The Leverkusen 1-2-4-1-2-0

It’s been far too long sScreen Shot 2015-07-24 at 10.04.06ince I’ve done a tactical analysis post (since my analysis of my 4-5-1-0 with Eibar in fact). These type of write-ups used to make up the majority of my FM writing, but as this year has gone on I have enjoyed the saves I’ve been playing so much that I’ve tried to blend both the tactics and the story aspects together. However, it’s now time to go back to the tactical articles, to look at and disect the new tactic I’ve been using in the Leverkusen save, a 1-2-4-1-2-0. In effect, it’s a strikerless 3-4-1-2, but with a Libero instead of a third centre back.

It was part of not only a tactical shift, but a stylistic shift within the club. Over the first three seasons, I’d used possession based tactics in an asymmetrical 4-3-1-2 and a 4-4-2 diamond, which passed forward aggressively, but then probed around the opposition’s box, looking for a way in, and being patient. I wanted to move away from this somewhat, moving to a more direct, counter attacking approach, with a very fast tempo. It’s highly inspired by my recent research of the 1991 Red Star Belgrade team.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.34.30This is the tactic itself on the right with the roles selected. In goal I’ve gone for my usual Sweeper Keeper on defend as the defensive line is pushed up, and I tend to prefer them by default now on FM15. Ahead of that is a Libero on support duty to act as a more playmaking version of the sweeper, and then two standard CD-D’s. Ahead of that is a bank of 4 with two defensive midfielders and the wing backs. In defensive midfield I’ve gone for a standard DM-D to cover for the attacking movement of the CWB’s, and a Roaming Playmaker, to allow for the growing talents of all rounder Daniel Vener, who is now probably the best player at the football club. I want him to march forward from defensive midfield and control the play of the team when we’re in deep positions.

Ahead of that is the attacking triumvirate of the BBM-S, AM-A and SS-A. The two AMC’s effectively act as deeper strikers, with the AM-A being the more playmaking of the two, and the SS-A basically being a deep poacher, who runs aggressively at the defence. The box to box midfielder is also unleashed by the lack of strikers, and tends to get beyond the two AMC’s and into goalscoring positions. For this reason the BBM needs to be a competent finisher, and I’ve made what some would consider to be a strange choice here, moving Etou onto the bench, and retraining Thiago as a central midfielder. I know it seems odd, but it works beautifully.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 09.16.06

Here are the instructions I’ve selected. I’ve moved to ‘more direct passing’ with this tactic rather than my usual retain possession and shorter passing. It’s transformed the passing of the side, but in a good way, with us looking much more positive on the ball now and making quick transitions from box to box. We’re still crafty when we get to the box though, with ‘pass into space’ and ‘work ball into box’ selected. I’ve selected ‘play out of defence’ as I want the team to counter well, and if the team doesn’t play it out from the back well, then we will lose those opportunities. I want the ball worked to the DM’s, then out wide, and then into the attacking trio, where they can cause havoc. Without playing it out well, all of this is impossible. The other role selections largely reflect our shape and pressing. I ask the team to push up and play wider in order to stretch the horizontal space when we have the ball, but compress the vertical space when we’re defending. This combined with our high tempo and aggressive pressing make us a real threat in transition, exactly what I want.

So clearly this tactic is quite attacking, so how do we do defensively?

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 09.23.52

Well, here’s the team against Koln, and we’ve just lost the ball deep in the opposition half. As you can see, we’ve got a defensive diamond in red, outnumbering the Koln players by 4 to 2, meaning that we’ve got a very good chance of winning the ball back if Koln pump the ball into this area. You can also see the that CWB’s are quickly making the runs in blue in order to get back into position and help out the centre backs. Furthermore, you can also see the midfielders moving in to press the ball immediately with 3 players making the pressing movements in yellow. So although we’ve got 6 men forward, we’re still more than strong defensively, and well equipped to cope with a counter attack, something that Bundesliga teams are very good at.

I also want to point out the positioning of the Libero. Although he hasn’t (and doesn’t) moved forward like I’d ideally want the Libero too, he’s covering well behind the defense, and is ideally placed to pick out any pass to their striker nearby. The defence is also narrow enough for my tastes, and moves narrower as the play develops.

All of these combine to Oliveira (the right centre back) stepping up and making the interception as Koln try to force the ball forward, and we’re on the attack again. You can see that although the back 3 stays wide, they narrow quickly.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 13.22.04

Here’s an example of the Back 3 splitting in this tactic. The splitting is nowhere near as bad as on FM14, but it is still somewhat wider than I would like it to be. This example is from kick off, and shows you our standard shape in possession of the ball. The reason I’m not horrified by the back 3 splitting is:

a.) they narrow very quickly anyway.

b.) the presence of the double pivot in front of them.

You can see the double pivot in yellow, covering the spaces either side of the Libero. Whilst the Roaming Playmaker on the right has the freedom and license to step up and attack, the DM-D stays back, and helps cover these spaces. As in the examples above, you can see the additional cover this provides. Furthermore, you can also see the central strength we’ve got with the midfield 5 in a 2-1-2 shape. This allows us to build up play through the middle should we wish, but we’ve also got the CWB’s who have already pushed very high up on the flanks, almost creating a front 4 of sorts with the AMC’s. It’s almost a pseudo 3-3-4.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 13.45.27The above image illustrates one of the ‘issues’ with this tactic. The Libero. He’s not a Libero. You would expect him to march forward with the ball in the example above, but instead he passes it to the RPM and holds his position.

