In this article, we are showcasing the 5-2-2-1 formation and taking a real deep dive into the way it functions and plays. On top of this, I want to show it playing two different contrasting styles with small tweaks to the team instructions.
Part One – The 5-2-2-1 Formation Low Possession
At the very start of the game, Íbis Sport Club doesn’t really have a squad. Even if you add the option to add more players to playable teams when creating the game. It doesn’t generate a full squad and I only have 5 players in the first team. This means that I’m going to have to sign free agents just to be able to field a squad.
So I can’t use data straight away and will have to wait slightly longer before signing players with data. For now, I just need to fill out the squad using scout recommendations. It’s the downside of starting in the 6th tier of Brazilian Football. Hopefully, I can start using data to sign players from the second season though, or the third season at the very latest.
There is also the issue with the games data hub and it doesn’t actually count my games as official games, so doesn’t present the data from the State Championships. This will skew the data available to me, to begin with as I have a very small pool of players to recruit from due to being a poor team. So it’ll likely just be free agents for now. But we’ll see how it plays out and hopefully isn’t as bad as I imagine it will be.
The 5-2-2-1 Formation
Due to us being one of the worst teams in world football, we want to keep it tight tactically and use the ball to the best of our abilities. That for me is, not spending much time on the ball at all. But we still want to give teams a run for their money, that’s why I devised this tactic.
What Is The 5-2-2-1
The 5-2-2-1 formation is becoming a more popular tactical approach in football. It is a formation that is designed to provide a strong defensive base while also offering a potent attacking threat.
The 5-2-2-1 formation consists of five defenders, two defensive midfielders (or central midfielders), two attacking midfielders, and a lone striker. The five defenders are responsible for protecting the goal and preventing the opposition from creating chances. The two defensive/central midfielders play a crucial role in shielding the defence and providing cover for the fullbacks when they push forward.
The two attacking midfielders are tasked with creating scoring opportunities and supporting the striker, while the lone striker is the team’s main source of goals. If you want the striker to be the creator then you need the attacking midfielders to then take on the responsibilities for scoring the goals. I’ll talk a little bit more about this further in the article, as it’s a bit more complex than that.
One of the key advantages of the 5-2-2-1 formation is its defensive solidity. With five defenders and two defensive/central midfielders, the team is well-equipped to deal with most attacking threats. In Football Manager terms, these players should just “sit and cover” and shouldn’t venture forward much, if at all.
The formation allows for a strong and compact defensive unit that can be difficult for opponents to break down. Additionally, the two defensive/central midfielders provide additional cover and support for the defence, which makes it difficult for the opposition to create chances through the centre of the pitch.
Another advantage of the 5-2-2-1 is that it provides a good balance between defence and attack. While the team is primarily focused on defending, the two attacking midfielders and lone striker give the team a potent attacking threat. This allows the team to switch quickly from defence to attack, catching the opposition off guard and creating opportunities to score.
However, the 5-2-2-1 formation is not without its weaknesses. One of the main drawbacks of the formation is that it can be difficult (but not impossible) to maintain possession and control of the game. With only two midfielders, the team may struggle to dominate the centre of the pitch and keep the ball. This can make it difficult to build attacks and create scoring opportunities, especially against teams that employ a high press.
Overall, the 5-2-2-1 formation is a versatile and effective tactical approach that can be successful at all levels of the game. While it may not be the most flashy or exciting tactic, it is a reliable and solid approach that can deliver results for teams that are looking to defend well and hit the opposition on the counter-attack.
Style of Play
Here I want to explain what I’m creating and talk about why I’ve chosen the instructions I have, to give a real insight into how and why it works.
Low-possession football is a style of play that focuses on defending and counter-attacking rather than dominating possession. It involves a team keeping the ball for shorter periods of time and using quick, direct passes to create chances. The team will also look to press the opposition when they have the ball, in order to win it back quickly and launch a counter-attack.
