4-4-2 Diamond Low Block
One of the biggest myths in Football Manager is that you cannot play a low-block and be successful as a strategy for 90 minutes in every match. This article is going to highlight exactly why that is a myth. For this project, I’m going to write about my time at Íþróttafélagið Þór in Iceland, where I used a 4-4-2 diamond low block. Getting a low block to work is not an easy task and can be highly frustrating. It requires a massive amount of patience to get right and attention to detail.
Before creating any tactic in Football Manager, you need to understand a few things and ask yourself a few questions. You also need a general idea about how you want to play. If not, then how do you know what type of players you need to bring in? Or what tactical changes to make? Without a basic idea of that, then you really have nothing to work towards. Anyways, back to those questions, they should be something like this;
- Do the players you have fit the tactic and style you want to create, or does the tactic and style have to fit the players?
- What are your player’s strengths and weaknesses?
- How does the style you want to create impact the strongest areas of your current squad? I.e., if you want to dominate the midfield, is the current player capable of doing it?!
- You might have to make compromises, to begin with, so what will you have to trade off?
One of the great accessible coaches and authors on Twitter, @PeterPrickett, always says, is he not playing defensive football if he doesn’t give the ball away? And he’s correct. Defensive football can actually take on many different interpretations and doesn’t have to be associated with playing a low block and camping in your own half.
Defensive football can be a side that is possession focused and doesn’t give the ball away. Another version could be a team that presses the opposition heavily from the front. It has many forms that it can take on.
The identity I wanted to create at the club was one that relied on playing a low block with the intention of staying solid and compact while absorbing pressure. Then, when a chance arises, counterattack. I love playing this type of football on Football Manager. So the identity I created was a defensive, low-block counter-attacking one.
I don’t just want to absorb pressure and do nothing else, as you can’t win games playing that way. The key to this is the roles you choose. Let the team’s playing style, team instructions and mentality determine how much you absorb. Then allow the players’ roles and duties to dictate how you play when in possession of the ball.
I personally believe that to be the key to getting low blocks or defensive football in general, to work. Many times I see people set up in these types of systems yet are super negative with the roles and duties they use. Then when they get the ball, they do nothing with it as they can’t get out of their own half. Or they simply don’t commit men forward or have runners.
It is possible to be compact and defensive to absorb pressure and then be lethal in attacks. This is why I can’t stress just how important the roles and duties you play are. I’ll show you how I approach it with the 4-4-2 diamond low block.
4-4-2 Diamond Low Block
This is what I’ve gone for and will explain why a little later on.
One vital bit of information you need to remember is that every tactic has strengths and weaknesses. There is no such thing as a perfect tactic, no matter how much you try. You always have some kind of tradeoff to make. It’s important you know, quickly, though, how your system actually works and why. If you don’t, then you won’t understand why certain things happen or won’t know what the weak areas of the system actually are. It makes it easier to identify real issues that you can fix and helps with the ‘how to fix the issue too.
I’ll be going into a lot of detail about the strengths and weaknesses of the 4-4-2 diamond low block later on in the article. But to give you a general idea of what you should be looking for and to understand how your own system works regardless of shape, it should look something like this;
- Two strikers
- Diamond midfield
- Use of a DMC
- Use of an AMC
- It’s an attacking formation
- Lots of passing options
- Numbers advantage in midfield normally
- Versatile midfield setups.
- Compact when in defensive situations
- A possible lack of midfield width at times
- Risk of the central midfielders’ being pulled out of position
- Vulnerable to counterattacks
- Requires superman type players for certain positions, i.e., full-backs
- Full backs can be isolated by the opposition
- Overloads down the flanks
- High energy expenditure
Here, I want to be quite passive initially. So for the base tactic of the 4-4-2 diamond low block, I will use a cautious mentality. This will likely change on a game-by-game basis though and cycle between cautious or defensive. I will never go higher than this.
The 4-4-2 diamond low block is quite an offensive formation by default.
For the team instructions, I wanted to use something straight out of the box. So these are the standard ones that come with the direct counter-attack tactical style. That way, everyone can see how it works straight away.
If you were creating a tactic though you can feel free to add to these or remove them if you wish. But for this 4-4-2 diamond low block project, they’re actually ideal for what I’m wanting.
Due to me wanting to stay compact and deep, that is why we use a lower defensive line and a lower line of engagement. To encourage us to keep our shape and stay in our own half. If we start chasing the ball around or engaging the opposition in the press too early, it will create gaps and we will lose some of our compactness.
We want to invite the opposition onto us in deep areas before coming aggressive. That is why we get stuck in and force-pressing traps more often in the deep areas. It all plays into our plan, and then when we win possession of the ball, we can attack. Forcing the players outside initially is because, while it looks like our flank is unprotected, we have the numbers centrally to deal with any crosses. The opposition can’t hurt us from out wide.
