The Art Of Counter Attacking Football is something I wrote quite a few years ago but people always ask me about it. So I’ve decided to reupload it for people and while it might be old the only thing that has really changed is a couple of player roles might have been renamed and the team shape removed. But all the principles are still the same and the subject itself is still very relevant. I still set up using the principles the exact same way today on Football Manager 22 and will carry on to do so in the future too.

When thinking about counterattacking football I always think of this quote;

The accent in the counter attack style of play lays on the defensive team function, with the emphasis being on the defender’s own half of the field and letting the opponents keep the initiative of the game. This is to take advantage of the space behind their defense for the buildup and the attack. – Rinus Michels

Counter-attacking football can seem risky at times but it doesn’t have to be. But in order for it to be successful, you need every player on the same page and in defence, you can’t afford a player who has the potential to be a weak link. It requires you to sit deep and at times and absorb pressure. That’s why you need to have players who are actually capable of this and ensure they won’t lose concentration, as that can become problematic.

In order to use it as a full-time strategy it also requires the players to be positioned correctly, this means most of them are all back in their own half, bar one or two as a rule. The idea behind counter-attacking is you allow the opposition time on the ball and allow them to advance and attack you. This means that when they do and they over-commit, you might win the ball back, then you can sprint forward with numbers and try to use this to your advantage due to the opposition giving up space in behind.

So in short counter-attack is;

Sitting deep in your own half and staying sturdy in defence. Then when winning the ball back and the opposition has over commit men forward, launching explosive counterattacks to take advantage of the space they’ve left behind. It really is this simple.

The art of counter attacking football 

Under the hood of the sophisticated match engine (or none sophisticated depending on which side of the fence you are on)  counter attacks are triggered automatically on Football Manager. For those of you who remember the old slider system then you’ll recall the old ‘tick box’ for counterattacks. In old terms, the impact of the counter box being ticked was that a counterattack was started when there were less than X opposing players between the ball carrier and the opposing goal. Ticking the box meant that X was a bigger number than with the box unticked, making it more likely that a team tried to catch the opposition on the break when winning back the ball. Well, this still exists but is all done under the hood now and has been since the swap over from the sliders to the tactics creator. Most of you will know this already but some might not, that’s the reason for mentioning it.

On top of all of that, these three mentality structures, defensive, counter and overload all lower the threshold of what triggers a counterattack. The defensive and counter mentality structures are very similar the main difference is that the counter mentality is more geared to winning the ball back slightly higher up the pitch, so can seem a little more aggressive. So regardless of how you’ve set up with the instructions visible to you, all of this is going on underneath the hood (every time I say  Hood I always think of Thunderbirds!)of the game.

If you take the basics of what we’ve spoken about so far then you’ll realise you need to play in your own half, so this means using a shape that allows you to have numbers in your own half. So the shape you use to make this into a proper strategy is important. One of the more common shapes used for counter-attacking football is the 4-5-1. Other good shapes to use are 3-5-2 and 4-1-4-1. These are all good shapes to use because they pack the defensive position well and the midfield. This means that when you win the ball back you should have players well placed for counterattacks. I’ve just started a new saved game so I can do this little project and the tactic I’ll be using is the 4-1-4-1 because it suits my players. Taking the changes highlighted above for Football Manager 16 into account we should already have an idea of what kind of duties we should be looking at. I’m not too sure how many of you pay attention to the roles and duties the AI uses via various skins and add-ons but as a rule, they tend to line up something like this with regards to attacking duties;

  • 0-1 in defensive and counter.
  • 2 attacking duties in standard.
  • 3 in control.
  • 4 in attack.
  • 5 in overload.

When thinking about our own duties we should think along a similar path if we are trying to create something specific like a defensive or counter-attacking strategy and plan on using it for the full ninety minutes. I don’t believe it matters as much if you are going for a different style or approach but for counter and defensive systems then attack duties should be limited. On a counter system, I find it best to never go beyond two attack duties, any more and I feel you lose the balance of the side. Remember that the mentality structure you use sets the team’s baseline as a whole. I think this is where some people (and rightly so) get confused because they then think an attacking duty isn’t aggressive in their approach. That would be a wrong assumption, it’s still an aggressive role it’s just less aggressive than in an attacking mentality structure and so on. As the attack duty will further alter the default baseline and make them positioned more advanced because it alters the individual mentality structure of the player and other settings. You can most of these on the individual player instructions screen where you can set the players PI’s. So it’s worth remembering that at the end of the day, an attack duty is still attack-minded.

Before we look at the shape and break it down to see how and why it works, I’d also like to point out the attributes I would look for if I was squad building long-term to play this style of football. I’ll not list every single attribute because no doubt you’ll all have your own ideas. But as a general list here is what I’d go for;

Technical Attributes

Crossing – Whether it is from deep or the by-line, it’s a weapon that you can use to devastating effects. An early cross to an attacker can instantly put the opposition on the back foot. It’s something your wide players should have in their locker.

