4-4-2 Diaries - Broad Strokes

Written by Simon Kean

Thanks to the #WeStreamFM crew for the offer to provide some blog content for the site. I’ve been a regular in many of their streams and listen to the podcast while I’m in the shower.

Background: This blog post is an addendum to my 4-4-2 Diaries series from on my own site. My “Angel of the Norf” save has the objective of starting in non-league football with two goals:  taking a team from the North East of England into Europe (as per Robson’s Newcastle or Schteeve’s Middlesbrough) and to do so playing a different variation on a 4-4-2 every season. I started two and half seasons ago with Gateshead and won back-to-back promotions before I recently took over mid-season at Sunderland in the bottom half of in the Championship.


Fantastic Tactics and How to Build One

There’s a lot of content out there regarding building tactics. I’ve read and re-read Cleon’s writings on tactics many times over along with FridayNightFM, Strikerless, Dictate The Game and others that have influenced my own efforts in tactical development. I’ve absorbed content regarding recreating real-world systems or implementing a specific style of football and these are scenarios when you have a preconceived idea about a style you want to play. But what about if you’re not in that situation and don’t have a preconceived tactical concept? I often go into situations such as taking over a struggling club mid-season with no real knowledge about the squad, so I there’s no sense in forcing a style on a team that they may not be up to playing. I’m a fan of Ancelotti who is probably the most pragmatic big name manager out there. He takes over a gig and simply works with the squad he has to find the right tactical fit.

When taking over a struggling club, I’ve usually got a chairman that is expecting results to turn around right away and Sunderland is no exception. This bloke wants us to make the playoffs! In circumstances like this the biggest problem you have is time. You’re not in the pre-season with the luxury of being able to experiment and develop a tactical approach over a number of games and you need results now. You’re essentially starting with a clean slate but need to work something out quickly...so that’s what I’ll do.

I try to get FM to reflect real-world football as much as possible and seek inspiration from my football knowledge and experiences to influence how I play the game. For the situation with Sunderland, I’ve looked at a number of managers who specialise in taking over struggling teams and turning things around. Most adopt a common sense approach that focuses on two things: (1) sorting out the defence, and (2) playing a simple system with players in their best positions that work well together. “Well done Captain Obvious” some may say but in the FM community, I often see folks trying to brute force a complex tactical system on their squad expecting immediate results.If things don’t work out they compound the problem by making changes every five minutes and wonder why they’re losing matches. The poor old players usually end up getting the blame. I’m as guilty as anyone else of building a tactic with loads of instructions based on what I think will happen before we’ve kicked a ball. But here’s the thing: you can win matches on FM without using any instructions at all.  

Mackem My Mind Up

With Sunderland, I wanted to really dumb things down and implement a top-down tactical approach by identifying the squad’s strengths and weakness via gameplay and have that dictate what tactical system we develop. Having just joined the club I don’t know all that much about these players. I also took over without any backroom staff so any Team Reports or other information on tactical suggestions is probably garbage and not worth looking at. In this situation, I’m going to build a tactic based on only what I actually see happen in the match engine (….I know, crazy man). I may use a couple of analysis tools to check our passing stats and positioning but our tactical changes will be reactive based on what I see, and not what I think should happen.

For the first game I will purely focus on roles and mentality and play without any instructions. I’ll make notes throughout the match, and limit myself to changing player roles, making subs and adjusting our mentality. Every every decision needs to be validated by visual confirmation in the match engine.  Given we need results quickly I need to be decisive but I’m only looking at things in terms of broad strokes right now.

Building the team sheet takes patience and critical thinking. I’m sticking with the principles I spoke about earlier: keep it simple and put our best (available) players in roles that suit them. I then tweaked some roles to ensure they complemented each other on a relational basis as I want a balance of conservative roles and movement between the lines to cope with sides that play three in central midfield against our 4-4-2. When building the lineup I noticed that our creative and attacking players are on the left side of the pitch so I balanced this out with more conservative roles on the right side along with a CM-D in the left CM slot to provide that side with some defensive cover.  Here is the team sheet and I’ve included some markups to indicate the movement I’d like to see (which needs to be validated by the match engine):


Match Validation

I documented both the what and why behind tactical changes during two consecutive matches where I developed the basic structure of the tactical system I’m going to use at Sunderland. This includes some things I got wrong and how I tried to rectify the problems. Just to make things even more challenging both matches were against teams in the top 3 of the Championship. Brentford managed by Bielsa and Birmingham were strong favourites against us. I watched at least a half of each match in Full Game mode with the remaining time on Comprehensive Highlights.

Match One Notes:

  • Brentford line up in a 4-2-3-1 DM formation.

  • I start out with a Cautious Mentality as we aren’t favourites to win and I’m prioritising defensive solidity.

  • 3rd minute: 1-0 Sunderland. A long ball over the top from El Yamiq (CD) to Nketiah (AF) finds him in behind the Brentford defence after a lovely inside channel run and he fires home.

  • 6th minute: we concede a cheap penalty from a set piece from a corner but luckily our keeper saves it.

  • 14th minute: 1-1. I just got totally FM’ed. Honeyman scores a bizarre own goal when attempting to clear the ball.