Once the ball is won back, we want to make the most of the opposition being very advanced in our own half. This is why we want a faster tempo and more direct passing in possession. The idea is to get the ball from our defence to the attack in the quickest possible way. This encourages that.
There is little point in winning the ball back and not being aggressive with it. That just allows the opposition to regain defensive shape and get players back in position to defend against us. I want to use the ball to hurt them. This is the ultimate trade-off for giving up possession. If I don’t do this, then why give up possession in the first place? It would make it redundant as a strategy.
The defence in the 4-42 diamond low block is well equipped for defending and should stay close to each other and be compact in defensive transitions. They sit deep and keep their shape until the pressing traps kick in. The choice of attacking wingbacks, though, was taken because I see them providing width and attacking down the flanks. The whole tactic will likely fall apart if they don’t do this, as they’re the only direct source of width.
I want the wingbacks to offer width and support attacks by going to the byline frequently. Since they play a demanding position that requires a lot of energy, the wingbacks are ultimately the most crucial component of the 4-4-2 diamond low block. Since they are the only real wide cover I have, the players must be able to support attacks by providing width while also being able to quickly regain their positions to aid in defensive situations.
I want a player here who can dictate the game from deep and recycle possession. I’m looking for a player who handles all the routine tasks and motivates the other midfielders. I want a player who does all the simple stuff and makes the rest of the midfield tick. This is why I’ve gone with a deep-lying playmaker to help with this. Due to him being on defensive duty, he should hold his position better and not support attacks.
The mezzala is the midfielder role. I really need him to make those defence-splitting runs from deep and to give me an outlet and a way out of our own half. This is likely the most important attacking role, as he should be one of the quickest to react to us winning possession back. He should make those early runs trying to play between the lines.
A box-to-box midfielder is another dynamic role that will see the player help support the defence and our attacks. It’s another high-energy role that again should enable him to be another runner from deep when we gain possession.
A bit like with the deep-lying playmaker, the advanced playmaker is expected to keep the ball and play balls to the more attack-minded players and be the creative outlet in the final third. It’s no use having all these runners if there is no one able to actually create for them.
I recently wrote about striker roles, which can be read here;
The idea behind these roles is the pressing forward will hound the opposition in our own half or close to the halfway line. Hopefully, this can help us win the ball back and then hit counterattacks. Or at the very least, force the opposition to make mistakes.
While the deep-lying forward can also be a creative outlet for the midfield and wingbacks, it’s all about having options and creating a good balance throughout the side.
Two Sides of the 4-4-2 Diamond Low Block
You should have seen by this point that the roles I actually use may be very different from the ones you believe I should be playing. As I stated earlier in the article, having an actual way out is important. My roles and duties allow me to dictate how we play when we have the ball, which is the key point. This is why I can still win games and score goals.
When creating tactics like this, you need to split the game into two things.
- With the ball
- Without the ball
I’ve seen people request some kind of addition that allows us to do the above for many years. But we can already do that. The formation you use is your base defensive shape, and then the roles and duties are how you’ll attack. Then we have the team instructions to further refine both of those.
That’s what I’ve explained above, how I’ve approached this and split the team into both with and without the ball. Now we are in a position to see how this plays out and why it works.
Before we jump into this analysis, I want to make it clear that this strategy works all the time for me, regardless of the opposition I play against. The reasons will become more apparent when I show the analysis. Against big sides in the Champions League, for example, we are very deep and defensive and focus on winning the ball back deep in our own half. We are happy to concede possession in this type of game.
When we play lesser teams, this strategy still works because of the roles and duties we use. If a team doesn’t attack us or sits deep themselves, then the roles dictate how we play. So we can still play a normal game and we have players like the deep-lying playmaker who can dictate play. We can easily pass the ball around and still be creative in these scenarios.
By default, we play differently based on how the opposition plays. But whatever way someone plays against us, we are already well adapted and prepared for it.
Let’s take a look at some of the Champions League games we’ve played.
Home Game Against Arsenal
Here we can see the natural shape and positions we take up when being defensive. You can also see the midfield triangle we have. We are happy to concede possession out wide while we cover the central areas. We are deep and compact, which is what I want.
I’m happy for Arsenal to have the ball in these kinds of areas because the only option they have is to cross. My side should be able to deal with crosses like this all day long.
Keep an eye on the player who is circled; that’s the box-to-box midfielder. He is already coming across to deal with the danger. This means that the left wingback can keep his position in the defensive line and keep an eye on the player nearest to him. If he was to come across, then our line would be breached. Which is something we don’t want happening.
