Ball playing defenders are very much in fashion in the modern game. From Gerard Pique at Barcelona through to Jan Vertonghen formerly of Ajax and now Spurs the ability of a player in the last line to cycle possession quickly and effectively is one that is seen as synonymous with the modern trend towards possession based football. It’s not necessarily a new role within football though as I’ve grown up watching players that were comfortable with the ball at their feet from Paul McGrath through Franco Baresi to one of my favourite players of all time in the German Matthias Sammer. These are players that can make the difference in a match with their ability to bring the ball out of defence and accurately distribute to their teammates this is a role that can be incredibly effective within Football Manager and indeed is one that I use on a fairly regular basis.

Once again though there are a number of extra layers that we can look to add to maximize the ability and potential.

The Ball Playing Centreback

As always let’s begin with the basic shape that I was using to showcase the role;

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The shape itself needs very little explanation I’ve chosen a base that allows me to provide my ball playing defender (Hummels) with all the options and close connections that will allow him to be effective. As with my previous post on the Jordi Alba role I have mechanised the setup in order to provide layers of support to the player looking to instigate the attack from deep.

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Here we have the movement that I’m looking to achieve from the players around Hummels. First of all his fellow centreback will drop deeper to provide cover should anything go horribly wrong with the distribution from the back. The left back will push slightly further on to provide an out ball on the left. The three central midfielders will all hold slightly withdrawn positions to ensure that there is always an out ball and an angle for Hummels to use.

As always though we should really look to see how it works in practice with some in game images.

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Here we can see Hummels in possession. His defensive partner Subotic is in a withdrawn role both offering a defensive passing option as well as providing cover across the width of the penalty box. There are another four players that are dropping into positions to provide an out ball for Hummels and to ensure that we retain possession. It is important to remember that when we are using a ball playing defender we are not necessarily trying to implement a typical tiki-taka style. Instead of constantly cycling the ball across the pitch we should look for the player in possession in defence to introduce the odd vertical pass to stretch the play.

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Here we have Hummels again taking possession and this time facing his own goal. We can clearly see the sets of layers that we have looked to implement around the system. There are three easy out balls that are primary passes that will retain possession and shift the angle of the move. The goalkeeper, centre-back and left-back are all in position to take possession in a short pass. Next we have two central midfielders that are dropping in to offer angles for Hummels to bypass the initial wave of AI pressure and start the move up the field. These various options are essential when we are setting up in this role.

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Here again Hummels has the ball but this time we have pushed further up the pitch. Once again you can see his partner Subotic is in position to both take a simple pass and drop back to provide a layer of defensive cover. The two central midfielders are moving to offer short passing options in the centre whilst the full-backs are stretching the width of the pitch and offering more offensive options. The ball was actually played across the pitch to the left showing the importance of mixing up the angle and depth of the distribution.

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Lastly an example of what we can see from the ball playing defender using the analysis tool. In this match Mats Hummels completed49/53 passes giving him a pass completion of 92.5%. As you can see our mechanised system is working as planned with the majority of passes going to the left or to the central midfield zone. We are also playing more in the oppositions half than our own as Hummels holds and cycles the ball further up the pitch.

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