Before updating you all on the first half of season 2 with Almeria, I wanted to talk through the tactical strategy I’ve employed this season. I’m sticking with the 5-3-2 which was the platform for our respectable 11th place finish, despite it faltering over the last couple of months of the season. This downturn in form saw our challenge for the European places collapse, but with new signings made and a growing sense of team identity, I’ve gone into the season full of optimism.
THE ART OF WAR – THE TACTICS
Over the Christmas break, I managed to find a couple of hours to sit down (lay on the sofa with a single malt) to watch the (anti?) war film, Zulu. It’s a movie I remember watching with my grandparents whilst I was young, but I don’t believe I’d seen it since. Anyway, for those unfamiliar, during the suspenseful build up to the main battle there’s a scene where an army scout draws the battle tactics of the Zulus on the ground, as below.
Impondo Zankomo – The Bull’s Horns
Obviously, as a seasoned FMer, whenever the words tactics or strategy pop-up, no matter the context, my mind always flips to the wonderful virtual footballing world. And that’s what happened on this occasion, especially so because it resonated with what I’m trying to achieve with my 5-3-2 in Almeria. As the scout went on to explain, the battle strategy adopted by the Zulus is based upon a bull’s, or beast’s, head. The central column (the head) would aggressively engage the enemy with the intent of causing havoc and distraction. Whilst this frenzied battle was occuring, the flanks (horns) would sneak around the sides and unleash a lightning fast, deadly attack with the ultimate aim of encircling the opponent.
Such tactics gave the Zulus many decisive victories and allowed the demolition of the British Army at the Battle of Isandlwana, just before the now legendary stand at Rorke’s Drift, which is what the film is based upon.
The reason(s) this resonated with me is because I’d been planning to make my 5-3-2 operate in a similar fashion, by have the following characteristics:
- Be solid and tough through the middle
- Engage the opposition by inviting a press or by defenders bringing the ball into midfield
- Using a narrow, compact midfield to draw the opposition into the middle of the park
- Use quick attacks down the flanks to get in behind the opponents defence.
Here’s the set up with which I planned to achieve the above:
The “season 2” Almeria are a little less “smash and grab” and a little more deliberate. We still play with a standard tempo and standard passing directness but I’ve switched the mentality from Positive to Balanced. As a result, we play much better football and the less direct style seems to get the Wing Backs involved much more, which is vital in my three-at-the-back system.
Out of possession we’ve kept the mid-block and standard defensive line.
Here’s how this formation ties into the Bull’s Horns battle strategy of the Zulus:
THE CENTRAL COLUMN
In this instance, the Head and chest of the beast, or the central column, is my three central defenders and 3 midfielders. The deep forward could also be included here when plan B is in operation. Whilst the central column of the Zulus aggressively engages the enemy with the aim of causing havoc, we do things in a little more laid back fashion – it IS Spain, afterall. Through the following instructions we aim to “encourage” the opponent into the centre of the park and invite a press:
- Fairly narrow
- Distribute to Centre backs
- Play out of defence
The central defenders and the defensive midfielder will pass the ball amongst themselves, inviting pressure until a Wing Back or a line-breaking pass to a central midfielder becomes available. Thanks to the natural passing triangles which exist between these four, there’s nearly always an available pass for them to make.
You can see this passing intent in the Pass Map from our Season 2 game against Sevilla. The shape of which, interestingly, resembles the Bull’s Head battle formation of the Zulus.
