I made an early decision to take a break from the Football Manager blogging scene, besides my guest blogging piece for FM Grasshopper where I took a deep dive into his trequartista using the available data to show just how well he had played. I’ve chosen not to diarise my save largely down to time commitments at work, so this way I could at least play when time allowed between a heavy workload.
Previous blogs I’ve written have typically focussed on looking at the save I was playing through from a data perspective too – using data analysis to back up scout reports and an overview of the player attributes to outline my reasonings for signing players. This was true of both my AC Milan save in FM20 and in my (much-missed from my perspective) Le Havre save in FM21.
My work, and my over-ambition with the number of players I’ve loaded up into my save, has meant I’m only four and a half seasons into my save with Southampton in FM22. Curiously, despite my penchant for data, I’ve rarely used the data analysis information that’s available to managers in the game, and I’ve not created a single spreadsheet/extracted any of the data from the game itself (though I did for the write up for FM Grasshopper). So it should therefore be of no surprise for you to read that this blog is not about data (if you’ll excuse one pie chart), but a tactical write-up of the recent transition to a 4-3-1-2 that I have made with Southampton, and the third-man runs that this has enabled within the tactical setup.
I decided to transition to a two-striker system, away from the typical 4-3-3DM system I tend to favour for a couple of reasons. The European giants were placing bids on my players – Karim Adeyemi was picked up by Man UFC for an unrefusable £90m; Yusuf Demir was sold to PSG for £70m; Arthur Theate went to Arsenal for £65m; Benjamin Šeško left for Borussia Dortmund in a £54m deal; Kiril Despardov joined Serie A’s Atalanta for £38m, and Keane Lewis-Potter headed to Premier League rivals Leicester for £36m. Four of these were the main wide plays that I’d been playing as inside forwards/inverted wingers, so there was something of a necessity to make a switch. However, I was also conscious that I often felt that the lone striker was too isolated when opposition teams sat deep.
This led to me going for a 4312 system, with a ‘flat’ central midfield in terms of their starting positions in the tactical line-up. My original thought was to have Šeško as one of those forwards, but as Southampton, I’m not in a position to turn down big deals for my players when a Champions League club comes calling, so off he went.
Many before me have written about this already, but it’s important to think about a tactical set-up not in isolation of the roles but as part of a larger picture, a jigsaw. Pieces have to fit and work together. For a balanced tactic, and for overloads to be created without being completely wide open at the back, it’s necessary to find harmony between different tactical player roles. With a central midfield trio, there is always room for a runner, a playmaker, and a more defensively minded player. This is precisely the method I typically favour, regardless of whether they are in a line, or whether the player in the defensive hole is a playmaker, like a Pirlo, or a play-stopper, such as Fabinho.
As such, I have taken to using Ivan Ilić as a left-footed mezzalla on the left of the trio, with Monchu typically playing the deep-lying midfield role in the centre (swapping out with Nicolás Domínguez), and then a carrilero on the right-hand side, with Pobega often taking up this starting berth. The mezzalla is the runner, with the wing-back on his side set to support, joining the attack when it is pertinent to do so, but not at too greater risk. Conversely, the carrilero is the shuttler, acting as a defensive cover for Livramento bombing down the right-hand flank as a wing-back on attack, who is told via player instructions to stick to the touchline given his pace and crossing ability. This leaves my formation and player roles looking like this:
The front line trio consists of an attacking midfielder, who is just that – set to attack – with Schjelderup typically playing in this position, although I have just signed Alexi Mac Allister from Brighton to come in as a specialist attacking midfielder. The idea is that this player can drive into the space between the two forwards as they look to drag opposing defenders out of position via their movement either with or without the ball. Alternatively, he can drift into space toward either flank, in between defensive lines to over an overload, before making a forward run.