  • 29th minute: El Yamiq (CD) fails to clear a long ball and heads it into the path of Brentford’s #10 who smashes it into the top corner. It’s 2-1 to Brentford.

  • 35th minute: Tactical change - Mentality to Balanced to try and ease the pressure on our defenders and create more some chances of our own.

  • 37th minute: 2-2. Game on! Nketiah makes another lovely run into the outside right channel and Honeyman finds him with a perfectly weighted thru ball from the middle of the park. Nketiah crosses to Boateng who is waiting on the edge of the area. He pivots and smashes it home.

  • Half Time Analysis: our front two have bossed this game and barring a couple of defensive errors, we’d be in total control of the game. The Mentality change totally transformed our play.

  • 66th Minute: Adomah! Maguire breaks down the left and fires in a cross to the back post where our right winger is there to head it home! It’s now 3-2 Sunderland. While I’m tempted to drop our mentality to Cautious and go into preservation mode, I decide to leave things along.

  • 78th Minute: the defensive positioning from our two banks of four is like a double brick wall and Brentford cannot break us down. What does Bielsa have up his sleeve (or in his bucket) for us? He switches to a 5-3-2.

  • 87th Minute: Tactical Change - Mentality down to Defensive Mentality to close the game out. Our blokes are dead on their feet but we keep the ball beautifully and kill the clock. We go on to take all 3 points in a terrific encounter.

Post-Match Notes: I think we proved we can be successful just with a balanced lineup and the right mentality. I still think we can improve things, but the once we moved to a Balanced Mentality the pressure was off our defenders and our passing improved. While our defensive shape was good, I think adding Tighter Marking would help along with Hold Shape as our counter-attacking efforts were pretty shite and I don’t think that’s our strength. I’d rather just keep the ball and start our build up again. I’d also like to get our goalkeeper to distribute to centre-backs as he simply lumps it upfield otherwise and we lose possession. Play out of Defence and Shorter Passing would probably help us retain the ball a bit better as well.

With one match under our belt, I’m starting to form an idea towards building a tactical philosophy that fits this team based on what I’ve seen so far. I’m inclined to harken back to Serie A’s glory days and move us towards a slow, short passing, possession style of football that also denies space to our opponents. We don’t look like we have the pace to be a pressing or long ball side and I don’t trust that we can handle the pressure of playing a low block. What we do have is a couple of blokes in the squad who can drop into the hole and hold the ball up and I’d like to see if we can pass into their feet and let them bring others into play. Our off the ball movement was terrific at times today so I’m keen to see more of that. Today’s game met my objective of starting to put the picture together with broad strokes.

Match Two

With only 3 days in between matches, we needed to rotate a couple of players due to minor injuries and fatigue. I also changed a few roles mostly in midfield based on my notes from game one as I wanted a bit more structure and solidity in our shape possibly at the expense of some creativity but I’ll let the match engine tell me if that’s the case in game two. I also added the instructions I mentioned in my analysis from the last game so our tactic for this game now looks like this:


Match Two Notes:

  • Birmingham lineup in a 4-4-2

  • 24th Minute: Tactical Change - Wyke role change from DLF to TM(s). He’s moving into channels but I want him in the centre of the pitch to provide us with a focal point when we move forward rather than lateral movement (which Nketiah provides).

  • 28th Minute: the above change has improved our shape and Wyke validates the role change with some gorgeous link-up play with Nketiah who forces the keeper into a great save.

  • 38th Minute: 1-0 Sunderland. Cracking direct free kick from Douglas.

  • Half Time Analysis: we’re a goal to the good and deserve to be.  We’re dominating possession with over 60% of the ball and have made the better chances. I’m pleased and don’t feel it necessary to make any half time changes.

  • 60th Minute: Substitutions - Honeyman for Maguire (IW) and Adomah (W instead of WM) comes on for Leadbitter. McGeouch moves into the DLP role and Mumba to the CM-D spot.

  • 67th Minute: Goal for Nketiah! It’s 2-0 Sunderland. Wyke comes deep again to receive the ball into feet. He turns and plays in his strike partner who runs across his defender into the inside-right channel. He fires across his body with a marvellous finish!


  • 88th Minute: Tactical Change - Mentality to Defensive to close the game out and we do exactly that. It’s a pretty darn near perfect 2-0 victory against a tough opponent. Well done lads!

Post Match Notes: the match engine validated the instructions we added after the first game so I don’t feel compelled to change anything. Shifting Wyke from DLF to his more natural Target Man role was a bit of a masterstroke and we played the ball into his feet beautifully (it’s not just a role for hoof ball) and his back to goal capabilities really showed. I’m pleased with these two victories over tough opponents and in the course of these matches I think I’ve quickly found a tactical philosophy that should bring us some success. As the season progresses I may add (or even subtract) instructions to refine our approach but I’m confident were on the right track.


The above approach is something I’ve in the past on other saves and not just in situations where I’m taking over a team. Sometimes my tactics simply aren’t working and I need to turn things around so wipe the slate clean and start again. I think you can get good results with some ordinary players if you make the effort to put the right combination of players in roles that complement their attributes, traits and other players around them in a logical formation. It sounds really simple but I think there’s a bit of an art to it. I’ll see how the rest of the season progresses and may follow up if there’s much tactical evolution worth blogging about.

Sparky, out!