But what if that doesn’t work? (AKA: Plan A.2)
One of the drawbacks of a 5-3-2 is that there’s less forward players for the opposition to mark. Therefore, if the opposition doesn’t fall for this fiendish plan we need another option to “free up” passing options. All we need to do though, is to make just one of the opposition players commit to challenging the ball. This can be done by a Ball Playing Defender, bringing the ball out of defence and into the midfield. If done well enough, the opposition will have no choice but to be drawn to him, leaving the player they’re supposed to be marking. Luckily, my right-sided Central Defender Lyanco’s (#4) trait of Brings the ball out of defence really helps us achieve this and disrupts the opposition marking schemes. At the time of writing (mid way through season 2) he’s leading the team with 3.65 dribbles per game. You can see how much he loves having the ball at his feet from the image below, where he made 7 dribbles in a game:
With the narrowness of the system and the two actions mentioned above forcing the opponent into central areas, this naturally leaves the flanks open and available for us to exploit.
If neither of the above are working and I’m failing to progress downfield well, I’ll embrace the full Zulu strategy and be more aggressive down the middle, by focussing play there and using the deep forward as an extra man to overwhelm the centre of the opposition.
As just discussed, whilst the opposition is busy trying to close down our central defenders or tackle the marauding Ball Playing Defenders, they tend to become more compact. The knock on effect is that this allows us to cause damage down the flanks. Both Wing Backs have the instruction to cross more often and stay wider, meaning they usually find themselves in plenty of space. The left Wing Back has an Advanced Playmaker inside of him and an Advanced Forward ahead of him, so I have him on attack duty. This is so he gets forward enough to give the playmaker an option down the flank so we can get in and behind the opposition defence or be in a position to play a quick ball into the feet of the Advanced Froward. The image below shows all passes received by left Wing Back, Sergio Akieme. Over half are in advanced positions where he can be a threat.
On the right, I have a Wing Back on Support due to Lynaco’s tendency to bring the ball out, although the Defensive Midfield does slot in to fill any gaps in the back line when needed. I get better natural width on the right, thanks to the attacking Mezzala. His interaction with the deeper striker and support from the wingback means we’re a threat both wide and in the half-space. A good example of a classic passage of play on the right can be seen in this Elmas goal I posted on Twitter.
The “Bull’s Head” in Action
It wouldn’t be a proper tactical write up (it still might not be!) without showing examples of the system working how I want it to. Here’s an example of the system in action and a passage of play I wanted to get down the left. You can see how narrowly Sevilla (black) have been forced. Satriano has just dropped deep to receive a pass from Robertone. Take a look at the wingbacks and all the space they’re now in. Satriano played a ball out to Akieme on the left-wing who had an age to pick out a pass for the on-rushing Ramazani (blue arrow) who fired us into the lead.
We also get similar passages on the right flank. Here, against Villareal, the ball had been played from Alderete (the middle CB) to Robertone in the centre, who then pinged the ball out wide to right wing back Mendes. Again, you can see how much room he’s in thanks to how narrow the midfield is (blue circles), which in turn has compacted Villareal. This time, rather than relying on the pace of Ramazani as we down on the opposite wing, we’ve used distraction: Satriano has dropped deep which has allowed Elmas to break forward into acres of space (blue arrow) and score an easy goal.
THE ART OF WAR – THE WARRIORS
As we all know, good tactics don’t win games; players do. Similarly, the best military strategies are doomed to fail without the right soldiers to carry out the orders. And that’s why I went out to recruit warriors. Those who’ve read previous updates of this Almeria save will know I look for players who are fast, strong and brave. If they can’t be all three, they need to excel in one area. Comparing this physical profile against the La Liga average, you can see how we’re turning into a team who is going to fight for every point.
We’re above the La Liga average for outfield players for all of my key criteria, which is a great sign. You can see why I wanted to sign Lyanco – he fits the bill perfectly, whilst Alderete may lack acceleration but more than makes up for it with strength and grit. Ramazani’s electric pace and determined nature makes him a good option. As long as I can keep getting him in space in the channels, his lack of strength and bravery should be minimised.
So, there’s the tactics for this season and they’re certainly working better than last season, although strengthening the team in key areas always helps. How much better is it doing? You’ll have to read the next article to find out where we’ll break down the stats and see just how the strategy is working. In the meantime, here’s the lineup for the new season: