roles. Generally they make fast, outside to in runs, cutting inside before shooting or passing to the forwards. The final part of the formation is known as un enganche y tres punta: literally, one playmaker and three forwards. The playmaker does what it says on the tin, directing play. The three forwards spread across the pitch, stretching the opposition defence with the outer forwards either cutting inside or staying wide to make the pitch as big as possible.
This is, simply, an utterly bonkers formation. Again, if you can make this a viable formation in FM, you are a hero and let me know.
3.4) 1-4-2-2-1 Catenaccio
A famous formation that was employed mostly by Italian sides, the Catenaccio is dedicated to a rock solid defence. With a flat back four and two defensive midfielders in front of them flanked by two wide midfielders, the lone striker up front has a pivotal role is holding up the ball and waiting for support. Another extremely important player in this formation is the sweeper, although in both FM and real life the term libero is more accurate. In the defensive phase, he will act as a normal sweeper, clearing up the second balls behind the defence. In the attacking phase, he has freedom to roam forwards in support of his midfielders and even his striker. Whilst this is on the face of it an easyish tactic to implement into FM (a defensive 4-4-2 with one striker changed to a libero), getting the libero's role correct is extremely important and will take a lot of tweaking.
You should look to have all defenders as extremely defensive, sitting deep with the fullbacks level with the defenders. Of the two defensive midfielders, one should be an anchor man and the other more mobile. The two wide mids should both help out in defence and move up to support the target man, whose main job is to hold up the ball and wait for runners.
This is a workable formation in FM, I'd imagine. The reason why it hasn't been done yet is because it's so ball-shrivellingly boring.
3.5) 1-2-2-3-2 Zona Mista
A close relative of the Catenaccio, but a much more unconventional one, Zona Mista was the Italian response to the Dutch developed "Total Football" (discussed later) pioneered by the enigmatic Rinus Michels. After Michel's Ajax destroyed Internazionale in the 1972 European Cup final, observers began to realise that the intense fluidity of Total Football completely overwhelmed the rigid man marking system of Catenaccio. Thus, the Zona Mista ("Mixed Zone") system was developed, which mixed early zonal marking with traditional man marking.
The Zona Mista's bare bones are similar to the Catenaccio: it retains the libero, albeit in a more reserved role, as well as the solid back two and a target man up front. However, there are some extreme differences. There is no right back - that is covered by an energetic right midfielder, who is expected to offer both attack and defence in equal measure. On the left, the left back is pushed up to be a wing-back, and the left-sided striker drifts to the left to provide width. The rest is fairly standard: there is a destroyer/passer/creator triangle in the centre, with the right-sided central midfielder playing as a playmaker.
I haven't tried using this in FM, but I'd like to try. One thing that is imperative is a Puyol-like right sided defender, who can move right to act as an auxiliary full back.
3.6) 4-2-3-1 Tiki-Taka
Used by the Spanish National Team in their EURO 2008 and World Cup 2010 victories, the lopsided 4-2-3-1 that Spain play packs in some of the best technical players on the planet into a formation that provides methodical attack and mean defence in one. For reasons of realism, I have included the first-choice Spain side in the picture. Oneunited pestered me for this: if you enjoy reading about this, thank him, not me!
One point that must be remembered is that the formation in this case is secondary to how it is played. Spain play a possession-based short passing game, retaining the ball at all costs. If the ball is lost, the side press with unparalleled aggression to win it back. Once Spain are ahead, they are nearly impossible to beat: once they have the ball, they can pass, pass, pass the opposition side to death. The only way to get the ball off them is hoping they will make a mistake (unlikely, considering their immense technical ability) or catching them in possession (again unlikely). On top of this, the pace, guile, off the ball movement coupled with the unmatchable passing ability makes the forward players lethal. Alright, let's get about analysing this.
At the back, goalkeeper Iker Casillas plays a sweeper keeper role behind a high defensive line intent on reducing the space opponents have to play in. Gerard Pique plays as a ball-playing defender, playing long accurate passes to the forwards. Beside him, Joan Capdevila plays a more reserved role than his right-back counterpart, Sergio Ramos, who flys up and down the wing in support of his forwards. In midfield, Sergio Busquets plays a calm, collected destroyer role, distributing the ball to his more cultured defensive midfield partner, Xabi Alonso, who spreads the ball wide and forward. In front of him and highlighted in the picture is the position Xavi plays. Xavi is pivotal to the team: so talented that he can be labelled the main attacking outlet in a team chock full of creative players. A tad out of position in the Spain team, he plays as an advanced playmaker but starting from deep. Just ahead of him, on the right flank is his partner in crime, Andres Iniesta. A versatile player, Iniesta has played a variety of positions for Spain but this is the one he takes most often. He plays as a more attack minded Advanced Playmaker, cutting inside to spray passes around and use his extraordinary dribbling skills. Sergio Ramos covers for the lack of width on this side by offering an outlet from right back (see inside forward/attacking full back combo later). Annoyingly, in FM Iniesta isn't even accomplished in this position.
