I came to the conclusion recently that I’m in danger of becoming a football ‘hipster’ from my love of Borussia Dortmund and admiration of Marcelo Bielsa to my absolute certainty that Manuel Pellegrini will be a huge hit in Manchester I am a sucker for an interesting story. As such I’m sure that you can envisage my excitement when Barcelona appointed a relatively unknown Argentinian as their new coach, who is Gerardo Martino? Obviously I was aware of the excellent progress that Paraguay had made and their performance at the 2010 World Cup was excellent, I was also aware that Newell’s Old Boys were performing well both domestically and in the Copa Libertadores but I still knew relatively little about the coach responsible for both of these sides. As any other self respecting pseudo-hipster would I turned to the internet for my answer, during my reading I came across an excellent article by Euan Marshall over on his blog imagine my excitement then as I began to realise how closely linked Bielsa and Martino were! This burst of reading though as is so often the case led to a new tactical idea for my Football Manager save. The image towards the end of the article in which the system used by Bielsa at Newell’s in 1991 caught my eye, a 3-4-3 with a lot of vertical play from back to front. I started to picture a way in which I could build this idea in to a working Football Manager system, what would that look like though?

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I’m sure you can all immediately see that I haven’t identically replicated the shape that was used by Bielsa, this is simply a result of my own mind trying to put an interesting spin on the original idea. We are obviously going for a highly attacking setup with three central strikers and an attacking midfielder in the pocket behind them followed by a single central midfielder and two defensive midfielders, originally we used two central midfielders and a single defensive midfielder but I was forced to invert this to provide a little more defensive cover. Why do we need to add more defensive cover? Well, there are obvious gaps in our defensive line with a single centreback and fullbacks who are used more to add offensive width than defensive cover.

When I posted an image of the system on twitter, Cleon from the excellent The Chalkboard Diaries was quick to point out that the shape was hugely similar to the W-M tactic other than the fact that the front three are narrow. This wasn’t a deliberate move in any way whatsoever but it does show that nothing in the world of Football Manager tactics is truly original.

Does it work though? or am I going back to the drawing board? Well in truth the answer is both. You’ll have to read on for that to make any sense though.

As I mentioned above the aim of this system is to replicate the brand of vertical football that Marcelo Bielsa has installed at both Chile and Athletic Bilbao recently and historically at Newell’s. It’s at this point that I’m obliged to point out that if I was to become a fully fledged football hipster then I would be invoking the term Verticalidad . Thankfully though I’m not that far gone.

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So, the basic shape. We have possession with our right back at the top of the image. As you can see straight away the three man defensive line is spread across the width of the pitch which is a superb tool for keeping possession and building from the back. The two defensive midfielders and central midfielder all tend to maintain a relatively close connection forming a triangle in the midfield. It’s the front four though with which the system truly comes alive. The front three alone are a handful but we also have the attacking midfielder pushing forward to support the attacking line, indeed often we achieve the best vertical results when the attacking midfielder bursts through the attacking line.

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Here we see the attacking midfielder providing the vertical threat. We have possession of the ball with the central midfielder on the right side. The attacking midfielder effectively makes his vertical run in two phases and as the ball is fed to the wide right striker the AM makes a move through the defensive line and between the two banks of three defenders that the AI have deployed. The threat of the strikers keeps the AI from effectively covering the vertical midfielder and we have an easy chance at goal.

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Again we see the connection between the central midfielder and the attacking midfielder as he makes the vertical run through the centre. The AI are playing a solid back four but again our front three are in place to effectively keep the AI honest. This time there is no fancy interplay as a single vertical pass takes advantage of the late run and the space behind the AI defence and again we are through on goal.

Since we are effectively using a four man attack with support from two relatively attacking fullbacks and a marauding central midfielder it’s safe to say that in the attacking phase we are relying on the creation of overloads throughout the attacking phase.

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Above we have an overload developing on the left side of the pitch. The Central striker Scocco is in possession and he is closely supported by the right striker and attacking midfielder who has moved forward to connect. By taking the slightly less direct route and feeding the supporting central midfielder we are able to fashion a chance to open the play up and take advantage of the wide overload.

