I don’t consider myself to be a tactically astute manager. I have a basic understanding and have been able to create tactics that have achieved relative success in my saves, but I do this primarily through a pragmatic approach and prolonged successful squad building. Those that can not only build successful tactics, but also instantly diagnose issues within a tactic and make the needed changes have my utmost respect, and at times a high level of envy. 

This is one of those times.

The Problem

I recently took to Twitter with a couple of threads outlying a major problem I’ve encountered during season six. April was a horror month, with four defeats and a draw against admittedly tough opposition. Most worryingly though, was that we didn’t score a single goal.

As I mentioned in the first thread above, my original thought was that we had just faced a freak run of games where every goalkeeper was exceptional.

Although this is still true, a deeper look a little closer to home actually revealed some worrying trends that need to be addressed, rather than putting it down to bad luck and outstanding goalkeeping.

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Click image to enlarge.

By taking a look at our team scoring and shooting charts in the Data Hub, I established that we create a high level of xG per game, the fourth highest in the division in fact. However, we aren’t doing this in the most efficient way, and we rely on quantity of shots to establish a high level of xG, rather than creating high quality chances that will go in more often than not. This is shown by the fact that we have the fifth lowest goals per game in the division, but most damningly in the shooting graph, where we have the second highest shots on target per game but below average xG per shot. 

I’ll move on to talking about our strikers in a minute, as of course they will account for a lot of the problem, but it’s important to remember that they aren’t the only players taking shots.

I took a look at the shot map for the last five games (in all competitions) which includes these results:

Click image to enlarge.
Click image to enlarge.

We underperformed our xG in this period by 1.9 goals, with just four goals coming from 42 attempts. 14 of those attempts coming from headers is a bit of a concern as we don’t have an overly effective attacking unit in the air, meaning we possibly need to tweak how our crosses come in or reduce the amount that do. The two set-pieces were a converted penalty (the only high xG chance we created in five games) and a direct free-kick, responsible for our lowest xG chance at just 0.04. 

I’ve never been somebody who refuses to let players take speculative shots as I enjoy a long-range screamer, but I am fairly happy with the ratio of shots inside and outside the area. This shows me that we are finding ways to play through opposition defences, although the amount of blocked shots would also suggest that sides are setting up to defend close to their own goal against us.

The Culprits

In the league, we have scored more than one goal just once in the last fifteen games. Even when we include cup games, where we’ve had a little more success, that record still only reads as four of the last 22. There are clearly problems in our striking department, so I’ve taken a look at the Data Hub, and will also look at each of our three main centre forwards in isolation to try and figure out what’s going so wrong.

Data Hub

My first port of call was to take a look at how our forwards stack up in the division when comparing xG per 90 to goals per 90.

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It doesn’t make for pretty reading. Nakamura is the only striker showing anything like a threat, but having only started five games and often playing off the left or behind the striker the sample size may be slightly misleading. 

Amang and new signing Kidera have both been incredibly disappointing. It’s important to note that Amang’s metrics look poor despite starting the season exceptionally well, with six goals in his first seven games. Kidera has been the most inefficient striker in the division, which as my record signing at £3.3m makes me furious. Of course it can take young players some time to bed in, and he hasn’t had the most consistent run of games, but an xG underperformance of 0.41 per 90 is unforgivable.

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Kidera’s case isn’t helped by the fact that his xG per shot is the highest of our strikers, meaning that he’s being provided a higher quality of chance than Amang and Nakamura. Amang and Nakamura are ‘busier’ strikers so have the same opportunity to make an impact, but do it through quantity rather than quality. The only significant difference that may account for this is that due to his low work rate I’ve been adjusting the forward’s role to an Advanced Forward when Kidera plays on occasions. 

It seems to me that tactically we’re struggling to create as often for the Advanced Forward role – strange considering that the movement traits are the same – but when we do get it right it’s creating higher xG chances. Of course this may just be a phase and the xG per shot may regress, but if it doesn’t then we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t consider long-term changes.

Personnel

Thomas Amang – Previous 15 league games: zero goals

I LOVE Thomas Amang. So much so that I dedicated an entire blog post to him. He is arguably in my top ten favourite players ever in Football Manager. So it breaks my heart to say this, I think his race is run.

Thomas is 30 now, and starting to lose his pace. It’s the X-factor that has made him so unplayable since we signed him, but he doesn’t have the technical ability to fall back on in order to adapt his game. Even if we had another striker banging them in for fun, there isn’t another role I could use Thomas in that wouldn’t need to make use of his pace.

Ironically, and somewhat contrary to what I’ve just said above, Amang’s all-round metrics so far this season have been exceptional. However, it’s important to note that in Amang’s case I’m not actually concerned by his performances, just his sudden lack of output and threat. As well as that, the pizza charts include all competitions and the early part of the league campaign where we (and Amang) started really well. 