The two strikers in this system are designed to stretch defenders both vertically and laterally. The left-sided striker is an advanced forward, who looks to move into channels – this is filled by the frankly magnificent Lorenzo Lucca, a genuine man mountain. The right-sided striker is a deep-lying forward on attack (Sebastiano Esposito) looks to drop into space between the defensive and midfield lines of the opponents, trying to bring a defender out with him, but failing that, to turn and offer a pass either behind the lines to the onrushing attacking midfielder, mezzalla, or the advanced forward who is playing more on the shoulder of the defenders, or out wide to Livramento who can then whip in a cross to the aforementioned teammates. This is the art of what I look to establish within build-up play, and a hypothetical example is shown below:
Here, the ball starts with the carrielo, who has drifted out wide as the right-wing back has bombed on ahead of him. This is something that the carrielo is designed to do, although at times they too can be quite vertical/progressive in their runs depending upon the play at the time. The carrielo plays the pass into the deep-lying forward who has his back to goal and can immediately lay off the pass to the attacking midfielder, who, in turn, can then play a pass behind the lines of the opponents for the advanced forward to run on to meet to have a one-on-one against the goalkeeper if not tracked by his marker.
If you look more closely at the hypothetical example, you can see how this tactical style has its advantages in the build-up. The carrielo has an option to play a pass in behind the opposition left winger to his right-back teammate who could also hit the advanced forward with an immediate pass as the opposition left-back is too tied up with supporting the left-sided centre back with the deep-lying forward who has drifted towards the left-flank to open up the passing lane for the attacking midfielder. There is also the option to go back to the deep-lying midfielder who is in space and unmarked, who could spread the ball out to the left where there is a potential overload on the opposing right-back. All these approaches could be used to unpick what, on the face of it, could have been seen as a good defensive set-up from the opposition. Yet the carrielo most likely could not have played a successful pass into the advanced forward because in all likelihood it would have either been over hit and collected by the goalkeeper or intercepted by a defender who had time to adjust their body position given the distance that the ball has to travel.
Whilst Southampton score a number of goals from this tactic, including quite a few from set-pieces thanks to the height and strength of Lucca, what I have chosen to isolate within this approach though is the third-man run. The art of a player running off the ball into space, but found after an interchange of passes between two (or more) players. The above hypothetical example would technically be a fourth-man run, but it still is seen as a third-man run. The deep-lying forward cannot make the pass behind the defensive line as it is blocked by the defender behind him. However, the attacking midfielder can – one swift touch of leather on leather (or whatever boots and balls are made of these days) unlocks the central defence through a quick exchange of passes and an off-the-ball movement of a third player not involved in the initial set of passes.
This type of movement has been seen time and time again within my save since switching to the 4312.
As you can see from the below graphic, through balls have been the predominant method of assists for the team over the last forty games. Some fifty-five goals have been scored as a result of this method of assist, with a further forty coming in crosses.
This highlights how often penetrative runs have been found by our players. Not all of these fifty-five assists will have been from third-man runs, but a good number have. To achieve this, the players collectively need a combination of good anticipation, off-the-ball movement, vision, passing, technique, and ideally some player traits, such as ‘arrives late in the box’, ‘gets into opposition area’ and ‘tries killer balls often’.
The below examples are both taken from the same game in the Carabao Cup Semi-Final Second Leg against Everton (in an 8-2 victory).
Starting with the less obvious third-man run, partly because on first inspection it looks like a hopeful long ball from midfield, we see a goal kick from Pickford, which is played down by Nehuén Pérez to Schjelderup who has dropped in to support the midfield.
He plays a quick pass to Pobega, who almost without any thought, hits a first touch pass over the top of the Everton defence who pushed out too far. This is because Ilić has already set off on a run in the space between the right-sided centre back and the right back.
Ilić has timed his run perfectly to spring their offside trap, leaving him with a one-on-one against Pickford, which he duly slots home.
Ilić’s movement off the ball is a third-man run. Schjelderup has his back to the Everton goal after receiving the pass from Nehuén Pérez, and so he could not have played the ball through to Ilić. However, Pobega did have that line of view, vision and ability to play the ball through for the assist to the goal. Several things had to come together for this goal to occur, not just the timing and accuracy of the pass and the off-the-ball run. Everton’s defence had to have pushed up too far too fast, and Pickford had to be slow off his line. Pérez also had to have the composure to knock the ball down to a teammate rather than give away possession.
Take a look at those two images again in more detail and you’ll notice some other subtleties that make this goal possible. With two strikes up front, both of Everton’s central defenders have no option but to go man for man. Both are touch tight when the ball is played through to Ilić, but this in itself causes them a problem. None of the Everton players have seen Ilić’s run off the ball, at least not until it’s too late, and the deep-lying forward has made it impossible for the left-sided centre back to track back because of his movement towards the midfield, drawing him out of position.