When I say low possession, what I mean here is, we just don’t favour holding onto the ball and we just try and get up the field the best we can. There might be phases of play or certain scenarios that determine we have the ball longer than others. But retaining the ball isn’t a priority. I wouldn’t expect possession numbers to ever exceed 50% really playing how we’ve set up.
Low block: A low block is a defensive tactic used to protect the goal from shots taken from close range. It involves defenders forming a wall in front of the goal and blocking shots with their bodies. In Football Manager 23 terms, a low block instructs your players to wait for the opposition to come towards them before your players will begin to press them. It’s a bit more complex than that but you can read a further in-depth article about low block football here;
The players furthest up the pitch will look to shield and block rather than engaging in the press initially and others will do the same until the opposition become deeper in your own half. Then you’ll see players be more aggressive with the press.
High defensive line: A high defensive line is a tactic used to push the opposition further away from the goal. It involves defenders positioning themselves higher up the pitch, closer to the halfway line, in order to deny the opposition space in the attacking third.
It might seem to be counterproductive at first when using a low block. But in Football Manager 23 terms, it is just reducing the gap between the defence and midfield, bringing them closer together. This is vital here because I am not using defensive midfielders due to favouring central midfielders instead.
Now we have an idea about the team instructions I’ve used, it’s time to try and understand the roles and their purpose.
A wide centre-back is a player who plays in the centre-back position but is comfortable with the ball at their feet. This type of player is typically good at dribbling, passing, and ball control, and is comfortable playing out from the back and starting attacks. A wide centre-back is often used in teams that employ a high defensive line and an attacking style of play, as they are able to provide an additional attacking outlet and help the team to build play from the back.
I’d not class the style of play we are creating here as an attacking style. But I still think the role is beneficial due to what we want the players to do. The wide centre-back can also be used as a deep-lying playmaker. In this sense, they can help build attacks like a ball-playing defender.
The role seems to differ on Football Manager 23 compared to past versions too. It seems less attack orientated and doesn’t attack the same way as it did on Football Manager 2022. I’m not sure if it’s by design or a bug (that they’re less attacking). I need to investigate it further. But still, it’s a good role to use either way.
A ball-playing defender, on the other hand, is a player who is comfortable with the ball at their feet and is able to play out from the back and initiate attacks. However, a ball-playing defender may not necessarily be as involved in the team’s attacking play as a wide centre-back, in terms of moving high up the pitch, on a defensive duty, and may be more focused on their defensive duties.
That’s why I’ve chosen the stopper role for him, so he steps up and tries to cut the ball out or deal with the threat. This then allows the central defender to cover and sweep up balls missed by either of the outer two defenders.
Central midfielders: These players are responsible for linking up with the rest of the team and helping to facilitate the flow of the game. The central midfielders are often the engine of the team, covering a lot of ground and providing the link between the defence and the attack.
The specific duties of the central midfielders in this set-up are;
- Controlling the tempo of the game and dictating the flow of play
- Connecting the defence and attack by providing passing options and moving the ball forward
- Supporting the defence by tracking back and helping to win the ball back
- Supporting the attack by staying deep and being able to recycle possession and keep the ball moving forward.
- Providing a physical presence and winning tackles and aerial duels in the midfield
- Maintaining positional discipline and providing defensive cover.
In short, the central midfielders are versatile and important players who play a key role in the team’s overall performance. If they chase the ball or are caught out of position, this then has a massive domino effect on how we play and we become less fluid.
I’ve stated it a few times already but it’s imperative that they stay central and are positionally disciplined.
The attacking midfielders: The advanced playmaker is tasked with creating scoring opportunities for the team. He is the main creative force in the final third and the striker and other attacking midfielder rely heavily on his creation. Without it, we’d struggle to create chances.
