Welcome back to On the Break! Next up in the Violeta Extra series is a post I didn’t plan to write, but on a monotonous day at work my mind started to wander towards some big games I have coming up and how best to prepare for key games in Football Manager, so now it’s time to put those thoughts on paper (um, on a screen? In a post!) and figure out how best to approach my biggest battles.
At the time of writing I’m currently in a brief mid-season break between the end of the Apertura and the start of the Intermedio. Click here if you’d like to see how the first stage of the season went, but the reason I mention it is due to the Copa Libertadores. We weren’t expected to pull up any trees, but we performed admirably and only narrowly missed out on progressing past the group stages at the first time of asking. We went into the final round of games needing a win to give ourselves a chance, but I was so afraid of losing that we paid our opposition far too much respect and ultimately paid the price, playing out a drab 0-0 and finishing third in the group.
Finishing third saw us drop into the Copa Sudamericana, meaning our continental campaign isn’t over just yet. In between Intermedio fixtures we face Argentinian side Lanús, in a tie where we are most certainly the underdogs. Even though we have had some great results against familiar foes Nacional and Peñarol, our record against stronger sides isn’t great, and when they beat us it’s often dominant, which makes me feel that there’s still a gulf between us and them, even if we have closed the gap.
WHAT I’VE DONE SO FAR
Oh boy, this is going to be a short section! The truth I haven’t really considered many tweaks before a big game before, maybe the occasional drop of the defensive line or slightly more reserved player roles, but I focus more on our play than the opposition, often spoken as a point of pride in press conferences, but I’ve no doubt that my naivety in this area has cost us results in the past.
My go-to press conference answer!
I started to do a little bit of big match preparation in the Libertadores group stages, but only by adjusting our shape.
The 4-2-3-1 on the left is our regular system, utilising a DLP-MEZ double pivot behind the number 10, the main creator of the side. In an attempt to stay competitive against stronger sides I dropped the AMC in favour of an Anchor Man to shield the backline, while a Carrilero offers some extra protection to the left-hand side, allowing the full back to push on and support the Inside Forward. The forward was also asked to perform a different role, dropping deeper into the gap vacated by the missing number 10 and helping to link up play.
Do I think this tweak worked? It would be easy to assume the answer is yes, we did better than I, the board, and the media all expected, but the following screenshot shows why I’m not thrilled.
Our two victories came in games where we stuck with our original 4-2-3-1, which leads me to question whether the change of shape actually held us back rather than allowing us to compete. The game at home to O’Higgins was one that I immediately deemed our best chance of victory so I wanted to take the game to them, and I was encouraged by how we played away at Santos and therefore felt we could threaten them at home, and both came to pass. The results with the 4-3-3 aren’t bad by any stretch, although as I mentioned earlier I do believe O’Higgins were there for the taking again, but if we were just a bit braver, could we have reaped the rewards?
WHAT I PLAN TO DO
As we prepare for our tie against Lanús, the first thing to note is that we play the first leg at home. Although preventing them from scoring an away goal would be a huge advantage, we want to be proactive and try to win the game so I’ll be playing the 4-2-3-1. The first port of call then, is to make sure that’s the system we’re working on in training, as I want the boys as familiar as possible before the game.
Next up: Training. I’ve started running general training this year for the first time since the training system was overhauled, thanks to the excellent series of videos that Fox 🦊 created on the subject, which you can check out HERE. I took the concept of dedicating blocks of time to different focuses and creating attacking and defensive schedules, and then tweak as necessary, alternating week by week. With the Lanús games coming mid-week as well as weekend league games there isn’t much time to fit in actual sessions, as I’d prefer to work on extra match preparation to get the boys ready and try to increase that tactical familiarity as much as possible. Work on set pieces is key too, as one lapse could be the deciding factor.
I have no idea if this is the best approach, I may be massively hindering the effectiveness of our training by doing so few dedicated sessions, but knowing how important match preparation is I want to make sure I give us the best chance possible.
As the match approaches, it’s important to make sure anybody who has a chance of making the match day squad is in the best condition possible. As the continental competitions allow 12 substitutes, that’s pretty much the entire first team squad. I’m very guilty of not paying enough attention to what goes on in the youth sides, so my involvement usually ends at setting some first-team players to be available. A smart move, until I forget to make them unavailable when I need them! I need to make sure the likes of Matías Fernández and Gastón Macchi are fit enough to make an impact should I need them from the bench.
Need to get these boys out of the reserve side and ready for first-team duty!
