Welcome back to On the Break! There hasn’t been a new Tactical Aspects post for 4 months! Time to correct that, I think. This time out we’re going to take a look at one single player role, the Ball-Playing Defender. I use this role a lot, and many others do too, but I think there are a couple of misconceptions about what the role actually offers and how to get the best from it.
The Ball-Playing Defender is a role that can be selected for central defenders within Football Manager. It can also be used with three different duties; Cover, Defend and Stopper. Football Manager describes the role as the following:
‘The main job of the Ball-Playing Defender is to stop the opposing attackers from playing and to clear the ball from danger when required. However, unlike standard central defenders, the Ball-Playing Defender is encouraged to launch defence splitting through balls from deep to generate counter-attacking opportunities.’
It’s important to remember that in Football Manager, roles are just a group of player instructions that dictate a player’s behaviour and decisions. The Ball-Playing Defender is a fairly ‘open’ role, and by that I mean there are very few instructions that are locked and can’t be changed.
As you can see, the Ball-Playing Defender will always Take More Risks with their passing, and on a Defend duty will always Hold Position; however, this is unlocked for the Stopper and Cover duties. Everything else is adjustable, meaning that there is plenty of flexibility available to get your Ball-Playing Defender playing the way you’d like.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD BALL-PLAYING DEFENDER?
It’s all very well knowing you’d like to use a Ball-Playing Defender, but having the right man to fulfil the role is key. Some of the best defenders around aren’t ball-players, so it’s unwise to assume everyone will have the skillset. These are some of the most vital things for a Ball-Playing Defender to have in their locker.
Of course the most fundamental thing that any player needs to succeed in a role is high attributes in the right areas. First and foremost, a Ball-Playing Defender is exactly that, a defender. Therefore the things you’d expect a central defender to excel at all need to be there, plus the added extra quality on the ball to allow them to play important passes. Add in the extra mental attributes needed and it becomes a very demanding role with an extensive skillset. There are slight variations between the different duties, but below are all of the necessary attributes to be an effective Ball-Playing Defender (Defend).
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk is probably as close to a perfect Ball-Playing Defender as it’s going to be possible to find. With every key attribute at 15 or over and the lowest preferable attribute at 14, there are no weaknesses in his ability to play as a Ball-Playing Defender. Essentially you’re looking for your Ball-Playing Defender to be a hybrid of a centre back and a quality deep-lying playmaker, and if I had told you this was a central midfielder’s attribute card, I doubt you’d have questioned it much.
Player traits are a hugely important, but sometimes easy to ignore aspect of how effective a player is going to be. Traits don’t make a player ‘better’, they only affect a player’s decision making in certain situations, but when they complement a player’s role and the overall tactic they’re playing in they can separate a good player from a great one.
There are a few traits that stand above the rest when it comes to their relevance to a Ball-Playing Defender, some more positive than others.
Brings Ball Out of Defence – Player will step out of defence with the ball and progress into midfield positions.
Likes to Switch Ball to Wide Areas – Player will look to move the ball from the middle to wide areas with diagonal passes.
Tries Killer Balls Often – Player will look to play a higher than average number of through balls.
Tries Long Range Passes – Player will want to play passes over longer distances more often than not.
Tries to Play Way Out of Trouble – Player will look to pass or dribble to get away from an opponent, rather than aimlessly clear the ball.
Dwells on Ball – Player will take longer to make a decision when in possession.
Plays No Through Balls – Player will look to play a lower than average amount of through balls.
Stays Back at All Times – Player will make no forward runs.
These are down to interpretation of course, you may want a Ball-Playing Defender who doesn’t switch to the flanks for example, as it may not fit in with the rest of your tactic. There are also many other traits in the game, some of which may become relevant on occasion but aren’t primary traits for the position. I’ve also focused just on the passing side on the traits, as the defensive minded ones will be similar to a standard central defender role.
Harry Maguire of Manchester United is not only a world-class Ball-Playing Defender, but has an excellent set of player traits to make him more of an attacking presence. With traits such as Runs With Ball Through Centre and Brings Ball Out of Defence, Maguire will stride forward with the ball to assess his passing options and join the midfield while in possession. Tries Long Range Passes is a trait that really buys into the counter-attacking game plan, either when spotting a run from a forward player, or having the composure to pick a pass after nullifying an opposition attack. Finally, Likes To Switch Ball To Wide Areas is a great trait to have in a side that possesses wide players such as Rashford, Sancho and Greenwood. Getting the ball to them early while they’re in space gives them a great opportunity to drive at the opposition defence or take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities.
