FM2015: Experiments with Manchester United — Tactics and Training

Before I begin with the agenda for this post, the second of the series, which happens to be to cover Outgoing Loans, Tactics, and Training, I’d just like to thank all the FM nuts who checked out the first post of this series. If you’re only joining now, feel free to browse through the home page of the blog to catch up; you can’t really miss the title of the article. Also, do check out the first post of another series I’m planning to write concurrently, in which I cover one of my most memorable Football Manager 2014 saves, again with Manchester United. You might wonder why I manage United so often, instead of taking on real challenges, like guiding the likes of Woking or Altrincham to European nights at the Juventus Stadium. Well, read on to find out!

As a side-note, I had originally wanted to cover pre-season preparations ahead of the 2014-15 campaign as well, but the Tactical discussion got a little too long, and so I’ll be pushing that to the next post of the series.

Outgoing Loan Deals

As expected, quite a few outgoing loanees.
As expected, quite a few outgoing loanees.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the only incoming loan signing was that of Santi Mina, the 18 year old striker, from Celta Vigo, for a loan fee of $25,000 a month that was made permanent in January after a string of impressive performances. On the list of players to leave the club in search of valuable game time, the only names I’m really interested in are Balanta, Pearson, Tielemans, Hallberg, Andreas Pereira, and Nick Powell. Balanta obviously spent 6 months on loan at River as agreed during his transfer in the summer. He played only 7 games for the club, at an average rating of 7.07 (I’m writing this blog after having completed the whole season, so I think it’s alright for me to reveal these little insignificant details about how the season went. I’m certainly not going to tell you where we finished in the league!), and I think he was injured when he officially joined us at Carrington in January. Ben Pearson, a defensive midfielder I have high hopes for, played 36 games for Bury in League 2, scoring 2 goals, creating 9 assists, and achieving a respectable average rating of 7.17. Pereira had a rather disappointing time at Colchester, but Nick Powell did well at Doncaster, getting 3 goals and 3 assists in 13 games, at 7.23. Youri Tielemans scored 1 goal in 4 games at Middlesbrough (7.00), but did better at Ligue 1 outfit Marseille, with 1 goal and 2 assists in 17 (7.01). Hallberg’s loan spell at Rotherham posted average returns; while giving him competitive game time, which was the main aim, his stats weren’t remarkable, with him only achieving 3 goals and 4 assists in 32 games (6.94).

You might be wondering why I’m telling you all this. After all, there are much more interesting stats to dig into. Basically, what I’m saying is that I rarely ever send the Under-21 players for whom I have concrete future plans in the senior squad out on loan (in this case, the likes of Tielemans, Pereira, Hallberg, and Powell. This is because they rarely return with significantly improved statistics, mainly because I don’t have control over their Training, which is a key aspect of their early development. I had to send them out on loan this season because of the size of the senior team squad; I would have liked to sell another couple of players in the summer itself. Usually the likes of Tielemans and Hallberg would get around 10 first team appearances this season, in the Capital One Cup, FA Cup, and some Premier League games. But with di Maria, Mata, Januzaj, Fellaini, Wanyama, Herrera, Jones, Carrick (for half a season), Rooney, McNair, Pereira, Blind, and Powell to choose from to play in midfield positions, I had no choice but to send Tielemans and Hallberg out on loan. Tielemans did fine, but I feel Hallberg’s attributes may have been negatively affected a little by his average time at Rotherham. His star rating has gone down to 2.5 (from 3.5 potential when he signed). This could also partially be because the team as a whole as gotten better in the year since I signed him.

Anyway, that’s all there is to say about loans. Regarding my second season, Pearson will most definitely move up to the first team, and either Pereira or Powell will leave. Most likely Pereira, since Powell is the only one of the three who offers some physicality in the middle of the park, and I would like to have that in Capital One Cup games when the likes of Fellaini and McNair are being rested.

Tactics

This is probably going to be one of my favourite parts of the whole series: talking you through the evolution of my tactical approach over the several saves throughout the 2012, 2014, and now 2015 iterations of the game. I started careers with Wigan and Tottenham in FM2012, playing a standard 4-1-2-1-2 diamond (wide), with one CDM (Anchor Man, Defensive Midfielder or Ball-winning Midfielder), two wide midfielders (either Wingers or Wide Midfielders, depending on the strength of the opposition), one CAM, and two strikers (usually a Poacher and a Target Man, a combination which worked wonders). The standout player in the LM position was Anthony Mounier, a French winger with deceptively average attributes, but who could cross a ball like no one else I’ve seen in Football Manager. I used to adopt very flexible tactics during games, constantly adapting to the opposition’s strengths. I remember playing against a tremendously strong Manchester City team, and using a rather crazy formation that looked something like this:

The initial stages of my experimentation with tactics.
The initial stages of my experimentation with tactics.

