Using Wide Centre-Backs in FM22
Football formations are cyclical. When one system seems to be more effective than others it’s widely adopted, before another system comes in to take its place. Sooner or later the historical systems of old return to the surface again, albeit with some modern tweaks.
Until recently, the back four was proving dominant but now it’s three-at-the-back systems (or back-five if you count the marauding wing-backs) that are becoming increasingly prevalent. It doesn’t take a brave Byline writer to predict that this trend will continue in Football Manager 2022. After all, the addition of the Wide Centre-Back role in FM22 makes a back-three system even more enticing and FM Grasshopper explains why that’s the case.
Firstly, he’ll focus on what the role does and how it fits into an example system (in this case a 5-2-2-1), before discussing the role’s benefits and any drawbacks you need to consider.
What the WCB role does
Deploying a trio of centre-backs is not a new concept. Various sides over the years have had success in different ways with it. However, what makes a modern back three system containing Wide Centre-Backs so special and innovative? Ultimately, it’s the re-imagining of the centre-back role from a position which has traditionally been focused on a ‘defence first’ mindset to that of a more unorthodox attacker.
Unlike its predecessors, the Wide Centre-Back is no longer solely focusing on stopping opposing attackers and clearing the ball. Instead, they are expected to demonstrate off the ball awareness by moving into more supportive, attacking positions. Their movement is not central, but rather coming from wider positions before doing one of two things:
1. Underlapping into half-spaces (that place between the centre of the pitch and the wing) or
2. Overlapping a wider player and crossing from deeper/wider positions.
Both movements are against the previous ‘modus operandi’ of a Centre-Back, so for this reason you may need to recruit players who typically suit a full-back or midfield position. This is because the attacking nature of the Wide Centre-Back role requires Attributes not normally considered for Centre-Backs: Crossing, Dribbling, Off The Ball, Stamina and Work Rate.
However, this is not about changing players’ positions - there are some really good Wide Centre-Backs in the FM22 database already. To demonstrate this, we’re managing Atalanta and seeing one of the most exciting examples of real-life Wide Centre-Backs in action.
Atalanta have had great success in recent years both domestically and in Europe by using a back-five system. During that time, the Bergamo side have used both a 5-2-1-2 with two central strikers and a 5-2-2-1 with two attacking midfielders depending on the personnel they’ve got available. In this case, we’ll be looking at the 5-2-2-1 to demonstrate how the Wide Centre-Back role works.
As you can see from the screen above, there are a mixture of Attack, Defend and Support roles across the pitch in order to try and replicate a lot of Atalanta’s fluid movement where roles overlap. The starting shape is a 5-2-2-1, but in possession it will morph considerably.
By instructing players to use differing underlap/overlap plays on each side, we are attempting to force a more varied attack. On the left, the attacking Wide-Centre Back is encouraged to make overlapping runs for crossing opportunities and on the right the supportive variant is encourage to make underlapping runs into the half-space.
The team will look to make shorter passes and build from the back, where there is a strong foundation and numerical superiority against the opposition.
We’re sticking with the current club culture by being a higher pressing team, we will look to engage the press against our opponents on a more frequent basis and will push our defensive line up. The team is very strong in Stamina and Work Rate which will suit this style, but it is worth noting in FM22 that this doesn’t always mean you will be pressing high up the pitch. Rather there will be times when the side will sit off a little bit in order to take a breather before going again.
5-2-2-1 Roles & Duties
• Rather than going for a Sweeper Keeper, we have a standard Goalkeeper on Defend here. Out wide, Atalanta have a number of attacking Wing-Backs. In particular, Robin Gosens and Davide Zappacosta are good at reading the game and reacting offensively (Anticipation and Off The Ball). Their traits also encourage both to get forward, and with no Wingers they will have plenty of space to advance into.
• We have a defensive Deep-Lying Playmaker who will build attacks, whilst holding their position centrally. This is pretty key considering you need to keep a central presence with the left-sided attacking Wide Centre-Back break beyond them. A central midfielder sits next to the DLP, acting as a link between defence and attack.
• The attack is centered on Complete Forward Duván Zapata - who can do a bit of everything and link up with those around him. He’s on a supportive role for this reason, as he will have partners running beyond him in the form of an Attacking Midfielder and Shadow Striker. Each of the AMCs has a Very Attacking mentality, and should be looking to top our team goal scoring charts come end of season by driving into the box at every opportunity. The space they attack is often created by the Complete Forward moving into channels and drawing the opposition defender out of position.
