If there’s one thing Football Manager players always moan about, it’s conceding soft goals.
It feels like any risk you take finds a way to get exploited by the opposition. Unfortunately, effective attacking and sustained ball retention both require plenty of risk-taking. However, recently things have taken a turn for the better.
Below, you can see we managed 10 clean sheets in FM18 in a row! Currently, the run stands at 13. Obviously, it’s bound to stop soon, once the opposition find ways to counter my team. Nonetheless, it’s time to explore some of the strategic changes which contributed to this run.
1. Don’t over-compensate to achieve your desired playing style
By this, I mean have players predominantly dedicated to keeping your defensive shape intact. Have others building your attacking moves. We all love playmakers, so consider having some deep-lying playmakers on defend. Maybe also try ball-playing defenders with a covering duty? These types of players will allow you to build a swivelling defensive shape that has players covering anyone who ventures forward.
You can see my adaptation below. The covering ball-playing defenders ensure that through balls, and passes hit to the channels, are snuffed out. The deep-lying playmakers cover the wing-backs, trequartista’s, or both, whenever they’re caught out of position.
Ultimately, there’s only a couple of reasons that these two players are able to cover the four others. It’s not because I bought FM18 from the black market. The formation is relatively defensive, and the pressing settings are extremely aggressive. For out-and-out attackers to start attacking moves, cover the wide areas even more and go with different roles.
2. Don’t leave wide areas too open
This needs to be emphasised for wide areas, more so than others. The reason? DISCIPLINE. If a player’s too late getting to grips with the opposition winger, what happens? Whether it’s a full-back or someone else covering? Without any doubt whatsoever, a hacking down and a booking; taking one for the team. The opposition will then try to get that player sent off. If your player needs more protection, the opposition will gain more space.
Furthermore, it’s problematic to rely on attacking down the wings. It causes unsuccessful dribbles and crosses; this means… gasp… ball turnover. If wingers or wing-backs are set to come inside too much, they might leave space for opposition counter-attacks. Instead utilise the players’ movement on the overlap, when the space has already been created by other players.
My wing-backs aren’t picked by how comfortable they traditionally are in that position. They’re meant to be equipped to cover the entire flank when needed. Try to pick the best naturally left-sided player at left wing-back, and the best naturally right-sided player at right wing-back. Preferably, the wing-back can play well at wide midfield on the same side. Hopefully, they can cover as many phases of the game as possible; spotting danger and opportunity the entire time.
3. Preferably play with one striker
This seems like a blanket statement but hear me out. If you play with a structured team shape, then the strikers tend to stay upfield when you lose the ball. Many variations of two or more strikers work well, but forwards in FM18 don’t precisely replicate real life. The nearest equivalent to a wide forward is a wide attacking midfielder; the closest thing to a striker dropping into midfield is an aggressive attacking midfielder.
The plethora of roles are mostly variations of what the striker does on the ball. A striker with a PPM of ‘likes to break offside trap’ will do exactly that, regardless of their role. Even if you play them at false nine. In other words, there’s no such thing as a ‘half striker’. The more players staying forward during the opposition’s attacks, the less margin for error there is by any other player.
4. Spend time setting up set pieces
For some reason, so many managers who like keeping clean sheets in FM18 don’t bother doing this. It’s like playing a chess game without paying attention to where the knights are. Set pieces are scored less in FM18 than real life, but they still define games. They define games independent of your strategy in open play.
It’s doubly important to get them right when you want to cover every threat the opposition might pose. In addition, it’s a cromulent goal source when five of your players are primarily committed to maintaining the defensive shape. It’s harder to keep this tight game-plan up when going behind. This all makes conceding a set piece like giving the opposition a charity donation for all their pain and suffering.
When setting set pieces up, it’s important to keep in mind what the game expects you to do. The most common area for corner deliveries is apparently the six-yard box. When defending corners, I have five in a line defending that area zonally.
On my attacking corners tactic, the six-yard box near the goal is loaded. The players set to ‘go forward’ simply find space to drop off and collect possession. That much is clear from the description accompanying the instruction to aim deliveries towards the penalty spot.
Free kicks are simpler, as there are so few instructions available. However, you can maximise your chances by having enough men forward to take advantage of any eventuality. Never said it had to be sophisticated.
Neither team can hold a high line or instruct their defensive line at all when defending free kick. You can exploit this by creating as many uncomfortable situations as possible! Hopefully, if enough opposition players are occupied, your best player might be able to win the header.
By the way, avoid letting the opposition do any of this. Having a tall, heavy team helps.
Throw-ins are also important. It’s easy to indirectly create goal-scoring opportunities with enough players looking for spaces in and around the area. That said, being counter-attacked from throw-ins is common; watch out for it!
This routine also moves the opposition defensive line deeper. As with the corner tactic, the players set to go forward are looking for space to drop off into. Only the central defender attacking the near post is looking to score. If the first ball lands to one of your players in the opposition penalty box, he’s lost his marker. By then, there’s so many other players waiting to pounce. The opposition are trying to re-adjust as if they’re a drain about to explode.
Keeping two outfield players back helps if the opposition manage to break away.
5. Be flexible about players’ positions, so the perfect player can be picked for every role.
This is essentially an extension of how I pick wing-backs. For every position, think about what the player will be required to do. Who’s the most comfortable player at doing that? Try to pick the best 11 players, if possible.
Playing natural DM’s, or even CM’s, as ball-playing defenders is common; if they’re brave on and off the ball. They’re used to snuffing out opposition counter-attacks and building marvellous moves from deep.
On the other end of the spectrum, I commonly play natural strikers as trequartista’s in attacking midfield. Trequartista’s are used to finding space off the ball, rather than sitting deep. They also catch any opportunity they sniff with all their claws.
Flair is imperative for these players, who can turn any attack into a front three in possession. They play at attacking midfield so that possession is lost less and the opposition midfield are closed down.
Epilogue to this piece of advice
Of course, this is just a summary of the most essential points specific to keeping clean sheets. I haven’t even touched upon other features of my tactic, my training, player interaction, or scouting. These invaluable parts of the game will also define your success at achieving any goal.
Below is a summary of our team statistics, to shed some light on what you might expect with this approach.