FM23: The Art of Possession – Quite some time ago I did a very popular article about possession football named The Art of Possession Football. It’s a bit outdated now so I thought I’d rewrite it for Football Manager 2023. If you want to look at the old article it can be found here;
FM23: The Art of Possession – So why rewrite the guide?
Well, there are a few reasons really. One is people keep asking me to update it as the game has changed in the years since writing the first one. Secondly, I always wish I’d done more with the original article. Thirdly, I’m waiting for a fix for my long-term save that hopefully arrives in a patch sooner rather than later. So while I had some spare time and was unable to play, I’d revisit some old stuff.
While the game has changed, the principles for possession football are the exact same, which means that everything written in the first article still applies now. So rather than repeat those principles here, you can just read the first article above to learn more about them.
So my aim this time around is to be more complete and show how possession football changes with the roles and duties you use. I also wanted to show that you can play possession football (or any type of football for that matter) at any level. That’s why I’m playing as Boldklubben AB Tårnby in the Danish 4th tier.
They are predicted to finish 11th out of 12th in the league. The board and the fans expect us to lose most games and attempt to avoid relegation. The Danish leagues don’t go any lower than where I’m starting without an edited database either. So it’s quite a challenge.
FM23: The Art of Possession The Tactic
If you’ve been following us on Twitter and Instagram, you’ll have seen that for a bit of fun we have been guessing how teams at the World Cup would play. So before the teams have been announced, we’ve been posting our tactical lineups. You can find the thread here;
People have asked for all the tactics we've done for WC so far in one thread. So here it is. Remember, this is just a bit of fun and not that deep. It's just to give people a base to work from. If you disagree and would do them differently, that's fine. #FM23 #FootballManager
— View From The Touchline (@ViewFTTouchline) November 22, 2022
We did them for every team for the first round of games. They are just a bit of fun and we know teams might have set up differently once the games kicked off. But still, they provide a good base to build from.
So that is what I’ve done, I will be using one of the tactics that I posted as the base. The Spanish tactic.
FM23: The Art of Possession New Information
Today I learned that how possession works in Football Manager 2023 has been reworked compared to the previous version. But this doesn’t seem to have been communicated by SI and was found out by listening to a third-party podcast with someone from the SI QA team.
They’ve added a new metric called ball share which is how possession worked in previous games and is basically how much time the team has on the ball. The actual possession metric is now calculated by how many passes the team did and completed.
This is a massive change and the new metric is hidden away and isn’t shown by default, you have to customise the stats and data you have shown during a game, to see it. So be sure to check this out for those who didn’t know.
I think the change is a good change and is more in line with how real football works now. So I approve of the change. Just a shame it’s hidden away and that the ball share metric isn’t shown by default.
The idea here is that the fullbacks push on but not too advanced so they don’t become detached from the rest of the defence. This is why I went with fullbacks over wingbacks, as they’re more suited to this style of play and are less aggressive.
If the fullbacks push ahead too quickly and too far, then we lose potential passing options and passing lanes as they’ll not be as heavily involved in the build-up play. I don’t want the fullbacks to be isolated, I want them to be proper outlets.
Building out from the back like this with them slightly advanced means that if the ball does go wide to them, then the opposition will shift over. This then creates space for the central players and frees them up.
The back four has now become a back five. The halfback drops deep to form a back three with the two centre-backs. The two ball-playing defenders actually spread too wide but at the time of writing this, it is a known bug and scheduled to be fixed in a patch. But the halfback drops deep and can also help us progress the ball.
In some ways, the halfback is a playmaker. They help to progress the ball, can split defences open from deep, or can dribble with the ball at their feet. I think having a natural playmaker is better than having a playmaking role as nothing feels forced. That’s how I view the halfback.
With the halfback and two ball-playing defenders, I have three players at the back who can bring the ball forward. They also have the potential to launch defence-splitting passes or put us on the front foot from deep.
You might think this is counterproductive as I’m wanting to retain possession due to building a possession tactic. But the fact is, I still want to win games and they don’t do those types of balls constantly. For most parts, they’ll pass around and bring the ball up the field. Then if they see an opportunity they might try a defence-splitting pass.
However, it’s more likely they play in the midfield or wide players unless they spot a really good opportunity to launch a more risky type of ball.
Examples of Aggressive Passing from the Defenders
I’m classing the halfback as a defender here because he is, with the way he defends and helps us transition the ball.
Here the halfback is taking his time on the ball and waiting for players to get into position. I know this because I see him dwell on the ball and the commentary confirms it.
Knudsen is scanning around to see what his options are and has a lot of them, 4 in fact. Actually, 5 should he decide to the bring ball further forward himself, which he does at times. On this occasion, however, he chooses the furthest option top right.
Immediately this puts us on the front foot and has opened up a potential overload down the right side of the pitch. The mezzala can take his time to turn around and assess his options too, he doesn’t have to rush. When he turns around he can either lay it off to the inverted winger for a quick one-two. Or he can play in the fullback making a surging run down the right.
We are using the full width of the pitch. From here we can either directly attack with the overloads down here or retain possession should the players decide now is not the best time to attack. Either way, we have multiple choices here.
