Possession: 47% – 53%

Shots: 18 – 14

Shots on target: 8 – 10

Corners: 7 – 5

Final Score? 1-7

The above statistics have obviously been taken from the World Cup semi final between Brazil and Germany and they make interesting reading. The only key statistic that I have missed from the list is pass completion but everything else is there in black and white. Is there anything that you can take from the above to give us an idea as to why the scoreline was so one sided? Germany had 6% more possession and had a better ratio of shots to shots on target but not by much.

Over the last two or three years I’ve noticed a growing number of people on forums, Facebook pages or via twitter complaining that Football Manager is unrealistic and that given a set of statistics from their game they have been cheated in some way. I’ve seen people blame the match engine within Football Manager for their results and claim that it produces unrealistic football with incidents that you just wouldn’t see in the ‘real world’. People will complain if the statistics are heavily in their favour yet they only manage to draw or even lose, they complain when they have a large amount of chances and ‘only’ score one or two. At the same time people will complain if the match is close statistically – as we can see above – yet they lose heavily. The issue in my mind does not lie with the match engine as although it is not perfect it remains the most realistic simulation of football that we have seen but rather with the way people interpret statistics.

The main issue lies in my mind with shots at goal. The tendency amongst those that play Football Manager is to assume that the more shots at goal they have the more goals they will score, this simply is not the case. Rather than simply splitting shots at goal in to ‘shots’ or ‘clear cut chances’ I prefer to split the statistic in to three ‘primary chances’ ‘secondary chances’ and ‘tertiary chances’ A primary chance comes when the striker is through on goal one on one with the goalkeeper or when a player receives the ball in the penalty area with an unobstructed view of goal. These are chances where we should see a high percentage converted. A secondary chance is when a player has the ball in the box but is being challenged or blocked by the defending team and a tertiary chance is a shot from distance or a snap chance in a heavily crowded goal. That’s a rough guide to the way that I see chances created within the game and as long as we are converting a high percentage of primary chances then I’m happy. If we shouldn’t rely too heavily on statistics within Football Manager to give us an accurate insight in to the game and if the match engine is not to blame for our inability to win a match then where should we look? The answer is simple, tactics.

As an example I’ve picked out a number of examples of where Brazil got their tactics wrong and afterwards I will give a brief run down of how to avoid falling in to the same trap when playing Football Manager.

1.)    No balance between defence and attack.

Brazil came out from the start of the game with a clearly defined gameplan – they were going to attack and try to overwhelm the Germans. Given the almost palpable emotion generated from the players and fans this plan was almost understandable yet it showed an element of disrespect from the Germans to believe that they were not capable of defending this onslaught nor tactically intelligent enough to take advantage of the space being left behind by the Brazilians. There was a trigger built in to the Brazilian play to ensure an element of defensive cover but as you will see this proved ineffective both in cover and transition.

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Here you can see the trigger in action. Marcelo at left back was given licence to attack at will down the left wing leaving a huge gap in behind. In order to provide cover the Brazilians used a mechanism made popular by Barcelona and Sergio Busquets where a deep central midfielder will drop in to the back line when in possession thus forming a back three. Time and time again though Luiz Gustavo dropped in to the left sided centre back position instead of taking up the central position. This meant that when Germany transitioned in to attack he would drift back to his own central midfield position leaving the defensive line unbalanced and further widening the gap left by Marcelo.

As you can see above by moving out of the central position Luiz Gustavo leaves only Fernandinho as an option for the pass in to midfield. Germany have intelligently read this and as you can see while the most advanced player is pressing David Luiz in possession there are two more ready to close in on Fernandinho should he take a short pass to feet with one more spare player if needed. In practice there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a single pivot in the centre of midfield but in this match Fernandinho was trying to play in a more advanced role thus stretching the space between his position and the defensive line making it far easier for the Germans to disrupt the Brazilian build up.

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Again you can see that the positioning of Luiz Gustavo and Fernandinho has made it very difficult for the Brazilians to play out from the back. Dante has possession of the ball and even in this early phase of possession Marcelo has already moved in to an extremely advanced position with Luiz Gustavo moving to the left side of the defence to provide balance and cover. By this point in the match this has become a recognisable pattern in the Brazilian build up and Germany are ready to attack the short pass to Fernandinho in midfield. As the ball is played in to midfield the Germans take possession and the two advanced players split to the corners of the penalty area creating acres of space. This time the turnover in possession results in a German goal.

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This time we can see what happened when Marcelo got caught out of position and failed to track back to the defensive phase. The Germans quickly realised  that there was space to be exploited and so started to leave Thomas Muller in an advanced position on the right wing. If Brazil were being more cautious then this should have resulted in Marcelo being instructed to stop attacking as much but instead Muller was left largely unmarked to attack space. This move by Germany was one that was going to be a success either way, either Marcelo sat deeper and the attacking threat down the left wing was negated or Muller would have space to play in as a constant out ball in transition. A very clever move by the German coach,

On this occasion we can again see that Luiz Gustavo had dropped in to the defensive line but he is caught in two minds. Instead of positioning himself to cover the pass in to space and restrict the movement of Muller he is drawn infield to his more natural position to challenge the man with the ball. A simple angled pass is played in and Muller finds himself behind the Brazilian defence once again.

2.)    Using David Luiz as a Playmaker

There is absolutely no doubt that David Luiz is an extremely talented footballer, throughout the tournament he had been one of Brazils best players and his ability on the ball had proved to be one of the keys to the Brazilian build up. In this game however he came up against a more talented and perhaps crucially, more organised team that was content to let Luiz build up play by hitting long diagonal passes and effectively bypassing the entire midfield.

