Lionel Messi: One Last Treble – 3

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First Season Failure!

As we approach the end of January in the opening season of this ambitious task, Barcelona sit 5 points behind league leaders Real Sociedad. Not an impossible task, but a difficult mountain to climb.

In the Champions League, the extreme challenge of Liverpool in the second round, following a double defeat to PSG in the group stage. Again, not impossible, but it would take a real miracle to get close to the final, let alone win the trophy.

For this first season, therefore, the best chance of silverware comes in the form of the Copa Del Rey. Every game needs to be treated as a final – we’re not in a position to rest players, this is a trophy that needs to be won.

The opening round was a simple one, besting second division Lugo 2-0, courtesy of two bizarre own goals. The next task though was more complex, away to Unai Emery’s Villareal.

In a crushing blow at this relatively early stage, penalties were our undoing.

Yes, the treble is off. Despite taking complete control of the game, we couldn’t quite grab that second goal in normal time to close the issue early – misses in the shootout from Fati and Messi himself meant we succumbed to a strong Villareal side.

Picking up the Pieces

Where do we go from here? Whilst it was always going to be difficult to win all three major trophies in the first season (considering the real team got no closer), it is still distressing to go out this early – and clearly shows the enormity of the task ahead in the summer.

I shall now play out the remainder of the season and report back. Hopefully some big sales, mixed with an expanded war chest will allow us to make some important signings in the summer, and make a real go of it next season.

With Mr Messi contracted until 2022, next season will likely be my last opportunity, whilst at Barcelona, to complete the treble.

A Trophy is a Trophy… Right?

Despite the tragedy of the Copa Del Rey, and the likely tragedy of both the Champions League and La Liga, there was a small, miniscule victory in the past few months.

A victory over Real Madrid is always good news, and in the final of the Spanish Super Cup it is very good news indeed. Having defeated Real Sociedad in the semi final, we defeated Zidane’s side 2-1, courtesy of two goals from the magician himself, Messi.

While the trophy is essentially meaningless, certainly in the context of our lofty ambitions, it represents that there is definite quality in this side – you don’t beat Madrid in a final without it. Perhaps we really are just a couple of truly world class signings away from the big trophies.

This, coupled with a strong victory over a resurgent Atletico Madrid in the league, and there are evident signs that this team can win the biggest prizes. Our biggest issue certainly seems to be a lack of bite in front of goal; replacing Griezmann is likely to be my first task in the summer.

So alas, this season has been a non-starter. We go again, as they say, and hopefully we can put ourselves in the strongest possible position to compete properly next year.

Lionel Messi: One Last Treble – 2

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As we continue our voyage to provide Leo Messi with his third treble, it becomes clear just how significant a task this could be, particularly in Europe.

The group stage for the Champions League drew us with Slavia Prague, Ajax and Paris Saint Germain. Whilst finishing top spot would clearly be a tough ask, Barcelona do have a plethora of elite footballers, it shouldn’t be THAT hard, right?

Struggles in Europe

First things first, we qualified for the knockout stage. Finished second in the group, easily ahead of Ajax in third, with Slavia Prague still to play. However, it was absolutely those games against the weaker sides that dragged Barcelona through.

The man himself, Messi, has actually underperformed in Europe – I only played him in 3 of the 5 games due to fitness struggles, and he has only registered an assist in that time. However, the aim here was just to get through, the next step is seeing the draw for the knockout stage.

The frustrating thing about the PSG losses were that they came largely from strange errors, defenders dawdling on the halfway line, M’Bappe nicking the ball and sprinting into empty grass before easily being Neto in goal (with Ter Stegen injured until January, it is likely there could be a reduction in goals conceded once he returns to the side).

Steady at Home

Domestically, things are promising but not spectacular. The most notable statistic is that, after 11 games played as we delve into December, Barcelona are the only unbeaten team in La Liga. Real Madrid have lost on two occasions, Atletico Madrid are languishing in 10th.

Barca would be top if not for Real Sociedad, who have won nine of their opening ten games. Pleasingly, the game they did not win was at the hands of Barcelona. An away 1-0 win thanks to a set piece is not the free-flowing football the club is known for, but with the players available it is more than enough.

So, 11 games, 7 wins, 4 draws and 0 losses is a perfectly acceptable start to the season. Enjoyable performances and some huge goals have come from the dynamic Riqui Puig; Pedri and Ansu Fati have been solid without being spectacular; the most consistent player in the side has undoubtedly been Sergi Roberto, who currently leads the league for Player of the Match awards at right back.

In amongst this was a 2-2 draw at the Bernabeu, a match which should have been a walkover for Real Madrid, but plucky Barcelona held on – not the way it should be, but the way it is this season. Still, it maintains the unbeaten form in essentially the hardest game of the season.

In fact, we have now played the two main rivals for the title, both away from home, taking 4 points from 6 in the process. Repeat the trick at the Camp Nou in the second half of the season and things will be getting exciting.

