Sep 10

Lost in translation – how do football formations play out in FML?


Arsène Wenger came out a couple of weeks ago saying he was going to stick with the 4-3-3 formation which had battered Everton, Celtic and Portsmouth in the first few days of the 2009/10 season. The free-flowing, gorgeous attacking football that Arsenal were seemingly allowed to play at The Emirates, Celtic Park and Goodison would continue, he argued. Probably in defiance of those who complained that perhaps in the past Arsenal had been naive to a fault, and should perhaps consider changing their play or their playing staff to add more steel to the side.

All good. Just one problem. Draw me Wenger’s 4-3-3 in FML.

wenger433 Lost in translation – how do football formations play out in FML?You’ll find it difficult to just put in the basic 4-3-3 shape. He certainly isn’t playing three MCs and three FCs. Indeed, he’s not even playing the “Mourinho” 4-3-3 from Chelsea which we saw last week, with a DMC, two MCs and two side AMs. In FML, I would argue, Wenger plays a 4-2-3-1.

So, how can the conception of the formation be so radically different from FML to Wenger’s own words?

Partly, this goes back to the debate in the “4-6-0” article from a few weeks ago. Directly translating a footballer’s position and his role on to the chalkboard in FML is incredibly tricky. Players don’t live in the 35 neat pigeon holes provided (seven rows: SW, D, DM, M, AM, F; five columns: L, Cl, Cc, Cr, R). Players drift and make space – they surge forward or hold back, drift wide or cut in, hold the ball or look to dribble.

I believe Wenger justifies “4-3-3” like this. The back four comprises two wing backs and two centre backs. The midfield is a triangle with Denilson and Song forming the base, and Fabregas pushed on as the attacking playmaker. And finally, the “front three” is Bendtner, flanked by Arshavin and van Persie.

The thing is, this doesn’t exactly translate. And that is the point I’m trying to get across in this article. I have no doubt that Wenger can conceptualise his formation as having four defenders, three supporting midfielders and three attacking players. But this doesn’t mean that in the tactical system in FML that we should necessarily put three men in the “M” stratum and three in the “F” stratum.

wenger4231narrow Lost in translation – how do football formations play out in FML?wenger4231wide Lost in translation – how do football formations play out in FML?

I would argue that Wenger actually plays like this. The back four is the same, and so is the Denilson-Fabregas-Song triangle. However, it is more useful to consider van Persie and Arshavin either as wide midfielders (AML or AMR), or as central attacking midfielders pushing wide (AMC).

This problem of translation goes further in FML. It’s a very tricky thing to get right. The problem is, an AMC with an “inside forward” role is going to move and behave very differently to the common “attacking midfielder”. We can put Arshavin at AMC and make him drift out. We can put him at AMR and have him drift in. We can even, if we want to be as faithful to Wenger’s words as possible, play him at FR or FC and make him drop deeper. To translate a real-world formation to FML we need to look at the relative position of players to one another, and also their movement and behaviour from those starting positions when the play gets going.

In the Celtic game, Clichy and Sagna were given licence to move forward – usually only one at a time, sadly something that the current FML engine cannot quite get right at the moment. Once this happened, the relative DMC would cover the hole that he left. So, when Clichy went up to the wing, Denilson dropped wider and deeper into roughly the WBL position. This freed Song up to move a little further forward and offer a passing option to the forward players – and crucially both the wing and the centre of the field had defensive cover. When Sagna went forward, the opposite happened – but the end result was the same.

Fabregas, van Persie and Arshavin were switching positions all game. However, they roughly played as a line, advanced of the defensive midfielders and more centrally than the wing backs. Van Persie and Arshavin, however, were more prone to trying to dart into the penalty area. This allowed the DMCs to offer passing support (and defensive cover) behind them, and it also allowed Clichy and Sagna to run around them and overlap them to offer passing options laterally and forwards. Bendtner was most advanced looking for crosses and through balls, though on the night he was largely neglected for the intricate passing moves that the “midfield 5” were able to conjure all game long.

In FML parlance?

