Its pre-season 2021/2022. After a few years of using an attacking 4-2-3-1 to get the most out of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, I decided to try a different method to milk the remaining years of Mesut Özil’s career. With his declining mobility, I envisioned him in an enganche role, and a whir of movement around him. I had a wealth of attacking options in Lacazette, Aubameyang, the Brazilian Rodrygo (best €10.75m ever spent), Nabil Fekir, Alex Iwobi, Reiss Nelson and three promising regens: Marko Kalaba, Claudio Tellerín and Martin Halsman.
I don’t know why, but I decided to experiment with a strikerless formation for the first time in my life. I initially set up in an attacking, very fluid 4-2-4. After a couple of games in pre-season, I decided the pressing wasn’t as aggressive as I liked and switched to an overload mentality – also a first. The result was like a eureka moment. After a not so impressive 3-0 win over Atlético Nacional, we demolished Bilbao 9-0 and Zaragoza 12-0.
As mentioned, the idea behind this formation was to get the best out of Özil’s aging legs. But in the two games against Bilbao and Zaragoza it was Martin Halsman who stood out in the enganche role. His ability to win the ball in the air caused all sorts of problems, with plenty of crosses coming in from the wingers and full backs. With back to back hat-tricks, I had a new starting enganche.
The early results were promising. We somewhat luckily beat Man United 3-0 in the Community Shield with Lacazette scoring twice and Halsman once. We then went on to beat Bournemouth 5-2, Huddersfield 4-1, Newcastle 4-2 and Wolves 3-0. Lacazette had scored 7 in 4, including 4 against Bournemouth, and Halsman 5, including a hat-trick against Wolves. We were creating an abundance of clear cut chances and overwhelming teams with our intensity. It was impressive… but not exactly the stiffest of competition.
Enter Bayern Munich. It was the first game of our Champions League group stage at Allianz Arena. We lost 4-3. It was apparent that we had weaknesses in our tactic. If we turned the ball over in midfield in transition, it was likely to come back at us lightning quick and create a clear chance for the opposition. I was not too deterred. Bayern are strong opposition and it was away. I figured if it was played over two legs we’d score enough at home to go through.
Next we played Derby at Pride Park. Again, we lost 4-3. This time Federico Santander tore us to shreds and it was obvious I needed a solution to teams playing with an attacking mid behind a lone striker. So I created an alternate version of my tactic to counter this specific threat.
This slight alteration still allowed us to attack in the way we liked, usually via the enganche or pinging balls over the top to the raumdeuter, whilst giving us a little more stability defensively.
I would open matches with the 4-2-4 (even against 4-2-3-1 tactics) and then switch to the 4-3-3 after we opened the scoring. We only lost 5 matches for the rest of the season with this strategy and in every one of those losses we had more clear cut chances than the opposition.
Both formations have the below team instructions, with the only difference being that the 4-3-3 is set to play out of defence.
The style of play is frenetic and relentless. We have multiple avenues to goal which allows us to be unpredictable and very difficult to stop. Whilst I alternate between the two tactics, I primarily use the 4-2-4.
Below I’ll explain a few of the roles and how they contribute to our attack.
Even though I have him set to distribute to centre backs (which I change to full backs when facing teams playing with two strikers), he frequently looks to play balls up to the inside forward, enganche or raumdeuter. Occasionally this can be a little frustrating as it doesn’t always come off, and possession is lost. However, when it does come off we immediately have the opposition on the back foot and often a 4 on 4 or even a 4 on 3 situation if one of their full backs is slow getting back.
Ball Playing Defender
I have him set with the ‘dribble more’ player instruction, inspired by Merry Guido and his quarterback role. He will win a lot of balls around the half way line or just below and often send it straight back over the top to one of our attackers. The player I used most in this role was Matthijs de Ligt who had 3 assists, created 7 chances and had 15 key passes in 41 appearances.
Against Man City, de Ligt wins an interception and in one touch puts Lacazette through for the goal.
