Wide Centre-Backs (overlapping)are the defining thing in the Chris Wilder era for Sheffield United. Innovative, outside-of-the-box thinking by Alan Knill played a huge part in the club’s success. This is the second part of the Blades Revolution series and is all about the overlapping centrebacks. If you’ve not read the first part yet, you can catch up here;

The Blades Revolution

The Idea Behind Wide Centre-Backs

So, back when Sheffield United was still in League One, they were having a tough time trying to score goals. They just couldn’t seem to break down the opposing teams’ defences when they sat deep. That’s when Alan Knill, who was the assistant boss for the Blades at the time, was given the task of finding a solution to this problem.

After thinking long and hard about it, Knill came up with a clever idea: he told the team’s centrebacks to overlap with the wingbacks during attacking plays. This created an advantage for Sheffield United in the final third of the pitch, making it harder for the opposing team to defend effectively. With more players in the attacking third, the team was able to stretch the defence and create gaps to exploit.

This tactic proved to be a game-changer for Sheffield United. The use of overlapping centrebacks was not a common strategy at the time, so opposing teams weren’t really prepared for it. It also made the team less predictable and more dangerous in the attacking phase of play.

Thanks to this tactical adjustment, Sheffield United was able to create more scoring opportunities and eventually earned a promotion to the Championship. It just goes to show how a little creativity and outside-the-box thinking can make a big difference on the pitch.

Wide Centre-Backs in Football Manager 2023

So how does this strategy work in Football Manager 2023 and how do we implement it? The idea stays the same as above. In this tactical approach, Sheffield United focuses on identifying opportunities to advance into wide areas where there is space and a chance to create a 2v1 scenario against an opposition defender.

The Wide Centre-Back

These are the settings the role has;

Wide Centre-Back

There are a few things here you can customise to alter the behaviour of the wide centre-back and what they offer in terms of output. I use these settings as additional tactical tools against specific formations and shapes. Or against different types of blocks. I’ll cover this in more detail later and show examples.

The Wide Centre-Backs

It might not sound like much but in the first season, my wide centrebacks managed to get 18 assists between them. All of them are from open play.

Overlapping Centrebacks

Overlapping Centrebacks

Overlapping Centrebacks

Overlapping Centrebacks

After gaining promotion, our wide centre-backs achieved 15 assists between them the season after too. This is great considering we were a new team playing in the Premier League and were expected to get relegated. So we proved what we are doing works and is sustainable, even at a higher level. But what exactly is “working”?

It’s Not All Overlapping Centrebacks –Wide Centre-Back Analysis

Let’s take a look at some match analysis so we can delve deeper into what makes the wide centre-backs so important for the system we use. Then we can gain a real insight into how they become overlapping centre-backs.

This was straight from a kickoff but there is an awful lot going on, already. As the ball is played back, it’s picked up by the wide centreback. Who then immediately starts to drive forward with the ball.

Max Lowe, also starts to move forward too. Allowing us to keep the width and potentially cause an overload down the channel or free up space centrally, to play in the box-to-box midfielder.

On this occasion, it’s neither an underlap nor an overlap in play. But I wanted to highlight this as it’s really important. Not everything the wide centre-back does will be an overlap, he also does some brilliant play outside of those. Overlapping runs are just one part of the role but not all the player does

Here we see he has run wide with the ball and Max lowe is continuing his run forward. What this has done is, occupy the opposition’s wide player. As he has had to continue his run to follow Max Lowe. If he pressed the wide centreback, we’d have passed the ball to the free player in Max Lowe and taken him out of the game.

Instead, here we have the box-to-box midfielder in acres of space and able to receive the ball from a pass. This would then open up the entire pitch for us as there are now gaps and lots of space for the rest of our players. So if the pass is played, we can then look at playing in the forward players.

This example is really important because it is what wide centre-backs do. They don’t just overlap, their game is much more expansive than that. Sheffield United used them to create overloads or open up space centrally. We are also recreating this in game terms.

So the idea behind the wide centre-backs and what we expect from them becomes;

  • Overlaps
  • Underlaps
  • 2vs1/Overloads
  • Opening central space

Each time he goes forward it forces the opposition to react. When the opposition initially reacts it will determine which of the above is more likely to happen. If there is space to run into the wide centre-back will do just that. If he can overlap, he will. If he can underlap he will. If he can pass he will. Or he can even hit devastating direct balls at the attacking players. He will likely rank high in the team’s progressive passes stats.

