Soccer, or is it football? It seems like sometimes this gets more discussion in North America than the actual sport itself.
Personally, I don’t really care, but regular readers may notice that I almost always use the term football. Not because of any historical arguments, but rather that it just makes more sense. After all, between the two footballs, only one of them is primarily played with, you know, the foot. For practical reasons though, I’m using soccer for this guide because unlike most articles, this one doesn’t have a game — FIFA or PES, for example — in the title to instantly clarify it. The last thing I need is for Madden fans to click on this and realize they’ve not gotten what’s been promised, even if they should be used to this feeling by now.
So, soccer it is. First of all, if you even have a passing interest in the sport, you owe it to yourself to try out at least one of the soccer video games out there. I’ve said many times that us soccer fans are probably the luckiest ones in the sports game universe, as we get three great games -- FIFA, PES and Football Manager — every year.
First off, the rules: The game is started with 11 players on each team, and the objective is to put the ball into the opponent’s goal. Sounds simple? It is. Soccer is, perhaps of all the major sports, the one with the simplest on-field rules. No shot clocks, balks, icings or tuck rules. As long as the ball stays inbound and no player (except the goalkeeper) tries to play it with their hands or bring down a fellow player, the game plays on. Yes, I’m simplifying things a bit, but the continuous nature of the game really is evident even if you're just watching soccer for the first time. Also unlike the rigidly timed North American sports, the time in soccer runs on even if play is stopped. It is only at the end of each 45-minute halves does the referee decide how much time to add on to effectively cover all that’s been lost to various stoppages.
(And as usual, here’s the caveat: For a sport like soccer with such a massive variety of playing styles and tactics, it’s impossible to cover everything in a guide like this. So if you come across a formation or certain philosophies that didn’t get covered here, go ahead and try them out anyway in your soccer games. But more importantly, please don’t write my dear editors an angry email.)
4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1. What do they mean?
Generally speaking, the pitch is divided into three main areas of play: Defense, midfield and attack. As you may clue in with the names, defenders defend, attackers attack and midfielders link the two areas together by providing extra cover on defense and create opportunities for the attackers. Typically, there are wide players stationed on either flanks of defense and midfield, known as full-backs and wingers.
Here is a nice diagram to show the positions. As you can see, there are some more specialized roles, but by and large the aforementioned ones are the most common.
So, the numbers: Each define how many players are playing in each area of the pitch. For example, 4-4-2 means that your team starts with four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers. I say “start” because during the course of play, depending on the action, some defenders will advance to join the attack, and strikers will drop back to support the midfield or defense. These formations are just a rough guide to team shape, to give you an idea of which phase of play you and your opponent emphasize. It’s generally accepted that 4-4-2 is the default formation, so by that logic a 4-5-1 means that you want to control the midfield, since you took away a striker for an extra midfielder, or that a 4-3-3 means you’ll be looking to attack from the get-go.
As for the actual formations themselves, I’ll refer you to this guide for the peculiarities of many of today’s common formations should you decide to really experiment.
Each position on the pitch values certain qualities differently. If you’re looking to bring players in for a specific position in your team, here is a brief rundown of what you should look for. Again, there are always exceptions; these are just traditionally accepted archetypes.
Wide players (full backs and wingers): These players should ideally be fast and, especially for wingers, can dribble and cross. Full backs should be good at tackling.
Central defenders: Pace is not as important—though your centerbacks should still be quick enough to keep up with opposition strikers. In addition to no-brainers such as tackling, your centerbacks should also be mentally sound, with good positioning or anticipation skills. Height is important as well, as they are the ones who deal most with crosses into the penalty box.
Central midfielders: Passing, passing, passing. Your center mids, whatever their flaws, should at least be able to pass the ball competently.
After that, the ideal attributes may vary drastically depending on the role you want them to play on your team. If it’s a defensively minded midfielder, you want to look for players with good tackling and position skills to intercept opposition passes. If it’s an attacking midfielder, look for those with high creativity and dribbling skills. The one thing that’s not valued very highly with midfielders is height, which makes sense because midfield is the area where most of the damage is done on the ground.
Strikers: Besides shooting skills (“finishing” if you’re playing Football Manager), what you want in a striker depends on your playing style. If you have wingers who can cross the ball, you’ll want strikers who are strong enough to hold off opposing defenders, and tall enough to head the crosses in. If your team is more of a short passing one, then look for players who are technically capable, are quick and can dribble.
There are two main, generally opposing styles of play: attacking and counter attacking. In the simplest sense, it’s basically initiating versus reacting, both offering different advantages. Without getting into too much, and too overwhelming details, here’s a brief rundown of each:
Attacking: This involves dominating possession and taking the game to your oponents. With the ball, an attacking team looks to push players forward and methodically work their way through the opposition defense. Passes are short and the pace is slow, keeping the ball is the most important part (unless, of course, the clock is against you). The ideal players suited for this style are technically proficient and intelligent, while physical attributes, especially height, are secondary. It is also important that your defenders, especially the fullbacks, are offensively capable so they can contribute to the attack.
Without the ball, an attacking team looks to pressure its opponent very high up the pitch and win it back as quickly as possible. In video games, this means setting your "pressing" to a high value. The team will also play a “high line”, meaning that that its defenders—the last line of defence—venture very high up the field to try to compact the space as much as possible, breathing down your opponent's neck every time their player touches the ball. The drawback of this playing style, as you may expect, is the risk that your team commits too many men forward and is susceptible to a counterattack.
Counterattacking: This is especially good for the less gifted teams, as the philosophy emphasizes defense first. Counterattacking teams play deeply and conservatively, inviting opposition pressure. This is done for primarily two reasons: to concentrate on protecting the most dangerous real estate on the pitch (the 25-30 yards in front of goal), and also to lull the opposition to commit men forward and make their backline more vulnerable when the counterattack is launched.
After a counterattacking team wins the ball, they look to break forward with pace and look to attack quickly and lethally. With players on a counterattacking team, their roles are more defined. Defenders’ priorities are to keep the ball away from the goal, and the attackers—you’d want quick ones—will look to run forward as much as they can.
So that wraps up the first part of the guide. Part two: Some peculiarities in the rules and a section on breaking down stubborn defenses. Stay tuned!