Welcome to Tactical Aspects, a new series of posts where I’ll be looking at individual elements of the in-game tactics creator. I don’t claim to be a tactical expert of any sort; there are far more knowledgeable writers than myself in the community, but I hope that by taking a look at smaller aspects in isolation, I can put together some articles that help a few readers to tweak their systems whilst learning something myself along the way.
In today’s post, I’ll be starting at the back and looking at the defensive line. Can a low line only be used by underdogs? How high is too high to set your line? Let’s have a look.
Let’s start with the basics; there are five different options for the defensive line in Football Manager, which can be found in the Out of Possession section of the Team Instructions.
Much Lower > Lower > Standard > Higher > Much Higher
This in itself is fairly self explanatory, the lower the defensive line is set, the closer to their own goal the defence will set themselves. There are different scenarios where a lower or higher line can make a difference, both positive and negative, but we’ll cover that later in the post. For now let’s have a look at a very simple piece of analysis; how far will the line move in either direction if we change the instruction?
At either extreme, the defensive line will camp around the edge of their own penalty area (much lower) or just behind the halfway line (much higher) with increments in between. The defensive line then works in tandem with the Line of Engagement to create each side’s ‘defensive block’ which refers to the shape the side fall into when out of possession. Where you set your defensive line will dictate how high up or down the pitch you want that block to sit and engage the opposition attack. The three most commonly talked about defensive blocks are the ‘low block’, ‘mid block’ and ‘high block’.
THE LOW BLOCK
The low block is a defensive system most commonly associated with ‘weaker’ sides looking to grind out a result against a more well equipped opponent. There are examples of stronger sides achieving success with a low block, most famously Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, but this is mostly down to their extra quality allowing them to soak up pressure before regularly counter attacking with speed and quality. For most teams, a low block is about protecting what they have, not looking for more.
The key to a successful low block is being as compact as possible, with two strong lines sat close to one another that make it very difficult for the opposition to play through. This can be produced in a number of tactical shapes, but most commonly the 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and the 3-5-2.
4-4-2 in a low block.
3-5-2/5-3-2 in a low block.
4-5-1 in a low block.
As well as being vertically compact to reduce space between the lines for attackers to exploit, the low block also relies on being narrow, as this forces the opposition to play out wide where there is less chance of them scoring. Forcing the play wide can provide the full-back, winger and, if necessary, a central midfielder the opportunity to surround the man on the ball and cover off his passing options, forcing him to play backwards and thus allowing the side a chance to regroup and get back into their shape.
The low block could never be called a glamorous way to play the beautiful game, but the amount of hard work, co-ordination and mental fortitude it takes to execute consistently make it a system that needs to be deeply respected, even if it isn’t adored.
THE MID BLOCK
The mid block is a more balanced defensive system, but shares many of the same principles as the low block. Staying compact both vertically and horizontally is key as the system still looks to push the opposition play out wide, but the block will stay slightly further up the pitch and risk leaving some space in behind, with the aim of allowing some space at each end of the pitch to avoid offering too much at either end. Sides playing with a mid block generally won’t press the opposition back line, knowing that it will be very difficult to play progressive or threatening passes from that deep. With this comes the risk that one player breaking the defensive shape or pressing on their own leaves behind a space that can potentially be exploited, so staying disciplined and compact is essential. The main pressing trigger tends to be when the ball is played into an opposition midfielder, with the hope of restricting passing options, leading to a backwards pass or a ball out wide into less threatening areas.
When out of possession, a mid block will look to fill the area within the orange square.
Another aspect of the mid block that can be advantageous over the low block is the transition from defence to attack. By setting the defensive line further up the pitch, the side have less ground to cover and therefore can attack vulnerable areas of the pitch more quickly, before the defence has time to regroup. This of course relies on having quick players capable of direct attacking play, but it can be a very effective tactic.
THE HIGH BLOCK
Many of the best sides around the world and now employing a high block defensively, or high press as it’s also known. The high block is a far more risky tactic, as it leaves a lot of space in behind the back line, meaning that one defender dropping slightly deeper than the rest of the line or even just a quality ball over the top has the ability to completely expose the goalkeeper one on one. It’s a physically demanding system that requires excellent reading of the game and ability to execute, which is why it’s generally only a successful method for strong sides full of quality players and good squad depth.
