This Attacking Midfielder vs Central Midfielder piece is taken from the free eBook we have, The Football Manager Playbook Part One.
It’s important to stress that the only thing that really changes between central midfielders and attacking midfielders is how you use the ball and space but even so, this changes the dynamic of the roles and duties you use. Which impacts how your tactic functions overall.
For these examples below, I use the same striker roles as I use in the central midfield version of the tactic I posted earlier in the book. The attacking midfielder’s roles are as follows; the left-sided attacking midfielder is an advanced playmaker with a support duty. While the right-sided attacking midfielder is exactly that but with an attacking duty.
One of the biggest changes you see if you use attacking midfielders (in the Brazilian Box 4-2-2-2), is how your strikers interact with them. Obviously, the roles and duties you’ve used will also impact this but ultimately regardless of those one of two things will happen;
1 – Assuming you use well-balanced roles and duties on the attacking midfielders this means one is likely to drop off the front and one push up. The same is likely said of the strikers too. This creates both space and movement and forces the opposition to react and can at times, help to drag the opposition’s defensive line out of position. If they don’t react then the player is basically free meaning he has no pressure on him. If they do react and follow him via marking, closing down, etc then this leaves gaps in the opposition’s defensive set-up.
Even if you don’t have balanced roles and duties there is still a very high chance they drop deeper themselves because all build-up play is happening behind them. Having four players really advanced means that in most cases the ball has to be played to them to get them involved. I believe this kind of play is much easier to play against because you don’t have that many options with the initial build-up.
There is a lot going on in the picture above but it highlights how the strikers and attacking midfielders interact with each other like I was speaking about. There’s more to it than this though as the isolated screenshot doesn’t actually explain how this functions or works. But I just wanted to show a quick image of it working. As I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about the attacking midfielders and you think it can’t work and it’s all bad because it isn’t. It’s a very valid way of playing, it’s just my personal preference.
2 – Players can become quite static the more advanced they are due to them having less space to play in. Or due to them not being in the initial build-up phase. This can be offset or amplified based on the formation you use. A good setup will see this happen less than a bad setup. If you have four players really advanced in a system then you need to make sure you can supply them the ball and offer them support. If not then you could see your team split into two bands, which can be a bad thing. Ideally, you want the team playing as a cohesive unit, with players doing specific things you need while also moving up and down the pitch as a team and working together.
You’ll see one of the two above playing out quite often (or maybe both at times) when viewing games and watching the match. Obviously, I’m using a 4-2-2-2 formation so I could possibly use two attacking midfielders and two central midfielders. But this then adds another complexity to the set-up, especially from a defensive standpoint. We will discuss this more later though in the analysis parts as it’s hard to explain without showing you examples.
This screenshot highlights what happens when there isn’t much movement upfront when space isn’t there. The ball started off deep in the opposition’s half but due to a lack of movement, the players started to drop off in search of the ball, due to us playing the ball all the way back to our defenders. You perhaps can already see how having central midfielders here would be better placed to recycle the ball and stop being as deep.
One of the downfalls of having over a third of your team advanced is when you don’t have options the only real option is to go backward. That in itself isn’t too bad as long as you retain possession but that isn’t what always happens either. It’s much easier to give the ball away in situations like this as it now becomes about the players themselves and their attributes rather than the settings you’ve instructed them to carry out.
If we did lose possession in any kind of scenario like this, then you can already see how we have given up the entire central midfield areas. In the screenshot above the opposition doesn’t have a player there so that’s fine for now. But during another passage of play later in the game or against different opposition and formations, this could be problematic. I do have two defensive midfielders but because the wingbacks push right up, my defenders spread to cover the space and the defensive midfielders go forward due to needing to provide the front players the ball.
Some of this can likely be offset by changing player roles and possibly duties but then we’d start to lose some of what I was wanting to create originally. So it becomes a bit of a balancing act and that’s why I prefer central midfielders.
Using central midfielders also comes with negatives too. There is more focus on them progressing the ball forward, providing support with runners, and then getting back into position to help out in defensive phases too. As the attacking midfield variant is easier to get the players to attack due to the nature of their starting position. But like shown above, that comes with negatives attached to it too.
That is me progressing the ball from the back, as you can see we are in a deeper area compared to when we did this in the attacking midfield version. This is because the team is naturally deeper in shape and the defensive midfielders have less ground to cover. What this then means is the two central midfielders are responsible for linking the midfield to the attack and offering support. There’s plenty of space and options ahead of the players to progress the ball.
This is still the same move and the centreback has a couple of forward options he can utilise if he wants. The two purple arrows indicate passing options, while the yellow one indicates he has space to carry on his run if he wants. Either option here will force the opposition to react to whatever they do. This in turn will create space, and movement and the opposition will have to readjust their defensive plan.
The black box indicates space we give up compared to the attacking midfielder variant of this tactic. Here I don’t have many players initially due to moving together more as a cohesive unit from much deeper areas. The downside of this is, that if you don’t get the balance correct here with the roles and duties then the opposition will easily defend against this kind of play. You can see the opposition’s defensive line isn’t in much trouble at all initially.
Kaiky was quite smart here as he waited a while with the ball then passed it infield to Camacho, the circled player as he was about to get pressed. Camacho then took a second on the ball and played it to Sandry. Now we can already see the movement we have created here and the solid defensive line of the opposition doesn’t look so solid anymore. Due to us starting in deeper areas, most of the players we have are now making runs in dangerous areas, rather than coming away from the goal.
When Sandry receives the ball he quickly turns and is looking for options ahead of him. He sees the deep-lying forward is free so passes the ball to him. He then slides the ball between both defenders for the advanced forward to run onto and score. In the end, we carved them open far too easily but this comes from us using the ball intelligently and having players cause havoc by being runners from deep areas. It’s much easier to create a good play from deeper areas more consistently than it is in higher-up areas for me. This is because we are working as a team and not split into two separate bands as I mentioned earlier.
Using the pitch to move the ball quickly means the opposition has to react to this and shift across to cover. This then creates space and players try to cover the threat. Add to this runners from deep and gaps appear like in the above example that we can take advantage of. This is the main reason why I prefer deeper formations initially as I believe you are more dangerous when moving towards the goal when the space is in front of the player and not dropping off the front because the space is further down the pitch.
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