Football Formations – Can FM realistically model?

Whats the most popular formation now in top sides around the world?  4231.

Barcelona started playing with a deep 4231, Spain adopted a variant of the Barcelona system, by the time World Cup 201o ended, you had a hard time naming one side who didn’t play a 4231.

Spain, Germany, Ghana, Japan all fielded different variants of the 4231 system, Spain’s being notably the most successful cause it would often morph into a 4213 with Iniesta and Pedro pushing up to join Torres. Japan played a deeper version down more to the lack of depth the national side has in midfield.

There are many variants of the 4231, you can have the one that packs the midfield like Ghanas, you could have one that has a rampaging fullback like Germany’s and Spains. You can even have one that attempts to bypass the midfield or a lack of it like Japan’s. The challenge in Football Manager is how to define player roles so exquisitely that they fight and translate accurately to the real thing.

System or Player?

One of the most successful sides in modern football is Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, as they won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990. All of our players,’ he said, ‘always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.’ There were, in other words, no fixed positions: everything was relative. When they didn’t have the ball, the forwards had to be within 25 yards of the backline. In other words, they were compact, organized and disciplined.

If you think that football systems were about allowing players to express themselves, then you are partially right, if you think a manager had to adapt his system you are also partially right. However to have any kind of long term success, every manager had to have his own system. Sacchii’s was based on strict organization. Ruud Gullit didn’t like the system but when challenged, he couldn’t with 9 other players break down an organized backline of 5 that Saachii set up for them in training. It proved one point, players can express themselves on the pitch but within the parameters of the manager.

Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers, have swung from using a 4231 to a 3142 and thence to a 4141, but they are working within a system laid down by Rodgers, most noticeably in the derby match with Everton which they should have won. They now deploy a system where they use direct football to get the ball up as quickly as possible. Whilst he may be an admirer of the Barcelona system, Rodgers recognizes that he does not have the players who have the technical skill of Iniesta and Xavi to hold on to the ball and wait patiently. Barcelona, have the skill to stop their own counterattacks midstream, even giving sides time to reshape because they know they have the technical skill to break down those teams.

2007 – Italy – Roma. A certain manager called Luciano Spalletti accidentally discovered 4-6-0. Roma, was having an injury crises, with no-one fit enough to take a focal point up front, Totti found himself in the unfamiliar role of a trequartista (two thirds). Often dropping deep, and playing in Vucnini from the left or hurling through balls for Mancini to exploit on the right.  It proved a headache for defenses, because they suddenly found themselves with noone to mark, leading Carlos Alberto Parreria to predict in 2008, in a coaches conference that the future of the forward was fading.

The day when a player is classed into a single position is long gone the modern football game is all about systems and one player isn’t responsible for position on the pitch anymore they need to multifunctional as Jose Mourinho has remarked countless times. In England players stick to a position, its all they  know, but the modern game of football outside of England has been changing since Luciano Spalletti accidentally discovered 4-6-0 , its about players moving in and out of positions, its about fluidity, this is what Football Manager needs to translate

How does FM come into this?

It is the job of the manager to deploy a system, an inventive manager can deploy unique systems of play. Will Football Manager 2013 allow me to create unique systems? In order to do so we need to see these things clearly in the game.

Training and development

For one thing the game needs to recognize player development for multi-functional roles. As players and if managers want Totti’s to emerge the training module needs to recognize that their attributes can still increase if they are given a new position to learn. If a player from a young age is made to play in different positions then his knowledge gained from this experience needs to be incorporated. Decaying of attributes can happen slowly over time if they stop playing these positions, but this has to be a result of tactics the manager uses. If these tactics are rigid then yes, if they are fluid then the player is expected to move in andout of defense.

Tactical Pivot attacks

Another area I would like to see improved is anchoring a player to a position. If I wanted to have one formation in attack and one formation in defense then perhaps this needs to be considered. Frequently we see  teams attack with only 3 players in a recognized defensive position as 3 dcs, but one of those dcs is a midfielder who has been told to go down and take up the central defensive position. His role is simple,to act as a screen.

Can we do this with the current engine? Or do we need to define players roles a bit more clearly so managers can recognize that these options are available. Do we need more shouts to tell specific players not to move out of position? or shouts that essentially tell forwards to collapse in behind the ball..even if the overall formation is attacking.

Or is the game so entrenched in British psyche that each player is defined by a position? I do think that by including player roles into the system we have improved it. I still think more can be done, by expanding on the roles so that perhaps one player can assume more than one role. The game of football is all about defending and attacking, you often see teams take a different shape when they defend, so why cant FM? If a striker is told to drop back behind the ball all times and tackle zonally in midfield, cant this be incorporated into the game via shouts or more instructions?

I do think so, but if people can already do it in game now I would love to see ya pkms


  1. Great read!

    Regarding expanding the roles: Basically the so-called arrows (forward, backwards, to the side) that existed as an option back in Fm06-ish and the late CM’s fulfilled that role. For instance, you could push a def. mid into the backline when defending – transforming a 4-4-2 when in possession/attacking, into a 5-3-2 when defending. As far as I can remember, the developers abandoned these arrows as it became too easy to “beat” the AI when utilising them. Maybe they should consider something similar again – I am sure the AI is now sophisticated enough to cope with it.

    1. Wimbo you mean, the wiggly with ball and without ball arrows from a CM days. Yeah these were great chalkboard type instructions and I was a huge fan. I created several engine busting tactics because of how simple it was to exploit it. While I agree there were loads of people who were making illogical formations like having barrows on strikers to the DC slots. I reckon we are heading in the right directions, what I am more keen on seeing are more roles and passing systems. I am already working on a few atm and I can see this being logically introduced into the game as well

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