It’s easy to get your head turned by tiki taka and possession football in a decade where Barcelona and Spain are being suggested alongside the best sides ever. Xavi has been in the Barcelona team since 1998, but it is only in the last five years that he has got the plaudits he deserves, as the team around him has developed into a dominant, ball-keeping phenomenon. Kids now want to be the next Xavi, rather than the next Zidane, the next Vieira or the next Frank Lampard. It is easy to see why – Barcelona have won a whole new row of trophies and Spain have become the first team to win the Euros twice in a row, managing a World Cup in between. There is, obviously, another way, and I’m certainly not referring to the Hodgson 4-4-2.
The beauty of counter attacking football
In 2011, it was hard to envisage Barcelona ever being knocked off their domestic perch by Mourinho’s Real. A year later, Real are La Liga champions having clocked up an impressive 100 points, in large part achieved through wonderfully quick counter attacks. The brilliance of counter attacking tactics is rooted in the advantage that it creates clear, easy chances without sacrificing defensive stability. ‘The Spanish Way’ is often criticised for being boring and not having enough incision to get past the defence and make a really good chance for its strikers, but with the counter attack you can get the opposition defenders scrambling to get back into position and this creates space and chance gold.
While counter attacks tend to be used by smaller teams who don’t have the technicality to dominate possession, or big teams in title matches (Manchester United gained some great big match wins in the mid-noughties by keeping tight and relying on the attacking nature of their opponents to make chances, such as in the Battle of the Buffet), a counter attacking style can also be perfect for big teams. Admittedly, I would be lying if I said every team could and should employ the counter attack as a central weapon in their arsenal, but it is certainly not something that big teams should be shying away from using.
Elements of a good counter attack
Speed of thought, speed of movement, speed of passing. Very little is as important as speed to counter attack; you have to catch the opponents backpedalling and undermanned and imperative to this is a fast tempo. The best way to put this into practice in FM is through the team instructions and your choice of players, since we have no foolproof way of telling certain players to attack with kamikaze like speed.
In terms of players, you should be using strikers/wingers who have brilliant acceleration, pace, dribbling, work rate and off the ball movement. Large portions of their match will be spent in isolation and boredom as they wait for their chance and they need to be ready to take the ball and attack at speed.
The default ‘tempo’ on a counter strategy is 7, which is logical, since it encourages sensible attacking that prevents you from getting too dangerous with your ball play and therefore encourages decent ball retention. However, I prefer to yank this up with More Direct passing, pushing tempo and width up to 9 and giving the players a bit more encouragement to get the ball up to the frontmen as soon as they can. It’s a risk and reward balance: do you want to get your foot on the ball and take a while to make a choice? Or do you want to take a chance and get the ball out as fast as you can? I prefer the latter.
The importance of the defence in a counter attack is two-fold: first, they must be strong and able to withstand a great deal of pressure. The counter attacking strategy in FM is narrow, deep and somewhat yielding. By picking Counter as your strategy of choice, you are signing up your defence to a hard time, especially against top teams where they might have to deal with 20-25 crosses in one match. Considering the narrowness of a counter strategy, as well as the near impossibility to find well rounded, I tend to go for tall, aerially sound, mentally good defenders, ignoring pace or acceleration since the defensive line is deep enough to prevent through balls from being too much of an issue. A Chris Smalling type player is the perfect counter attacking CB.
Not just does he have brilliant aerial presence, he also has on-the-ball ability which is the second element each defender should have in his counter attacking locker.S malling’s decision making, passing and composure are hardly Paul Scholes-esque but they are tremendous for a centre back, and on a par with what I would look for in a top ball playing defender. Sure, his creativity isn’t brilliant, but I don’t expect him to see my wingers’ runs from across the pitch – he wouldn’t be able to make such a pass anyway – but with composure on the ball and the ability to pick the right pass, he will be integral to a successful counter attack far more than a Nemanja Vidic type player. Ex-Chelsea manager Ancelotti claims a good counter attack is ‘made with the players closest to the ball as they are the ones who recover it’, and I can’t argue; defenders definitely need Decisions in order to make the call on whether a counter attack is actually the right option – though I’ve set my team to Counter, it’s not always on and can sometimes be an unnecessary risk to try and commit men forwards at speed. Nothing worse than being counter-countered, right?