Right Full Back
Usually late to join attacks, he will overlap when we are controlling possession on the edge of the box and send in crosses or diagonal balls to the raumdeuter. The player I used most in this role was Héctor Bellerín who had 5 assists, created 13 chances and had 33 key passes in 39 appearances.
Left Wing Back
Frequently bombs forward to support the attack and send in crosses or diagonal balls to the inside forward. The player I used most in this role was Kieran Tierney who had 4 assists, created 10 chances and had 23 key passes in 33 appearances.
Deep Lying Playmaker
The metronome of the midfield. Alternates between playing short passes to open players and longer balls into space for attackers. Rarely takes more than one or two touches. The player I used most in this role was Geoffrey Kondogbia who had 1 assist, created 5 chances and had 37 key passes in 42 appearances.
Will drive forward with the ball from midfield and always gets into position to be a passing option. Can be on the end of counter attacks for a goal. The player I used most in this role was Arthur who scored 4 goals, had 11 assists, created 32 chances and had 76 key passes in 43 appearances.
Constantly looking to get in behind the defence, one of the main beneficiaries of the enganche role. I set the player instruction ‘shoot less’ because I didn’t like how often he was taking shots at a difficult angle when a cross was a better option. I consider speed and off the ball to be the two main attributes for this role, handy if he has a bit of aerial presence. He’ll also send in a lot of crosses, play in the two central attackers and get many chances himself so the better he is technically, the more he should excel. In saying that, I’ve used Aubameyang almost exclusively in this role in his time at the club and he’s been phenomenally productive with not so great technical attributes.
The glue guy. Supports attacks, tracks back, plays in the central attackers and pops up at the far post to win headers. The perfect complementary player to the main attacking weapons. Mostly used Rodrygo in this role who scored 20 and assisted 17. Pretty darn good for a complementary player. Recommend a player with some aerial presence as he’ll get a lot of far post goals if he does.
The other main beneficiary of the enganche. Does a bit of everything in attack so definitely recommended to use a well rounded attacker. I converted Lacazette and he’s been phenomenal in the role as his numbers show.
He set a new record for average rating in the Prem and had the highest average rating in the Champions League. He also missed 13 matches with a hip injury, so could’ve been even more prolific.
The fulcrum around which the rest of the attack is based. He’ll create and score a bunch himself, typically staying within the central channel and only occasionally looking to get behind the defence – but if he does its usually a 1 v 1 with the keeper. As mentioned earlier, I started the season using Halsman in this role until he got injured. Then both Özil and Iwobi had runs dominating in the role.
Iwobi did spend half his time on the left, but all 3 had very impressive seasons statistically.
As you can see, the squad contributed across the board in creating chances and getting involved in the attack. Individual stats are nice in isolation, but its the results that really matter.
We won the EPL, breaking Aston Villa’s goalscoring record in the process. We held off an equally dominant Man Utd (who we didn’t lose to in 5 games over the course of the season), only winning on the final day with a 4-1 home win over Leicester. Some of the highlights along the way were a 6-1 victory at home to West Brom, 3-0 at home to Man U, 5-0 at home to Tottenham, 6-0 at home to West Ham, 4-1 at home to Man City, 7-0 revenge win at home to Derby, 7-1 home victory over Chelsea, and a 7-0 home victory over Everton. Our only losses were away to Derby, Chelsea and Southampton.
We also broke Barcelona’s goalscoring record in the Champions League, scoring 35 en route to the final versus Man City. We entered the game without Lacazette, the increasingly important Tellerín and Tierney all to injury. Rodrygo and Iwobi had just returned from their own injury layoffs. We lost 2-0 despite winning the CCC count 5-4, Fekir missing 2 and Rodrygo missing 3. In the end, their attack featuring Paulo Dybala, Bernardo Silva, Julian Brandt and super sub Mauro Icardi was more ruthless.
It was a disappointing end to a fantastic season. I could not have been happier with my first strikerless season. I’ll be aiming to sweep all competitions next year. And will be very disappointed if we don’t come away with any silverware at all. My aim going forward will be to win at least 2 competitions a year.
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