The Tactical Principles of Will Still at Stade de Reims
ThrowingCopperFM shares this post with us about the tactical principles of Will Still at Stade de Reims and how he implemented it into FM23. Tactic download link included.
A lot of people will be aware of the rapid rise of Will Still at Stade de Reims. The 30-year-old is the youngest head coach in Ligue 1 history and has caused a storm since taking over at Stade de Reims in October 2022. Will cites Football Manager as a major part of his footballing education and led the team to a long unbeaten run, including two games against PSG.
In this article I’ll take a look at the main principles of Still’s Stade de Reims tactics and attempt to implement them in Football Manager 2023.
Like a lot of teams, Stade de Reims use a 4-2-3-1 formation. What sets it apart, though, isn’t exotic positions or complex player instructions, but instead a sound tactical structure and a squad of players who clearly buy into what William Still is trying to achieve.
Let’s take a look at how the system works both in and out of possession.
Normally, smaller-budget teams are quite conservative when it comes to attacking the opposition. Be careful to not commit too many players forward to avoid being caught out of position and punished on the counterattacks. That’s not the case though with Stade de Reims under Will Still. Refreshingly, each touch seems to be positive, with the intent of causing problems for the opposition.
When in the final third the system, which is quite rigid defensively, springs into life and becomes more fluid, with lots of player movement. The defensive midfielders hold position, rarely entering the box, whilst the central attacking midfielder becomes a second striker, aggressively attacking the area.
On the flanks, the fullbacks push up to stretch the opposition’s defence and they regularly interchange positions with the wide attacking midfielders. The space created by the width leaves underlapping opportunities in the space between the opposition fullbacks and central defenders.
One of the main improvements Stade de Reims have seen since Still took over is the number of shots taken from inside the penalty area. They aren’t just shooting on sight though. With the opportunity to make the extra pass being taken regularly, the xG per shot has also seen an increase.
When the ball is with the goalkeeper, Stade de Reims tend to line up in more of a 4-1-2-3 formation. This is achieved by one of the defensive midfielders pushing higher up, whilst the wide attacking midfielders push up high, in line with the striker.
If facing heavy press, this gives good numbers upfield to win the first or second ball, should the goalkeeper or a central defender choose to bypass the pressure with a long ball.
On the other hand, if they choose to try to play through the press, smart movement by the central midfielders pulls the opposition out of position, creating room for the wide attacking players to move into and receive the ball.
If not being pressed, Stade de Reims are happy to play out of defence, through the central defenders. They’re neither a short-passing team nor are they a long-ball side. Each pass is focused on getting the ball forward and they take whichever option presents itself for the good of the team.
One player who stands out for me is the right Attacking Midfielder, Junya Ito. The Japanese international is a constant threat and his position is forever changing. One minute he’s hugging the touchline like a traditional winger, the next he’s central and bursting ahead of the striker like an attacking inside forward or shadow striker. Recreating his impact is something I’ll look to achieve.
OUT OF POSSESSION
My favourite thing about this Stade de Reims team is the way they play when out of possession. Upon losing possession, Stade de Reims forward players aggressively counter-press.
This counter-pressing has three purposes:
1 – to win the ball back in a dangerous position
2 – force a long pass which can be intercepted
3 – to slow down the opponent’s attack, allowing the defensive players to get into position.
If this counter-press isn’t successful, and in general out of possession play, the 4-2-3-1 transforms into a compact 4-4-2. By using the striker and central attacking midfielder to cut off passing lanes into midfield, the opposition is forced to move the ball wide. Once there, the 4-4-2 makes the flanks difficult to progress down and Stade de Reims can look to win back the ball.
The mid-block the team falls into means there’s little space between the lines for the opposition to play and find time on the ball. Two defensive midfielders doggedly protect the defence, whilst hard-working wide Attacking Midfielders drop deep to form a bank of four.
The counter-press isn’t the only area they’re aggressive in. They’re certainly not shy about getting stuck in, with the team ranking 1st for the combined number of tackles and interceptions in Ligue 1. Their commitment to winning the ball back is further evidenced by having the 3rd most yellow cards and 2nd most red cards.
Note – Still’s determination to cut off passes into the centre of the park can possibly be seen by him using a natural defensive midfielder, Munetsi, in the AMC role. The defensive awareness, positioning and ball-winning abilities also help with the counter-press.
TRANSFERRING INTO FOOTBALL MANAGER
So now we know how Still’s 4-2-3-1 works in and out of possession, how do we recreate this in FM23?