The second example also involves Schjelderup, but this time as the goalscorer. Pascal Struijk (23) has won a loose ball and played it into Tommy Doyle (substituted on for Ilić), who lays off a pass to Tyrell Malacia, the left wing-back. Malacia then whips in a deep pass/cross to the on-rushing Schjelderup, who is running through the open gap that is the Everton centre backs who aren’t marking any of the three forward players for Southampton.
Lucca is in effect looking to cheat the Everton defence here by standing in what is just an off-side position, but this may have served to distract the Everton defence, and they have ignored Schjelderup. He bursts through on goal and duly scores by shooting past Pickford. The Everton defending is in general lacklustre, to be polite, with no real pressing, no marking and too much space in which to play the pass and to run into.
Just to prove that it’s not just Everton’s defence that were, in part, exploited by this player movement, here’s Tommy Doyle scoring against Watford courtesy of a third-man run. The play has developed to the point where Pobega has just delivered a pass infield to Monchu. Here you can see the roles of the respective players – Pobega, as the carrielo drifting out wide, dragging the Watford midfielder with him, and Monchu offering himself as the playmaker. Monchu plays the ball forward to substitute attacking midfielder (and stand-in deep-lying forward) Martín Satriano who then plays the ball into the box to meet Doyle’s run through the open gap after the Watford right-back has switched off.
The play requires further inspection again – both of Watford’s central defenders are preoccupied with the two strikers, Esposito (9) and Lucca (19). Doyle is alive enough, despite this being the 87th minute, to make the run into the box past the wide midfielder who doesn’t track him. Monchu is also right to hold back on playing the pass into the box himself – Doyle isn’t yet in a position to receive the pass, so the ball would have been turned over – despite his player traits of ‘tries killer balls often’ and ‘tries long-range passes’. The space that Doyle has is a direct result of the fact that we have dragged Watford towards the ball. Both of their centre backs have been pulled across the field beyond their goalposts, creating the space for Doyle to run into. Space has been created by the distraction of the positioning of the ball itself, and by our strikers coming towards the ball.
For everything a reason
Goals are typically made from a congruence of moments, rarely from individual moments of genius. The number of players who are beyond systems is few and far between these days as coaches have improved their tactical understanding and coaching of these approaches to players. Things are no different in the examples above.
It’s important at this point to dig deeper into the underlying fundamentals behind goals being made by a facet of different inputs. Listening to the excellent “The Football Manager Show” podcast by Iain Macintosh, specifically the episode here on team cohesion where Iain discusses with Russell Hammant how team cohesion plays an important part in players understanding with regards to where their teammates are on the pitch and the runs they’re likely to be making. In order to boost team cohesion and thus maximise performances, within the training schedule, after each game I place both a recovery session, to allow the players to reduce their fatigue and injury risk, and also a match review. This match review sees the players get together and go over the previous day’s game with the backroom staff so that they can see what went well and what could be improved upon. This also has the effect of boosting team cohesion amongst the playing staff, presumably because they’re better able to predict/learn what runs/passes/shapes to utilise both with and without the ball after watching the tape back with analysts.
Equally, before a game, I will make sure that there is a session on match tactics, one for the pre-set match preview and, if it’s a home game and we don’t have the travel issue, then I’ll also schedule attacking movement into the program. Whilst the match preview has no impact on team cohesion, it does boost tactical familiarity. The other two blocks on the other hand give a lift to team cohesion. As such, the team understand their roles and they understand how to perform together as a team. Providing I’ve set them up in a sensible fashion that is relatively balanced across attack and defence, along with a high-quality coaching team and world-class facilities, I’ve maxed out the input I can have towards the players being cognitively able to interpret what is expected of them when they go out to play.
During a week in which there is only one game, which are few and far between given the number of “Englische woches” that occur with European and domestic cup football, I also try to place attacking and defensive shadow play sessions so that players understand their roles, responsibilities and how to move around to provide options for the player on the ball or to close down/mark a player in the defensive phase of the game. These both have a slightly positive impact on team cohesion.
Download link and wider reading
If you are interested in this tactic, one that has scored forty goals in six games in the UEFA Europa League, and wish to download it, you can find it here on Steam. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on Twitter at @afmoldtimer.
If you want to read further into this area, I can thoroughly recommend this piece from Coaches Voices.