Narrow 4-2-3-1 Tactic | Football Manager 2017

Since agreeing to replace Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City in the summer, Pep Guardiola has cut an increasingly divisive figure in the world of football. The Spaniard – commonly labelled as the best tactician around before arriving on British shores – has undoubtedly struggled to adapt to the Premier League and the challenges that English footballing culture presents. Many have argued that the decision to dispense of Joe Hart just weeks into his premiership in Manchester was an error of judgement. Deploying Pablo Zabaleta as a de facto central midfielder is – in the opinion of many – another step too far passed the final frontier of footballing sanity. It is my opinion that Pep Guardiola has been rattled by the Premier League so suddenly because of his inability to trade idealism with pragmatism when required to. Guardiola is football’s very own equivalent of Oscar Wilde: for the former-Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach, football is about playing beautifully as much as it is about winning.

However, as the title to this article suggests: I am not purely going on an anti-Guardiola crusade. This article is about my highly effective, largely successful and incredibly exciting narrow 4-2-3-1 system for Football Manager 2017! In order to create a truly resilient tactic this year I have had to sacrifice some of my own footballing ideals in order to implement other more important ones – hence why I felt that it was appropriate to lambaste Guardiola for not travelling along a similar path.

This system – and I will later explain why I refer to my 4-2-3-1 as such! – is ideal for teams with a dynamic squad that has a thirst for ball possession and chance creation. The implementation of a high block, a swift (yet conservative) counter-attacking style of play, a more rigid approach to transitional phases and attaching a greater level of importance to ball retention are just some of the features that help to enable this tactic to flourish. Furthermore, I would like to point out that my 4-2-3-1 is not solely aimed to serve teams that enter each new campaign portrayed as title-chasers – I have been able to utilise “lesser players” to great effect using this system, especially while tweaking it during games. There is not a single level of football on the planet that I would categorically say would not be able to implement this system (at least to a large extent) because it is fairly straightforward, if you are willing to tweak this system it will work as well for you as it does for me!

The last notice that I must share before I finally begin to explain the inner-mechanisms of this system is that if you would like to learn more about the team that I have been using my 4-2-3-1 with do not hesitate to read-up on ‘The Saint Pauli Plan’ or, alternatively, hop over to Facebook and drop my page a like – I post frequent content!

Building a new system is always quite difficult, I honestly believe that anyone who says that they find creating tactics that work over a sustained period time “easy” is either a liar of exceptionally lucky. Be under no illusions, creating a system with longevity on Football Manager 2017 is more difficult than it has been in previous years: the AI is more intelligent, the match-engine is more developed and as a result there is no longer a plug-and-play way of playing the game. Football Manager is a game of the mind, and a creating a tactic is a process that requires a certain degree of effort and thought invested into it.

As you can see from the screenshot below, my 4-2-3-1 is not revolutionary – nor is it particularly eye-catching, at least not in my opinion it isn’t! The basic premise of our shape is that when in attacking plays there are four players focused only on attacking, two focused on retaining their position in the centre of midfield and four left over who will sit deeper and be used as a possession recycling unit. For “structured” systems this must certainly is not a ground-breaking way of analysing a system – many people have made that point regarding transitions time and time again.


I am a firm advocate of ignoring what a formation actually looks like – shape is fairly irrelevant – in favour of heavily scrutinising team and player instructions. The above screenshot provides an overarching insight into this system, it shows you some of the key elements that I do (and do not) look to exploit through my use of team instructions:

  • High Block: Jürgen Klopp is an inspirational figure in more than one way – the former-BVB manager is a fantastic motivator, a talented public speaker and an even better tactician. When creating my system I was inspired – in part – by the way in which through holding a “slightly higher” defensive line and closing down “more” you enable your side to defend substantially further up the field, thus putting less strain on your back four as a defensive unit. Implementing a high block means that the front the “3-1” part of this formation must be well-drilled in terms of fitness, but most importantly player instructions – a point that I will later return to.
  • Rigid Counter-Attacking: Learning is something that I will never tire of, hence why I find BusttheNet’s content so enthralling. One area that Daljit’s content was able to clarify for me was that regarding risk, a theory that I had already started to thesis about! The idea that if you play on an “defensive mentality” you will be unable to attack is a complete-and-utter myth – it is better to think about mentalities on Football Manager as risk levels. To clarify:
    • Contain – Very, Very Low Risk
    • Defensive – Very Low Risk
    • Counter – Low Risk
    • Standard – Standard Risk
    • Control – High Risk
    • Attacking – Very High Risk
    • Overload – Very, Very High Risk
  • Opting to play on ‘rigid’ and ‘counter’ means that your players will be more sharply focused on their primary duties – thus ensuring that your side are able to retain a shape (of sorts). Furthermore, it is important to note that rigidity is an instruction that influences transitional phases – the more fluid your instruction, the more likely your fullbacks are to attack with child-like vigour. Counter-attacking is a so-called “low risk” style of play, which is part of the reason as to why this system has proved to be so sturdy.
  • Ball Retention: Although instructing your players to “pass into space” does undermine this idea slightly, telling your players to “play out of the defence” with no further instruction in terms of build-up play coerces your players to be more relaxed on the ball – and from my experience players are less likely to force the play if they have fewer team instructions to deal with. Sometimes it is better to say nothing as opposed to saying too much – as this example has come to prove.