Messi, The Star

The clear player of the season so far is Messi. Playing in the advanced playmaker role alongside the shadow striker, he has scored 5 and assisted 4 in his opening 10 games. Naturally, he can’t play every game (hence him being rested for some European games), so its about carefully managing him going further into the season.

The only real downside is the distinct lack of consistency from Griezmann and Dembele. Much like the problem Ronald Koeman has faced this season, these two players, each costing over £100m, have severely underperformed, despite flashes of clear brilliance. If they can become more consistent, maybe this ambitious goal will become a little more achievable.

Lionel Messi: One Last Treble – 1

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You don’t need me to tell you how good Lionel Messi is or was, what he has achieved and how brilliantly he did it. But we live in the waning world of Messi, one where he continues to exert his brilliance and magnificence, but in a Barcelona team acting as a mere shadow of what they were ten (even five) years ago.

So, this series will take on the needlessly ambitious task of securing one precise goal: One final treble for Lionel Messi.

The man has picked up two treble wins during his career, in 2009 under Pep Guardiola, and in 2015 with Luis Enrique, as part of the famous MSN trio with Neymar and Luis Suarez. No player, or indeed team, has won three trebles…

Joining Messi

To make things easier, I started my career at Barcelona. The other option was to join either PSG or Bayern Munich, and attempt to sign Messi during the early stages before the contract is renewed. The strength of Barcelona in La Liga compared to the strength of the top clubs in Germany, France or Italy is far weaker – Messi at PSG, for example, would at least tie up two of the three trophies without too much interference.

Nonetheless, we I began at Barca, and the first task was to renew the contract of the great man – offering a two-year deal to keep him at the side until 2022. Including a significant wage-cut but a considerable loyalty bonus fee, he was secured.

The Squad

The second task was to take a look at the team, see what we are working with. With very little money to play with in the transfer market, the current bloated squad will simply have to do. There are rumours that Man Utd are interesting in Ousmane Dembele, it remains to be seen if we can gain some cash from that.

The formation I’m going with is my new favourite, the Vicente Del Bosque strikerless 4-3-3 – not a million miles away from the tactic of Guardiola back in his Barca heyday, but with a slight variation. In this setup, rather than play Messi as the false nine, he plays the Iniesta role – just in from the left, centrally affecting play and can provide a goal threat. I would have liked to play him in the deeper role, alongside Frenkie De Jong, but his finishing ability would be wasted that far from goal.

Preseason Champions League odds were not kind, predicted to maybe make the quarter finals if we’re lucky – it will be a tough season. If we do get knocked out of any cups, the only option will be to skip to the end of the season and try again next year – lets hope it doesn’t come to that.

Messi in Attack

The opening league games were much more kind, at home to Eibar followed by an away trip to Cadiz, bringing 3-1 and 1-0 wins respectively. The goal that Messi scored in the second game demonstrated why I needed him in that advanced role.

As the ball moves wide to Roberto, Messi moves into the box, rather than taking up the position of Pedri, who actually receives the ball. As Pedri prepares to play the through ball, Messi is now the most advanced player on the pitch.

The finish is then simple enough when the ball reaches him, but it’s the anticipation and movement of Messi that makes him to valuable in that attacking position to risk having him anywhere else.

The Last Dance

In general, this series won’t be giving a detailed breakdown of each game – mostly the highlights of the season as it progresses. With so many games in multiple competition to focus on, the expectation will be to win near enough each game in the Champions League group stage, and reach the latter stages of the Copa Del Rey.

It may be that we scrutinise games in more detail at the business end of the season, but for now let’s just keep our fingers crossed that we don’t succumb to an early cup exit.

Know Your Role: Segundo Volante

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Football Manager 2021

The Segundo Volante literally means (as per Google Translate), “Second Steering Wheel” or “Second Balance”. The idea being that a Segundo Volante is utilised as the second player in a double pivot, alongside a regista or a deep-lying midfielder – where the other midfielder controls the tempo, the Segundo Volante imposes that tempo on the opposition.

What is the Segundo Volante Role?

Let’s say you’re playing a deeper 4-2-3-1, with two CDMs rather than CMs. One of these is a regista, in the mould of Andrea Pirlo or Sergio Busquets, or perhaps just a defensive blocker, like Fabinho or Fernandinho. These players will control how the game is played, the ball will go through them at all times, they determine the speed of attacks, when and when not to play long balls, and will feed the attacking 4 (and full backs), whilst remaining in their spot in front of the defence.

regista alongside a segundo volante

Defensively, the Segundo Volante, will remain alongside their midfield partner, providing double cover in front of the centre backs. But, when possession is won, and the regista plays their signature through ball to the left wing, the Segundo Volante begins their run – moving at speed past the opposition midfield, past his own CAM and wingers, to get to the box to support the striker as the ball comes in via a cross or final ball.

They don’t always affect the ball itself, but the sudden inclusion of a completely untrackable run makes life very difficult for defenders, and space can now open up for the conventional attackers.