You can see this from the average positions chart on the left, with the Libero in line with the CD-D’s. It really is hipster role selection on my part to select a Libero, but I still love the way he plays in the system. He drops slightly deeper than the CD-D’s, and steps up when he needs to. I also allow him greater passing range (amongst other things), meaning he does spray the ball about from the centre back position, but he just doesn’t step forward as the Libero should. The furthest forward I see him is at throw ins, which isn’t a realistic example. Basically, he’s a more creative sweeper. However, I have no problems with this, and I like the role as it is (however, I want the Libero to work properly on FM16 thank you SI).

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 14.01.04

Having shown our transition defence, and our general shape when in control of possession, here’s the shape we move into when we’re in our standard defensive shape (whilst still pressing very aggressively), and it’s a loose 5-3-2 shape. The wing backs are the hybrid players here, being asked to shuttle up and down the wings in order to aid pressing. Here, Austria Wien have control of the ball on the left flank, and the right CWB-A Busquets has vacated his position flanking the the Back 3 to press the ball, and is doing so along with the RPM Vener, and the BBM Thiago. On top of that, Vener’s presence is preventing the Austria Wien player from making the easy pass inside into the centre of the park.

The Libero is also covering Austria Wien’s only striker, meaning that the only pass available to the man on the ball is the pass in red backwards. I’m more than happy to allow that, and press the ball as it moves across to the other side. In the end, the trio press the ball making the yellow movements, and win the ball back. Yet again, we’re quickly on the attack. Aggressive defence turning into attack. Very much my philosophy.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 14.50.35This aggressive defending and strong structure clearly has an effect on our opposition. The screenshot on the right is taken from a recent win against Schalke in the Bundesliga, and you can see the issues we’ve given them in terms of building up the play. There’s a lot of red passes there, and there really isn’t a lot of passes in general. There’s a decent amount around their box and at the halfway line, but moving into our defensive midfield area the amount of passes even attempted decreases rapidly, and when you look at our box, Schalke have only made 3 passes into our box all game. No matter how you look at it, that’s a stifling defensive performance.

Conversely, when you look at our pass chart from the same game, you see the ease we have in passing the ball through the middle of the park against Schalke (and Diego Simeone’s) 4-2-3-1. We’re not as ball hungry as we were with the previous tactics, but we comfortably pass the ball through the centre, using the wings as an out ball if needed, with the CWB’s providing vital width. The passing through the middle is a key feature of our attacking play, through the BBM, AM and SS. It’s fast, short, but direct, and it allows us to press very quickly should we lose the ball.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 15.12.12

Here’s an example of what I mean. The BBM Thiago picks up the ball in central midfield, and immediately has runners in the two AMC’s. Furthermore, the right CWB is also providing width high up on the right side, occupying the opposition wide players. Thiago can make either the yellow pass to Mbiyavanga, or the orange pass to Dudé, and makes the correct choice, finding Dudé.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 15.12.42

From there, Thiago (BBM-S) makes his run forward, supporting the ‘front two’. Meanwhile, Mbiyavanga continues to make his run. Dudé can either make the simple pass to Thiago or the very tough pass to Mbiyavanga. However, he waits, and dribbles at the defence, waiting for the opportunity to make a better pass.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 15.13.02

The trio end up in this position, with Thiago continuing his run from deep in white, and Mbiyavanga continuing to make his run in yellow. From this position, we’re still 3 v 5, but the quality of Dudé, Thiago and Mbiyavanga is enough to break through this numerical disadvantage. In the end, Dudé makes the orange pass, perfectly meeting Thiago’s run.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 15.13.40

That one pass cuts out two of the opposition players, and now we’re really threatening, with our three best attacking players going in on goal. After making the pass Dudé turns and makes the green run on goal, supporting the attack (and the right CWB is up, making the run in blue), but Thiago makes the correct decision, playing the red pass and putting Mbiyavanga in on goal, meeting his run in yellow, leaving him 1 on 1 with the keeper. Unfortunately he misses, but this is typical of the kind of attacking play and movement that this tactic generates. At times, it really can be stunning to watch.

As good as you can see we are defensively with our aggressive pressing and will to win the back back, we’re also lethal in attack with our fast vertical movement. It’s exactly the type of football I like, and so far this tactic has proved extremely successful in the Leverkusen save. I’ve really enjoyed using it, and I thought I’d write this to show why it’s working so fantastically.

Speaking of the Leverkusen save, the updates for that will return soon. I’ve got a busy couple of weeks coming up, but after that normal service will resume. Until then, thank you very much for your continued support of The Tactical Annals, and I hope you all enjoyed reading this article, something a little different, and more like the articles I used to write when I began writing about Football Manager. As always, if you have any questions please feel free to ask either in the comments section of this blog or on Twitter (@JLAspey).


  1. Great article as always, just a couple of suggestions to possibly solve the issues that you’ve raised here.
    I’d suggest trying to push the two dms into the cm strata which would both be more effective in terms of the high press that you want and would give the libero space to push into and operate more like a proper libero.
    Secondly in terms of the three defenders splitting too wide, a problem which would be exacerbated if you took my first suggestion, i’d either take off the team instruction play wider or even switch it to play narrower if that still doesn’t push the defenders narrow enough and to keep the wide shape in attack without the team instruction i’d give both cwbs the player instruction stay wider.
    Having read this blog for a while i can see that you’re much better at fm than i am so i’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  2. What is the mentality used to counter attack and still press high up the pitch while the defense can quickly get narrower?
    I liked the principles you applied there, but how do you deal with defensive/stubborn/park the bus teams, which don’t give you space to counter-attack properly?

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