Ahmed's Blog

A Complete Guide to Quick Transitions and Counter Attacking Football | FM21

Welcome to the second part of this series of articles aimed at simplifying and explaining the process of creating Football Manager tactics, using the latest instalment of the hit series, Football Manager 2021.

This second article will focus on creating a solid counter attacking style in the tactic creator.

Part 1: A complete guide to mentality on FM21

Part 2: A complete guide to quick transitions and counter attacking football on FM21

Part 3: Rethinking my approach to football manager; a direct attacking 4-4-2 on FM21

Part 4: Improving my direct attacking 4-4-2 on FM21

Before getting our hands dirty, I'd like to make a distinction between playing on the counter, and quick transitions/counter attacking.

Playing on the counter generally means staying solid and safe until an opening appears that the team could exploit. If no opening appears, the team is happy to play for a draw. Speaking in the terms mentioned in the mentality article, the team employs a less risky defensive and offensive styles. These are negative styles that are commonly used by massive underdogs.

On the other hand, counter attacking (or quick transitions as I call it) is what most people look for. This style is basically drawing the opponent forward, and hitting after winning back the ball at every opportunity as they lose the ball deep in your territory. This means a balanced/aggressive defensive style, combined with an aggressive/very aggressive offensive style.

With this in mind, lets discuss the basics of a counter attacking system.

  1. Any counter attacking system must employ a medium to deep defensive block, in order to force the opponents to over-commit forward and stretch themselves horizontally in a bid to break down the team, leaving spaces behind and between them. This calls for brave, hardworking, mentally sharp, and strong defenders that can tackle, dominate aerially and have the mental capacity to sustain pressure and not buckle under long periods of pressure.

  2. The defensive block should not be passive and standoffish. Remember, we are not playing on the counter, we are creating chances by winning the ball deep and aggressively counter attacking while the opponent's defensive structure is disorganized.

  3. The ball should be played vertically forwards as soon as it is won back. This is meant to put pressure on the opposition the moment they lost the ball.

  4. The further most player (usually the striker - offensive pivot) should look to support the team by holding the ball and bringing the on-rushing support into play. Therefore, he should be a creator rather than a goal scorer looking to be played in by others.

  5. No less than 1 and no more than 2 ball carriers. Following the first pass, we need quick, very technical players that carry the ball forward and dictate the play as the team breaks forward. Less than 1 ball carrier will see us be one-dimensional and passive, while more than 2 would break the supporting cast, as many players will look to make things happen, rather than supporting play.

Example #

Here is an example of Forest's 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in the Champions League from my Forest save.

Eder tries to cross the ball in the 91st minute and is closed down by Cantwell (one of our ball carriers).

Notice how Berge (our second ball carrier) and Brooks (our offensive pivot) are taking defensive yet dangerous positions, ready to pounce on any opportunity to break. Also notice how deep are our block is.

Eder's cross is intercepted by Emi Buendia (one of the supporting players, along with Tonali), and is played towards Brooks, who occupies a massive space along with Berge.

The importance of the offensive pivot is evident here. Brooks, who is very technically gifted and is quite pacey, holds the ball, allowing Berge, Emi, Cantwell and Tonali break forward in the required vertical movement, causing havoc to the retreating Real defenders. Any pass by Brooks towards any of these arrows will develop into a big opportunity for us. If he was a Poacher style forward, he'd mainly dribble his way trying to create a chance for himself.

Brooks passes to Berge, who now has several options. He decides to dribble his way through the two defenders. This last shot accentuates the need of pace and flair in the breaking players. Without pace and directness, this move will fail miserably, keeping us under massive pressure.

As he dribbles, Ake (RCB) tackles him, but Tonali sends a quick lovely through ball to Berge, who shoots into the side netting instead.

Player Profiles and Attributes #

We already classified the type of players required to quickly and regularly pull off a quick transitional break. These players should be included in any such style, regardless of the formation. Also, Concentration, Determination, Composure, Work Rate, Decisions, Aggression, Bravery and Tackling should be as high as possible.

  1. Goalkeeper - Shot stopper.

    The GK will have to face many shots from in and around the box, so he needs to be a top shot-stopper. Sweeper keeper behaviour is not required since the deep block will not allow many balls behind the defensive line. Optional: Distributor.

    Example: Jan Oblak

  2. Central Defenders - Physical and Intelligent.

    The CBs should be the archetypical strong, tall, intelligent blokes. They need the mental capacity to maintain their concentration during long pressure periods. They are not required to be playmakers, but that won't hurt as a bonus. Optional: Pacey and Passers.

    Example: van Dijk, Koulibaly

  3. Full Backs - Defence First.

    Fullbacks are by definition all rounders. However, in this style, they are defence first, and should have high ratings in marking, positioning, anticipation, positioning and tackling.

