Nov 05

Playing Fluid Football – the balance between pragmatism and beauty


Pellegrini’s “magic box” at Real Madrid is a new attempt to play very fluidly with incredibly skillful players. As a formation, it is the perfect compromise, allowing the team to play Kaká, Ronaldo, Raúl and Benzema as a foursome in attack, whilst still nominally providing cover at the back. It doesn’t always go according to plan, but when it does it can cut through teams like hot butter.

Playing very fluidly is something a lot of Football Manager Live managers attempt to do, without really having the players to pull it off. Fluidity is not solely down to how “beautiful” the football will be; it is about a player’s positioning and movement relative to his teammates. Thus, it’s perfectly possible to get a side to play attractive football with a more rigid structure; the creative freedom, roaming and passing instructions will do far more for the side in this regard.

Even fluid sides have to get pragmatic. This is a story about the box formation, as modified through three world cups, twelve years after the other – 1970, 1982 and 1994. Hopefully they show that even the best teams in the world need an element of pragmatism. A pragmatism you will also need unless you are lucky enough to have players far and away better than any of your main rivals.

brazilevolve Playing Fluid Football   the balance between pragmatism and beauty


The 1970 World Cup, the first in colour, has been mythologised around the world as the zenith of world football. Perhaps it was. The best England side of all time and one of the best West German sides of all time went into 1970 to do battle with the greatest team of all time – Brazil.

Many say that Brazil didn’t have tactics; they just put their best eleven players out there and told them to play. While this has some merit, in reality the side had a formation and a certain structure, but it got the best out of some of the most talented players ever to kick a ball in anger: Pelé, Totão, Rivelinho, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto. In many ways, giving the side such fluidity and such freedom gave the side the ability to draw on these natural talents and destroy the opposition.

There were, however, some pretty important weaknesses. In defence, the formation provided virtually no cover. Whilst this might not be an issue if the side had already scored six goals, it could probably have been an issue were the side not so talented on the ball. With Carlos Alberto steaming down the flanks and no defensive midfielders to cover, the formation was, at many times, a 2-4-4, with virtually everyone looking to attack.

This was also in the days before Rinus Michels had introduced pressing to the modern game. While Western Europe was in awe of this new Ajax team with some young tyro called Cruijff, the international game was still, for the most part, an amateur affair. Yes, Brazil, England, West Germany, Italy and so on were professionals, but the level of fitness and the level of closing down was nothing like it is today.

This was the first World Cup to allow substitutions. And red and yellow cards. Would a well organised, highly tuned modern team have simply given them no space to work their magic? And then hit them hard on the counter attack? We will never know. The Netherlands didn’t even qualify for Mexico 1970


These weaknesses became painfully obvious by 1982. The Dutch had made the finals of 1974 and 1978 on the back of an incredibly fit, well disciplined and technically skilled side, drawing on a new type of football. This wasn’t just Totaalvoetball, it was more fundamental than that – it was modern football. Closing down and modern, professional training had left Brazil behind.

In 1982 the team once again had a talented generation of players. The style from 1970 was drawn on again, although the formation had morphed. In 1970, Pelé and Tostão had played as centre forwards, albeit far more fluid forwards than most other sides. They were willing to drop back, while the nominal wingers cut inside to the space left behind. This fluidity and movement allowed the front four to interchange and confuse their markers.

This dropping back was formalised, as was the cutting in. Zico and Socrates were pulled back to what we would now call the AMC position, while the “wingers” (Eder and Serginho) were dragged inside to the central forward positions. Partly this was necessitated by a lack of available wingers in the squad. But partly it was a way for the team to play flowing football around a “magic box” of four very talented and creative individuals.

It didn’t work. Though the football was sublime, Italy (the eventual winners) dispatched of them in the second group stage through hard work, graft, and more than a helpful dollop of Italian pragmatism. The full backs still bombed forward – the central midfield still provided inadequate cover. 2-4-4 had given way to 2-4-2-2. It was beautiful to watch, but it didn’t win any prizes. The world had moved on.