While we are building a possession-based system, we also still want to attack and win games. The possession we have has to be meaningful and not possession for the sake of it. We still want to win games and take the game to the opponents.
This is another example but this time, this is much riskier.
I want to highlight this pass particularly as it demonstrates exactly how aggressive the ball-playing defenders can be at times. It is almost reckless.
He has lots of time on the ball to bring it out of defence if he chooses and he also has three (red circles) immediate passing options. All of them present a different level of difficulty to pull off. We also have the yellow circled player, which would be the reckless option and the least likely to pull off.
Of course, that’s the option he chooses here. The ball-playing defender has been reworked on Football Manager 2023 and is much more aggressive with their passing and the positions they take up on the pitch. It’s not uncommon to see them attack deep inside the opposition half these days.
I wanted to highlight this move so you are aware of the changes and just how risky the role can be. If you use ball-playing defenders and want to create a possession system, keep an eye on this as at times, it might go against what you are creating. Especially if they give possession away cheaply like in my example.
Initially, he actually won the ball so the pass was successful but the player lost control of it once he’d won it. I guess if we look at the image above, there is another issue at play here too. Look at the defensive five then look at the attacking five. There are massive gaps between the two bands of players, which is a major issue. It means that if any long or risky pass like we saw above happens, then positionally, we don’t have the support to help him out.
Again this can go against a possession-based philosophy and be a way of giving possession away cheaply. I must admit, I don’t find this an issue myself as it doesn’t happen all the time. But for someone else, it could be an issue which is why I wanted to highlight it. In certain games, the issue can be worse than in others.
This shows the successful passes of my left-sided ball-playing defender. It looks fine on the surface but in this game, we were playing a much better side from a higher division. My side is a weak side for the league it’s in, let alone when playing higher-ranked opposition.
They pressed and hounded us and really gave us little time on the ball. This meant that the ball-playing defenders panicked more and began hitting it longer to beat the press. But it failed spectacularly.
22 unsuccessful passes here and each one is a risky pass where the player is looking to pass through the lines to put us on the front foot. It’s great when it comes off but when it doesn’t like this, you should likely change the role.
You might find yourself options to use a standard centre-back or even a no-nonsense centre-back. All of the roles can be suited for this type of player and all of them will play the role slightly differently to each other. Find the best fit for you and what you are needing.
As I’ve already mentioned, 90% of the time it isn’t an issue. But like everything else, there will be times during your season when it doesn’t work as you like or becomes a hindrance. Make sure you are paying attention to make sure it’s only a one-off and not a regular thing.
When it does go right though, it can be a thing of beauty. This is the right-sided ball-playing defender picking up an assist. Here he hit a proper defence-splitting pass into space for the mezzala to run onto.
The mezzala runs onto the ball and slot’s it home. This game was a tight affair too and the only game I scored in this game. So while the ball-playing defenders can be very aggressive with their passing, it can be very beneficial at times. It comes back to the age-old risk vs reward and if you believe the reward outweighs the risk.
I’m actually a huge fan of the changes to the match engine this year, especially the ball-playing defender. They are now real tools to use against sides and can help break sides down or open them up, with passes like those highlighted above.
The Midfield and Attack
The idea here is that the inverted wingers on both sides, will cut inside and allow the full-backs to overlap them. This allows us to create central overloads with the on-rushing roaming playmaker and mezzala. If we can’t overload the central areas then it allows the full-backs to provide the width and frees up space for them.
You can customise the inverted wingers too, to give you all different kinds of various styles of play.
I’m just using both inverted wingers with the default settings. But if I wanted I could focus even more on central overloads if I wanted by asking them to sit narrower and even hold up the ball. If I made this change I’d likely go with more aggressive wingbacks over fullbacks too, to make most of the space that would be vacated out wide.
But I left them to default as I didn’t want to become too one-dimensional and try and force the narrowness too much. I want the formation to be very fluid, flexible and attack in various ways. While maintaining a high level of possession. If I allowed them to be more narrow then I’d likely have to rethink the roles of the central midfielders too.
The central two would have less space to play into due to how much more compact we’d become. This might see us retain the ball much better in the final third and make the numbers much greater. But we would be less varied in our play. Not that we don’t retain the ball well now, as we do. But more in the sense, we could be keeping too much of it and not doing much with the ball.
Whereas now I think the balance is much better. We still have width, runners from deep going forward into space and so on. But you could easily make the changes I mentioned above and still retain possession, just in a different way than how I retain possession. Neither is better than the other and it all depends on what you are wanting from your tactic. I just want to point out that you can achieve the same as me in many different ways.
I don’t want to jump too far ahead but this example is too good not to show.
In this game, I was playing a side possessed with speed, so I was slightly more cautious and asked the defensive line to drop off. This helps us with balls over the top and just adds a protective layer to the defensive line. I also instructed them to pass into space too, so the attacking players can run onto balls behind, rather than having the ball played to their feet. This is useful against sides who mark your players tightly or play a high line. I only made these changes for this specific match though.
One of the other changes was I used an advanced forward instead of a false nine. Again this was strategic because the opposition was using a defensive line and an aggressive press. The false nine in these kinds of games can become somewhat limited with what they do, due to them dropping deep initially.