At the front we have two clinical, pacey forwards. Fernando Torres, the bigger, stronger of the two, is the complete forward, combining pace, power and aerial ability with great technical skills and a powerful finish. Villa cuts in from the left wing (again, he is not accomplished there in FM. Grrr.) where he plays more as a secondary forward than a winger, cutting inside onto his stronger foot and using his brilliant technical skills (beginning to see a pattern here...) and his superb finishing to give him a Di Stefano-esque international scoring record of 44 goals in just 70 games. 3.7) 2-3-2-3 Total Football
A truly legendary formation. As mentioned earlier, this is the brainchild of Rinus Michels. Michels looked at the rigid, defensive formations of Catenaccio, threw them out of the window, and developed the most attacking, most fluid, most destructive formations ever invented. Inspired by the genius of players such as John Cruyff, Michels created a system in which any outfield player could replace any other in any position. The versatility of the players involved is mind-boggling, and even the most versatile of players nowadays couldn't manage to match that. Michels implemented his system at both Ajax and the Dutch National Team, both of which he was coach of, and the Netherlands team of 1974 is considered the greatest team not to win the world cup.
This is a formation beloved by football enthusiasts across the world, but is staggeringly difficult to replicate. Your philosophy should ALWAYS be "Very Fluid" and attack-minded. The wingbacks provide all the width in your team, as your strikers switch position with each other and drift around. The only nominally defensive roles are the two centre defenders and the defensive midfielder, and even he is prone to making forward runs. The two central midfielders are both multitalented, capable of being playmakers, destroyers, box to boxers, whatever the situation requires. As such, this formation is utterly unpredictable and a fearsome opposition if played correctly.
So I’m finished right? Nope. I'm just getting started.
4) Tactical Combos
Moving onto how these can be implemented into FM, I will now cover a few tactical combinations. These are small things that, when combined, can work in synergy for a sum greater than its parts, and for the purpose of this guide I will from here on in refer to them as “combos”or combinations. Here are a few I came up with, off the top of my head:
The destroyer/passer/creator triangle was mentioned earlier, and is the pattern a midfield generally covers. Manchester United’s Fletcher/Carrick/Scholes or Bayern Munich’s Van Bommel/Schweinsteiger/Kroos trios are both real-life examples. There are a few ways to implement this into FM, but the most standard one is one defensive midfielder, DM defend role, one central midfielder, CM support role, and central midfielder, advanced playmaker attack role.
One of the most widely used combinations in FM. I personally have never mastered it, but I have heard good things about it. To make this work, you need two different types of central defender. One needs to be tall, aggressive and good in the air and the other to be faster and have a better reading of the game. Think Nemanja Vidic/Rio Ferdinand for Manchester United or Alessandro Nesta/Thiago Silva for A.C. Milan. The stopper pushes ahead of the defensive line, closing down opponents, and the covering defender sweeps up behind him. In FM, this effect can be created simply by setting your aggressive defender to “stopper” and your other to “cover”.
4.3) Target Man/Poacher
A classic combination, the “big man/little man” combo was covered earlier in this piece. There are examples of this even now in football, like Fabio Capello’s preference to play a tall man like Peter Crouch or Kevin Davies alongside the smaller Jermain Defoe or Wayne Rooney for England. Rooney is often also partnered by a big man in domestic football, with Dimitar Berbatov providing the knockdowns. This is simple to recreate in FM: one striker on poacher, another as a target man. Simples.
4.4) High Defensive Line/Sweeper Keeper
The “sweeper keeper” role is often attributed to Lev Yashin, one of the greatest keepers in history. Yashin invented a role for himself that combined the roles of goalkeeper and outfield sweeper. This meant that he rushed out in order to sweep up through balls behind the defence. Arguably perfected by the (categorically bonkers) Rene Higuita, a sweeper keeper allows the defence to play a high line without fear of a huge through ball to a pacey striker catching them unawares. This can be implemented into FM by making your defence play a high line and setting your keeper to the sweeper keeper role.
4.5) Inside Forward/Attacking Fullback
An extremely popular combination, the trend for more offensively-minded fullbacks has found a new dimension in the new fashion for “inverted wingers”, i.e. putting a right-footed winger on the left, and having him cut inside. When this happens, space is opened up and the fullback can charge into it, essentially giving the attack another player, as well as widening play. In FM, this effect can be created by using one winger as an inside forward, and setting the corresponding full back on that side to an attacking role.