He’s managed to get across and cut off the angle that Tomiyasu had to cross the ball, forcing him outside and towards the corner. The rest of the players are really well placed to deal with the movement of the Arsenal players.
You might be thinking that the left wingback has settings to sit narrow due to his starting position in the first screenshot. He hasn’t; it’s just the 4-4-2 diamond low blocks natural positions. Everything is more narrow and compact because that’s the natural shape.
We had just been attacking in this image (I’ll focus more on our attacks later) and lost the ball high up the pitch. So now Arsenal is attempting to counterattack us. The player circled is my right wingback. This could have been problematic if he didn’t recover his position or someone had not covered for him. Luckily, we have a defensive deep-lying playmaker for these types of scenarios.
He can easily shift across and help out the right wingback should he need to. Or he can follow the other Arsenal players. The central defenders and the left wingback are also well positioned to deal with any kind of threat too.
All ten outfield players are deep in my own half here. We can see that the ball has been played to Saka. If the left wingback steps up for him, he will leave the other player free. So what he does here is jockey around while the box-to-box midfielder steps across to deal with him. Leaving the wingback free to follow the runner, should he make a run.
What happens here, though, is that the box-to-box midfielder wins the ball back and we end up breaking at pace. But again, our defensive solidarity shines through. and it’s hard to see where any danger would come from.
Attacking Play in the Arsenal Home Game
One thing I think people forget in tactics of this style is that we still attack normal too. It isn’t all just counterattack after counterattack. You can still play the ball around and carve good openings. This is where your roles and settings come into play.
In the above screenshot, my goalkeeper gets the ball back from an Arsenal overhit pass. He then rolls it out to the ball-playing defender. Without really thinking about it, he hit the ball instantly direct to the right wingback. In an instant, we are now on the front foot. These are the settings playing out that I spoke about earlier in the article. The higher tempo, more direct passing and the goalkeeper set to distribute the ball quickly.
All of that combined is our style of play when we have the ball. This isn’t a counterattack because we don’t have the numerical advantage and nor are we taking advantage of the opposition in any way. This is just a direct move, something which people often think is a counterattack. But they’re both different things.
I think the caption explains exactly what happens here! The right wingback dribbles inside and gets past Tierney. Then he decided to run on the outside and back inside again when the defender cut across to attempt to cut the space off. This gives him the entire channel to drive forward in. While over on the left side, the pressing forward is in the channel making his run forward. The Arsenal defence doesn’t even know he exists.
He ends up hitting the ball in the air off his weaker foot into the path of the striker. The striker heads the ball towards the goal, but it goes wide sadly. But it’s a brilliant move and shows the direct passing and high-tempo combination in play. We can cause Arsenal issues and the game isn’t all one-sided even though we defend in a low block.
I wanted to show us playing some good football deep in our own half this time. It’s worth noting that just because the formation we use is narrow by default, doesn’t mean we don’t attack using the width of the pitch.
In this example, the deep-lying forward is under pressure and has had to pass the ball back to the ball-playing defender. When the ball-playing defender receives the ball, he passes it to the deep-lying playmaker, who passes it back instantly to avoid Arsenal’s press. Then he gains a yard and receives the ball back. Now the deep-lying playmaker is on his stronger foot and the pitch has opened up for him.
The left wingback is already streaming forward. Remember when I said the wingbacks had to be superhuman? This is why. It’s such a demanding role and requires so much energy to get up and down the wing all game long. The mezzala (circled player) is also looking to run and support play.
Once the left wingback receives the ball, he tries to control it and then protects the ball for a few seconds, which allows play to catch up. The deep-lying forward makes the run of the arrow, as does the pressing forward. This allows the left wingback to pass the ball to the deep-lying playmaker who was free. He then plays it to the pressing forward.
The whole time this was happening, the mezzala was making his run to support and into free space. This allowed the pressing forward to pivot and play him in. The mezzala is now in free space, drives forward, and unfortunately, his shot was saved.
Again, brilliant, direct attacking play using the full width of the pitch.
This match ended 1-1 and we did more than enough to earn a draw and played some good stuff while defending well.
Real Madrid Match
My side, while being way above the quality of any other side in Iceland, in the actual Champions League, we are probably the equivalent of a Championship side from England. So it can feel like really hard work at times. We can hold our own, like in the Arsenal game, but sometimes away from home, the struggles can be more noticeable due to the quality of some teams we face.
That’s not to say we can’t win the game, it just means that we might be more limited compared to the home leg, for example. This Real Madrid match is an example of this. We did enough to win the first match 2-1 at home.