A high block is often paired with a high intensity press to allow opposition players less time on the ball, another method of protecting the defence from a quick counter attack. It’s very difficult to sustain a high press for 90 minutes, so it’s often used for periods of a game rather than the whole duration. While remaining compact out of possession, the gaps between each line do tend to stretch slightly with a higher block as there is more focus on pressing the opposition defence, so without a strong and co-ordinated press there are more gaps for a skilled side to play through, again leaving the defence exposed.
As I said before, the high block is extremely high risk, and managers use the system accepting that, but having faith in their players to go out and fulfil their roles, as the rewards for getting it right are near domination over any side not equipped to deal with it. All it takes then is a little spark of quality to make the breakthrough!
HOW THIS TRANSLATES TO FOOTBALL MANAGER
We’ve already looked at the difference in starting positions between the various Defensive Line options, but that alone won’t be enough to set up your sides defensive structure. So let’s take a look at the various blocks we’ve discussed above, and how they could look in Football Manager.
To execute a low block system, the Defensive Line and Line of Engagement need to be as close to each other as possible, so I would recommend dropping both down to Much Lower. If this causes sides to put more pressure on than your side can deal with then Lower on both could also result in an effective low block, but remember that no setup is going to be 100% effective, football doesn’t work that way and therefore neither does FM, even the best laid plans can go awry. It’s also important to set the Defensive Width to be as narrow as possible, to force the opposition outside where they are less dangerous, the more bodies in the central channel of the pitch the better. I’ve left the Pressing Intensity as standard, because I recommend setting the press with player instructions rather than giving one default instruction to the whole side. The only players we want pressing with a lot of intensity are the full-backs and wingers, so they have been set as such, where as the other players have been given instructions to press less often.
N.B. I tend to leave the Team Mentality on balanced for similar reasons, as changing this has an overriding effect on many facets of play, including width, tempo and passing length. I prefer to set these how I want them, and then shift mentality mid match dependant on the situation, to take more or fewer risks.
The mid block is set up in a very similar way, with the only real difference being the height of the Defensive Line, which I’ve now set to Standard. The press is utilized in the same way, so we’ve kept it at standard with the same player instructions set as the low block. I’ve kept the Line of Engagement at Much Lower rather than trying to raise it, as we’re still looking for the shape to be as compact as possible; we aren’t looking to press them high up the pitch, we just want our starting position to be more neutral which also makes this the most flexible system of the three.
We see the most significant changes when changing to the high block, where we’ve pushed the Defensive Line as high as we can, as well as pushing the Line of Engagement to Higher. We could go to Much Higher here, but that would lessen the compression between the lines, giving the opposition more dangerous pockets to work in if they can find them. I’d only look at putting this all the way up if the opposition goalkeeper has particularly poor distribution or composure, a weakness that makes them worth exploiting.
I still want the opposition attack pushed out to the wings, us being higher up the pitch doesn’t change that, although there are situations where I would tweak this, predominantly if the opposition are playing with traditional wingers that play on the side of their strongest foot, or if I feel my central defenders are likely to lose the key aerial battles. I don’t care who my defenders are, if the opposition are trotting out the new Peter Crouch I don’t want them putting loads of crosses in!
I have changed the pressing intensity this time, pushing it slightly higher to More Urgent. I’ve done this for the benefit of the attacking players, where it’s harder to put them in a role that presses more than standard by default, except for the Pressing Forward. If you find this is dragging the whole side out of their shape too much, I’d recommend changing the Player Instructions of the CMs and CBs to Less Urgent pressing to counter the team instruction.
Of course, all of this is just my interpretation, and as I said at the start of the post I’m by no means an expert, far from it! If there’s anything I’ve missed, gotten wrong or you just want to start a discussion, leave a comment on the post or hit me up on Twitter, I’d love to know your thoughts!
Thanks for reading.