What are the Attributes?

Primarily, they are a defensive midfielder – the Segundo Volante will spend most of their time in front of the back four, it’s the unpredictability of their runs into the final third that throw off defenders. So, they need strong Tackling, Strength, Bravery attributes.

However, they will need good attacking ability too, and ideally able to affect the play aerially – height, Heading and Jumping Reach are bonuses.

But the key is physicality – they need to have the Stamina, Pace and ideally Natural Fitness to execute potentially game-winning runs, even as the clock ticks late on in the game.

  • Tackling
  • Bravery
  • Strength
  • Dribbling
  • Heading
  • Jumping Reach
  • Pace
  • Stamina

This might seem like quite a specific skillset – it’s a very specific role! This tactically ambiguous, “Hail Mary” role doesn’t sit particularly well with modern football, so not many players are built for it. Naby Keita above would be my definition of a Segundo Volante, encompassing the necessary physical and attacking ability, whilst also assuming defensive responsibility if required.

At a more cost-effective level, Ibrahim Sangare of PSV represents the precise attributes of a defensive midfielder with all-round ability – fused with the magical trait “Gets Froward Whenever Possible”.

Segundo Volante in Action

The Segundo Volante as a tangible vibe of the “Frank Lampard” role, arriving late on the scene to snatch a goal. The difference though is that the late arriving CM is nominally involved in the attack further up the pitch anyway, but they time their runs effectively to be at the edge of the box for the pull back or rebound.

The Segundo starts deep, remains deep, until the ball moves quickly forward, at which point they do the same.

Here, from a goal kick, most players are in their normal positions – the winger has come deep to receive the ball directly from the centre back (notice the CB missed out Sangare, the Segundo Volante, during the build up play), and has spotted a pass to be made cross field to the left winger.

At this moment of the ball moving forward, Sangare is away, pushing ahead of the wingbacks, CAM and midfielders. Only the left winger and striker are ahead of him.

When the ball then reaches the box, and the striker is through on goal, Sangare is at the edge of the box, ready for a rebound and just drawing defenders away from the play. 8 seconds earlier, he was deep, 5 fives ahead of the centre back. Now he’s in the box, and although he didn’t affect the ball this time, these dangerous runs can keep your opponents on the back foot, wary that any counter attack will driven by the extra man in midfield.

The Segundo Volante is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not for games you control (as the element of surprise is lost), and its not for holding out a 1-0 lead. But it can get you that goal when your strikers just aren’t scoring, or as the key man in a quick counter-attacking system.

Know Your Role: Sweeper Keeper

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Tempo Tactics

Like any position on the pitch, it’s not enough to just stick a good goalkeeper between the sticks – they need to fit your tactical style. Personally, I like to play with a high line, at a high tempo, although this can leave a lot of space in behind. And that’s why I always use the Sweeper Keeper, with the attack duty.

Goalkeeping attributes on Football Manager aren’t quite as clear cut as outfield players, so it can be tricky sometimes to distinguish between a top goalkeeper, and a top sweeper keeper. Let’s take a look at what a sweeper does.

What is the Sweeper Keeper Role?

This sums up a sweeper keeper’s job, moving around their own final third and being comfortable with the ball – not restricting themselves to their own box.

Always an outlet for the centre backs who need to play a pass under pressure, and always on hand to deal with a through ball past the defence.

The average position of a sweeper keeper compared to a standard

This is where the sweeper keeper stands (left) in comparison to a standard goalkeeper (right). Over the course of 90 minutes, this advance of 10 yards or so is significant, as it lets everyone on the pitch know that they are patrolling that area.

It lets the defenders know that they can maintain their high line, as the space behind them is being manned, but it also tells the opposition that the option of a through ball won’t work.

Sweeper Keeper Preventing Counter

This image demonstrates where the keeper sits at all times, outside the box, in position, ready to deal with an ambitious pass over the defence, nullifying counter attacks before they happen – vital for teams who generally see more of the ball than their opponents.

What are the Attributes?

The best sweeper keeper in the world, still, is Manuel Neuer. He has facilitated Bayern’s gameplan and domination of German and European football for nearly ten years. His comfort and ability outside of the box (of course combined with exceptional shot stopping ability) has allowed Bayern’s defenders to sit at the halfway line in near enough every game they play.

Whether under Heynckes, Guardiola or Flick, Bayern have never needed to be scared of the opposition, they can always play their high line with the confidence that Neuer will sweep behind.

The key attributes to look out for are:

  • Command Of Area
  • Communication
  • Eccentricity
  • Kicking
  • One On Ones
  • Rushing Out (Tendency)
  • Acceleration

Clearly, Neuer excels in all of these attributes, which is what makes him the archetypal sweeper keeper. When searching for your SK, make sure you check out their one on one ability. Whilst this hasn’t got much to do with dominating outside the box, your high line will, on occasion, leak clear cut chances. Give yourself the best chance with a competent one on one keeper.