The attacking midfielder, on the other hand, is a player who is responsible for both creating and finishing scoring opportunities. The key difference between the two is that an advanced playmaker is more focused on creating chances for others, while an attacking midfielder is more focused on both creating and finishing chances themselves. Additionally, an advanced playmaker is typically more involved in the build-up play and linking up with the rest of the team, while an attacking midfielder is more focused on making runs and getting into scoring positions.
The Strikers: I sometimes change the striker role here and alternate between two different roles, depending on what I am needing from the game and how the opposition is playing.
A false nine is a striker who drops deep into midfield, drawing the opposition centre backs out of position and creating space for other attackers to exploit. I find this role more beneficial when the opposition is using a low block or low defensive line. This is because the space you have to play in is in front of the defensive line. So someone dropping off to create space and movement can be essential.
A pressing forward, on the other hand, is a player who aggressively presses and harries the opposition’s defence in an effort to win back possession of the ball and get beyond the defensive line. I like to use this role against high blocks or defensive lines, due to the space we have to play in, being behind the defensive line.
You could also use an advanced forward here if you wish but I like the pressing element of the pressing forward, he’s like a little Yorkshire Terrier, yapping at the opposition’s heels.
The key difference between the two is that a false nine is focused on creating space and opportunities for their teammates, while a pressing forward is focused on aggressively defending, pressing and winning the ball back from the front.
The Beginning Of The End
I was having a lot of success playing this way and used the above style for two seasons.
I’m using a Brazilian league edit for the lower leagues and we were ranked 91st for possession at the end of the second season. But I played way more games than most as we made the knock-out stages of the league competition. So we played around 12 more games than most.
In the State Championships, which we won, we ranked at the bottom of the average possession table.
We didn’t fair much better in the Copa Do Brasil either, ranking 55th for average possession.
5-2-2-1 Tactic Examples
The goalkeeper had the ball which meant the wide centreback and ball-playing defender dropped deeper and spread wide to give us passing options. The ball was played to the central centreback. But as soon as it’s played to him, you can see the opposition has already started to press us quite aggressively.
They’re not going to give us much time on the ball at all, this is why I didn’t want us to play out from the back. As that would add an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves for no reason. I want the ball to move up the field quickly, to help the players beat the press. Asking them to pass it around more at the back or hold onto the ball for longer periods is risky in itself.
You increase the risk of the opposition forcing an error or giving the ball away cheaply.
We see how space opens up when the wide centreback receives the ball. Now he can drive forward here if he wants or has multiple passing options. Either way, we’ve beaten the initial press and now the opposition is shifting their position across the pitch to deal with the player in possession on the left side of the pitch.
This is where wide centre-backs and ball-playing defenders excel. They can choose the safer passing options like the wingback or the attacking midfielder. But this isn’t why I’m using these roles, I want them to be riskier to open up the entire pitch with quick switches of play. What he does here is dwells on the ball for no more than a second or so.
Once the opposition has shifted over more, he hits a risky ball between the pressing forward and the advanced playmaker, to run onto. One simple pass and he’s taken out five opposition players in one move. Now we are on the front foot and a possible 2v1 scenario.
As we are the underdog in every game, we face this kind of press a lot. You need to be aware of these types of things when playing in the game, so you can adapt quickly. Had I not noticed the opposition playing this way early in the game, then I’d have still had the team instruction to play out of defence activated. And that could have cost us the game.
We still commit numbers forward when we see there is a chance to attack. We also have plenty of support and passing options too or we can be really direct. Here we are direct and the wingback goes forward, crosses into the box to a free pressing forward, who heads the ball home to make it 1-0.
The Next Chapter
At the end of the second season, I was starting to get bored, tactically. Not because it wasn’t working or anything like that. It was just I started reading more real-life analysis and my mind started to go into overdrive with possible other formations I could use. But at the same time, it felt too early on the save to be starting again tactically, as we’ve not even reached the top league yet.
So I began thinking and I started to ask, what if we flipped it around and began to have more possession? Now, the team is still terrible and expected to lose the majority of the games we have. But what if we began to dominate the ball and start using it differently, making the opposition chase us?