Striking the right balance between your shape/formation is important – but matching team mentalities with individual instructions is absolutely vital. Although every player in my team has been assigned numerous instructions that they must carry out while on the field of play, the areas that are affected most profoundly by those instructions are found at wingback, in-goal and just behind the forward.

The Conservative Wingback.

My narrow 4-2-3-1 system works because of its poise, on very few occasions have I seen my side caught-out by a counter attack because it is very rare that we allow the other side to have a numerical advantage against our defensive unit. The way in which I was able to make my wingbacks play with less zeal and more nous was by instructing them to “dribble less” and play on a defensive mentality.

20170119173227_1While the above instructions are deployed – instead of attempting to dribble along the flanks in an attempt to carve out an opportunity to cross, your wingbacks will slow their play down, relax in possession and play the most simple pass. Therefore meaning that they usually play backwards to their neighbouring centre-half or in-field to either of the two central midfielders.


During a German Cup fixture against Wolfsburg, Danny da Costa (my second choice right back) made very few forward passes and attempted to cross the ball on only five occasions. However, this is not something to be dismissed as a one-off: against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund Sam Byram performed in a similar way, something that was instrumental with regards to us being able to take any points from those games! Defensive wingbacks thrive when asked to retain possession for their team.

The idea of seeking to compliment team instructions, player instructions and player roles with one another is something that is often neglected while people try to build a new tactic – which, in all honesty, is rather foolish. Despite playing at a higher tempo and requesting my side to play passes into space, my use of complimentary instructions has enabled me to create a balanced, passing-based style of play.

Jürgen’s Men

Linking back to my previous comments regarding my love for 20170119175230_1Jürgen Klopp’s style of play, it was important for me to replicate his style of high-pressing – albeit on a more narrow basis. The two things that I urge all of my attacking midfielders to do is to “close down more” and “tackle harder” – with the explanation behind those shouts probably being fairly self-explanatory. Without wanting to harp-on for too long, the motivating factors behind my decision to order my three transitional players to press with more vigour links to the same reason as to why this system operates with a “slightly” higher line.

Defending from the front reduces the amount of strain placed up the back four – and as a result makes defending as a team a much more fruitful process. Since using this system I have noticed that my three usual attacking midfielder (Tsoesti, Gamarra and Yurchenko) have all made significantly more succesful tackles and interceptions – proving that placing an extra layer of importance on pressing and tackling in the offensive third can work out in the long-run


Replacing Joe Hart with Claudio Bravo on the proviso that the Chilean-stopper is a better distributor of a football is – as I have mentioned – a decision that I find utterly baffling when you take into account that Bravo is a significantly worse goalkeeper than the English #1, but that doesn’t mean that I am anti-quick distribution. Quite the opposite in fact!20170119182205_1

The two things (ignoring making saves) that I ask of my goalkeeper while using this system are that they “distribute quickly” and “throw to the fullbacks”. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that in order for any system to be geared towards keeping possession in smart areas of the field, it must place at least some focus on goalkeeper distribution – otherwise the vast majority of goalkeepers will revert to their default setting and blast the ball as far away from what they consider to be the danger area as possible. As the above screenshot aptly depicts, the vast majority of the passes that Itumeleng Khune made against RassenballSport Leipzig were to Sam Byram (RB) or Vasco Regini (LB) – thus helping to keep the ball and remain on task with regards to ball retention.

As you will now probably understand, my narrow 4-2-3-1 is not a formation that encourages risk taking, rank braking or free roaming – I have found that opting for a more restrained approach to attacking on Football Manager 2017 often returns the best outcomes, but why exactly is that the case? To conclude this article – which is now much longer than I had planned for it to be – I will be showcasing various things of interest from my save – including an insight into assist locations, defensive shape and goal-spreading.