For a top division team, keepers like Gollini at Atalanta are perfect – demonstrating the abilities to sweep up behind defences.

For lower ranked sides, an example would be Billy Crellin, who starts the game at Fleetwood Town (on loan at Bolton). Whilst his rushing out tendency is minimal, his command of area, kicking and communication more than make up for it, providing an inexpensive option for League 1 and Championship level teams.

Adjusting your Tactics

Of course, this is a tactic that brings high risk as well as high reward. Whilst teams will have more control of the game, football is a low scoring sport – expect to lose games by a single goal from an unexpectedly brilliant through ball by the opposition left back, it just happens from time to time.

But on the whole, playing with a high line squeezes the opposition into their own half, where they don’t want to be. This creates more chances, a higher xG, and is more likely to win more games in the long run.

Modern football has shifted – all elite sides, those who regularly win league titles, utilise a high line and a sweeper keeper. Count them up, it’s how the modern game works – and if you aren’t using it in your FM career, that might be the difference between 2nd place and finally winning that trophy.

Play Like: Benitez’s Valencia

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Tempo Tactics

This series takes you through how to evoke the memories of classic teams over the years, recreating their tactics in Football Manager to (hopefully) win games and (definitely) have fun in the process.

Club sides, international teams, league winners, cup winners and just all-round entertainers, the series will focus on the most notable tactical styles which you can then recreate in your FM save. This time we examine Valencia under Rafa Benitez, and the last great sustained period of success for a Spanish side other than Barcelona or Real Madrid.

The Valencia Story

In 2001, Valencia were going into the new season off the back of a Champions League final defeat and a fifth-place league finish. Respectable, but ultimately trophyless. Hector Cuper had put together a run of remarkable European campaigns, but came up short on each occasion, with his overtly defensive style failing to deliver any kind of success in La Liga.

So, in 2001, Valencia hired Rafa Benitez, who had just secured promotion to La Liga with Tenerife. He kept the side essentially the same as his predecessor, but added more defenders into the squad, for greater depth and to shore up the backline.

In that first season, Benitez brought Valencia their first league title in over 20 years. Playing a 4-2-3-1 formation at a time when 4-4-2 was the standard, he understood how the extra midfield man would provide the required overload for defensive stability, at the expense of goals scored. Indeed, the side only scored 51 goals, grinding out a series of 1-0 wins en route to the 2002 title – conceding an astonishing 27 goals all season.

The following year was always going to be difficult, finishing fifth but with a spirited display in the Champions League. However, the 2003-04 season was the pinnacle, a 71 goal haul in the league carried the team to another league title (the last to be secured by a side other than Barca or Real until Atletico Madrid in 2014), but also to the UEFA Cup, defeating Marseille 2-0.

The Setup

Whilst, of course, his sides took on a variety of configurations over the years, the nostalgic setup can be seen below:

One of the earliest adopters of the lone striker, Benitez opted for a defensive, direct style of play. Not much in the way of midfield passing and moving it through the lines – when possession was won, the ball made its way to the fullbacks, then on to the wingers to progress the ball quickly up the field.

With the CM’s primarily acting defensively to screen the back four, the side was essentially bereft of central creativity – the majority of the goals scored by Mista up top were from crosses or direct passes into the opposition box, a natural poacher.

The wingers, Vicente and Rufete, were more Wide Midfielders, in the context of Football Manager – their defensive duties came first, but when the space was there to burst down the wing and whip in an early cross, they could take it.

However, all the creativity and finesse came in the form of Pablo Aimar, personally one of my favourite players of all time. Diminutive, technical, Argentine; he was the stopgap between the ethereal Maradona and the mercurial Messi – inspired by the former and an inspiration for the latter.

The dictionary definition of the Enganche, Aimar would play between the lines, collecting passes and using his technical skill to bypass players, either with a deft touch or through ball.

Play Like Benitez’s Valencia

The essence of the team is to avoid any openness at the back with a slightly deeper defensive line, minimal space between the back four and midfield, and the break quickly in possession, pushing it wide for the cross, giving more space for the CAM to influence the game when the ball comes inside.

Wing play, therefore, is the overriding tactic, which brings together these key ingredients. Rather than wingers, in a generic 4-2-3-1, the wide players sit slightly deeper, understanding their defensive duties. This is also why I have lumped for Cheryshev and Jason on each wing, with their full/wingback tendencies coming to the fore.

The midfielders will be required to sit deep and avoid venturing too far forwards. By moving it quickly and directly, there shouldn’t be any need to push them too high up the pitch to assist the attack – the striker, enganche and early crosses from wingers provide the pacey attack.

Its important to set the team to counter when gaining possession, and recover their positions when it’s lost. Also, all 4 wide players should be set to cross from deep, finding the striker behind the opposition defence, catching them off-guard. The modern Valencia team is equipped with Gomez and Gameiro, both fully adept at breaching the offside trap to get on the end of these sorts of crosses.

