Q. "You got the victory today despite only having 38% possession. Was that part of your plan, to allow the opposition to have the majority of the ball and then look to catch them on the counter attack?"
A. "We had a plan coming in to the match just as we would any fixture. That's all I'm prepared to say on the matter."
Jose Mourinho once famously said "‘If you don’t play Counter-Attack then it’s because you are stupid". A bit extreme from the Portuguese legend but then again we would expect no less from a man of Jose's notoriety. However, I believe what he meant by this is that, if your team is not set up to break on the counter and catch the opposition off guard after possession is won, you are missing a golden opportunity to not only score goals but ultimately break teams down by absorbing pressure and waiting for the perfect moment to break with pace and punish the opposition accordingly.
In FM terms, this is generally referred to as Direct or Fluid Counter Attack Style. This style is one of the main and most effective strategies I have incorporated in my current Tenerife save, whereby our game plan against superior opponents is to close down the opposition in our own half, regain possession of the ball and subsequently turn defence into attack by breaking on the counter via pace on the wings and a quick direct passing style to get the ball forward as soon as possible. Having started off FM19 in the La Liga Secunda Division (SD2), the price of gaining promotion and climbing up towards the higher echelons of La Liga is that we were often the inferior team over the first two or three seasons and as such we had to adapt when playing stronger teams, particularly when playing away from home where we were often the outside bet to win or draw the game.
As mentioned above, the objective of this strategy is to soak up pressure, regain possession and convert defence to attack as quickly as possible by moving the ball up the field at speed and catching teams on the break by playing the ball in to space and being clinical with our finishing. When I think about what this should look like in a match situation and envisage how I want us to successfully implement a Counter-Attack strategy in Football Manager, I picture that epic Wayne Rooney tackle & assist in the MLS recently where he tracks back, closes down his man, makes the tackle and then gets the ball back up the field as quickly as possible in order to catch their opponents on the break - resulting in an awesome goal to win them the game in the dying moments:
To implement this, our Team Instructions are set up as follows:
Cautious Mentality - as described on the Tactics screen, a Cautious mentality is "best employed for matches in which you expect to lose the battle for possession but feel you can break with some regularity". In previous versions of FM we had the option of a "Counter" mentality, and for me Cautious is basically a reincarnated version of this and perfect for implementing a Counter Attack style of play
Using a DMC or Anchor Man (Lucas Tousart) to win back the ball and play neat passes to a Box-to-Box Midfielder or Advanced Playmaker ahead of him who are technically more astute and can deliver cross-field passes with pinpoint accuracy; Alena in the AP role has 17 Passing, 17 Technique, 18 First Touch and 15 for Vision, while Matt Smith gives us 16 Passing, 16 Vision and 15 for both First Touch and Technique – between both of them they offer serious quality on the break when it comes to delivering long passes out wide to our onrushing Wingers / Inside Forwards
Focus Play Down Both Flanks – as per the above, using our full-backs and our midfield trio to get involved in winning the ball back and initiating counter attacks from our own half means that we should be able to create space out wide and distribute cross field balls to either flank where our Wingers/Inside Forwards can capitalise and run at defenders
High Tempo – we generally have superior pace and speed within the team, meaning we should be able to attack on the break and expose teams at the back with runs from the likes of Brenner, Sancho and Xadas. Again, we are trying to be explosive on the break once possession is won, therefore we try to maintain a high tempo and pace as soon as we convert defence into attack
Direct Passing Into Space – once the ball is won, the goal is to move the ball up the field as fast as possible; I generally instruct one of our wide-men to have very little defensive duties, so that they are available to push forward away from their man and be an outlet for long passes on the break where they can run in to space and either cross from wide or cut inside on goal
Attacking Width (Wide) – playing Sancho and Xadas as Inside Forwards, the objective here is to have them hug the line when breaking forward using space and width available, before cutting in at speed to either get a shot on goal or create chances for Brenner up front
Full-Backs instead of Wing-Backs - because our young Full Backs have a decent combination of Tackling, Anticipation, Positioning and Acceleration and therefore are both fast and can read the game, we don't need to play them as Wing-Backs because they can naturally break quickly after winning back possession and rapidly release the ball to our our Attacking players in order to move the ball up the field as quick as possible. By playing them as full-backs it gives us a better chance of marking and closing down the opposition's wide players without getting too exposed when attacking
Absorbing Pressure & Closing Down – with a flat back 4 and a DMC ahead of them, we don’t mind sacrificing possession and inviting the Home team to come at us with the expectation that we can then close them down in our own half, regain possession, pump the ball forward to our wide players (or Brenner up top) and ultimately win the game by being more clinical in front of goal and taking our chances
Breaking from the back – with quality Full Backs that have decent attributes in terms of first touch, dribbling and passing we use quick kick-outs / goalkeeper distribution to break from the back also, where they can turn and find our midfielders or wide players in space to get the ball forward as soon as possible
While the above outlines the intentions of this strategy, it's important to ask the question - does this actually work? Is Counter-Attack football effective in Football Manager? We have just finished our fourth season as Tenerife manager, and for most of the season we went with a Counter-Attacking style for all of our away games and fixtures against superior opponents (on paper) - I didn't realise until the season ended, but in addition to finishing 2nd in La Liga we also had the best away record for the whole season, even better than Champions Real Madrid:
I won't claim that it works on every single occasion, however this strategy led to some cracking results including away wins over Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Roma as well as a smashing 6-3 Home win over Real Madrid where despite having much less possession, we stuck to our plan of breaking them down, absorbing pressure and being far more clinical in front of goal by taking our chances and punishing them on the break:
To cap things off, our piece de resistance was scoring an almost mirror image of that Wayne Rooney assist above whereby Lookman (on loan from Everton) tracks back to make a perfectly timed tackle, and then pumps the ball forward at pace into the path of the onrushing Joveljic who smashes home an 85th minute winner - this epitomises our Counter Attack strategy and is exactly what we set out to achieve when using this tactical style.