Here are the four elements I’m aiming to recreate:
1- Attack in a 4-2-3-1 with an aggressive central Attacking Midfielder pushing up alongside the striker. Generating a high number of high-quality shots.
2 – Recreate the influence of Ito in the attacking play.
3 – A disciplined, compact 4-4-2 in defence, forcing opponents out wide.
4 – An aggressive counter-press upon loss of possession.
Now we know the style Stade de Reims plays under Still, as well as the main elements I aim to recreate, it’s time to head into the season. Ligue 1 in France is my favourite league to manage in so I’m excited about the challenge ahead.
At the beginning of the season, we’re predicted to finish 13th. To ensure fairness I won’t sign any new players and the first transfer window will be disabled.
To begin with, I entered pre-season in a standard 4-2-3-1 with the Attacking Width set to Wide to encourage the ball to be played out to the flanks.
However, this failed in two aspects:
- Recreating the 4-4-2 out of possession – despite the wide attacking midfielders being asked to mark the opposition full-backs, they still remained high up the pitch and didn’t fulfil their defensive duties.
- Not getting Ito involved enough. Whilst he was getting the ball, it was all out wide and not like he plays in Still’s system in real life.
To counteract these issues I swapped the Attacking Width to Fairly Narrow and aimed to generate the natural width by asking the fullbacks to stay wide in their player instructions.
I then knocked the wide players down into the midfield strata.
This not only solved the above issues but also made us much more compact centrally.
Here’s the formation I went into the season with:
To get the forward-thinking play I’ve chosen a Positive mentality and selected Pass into Space which should create forward momentum. I’ve chosen Slightly Shorter passing directness which gives players the permission to pass in behind the opposition defence, when appropriate, where the pace of the Balogun and the Attacking Midfielders can cause problems.
Moving into the final third, I’ve selected Work Ball into Box to make sure the players forge high-quality chances. Coupled with the Be More Expressive instruction we should see good movement and positional changes, with players looking for pockets of space to exploit.
Out of possession we counter-press much more often and sit in our mid-block with the instruction to get stuck in. Sticking with the aggressive theme, the defence is asked to step up to challenge the ball as this should help to squeeze the space in between the lines.
With the formation and tactics set it’s time to head into the Ligue 1 season…
Well, we defied all pre-season expectations and managed to secure European football by finishing 4th. In doing so we scored 70 goals and conceded only 34 which both ranked 2nd behind PSG.
Speaking of PSG, they won Ligue1 at a canter, but how did they do against Stade de Reims?
With Will Still hitting the headlines for securing two draws against Christophe Galtier’s squad of superstars, I saw this as a yard-stick to measure my version of his system against.
Note – I didn’t change the tactics or team instructions versus PSG. I played them exactly the same as all the other teams.
In the first meeting of the two sides, we were very unlucky. I thought we’d rescued a draw when Balogun scored in the 89th minute, however, we fell to a very late defeat after Sarabia netted in the 95th minute. As you can see from the stats, we won the xG battle and deserved at least a draw in what was a fun, open game.
The second game saw a much stronger PSG performance, in which most of our chances were created off turnovers forced by our tenacious defence. Thankfully, we had a very in-form Balogun who netted a hat trick to give us a well-fought point.
Although we lost one game I still feel I passed the test. Will Still probably disagree.
THE PRINCIPLES IN PLAY
So, we know the tactic worked extremely well, as evidenced by our 4th placed finish, but did I succeed in meeting the four elements of play outlined earlier in this article?
1 – Attack in a 4-2-3-1 with an aggressive central Attacking Midfielder pushing up alongside the striker. Generating a high number of high-quality shots.
Despite the wide Attacking Midfielders starting deeper, we still attacked in a 4-2-3-1 (and occasionally a 4-2-2-2) thanks to the Positive team instruction. This can be seen from the average positions when in possession, taken from the first game against PSG. It’s a clear 4-2-3-1 even in a game where we were pinned back for large spells.
Average positions with the ball, versus PSG
The aggression of the Shadow Striker role, used in the central Attacking Midfielder position was vital to our success: The image below shows Ito on the right flank, battling for the ball with two PSG defenders. Even though possession hasn’t yet been won you can see the Shadow Striker in this game, Munetsi (circled in blue), is already bursting towards the penalty area.
Having this positive intent also helped when it came to counter-pressing when we lost possession high up the pitch. The advanced position of the Shadow Striker meant he was always around to either challenge the ball carrier or help Balogun cut off passing lanes.