To make it even more, what if we did this while still using the exact same player roles and showing you all how the system now plays differently? So here we are.
The 5-2-2-1 Part Two
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about possession football and in that article, we used a 4-3-3. But rather than adding that stuff to this article and bloating it even further, you can just read it yourself by following this link;
The 5-2-2-1 Possession Variant
Possession football on Football Manager 2023 is a style of play that focuses on keeping possession of the ball and controlling the tempo of the game. It involves passing the ball around the pitch, using short passes to move the ball up the field, and keeping the ball away from the opposition. Possession football is a great way to wear down the opposition and create chances to score.
Defending with possession football is a style of defending that focuses on keeping possession of the ball and using it to create defensive pressure. This style of defending is based on the idea that if a team can keep the ball, they can prevent the opposition from attacking and scoring. The team will look to keep the ball in their own half and use their passing and movement to create defensive pressure. This style of defending requires the team to be well-organized and disciplined.
Here are some key bullet points of possession-based football:
- Focus on maintaining possession of the ball: The team aims to keep control of the ball and pass it around the pitch to avoid losing it to the opposition.
- Quick and precise passing: The players use short, sharp passes to move the ball around the pitch and create space for themselves and their teammates.
- Teamwork and coordination: The players work together as a unit and coordinate their movements to create passing lanes and support each other on the pitch.
- High defensive line: The team plays with a high defensive line, which means that the defenders are positioned close to the opposition’s goal. This creates a compact shape and reduces the space available to the opposition.
- Patient build-up play: The team takes its time and builds up the attack slowly, moving the ball from one side of the pitch to the other and looking for gaps in the opposition’s defence.
- Pressure on the opposition: The team applies pressure on the opposition when they are in possession of the ball, trying to win it back as quickly as possible.
These are some of the key characteristics of possession-based football. It is a playing style that requires technical skill, tactical awareness, and teamwork. It can be effective when executed well, but it can also be vulnerable to counter-attacks and direct play if the opposition manages to break through the defence.
So how do I now turn the original tactic into one that is now heavily possession-focused without changing the roles and duties?
These are the main changes that now alter the way we play;
Much shorter passing can have several benefits. First, it can help the team maintain possession of the ball, which is important for controlling the tempo of the game and preventing the other team from scoring. Short passes can also be more accurate than longer passes, which can help a team move the ball up the field more effectively and create scoring opportunities.
Additionally, shorter passes can be used to open up space on the field and create gaps in the opposing team’s defence. This can allow players to make runs into open space and receive the ball in dangerous positions near the goal. Overall, shorter passing can be an important strategy for teams looking to maintain possession and create scoring opportunities.
This is why we’ve gone much shorter for the passing this time, to help maintain the possession of the ball. As in the other tactic, we used a slightly more direct passing style to help get the ball forward faster. We still want to move the ball forward fast if the player thinks that’s the best option. This will happen due to the mentality of the team.
Playing out of defence, and building from the back involves passing the ball out of the defensive third of the pitch and into the midfield or attacking third. This can be done through a variety of methods, including short passes to teammates in midfield or longer passes to players in more advanced positions.
The goal of playing out of defence is to create a more fluid and attacking style of play and to move the ball up the field in a controlled and organized manner. This can be an effective way to create scoring opportunities and prevent the opposing team from counter-attacking. It can also help to alleviate pressure on the defence by allowing them to pass the ball out of tight situations and avoid conceding possession cheaply.
We also have the ball-playing defender and the wide centre-back who can really mix the style of play up here and hit those balls to the attacking players. So we can still hit it long like described above or be direct when the player and his role dictate so.
It can also be risky too though, especially if the opposition is playing a high-pressing game. As I highlighted in the first part of the article. So if you play out of defence, you should likely keep an eye on the game and how it’s playing it. Sometimes it can be the reason why your defenders give silly balls away or get caught in possession of the ball.
