Hey! It’s been a while eh? I believe I apologised on Twitter, but if you missed that: the AFC Orient save died because of a terminal error with the custom database I was using. Rotten luck, but we move on.
It’s been an interesting few months for me, but I’m finally back to where I feel like writing about the game I love again. For now, this is a one-off post detailing some of the issues I’ve had to deal with in my most recent save with Tottenham Hotspur, with a bit of squad management and tactical analysis, if you hadn’t already guessed from the title.
Football Manager 2017 – and probably every FM ever made – is an incredibly frustrating experience at times. Your team can dominate a match but still come out of it on the end of a disappointing result. Lord knows the expletives I’ve shouted at my tiny dotted strikers after losing 1-0 despite several chances to score. But I play on. The challenge to beat the computer is set and I can’t give it up.
In my latest season at Spurs, we went on what constitutes a terrible run of form for us despite winning the first two games, and the Premier League title the previous season, reasonably comfortably. It came at the end of August after a poor 0-0 draw at home (a fortress usually, where we hadn’t lost in the league since moving to New White Hart Lane) against Newcastle:
You can see from the astonishing amount of red and yellow in there, it was not good times. Where did this run of form come from? I had promised Virgil van Dijk, James Ward-Prowse and Leon Bailey that I would improve our strength in the Defender department, but failed to do so. I wanted to promote youth (namely James Buchanan, here) but this annoyed them. Ward-Prowse, being our captain, and van Dijk, our vice captain, naturally claimed the support of their teammates in this argument. I had failed my squad, and it seriously hindered our performances. We played well, but a lot of the time the finishing or the defending let us down. The team wasn’t playing as a team anymore. It was them vs me. And I was losing.
I dropped JWP, VVD, and Bailer from the team when I could afford to with fitness, suspensions and injuries, so we still managed to pick up some good results, like the NLD win against Arsenal. I feel this is the best way to manage the team. Take the troublemakers out of the team for a while – JWP even dropped to the U23s to be made an example of, I’m in charge – and trust in the rest of your squad. Buchanan came into the team, as well as fellow English wonderkid Ollie Phillips. Morale is incredibly important in FM (some may say too important), and doing this helped to keep it from going below an “Okay” level, and we kept our heads a bit. We progressed from our Champions League group – the one competition we haven’t won yet.
The issue was still there though. We were having to fight really really hard for every scrap of points, and I was worried the season was running away from us. I’d arranged to sign Daniele Rugani, a fantastic defender, but this didn’t improve the situation until finally in January the players forgot about the broken promises and focused on what they knew best. Before January though, we had four more games of December to play. I knew we were still in a fight for points, and I needed to change how I was preparing for games to ensure we took as many as possible. I decided to revisit using Opposition Instructions, but in a different way to how I did in this post.
Like I said in the above tweets, I used to make a point of looking through opposition players to spot weaknesses to exploit. I remember a thread I started on one of the old FM forums too, where I explained how and why I made certain decisions. Let’s take that Liverpool game for example:
This is how Liverpool lined up, and I want to bring specific attention to Klaassen and Asensio. Both are incredible players, in fact Klaassen is player I simply adore. They are however both limited defensively. It makes sense for a Jurgen Klopp team to go with a risky 4-2-3-1, even in a difficult game. But putting two defensively poor midfielders in your midfield two is suicidal. At this point I was a couple games into my experiment in pragmatism – making small tweaks to how the team play with the opposition in mind – and was feeling comfortable.
Noticing the poor defensive capabilities of Liverpool’s midfield duo, I decided to focus our attentions down that avenue. I ticked Exploit the Middle and told our AMC Marcus Edwards and Ollie Phillips to dribble more, in an attempt to get them to dribble past Klaassen and Asensio and into the dangerous space in behind. From there they can pull the strings, with our wingers and strikers able to manipulate L’pool’s defenders out of position. Fair to say with a 3-0 victory away at Anfield, it worked.
A quick sidenote on the two goals we conceded against Stoke: they were both stonking free-kicks from Vincenzo Grifo. An annoying blotch on an otherwise incredible run of clean sheets which continued into the January until a 2-0 loss against Hull where I made mistakes in judgement. I’m about to play Brighton away from home, a game which should go well, but before I play it, I’ll go through some of the decisions regarding Opposition Instructions that I’ve made and try my best to explain why. This piece is already longer than I expected, so I’ll just focus on Brighton’s defence for now:
Brighton are playing a 4-2-3-1, and we’re playing a tactic that I’ve been developing since the second season. Always strive to improve. From here, we move onto the Opposition Instructions screen, where we’ll look into the potential strengths/weaknesses of Brighton’s defence and what I tend to do when I spot them. So this is what the screen looks like before we make our changes:
First things first, I don’t care what my assistant says. I’ll be making the decisions here. Here’s a closer look at their back four:
The attributes I look for when looking at all opposition players are: First Touch, Passing, Tackling, Bravery, Composure, Decisions, Flair, Agility, and Strength. I feel if a player is low in any of these areas (there are probably more but these are the ones I’ve focused on so far), then there is something to exploit.