In fact, of Amang’s 15 goal contributions so far from 23(9) appearances, 8 of them have come from 5(5) appearances in the domestic cups and Asian Champions League.

I’ve taken a look through a handful of games where Amang has been particularly poor lately to see if I can identify any trends, and oh boy…

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The heat maps show that Amang is often a peripheral figure in the match. Even in the Sagan Tosu map where he was slightly(!) more involved, it’s a concern how deep his involvement was, with little to no action anywhere near a goal scoring position.

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In fact, the touch maps show just how ineffective he has been. An average of two touches in the box per game is criminally low, and reduces the error of margin when finishing chances to practically zero. It’s also important to note that an increase in touches doesn’t produce an increase of touches in the box, which is perhaps indicative of a need to tweak the role.

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Compare that to the above heat/touch map from the opening game of the season, a 2-0 win over Kyoto Sanga where Amang scored both, and it’s clear to see that he was much more involved in the game, able to be found in the box, and in-form enough to finish a couple of half chances.

Masahiro Kidera – Previous 15 league games: one goal

I do feel that in Masahiro Kidera I’ve potentially bought a square peg for a round hole. With Urawa Red Diamonds being relegated, the chance to sign one of the best young strikers in Japan who is already a full international for below his true value was too good to pass up, but in hindsight he was brought in with no real plan to get the best from him. 

It’s clear to see where the major issues lie, he’s obviously hugely underperforming his xG, but to only be in the 20th percentile for shots per 90 shows he’s also not getting the chances to turn his form around.

I’ve taken a look at this run of games where Kidera started each, to see if I could identify the similarities and differences between his style of play and Amang’s.

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Taking a look at both the heat maps and the locations where Kidera was receiving passes, it’s clear to see once again that action inside the penalty area is basically non-existent. With confidence clearly down, I can’t rely on being clinical in one or two key moments to be enough, so it’s becoming more and more clear that some sort of tactical tweak is needed to improve both the quality and quantity of chances.

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These are the scoring chances that Kidera did manage to get in his little run of starts. Obviously getting none against Ehime is poor, but as we’ve discussed already getting our strikers involved in the game is clearly a problem at present. However, for four chances (three key and one half chance) to be presented to Kidera in and around the penalty spot or closer, and within the width of the 6 yard box, to result in zero goals is completely unacceptable at any level. An interesting note is that all four of these chances were blocked shots, more on this later.

Hiroyuki Nakamura – Previous 15 league games: three goals

It’s insanely unfair for me to include Nakamura as a ‘culprit’ of our attacking woes. He’s very much been a bit part player this season, having only started five games, two of which were in the league. To add to this, he’s actually played very well when given opportunities, as has been mentioned occasionally throughout this post.

The choice to include his pizza chart above as an attacking midfielder and not a striker is intentional, and to be perfectly honest I could have just excluded him from the post altogether, but having just played a full 90 minutes as a striker where he scored the winning goal, I wanted to take a look at the analysis of that performance to see if it was drastically different to what Amang and Kidera have been producing.

Click image to enlarge.

Honestly, not massively. There still wasn’t a lot of penalty area action, Nakamura was just clinical enough to score the one half chance he was presented with. He was more involved in the game than Amang and Kidera have often been, although we have seen similar heat maps from the other in one-off games. 

The most notable differences for me were in Nakamura’s involvement in build-up. Nakamura completed more passes against Hokkaido Sapporo than Amang or Kidera have managed in any of the games we’ve looked at, and crucially a good number of them were progressive and high enough up the pitch to make an impact. 

Nakamura also offers quite an understated aerial presence. His actual heading ability is fairly poor (despite his goal in this game being a header), but at 6’2” and with good jumping reach, he’s an effective target while also being mobile enough to put himself about. This gives us an extra ability to go long from the goalkeeper and bypass the opposition midfield, allowing us to start our moves further up the field. With Amang or Kidera up top we often lose the first ball, and then need to work harder to start attacks.

Tactical Tweaks

We’ve established that we need to try and get the strikers some more chances in order to combat their lack of confidence at present, so now we need to decide how exactly to approach that. Either way I won’t be ripping everything up and starting fresh; this will be a short term adjustment with a view to a potential long-term plan.

At this point I have two main trains of thought, and as with all systems there are pros and cons to both that need consideration.

Approach One

A more patient approach, working the ball and switching play to open up defences and focusing fully on improving the quality of the chances we create.

As the seasons have progressed we’ve already started to progress to a more possession based approach, particularly at home. However, to try and also be an effective threat in transition, I’ve maintained our desire to counter attack wherever possible, which would need to change to fully commit. As teams are now starting to sit deeper to try and contain us, we probably need to try and start building moves from the back to draw sides out, and potentially even lower our line of engagement to encourage sides to come at us a little. 