Take a look at the below action – when the team is in possession, this is almost exactly how they can line up. Both fullbacks are available in support without overloading the box, one CM is in the box affecting the play, given space by the wingers and CAM drawing defenders out of position, the other CM diligently preventing a potential counter at the edge of the box.

Gameiro is poaching within the 6-yard box precisely where he needs to be as the ball is then fired into the mixer.

This game in particular was a near perfect example of how Benitez wanted to set up his side – free in attack to express themselves, but exceptionally dutiful in defence. A solo pot shot in the last minute all the other side could muster in this match.

Emphatic Enganche

The side is based around defensive discipline, minimising opposition attacks and relying on the creativity of those up top to produce a chance, largely down to the CAM – below shows what Lee Kang-In, as an example, brings to the team. Picking up the ball inside his own final third, he drives at the opposition, forcing them further back into their own box.

Not content with that, he uses his technical ability and flair to take on the defender, getting brought down and winning a penalty. From nothing, a high quality chance created. That is precisely the role of the enganche in this team – it is worth, therefore, having a couple of skilful players in rotation to make the most of the role.

Never in my FM career have I ever managed to keep 4 clean sheets on the bounce, but with this formation I did. Of course, Benitez used it to great effect in the early 2000’s, winning La Liga and the UEFA Cup. Unfortunately, modern football has changed to the point that many teams also use a relatively similar formation, packing the midfield and using quick defenders to avoid a counter.

Winning league titles, therefore, may be difficult. However, less lofty ambitions such as a top half finish, or avoiding relegation, are certainly achievable. This is a tactic for punching above your weight, where the overall technical quality of the team is perhaps lacking, or where the quality of the defence vastly outweighs the quality in attack. The important thing is to find a consistent goalscorer, creative CAM, and ideally some excellent crossers to help carve out the biggest chances.

Know Your Role: Supporting Target Man

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Tempo Tactics

Football Manager is a game with two distinct schools of tactical setups. You either create a tactic but tweak it to fit your players, or you create a tactic and shoehorn your players in (or indeed purchase new ones to fit the system).

So, to help out, here is a handy guide to what sort of player fits with particular player roles. What key attributes and stats does someone need in their locker in order to be effective in a role, and how can you identify the right player for your system?

Today we look at the Target Man, using the support duty.

What is the Role?

A supporting target man is probably one of the most self explanatory player roles in the game. As the primary target up front, their strength, height and off the ball movement instinctively draws defenders towards them.

If the ball finds its way to the feet (or indeed head) of the target man, they have the physical capabilities to hold the ball and bring others into play, either playing backwards to a Number 10, or letting inside forwards run beyond them before playing a through ball.

The beauty of the target man though is how much influence they can have when the ball doesn’t even go near them. The best supporting target men have outstanding off the ball ability, drawing defenders towards them and creating space elsewhere, bringing others into play without ever touching the ball.

What are the Attributes?

So, naturally, a supporting target man has high Off The Ball attributes. This is also beneficial when you actually need a goal from them too – whipping in early crosses will help the most intelligent attackers to get in behind the backline and nod in a header or volley.

In addition, you need Strength, Jumping, Heading, Teamwork and, ideally, a good First Touch.

Olivier Giroud Support Target Man

Basically you need Olivier Giroud. Now unfortunately he is well into his 30’s and an unlikely option for most clubs, but looking through what is green on his attributes is precisely what’s needed from a supporting target man.

The other thing that then sets Giroud (and players like him) apart, are his traits:

  • Plays With Back To Goal
  • Plays One-Two’s
  • Tries First Time Shots

These are the perfect traits for any supporting attacking player – acting as a wall for other players to bounce off, being an integral part of the building up play before rattling off a shot if the opportunity arises.

By comparison, take a look at the profile of an attacking target man (Mariano, below) – easily confused but performing almost entirely different roles.

Mariano - Target  Man Attack

Strong, tall, good in the air, far superior finishing ability. Makes complete sense for a target man. But passing, teamwork and first touch attributes are so low – whilst a perfectly reasonable goalscorer (in the right system), a player like Mariano absolutely could not carry out the function of a supporting target man.

How They Play

The attacking target man above would be aiming for 15-20 league goals in a season, they are the primary focal point for goals in a team. Their presence in the 6-yard-box may also lead to them picking up assists along the way, but their main function is to be supplied by others, to score the goals themselves.

The supporting target man is completely different, not bound by a numbers game at all. Operating more outside the box as much as possible, in line with the wingers and midfield, until the ball finds its way out wide for a cross.

Below, Giroud is in line with the midfielders at the edge of the box, he is fed the ball in to feet.

He drops to the 18 yard line to receive it, immediately laying to the inside forward who has gone beyond him towards the penalty spot.

This player then slides it across goal for an easier finish. Giroud gets no goal, no assist, but was integral to the build up, acting as a focal point for the attack to move around. His movement got him into position and occupied both centre backs, allowing the incoming midfielder to run free.

