FMT – Making Your First Tactical System

When you sit down to make any system you need to ask yourself a lot of questions first.

  1. What style of football do you want to play?
  2. How many players do you want to attack with?
  3. How is your side going to attack with the ball
  4. How are they going to get the ball back?
  5. How are you going to set up your defense?
  6. Do you have the players to do what you want?
  7. How are the players going to move the ball around, where are my creative pivots?
  8. Who are my defensive rocks?
  9. What kind of refreshments do I need to eat while playing the game
  10. What excuses do I give my wife/girlfriend/mother for my continual obsession with Football Manager?

These are the very basic questions you need to ask yourself. Once you have analysed your squad and say you have decided that you want to mimic say Barcelona from today, then, go and do some research. Find out how which role can give you what you want as accurately as possible, in most cases, you may need to make some exceptions and minor modifications. Once you have done everything you can begin.

In the next few months I plan on doing detailed posts on as much as I can on this game. This will include. I can only hope this proves useful.

  • Laying the defensive foundation of your team
  • Setting up the midfield and creative elements for unlocking sides
  • Training systems


A tactical system sets up how you are supposed to behave, how you play is affected by who you put on the pitch. So one needs to be very clear on their player roles and what these can do.

As a manager you need to decide what attributes are critical to the way you want to play your game.  There is so much information on player roles and responsibilities so I don’t plan on going through each and every one of them, instead, I will be focusing on how we should be putting them all together into a cohesive package.

To start, establish your clubs style of play. I typically place a lot of emphasis on first touch composure and determination, across all my players. These are my vital attributes. Then I look at pace and passing. At its very basic level, these are the attributes my club has to have, and I focus my training to cover these areas, beginning in the youth teams.

Now that we have established the flavour of the team, we now need to see how these get served up in the way they play. Making a tactic necessitates that you think of the pitch in spatial terms. You need to see the system in an offensive and a defensive way. When you construct a tactic, its vital that you see how it attacks space when going forward, and how it controls it when you don’t have the ball.

Time to deconstruct everything, and introduce some basic concepts which I have gleaned from reading voluminous information on tactics. Its a fluid area, concepts get introduced and they get refined, sometimes ideas become revolutionary and they influence how the whole game is played. Consider the 442 when it was first played, or how Rinus Michel and then Johan Cruyff applied the concept of total football, and finally, how Guardiola stunned Sir Alex with his 5 second press.

The game will always change, a 442 may have been in fashion in 1980, a few years ago, going striker less was the rage, today we are seeing the return of multiple pivots in formations so fluid defenders are having a nightmare picking up forwards exploiting lateral channels.

What we need to do before we embark on making a tactic is to begin with a general idea of how we want to play.

A defense needs lines of cover. The most basic flat 4 defense will have everyone on defend, which will see them in one straight line. This will be considered as 1 line of cover. If you set it up with fullbacks on support and the 2 defenders on Defend, you get 2 lines of cover. Now if you drop one DC down to defend and another to cover you get 3 lines of cover. Finally if you opt to have a sweeper keeper, you can have another line of cover that rushes out to become a deep passer of the ball when you get the chance or one that rushes out if needed. Four lines of cover!

Great to have, but there are downsides, you need to know what they are whenever you make a system so you can create an effective screen for them in front., for instance, a flat back four can easily be caught out if you are playing a high line.


Now looking at the diagram above, it looks solid enough but it has one obvious flaw, it puts a heavy burden on my DLP(D) who now needs to spend a fair bit of time covering for the absence of full-time protection on the flanks. One way of adding another line of cover would be to change him around to a halfback and then transfer the burden of creation to one of the the central midfielders. And to give this system better punch going forward I would actually turn my keeper into a sweeper keeper.

As it turned out, this formation was changed much later to include these changes including making it more attacking in strategy.

When you set any defensive shape up you need to pay attention to where the gaps in your formation lie. In this case the most obvious gap was the flanks. Whenever those inside forwards go harrying up with the support of the attacking wingbacks we had issues down the flanks. In order to strengthen it I would later opt for the halfback. He would, in the absence of fullbacks drop deep and the backline would effectively become a three.