That City team had only Aguero, who wasn’t a threat in the air, and so I played an incredibly compact team without full-backs, allowing their wide players space to cross the ball, and my central defenders (this was at Wigan), Kaboul, Tomkins, and Caldwell (three nasty fuckers if there ever were any to be found) headed the ball out all day. My midfield was very compact as well, with Uruguayan utility man Egidio Arevalo Rios and Sandro putting in the tackles and winning the ball back quickly. I can’t remember who my CM (DLP) was, but my LCM (BBM) was Anthony Mounier, and the RCM (BWM) was James McCarthy, and you can see I used the left side of the pitch as the primary attacking outlet, with Mounier’s pace and sensational crossing ability supplying Clarence Seedorf and Hugo Rodallega as we played on the counter. I believe City were leading 2-0 with 10 minutes to go, at the impregnable Etihad no less, and Mounier delivered two sensational whipped crosses (I’ve always preferred them to floated crosses, couldn’t say why, except for maybe that the pace of crosses delivered along the ground make them trickier for defenders to deal with. Ah yes, that would be it, I’ve seen a couple of own goals scored in my favour from such crosses) for Rodallega to convert, giving us a 2-2 draw. Back then, it was one of the most epic results of my FM career.

Anyway, I soon made slight alterations to the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond (wide), namely making it a narrow diamond instead. The main reason for this switch was the fact that leaving only two players in the centre of midfield (the defensive midfielder at the base of the wide diamond and the attacking midfielder at the top) usually left me hopelessly outnumbered and outplayed in the middle of the park, especially against teams like Man City, who usually line up in a 4-2-3-1, with two central (not defensive) midfielders and three narrow attacking midfielders, making it five against one in midfield. I used this extensively at Wigan and United, and preferred the balance it gave the centre of midfield, with the combination of a DLP and a BWM in the middle soon becoming a favourite. In one magnificent United career, my team after 3 or 4 seasons in the game looked like this: De Gea, Rafael RB), Zouma (what a monster) (RCB), Jones (great in every version of FM) (LCB), Domenico Criscito (LB), Mohamed Diame (CDM; an old favourite from Wigan who I just had to bring with me after I moved from the DW to Old Trafford), Marouane Fellaini (RCM-BWM), Rhys McCabe (LCM-DLP), Mounier (CAM), Rooney (ST), Barry McKay (ST). This tactic worked superbly, with the diamond in midfield allowing for super quick retention of the ball thanks to aggressive ball-winners Fellaini and Diame, and excellent distribution from defense to attack. Anthony Mounier was technically a left-sided winger or wide midfielder, but slotted into the CAM slot beautifully, getting 20 goals and 35+ assists for three seasons in a row. For a while, this was my preferred tactic.

However, when I started playing FM14, first with Wigan and then with United (my two favourite teams to play with, for some reason), I felt it was time to shake things up a little bit. The flat back four and the narrow diamond in my previous formation meant that I was left vulnerable against teams that employed very wide playing styles like the 4-3-3, and my full-backs were rarely allowed to contribute a lot when I was attacking. Enter the wing-backs. This move was facilitated in large by my exploration of different roles the defensive midfielder at the base of the diamond could occupy, and my subsequent awareness of the Half-Back position. As FMers will know, the Half-Back chooses to drop deeper when the team is in possession, allowing the two centre-backs to push higher up the pitch. This makes the overall defensive third of the pitch (see below): a lot more compact, allowing the 2 central midfielders more space to drop deeper, retrieved the ball in the midfield third, before making transitions into the attacking third.

Section-wise breakdown of the pitch during the 4-1-2-1-2 (diamond-wingback-half-back) setup.
Section-wise breakdown of the pitch during the 4-1-2-1-2 (diamond-wingback-half-back) setup.