Low crosses are typically played into the penalty area, where they can be difficult for defenders to clear and can provide opportunities for attackers to get shots on goal. They are often used when there is a player making a run into the penalty area and can be particularly effective if the attacking team has a player who is good at getting onto the end of such crosses and scoring goals.
How Do We Use The Ball?
The way we use the ball has drastically changed, obviously. Before we jump into the analysis though, let’s take a look at what our possession stats are like now after the changes.
As you can see, here in the League with the same players as last time but now in a higher division, we averaged way more possession. It’s a significant increase.
Last season we avered 42% possession in this competition and got 65% this season with the same players.
How we control games has drastically changed and we no longer try to concede possession. Now we aim to keep the ball to nullify the opposition. We also try and dictate the pace of the game by slowing the tempo of it down.
You might have noticed in the team instructions that I’ve asked the goalkeeper to distribute the ball quickly. I mentioned this elsewhere on our Discord recently as people thought it was contradictory to the style of play we were creating. So I had to explain why it wasn’t. The gist of it is this;
Distributing the ball quickly allows us to build from the back and catch the opposition out of position. We might be playing a possession game but we still mix up play from time to time, especially from the back due to us using the wide centreback and the ball-playing defender.
I’ve mentioned them several times in this article already but they’re a massive part of the way we transition from defence to attack. They are equally comfortable with playing out from the back slowly and connecting the midfield with short intricate passing. Or they can go long and put dangerous balls over the top for the strikers to chase down. They’re very unpredictable for the opposition to figure out.
It’s probably one of the best changes on Football Manager 2023 so far in my opinion. You can finally build a system that has lots of variety in terms of central defenders and what they are instructed to do. On past versions, I felt the type of defender who could split lines from deep was missing. But not anymore.
This would have been some goal had we scored this. We used the width of the pitch and switched play to different sides on a few occasions during this move.
Passing and moving involves quick, short passes between players, followed by movement off the ball to create space and open up passing lanes. The idea is to keep possession of the ball and move it around the field quickly, while also making it difficult for the other team to defend. To execute the pass-and-move tactic effectively, players need to be constantly moving and looking for opportunities to receive the ball, and they must be willing to make quick, decisive passes to their teammates.
This is where the roles and duties you use play a vital part in this. The majority of my player roles are support duties. This allows players to be in close proximity to each other and no one is positionally too far up the pitch. Another factor here is our attacking width, it’s fairly narrow.
Again, this is intended and by design. We still had width, the wingbacks will always provide us with that. But it also means players don’t have large gaps between the next person and this actually, allows us to build a slow patient probing game all the way up the pitch. We don’t need to rush play. Instead, we favour quick, snappy passes between the players at times.
The important thing here is to build something that functions as a solid unit. Everything from our mentality, team instructions, player roles and so on, all have a purpose and allow us to do the things I wanted to create as part of my style’s DNA. I know it can be hard to do these things, especially when you are trying to understand how everything links together. But I hope these articles shed light on this for you and give you ideas to take away and use and try in your own saved games.
This was the move shown above with the passing map. As you can see we are patient and probing while using the entire pitch. You can see the opposition chasing us around and this, in turn, creates space for us. We aren’t afraid of going backwards with the ball if needed or back across to the other side of the pitch. The space really opens up when we pass across the pitch though as the opposition has to shift over very quickly but it’s too late. We already have players between the lines and in space.
If the central midfielders or the attacking midfielders, were on attacking duties they’d likely be too advanced up the pitch to be involved in the build-up phase.
You can see the combination play on the left-hand side between the wide centreback, wingback and central midfielder. With the way they combine and move up the pitch, they’re looking to trigger the opposition’s press. When this happens the attacking midfielder on that side of the pitch will make a darting run trying to get beyond the defender. If you look at his positioning, he is playing between the fullback and centreback and is very dangerous.
