Width: stretching your opponents and scoring goals

I don’t want to start this post by criticising FM but unfortunately, I have no better way to put it: the tactical instructions are far behind the developments of the rest of the game. The available instructions have been there for years now, and I’m still waiting for the one new instruction that I’ve been craving; a width slider. Yes, I know there’s a wideplay instruction but compared to the others, it falls short. Instead of a slider with 20 notches, we have an extremely ambiguous set of four options that don’t seem to control the same thing. One of my (and probably quite a few others’!) key attacking principles is that width and depth are required in the right balance to create space and score goals. Width is probably the harder to master of the two, since depth can be provided by a fairly basic but clever forward run. Width is somewhat the forgotten man.

The rise of the inside forward – how many times do you read that on tactics blogs? Damn you inside forwards! – has seen the traditional winger fall out of favour. The dazzling speedster used to be an FM fans’ favourite since he allowed them to attack with speed and urgency, but such an approach has fallen by the wayside as passing football and goalscorers on the wing have become a la mode. With this, many FM players have sacrificed a lot of their team’s width and this can only be bad for strikers; players like Javier Hernandez rely on their teammates to stretch the defence out like an elastic band, so he can find the gaps to burst into. By sacrificing width for goals, many (but not all), have actually just changed where their goals have come from, and limited their options.

Width and wingers

The importance of width is dependent on the intelligence of the opposing team from match to match. If we say that we need three things to happen to score a goal (excluding a long shot, set pieces, deflections etc):

a)      At least one runner trying to break the defence

b)      Two players distracting the full backs and dragging them wide

c)       A good pass

Alves and Pedro stay wide, Sanchez pushes off and Messi asks for the pass

Width can be seen as the currency of the goal here: in a, we need the defence to be stretched, with maximum gaps between the defenders as this makes it easier for the runner: in b, the wingers (or attacking full backs) will not stretch the full backs if they come inside a la inside forward- they must be the widest players on the pitch so that the full-backs feel they are a threat and spread themselves a little to mark them, allowing a to happen more easily: width makes c less important. A pass will not need to be so magical or perfectly weighted if the attack has width. There will be plenty of space and options for the pass to find its way to the right player at the right time.

The more cynical among our readers will notice that I have neglected a major factor in the effectiveness of such simple attacking principles and that is the intelligence of the opposing players and manager. An intelligent manager will realise very quickly if there is no threat centrally and therefore tell his full-backs to tuck in and allow the wingers to go outside unmarked- after all, their cross won’t find the 5’2” striker 99% of the time. This is the conundrum that many big club managers have to face as they meet small teams who will be happy to sit deep and narrow and invite pressure, because they know it won’t amount to anything. I know this applies to me personally, as I always used to get trumped against Blackburn and Wigan, and it is probably the root of most FM tactical problems. Width cannot always be relied on to crack open a defence, especially one that is calm, organised and well-drilled – sometimes you need to be a bit cleverer than that and play quickly and snappily, and re-think your attacking strategy.

Combining narrow with wide

Keeping possession is also very much linked with possession. The safest passes, naturally, are the ones which don’t have to travel very far and this is the one of the reasons why teams like Barcelona are desperate to cram as many as 7 men into midfield. It makes sound tactical sense to put midfielders close to one another and create narrow triangles and rhombi, since you can then guarantee the ball can be carried towards goal safely and efficiently. If you watch Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas move forward together, it is beautifully elegant and yet neat and simple- they don’t do around the corner passes or McGeady turns with rainbows and ribbons, they just knock it between themselves, little five yard passes. Contradictory it may seem, but narrow is beautiful in the middle of the park. This is the issue of balance and the reason for my little rant at the start about the lack of detail for width.

Diamonds are the answer. Barcelona (I’m not actually that big a fan of Los Cules, honestly) employ a diamond when they play their 3-4-3 system, as it allows them to mix width in attack and narrowness in midfield. In a diamond, the players are extremely close together and it can be extremely fluid, with lots of rotation and pivoting to keep the ball and move forward. When Messi drops back, as he often does, it can mean five players are very tight together in the middle of the pitch, which would otherwise be tactically unproductive. The positioning of the wingers changes all of this. I remember as a young kid being told to ‘get chalk on your boots’ and this is effectively what Pedro and Villa/Sanchez do – they stay wide and burst into the space in front of them (offered to them by the depth of Messi).