His first touch played the ball perfectly for the winger, and his teamwork meant he was in the mix at all. Whilst he won’t get a number attributed to him, the goal came about because of him.

That is the essence of the supporting target man, perfect for short, quick passing moves, but also a handy focal point for more direct play styles and crosses – the complete attacking all-rounder.

Play Like: Guardiola’s Bayern Munich

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Tempo Tactics

This series takes you through how to evoke the memories of classic teams over the years, recreating their tactics in Football Manager to (hopefully) win games and (definitely) have fun in the process.

Club sides, international teams, league winners, cup winners and just all-round entertainers, the series will focus on the most notable tactical styles which you can then recreate in your FM save. This time we do put Pep Guardiola under the microscope – not for his Man City team, or his instant impact with Barcelona, but his tactically ground-breaking Bayern Munich side.

The Forgotten Seasons

Nobody in world football can deny that what Pep Guardiola did at Barcelona was legendary, and may never be repeated: to win repeat league titles and domestic cup competitions, two Champions League trophies, bring through some of the best players the game has ever seen, as well as THE best player the game has ever seen.

Since his time at Barcelona, however, feelings towards Pep have been mixed from across the footballing landscape. Many consider his spells at Bayern Munich and Man City as failures, despite winning five league titles in that time and even more domestic cups. Whilst it is true that his teams have not won the Champions League, they have reached the latter stages on multiple occasions. What draws the eye towards the enigmatic coach is his outlandish tactical decisions in these ties – many of which do not materialise into a win.

8-Man Midfield

You may have seen our recent feature in the “Play Like” series, on Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain team, which utilised a false nine and inside attacking midfielders to overload the midfield space – 6 bodies in the central area, all capable passers, to overwhelm the opposition and get the ball high up the pitch.

This system from Guardiola takes that to the next level. The striker (Robert Lewandowski, who came to Bayern in Guardiola’s second season) plays deep, joining the midfield when required to initiate attacks. The wingers, nominally Robben and/or Ribery, cut inside at all opportunities, providing more depth in the midfield.

The midfield trio of a CDM (often Alonso) and two CMs (often Thiago, Muller, Vidal or Martinez) provided understandable control of the middle. This takes us up to six, but the way Guardiola maxed out the midfield space was with his final flourish – David Alaba and Philip Lahm. These two intelligent, creative and positionally astute full backs were Guardiola’s masterpiece – he played them inverted, sitting inside next to Alonso during the build-up, rather than flying down the wing beyond Robben and Ribery like a normal full back would.

A little like this:

Of course in actuality, the pitch never really saw the two centre halves sitting deep and just watching eight Bayern players crowd the midfield. But as players always sought to take up these positions, it meant that passes were always available, there was always someone on, they say could prod and probe their opponent before finding an opening.

The two inverted fullbacks gave an extra layer of midfield strength that no other team on the planet had. Luckily enough, Football Manager recognised this too, and decided to make inverted fullbacks a feature of the game. Aren’t we glad they did?

Play Like: Pep’s Bayern Munich

To really get the full impact from what Pep was trying to achieve at Bayern, a vertical tiki-taka is more appropriate than the standard approach he favoured at Barcelona. Then, simply lay out the team as below:

Essentially every player role that we would be looking to use in this system is already filled in with the “Vertical Tiki Taka” setup. The team instructions are also identical, with underlaps and narrow attacks exactly what we want to see.

All that is missing is ensuring the fullbacks become inverted wingbacks – I have given Alaba on the left an attacking duty, just to give some extra impetus up top.

I have kept Alaba in for his midfield ability. Whilst Alfonso Davies is certainly the hotter prospect at the moment, for this role Alaba is still king. Similarly, Kimmich on the right is a reincarnation of Lahm, the perfect replacement.

Tolisso has the passing range to act as Alonso. Goretzka isn’t quite the passing dynamo that Thiago was in the left CM slot, but still has more than enough quality, and can score from distance if required.

Sane and Coman, on the right and left respectively, are like for like replacements for Robben and Ribery (although Gnabry may be a more effective LW than Coman). Lewandowski and Muller fill their previous roles.

Attacking Overload

In my opening game, a 4-1 win over Werder Bremen, the side enjoyed total domination of both possession and the attack – with so many bodies for the opposition to track, it became an impossible job, and our players broke through time and time again.

The inverted fullbacks were a menace, particularly Alaba with the attack duty. In the above shot he is further infield, and higher up the pitch that the centre mid Goretzka – this is the essence of Guardiola’s system, bolstering the centre of the pitch with quality players who can all assist the attack.

By the end of the game, the team shape is precisely how I want it: compact, narrow and based entirely around the centre circle, with even Lewandowski dropping back to link play with the inside forwards.