Understanding how your defense operates when the ball is lost is vital. Going back to the system above, there is another obvious area of concern: how do you win the ball back if your attacking force spends its time attacking?

This is called the High Press Strategy. Its frequently employed in real life and we can do this ingame as well. I see a lot of people doing this wrongly, even those who claim to know the engine inside out. Many people elect to use the “Close down much more” shout. Shouts don’t override each other, they work with each other.  They are contextual and they depend on a players role. If a shout being used, is contrary to a players role then his role supersedes the shout. For instance, a trequartista does not defend, if you use the shout “close down much more” as a Team Instruction, he ignores it. If you have players with such roles you need to adapt.

Instead of using that shout the way its set up, I elect to use Player Instructions. Some roles don’t allow you to have them modified, and this is ALWAYS a good thing. In this system I go to the individual instructions for the front trio and I tell them all to close down much more. This is what I call the High Press Strategy.

If you are attacking the ball in the opponents half you will see them try and win the ball back, and if you are defending, they will lend support. If you want to take it a step further you could also set them to mark out the opposing fullback, but this would also affect their positional play when you are counter attacking.

Can you play a high defensive line doing this? Yes. What this creates is a camping team, smack in the opponents half. The danger is once again the counter, which is why this system was later modified to have a half back in the DM position.

Setting up a 5 man defense

The same principle that applies to a 4 man defense holds for a 5 man defense. Always think in terms of lines of cover. In this case I would set my 3 man backbone with 2 central defenders on cover and one on defend and have 2 wingback on support. If i elected to have them on attack then I would immediately look at my midfield to see what kind of screen I need.

The challenge with a 352 or a 532 lies not in defense it lies entirely in midfield, placing too many players on defense could result in a dearth of creative output, and this is where you need to focus your attention if things fail to work.

There are many ways you can organise a 3 man defense, the principle variants involve a zonal, man to man with sweeper or an orthodox man to man with sweeper defense. The subtleties inherent in all 3 systems will determine what roles the players will take.

Thinking of it in terms of lines of cover will allow you to set it up right. And remembering whether you want to play defensively or offensively will determine how you want to set up your support players. The key to making it work will lie in how you are able to interpret  interceptions and transitions in a game.

Looking for imbalances in systems. 

Whenever I play I am on the lookout for imbalances in a formation, my aim is to exploit them. First I do everything I think I can to make my system cover the pitch perfectly, then I look at what I am playing against.

When I play formations such as a 4132 which is currently my favorite in FM15 along with the narrow 4231 and 4312, I focus my attention on the areas of the pitch I know I don’t have an advantage with.  And to do this effectively I look at heat maps

You can find out more from my article on Tactical Zen here


Managing transitions is a vital component of tactic creation, once you understand the basic concepts and you want to eke out more from your team then you need to start considering how your team handles transitions. Transitions are essentially the changeover from defense to attack or from attack into defense. Its how your team handles different phases of a game. Transitions are easier to understand if you try to create football within an attacking framework. For that one needs to ask themselves the question, is playing with a high dline good or bad. If anyone says its bad, then I feel sorry for them cos they are potentially missing out on some smashing football.

In order to appreciate transitions, one must already have a solid understanding of football and how it can apply to their games. Handling transitions is all about good organisational defense, the right instructions and choosing the players. If you don’t understand the basic concepts you should read a bit more.

When you play with a high line you can camp in the opponents half and you are applying more pressure on the opponents. It was actually the game between Spurs and Arsenal and this very good article at thinkfootball that got the wheels in my head whirring. Arsenal was playing with a high line against a side with electric pace, twas a risk, but it was clearly evident that the defense struggled.

