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
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.