While the 5-2-2-1 looks to be a back five from the kick-off or goal kick, those Wing-Back roles will be higher than the two central midfielders when in possession and both wide men provide a key attacking component. They will stretch the opposition and provide most of the crosses for the front three.
Benefits of the Wide Centre Back
With the ball at their feet, the Wide Centre Back will dribble more than we’re used to seeing from Centre-Backs in Football Manager. Even with a Support duty, the Wide Centre Back regularly moves forward with the ball in the same way you would see in real-life situations; especially if they have the traits that encourage this behaviour (Gets Further Forward and Brings The Ball Out Of Defence).
Generally on Support or Attack duties, the Wide Centre Back will place more emphasis on their attacking game and you’ll see noticeable movements into the opponent’s half. There were some genuinely exciting moments of the role getting forward into the half-space and playing more like a Mezzala. This movement should excite a lot of players who want to create new wide combinations:
In the below screenshots we see two examples of the left-sided WCB-A driving forward in-and-around the half-space - the lucrative sweet spot mentioned earlier for goals and assists. Once there, the Wide Centre-Back will often cross aerially to strikers or play in the Attacking Midfielder.
This is a nice segue into the other of the Wide Centre-Back’s strength: the exceptional off-the-ball movement that creates effective overloads and 2v1 situations. As demonstrated above, the natural movement of a Wide Centre-Back is either into the half space or a much wider overlap.
In the half space, the mere presence of the Wide Centre-Back can pull an opposing Full-Back out of position and create a 2v1 situation. In turn, this will allow traditional wide players like Wing-Backs or Wingers more space to drive into. Creating the space out wide before using it in a productive way is the cornerstone of this 5-2-2-1 system.
But why stop at a 2v1? Sometimes, the Deep Lying Playmaker or Attacking Midfielder will also overload the wide area and ensure numerical superiority to dictate the game against the opponent, just like Atalanta do in real life. On the occasion below, the presence of another player in the half space encourages the Wide Centre-Back to naturally overlap.
One thing you will notice in Football Manager 2022 is more passes between your defensive lines, an aspect that more accurately reflects real-life behaviour. Not only does it add a more patient approach to your build up play, it allows you to better replicate a back five system like Atalanta’s. Below you will see our commitment to playing wider with the Wide Centre-Back’s linking up with both Central Midfielders and advanced Wing-Backs.
Drawbacks of the Wide Centre-Back
Like any role in Football Manager, there are drawbacks to using the Wide Centre-Back and I feel it’s important we briefly address these.
Vacated space - One of the more obvious knock-on effects of the Wide Centre-Backs driving forward is the space they vacate. In the 5-2-2-1 above, and in the high line, space was conceded in behind after a Wide Centre-Back’s forward run. It could sometimes leave the covering Centre-Back with a lot of work to do - providing the opposition can quickly counter-attack.
Attack speed - The Wide Centre-Back likes to take touches and will run with the ball, so right away you need to ask yourself whether that suits your style. As a rule, more touches means a slower and less direct attack. So, in order to get them into crossing positions and benefit their full suite of abilities, you don’t want to bypass them by playing too fast and furious further up the pitch. A more patient and controlled approach will allow the Wide Centre-Backs the time to move forward and position themselves for that effective dribble, or smart run into space for a crossing opportunity.
Skillset – Hinted at earlier on, the Wide Centre-Back requires a vastly different set of skills to traditional central defenders. Do not expect to be able to slot any Centre-Back into the role and get the same results. Furthermore, the results further down in the footballing pyramid may be different too, with the attacking outputs relative to the level you’re in. As a rule, carefully consider if the player you intend to use is suited to Dribbling and Crossing, over the more traditional arts of defending.
The Wide Centre-Back is a very welcome addition to Football Manager 2022. Only one application, in a 5-2-2-1 with no advanced Wingers, has been shown here. The tactical creator, and a change in formation, brings many possibilities to experiment and innovate. With three duties available (Defend/Support/Attack) and team instructions to maximise use of the role (such as Overlap/Underlap), you have the tactical flexibility to shape your game.