That’s not to say that direct football is ineffective or negative. Marcelo Bielsa is widely regarded as one of the most progressive coaches in football and yet his teams play with a distinctive direct  style. The difference lies in the path that the ball takes from back to front. In this match David Luiz was constantly looking to play the direct pass diagonally in behind the German fullbacks, on one or two occasions this pass was a success but more often than not the pass was incomplete and Germany were able to transition quickly from defence to attack with the Brazilian team out of position. Bielsa on the other hand encourages his sides to play through the midfield with short sharp vertical passes connecting players from the defensive third to the attacking third but making sure that they retain possession on the way.

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Here you can see David Luiz in possession deep inside his own half with Germany dropped in to a medium block and covering all available short passes in to midfield. By this early stage Germany are already happy to allow Luiz to have possession and to encourage the direct pass. The most advanced German player is well positioned to cover both Luiz and the potential short pass to Dante and as he applies pressure he will force Luiz to hurry the long pass.

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Again David Luiz is in possession in his own half and once more the Germans are positioned to cover all of the easy passes with the most advanced player both using his shadow to cover the ball to Fernandinho and moving forwards to pressure Luiz. It’s worth noting that Oscar has dropped from the number 10 position to try to offer a shorter option. This happened more and more frequently as the game progressed with Oscar trying desperately to find a pocket of space near his own half to encourage Brazil to play out with shorter passes – at one point Oscar dropped beyond his midfield and was almost level with the central defenders.

The shorter pass to Oscar is still risky given the angles and positioning of the two German players through which the pass would have to go.

These were the two most obvious tactical failings from Brazil in the semi final but in truth both of these would have been easily avoidable had the Brazilian coach been willing to alter his gameplan to counter the way that the Germans had started to play. There are a few key theories for you to follow in Football Manager to ensure that you don’t fall in to the same traps.

1.) Have a clear idea of how you want to play.

It’s your game and nobody else can tell you how to play it. The style of play that you look to implement within the game is entirely up to you. It’s absolutely fine to play a possession based game but as with every other style there are both positives and negatives to consider. It’s true that you will have a greater share of the possession but you may also find that you create slightly less chances than you might expect. The key is to ensure that as many of those chances that you do create are primary chances as discussed previously. If you’ve got the ball for a large portion of the game then the opposition will naturally begin to drop deeper in a compact shape. It’s therefore essential that whilst circulating the ball in the attacking phase that you have players trying to move in and out of space. The easiest way to do this is by having both wide attacking players set to come infield and attacking fullback that can attack the space created. It can also be achieved centrally by  using no strikers and having one or more players attack the defensive line from either the attacking midfield or central midfield slot.

It is also entirely possible to play using a direct style as we saw Brazil try to do. The key however is to follow the Marcelo Bielsa approach and ensure that even if the ball is being moved forward quickly that it is flowing through the midfield. I’ve written often in the past about the need to create connections throughout your team and at no point is this more crucial than when trying to play direct. Think about how you want your team to play from back to front. If the goalkeeper is set to distribute the ball to the fullback then what’s the next pass? Does he move it infield to the centre back? If so then the direct philosophy will fail. He should be looking to advance the ball in to midfield but is the central midfielder set to play to close to the attacking third? If so then the pass in to midfield becomes harder to execute. Ensure that when you are watching your team build up that they are making clear and easy passes forward and the direct style will work.

2.) Balance your team

Playing attacking football is great in theory and can be executed well in practice. You do however need to be sure that there is an element of balance in your side, in the semi final Brazil instructed both fullbacks to push forward whenever they had possession to create width and try to overload the German fullbacks. Unfortunately they also failed to ensure that they were covered effectively. We’ve seen above that Luiz Gustavo would look to move back from the centre of midfield to cover the left of the defence, unfortunately this left Fernandinho isolated in the centre of the pitch. This would not be a problem had Fernandinho ben instructed to play deeper and create a defensive triangle with the central defenders. Instead Fernandinho was looking constantly to advance and connect with the advanced full backs or with Oscar in the attacking midfield position.

There are two ways that you can balance a team set up to attack as Brazil were. Firstly you can directly address the issues caused by your fullbacks, you can still have two fullbacks with the same roles assigned but alter the way that they play using their instructions. For example whilst you may retain Marcelo as an attacking weapon you could alter Maicon to ensure that he sits deeper and offers an element of defensive cover. These asymmetrical settings can be used all over the pitch in players mirrored in position and role to create layers throughout your team both for defending and attacking. Secondly you can ensure that you have a defensive midfielder that is content to sit and form a strong defensive triangle with your two centre backs. This role was perfected by Fernando whilst playing under Andre Villas-Boas at Porto and most of his movement throughout a game was horizontal instead of vertical. Fernando would sit just in front of his defenders and read the game in transition so that when the ball was lost and the opposition switched to attack he would be able to move left or right to cover the area that posed the greatest risk to the team. By having one of you players sit in this position they not only provide defensive stability but are also better used in the attacking phase of the game as the pass out of defence to the holding player is shorter and the opposition have to work harder to put pressure on the ball.

This game was almost an anomaly in terms of the result and the statistics but it does provide a valuable lesson for us all. You can play two matches of Football Manager and have identical statistics but vastly different results this does not mean that the match engine is broken or poor or that the game is cheating you in some way it simply means that you have to view statistics in context and watching the key points of the game will show you just how well or indeed how poorly your team have played without having to rely purely on statistics. Next time you want to take to social media or a forum to complain that the match engine has caused you to lose another game then take a second to remind yourself that however much a defeat may irritate you that you are still playing the most advanced football management simulation created to this point. Statistics are truly useless without looking at the bigger picture.