To demonstrate how attack minded this system is, take a look of the replay of our first goal in the 3-1 win at Chelsea:

7 players in the opposition box as the shot was taken – all arriving from open play – and Tolisso waiting just outside to mop up. Only a positive mentality, nothing rash, but players overloading the midfield push the opposition back into heir own box, until they eventually cannot withstand the pressure.

Recreating Guardiola’s Tactics

Guardiola, of course, moved from Bayern to Man City, and brought his style of play with him, making Kyle Walker into a more than capable inverted fullback, and creating midfield overloads that brought him the highest ever points total in a single league season.

To recreate this tactic with your side, the three keys are:

  • Fullbacks who can comfortably play as CDMs
  • A goalkeeper who can sweep the space in front of him
  • A front three who can occupy the space in front of the box – a deep-lying forward and two inverted wingers will do the trick

To deploy Guardiola’s style in your team, download the tactic on Steam.

Know Your Role: Ball -Winning Midfielder

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Football Manager 2021

The ball-winning midfielder, particularly with the defend duty, is perhaps one of the easiest players to identify for your team. However, making sure you get the right balance of tough tackling and hyper-aggression, all within the right system, is key to advancing your midfield on Football Manager.

With the defend duty, the ball-winning midfielder is simply instructed to sit deep, break up the opposition attack, and give the ball to the nearest player so that they can initiate a counter. However, this does not mean that your BWM should be all tackling, gung ho, no technique.

Getting the Balance Right

Take a look at the attributes of the ball winner in my recent save, Ryan Tunnicliffe:

His biggest strengths are his determination and his bravery – aggression comes third, alongside stamina and work rate. These are the basis for a strong BWM, the necessary attributes for a player who will be marshalling the centre of the pitch. But it is important to get the balance right.

The Essential Ball-Winning Midfielder

Whilst aggression is necessary (in tandem with bravery) to ensure the player doesn’t shirk the decisive tackles, too much can be a very bad thing. Determination and bravery are by the more key requirements for this role – even more so than actual tackling ability.

In my recent season, Tunnicliffe was third in the league for completed tackles per game – all done with only 12 as his rating. This shows that it is the blend of mental attributes and stamina that really matters, helping your ball-winning midfielder to get about the pitch to where they need to be.

Furthermore, his tally of just 10 yellow cards and 0 reds demonstrates that it isn’t just tackling ability that defines the quality and success of your BWM.

Something else that must be taken into account is the system in which you deploy your BWM. In a midfield three, or even a four man diamond, the BWM is protected, never having to stretch to make a tackle as the majority of the game is under the control of his team. That’s how I play, hence no horror tackles or last ditch trips leading to red cards.

But, in a two man midfield, there is always room for slip ups, too much space needed to cover for one defensive player – which can lead to an uptake in booking and bad tackles. Not to say that its wrong, just a consideration to make.

More than a Ball Winner

When electing a ball-winning midfielder for your team, it may be tempting to forsake technique, passing and dribbling/first touch in favour of more defensive ability.

But you have to remember, even with the defensive duty, the BWM is part of a midfield – he will have to make passes, he will have to control the ball.

Someone like Ngolo Kante, the prototype for a ball-winner, still has comfortable passing and first touch attributes. In the modern game, where the opposition press relentlessly and your plyers have minimal time on the ball, everyone needs to be able to play a pass where it needs to go – or you will find yourself giving away cheap goals from your BWM – the exact opposite of their job.

The ball-winning midfielder is all about balance – aggressive but not psychopathic, brave but not stupid, and technical but not flimsy – find the right one and your midfield will be a brick wall that your opponents will never break down.

Play Like: Del Bosque’s Spain

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Football Manager 2021

This series takes you through how to evoke the memories of classic teams over the years, recreating their tactics in Football Manager to (hopefully) win games and (definitely) have fun in the process.

Club sides, international teams, league winners, cup winners and just all-round entertainers, the series will focus on the most notable tactical styles which you can then recreate in your FM save. This week we look at one of the biggest proponents of Tiki-Taka football – no, not Pep Guardiola, but his countryman, Vicente Del Bosque, as he oversaw two of Spain’s most spectacular International Tournament wins.

Fresh off the back of Spain’s Euro 2008 win, their first major international trophy, former Real Madrid Champions League winner Vicente Del Bosque was hired to bring the team up to the next level.

The Summer of 2008 also heralded the arrival of another new manager at a top-level job in Spain: Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Through chance, the greatest ever club team, and one of the greatest ever international teams, began their eras of domination at the same time, in the same country, with largely the same tactics.

The reason this episode focuses on Del Bosque’s Spain is twofold: one, everybody has done a tactical analysis of Guardiola, it happens most weeks on Match of the Day, you don’t need me to tell you what’s what; and two, Del Bosque’s tiki-taka approach was a little different, a more extreme version of the one implemented by Barcelona.