    Example: Wan Bissaka and Andy Robertson

  4. Ball Carriers - Technical, Pacey, and Press Resistant

    These are the heart of our team, they are required to hold the ball against the first wave of opposition press and dribble the ball through them, and should have the ability to play a killer pass.

    Example: Coutinho, Bruno Fernandes, Sadio Mane, and Hueng-Min Son

  5. Midfielders - Hardworking, Hard Tacklers.

    The midfielders should (depending on the formation) primarily be hardworking all rounders that should consistently break up oppositions play.

    Example: Kante, Henderson and Fabinho

  6. Central Strikers - Strong and Quick.

    Our offensive pivots are ideally Targetmen that can play football. They are required to hold the ball, lay it off to supporting midfielders and have excellent off the ball movement to open space during the break.

    Example: Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane

Putting It All Together #

Selecting a Formation #

I believe that any style could be achieved using any formation. However, some formations are better than others to implement a particular style. For this particular style, it is better to pack the midfield and defensive positions in a bottom heavy formation. Therefore, 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 3-5-2, 4-5-1 and 4-1-4-1 are all excellent formations for this style.

I personally favour the 4-4-1-1 formation which is probably the most flexible formation in football, and will use it for this article. However, the concepts discussed here could be easily applied to any formation.

Mentality #

As discussed earlier, we need an aggressive offensive and defensive play styles. These are best implemented by the Positive mentality.

Team Instructions #

The unwanted behaviours set by the Positive mentality are:

  1. High Defensive Block
  2. Risky Shooting
  3. Aggressive Pressing Further Up the Pitch

These behaviours are negated by, and the style is reinforced by, the following TIs

  1. Lower LOE
  2. Play out of Defence (style reinforcing)
  3. More Urgent Pressing (style reinforcing)
  4. Regroup (decrease defensive aggression off the ball which are increased by the urgent pressing and Positive mentality)
  5. Counter (style reinforcing)
  6. (Pass into space) Optional

I used to play on a deep defensive line, but I found that this makes us un-necessarily deep, allowing us to be passive in defence and blunt in attack, as we need to cover even more space while breaking.

Player Roles #

In line with the required player types outlined above, the following roles are selected in a 4-4-1-1

  1. Goalkeeper - SK-D; I like my goalkeepers to exploit any possible counter attacking chances

  2. 2 x Central Defenders - 2 x CB-D; nothing fancy, strong, intelligent and as tall as possible

  3. 2 x Full Backs - 2 x FB-S; once again, simple defence first fullbacks that look to support the midfield without compromising their defensive positions. Sometimes, I may go with a WB-S in the LB position to offer more penetration and support depending on the circumstance

  4. 2 x Ball Carriers - The ball carriers ideally have an attack duty, the dribble more PI, and with no roaming to retain our defensive structure. I opted for a AP-A in the AM position, and an IW-A in the LM position. Both of these players should be the best dribblers and the most creative in the team.

  5. 2 x Midfielders - My midfield duo will not need to carry any chance creation responsibility. They need to have destroying and supporting duties. I opt for a BWM-D and CM-S. I went with a BWM since I need our best tackler to be relentless in his pursuit of the ball, while the CM-S does a bit of everything. The CM-S role will be highly dependent on the player playing in this role.

  6. 1 x Offensive Pivot (Striker) - I use a DLF-S for most one striker counter attacking teams. The Deep Lying Forward is basically a Target Man that can play football, and is much more dynamic than the more primitive TM. I avoid F9 and CF-S roles since I don't want any sort of creative play from them, I rather want them to knit the attacking transitions.

This is how my counter attacking tactic currently looks.

I'd like to show another great example from our recent 2-0 victory at Benfica, demonstrating one very nice move:

Raphinha has no space to dribble or pass, and so opts for a hopeful shot which is block by our BWM, Cook. Notice our deep positioning, and how our ball carriers are ready to break forward.

Cook's shot falls to Cantwell, who plays it quickly to our supporting mid, Tonali:

Tonali has some options already, he can dribble into space, hold the ball or pass to Marcos Leonardo, which is what he did.

Marcos does what he does best. He holds the ball, allowing our supporting cast to get forward, breaking in my favoured parallel vertical runs, giving Marcos lots of options. Emi, our WM, is in acres in space on the far side, and so is Brooks. However, Marcos played the ball into Brook's feet rather than space causing this move to fail gradually.

This move has given me some thoughts of whether I should add a Pass into Space TI or not, and it is certainly a matter for thought. Nonetheless, it is what I look for each game, and in spite of the poor pass by Marcos, it is a very well executed break that left the opposition helpless to stop us.

This marks the end of this article. Hopefully, I managed to clarify the basic concepts of counter attacking, and how to create a solid counter attacking tactic.

Please share with us your counter attacking creations ;)

Until next time,

Happy FM’ing.

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