The player who started the most games as the Shadow Striker was Nathanael Mbuku. In 30 games he scored 9 goals with 6 assists and managed 0.78 shots on target per 90 minutes. Showing his commitment to his defensive role, he also won back possession 7.88 times per game.
Attacking performance of the Shadow Striker, Mbuku
Did we manage to create a lot of high-quality shooting opportunities?
Yes, we did. The image below from the data hub shows we ranked 4th for shots on target per game and 2nd in expected goals-to-shot ratio. For a team ranked 10th for average possession (51%) that’s very impressive.
2 – Recreate the influence of Ito in the attacking play.
After tinkering with the role of Ito throughout pre-season and the first couple of months of the season, I settled on an attacking Inverted Winger. This, along with an Underlap Right instruction, created some nice interplay with Ito and the right Full Back.
He ended the season with 12 assists (tied 3rd with Neymar, behind Messi and Payet) and 4 goals with an overall average rating of 7.09.
His performances really kicked on when I added the Roam from Position instruction, as it allowed him more licence to find pockets of space to exploit. He seemed to get on the ball more and boosted his influence on games.
3 – A disciplined 4-4-2 in defence, forcing opponents out wide.
To achieve these two elements I had to use the following instructions:
- Ask the wide Attacking Midfielders to mark the opposition Full Back.
- Ask the central attacking midfielder to mark the opposition defensive midfielder.
- Use the defensive line to Step Up More to compact the space in between the lines.
- Tell the team to Trap Wide, which forces the opposition to the flanks.
In the below image, you can see our plan working to perfection. Prior to this screenshot, Balogun and Munetsi had blocked off the centre of the park and forced the ball wide to Hakimi. Our left winger, Zeneli, was able to apply pressure whilst cutting off the short pass to Messi. Meanwhile, Munetsi was carrying out his role of marking Marquinhos (blue rectangle). The only options for Hakimi were to play back to the Central Defender or play a long ball forward. He picked the latter and it was easily cut out by our Central Defenders.
Finishing the season with the second-best defensive record shows how difficult this system made it for opponents. The middle was cut off, and upon being forced to the flanks it was equally as difficult to make progress thanks to us having a wide Attacking Midfielder and a Full Back positioned there.
The passing map for PSG from this game shows they were unable to make much progress centrally, with our defensive midfield duo doing a great job.
4 – An aggressive counter-press upon loss of possession.
Our pressing stats and the energy from the players were impressive all season. In the image below you can see that as soon as the ball was played from defence into Defensive Midfielder Marquinhos he was aggressively closed down by Munetsi (blue circle) from below and Balogun from behind. Our four midfielders are circled in yellow allowing you to see how two of them also committed to the press, whilst the other two remained disciplined in their defensive duties. Here, the press was successful and after winning the ball Balogun managed to drive forward and fire a shot narrowly over the bar.
Our mid-block worked very well and helped the team to be very aggressive in counter-pressing, whilst retaining enough energy to see out games. We gained 43% of possession in the middle third which shows how effective the mid-block was.
Our commitment to being aggressive in defence meant we committed the most fouls in Ligue 1 and received the most yellow cards. We also ranked 3rd for tackles won.
We allowed 4.85 passes per defensive action which seems quite low, however, you have to remember we used a mid-block. Therefore we didn’t press as high as other teams, preferring the compact system instead.
I have to admit that this Stade de Reims team is a joy to manage. Whilst not the most talented or deep squad, the players are full of fight and determination. Will Still has clearly created a tactical system and philosophy to get the best out of this squad and it works. Not only in real life, but also in Football Manager.
Balogun was brilliant all season long, scoring a massive 34 goals in 35 Ligue 1 game. The tactic plays perfectly to his strengths, with our positive play always looking to get him in behind the opposition defence and his teammates always looking to get him the ball in dangerous areas in and around the penalty area.
Whilst I wasn’t able to put together a long unbeaten run like Will Still, I’ve shown his system is extremely effective and it’s made me fall in love with the 4-2-3-1 once again.
Some of the football we played was tremendous and we had some excellent games against the likes of Rennes, Marseilles and OGC Nice. I was reminded why I love Ligue 1 so much. One minute I was comfortably beating Lyon, the next I was losing to Ajaccio and Brest. If you haven’t tried Ligue 1 before, do it!
Now if you would like to try this tactic yourself in FM23 I’ve attached a download link for you – Tactic