Crucially, I feel the presence of the half-back allows centre-backs to push a little higher and wider, and the wing-backs further up the pitch. So when the central midfielders (DLP and BWM) get the ball from the half-back, whose passing focus is purely on quick, simple, short passes, they can immediately link up with the advanced wing-backs. This gives us much more potency down the flanks when attacking. Even the two strikers tend to drift into the wider channels (I set the player instructions for my Advanced Forwards to “Roam from Positions” and “Move into Channels”. Thus there is a lot of link-up play utilizing short passes in every section of the pitch, facilitated by the narrowing of the pitch due to the higher central defenders .i.e. reducing the distance between defenders and strikers, or making everything more compact. So a feature of the match using this tactic is aggressive ball retention, leading to quick transitions, and lots of player movement, but within a rigid tactical system.

I think the 4-1-2-1-2 (diamond-wingback-halfback) system is much better than a 3-5-2 with wing-backs and a flat back three, simply because a flat back three is basically wasting one player when the team is out of possession (i.e. the central centre back, who is not mobile enough to push up the pitch to close down an opponent, thus leaving his midfield with a flat two. Also, central defenders are rarely as good as defensive midfielders at the pass-and-move system that the midfielder in the base of a triangle would normally follow, especially in a possession-oriented system (think Makelele at Real Madrid and Busquets at Barcelona). Having the CDM (HB) allows you to play a midfielder in that crucial “half-pivot” role, where the player doesn’t do the attacking work of a pivot, instead contributing defensively, closing down midfielders, retaining possession, and quickly distributing it. Job done. I don’t know if this is making any sense, but the basic difference between a 3-5-2 and the formation I like to play is this:

The 3-5-2 allows that gap between defense and midfield.
The 3-5-2 allows that gap between defense and midfield. By the way, that should be RWB, not RW.

If you want to understand the harm that leaving that leaving that gap causes, think back to Louis van Gaal’s first Premier League game of the 2014-15 season. Ki Sung-Yeung was basically in acres of space for his goal, and neither of United’s central midfielders were anywhere near him, forget about being in a position to actually put some pressure on him. Obviously, United had less-than-perfect players with little knowledge of the tactical requirements of the roles they were assigned: Jones has no idea what to do on a football pitch, and young Jesse Lingard was, for a time, a stop-gap right wing-back. I find that it is quite easy to build a strong team in FM, especially if you start with a very strong team anyway, one that can soon become capable of nullifying the importance of a tactical setup. That is, the team soon becomes good enough to win games without a human manager. You might think this would make me want to manage in the Vanarama Conference, simply because it would be a much more difficult challenge, but the reason I prefer managing the Wigans and Uniteds is that the main satisfaction I derive from FM is managing and controlling players I know, like the Rooneys and Zoumas. Managing a lower league team would definitely be a bigger challenge, but wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying for me. It is for this same reason that I have never gotten beyond 12 seasons in a save on any version of the game. When you’re that far into the future, the game becomes dominated by regens, and most of the recognizable stars have retired. When Messi is 37 and Kovacic is in his 30s, that usually tells me it’s time to call it a day.

Anyway, I have rambled enough, and it is time I get down to actually showing you how I applied this formation to my United side. But before I do so, I just want to show you my team from an FM2014 save with United. I don’t play the Half-back in this, but my BWM essentially serves the same purpose: aggressive ball retention, quick distribution, closing all the gaps. You won’t find too many systems more organizationally compact.

Structurally strong tactics. Although it does help to have such good players in the team.
Structurally strong tactics. Although it does help to have such good players in the team.

Now for the FM15 United squad. I only set up one tactic, despite Ryan Giggs and Thomas Tuchel’s repeated expression of concerns regarding a lack of match preparation in alternative tactics.

Unfortunately for Thomas, his warnings fell on deaf ears.
Unfortunately for Thomas, his warnings fell on the deaf ears of a lazy manager; who wants to go through the trouble of setting new tactics, having to repeat instructions?!

The team looked something like this:

The first team squad.
The first team squad.

You can see the entire starting XI and substitutes (note that the XI on the pitch aren’t actually the core first-choice players: the best XI would be De Gea, Rafael (WB), Musacchio(CB-cover), Balanta (CB), Shaw (WB), Wanyama (BWM-cover), Fellaini (BWM-support), di Maria (AP-support), Mata (AM), Rooney (DF), van Persie (F9). I quite like the Defensive Forward role for Rooney; it adheres to the overall team ethic of putting pressure on the opposition when they are in possession, and does so in our attacking third itself. Thus, it is effective defensively. However, and this where I think it has real value, when Rooney closes down the opposition centre-back, pressurizing him into playing a loose ball which is retrieved by our players, he is then in the perfect position (right up near the defender) to make a quick run past him, instead of being far enough to have to get into a one-on-one position to beat the defender. So it places us perfectly for rapid counter-attacks. With an attacking midfielder with the vision and creativity of Juan Mata, I can’t think of a better role for Rooney.