If the players decide to play it more direct, they would also be in a very dangerous place to either create something themselves or take a shot. When analysing if something works or not, it’s just as important to watch what the players not involved in the phase of play are doing too.
This can tell you a lot about your tactic and the way you play in general. When I speak about runners, this is the type of stuff I’m generally alluding to. You want runners running off the ball, beyond the defence and causing an issue. Like the attacking midfielders in the sequence of play in the video.
Lailton who eventually takes the shot sometimes is really close to the pressing forward. But this is down to him being the advanced playmaker and he is constantly moving and dropping back in search of the ball. He also takes up little pockets of space and is really hard to mark. In fact, he’s unmarked in the entire 31-second clip.
When looking at your own systems be aware of how important it is to know what your players are or aren’t doing. It can be the difference between the shot in this example happening or not happening. If the advanced playmaker was more static and didn’t roam about as much, he’d have likely never been in a position to not only receive the ball but also to take the shot.
Earlier in the article, I spoke about how important it was for the central midfielders to just sit so we can recycle possession or keep the attacking pressure on if the AI, clear the ball. This is exactly what happened above. This allows us to regain possession and pass it back around while keeping the pressure on the opposition and forcing them to carry on defending deep.
Due to the central midfielders being able to pick up the ball, we now create another goal-scoring chance. He passes the ball to the ball-playing defender, who then passes to the advanced playmaker. While this is happening the wingback is making a forward run and is totally unmarked. The advanced playmaker plays the wingback who then is able to carry on his run into the box. He then puts the ball past the goalkeeper at the near post and puts us into the lead.
The Right Balance
There’s more to a system having lots of possession though. Some of you dislike it when I say this as you don’t agree and that’s fine. But in my opinion, in Football Manager terms, there is such a thing as too much possession. At a certain point, your chance creation suffers and so does the shot quality.
If a team has the ball for long periods of time without creating any meaningful chances or putting pressure on the other team’s defence, they may start to lose momentum and become predictable. This can allow the other team to get organized and start to defend more effectively, making it difficult for the team with too much possession to break through and score. It is important for teams to find a balance between maintaining possession and creating scoring opportunities so that they can keep the other team on their toes and prevent them from gaining an advantage.
Sometimes it happens in my game and if I’m not paying attention it could really impact the result. In the image above I won the game while having 82% of the possession. That seems really impressive as it was a competitive match too. But as we delve deeper it’s not as good as it looks.
I always tell people that I aim to have 50% of the shots we have, to be on target. I think the real-life numbers are somewhere closer to 37-39%. But I think a good gauge in Football Manager is to aim for 50% which should be manageable for most people give or take a couple of per cent. We did that in the screenshot above. However, the quality of the shots was really poor and the xG reflects this.
We were unable to create anything meaningful because in this game I wasn’t paying attention and just wanted the game to play out, so I could have an example to use. The opposition was very stubborn and disciplined in defence so they made it really hard for us. We were basically living off scraps and the two goals we scored came from set pieces.
Without these two set-piece goals, it would look like we dominated the game and from a possession standpoint, we did. But when you start to break it down with chance creation and shot quality it becomes clear we were poor. If the opposition had counterattacked better and been able to grab a goal against the run of the play, we’d have lost. It’s why we see so many people think they dominate games and the opposition hit them with a sucker punch because the context of how you are playing is vital.
I’ve likely waffled on for way too long during this article already so I’ll likely end it here. I did have lots more to add in terms of analysis but I’ll do a follow-up article for that. As I’m going to tie it to the actual data from the game into the analysis, to show how we can use the data hub and various other things to find the good and bad about your systems.
Then I can show you how to use that data to make changes or spot issues in a game environment. That in itself is likely another huge 5k+ words, so would be far too much to incorporate into this one.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the article and if you’d like to chat more about the tactical side of the game you can find us on all social. We also have an active tactics channel on Discord;