The whole idea of wide centre-backs is more than just overlapping. It’s about forcing the opposition into making a decision and that decision being wrong. No matter what option they choose, the goal is to have one of the other options available too. This is why shape is the most important thing here.

You need to surround them with roles and duties which allow them to flourish and deliver the performance you need. There is much more to the wide centre-back than just using the role and expecting them to do everything you need. You have to force the type of player you want or encourage it more by the team/player instructions and the roles around them.

The Wingback

Before we look at the analysis for the wide centre-backs and discuss how it functions. We first need to know about the wingback because they do specific things that enable the wide centre-backs to shine. I have asked the wingbacks to sit narrow in the team instructions. I’ll now show you why and what the benefits of this are.

We had just attacked but there was no forward passing option for the Mezzala to use. So rather than give the ball away, he can pass it back to the right-sided wingback. By sitting narrower, he is closer to playing with the central players. This then enables the wide centre-back to overlap and go beyond him by making an intelligent run. Or allows him to become a passing option who can then drive forward with the ball at his feet.

Once he gets the ball, then he has plenty of decisions to make. He can whip the ball into the box, across the face of the goal and hope someone gets on the end of it. There are three options here. Or he can play it back to the wingback who will be unmarked.

If the wingback wasn’t asked to sit narrower, then this likely doesn’t happen and they’d be closer together on the wing. Which would be an absolute waste. There is no need to have two players out this wide. But that’s not to say the wingback doesn’t stay wide and run the touchline when the timing is right. He still does as can be seen at the start of the article with Max Lowe.

On this occasion, he passed the ball back to the wingback who is acres of space. But sadly lacked the vision and composure to do anything useful this time. So it’s a wasted opportunity. Although it does show you the kind of link-up play to expect from the wingback. 

I should also add that I don’t instruct the wingback to sit narrower in every game, it depends on the formation I am playing and the team. If it’s a team who uses a wide formation like a 4-4-2, or 4-3-3 for example, I will then. As it allows him to pull away from the opposition’s wide players and pick up little pockets of space when we have possession of the ball.

If I was facing a narrow formation like a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-4-2-1 then I might instruct him to stay wider. Then will then allow us to stretch the pitch and force the opposition’s only wide players to become isolated and detached from the rest of the side. I’ll be going more in-depth on these types of strategies in the coming weeks with the rest of the series.

But in this game, he sat narrow allowing the wide centre-back to be the main wide player and the one stretching play on the overlap.

Breaking Sides Down With Space And Movement

One of the most significant challenges that people face while playing Football Manager is breaking down sides. This is a common topic on forums, blogs, and Twitter, with many users sharing their experiences of beating the top teams one week, only to get defeated by the bottom teams the next. 

One of the primary challenges we face when playing against these types of teams is their ability to limit space in the final third. Space is essential in football as it provides players with time to make decisions and select their passes accurately. However, when facing a compact and deep-defending team, it becomes difficult to find space for through balls, crosses, or lofted passes into the box. As a result, players may struggle to create the half-yard they need to make a successful play. Therefore, alternative strategies are required to break down these teams when conventional tactics are not effective. 

Many football players opt to adopt a more attacking strategy when faced with a team that sits deep, but I personally believe that this only exacerbates the problem. By pushing players further up the field, you are effectively compacting the limited space you have, reducing the likelihood of players making runs that can stretch or damage the opposition’s defence. As I mentioned in the Football Manager Playbook, mentality is critical in football tactics, and this is especially relevant in this case. To be truly effective, you may need to create space and movement in deeper areas of the pitch, even if you’re playing higher up. It’s not impossible to create space and movement in the opposition’s half, but it becomes much more challenging if there is no space behind the player. So, how can we effectively create space and movement? That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

Say hello to the wide centre-back!