As the defence is pushed up the false nine has less space to play in. What that means is that the space for the striker to play in is now behind the defensive line and not in front of it, like in lower defensive lines. To take advantage of that I use a striker role that stays high up the pitch and can push the defensive line back or feed off defence-splitting passes and is happy to keep running in behind them.
The main reason for this is I don’t want the centre to be too congested as that makes it hard for us to play our possession game and eliminates a lot of our running from midfield. Which is the DNA of our play style.
In the above screenshot, the goalkeeper regained possession of the ball and then plays it out instantly to the ball-playing defender. Now here you can see the space we created for ourselves by the defensive line dropping off when the opposition had possession of the ball. This has given us a lot of space and time for the roaming playmaker to utilise his skillset.
It might look slightly disjointed and have too much space between players, especially in the midfield. But this is our own making by telling the defensive line to drop off. But it doesn’t matter much due to what the roaming playmaker role does. He drives forward with the ball and makes things happen. He also has options outwide with the full-backs providing the width
So the ball-playing defender receives the ball and then plays it to the roaming playmaker. Due to the opposition holding a high line, look at all the space the fullback has down the left because the inverted wingers and striker are occupying the defenders.
Also, do you notice the mezzala sitting higher than usual in the half-spaces? This is also a new change for Football Manager 23. The mezzala and central midfielders on attack duty now generally sit higher compared to past versions of the game. So don’t expect them to sit as deep as the roaming playmaker, deep-lying playmaker etc.
The roaming playmaker sees that we can attack down the wing and plays a ball out to the fullback.
As you can see, the roaming playmaker didn’t perhaps choose the ball we all thought he would and chose a much more difficult one to pull off. Well, I say difficult, I mean in length. The yellow box would have been the easiest option for a pass and would have played it straight to the full-backs feet. But wait a minute……..remember we added pass into space. We are seeing this be played out here in this exact move.
We’ve got the numbers advantage here. So once the fullback gets the ball he plays it to the inverted winger who is acres and acres of space. He then plays it straight back down the wing for the fullback to run onto.
The inverted winger carries on his run and the fullback finds him again with the pass. But the inverted winger is in open space and unmarked and slots the ball home to make it 1-0.
I wanted to highlight this goal to show the variety in how we play. From our own goalkeeper to a goal in 5 passes. Every single one of them accurately into space for the player to run onto, rather than the ball played at their feet.
It also showcases the combination play that we build down this left-hand side too. The inverted winger and fullback linked up multiple times and both continued their runs. Allowing us to use the space that the move has created. If you look at the other players positioning too, you can see they’re all arriving in the box at different stages. At this point, the opposition’s defensive line is nonexistent and all over the place.
But Cleon, this isn’t possession!!
Well it is, I still have to use the ball well and not just have possession for the sake of it. This is highlighting what we do with the ball. But let’s wrap the article up now with how we retain the ball rather than how we use it and show some stats.
This is what my average possession stats look like for the end of the first season. Not bad considering we were predicted to get relegated out of the playable leagues, meaning it would have been game over! We were predicted to finish 11th out of 12th, so to create this possession tactic and get these numbers is impressive. Remember I also play attributeless so I have no idea how good my players actually are or what their attributes/potential is. As star ratings are also removed.
Retaining the Ball
How we retain the ball and pass it about is actually simple, it’s all about space and movement.
The ball has progressed again from the ball-playing defender to the fullback. The inverted winger has started to run to create space and the roaming playmaker is also moving forward too. But should the pass not be on to any forward player, all players on this side are in close proximity to each other. Meaning they can easily retain the ball and someone will always be free and open for the pass, should they need it.
Here the inverted winger has received the ball and is now facing away from the goal. But the rest of the players are also advancing up the pitch too, giving him several passing outlets. It’s vital that players move up and down the pitch together, passing and moving.
This is still the same move and you can see how far up the pitch we have progressed but as a team. Now though, the fullback has provided the overlap allowing the inverted winger to stay deeper to receive the ball. The inverted winger receives the ball but is pressed, so plays the safe option back to the ball-playing defender.
Suddenly we have the potential to bring more players into play now, as people have started running towards the goal and becoming a threat. A pass from the ball-playing defender to either the halfback or inverted winger and the entire pitch opens up. It doesn’t matter which side of the pitch we are on, the same thing happens.
The tactic posted at the start all works because of a few key factors;
- We move up the pitch together
- We move down the pitch together
- Pass and move
- Players going beyond those in possession
These aren’t all the key factors but these are vital for us and the core of it all. Our team instructions are what is allowing us to mainly play like this too. And then the player roles and duties used, give us added variety. That’s why we can go from being cautious and retaining possession like in the above screenshots and staying as a unit. To be able to score in 5 passes from the goalkeeper, as we showed a bit further up the article.
Playing a possession game doesn’t have to be all about short passing, you can also be very direct at times too. You can also be risky too like the ball-playing defenders are. It’s all about finding the right balance for everything and that’s what I’ve done above.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the article. Any questions, you can ask them below or on our socials.