In my previous post, I alluded to the necessity of having Wanyama and Fellaini in midfield; their aggression (34 out of 40 combined, versus 24 for Mata and di Maria), stamina (36 vs 32), strength (39 vs 17), determination (35 vs 29), jumping reach (34 vs 16), and tackling (33 vs 17), giving our midfield diamond the perfect combination of creativity and grit, making the players a fearsome foursome.

Shaw and Rafael have the perfect attributes for the wing-backs, and can be expected to deliver excellent contribution in terms of goals and assists (potentially 20 goals and assists between them).

As you can see, I use the Attacking mentality with a Fluid team shape, although these obviously change to Defending and Structured when I’m defending a scoreline.

Unfortunately I can’t show you my individual Player Instructions, since I am currently in the summer of 2015, and all my players are on vacation. But I will talk you through my Team and Set Piece instructions very briefly.

Team Instructions

You can take a look at the screenshot yourself, as most of the screenshots are fairly explanatory, given my explanation of why I like the tactic I’ve chosen. The settings under “Defending” (Close Down More, Get Stuck In, Use Tighter Marking, and Prevent Short Goalkeeper Distribution) are perfect for the high pressing game, and the last option is particularly appropriate, given that Wanyama and Fellaini, with their 39/40 combined strength and 34/40 combined jumping reach basically lap up any long hoofs up the pitch from the opposition goalkeeper.

I usually play with “General Settings” set as Higher Tempo and Be More Expressive, although these change when I’m defending. Sometimes I’ll even change the “Penetration” focus to Exploit the Middle, removing Look for Overlap. This is usually against teams that play a flat 4-4-2 or any other formation with less central midfielders, so that my diamond can overpower them easily. Otherwise, it pretty much remains the same.

The team instructions.
The team instructions.

I have come across the opinion that it is always preferable to have less Instructions for the players, to avoid them being overloaded and confused. However, I have never bought into this theory, since I have yet to see two of my players run into each other and crash their heads simply because I had combined the “Direct Passing” and “Lower Tempo” instructions.

I realize this post is getting tediously long and rather self-indulgent, so I’ll go through Set Piece instructions in a flash.

Attacking corners. Absolute fucking chaos.
Attacking corners. Absolute fucking chaos.

This is what I do for attacking set pieces. Lots of bodies in the box, one central defender attacking the ball from deep, the other at the near post, which is where I aim all my corners (I do this after incredible success with this instruction in FM14; Vidic scored 17 goals in 58 games using this tactic, and then Zouma took over, scoring 25 goals in his first two seasons at the club). I just realized I have Fellaini lurking outside the area, which is a complete waste of his hulking frame, and must be addressed. I always leave the wing-backs behind, so that they can retrieve possession, and re-distribute it quickly, allowing others to fall back and build the game again.

I have next to nothing to say about defending corners, and attacking and defending free kicks, so I’ll leave the screenshots for you.

Defending free kicks.
Defending free kicks.
Attacking free kicks.
Attacking free kicks.
Defending corners.
Defending corners.

Training

I just realized I can’t see the Training Focus page since I am in the summer, so I’ll just tell you how I set things up. During pre-season, Match Preparation is minimal, with all the attention on Fitness Training, set at a High level. During the campaign, throughout which I schedule rest days before and after all games, I leave the Overall Training to either Attacking or Defending, and the Match Training to Defensive Positioning or Defending Set Pieces. Against the weaker teams, I change Match Training to Attacking Movement when the Assistant Coach asks me what I want a couple of days before the match.

Anyway, I think that just about wraps it up for this episode of the series! If you like what you read, please let me know in the comments section, and check out the other content on my blog! There is some interesting stuff about tactics, general views on football, and a Category called Quote Collections, in which I collect various quotes from the footballing community about the greatest players in the game.

Thanks, and see you next time, for an overview of Pre-Season and the first 8 games of the season!

This is Arjyo, and it’s been a pleasure.

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4 thoughts on “FM2015: Experiments with Manchester United — Tactics and Training

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