Utilising the poacher

Here in England, we have an amusing penchant for goalscorers, especially those who seem to have no ball skills or defensive contribution; Alan Shearer, Geoff Hurst and Michael Owen are probably the most revered of them all. It’s interesting that we have such an inclination to these one-dimensional players, but not quite surprising when poachers can rack up such huge goal tallies – Shearer scored nearly 300 goals in his career, at seemingly unglamorous clubs. If goals is the answer to why we love poachers, surely the only other question is how to set up a poacher to maximise his goalscoring.

As Manchester United, I have arguably one of the best poachers of the modern age in Javier Hernandez.

This little baby-faced assassin combines lethal finishing with good movement, icy cold confidence and great speed. You can’t ask much more from a poacher than this, and it’s hard to think of anyone better adapted to getting in behind and chasing down through balls. He’s a tad slower than my second choice, Danny Welbeck, but as I harp on about at great length, his mental attributes are key to being in the right place at the right time.

Pitch size

I play a style geared towards getting the ball in between or over the top of the opposition defence, so it is important for me to create gaps and holes wherever I can. First of all, my Old Trafford pitch is the maximum size possible (114 yards), which is pretty obvious but something some people don’t think about properly when they’re taking their pick; hopefully the impact of the pitch is demonstrated in Chicharito’s goal stats.

The small sample doesn’t help to make my point solid, but there is a clear pattern – Hernandez gets more chances when the pitch is at its longest, and we have to look elsewhere if it’s a short one. This isn’t something I think much about before games, and it’d perhaps be wise to play a Rooney kind of player up front on short pitches to score different kinds of goals, but hopefully you can see how much of an impact a pitch has on poachers. The two stadiums where Hernandez had the lowest percentage of chances compared to the team total were Anfield and Stamford Bridge; the same two stadiums were the shortest in length. Consider this.


Me using wingers as my widemen may come as a surprise to many, especially in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Inside forwards are somewhat a la mode at the moment, and you’d probably expect me to employ these very readily, in order to provide support for Hernandez and play as many through balls as possible. This, however, was not viable for me at the start of season one, with only two of my wingers being able to, realistically, play an inside forward role properly, and even then, Nani is hardly the greatest at setting others up. Wingers were forced upon me, so I had to develop some way of making them work.

Cross Ball and Through Balls are both set to Sometimes to allow them to make their own decision. I don’t want to weigh them down with too many instructions, and I don’t want them to ignore a good through-ball opportunity and I certainly don’t want them to go down the line every time.You might also notice the extremely low mentality of the role, but when you watch it in action on the ME, it really makes sense and creates tons of goals for Hernandez. The two wingers sit behind the ball when they can, and with their pace and dribbling counter attack at speed, putting in a brilliantly accurate cross to Hernandez who taps it in like we’ve seen him do so often in recent times. The cross conversion rate is astounding – the lower mentality was originally a measure to strengthen the tactic defensively and give my full-backs some extra support – and it’s surprised me, as Hernandez relied on central through balls and scraps for his goals in the first season. The best possible theory, so far, is that the long run of the wingers allows Hernandez to pick the right run and arrive in the box just in time to slot the ball home. Sounds good to me – Nani and Valencia top my assist tables.

Full-backs’ support

In most modern formations, your poacher will be alone up front against two centre-backs and an additional full-back at most times, and stretching the opposition defence, as ever, is vital. Failing absolutely top-drawer movement from both your wingers and your poacher, which isn’t really possible without some super-regens, the easiest way I’ve found is to overload the full-backs and alert the nearby centre-back to come and have a look what’s going on.

Here we can see some pretty loose man marking from WBA which is clearly going to be problematic for them. The key threat in this image must be #9, Rooney, who can easily drive into that huge gap of space in between the Baggies’ #2 and #14, but there are plenty of sleeping threats, especially #3 Evra and Hernandez, lurking behind the WBA centre-back. The width of Evra and Nani has pulled two of Albion’s players out to the wing, but what Nani does next is extremely clever.

Though not the cleverest, Nani cuts inside to ‘attract’ the attention of the centre-back (#14). He knows the right-back will follow him inside, thus taking up two players and opening up a number of options – he can lay it off to Rooney, reverse pass it to Evra down the wing or give it to Hernandez who is now marked by only one man, Olsson. Evra’s role here is not to be underestimated; without him staying wide, #7 Prager would perhaps be tucked in to protect the right-back and cover gaps, and his colleague would surely come more goalside of Nani than this. In this situation, however, he has to protect as many options as he can and hope his other teammate, the centre-back coming across, can deal with the problems inside. This all leads to happy days for Hernandez, who has been neglected in the middle.


By having a supporting full-back, we’ve managed to take a little pressure off Hernandez, and that’s all the little man needs. That’s all any good poacher needs.

Some little points to remember

  • PPMs are your friend – Places Shots, Breaks Offside Trap and Moves Into Channels will equate to goals
  • Try and improve a young poachers’ movement and composure as soon as you can. Anticipation, Composure, Decisions and Off the Ball are more important than Pace, and help a Poacher have a long career
  • Through balls, through balls, through balls
  • Ball control training is more important than you might expect – technique, dribbling, first touch and heading are all handy
  • Khouma Babacar, Leandro Damiao and Mbaye Niang are among the best young poachers. Jamil Adam is a lower-league alternative

6 comments on “Utilising the poacher

  1. I’ve been using Papiss Cisse in my Newcastle save as the poacher. Scores bucket loads and the link up play with the AMC is brilliant. He’s scored something like 105 goals in 100 games. Not a bad return considering it’s still basically the starting squad I use.

    Nice article, I like reading other peoples set ups 🙂

    • It’s great to see players clock up goals like that! How are you playing Ba, out of interest? I played briefly with Newcastle and tried to get them to play similar roles with varying creativity levels etc and then to swap but I never saw it come to fruition unfortunately.

  2. Good advice here, and certainly something I’ll take advantage of myself to see if it works. One minor point here (from a Newcastle fan): bit unfair to say Shearer was limited defensively when throughout his career the area in front of the front post was his to defend at corners. He cleared a significant amount in his time at the club. Can’t argue the ball skills point however…

    I’d also never even given pitch size a second thought but definitley will do now!

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