By 1994, things had changed. The side were more disciplined and better prepared. In the USA, Brazil did the unthinkable and won a game on penalties after a largely uninspiring 0-0 draw. But it was their first World Cup in 24 years.

The teams still had attacking full backs. It still had the creative AMC partnership behind a creative FC partnership. It was still fluid. But with the tactical innovation of playing the MCs deeper, and assigning them specifically defensive roles, the formation provided cover when the rest of the team attacked.

In essence, there were two “magic boxes” – the attacking one and the defensive one.

It’s not that Brazil weren’t an aesthetic team in 1994 because of this new pragmatism. Leonardo, Romario and friends played some beautiful stuff. But the acknowledgement that, in the modern game, defence is important was a huge step forward for Brazil. It is all well and good playing beautiful football, but at the end of the day it is all for nothing if you don’t win anything at the end of it.

Conclusions for FML

The styles of the 1970 and 1982 teams can be found in the Tactical Theorems ’10 Appendix. They show a very fluid team, but with little cover. In football, there is always a trade off. Hard work and organisation are rarely pretty, but without them it is very difficult to win football matches. The trick to beautiful football is to get that balance right.

By providing cover for when the wing backs surged forward, Brazil managed to find enough of a balance to win the 1994 World Cup. In your tactics, this needs to be sorted out too. For all the player swapping of the Dutch in the 1970, there was, fundamentally a very tight organisation to the hole machine. They were fluid in their play, no doubt, but they had used their players in a way in which everyone could cover, and everyone could do the donkey work of closing down the opposition and denying them room to score.

The first thing to try, I feel, is to try a balanced or fluid philosophy before moving on to very fluid. See if this can still provide the jazz you’re looking for, without the leaky defence.

Second, look to your creative freedom and roaming settings before going to the philosophy settings. Often, a little more individual freedom is better than a blanket declaration of fluidity across all the players.

Third, use roles, duties and formation to get a balance between cover and attacking numbers. If the wing backs are charging on, try to have someone in the midfield holding back. If your wingers never track back, try to make sure there is always someone holding back to deal with any potential counter attacks.

And fourth – the most important thing of all – make sure your players are good enough to be able to pull all this off. There is a reason why Bolton don’t play like Brazil in the Premier League. There is also a reason why Brazil took 24 years to win another World Cup. A lack of talent and/or a lack of pragmatism is seriously going to dent you chances of recreating this fluid style. Seriously ask yourself if you’re happy to take the competitive hit in order to satisfy your wish to see beautiful football.

And finally…

Our sister podcast at FM-Britain will be returning to the virtual airwaves over the next couple of weeks, and recording will start in the next few days. If you have any questions on tactics, Football Manager Live, Football Manager, or anything else that takes your fancy, get in touch with the show @FMBritain or on Just bear in mind that as the Tactical Think Tank will be hosting it, it’s probably best to keep the questions tactically related if you want an accurate answer!

I will also be going along to the FML Council tomorrow afternoon at SI Towers. If you’ve got anything you want me to bring up there, get in touch with me at

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.
Interested in more? Here are some related articles for you!
  • Good article and I must say that even at Lower League football I am able to play good football even playing a rigid football.

    With being Southport it is as you said impossible with the quality of players to play fluid, fast passing football. I find that playing rigid football allows my players to be much harder to break down and not prone to losing out when the opposition counters, forcing most of the chances to come from long shots it has been working well at my short time at Southport.

    But once I have the ball keeping my shape allows the not so intellegent players to stay where they are told and act as plenty of options for passes to keep the ball going forward. Playing with talented wingers and a fantastic target man I can split defenses very well creating alot of space behind and getting alot of chances against the keeper, if only my advanced forward was a little quicker on the ball to take advantage, but it does create football that is good to watch whilst playing the game and bearing in mind.

blog comments powered by Disqus