DL – Clichy, wingback (attack)
DCl – Gallas, centre back (defend)
DCr – Vermaelen, centre back (defend)
DR – Sagna, wingback (attack)
DMCl – Denilson, ball-winning midfielder (support)
DMCr – Song, ball winning midfielder (support)
AML – van Persie, inside forward (attack) [swap positions with AMR?]
AMCc – Fabregas, advanced playmaker (support)
AMR – Arshavin, inside forward (attack) [swap positions with AML?]
FCc – Bendtner, poacher (attack)

In writing this, I also have to fully accept that the very first “4-3-3” diagram is an equally plausible translation of Wenger’s strategy. As is the wider version with AML and AMR players. And, I’m sure the comments section at the bottom will be littered with other very genuine, perfectly acceptable alternatives to this 4-2-3-1 I’ve sketched here. Still. Isn’t that the beauty of football?

There’s an interesting article about Brazil’s 4-2-3-1 in Jonathan Wilson’s column in the Guardian. The Europeans nearly always quote Brazil as playing 4-2-3-1. The Brazilians, however, claim it is a 4-4-2 diamond. It’s this sort of complication which filters in to FML. How exactly do you translate a fluid modern game into the pigeon holes of the FML tactics board? You can do it – but you have to be much more flexible than most journalists (and indeed fans) in your definitions of certain formational positions. Instead, focus on the roles and the duties which have a far bigger impact on the style of play.

Next week, I want to look at the 4-4-2 that Chelsea started the season with under Ancellotti (and, briefly, the “4-4-2” of Hiddink). This is another formation, “the diamond” which has come under scrutiny – and it’s another excuse for a history lesson on the 4-4-2! This will further highlight the problems that journalists, fans, pundits and even managers have with identifying formations – and perhaps offer the most compelling evidence of all that it is instructions (not the formation diagram) which really defines a tactic.

Written By Gareth Millward
"Millie" is a long-standing member of the FM community and a co-founder of Gameworld One.Com. As part of FM-Britain, he was a contributor to TT&F and involved with the new tactical interface in FM2010.
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  • zam

    really love to use this formation for my team.. but need suitable players for this formation

  • JDOwen

    It's funny. I tried using this tactic with my (fairly) good team. I've got the players for it, generally. I ended up with results JUST like Arsenal. I dominate possession, often end up with a better team rating than the opposing team, but can't score a damn goal to save my life.

  • Gareth Millward

    I agree entirely. As I've said in comments further down this page, a more fluid conception of "position" would help create much better tactical planning.

  • Guest

    Do we need to stay with 'lines'?
    If the pitch was a blank canvas we could place anyplayer where we want then you could theoretically have a more fluid formation

  • Gareth Millward

    "Cut inside" and "drift wide" instructions are wending their way into the system (1.3), as will more roles to get the wingers to move in different ways.

  • WiseSif

    The only way i can really get an AML/AMR to play as a REAL INSIDE FORWARD is to put a player there that has opposite foot as his preferred one. Left for AMR , Right for AML!
    This way they seem to really cut inside using their strong foot first.

  • WiseSif

    Great stuff man! Keep up with this. Tactic debates are the most important and interesting.

    I ll try to copy one issue like this in my blog this week.

  • Gareth Millward

    I do wonder if we do that, though, then the rows begin to lose their meaning to a certain extent. You could chop up the tactical screen into far more rows than that - when you consider a "flat" 4-4-2 can have a holding and an attacking midfielder, there's probably argument to say that they both need a row of their own.

    It would help more, I think, if the game could use the roles, duties and so on and show the players on the pitch slightly away from their current "pigeon holes". So, if you set a striker to be a "deep lying forward" he is a few pixels deeper on the formation chart. That way, you could better see the shape of the team.

    Of course, you can see this very well when you watch a match in FML with the movement, etc. But some indication while you're building the tactic would be good.

    Or, a move towards the "PES" way of doing positions where you can put a player anywhere on the pitch and given the "zone" you place him in the game allows you to choose a relevant position. I don't think that's the way SI are going (for legitimate reasons), so my vote is for a more dynamic chalkboard.

  • Mark Burton

    Good stuff Millie, looking at it i think an extra row for players might help some of this type of debate. Currently there are 3 rows to define the differences in Midfielders (DM,M,AM) and 2 rows for Defenders (SW,D) which gives a lot of options to expain the variations in styles of these two roles - but only 1 row for Forwards (F) - if we had an additional row to split further into Deep Forwards and Advanced Forwards - then much of the current issues could be easier to understand.

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