Sep 24

Combating the 4-6-0 – Lessons from History


If you remember all the way back to August, I wrote an article outlining the “realism” of the 4-6-0. Since then, I’ve come up against a few versions of the formation in the game. So, during a friendly against quite an impressive side in the Fowler gameworld, I decided to try a very simple philosophy out on the opposition:

If you’re not playing with forwards, I won’t play with defenders

Now, of course I couldn’t play with no defenders. That would be suicide. But it was also clear that if the opposition were going to play in the midfield then having five players at the back (my preferred formation, as seen here on this very site) seemed wasteful. They were not marking the attacking midfielders on the other team, nor were they offering attacking options once we got the ball and started attacking ourselves.

Where could I possibly find an alternative, then? Is there a formation or a style of play which uses fewer defenders but can adequately cover the parts of the pitch necessary to defend and attack against a 4-6-0? There is. And it was invented by a guy called Herbert.

The W-M

235classic Combating the 4 6 0   Lessons from History
Before the first world war, most football teams in the world played 2-3-5. That’s two “full backs” (what we would now call “DC” in FML), three “half backs” (MC), and five “forwards” (FL, 3 x FC, FR). Teams could get away with such attacking formations because the offside law was very different to today. Not only did you need three defenders between yourself and the goal to be onside – being “level” with the last defender was considered to be offside. Given this situation, teams could easily get away with playing an aggressive offside trap – if one of the full backs didn’t hold his line, it didn’t matter because it only needed one defender to play the opponent offside. Some teams were so good at this (notoriously Newcastle United) that most games were ending with only one or two goals. Despite the fact that 10 forwards were on the pitch!

In 1925/26, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which still changes the laws today, modified Law 11 to make only two defenders necessary to play a man onside. Overnight, the offside trap with a two-man defence was nerfed. The average amount of goals scored in the Football League went from 2.58 per match to 3.69. A resounding success in changing the Match Engine that even SI would be proud of.

Now that it was possible for the forwards to play close to the second defender, a good forward line could smother the opposition without much thought. Still, at least the football was fun to watch!

Herbert Chapman, however, found a solution to his side’s defensive woes. He pulled his most central half back (the “centre half”) back to the DC position. He pushed the full backs out wide to cover the wings, and dragged his two inside forwards back a little from the forward line to provide a little more cover in the midfield. This is why even today we in England call our centre backs “centre halves”.

Using it against the 4-6-0

wmv460 Combating the 4 6 0   Lessons from HistorySomewhat ironically, we are not using the W-M in an effort to combat 5 forwards but rather to combat a complete lack of them. The system, however, is perfect for covering the areas of the pitch in which the 4-6-0 has dominance.

Take a look at this diagram. In blue, we have the W-M. In red, the classic “4-6-0” that we seem to see in the game. As you can see, the opposition’s midfield is completely neutered by the two holding defensive midfield players. The centre back almost hangs as a sweeper behind this defensive line, while the full backs offer cover on the wings. The attacking midfielders have nowhere to go. They cannot go forward because the central defensive triangle will track them all the way. The cannot drift wide because the full backs will quickly own that space. They cannot drop deep because the attacking midfielders will be there: or more importantly, if they do drop any deeper than they already are, their attacking threat is completely quashed.

The three players in the “M” stratum have problems too. The central midfielder can be tracked by one of the AMCs. The two wider midfielders can, to an extent, be tracked by the wing forwards, or the full backs – and since the full backs need to stay deep to counter the threat of the wing forwards, the wings should be covered effectively.

In attack, the W-M can also gain some advantage. Now that we only need three defenders we can utilise an extra attacker. The wing forwards put direct pressure on the opposition full backs, penning them into their own half. The lone striker works just as effectively as any other lone striker, but now has two wingers in support as well as two attacking midfielders in support. The four-man defence of the 4-6-0 is swamped with five attacking players.

Adapting current tactics to cope

wm Combating the 4 6 0   Lessons from HistoryObviously at first sight this may look like a major departure from your current tactics. In reality, it isn’t too big a leap for anyone playing four at the back.

Chapman pulled back a centre half to increase the number of defenders on his team. Later in the evolution of football tactics, another of the half backs was pulled in to defence; one of the inside forwards was pulled back to the midfield; and the wingers were told to drop deeper and perform more defensive duties. This is the invention of the 4-4-2. If you’re playing 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 then all we’re doing is giving the midfield one of its centre halves back.

The widest midfielders on your team are then simply told to ignore (or at the very least, not prioritise) their defensive duties by pushing them on to the FL and FR positions. If you are playing anyone at MR/L or AMR/L, this isn’t too big a leap. For those of you playing 4-4-2, one of your forwards drops into the hole, while the other midfielder pushes on into the AMC position. For those playing 4-5-1, the midfield just needs a small reconfiguration to create the “box” of four in the centre.

How you set up the players with individual instructions is your perogative. For the most part, however, the 4-6-0 should be unable to cope. With the extra holding midfielder and the need to combat your attacking threat, most of the advantages of the 4-6-0 vanish. Unless, of course, the team is technically far superior in the quality of its players.

So, is this a cheat?

Some have said in the forums and elsewhere that having to adapt like this to defeat the 4-6-0 shows how “overpowered” it is. I would argue that if the 4-6-0 is a cheat, then so is the W-M. It deliberately exploits the weaknesses of the ME in dealing with flooded midfields by counter-flooding the AM/DM stratum of the field in which the 4-6-0 operates. It deliberately uses wing forwards, a position all but dead in modern football. It only plays with one centre back, considered suicide ever since the 1950s. But, just like the 4-6-0, it isn’t a cheat. It’s a simple, yet effective counter to the benefits of the 4-6-0. Showing, once again, that with some thought and some practice it is more than possible to combat any tactic in the game: providing you have good enough players.

The W-M was created in response to the 2-3-5 and the change in the ME, I mean, Laws of Association Football. Now, in response to the 4-6-0 it can be just as effective in Football Manager Live.

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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  • chrisross

    Its amazing how good a resource material Jonathan Wilson's "inverting the pyramid" has been to FMLive managers and bloggers.

    Kudos for the interpretation.

    I did a similar article based on the interpretation of total football from a historical veiwpoint and its relevance in tactics in terms of fmlive.

    Its nice to see other managers and bloggers showing research and thought processes in understanding tactics ata high level.

    I however have also noticed how much information seems to be referenced from Wilson's book (peerless in many eyes) and how its influence in the theory behind TTF is apparant.

    Anyway kutgw lads.

  • Gareth Millward

    I've only managed to play it a couple of times, but I only make shouts if they're relevant to the game situation. So, if I'm being attacked down the flanks I'll play wider, and if I'm being attacked through the centre I'll play narrower, etc. Tend to use Opposition Instructions on the players who are getting too much of the ball on the other team, too.

  • Guest

    For this tactic, do you also play narrow, push up and what other tweaks do you make to the lineup?

  • DavidDryden

    just played WM vs 370 and won 3-2 away from home, and winning 2-0 vs 352 :D love it lol :D

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