Last port of call, but probably the most important, is to take a look at the opposition ahead of time, and get a rough idea of how they may set up. This isn’t as easy in FM21 as previously as there are a few bugs around analysis and opposition reports, but we can still have a look at the analyst report and get an idea of general shape and their goal-scoring threats.
So we can see that they’re most likely to set up in a 4-1-4-1 with a holding midfielder, which actually suits us quite nicely. The battle between our number 10 and their DM will be key, but with our Inside Forward and Mezzala both looking to occupy the half-spaces there will be passing options for the 10, which hopefully will allow us to dominate the area in front of their back line. They are used to facing the 4-2-3-1, the shape we’ll be fielding, but being used to something and being effective against it are two different things.
We can see that actually, Lanús don’t perform that well when using their preferred shape. It’s important to remember though that this data is coming from the back end of their last full league campaign, where they were relegated from the Argentine Primera División. Still, they are conceding more chances than they’re creating, and that can only be good news for us. If they don’t line up in their 4-1-4-1 then I don’t really know what to expect. They seem to have a clear plan B in the 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders, they’ve used it for 215 minutes and created more chances than they concede but it hasn’t been their starting shape in the last 20 matches.
The above image shows where Lanús’ goals have come from in the last 20 games, and we can see that they are very reliant on their lone striker to be their source of goals, with the midfield not offering many contributions. This would lead me to believe they are likely to play with more industrious wingers, with their creativity coming from their central midfielders.
DID IT MAKE AN IMPACT?
It certainly looks like it on the surface! Realistically though, I don’t think the preparation made too much difference to what is an amazing and very unexpected victory. Let me explain.
We were as good in this game as I’ve ever seen us. We played some beautiful, flowing football and were clinical in front of goal, but the majority of our preparation was on the defensive side, as we prepared for what we assumed was an inevitable onslaught from a superior side. We held them at arms length pretty comfortably apart from one lapse, a loose pass from Yerson Solís back towards our centre-backs was intercepted and they went on to score. It’s difficult to say too much of this was directly influenced by our prep, but we’ll never know what may have been if we hadn’t adjusted.
HOW DO WE APPROACH THE SECOND LEG?
This isn’t the redundant question it seems. Yes we’re in an unbelievable position to advance and I’ll be disgusted if we don’t see it out, but remember they are still a stronger side than us, and we’re off to Argentina for the second leg. The question is do we stick with the system that got us such an impressive victory, or do we change to the 4-3-3 knowing that although we didn’t win any of the games we used it in, we were hard to break down and the score-lines in those matches would be enough to progress?
I don’t want to invite unnecessary pressure, so we’ll set up with the 4-2-3-1, but I’m keen to make sure we remain tactically flexible. To do this the starting AMC will be a player capable of dropping back to play in the midfield three if we do need to change to the 4-3-3. This does mean dropping Yerson Solís to the bench which is a shame, despite his error in the first leg he’s a very talented player and finding some form, but I don’t want to be put in a position where I’m being tempted into a sub early in the game if we concede an early goal.
We’ll also set up our training with plenty of match preparation again, although with this being the away leg the extra travel time means a lack of work on set pieces, but we’ll just have to go on as best we can and hope they don’t take advantage of their opportunities from dead balls. We also have the small matter of Nacional in the league after Lanús, so it’s pretty much a full week of match preparation in training.
The 4-2-3-1 was the correct decision, as Lanús set up with a narrow diamond in midfield, allowing us the space out wide to get our crosses in, and two away goals from 6’4″ winger Víctor Valenzuela left the Argentinians needing 7 goals. They got one just before half-time through a lovely piece of play but came out for the second half just as passive as they had been for a game and a half and we saw it out easily. Again, I don’t think the preparation played a huge role in securing us victory, but without seeing the alternate timeline where we didn’t prepare, we’ll never know, and I’ll therefore claim my managerial nous made all the difference!
This is by no means a comprehensive guide on how to prepare for big matches, it’s something I’ve long realised the importance of but I’m only now taking action on. Some of the very best managers are the most reactive, preferring to tweak the system to counter the opponent’s major threats. This isn’t a style that particularly suits me, but there are little bits I can take from it.
BIG MATCH PREPARATION
Get scout/analyst reports on opposition
Use those reports to consider tactical changes
Make sure the tactic being trained is correct for the upcoming fixture
Adjust training to add in match preparation and set piece sessions
Consider picking players that provide tactical flexibility
Ensure all needed players are fit and available
So there we have it, hopefully this post wasn’t too much of a ramble, I think there are certainly going to be times where our preparation will be more of a key factor, but just thinking these things through and starting to implement them is half the battle.
Let me know what you think in the comments, or over on Twitter!
Thanks for reading.