IMPLEMENTING A BALL-PLAYING DEFENDER
Although the role description of a Ball-Playing Defender specifically mentions creating counter-attacking opportunities, it’s a role that many would associate with more possession based system. It makes sense right? If you want to dominate the ball, you want as many players as possible comfortable on the ball and knocking passes around. This isn’t what a Ball-Playing Defender is instructed to do by default, though. So let’s have a look at a couple of different ways the Ball-Playing Defender, in these examples Harry Maguire, can be set up to suit different tactics.
THE DEFAULT BALL-PLAYING DEFENDER
The default player instructions for a Ball-Playing Defender are fairly conservative, but give a clear nod to the counter-attacking nature that the role description explains. With a Defensive mentality (you can see more about role mentalities HERE) and Hold Position selected, Maguire won’t be expected to step out much from the defensive line, instead staying level with his fellow defenders. Instead he’ll be more conservative with his positioning but more aggressive with his passing. Take More Risks is a hard-coded instruction, and although his passing directness is set to Standard, it’s important to pay attention to the bar underneath and how the segments are set out. Standard in this case fills two-thirds of the bar, meaning the passing length is going to be more direct than average.
It’s important to remember that the general tactic will affect things like Role Mentality and the bars for Pressing Intensity and Passing Directness, so keep an eye on them when making changes.
THE AGGRESSIVE BALL-PLAYING DEFENDER
If I’ve got Slabhead in my team, this is how I want him playing. I’ve gone for the Stopper duty on this occasion for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it unlocks the hard-coded Hold Position instruction, which allows Maguire the opportunities to step forward from the defensive line. I don’t want him doing this when the side are defending though, which is why his Pressing Intensity has been left on Standard. The other reason is because it raises his Role Mentality from Defensive to Cautious, which will slightly raise the amount of risks he will take to contribute to attacks. I’ve also added Dribble More – it’s not a highlighted attribute at all, but having a big, strong player with a decent level of dribbling (13) means that he’ll be very difficult to knock off the ball, and will also encourage him to step further into the midfield than he may do otherwise.
I think this style of Ball-Playing Defender can work well in a couple of different systems and situations. In the current Manchester United side, the double pivot of McFred are far more industrious than they are creative, so having Maguire step forward and take some risks with the ball allows them to focus on their roles without the added pressure of being the ones to fire passes into the side’s attacking talent.
In a side with more creative central midfielders, having this set of instructions for your Ball-Playing Defender could be useful to keep the most threatening players high up the pitch.
Many Manchester United fans are crying out for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to play a 4-3-3 and allow both Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes to flourish as ‘Free 8s’ with a single holding midfielder behind them. Of course the counter argument to this is that neither Fred nor Scott McTominay are solid enough as the single pivot to protect them. In Football Manager however, either of them are good enough for a season to hold the fort, providing they’re solely tasked with defensive responsibility. Harry Maguire striding out of the defence and playing the more risky passes from deep allows Pogba and Fernandes to take up more dangerous attacking positions without having to continually come deep to pick up the ball and do everything themselves.
THE CONSERVATIVE BALL-PLAYING DEFENDER
This is what many people believe a Ball-Playing Defender should do by default, but that isn’t the case, as we’ve seen above. We’re back to the Defend duty this time, as Maguire won’t be stepping out of the defence and therefore Hold Position being locked in isn’t an issue. It’s when Maguire himself has the ball though that things are most different than we’ve seen before; the Passing Directness is set to Shorter Passing, and Dribbling and Shooting have both been set to Less Often. This is a Ball-Playing Defender who will do well in a very possession heavy system. He’ll get a lot of touches deep in his own half, keep the ball moving from side to side while his side poke and probe to break the opposition’s shape, and try to get the ball into the feet of the creators in midfield.
The Ball-Playing Defender is a great role to have at the back if you have a player with the attributes and traits to do it justice, and it’s also fairly versatile in the way it can be set up. Remember, their first port of call is looking to play direct forward passes to start counter-attacks, so for a side looking to take advantage of quick transitions they can be a very under-rated weapon in the arsenal. That’s not to say that they can’t be used in sides more likely to dominate, just have a careful look at their player instructions and make sure they’re being told to sit tight and keep the ball ticking over.
So that’s it for my look at the Ball-Playing Defender, let me know if or how you use them either in the comments or over on Twitter.
Thanks for reading.