Ahmed's Blog

A guide to direct long ball play - A Dyche's Burnley inspired 442 | FM20

"We tried everything to win the game, but it's difficult playing a team who has two chances, score two goals, but didn't want to play the game. For me, the authority on the pitch is the referee, and when he is not there to try to check what he has to do on the pitch, it's difficult. They were trying to time waste from the first minute of the first half, and then it was anti-football so it's difficult to play against." - David Luiz after Chelsea's 2-2 draw against Burnley, 2019.

Burnley had 24% of the ball, and in Luiz's words, 2 chances and two goals. Chelsea had 22 shots that game, but were incredibly frustrated by Burnley organized and well drilled team.

I have never been a fan of tiki-taka, positional play and similar hipster terms of "the right way" to play football. I prefer direct, attacking, wide oriented teams that are solid defensively. My 3-5-2/5-3-2 is incredibly successful, playing sweet direct football with flying complete wingbacks.. However, six seasons in the game I was getting bored, and wanted to try something more cynical, and more "anti-football". Inspired by the best team in the world Liverpool Burnley, and their 4-4-2, I started a new save and set out to create my anti-football tactic. Long ball and anti-football tactics can be one of the best playstyles on Football Manager 2020 if done correctly.

To try this long ball and direct playstyle, I started a new save with Millwall. The choice was easy, they are the only team in the championship that has "Play Direct Football" in the club vision, and they actually chant about no one liking them, plus they have an excellent Jed Wallace in the squad. With that said, they are a perfect team for shithousery.

Playstyle - Introducing the SPIs #

First and foremost, I would like to emphasize that my view of anti-football is a bit different than its common usage. I don't want my team to be besieged in its box, doing countless blocks and interceptions, while kicking the ball aimlessly to a striker. That kind of play won't get you anywhere as it could never be consistent, and would leave you handicapped if you concede. Instead, I envisage my team to:

  1. Be aggressive rather than sit deep and stand off. For a long while I have tried to be successful using a deep stand-offish play style, and always fail magnificently. I realized that to be successful, you need to test the opponent's defense, rather than being tested all the time and hope for an error. We need to force the opponents into errors to be consistently successful. It is also worth noting that teams like Burnley and Atleti defend in a mid to low block and press relentlessly on several pressing triggers, and are in no way passive, unless they are outplayed completely by far superior teams.
  2. Score mainly by quick route one attacks, and crosses.
  3. Utilize set pieces.
  4. Build from behind until a opportunity for a long ball arrives. Another misconception about long balls is that you need hoof it long as soon as you gain possession. This is a very good way to lose possession and place yourself under needless pressure. On the contrary, building up from behind allows the team to get into attacking positions before launching long direct balls to the target man. I don't expect to score goals from directly lumped long balls, but I want to use the long ball to create chances and force opposition errors.

To measure the success of our style, I decided to measure our success based on:

  1. Low possession with large amount of CCCs. Obviously, should we play very direct, we would not retain possession. I'd be surprised if we manage more than 40-45% possession. However, we need to be efficient and generate more CCCs with this low possession.
  2. High shot conversion, with shots coming mainly from inside the box. Regular long shots are quite useless, we need to get the shots coming in from inside the box regularly.
  3. Many crosses with completion percentage.
  4. Low pass completion. A big indicator of our style, long passes have a lower pass completion than shorter passes.

Building the Tactic #

Only one formation comes into mind when planning long ball tactics: four four bloody two!. My only options were 352 and the 442 which use two central strikers, I favoured the 442 for being more balanced and covers the pitch more evenly than the 352, and thus fits lesser teams more than the 352.

Quite basic formation. The back four is a simple defense first four. The midfield is comprised of two non-fancy hardworking duo that focus on winning the ball back and support attack. The wingers are tasked to dribble wide and cross the ball to the supporting target man and the pressing forward.

I like to design tactics that are flexible and can change with a simple mentality change, plus allowing me to fix issues by adding or removing a TI. Having every option ticked is usually a recipe for disaster, unless you know exactly what you are doing.

In my "shithousery" tactic, I have used the TIs required to create the playstyle outlined above as follows:

  1. Be aggressive rather than sit deep and stand off. I added the Higher Line of Engagement shout, along with the Counter-Press, in a Balanced mentality. This should give us a good balance between passive stand off and ultra aggressive high pressing.
  2. Score mainly by quick route one attacks, and crosses. Much More Direct Passing is the defining shout of our style. We want to play furthermost pass available without taking much risks, hence the Balanced mentality. Counter is also style defining, we look to break at every opportunity.
  3. Utilize set pieces. I used to have play for set pieces shout on, but felt that we would be extra careless with that on, so I am just happy adjusting my set piece routines. Near post routines still works well ;)
  4. Build from behind until a opportunity for a long ball arrives. Distributing to the Centre Backs and Full Backs allows the team get into position before launching our long balls, allowing us to have a higher success rate, without compromising tempo and needless turnover of possession.

Results and Analysis #

I had tinkered a lot with my Millwall team until I reached the style I am satisfied of. We were initially predicted to finish in the 19th position in the Championship, but now we are 2nd in mid February.

I have used this tactic starting from Wigan's game. 9 wins, 5 draws and 3 losses in a run of 17 games is a great result. More importantly, we are playing absolutely ugly football that I love. Most of the goals conceded would not be if I had better players, and we could have scored loads more if my strikers were better. Here is a sample of the goals scored:

Leeds 0 - 1 Millwall #

This is the only goal from the away victory against the best team of the league, Leeds Utd. Here we can see the intent of the CM-S (Moulmby) as soon as he receives the ball and have some options up front. He swerves a sweet cross to Polter, our TM to head home.

Derby County 0 - 3 Millwall #

This was one of our best victories and performances to date, we trounced a strong Derby team at their own backyard.

Once again, the lower risk forward thinking intent is clear in the team, the GK and the midfielders look to punt it upfield at any available opportunity. The second goal shows how dangerous we can be against teams that press high with a high defensive line.

Millwall 2 - 1 Barnsley #

Another superb goal against Barnsely. We managed to nick the ball as they pass around the ball, boringly, and pass around for a while until the forwards are in position, to unleash a strong long ball that gets us a goal.

Data Analysis - Measuring the Team's Performance #

I would have liked more graphing and data analysis facilities inside Football Manager 2020. The existing tools are great though, but that is one area I would like to see an upgrade in the Football Manager 2021.

Anyways, using the SPIs outlined above, lets see how well we are doing. Firstly, to put things into context, since the beginning of the season I have been tinkering a lot with the formations and TIs, but maintaining the same style, so that shouldn't affect the numbers a lot, but still maybe skewed slightly.

The numbers speak for themselves, we are ruthlessly efficient, using the ball well and taking our chances:

Update #

After getting our backsides handed over to us in the premier league, and our weakness were exposed dramatically, I had to make a couple of changes while remaining true to the shithousery that got us promoted.

My TM-S and PF-A combo are supposed to be a big man-small man duo. However, I was getting frustrated getting the ball lumped to the PF-A instead to the TM-S. This is probably caused by the "Much More Direct Passes" shout and the PF-A is the furthest available pass at any given time.

My solution was to use TM-A and let the small man be the PF-S. I have never used a TM-A to lead the line, but I had some solace watching Conte use Lukaku ahead of Lautauro in his Inter side.

The results were immense, we are MUCH more clinical going forward -especially against attacking teams-, while the TM works much better in attack than on support, flicking passes to his partner and the winger. I also dabbled a lot with the pressing instructions to find a sweet spot between passive and high pressing. This is my current formation and instructions:

If you try this tactic out, please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Happy FM'ing!

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