Above we can see a little bit of everything that Anel Ahmedhodžić offers when we have possession of the ball. In this clip, he’s a bit behind the play because Brewster who was higher up the pitch won the ball. That doesn’t stop him from joining in the play and trying to be pivotal in the move though. As we see Anel Ahmedhodžić making his run to support Brewster, we see he goes beyond the wingback before checking his run. Some of you might think that both of these roles are too close together but this is why space opens up. Plus they’re not always like this. But in this instance, the wingback starts to make the underlap as he knows Anel Ahmedhodžić is about to receive the ball.

Due to the wingback making a dummy run, he has now become the free man in the build-up play. He’s created space for himself meaning he can be passed to. This in turn means when he receives the ball, space will open up for the mezzala. Due to the markers chasing the ball and following the wingback. It also has a positive for Brewster too as he can continue his run into the box. 

In the clip we saw, we can see how space and movement is the key to unlocking defences. Initially, Brewster was running into a dead-end. But because the mezzala, wingback and wide centre-back were all working hard to offer support, it ended up as a really good scoring opportunity.

Now we are beginning to explore everything the wide centre-back offers during a match. The wide centre-back gets an awful lot of pre-assists due to the example we posted above. A “pre-assist” refers to the pass or play that sets up the assist for a goal. It is essentially the second-to-last pass or touch that leads to a goal-scoring opportunity. For example, if a player passes the ball to another player, who then crosses it to a teammate for a goal, the first player would be credited with a pre-assist. 

Sadly FM doesn’t track this kind of stat yet. But if you watch games it is something you should notice now and again.

We have another little example here;

Due to injuries, I had to play Bogle as the left wingback for this game. We are attacking but there’s nowhere for him to really go. Sunderland are defending really strong and forcing us to backwards or side to side. But because the wide centre-back is pushed up, he is now the wide outlet.

When he runs forward space opens up as Sunderland have kept a really strong defensive line. This means that Edwards who is the wide centre-back can choose the short option on the edge of the box. Or he has three players unmarked running into the box he can pick out. That’s exactly what he does here. He crosses it to the head of the mezzala who heads it home to make it 1-0.

Anel Ahmedhodžić has brings the ball out of defence trait, which is a must-have if you want the player to dribble with the ball more often. I’ve used players without the trait this season and they’re more reserved in the initial build-up. So for me, this is a must.

The gets the crowd going trait I don’t particularly care for. But he already had that and isn’t able to unlearn it, after trying.

Play one-twos trait is really interesting as it encourages him to pass and move forward on a more regular basis. This trait can create some really good play down the flanks with either the wingback or midfielder on this side of the pitch. A simple one-two can change the pace of the game and take the opposition’s marker out of play. Especially as we cause overloads down the flanks. I highly recommend this trait if the player has a little bit of speed too.

The gets forward whenever trait encourages him to go past the midfield rather than hanging back more often. This is why he is so good at overlapping. Someone without this trait might do more underlaps than overlaps.

Those are the traits I’ve been looking for in players or currently trying to teach them. As this adds to the style I am creating and what I want from the players. 

Ability to play out from the back: In modern football, wide centre-backs are expected to be comfortable with the ball at their feet and able to start attacks from the back. A wide centre-back should have good ratings in attributes like passing, composure, and vision to be able to contribute to the team’s buildup play the best he can.

Tactical awareness: A wide centre-back should be able to read the game well and make intelligent decisions based on the situation at hand. This includes attributes like anticipation, concentration, and decision-making. If he is tactically aware, he might find himself winning the ball back further up the field and giving you a real advantage with starting attacks from turnovers.

Speed and Physicality: A wide centre-back needs to be physically strong and athletic to cope with the demands of the position, especially when facing pacy wingers. This includes high ratings in attributes like strength, acceleration, and agility.

In the next article, we’ll talk about the midfield and how they link with the defence so far. I omitted quite a bit of stuff as I didn’t really want to cover the midfield in this section, even though there are a lot of crossovers.



  • Cleon

    Cleon is a distinguished figure in the Football Manager community, known for his tactical acumen and profound understanding of the game's intricacies. With a penchant for sharing knowledge, Cleon has authored "The Football Manager Playbook," offering a deep dive into crafting effective tactics. He's the brains behind the well-regarded blog "View From The Touchline," where he elucidates on football philosophies, game strategies, and more. Beyond the written word, Cleon engages with enthusiasts through social media, making complex football management concepts accessible to many.

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