For example, looking at Shane Duffy and Amavi in the above screenshots, I notice their Composure attributes are 8-11 (a bit on the low side). A lack of composure could mean that under pressure they might make mistakes, even if their decisions attribute is high, they need the composure to make the right decision under pressure, rather than panicking. Therefore I set OIs on these two players to “Always” closing down. It’s especially helpful here on Shane Duffy, who also has low stats for both First Touch and Passing. We can force him into giving the ball away quite easily, I feel.
Mitchell Weiser’s Bravery and especially his Strength attributes are on the low side, so with him we’ll add Hard tackling. It should be easier to dispossess him this way, his Bravery means he won’t want to get stuck in to a challenge, and if he does get stuck in, his Strength should prove his downfall. The only weakness to Jorge Mere’s game might be the combination of his low Aggression and his Jumping Reach, and with the right personnel I would consider going direct to a Target Man and getting plenty of crosses in, but that doesn’t suit our style of play. It may still happen, but it’s not something we’re going to look to exploit unless for a last resort. After the defence, I look through each of the rest of the players and use the same methodology, and then head into the game after a convincing team talk. This is how the Opposition Instructions look come kick-off:
A quick run-down I guess, Nouri, Carroll, Donoso and Morin all have poor Strength, so get Hard tackling and Gregor Jack has the deadly combination of poor Composure AND poor Decisions. I should point out that of course Brighton aren’t expected to be difficult opposition, but this is one of those away games that could present a potential banana peel should we not approach it the right way. With that in mind, how did the game go?
We took the lead after two minutes through Harry Kane, but Brighton score with their first shot (Oh FM… you minx). We gave Carroll too much time on the ball in the centre of the pitch, he found Jack on the left who evaded our right back’s attentions and slipped Coman into the channel. Coman managed to find the byline and get the ball across and a failed clearance by our left back fell kindly to Morin who volleyed home. Annoying, but we can learn. We were too passive in defending, on every pass. There was also too much space for Coman to get to the byline, and we are away from home? I think rather than mess with the Team’s closing down settings, I’ll just tell the defensive line to sit a little deeper. Our right back missing the challenge against Jack was key to the opening, in my opinion, so hopefully sitting deeper will help our right back make a better decision about when to be active and perhaps not leave so much space.
After the first half I’ve seen that Brighton are distributing short from their goalkeeper. With the way I’ve set the opposition instructions to close down Duffy and Amavi, I feel it’s sensible to test out whether we can’t force more mistakes by trying to prevent those short distributions. It sounds a little bit contrary to sitting deeper, but really it just means that my advanced 3 players will be closer to Brighton’s keeper and ready to impose themselves. The rest of the team should remain in a good shape and ready to collect clearances or long balls should they come. Half Time.
I was holding off on my next change until now to see how the game went, as I didn’t want to directly copy what I did in the Liverpool game, but look at Nouri and Carroll’s Tackling attribute. We know how to exploit this. We’ll exploit the middle and tell Edwards+Phillips to dribble more again if Brighton don’t change their formation.
My fears are answered when Brighton decide they’re happy with a point against us. It’s understandable so they move to a very defensive 4-1-4-1, bringing on a defensive midfielder for their goalscorer Morin. The substitute gives us a new player to look at. His Bravery and Tackling aren’t great, so we’ll go Hard on him and continue with the central dribbling plan. If it’s not as effective as it was by perhaps the 75th minute, then we’ll change it back and, at least we’ve learnt something else: that it’s not as effective when playing against a defensive leaning team than it was against Klopp’s ultra-aggressive style.
The stats perhaps suggest we were the better side on the day and Brighton scored with their first shot of the game. These things happen. But earlier in the season, and in my time playing this game, I could very easily have lost that 1-0 too. We definitely took too many long shots, although many of these came in the second half after Brighton had changed to accept the draw. We became frustrated.
These kind of results are good though. More opportunities to learn. The changes that worked so well against Liverpool proved ineffective against a deep defence. In future, I’ll probably consider attacking the wings instead. It was also probably a mistake to wait until we had conceded to change to a deeper line away from home, but at the time I felt comfortable. These things happen, this is football. This may look like a failed experiment, but it has offered an opportunity to learn more about what works, what doesn’t, and what to do instead in the world of FM. It’s also Just One Game™ and for a fairer example of how preparing suitably to combat your opponent’s weaknesses can benefit your game, I point you to a) The aforementioned Liverpool result and b) our form before and after I started on this adventure:
I think the sheer change in number of clean sheets is particularly evident of the turnaround we’ve enjoyed. Hopefully we can catch Utd and Chelsea and at least, in a very Spursy way, put the pressure on.
Thanks for reading this far. If you have then you are amazing and probably as addicted to this game as I am. I know this is a long piece so it is massively appreciated. If you want to talk more about this, enjoyed the content and want to know when more is out, or if you want to tell me that I’m pumping too much time into this game, then please follow and message me on Twitter.