I do have concerns that transitioning to this style of football while our strikers are struggling for confidence may actually make us more passive and less threatening. If sides are determined to dig in and sit deep against us and we aren’t at our best, we could see plenty of goalless games.

The other major concern is around blocked shots, as I mentioned when analysing Kidera’s performances. Looking back through various shot maps from throughout the season, we tend to have around 20-30% of our shots blocked, but the vast majority of those are close range, high xG chances. This suggests to me a couple of things, one or both of which may be happening. As I’ve already mentioned it’s very likely that sides are, and will continue to, defending deep against us. My other thought is that our forwards are trying to take too many touches in the box, giving defenders time to recover and put themselves in front of shots. I did briefly consider whether a shoot on sight policy might help in this regard, but I think the negatives of this will outweigh any potential positives.   

I’d imagine the instructions for this approach looking something like the following:

Pros: Similar to current tactical direction, potential to dominate games and create higher quality chances more often.

Cons: Could lead to us becoming slow, predictable and toothless, still reliant on low confidence players being able to convert chances.

Approach Two

A high tempo, direct approach that looks to exploit transitions and create chances by getting runners in behind the defence.

In a complete contrast to approach one, we could also fully commit to some fast and furious football. Not necessarily route one, but definitely direct, progressive play, looking to take advantage of the pace we have in attacking areas.

The main positive I can see in this approach is that if we can get our strikers in behind the defence, rather than playing through them, it could increase the amount of one-on-ones we have and therefore reduce the amount of blocked shots. If 20-30% more of our shots have a chance of going in, then surely our goals can only increase. I’d also be confident that we stack up as one of the most threatening sides in Japan, and arguably Asia as a whole in transition, as we have a lot of quick, agile wingers and strikers who are happy to take players on. They lose their edge slightly in a more possession heavy system, where we would need more creativity out wide to break down defences. 

The major concern I have with this approach is that opposition teams aren’t going to adapt how they play against us to suit what we’re doing. A direct approach looking to get in behind teams doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when sides are sitting deep and looking to frustrate us.  

I’d imagine the instructions for this approach looking something like the following:

There’s an argument that these could and maybe should both be approaches that we take, as they could suit the majority of home and away games. When we play away the home sides are more likely to have a go at us, which may give the space we need for the balls in behind to be successful. Teams are much more likely to sit deep when they visit us, and therefore a more patient approach would be the way to go.

Has There Been Progress?

Of sorts.

The fifteen league game run I keep referring to ended with a 1-0 win over Hokkaido Sapporo, a result which left us 8th in the league, nine points off of the ACL spots and a massive eighteen points off of our season aim of a top two finish. 

Since then we’ve had a big upturn in form, although it certainly still isn’t perfect.

This run has got us back into contention for ACL football next year, although the last two results have hurt us and we currently sit fifth, five points behind.

We are starting to hit multiple goals with more regularity which is good to see, and the comprehensive win over Kawasaki Frontale reminded me greatly of our title winning season. 

Of the nineteen goals scored in these eleven games, only six have come from our strikers, so there’s been progress, but there is still work to be done. The breakdown looks like this:

Thomas Amang – Three goals
Masahiro Kidera – Two goals (one playing as an IF and one penalty)
Akinori Shimizu – One goal

Hiroyuki Nakamura has continued to have limited opportunities to impress, and I feel I’m now at the point where I need to properly profile him and decide whether I see him as part of our unit of strikers, or whether to make more use of him out wide as he’s definitely talented enough for more minutes than he’s been getting.

Heading into the run-in, we had a huge blow to our already frail attacking unit.

Amang hasn’t been in blistering form, but he’s been looking the most likely to find the net and to be without him is obviously a blow. I also now really fear for him long-term, as he was already losing his pace and a torn hamstring may see him never fully recover his level. I hate to say it, but if we were to get an offer for him next season I’d have to give real consideration to moving him on.

I feel now that Kidera has to be given a proper run until the end of the season, possibly even with a different role to try and spark something. We’re going to need some goals from him if we’re going to make the ACL, something I think is crucial to help continue to build the squad.

So all in all, I think the thing I have learnt the most from this is that we’re at a bit of a crossroads, and long-term I need to really think hard about the approach I want to take and make sure our recruitment is focused around that. Relying on moments and individual brilliance is fine when things are going well, but as we’ve seen when it’s bad it can be really, really bad. Until next time…

Author

  • adam_otbfm

    Adam, known in the Football Manager (FM) realm as @adam_otbfm, is a fervent gamer and content creator. With a penchant for football simulations, Adam delves into the intricacies of FM, sharing his findings on his blog "On the Break." His creative ventures include replicating football legends like Kaka in the virtual pitch, showcasing a blend of nostalgia and modern gameplay. Adam's musings extend to social platforms like Twitter, where he actively engages with the FM community, sharing his gaming journey with @SJK_Seinajoki. His insightful content and avid participation enrich the FM community, making him a valued member in this virtual football world.

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