Nobody Expected the Spanish Innovation

Whilst Guardiola won leagues and European Cups with tough pressing, quick passing and a tiny little Argentinian, Del Bosque did not quite have the same players at his disposal. One of the keys to this difference was the versatility of Andres Iniesta – clearly an attacking CM at Barcelona, Iniesta was pushed wider for Spain, forming part of the front three in the 4-3-3, as Busquets, Alonso and Xavi made up the midfield trio.

This meant 4 centre midfielders were present on the pitch at one time – all of them technical masters, a recipe for pure passing mayhem.

The approach was functional in 2010, it had to be to win the World Cup. Hard pressing and quick passing was clearly the Spanish signature style, but not quite as extreme as what the team rustled up in 2012 (the much more interesting tactical setup in my view).

At the World Cup, the team still played with a recognised striker (usually in the form of David Villa, occasionally Fernando Torres) and a winger (Pedro or Jesus Navas). But at Euro 2012, Del Bosque gave opponents nightmares, by utilising Cesc Fabregas in the central “striker” position, and CAM David Silva on the wing, opposite Iniesta.

Midfield Domination

This led to the below formation:

6 midfielders. All of them playmakers. In front of one of the most technically gifted back four’s in history. This is why Spain completed 510 passes in the Euro 2012 Final against Italy. This is why the Italians just couldn’t keep up with them, even with a star-studded diamond midfield. Italy thought they’d packed out the middle of the park with 4, Spain went two better.

Spain won 4-0, completing 11 passes every minute whilst in possession, or a pass every 5 seconds. What Italy couldn’t deal with was the relentless movement of the ball when Spain had it, and the relentless pressing of the ball when Italy had it – all made possible with a 6-man midfield. Add into the mix the young Jordi Alba flying down the left wing at every opportunity, and the opposition couldn’t keep up.

With Silva and Iniesta coming inside into the half spaces, plus Cesc Fabregas playing as a CAM (yet still the furthest player forwards), the Spain players could consistently outnumber their opposition.

8 years on, how can you set your team up to replicate this unstoppable midfield domination?

Play Like Del Bosque

The current Spain team actually has many of the same players still in circulation, most notably Alba, Pique, Ramos, Busquets and Silva plying their trade in La Liga. But this tactical style is as much focussed on technique as it is on energy and stamina, something which these ageing players are distinctly lacking (you hear me Ronald Koeman?).

In terms of tactics, the standard tiki-taka setup will provide the right style of play, the only thing to add would be to overlap the left back, as much of the attacking speed will be provided there. Clearly then, this left back needs to be someone for which pace and energy isn’t a problem.

I have gone with Jose Gaya, his pace, acceleration and technical attributes put him right up alongside 2012 Jordi Alba, which gives him the capability to win games. On the right side needs to be a more conservative full back; still with quality going forward, but more suited to a defensive role. I have gone for Cesar Azpilicueta, certainly more defensive minded and therefore willing to stay back whilst Gaya zooms forward on the left.

In the centre, Ramos is the only surviving member of the glory years, and I have gone for Inigo Martinez alongside him – similar play style to Pique but a few years his junior. These will both be shielding De Gea, with the natural shot stopping ability of Casillas.

Now, onto the 6-man midfield. In the deep-lying Busquets role, Saul. Like Busquets, a converted attacking midfielder, Saul has the blend of defensive discipline and attacking flair to keep the middle of the pitch moving. Ahead of him, I have Thiago in the Xabi Alonso role, and Koke in the Xavi slot. Koke has been likened to Xavi for years, and has that same eye for a forward pass. As does Thiago, but his range of passing is perhaps stronger, which is more in tune with Alonso.

Ahead of them, Real Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal fills the inverted David Silva position, his all-round technique and left foot making him a clear choice. Isco takes up the Iniesta mantle – both players primarily known for their close control and dribbling skill, less so for their pace. And in the Fabregas position, still in midfield but pushing forward, is Marco Asensio. His whole game is to attack from just behind the striker – now he can do the same role just without the striker.

Overload the Opposition

As the below image shows, by packing out the midfield, the opposition just cannot get near the ball. Even with 8 men back, Sweden are unable to get close with so many Spanish bodies in the way. Eventually the ball falls to Thiago, who then has the simple task (with the Swedish defence now drawn out of position) of pushing it through to Asensio to score.

What is most interesting about this attack is that there are 16 players within a 10-yard area – and then all within the width of the 18-yard box. Without natural wingers or a striker, the defence has no reason to drop into their own box – this then leaves space for any of the attacking trio to exploit that space, as we do here to go 2-0 up.

My favourite stat that sums up this match is this: Sweden completed 85% of their 343 passes. Spain completed 89% of their 511 PASSES. 11 passes a minute, or one every 5 seconds – the exact same as Spain produced in that 2012 final against Italy. By outpassing the opposition you outmanoeuvre the opposition, creating space to score the goals you need, and win big.

This is the essence of what Del Bosque tried (and succeeded) to achieve with Spain – such pure domination that the win had to come naturally. While it didn’t always work out with a scoreline as resounding as 4-0, when it did come off, it was legendary.

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