Both Spurs goals came from a throughball behind the defenders. The problem for Arsenal wasn’t because they made a mistake with the high line, it was the poor positioning of their fullbacks that was giving them the problem. The two central defenders had acres to cover and their keeper was never comfortable rushing out to clear the lines. Playing with a high line is possible and can be an effective ploy but you need to get some areas covered first. The mistakes that Arsenal make are the same mistakes people make in Football Manager. Its very easy to play a high line in FM, and one should attempt to do this if they have a team that has a decent attack. So where did Arsenal lose? They lost on the transition, Spurs was too quick in turning defense into attack, but had Arsenal’s positioning been right on the day the result could have been so different.

a. Positioning

This is downright obvious and I shouldn’t be talking about it, but so many people on the forums forget. The most vital part in positioning is making sure that your players are going to be around to defend. The engine does a good job of making sure the players are there, its your job to make sure the roles you put out don’t make it even harder to get back. Looking at my 4411 – I tend to set one fullback on attack and another on support which means that I need to make sure their zones are covered when they go forward. For that reason alone I use a cover/defend pair for my central defenders and I make sure I use 2 players who can drop into holes when they are vacated by the fullbacks.

I love heatmaps so I will use this to explain: If you look carefully at the heatmap you will notice the relative positioning of my players its almost perfectly symmetrical. Since there is a big gap that can be exploited between my defenders and my keeper, its absolutely vital that I play a keeper who can rush out  and play the pass. So composure and first touch are important as well for my keepers. In a previous post I spoke about how I train my players on ball control and tactics to get this covered. Another thing you want to spot in heatmaps is that it extends into the opponents box, this will show that we spend a good amount of time inside and around their penalty box.

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b. Interceptions

Interceptions are vital for someone playing a high line. Your players especially the central midfielders and even your wingers should be able to break up play in the opponents half. This will allow you to develop transitions, which in my humble opinion are the single biggest source of success for a high dline setup.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 8.21.17 PMScreen Shot 2013-03-05 at 8.21.08 PMScreen Shot 2013-03-05 at 8.20.53 PM

Not counting my defenders, I am always looking for interceptions by my midfielders in strategic areas of the pitch. If I am playing a high dline then they need to be winning balls in the opponents half. So how do you put this all together:

Transitioning is all about the players you have, your tactical setup and how well you have put all the puzzles together.

Transitioning from defense to attack ( Your own half)

When you talk about building up play from the back, you want to have pivots in your side who can make the move from defense to attack. You can have as many pivots as you want, but its generally good to have a plan. In my formation, my pivots are essentially the double pivot pair in my MCs, my rampaging fullback on the right. When my lil maradona is available I get another player who can be the transition point. So whenever the ball reaches your pivots, and depending on the kind of player you have and the ppms he has he can switch play, dictate tempo or make a run at defense. They can also play good through balls provided your frontline can move in and out of space well.

Transitioning from defense to attack (your opponents half)

For me this is the fun part, when you play with a high line, what you want to look out for are interceptions, if interceptions aren’t happening then there are several reasons why:

1. You are not pressurising the keeper (OI him)

2. You players lack concentration and anticipation

3. Lack bravery and acceleration

Its going to be either one or the two, you don’t need to play tight zonal, loose zonal works better if you are in their half and will prevent your players from being skinned too early. What you want to see is your defenders camped in the opponents half with your dcs straddling the halfway line. Any clearance will be handled by them, and your attacking line must be closing down high. The downside of this is that your players are going to get tired fast, but if you have the right preseason then its all good.

Even if your players aren’t great tacklers you need them to have the guts to stick their foot out or close down a player. I find that having pacey wingers who can tackle a godsend.

There are other transitions to look out for, such as those that see your side not carve out a viable striking chance, and they bring the ball back to their own half to build up again, looking for another transition. For these kind of transitions to work, you need players who can run at defenses to pull them apart. When these happen you create other kinds of chances.