The second leg is a totally different story, though. To set the scene, here are the heat maps;
While our own map isn’t very interesting, that’s expected. The Real Madrid one is as they basically had all ten outfield players camped in our half. So how do we deal with this? The short answer is to trust the process. By that, I mean, don’t panic because we don’t have possession of the ball or because the opposition attacks us constantly. This is what we are set up for. This is our bread and butter.
The key thing to remember in these types of systems is to keep checking the stats, watching the game, and most importantly, knowing if your player or players are having bad games and reacting as soon as possible. If not, you might end up not being as solid as you thought. You need to be ready to react.
I started this game the same as the Arsenal game, with a cautious mentality. However, after the first 40 seconds, I noticed this in the screenshot above. We had just attacked and lost the ball, and immediately Real Madrid ran at us. The pace on this side is scary compared to what we have in our team. So as soon as I saw the above, I dropped to defensive duty. I wasn’t shutting up shop, but I wanted to stay more compact and not get the midfield cut off from the defensive.
That can be problematic. Not just from a defensive standpoint, but also for when we regain possession and attack. We saw how I was creating chances in the Arsenal game by having players close together deep. In this game, I felt we were a bit disjointed. You’d not find this stuff out if you weren’t watching the game, though, and just relying on highlights.
Highlights are fine if you are happy with your tactic and how it plays. But this is a huge game for us, a Champions League semi-final second leg that we are currently winning. I don’t want to lose what could be a pivotal moment for the club and Iceland as a whole. So I was prepared to go the extra mile.
Just a side note here, I’d not gone to these lengths in any other game or paid this much attention. This is purely a one-off.
Straight away in the next attack, I see the change to defensive mentality as taken effect by how super deep we are now inside our own area. The four circled players are the back four. The right wingback has stayed wide on this occasion because the other three midfielders are either applying pressure or tracking runners. The other three defensive players are all positioned centrally.
While they might seem really deep, they have all the space covered and all the runners covered too. Leaving them free to attack any crosses into the box. It looks bad that we are so deep, but based on player positioning and the attack patterns of Real Madrid, we should be able to defend like this well. I don’t see how they can hurt us in these kinds of areas.
It’s not all bad and not just us camped in our half getting battered, though. We can also be proactive when winning the ball back. In the image above, the player closing down Dodo forces him to pass. Dodo attempts to pass the ball to the player next to the circled one. Dodo doesn’t have any options here as he was forced outside and he’s facing away from the goal. So when he attempts to pass the ball, my player who (circled) cuts out the pass.
This is still the same, just from a different camera angle. Once we win possession back, the team bursts into life because a proper counterattack is triggered. And we go from the edge of our area to almost scoring in a matter of a few seconds. Frederiksen passes the ball to the striker. While this is happening, the mezzala has spun around and busted a gut to get forward.
Just look at how much space the mezzala has made up in a few short seconds. He is now spearheading the attack. Others in the team are also trying to sprint to keep up with play and offer support in this counterattack. The mezzala gets on the end of the ball and has a shot from just outside the area. The keeper makes a brilliant save and we win a corner. As you can see, when a counterattack kicks in, we have suddenly become very dangerous.
Again, another attack, this time down my right-hand side. The defensive line is still deep and intact. There is no real threat in the centre from Real Madrid either.
A little later, in the same move, Sane decides to run at us. Our players are again really well placed and the only real option here for Sane is to carry on his run. Everyone else who is a realistic option for him to link up with is already being marked. In the end, he tries to make the pass and fails, as my player steps up to take the ball away.
We absorbed the pressure greatly and while it looks like we got battered, we didn’t in the end. We frustrated Real Madrid and limited them to half-chances in the end or chances from range. The chances from the range were never really going to bother us though.
It’s important to note that using a low-block tactic can be risky, as it leaves your team vulnerable to counter-attacks and longballs over the top. Therefore, it’s best to use this type of tactic against teams that are stronger offensively, or in situations where you are protecting a lead or looking to defend from the opposition’s attacks.
I might add more examples of games, playing against different systems, and show how it plays against sides who don’t sit deep against us. But the article has already become quite large, so depending on what people think and the feedback, there might be a part two.
Remember that playing counterattacking, defensive or low-block football is extremely difficult and not supposed to be easy. It requires you to pay a lot of attention to detail, especially in the early stages of its creation. You really need to nail down how you play and what you do with the ball. It can be a really frustrating process at times, but it’s so rewarding once you’ve hit that sweet spot. I hope you’ve all enjoyed it.
3 thoughts on “4-4-2 Diamond Low Block”
What do you think about the role of the goalkeeper in a such direct low block? Should he look to pump it away, or pass it to the defense and hold possession a bit more?
Personally, if you are being more direct then he shouldn’t be holding onto the ball long and should be looking to hit those midfielders who are making runs to make the most of being direct/counter-attacking. He is one of the weapons for putting you on the front foot.