Dribbling – To take advantage of any space that appears you’ll want players who are able to bring the ball forward. It’s important for anyone who will be breaking from deep with the ball at their feet.

First Touch – When a player receives the ball you want to be confident his touch doesn’t kill the move right?

Technique – This goes with the above really. You need to know players are comfortable with the ball at their feet and can use the ball well. A bad technique player could hinder a counter-attacking tactic as it means he isn’t good with the ball at his feet. This can impact any kind of difficult passes or passes in general that require a bit of range.

Mental Attributes

Aggression – Players should want to be involved in everything. This can also help with winning the ball back early and starting quick counterattacks.

Bravery – You don’t want players who bottle it when trying to win the ball back early do you?

Off The Ball – Movement is the key to all attacking formations and play. If an attacking player has a low rating then he’ll be less likely to find a little bit of space and make the right moves to beat his marker before he receives the goal. Sometimes it can be the difference that gives you that extra yard.

Work rate – Players will need to work hard both in defence and attacking situations. They will be up and down the field all day long, so should be prepared to put in the hard graft.

Team Work – You need to play as a unit and this requires everyone on the same page. You can’t always afford to have a selfish player in this type of strategy as they can make moves break down.

Physical Attributes

Pace – Especially for players who like to drive forward and beat their man. It’s important for me that they can reach the top speed. Plus the players will be back and forth all match long.

Acceleration – This will provide that little edge in gaining an extra yard on the opposition. This and pace are very important.

Stamina – As the players will be up and down a lot, they need to be fit.

Strength – Having a high attribute for this will ensure he can hold his own against the opposition should they get close to each other. You don’t want your players to get out-muscled and knocked off the ball. It will also help you win the ball back.

I appreciate not everyone will have those attributes but that’s why at the beginning I mentioned if I was squad building long-term.

The Roles

So far we’ve covered the basics of counter-attacking football but I’ve missed one important bit of information out so far and the reason for that is, that I wanted to talk about it when talking about the player roles as it will make more sense then. When a counterattack is initiated underneath the game what happens is for the players involved in that phase of play, will see their mentality, forward runs, through-balls and passing all maxed out. So regardless of how you’ve set them up (that’s the important bit here) all of that will go out of the window if the player is involved in the counterattack phase of play. This is why you don’t have to be cavalier in your approach and is the main reason you can have players back behind the ball.


counter attacking football

It’s a pretty standard back six really with no obvious issues. The only odd thing might be why I selected a wingback for the right-sided player but that’s simple, he’s my best player and is very attack-minded. While I want to play counter-attacking I still want the star players to shine if possible. He will play slightly beyond the rest of the back three when attacking but in front of him, he also has a quality player who is focused on defensive duties and more than capable of offsetting his more attack-mindedness in terms of the attributes the player has.

The rest of the set-up is to keep players behind the ball and rigid defensively and not allow big gaps to appear or for players to get pulled out of position. My choice of an anchorman for the defensive midfield spot was down to the style I’m trying to create. As I’m building a counter-attacking set up I also increase the risk of counterattacks as I commit men forward during these phases. So I wanted someone who was focused on just defending and screening the back four. I don’t want to leave myself open, which is always a risk if you don’t get the correct balance. I believe this choice of role gives me this balance.


It’s important they all play as a solid unit and as a solid bank of four. This set-up allows for the defensive phases of play but in attack phases, they should also support the lone striker. The box-to-box midfielder is important because he is the main link-up player from the midfield to attack and is the one who will be the first support player. The others should all support him too though and all offer something different. The wide midfielders should offer a crossing threat, the box-to-box player will look to get alongside and beyond the striker. Then the supportive central midfielder should be a deeper option who offers support to the box-to-box player.


The art of counter attacking football

This is the tricky part of a defensive or counter-attacking system that relies on the use of a lone striker. If the striker is too deep then he might struggle to penetrate the opposition’s defence. If he’s too high he might get isolated from everyone else due to them being lower down the pitch. It’s difficult to find the right balance here so it’s important you pay attention to him during a game somehow. This is the only role in the whole tactic that I do change. If I see that the opposition is sat deep then I’ll use the deep-lying forward on an attack duty to occupy the defenders. He still comes deep and creates but he is also a handful for the opposition and doesn’t make life easy for them.

However, if I see the opposition is playing a high line then I mix things up and take a slightly different approach.

I use a defensive striker on a defend duty. This might seem a strange choice for some so let me try to explain my reasonings. When the opposition play with a high line the space I have to exploit is behind them, so it would make more sense to go with an attack-minded striker who can use that space. However, remember what I’m trying to create here and the rest of my roles in the setup. I’m conservative at the best of times with this tactic so if I played with an attack-minded striker I’d feel he wasn’t involved and would be isolated as the opposition’s defender would be high up the pitch and in turn, this means less space than usual for my midfielders.