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This time we are again attacking up the right side of the pitch and the right sided attacker has possession of the ball, In his immediate vicinity he has two players moving in to space to take a through ball as the central striker pulls in to the channel and the right back moves in to the attacking phase. The fact that the central striker and attacking midfielder are occupying the two central AI defenders and as such once again the space is opened up at the left of the pitch and when the ball comes across the front of the goal we score.

Along with overloads we also have superb connections throughout the centre of the pitch and this lends itself to some great attacking play as we move forwards.

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As we move forwards in the above attacking transition we have four attacking players in a central area as the three strikers and attacking midfielder take position. As the ball is fed in to the right striker the fluidity of our attack kicks in and in a quick, direct fashion the ball is pinged back to the attacking midfielder and as the angle of the attack is changed he is able to shift the pass through the defensive line for the left sided attack to run on to.

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This time the attacking players are more spread out as we switch in to a quick attacking transition. The central midfielder runs through the centre of the pitch and possession is taken over as the attacking midfielder cuts across his path. The AI reacts to the threat in the path of the attacking midfielder by doubling up on the right sided striker and immediately we have space to exploit as the central striker moves vertically through on goal and is found by a quick reverse pass. It’s this quick movement and passing that allows us to threaten the AI through a variety of angles and depths.

So far so good, right? I’m sure though that even the most tactically challenged among you has immediately spotted the defensive flaw in my original shape. There is a huge gap between the central defender and the full backs and this of course is a gap that the AI will exploit.

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Here you can see the gap fully illustrated by the double black arrow. The AI has easy possession on the right of the field and we have no pressure on the man on the ball. The danger is highlighted by the shaded area and once simple pass leads to the AI having a player bursting through on goal.

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Again I’ve highlighted the gaps in our defence and whilst the width is great when we are in possession it is problematic when we are in the defensive phase. We also have a group of three close central players that are essentially providing no defensive cover, if you remember back at the start of the article I stated that the two defensive midfielders were supposed to cover the channels but it doesn’t seem to be working. Once again we are split by a simple pass and the AI is through on goal.

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This time the gap is less obvious than it has been before as the central defender and left back have formed a better connection. At the same time there is a gap that the AI can easily take advantage of with a little bit of movement. All that the AI have to do is shift the ball inside and change the angle of their attack the lack of defensive pressure means that the central player is able to drop the ball over our defensive line and open up the space.

So it’s not working is it? Well again not quite. Our attack heavy shape lends itself very well to playing a high block. Whilst this is a risky strategy given the AI’s ability to play a long direct pass bypassing our block.

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Here our initial block is in the shaded area as the AI defence as possession of the ball. The only pass available to the player in possession is a risky 20 yard pass out to the right midfielder. We have four players asserting pressure and that pass could well be intercepted leading to us taking possession of the ball deep in the AI half and with a strong numerical presence.

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Here is an example of what happens when our high block turns the ball over. The AI is trying to move the ball towards the area of high danger in the shaded space and we are able to win the ball quickly turning defence in to attack. Again the fact that we have so many attacking players in close quarters means that we are able to play a series of short sharp passes through the defence with a player moving through the AI to take an easy chance on goal.

So, where does all of this leave me? I want to keep the attacking fluidity along with the high block because frankly I enjoy watching the great football going forward. At the same time though I can’t turn a blind eye to the defensive issues that we have, we are almost completely reliant on the abilities of the central defender and in one match he managed to effect 20 interceptions all over the pitch, not something that is sustainable over the medium to long term. I think that I have to bite the bullet and adjust my shape to provide a more solid defensive base and whilst I already know how I am going to do that I will be saving it for the next article I write. My aim is to achieve a balance between the defensive and the attacking and to do so whilst playing a brand of football that Bielsa and indeed Martino would be proud of. Once I am happy that I have managed to do so I will either make the tactic available for you to download and critique or I will post all the instructions that I have used to make the system what it is.

Maybe the quest for balance and perfection tactically has finally pushed me over the edge, am I in danger of becoming the first Football Manager hipster? God I hope not.

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