If you want to play with a high dline its not hard, its fairly easy, but to make it work you need to make sure that:

1. You play a sweeper keeper

2. Your fullbacks have good anticipation, acceleration and concentration. They are going to leg it a lot

3. As a rule, all my players have good composure, I don’t have any player in my side with less than 12. This means that if they are passing the ball in the opponents half and they come under pressure, they have the composure to play their way out of trouble

4. Conditioning.  If you want to play a high dline then you need to make sure your players are fit.

5, Right tactical setup. Make sure, and this is hugely vital, that whenever a transition happens and if it fails you understand why. Transitions can fail spectacularly if  a player wins the ball and can’t play the pass, remember Lucas Leiva in his first season with Liverpool? So if you have good ball winners make sure there is always a player who can play the pass for them.


  1. Excellent read.
    Rashidi, do you like ever use stoppers? Should one think of a stopper as another line of cover, or is it the same as FBs/DMd?

  2. But how would you say it influences the backline positionwise? Aren’t we losing the basic CBd line here with stopper/cover? And does using a stopper in 4-man d-line make any sense having a guy in DMC slot right above him?

    1. Explanations of defensive line are usually simplified to make people understand. The defensive line isn’t a straight line, its affected by individual roles and duties.

      In cases where I employ a DMC I never use a stopper cover combo, in systems where I don’t play with one, I sometimes do. It really depends on how good your screen in midfield is. If you are having to resort to a stopper cover combo, then it suggests that your screen isn’t ideal if you are playing any system which doesn’t use a DMC.

      I have resorted to a stopper cover combo in systems where I find that my defenders are stepping out too many times and losing their shape, ie. 343 4312, 4231 systems tend to produce this somewhat.

      In most 4 man backlines, a typical system should suffice. And don’t forget if you are using a “swoosh” defense, you don’t need the combo at all.

      1. Sory but I think you know a lot about FM, but in practice you don’t even understand some of the terms..I watched your video where for the first time since you were on youtube live .. so you are following tactics and recording video .. in previous versions the tactics were not in real time they have already been recorded, in the live version your team hanover 96 loses against Borrusia which is realistic .. when you switched the game in 3d mode what you should know that your ideas are not good and that FM is real and very difficult ..

      2. Hmm u don’t understand how videos are done. The only live version is on Twitch. I play in 3D a lot but, not this close which is better for the viewer. Plus previously I couldn’t even record in 3D cos the engine was sluggish.

      3. Yes ,but I dont speak proper English..Bushidi is master of FM do you degree?But why losing game in real time(first time recording in real time on Y.T)I now why ,in all video clips Bushidi dont speak by opponets,Bushide set up formations dont cary opponets formations and what is happen?In real match he losing game.We looking hannoner 96 and team is 2 in bundes liga,first time we look match Hannover vs.Borussia and hanover beating 0:2.

  3. Thanks for reply.

    I have been thinking about another concern. I find the concept of spatial control absolutely convincing, especially the part about controlling advanced midfield are which people tend to ignore/forget about. Therefore I understand why your strikers in flat 442 are on support duties.

    Question: what do you think should be done in terms of setup to give one of two attackers ‘attack’ duty – in formation that uses no AMC/AMR/AMR slots? Would BWM in central midfield slot behind the attack duty striker do the job?

    1. A ball winning midfielder has a really high closing down area, which means he exerts a large influence defensively across large swathes of area in midfield, which could result in him going missing thus failing to offer up support to the attacking trio. I hesitate to use them for that reason.

  4. Wow, how do you make your 4-4-1-1 so symmetrical and beautiful on the heat map? I’m using the following:

    (Standard – Fluid)
    Winger-At, CM-DLP, CM-De, Winger-At
    AMC – Attack mid supp
    Striker – AF

    It beat Real Madrid 4-0 (I’m playing Valencia) but suffers miserably in away games.

  5. Hi love the read 🙂 om watford and i played against afc Wimbledon. I run a system couter-structured -Sweeper keeper-
    Fullback auto-dc stopper-dc stopper-fullback auto
    -half back-
    Winger support- Winger support Defensive forward support-advanced forward atack(4-1-1-2-3) i noticed in the game that my 2 midfielders got outnumbered should i switch to BWM insted of a half back? Btw i won the game 5-2

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