Over the last twenty matches I have been surprised to find that there is very little logic with regards to assist locations while using this system, perhaps indicating that the left-side of my attacking unit is more creative than the right. As you can see from the screenshot below, 17 out of our 22 goals over the last twenty matches have been assisted from the left-flank – despite the fact that only two of those came as a result of a cross (the other two crossed assists came from Sam Byram on the right).

The most fruitful assist method while using this system is that of through balls, something that doesn’t startle me in the slightest. You may remember that one of the seven team instructions that this formation has as a preset is that players should attempt to play the ball into space, rather than into feet. This therefore means that a significant number of goals have come as a result of turning the opposition’s defence, using the pace of our advanced forward (usually Andre Gray or Adalberto Peneranda) and striking on a one-on-one basis.

I cannot claim to be an expert regarding “risk” in Football Manager 2017, I certainly agree with BusttheNet’s thesis – but it did take me watching some of his content to fully grasp what I had already considered to be true. The best way of describing how mentality/structure can affect the way in which your team works as a unit is – arguably – best portrayed by the two following screenshots:

20170120173138_1 20170120173330_1

I anticipate that the first thing that you will notice from the screenshots above (especially if you have been following ‘The Saint Pauli Plan’!) is that I was actually able to lead my unfancied Saint Pauli side to victory at the Allianz Arena, but that – of course – is not why I have highlighted this fixture as a good example of how playing on counter/structured works:

  • Screenshot One: While attacking, and with the score at 0-0, you should be able to notice that there is not a single player who would usually be committed to a defensive duty that is found out of shape, nor place. As I have previously pointed out, the two central midfielders (#19 and #18) sit in their positions with their role being to shield the defence and recycle possession when required to. However, the most striking thing about this specific phase of play is how disciplined both wingbacks are. Frankly, had both Regini and Byram not be deployed on a “defensive” duty they would be significantly further up the pitch – potentially in line with Bayern’s two wingers… And had they been in line with the #26 and #11 neither would have been available to receive the ball and restart the play. Retaining a sense of shape is very, very important.
  • Screenshot Two: While defending, this time while in the lead, you will notice that the entire team (ignoring the “3-1” section of it) is fixed into a very recognisable, very secure stratified set-up. With the front four players pressing the ball intensely, it allows the defensive unit to sit more tightly – thus limiting the amount of space available for the other side to exploit in our defensive half-spaces. Furthermore, you will also notice that both wingbacks are pushed on ever-so-slightly – again, this is due to our pressing mentality and not an inability to hold a straight defensive line!

20170120175428_1The last point that I wish to make regarding this system is that the vast majority of the goals scored while using it came from within the central areas of the penalty area – although that is probably a remark that could be true of all formations. The above screenshot supports my early point regarding the greater strength of the left-side of this tactic/my team – that is a grey area that I will now look to analyse to death!



If you are interested in trying out my narrow 4-2-3-1 with your team, or perhaps would simply like to take a closer look at how it works – please follow the instructions below, they will help you to download the file!

  • Follow the link to MediaFire – a fantastic, safe data sharing site – and download the file.
  • Place the FMF document into: Sports Interactive – Football Manager 2017 – tactics
  • Finally, load up Football Manager 2017; re-open your save; go to the tactics screen and simply add load this tactic into your game!

I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed this article and at the very least have found it to be an interesting insight into the way in which I play Football Manager 2017. As I have previously mentioned, should you wish to follow the save that use this system in make sure that you keep an eye out for new updates from ‘The Saint Pauli Plan’, or – alternatively – drop my Facebook a like as I use the page to post frequent updates from the save.

Should you have any questions for me regarding my save, my 4-2-3-1 or anything else that you might be intrigued to find out – please do get in touch through the various mediums below! I am fairly vocal in our Facebook Group and will always be willing to answer question, the same can be said regarding our Twitter account and my own Facebook Page! I would like to thank you all for reading this article, I wish you all the best for your future endeavours – on the screen and off of it…!

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About the author


You don’t get many people more addicted to Football Manager then me, Luke! I started my own Facebook page – having been inspired by Seany – in Febuary ’14 and since then it has grown to over 1,000 likes! Although about a month into my FM shenanigans I started to work with FMLC and AYO – since then Eclipsing Abramovich and many other joint enterprises have been born! I really hope that you enjoy our content; thanks for reading!

Readers Comments (2)

  1. Are there any opposition instructions used with this tactic?

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