Passers need to be close to one another. Runners need to be wide.

4 comments on “Width: stretching your opponents and scoring goals

  1. Good post and you’ve addressed various problems that I personally have with the width slider, or settings.

    One of my major concerns is width when in possession and when not in possession. I’d very much like my team to spread wide when in possession (high notches of the width slider), but play narrower when without (low notches of the width slider). While the match engine makes up its own rules and settings when you lose the ball – pushing your ‘hug touchline players’ narrower, I feel we don’t quite have the ideal level of control.

    In old Championship Manager games, there used to be a screen within the tactics page that you could click and place a square that dragged your players to a position on the pitch when you had the ball, and then click another tab and move your players around when without the ball. You could then fine tweak your player positions by click-and-drag. This was a great feature in as much as you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

    As far as I can remember since the mid 2000’s when the FM franchise began, this feature has been missing and in my opinion is a key component of tactic making. Barcelona like to spread wide when in possession (wingbacks hugging touchline etc and back three spreading wider if playing a 3-4-3), yet stay compact and narrow when without, pressing the opposition in a small space. This feature of direct control of the width slider needs to return.

    On a side note, diamonds and free roles are my best friend!

  2. Yeah I remember WIB WOB, that was a really good idea, and one that people have tried to rally for on the SIGames forums. The stock answer is that it can lead to ME exploitation, which I suppose is true, but only if you’re looking to exploit. You’d think by now, FM was advanced enough to allow you to do things like pick width settings individually and I’m yet to find a real way of doing that. Hug touchline, as you say, is still limited by the ME but at the moment that’s the only thing we can do.

    A width slider would be extremely helpful for setting up Barca – for example making the CBs spread wide when in possession. Hopefully with the new ME in FM13, we’ll see some improvements.

    Cheers for reading and commenting,

  3. Have to agree with this article. Sometimes I do feel limited and restricted by the tactical creator and the match engine (which has improved year on year since CM). The problem is that I like tiki-taka, the thought of dominating a team completely in both scoreline, passes, and possession is what attracts me to it, yet I struggle to notch up the realistic passing stats that the likes of Barcelona and more recently Liverpool are getting. In tiki-taka chances come naturally as the team pass the ball around and space opens up, in the match engine space comes but the passes don’t.

    There are tactics that notch up loads of passes but they are purely defensive and built only for that reason. I saw a tactic that gave Xavi somewhere over 200 passes in a match against Genk yet the scoreline was 1-0 to Barcelona.

    The other thing though is the lack of players tracking back and a seeming lack of intelligence on the pitch by wide players. I play wingforwards (in the wide AM positions; AML/R) and wing backs in the wingback positions (WBL/R), yet both the inside forwards don’t track back and help out with wingback, and most of the time both wingbacks bomb forward leaving my two man defence exposed to quick counters. I employ an anchor man that should deal with it but even he sometimes ventures forward too far.

    The inside forwards when the ball is with the striker (in the false-9 role) should naturally start to move into space when a CB has been pulled out of position for a perfectly executed through ball yet when the do the through ball isn’t played or when the ball is, the IFs are in a poor position to deal with it, or are attacking from an angle in which most shots are saved by the keeper.

    I’ve tried with both a rigid and fluid system with restrictions on creative freedom yet I fail to get this to pull off. I have noticed that it is impossible in game to get your team to play exactly the way you want. I don’t want my tactic to be so rigid that they miss the better option when attacking in favour of the style, I just want them to follow the style and break when appropriate.

  4. I always use width to try and stretch teams, even though I’m a firm advocate of passing football and not really playing many crosses I find two extremely wide players (whether that’s full backs or traditional wingers) really help to open up gaps in the opposition. The three points you mention are how I try and setup every team someone stretching the play, someone making a run, someone to play the killer pass.

    Stretching the play doesn’t just horizontally, I always try to stretch the pitch vertically. Mainly because my most creative ‘Killer Pass’ player is usually the AMC so the further vertically the play is stretched the more room he will have in ‘The Hole’. Usually I do this with a striker very high up the pitch keeping the defenders happy, coupled with the wide players keeping wide should generate a huge hole for the AMC to work in. Granted that if the opposition play a DM problems arise but that is for another day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s