This is the first in a new series of articles that I will be writing over the coming weeks. The plan is to take a system from within the game before running an analysis of that system. I will highlight the systems strengths and weaknesses of the system before adding a section on what I would do to counter that system should the AI be using it. All feedback on the concept is more than welcome.

I grew up in the 1990’s when Italian football was shown on British television with the seminal Gazzetta Football Italia being shown on our television scenes. Exposure to this more glamorous version of the game introduced a plethora of new tactical concepts from the high pressing defensive solidity of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side through to the tactical pragmatism of Marcello Lippi and his Juventus side. When we consider the modern Italian game there is one tactical trend that is spreading throughout Serie A as we see the resurgence of the three man defence. The most widespread system appears to be the 3-5-2 with most recent champions Juventus using the system for large parts of the season. The 3-5-2 is hugely adaptable with slight variations allowing for more offensive and defensive solidity whilst a positional change will lead to the system taking on more of a 3-4-3 look.


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Jonathan Wilson recently discussed the resurgence of the two man attack stating that it had almost become a defensive setup as you always had a choice of out ball with two strikers that would be able to connect and hold the ball in the oppositions half allowing deeper players to transition forward and connect with them. Combined with a dense midfield and narrow defence we are very difficult to break down. As with any other system though there are strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

Defensively Solid Through the Centre

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Here you can see our basic tactical setup and clearly marked is our defensive solidity in central areas. As the first line of defence we have our three central midfield players operating in a triangle with one player at the base, having the width of this triangle further forward means that these players can pivot left or right to deal with specific threats from the AI if they are attacking down either side whilst always maintaining the deeper man as cover. The three man defence also offers excellent cover. Here you can see that the AI has two strikers, each striker is effectively picked up by our defensive players and we then have a central player that is playing slightly deeper offering both defensive cover and a deep passing option should we be able to turn the ball over quickly.

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As an interesting aside the three man defensive setup in this system was also very effective at both maintaining possession and building our attacks from the back. As you can clearly see from the above graphic both wide defenders were very effective in distributing the ball when we turned possession over.

Midfield is the Key

One of the main strengths of the 3-5-2 as displayed recently by Juventus has been the flexibility and effectiveness of the three men in the centre of the midfield. Time and again we see overloads in different sections of the midfield as the three players combine to create passing angles and pull defensive midfield players out to create space in more advanced positions.

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Here we can see the ball being played in to the feet of our deep lying midfield player. As he receives the ball he is in a strip of space with no AI player in position to instantly engage him. From this position and in this space a good passer of the ball can truly dominate any game. As you can see Pirlo has runners wide as well as two more advanced central players ready to move in to space in order to take possession of the through ball.

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This time the AI has lined up in a modern 4-2-3-1 with the 2 central midfielders narrow in the traditional MC slot. As we take possession of the ball we are able to work the ball through the narrow two man band to find our third midfielder that has moved in to a more advanced position almost linking with the forwards. As Vidal takes possession the other players start to move accordingly with the striker moving infield to empty the wide are for the on rushing wing back we have two distinct passing options.

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Here again we are playing against the two man central band and with a strong passer in the deep midfield section The first pass is lateral and there is again one of other other midfield players moving in to a more advanced area. As the ball cycles quickly through the players the free midfielder is able to slip a through ball in to the striker who breaks through the defensive line.

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The above graphic shows the passing stats of the DM in one of the matches played. As you can see he is extremely effective in distributing the ball through to his teammates.

The Two Man Attack

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The above shows the shape of our team in a typical attacking move. You can clearly see the Defensive Midfielder holding his position in plenty of space. The fullbacks are moving into the attacking phase. As the ball moves from the midfielder in to the feet of one of the forwards he is able to connect immediately with his striker partner who is moving in to space and is in a better position to score.

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Above we see the front two taking up a split position. This split leads to gaps forming in the AI defensive setup that can be taken advantage of by our players as we move from attack to defence. As you can see the left centre back has moved further up the field to prevent our deeper striker from having the ball in acres of space. This has however emptied a very obvious space in behind that our more advanced striker can look to take advantage of.

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As the ball moves in to the deeper striker the left centre back moves forward further to engage fully with the man in possession. The advanced forward is able to dart across his marker in to the huge space that has been created. One simple through ball and we have a clear goalscoring opportunity.

Weaknesses 

Midfield can be Matched

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Here Roma have matched our midfield man for man thus taking away any real option for depth that we can hope for centrally. Vidal is operating in the deeper midfield position and when he takes possession of the ball his only two passing options are to the wide defensive players. This is fine for purely developing possession based football but we have little options to advance the play in to the more advanced areas of the pitch.

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Again Roma are effectively matching up against us with a narrow midfield three. This time they are able to work time and space by cycling the ball through their three midfield players and when the free man takes possession you can clearly see that we are about to be heavily exposed down the flanks by the Roma wide players.

Wide Play Can Leave us Exposed

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Above we are under pressure wide by Roma and our wingback has been caught in an attacking position. As the wide player takes possession of the ball we don’t have a defensive player in close contact and as such the wide central defender is forced to move to engage. This leaves the AI free to either slip the pass inside or to put it over the top for their striker to move on to.

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This time we are horribly exposed by Chelsea. The left wingback has been attracted infield to challenge Lampard in possession and let the entire flank exposed. As the Chelsea right back then starts to move up the pitch we are left with either a central midfielder or a central defender – if not both – being forced to move out in to the wide position to cut off the space. In doing so we create a game that greatly weakens our defensive solidity.

Three Man Defence is Exposed by Deep Crosses

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We are under pressure again from Roma in a wide area. As the ball is on the left flank our defensive unit shifts over to that side, a move that is actually technically right. We are however left totally exposed to a deep cross to the back post.

How to Counter

Now that we have looked at both the strengths and weaknesses that are associated with the 3-5-2 system what would I do to counter it should I encounter it in game. The first ting is to be proactive in setting up a starting system that will force the AI on to the backfoot,

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Very similar to the way that we have seen the 3-5-2 setup already. We are using a deep lying midfielder to try to challenge the AI in controlling the match. The key to the system however is the two wide strikers. We are trying to force the AI to react defensively by making the attacking wingbacks drop deep to form a back five.

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This is exactly what we see. This move is one that I noticed over and over when researching reactive tactics against the three man defence. Now we have the AI in a defensive mindset we also have to make a tactical switch in order to capitalise on this advantage.

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Now we are trying to force the issue in the attacking phase. With two advanced midfielders we are swamping the AI’s defensive midfielder disrupting his influence and forcing them in to an even more entrenched position. What do we see in game with these changes though?

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One other aspect of our system is the use of a deeper defensive line. We are deliberately limiting space in behind for the two man attacking line to move in to. As you can see Pogba has the ball and this time if he moves it to the feet of the attacker our defensive unit is ready to move in and effectively engage the ball straight away.

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Now as the AI tries to pass the ball out of defence or tactical setup is ideally suited to limiting the space and time on the ball given to the deep midfielder. If the ball is played in to Pirlo then we have two advanced midfielders in position to apply pressure and with a bit of luck force a turnover.

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Finally we had to find a way for out attacking interplay to get through the central solidity of the three man defensive line. As you can see our two attacking midfielders are forming a close connection. In doing so they have also dragged the central defensive player well out of position and our striker is able to move in to the gap to break through the defensive line and burst through on goal.

One thing I would say as I conclude this article is that every single system within football and therefore within FM has its strengths and weaknesses. The key is to try and balance your settings to make sure that you are taking advantage of the strengths as much as possible.

Since this is an entirely new article type I would welcome and value any feedback that you can give.

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