The midfield is the link between defence and attack, as ever, but their role is even more important in a counter attack. If the defence is poor, the team is easily overwhelmed by crosses and possession; if the midfield is poor, the team doesn’t score. When you think of a sweeping counter attack, one of the first images is of a central midfielder dashing forward with the ball on his toes, players running off him all screaming for the pass. This is where decision making, technique and footballing intelligence play a huge part in the success of the attack. With speed of such importance, the midfielder carrying the ball needs to make his mind up quickly, and then use all of his technique, passing skills and wiliness to bend, swerve or drop the ball into his teammate’s path.
Two defensive midfielders gives you some extra solidity in front of the defence, as ever, but they also serve a higher purpose in that they force opposition wingers to go wide by denying them space to cut into. Since we have big, aerial defenders, this is exactly what we want as we can trust our defenders to win the ball and use their ball skills to play it out nicely. I use two deep lying playmakers here, as they hold their position (I really don’t want them to go rushing after the ball carrier as this will disrupt our defensive shape and make us easier to break down) and can kickstart attacks with through balls or a nice little pass forwards.
In my midfield, I have another defensive midfielder (yes, three DMs!) who is far from defensive. This is the real link guy – the DLPs may get the ball forward and play through balls but my middle DMC is the one I want to carry the ball, play it to my AMC and then keep running to offer us an option through the channel. You could use just the two DMCs and add a striker instead, but from my experience the striker offers very little and it’s really not worth the sacrifice.
Attacking midfield and strikers
The most important thing about the three (or four) forward most players is that they have the speed and movement to make each attack count. If you’re under the cosh for 55-60% of the game then a lot of the time you’ll only get a few chances to get forward – goalscoring chances from these attacks will be considerably easier to convert because there are less defenders snapping about your feet etc, so it is essential that those who stay forward (for me it is two inside forwards who do very little defensively) have the intelligence to move well and quickly.
For the attacking midfielder, creativity and technique are essentials. Mesut Ozil was the leading assistee in the La Liga for perhaps the most famous/successful counter attacking team at the moment, as well as playing the most key passes per game (2.9, eclipsing Messi’s 2.5 and Iniesta’s 1.2), and Ozil is definitely lacking in neither.
He oozes flair, composure, decisions, creativity, passing, technique, pace and dribbling. There is very little else you’d want from an AMC in a counter attacking tactic; once this guy gets the ball, he’s not relinquishing until he can give a teammate a hilariously stonewall chance on goal. Carry carry carry, defence splitting pass.
His fellow attackers need a little less all round ability. In my two inside forward roles, Welbeck and Nilmar have very little to do defensively, and indeed, offer little more to the creative attacking phase. Simply, they must be ready and in the right place to finish their chances when we attack at speed; it is for this reason that I leave them high and free from defensive reponsibility, so that they are close to breaking beyond the opposition line onto a pass or coming around the back to receive a cross. However we attack, they need to be at full speed, on the defence’s blind side, with reliable finishing, and invariably they are.
In my opinion, the beauty of the counter attack is here, up front. In a Football Manager context, a team’s attackers can get anywhere up to 10 clear cut chances in a match while playing short passing possession football, but no chances are as clear cut as a counter attacking striker’s chances. Have a look at this chart of Manchester City’s chances against me in a Community Shield match:
That’s TWELVE ‘other’ chances, TEN ‘half’ chances and just the one clear cut chance- City scored none! The quality of these chances, though 11 classified as scoreable by FM, is low and watching them, you wouldn’t expect City to score many more than one of them as they are getting hounded by my defenders and defensive midfielders and as a result of the sheer number of bodies in there, there’s not a lot of space. Compare those chances to our chance chart:
Just two ‘other’ chances, two ‘half’ chances and two clear cut chances, but we scored two. Why? Because chances in a counter attacking tactic are much greater quality, even within the three, rough categories FM classifies them into. The players who have my chances tend to have less defenders getting all up in their grill, less bodies pushing and tugging and chasing. One of my half chances (#18) is from a corner, but both the CCCs (we scored them both) come from a quick attack with City struggling to get into position, the first after a long but fast dribble from Welbeck, the second from attacking DMC Jones dashing into the box to get on the end of a cross that followed a lovely move during which most of the time we had more men in front of the ball than City had behind it. Wonderful.
Give it a try
In an era (or is it a golden era now?) where good possession football has become that which many, if not most, aspire to copy and emulate, counter attacking is refreshing, at least to me. If you’re having trouble making good chances with tiki taka possession play, and you have the right team to play on the counter (strong defence, creative midfield and quick attack), give it a shot and see what you think. At the very least, it’s good to have in your locker for tough matches, and at the very best, it’s a supremely powerful and quietly lethal weapon.
PS: you can download my tactic here if you want to have a look at my instructions or try them out for yourself. Enjoy.