This is the first time I’ve written on reactive tactics for this blog so I best give a little by way of explanation as to what all this entails. I think the first time I really became aware of the potential of reactive tactics within FM was during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I completely fell in love with Chile and of course with their coach Marcelo Bielsa. Following the Chilean match against Honduras in the group stage Michael Cox of Zonal Marking wrote;

Because Honduras started with the one up top, Bielsa did his usual in these circumstances – fielding a four-man defence, rather than a three-man defence. His logic was this is that he always wants one extra centre-back against the opposition forwards. If the opposition are playing with two strikers, he uses three centre-backs, if they are using one, he uses two, with the wing-backs dropping back slightly to become more conventional full-backs (although they still have a license to attack). This means that the shape changes from a 3-3-1-3 to a 4-2-1-3, with Millar playing as the second central midfielder.

The idea of switching defensive setups depending on your opponents formation to always make sure you have the extra man was an intriguing one. As we all know having an extra man in any area of the field leads to an advantage in keeping possession of the ball and putting your opponent under pressure. The importance of the ‘extra man’ can be seen all over modern football with big clubs and astute managers using the extra midfielder especially to control matches as well as to strengthen defensively.

The AI within the FM12 match engine is sophisticated enough to change formation in real time as the game is in progress in order to react to your tactics. This means that by keeping open a window showing the AI formation I am able to change as quickly both to negate their threat and take advantage of any obvious weakness. In some games I change formation upto three times before winning comfortably.

Against Napoli’s 3-4-2-1

The system used by Napoli is one that many that play in Italy struggle against. The movement of the front three coupled with wide support and an effective three man defence can lead to huge issues in trying to negate the attacking threat. I’ve decided to use Lecce in order to show exactly how I would not only negate Napoli but also force them to change system in order to deal with my own specific threats. A little context for you in that I holidayed the save until we were due to play Napoli and at the start of January the Neapolitans are sitting 3rd in Serie A whilst we are sitting in 17th one place above relegation. A tough challenge I think.
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First of all our initial tactical setup. Nothing fancy or surprising here just a reasonably straightforward 4-3-1-2 system with limited creativity outwith the front two. All in all it’s a system that is designed to keep things tight and grind out a result. The point of this post however is that the initial tactical setup will change to take advantage of the oppositions weak spots, with that said we best have a look at what we were facing from Napoli.

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The strength in the Napoli system is obvious to anyone that has seen them play for the last couple of years. The attacking trident of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik are the heart and soul of the team and will cause no end of trouble to whoever they play. At the same time as Lavezzi and Hamsik dart into space around Cavani the wide players stay tight to the touchline stretching the pitch horizontally and creating space for the more creative players.

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As you can see from this ingame screenshot the Napoli attack is layered and extremely impressive. Each layer adds depth from Cavani at the tip to the midfield shield of Gargano and Inler. We need to find a way to nullify the threat of this attack and as with most things in FM the best way to do so is to force the AI onto the back foot.

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First of all though we have to identify the weak points of the Napoli system that we can look to take advantage of with our own changes. Here you can see that the weaknesses are obvious from the start. The Napoli defence is narrow and lacking in any significant pace meaning any player situated in the wide areas will either have acres of space or drag the wide defenders well out of position. Napoli also have no player in the defensive midfield zone again meaning that there is space to be exploited.

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Our initial switch then is designed to specifically take advantage of each weak spot. Please note than in order to provide examples I am taking the theory behind this process to extremes at all times. The idea is simple, two wide strikers set to hug the touchline in order to stretch the Napoli defence horizontally and an advanced midfielder moving from deep to take advantage of the gaps created. It’s worth noting as well that I have increased closing down on all three attacking players in order to put the Napoli defence under as much pressure as possible.

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Here you can clearly see that with Napoli in possession in the defensive phase we are putting them under pressure. The only pass open is a 20-25 yard ball to the wide right. Even here just out of shot we have a player ready to apply immediate pressure. The idea is to make things as difficult as possible for the AI to work the ball up to the forward player.

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This time I’ve given you a graphic showing the potential of our new system on the counter attack. The two wide players are set to dart to the touchline when we turn over possession with the attacking midfielder being free to attack the space. The idea is simple and we are looking to force the AI to switch it’s system and turn more defensive. This is indeed what happens although if I’m honest it didn’t happen in the way that I had predicted.

Napoli Change System

Every other time I have used reactive tactics against a team playing 3 at the back and attacked the wide areas the AI has quickly dropped their wide players back to use a 5 man defence. That’s what I was expecting but Mazzari sprung a surprise at the break.

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So, from the exotic to the mundane. Napoli are one of the last sides that I would’ve expected to turn to a 4-4-2 but there you go. It’s telling that we had unsettled them enough to make the change at half time although they added an extra attacking threat in the shape of Goran Pandev. This switch of course had to be answered.

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We have adhered to general tactical convention in looking to overwhelm the 4-4-2 by dominating the centre of the pitch. In adding players to the attacking and defensive midfield bands we should immediately give ourselves more passing options and angles than Napoli.

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You can clearly see that Napoli now offer a far more muted attacking threat with each of their players being easily covered by our defensive scheme. Essentially we have nullified the true strength of Napoli in taking away the angles they created with the clever movement from the initial trident.

What happened next was entirely unexpected. The Napoli left back Britos suffered a strange rush of blood and was given a straight red card for stopping my attacker and denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. This of course prompted another set of switches to the tactics.

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That’s much more like it from Napoli resorting to some kind of narrow shape similar to the initial setup. Once again we have to respect the attacking tip to the reduced system but there are obvious weak spots that we can look to exploit.

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The most striking area for us to exploit is the wide areas. Any player in a wide area will have space in which to operate and once again Napoli have decided to ignore the need to fill the defensive midfield zone.

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Once again our strikers are positioned in the wide areas but this time they are told to cut inside as opposed to hugging the touchline. We are paying Napoli a little more respect in defensively by using two defensive midfielders primarily to keep things tight considering we all still drawing 0-0 with the game nearing the end, a point gained here would be a huge plus.

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The above screenshot perfectly illustrates my point. The wide areas are completely dominated by our fullbacks and wide strikers and given that I have changed passing to direct and the focus to both flanks this is where we will look to kill the game.

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Here you can see we have Napoli pinned onto the back foot. We have a player over and another pressing through the centre. The interplay slices the Napoli defence apart with a third man run from a midfielder opening the space and causing an overload. This movement leads to an easy goal and we go 1-0 against all the odds.

From this point on we saw the remaining 10 minutes of the match out maintaining possession and denying Napoli any clear opportunities. Indeed Napoli failed to create a clear cut chance for the entire match.

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All in all a positive first experiment on FM12 with this style. There will of course be more to come.

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