4.6) Defensive Winger/Wingback
An interesting new development in football, this allows a wingback to fly forward up the wing in support of the attack whilst the winger covers for him. Manchester United’s Ji-Sung Park is often deployed in conjunction with Patrice Evra in this way, whilst Dirk Kuyt does a similar job with Glen Johnson at Liverpool. This can be achieved by combining a wingback with a defensive winger on the same wing.
4.7) Defensive Midfielders: Defend/Support
Slightly different to some of the others, I haven’t heard this discussed around the forums much. I don’t know whether I’m the only person to do this, but I worked out that if the stopper/cover combo works for defenders, theoretically it could work for defensive midfielders. Therefore, I combined the defensive midfielder on defend (cover) with a defensive midfielder on support duty (stopper) to achieve a similar effect, which seems to work well. (A note: this works equally well with the anchor man role replacing the defensive mid – defend. I would argue even more so, in fact.)
4.8) Advanced Forward/Deep-lying Forward
A standard combo in the game, the deep-lying forward creates the goal, the advanced forward scores them. You know how to do this.
4.9) Winger/Target Man
Cross ball + 6’3 striker = goal. Again, you should know how to implement this one.
5) Creating a tactic
So far, we’ve learnt about some types of formations and we’ve also learnt what kind of tactics can be used within them. Now I will take you on a step-by-step guide on creating a balanced, simple tactic. Aren’t I nice? I will use my favourite team, Aston Villa. So first off, we need to assess my team. We have a decent enough transfer budget of £23 mil, and so have more flexibility to choose my formation, so long as we have players that fit it well enough. Let’s have a look:
So, we have a defence that is effective but slow, a traditional keeper, some flying wingers, a creative attacking midfielder in Ireland and defensive mids to back him up. Seems perfect for a 4-2-3-1. Interestingly, I do also have four forwards perfect for a Target Man/Poacher combo, but as I have the resources to play a 4-2-3-1 and favour that formation, I will play that. I arrange my basic formation, and pick a first team.
Now I need to decide how to play, and assess my side’s strengths. I have two speedy wingers (though my right winger isn’t so good, but I have the funds to sign a replacement), and a blisteringly quick forward. Therefore, I decide that a Counterattacking style might be useful here. Right about now I should mention a fantastic guide on just about everything made by the FMFT Community, but deserves a particular mention in this case for its points on counterattacking football. It can be found here. My forward is short, so I will drill crosses. My defence and keeper are both slow, so I will play a stand-off method of closing down. Now I have my basic tactics down, I can move on to doing some basic tweaking to it.
My left winger, Ashley Young, is right-footed, and likes to cut inside. My left back, Stephen Warnock, likes to get forward. If we look up at the combos above, we can see that an Inside Forward/Attacking Fullback combo might work. Thus, I set Warnock’s role to “Full Back - Attack” and Ashley Young’s role to “Inside Forward – Attack”. This will give me a useful attacking outlet. On the other side of the pitch, my other fullback doesn’t like to get forward as much, and my right winger does not like to cut inside, as well as the fact that I want to retain some natural width. I keep him as a “Winger – Attack”.
In the centre of the pitch, I will use two combos. First, the Destroyer/Creator/Passer Triangleis already set up naturally. Reo-Coker is the destroyer, Petrov the passer and Ireland the creator. On top of this, I will use a Defend/Support combo for Reo-Coker and Petrov.
Up front, there is not real tweaking to be done. If I had played Carew, a Winger/Target Man combo would have worked perfectly. As I am playing Gabby Agbonlahor and relying on pace instead, I will not. I’ve developed how I want my team to play and implemented combinations to make my players get the best out of each other and, just as importantly, haven’t introduced combos that wouldn’t work. This is vitally important. Knowing when not to use combos is just as important as knowing when to use them. For example, using a High Defensive Line/Sweeper Keeper combo in this situation would be nothing short of suicidal, as Dunne and Cuellar’s lack of pace would find them utterly beaten for speed by a quick forward, and Friedel’s traditional style doesn’t lend itself to a sweeper-keeper role. Let’s have a look at the final team:
So I’ve decided my formation, my first team, my style of play and tweaked it. Finally, I need to check that my formation isn’t unbalanced. A general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t have more players attacking than you do defending: in this, I have four players nominally attacking, and six nominally defending. This is fine by me, so that’s it; I’m finished for now. It's up to you what you do now: be a Sacchi or a Redknapp.
I hope that you've picked up something by reading this guide, and I hope you can implement it successfully into the game. What I've attempted to do in this guide is show how a formation can be implemented into FM successfully, and can be tweaked slightly in order to maximise to potential of your squad.