So by using a defensive forward I use someone who is a bit of a pitbull, charging around and harassing the opposition’s defenders giving them less time on the ball and he doesn’t really allow them to play out from the back. This is important because if you allow high defensive lines time on the ball you get pinned in your own half because it’s easy for them to dictate the game from the back if they’re unpressurised. This gets rid of that to some extent and brings the striker closer to the midfield and therefore can force mistakes and errors that can lead to the opposition doing misplaced or rushed passes/clearances. At times this can lead to counterattacks for me.

I must point out though that I only use this approach in the defensive and counter strategies. In more attack-minded ones it makes more sense to do the reverse.

Team instructions and player instructions

As you can see, I don’t use any. The same can be said about the player instructions too, I have none. The reason behind this is I wanted to create something simple to show you all the basic ideas of how to approach this type of football. I also believe that TI’s and PI’s should only be used if you are trying to create a specific brand of football or if you want to refine player actions and their roles. Or you can use them as tools to change games around. Many people (especially on FM16) seem to use every single possible team instruction from the start. But that’s pointless for a number of reasons and one of the main ones is, how do they know or understand how all the TI’s or PI’s all link together and change the original structure? In almost all cases they don’t understand the impact each of them has but instead, they use them because they think ‘you have to. Well, you don’t. Use them to create specific styles or to refine things never use them without a proper valid reason. Also, understand the impact these will have on how your side currently plays. A proper understanding is needed so you know how the changes you applied actually work.

So shall we now get on with the match analysis and show you how it all works and why?

This is a game I played against a very strong Newcastle United side in the cup. As I’ve only created this particular save to demonstrate how to play counter-attacking football, I’m still in the first season, so I’m in League One still.

For this game, I decided to use a defensive forward for the reasons mentioned earlier in the post. Newcastle has six players inside my half as they try to attack me in this move. As you can see my back four looks pretty solid and because I use an anchor man when the box-to-box midfielder steps up to deal with the threat, I still have a four-man midfield.
A little later in the move;

I still have a very strong and disciplined back four who are holding their position. The midfield although not as a solid flat bank of four is still structurally strong and dealing with the threat of Newcastle. There is no immediate threat, not even if they switch play to the other side as my team will just shift across to deal with the danger. I also have all ten outfield players back in this screenshot. You can see how deep the defensive forward is coming which is making him closer to his teammates, which prevents isolation.  The move comes to nothing in the end due to the offside.

This screenshot highlights the risky side of counter-attacking football and why you need the defence to be sturdy and strong. It also shows why I had an anchorman on the side. Look at the positioning of the box-to-box midfielder, look how far up the pitch he is due to a move breaking down. Unless he is Superman or has The Flash’s speed then realistically he is never going to get back into position. If you don’t compensate for things like this then it leaves you exposed because someone else would have to deal with his defensive responsibilities, which then means someone has to cover for that player and so on. Then before you know it, the whole defensive unit is trying to do someone else’s job rather than their own. Luckily I already accounted for this with the inclusion of the anchorman. No matter what system you use it will have flaws or players who will at times fail to recover their positions when the ball is lost, so you need to take things like this into consideration when handing out roles and duties. This is what balance is all about, masking your weaknesses.

This is the start of a triggered counter-attacking move because Newcastle commit five men forward deep inside my own half here. When my defender gets the ball he immediately hits it long to the defensive forward who turns and runs into space. He’s smart here though as he doesn’t do it with great urgency because he knows his teammates are in support.

Look how quickly we commit men forward. Newcastle’s midfield and defence are disjointed and caught out of position. The defensive forward isn’t in any rush either because he’s on defensive duty. Due to this, he held the ball up rather than running far with it, just long enough to play with his teammates. Sadly my box-to-box midfielder doesn’t have great attributes and his first touch is heavy here so gives possession away. But still, it’s a great example of counter-attacking football.

Those are the shots from the game. The four blocked shots that I had (the red dots) were all from free kicks. Newcastle’s were all from open play apart from one of their blocked ones. As you can see, they were frustrated at times due to all the bodies I had in my own half. It’s hard to break down a side who defends stubbornly. So some of those efforts Newcastle has that are off target, were down to frustrations due to lack of space opening. That’s good because it means my defence was working how I expected.

That’s the result and the match stats for the game. Not bad for a little League One side.

If you want more up to date musing on various principles then be sure to check out the free book we did;

Football Manager The Playbook

You can also read it online if you don’t want to download it;

Online Version


  • Cleon

    Cleon is a distinguished figure in the Football Manager community, known for his tactical acumen and profound understanding of the game's intricacies. With a penchant for sharing knowledge, Cleon has authored "The Football Manager Playbook," offering a deep dive into crafting effective tactics. He's the brains behind the well-regarded blog "View From The Touchline," where he elucidates on football philosophies, game strategies, and more. Beyond the written word, Cleon engages with enthusiasts through social media, making complex football management concepts accessible to many.

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