Early in the FM 20 cycle, I collaborated with Guido on an epic set of strikerless tactics inspired by Julian Nagelsmann’s haaienbek (“sharkmouth”) principles, detailed in Live Every Week Like It’s Shark Week.
In-game, I gleefully played with Nagelsmann-inspired tactics for decades, with the ever-evolving tactics detailed in Those Who Do Move Do Not Notice Their Chains. So, when FM 21 rolled around, I knew I would revisit them…eventually.
But first, my focus was on a tactic dubbed PM Draugr — a 523 strikerless tactic detailed in The Long Night Is Coming, & The Dead Come With It, focused on aggressive, unpredictable attacking play in the final third. This tactic fueled the rise of Duruji Kvareli from the depths of the Georgian 5th tier to the precipice of Champions League glory.
However, on the eve of a Champions League quarterfinal tie with Real Madrid in 2037, I knew that we needed to re-assess our approach in order to prepare for the Virus’ heavy, sustained pressure.
Two in-game weeks later (inclusive of the March international break), Duruji Kvareli stepped onto the pitch at the Bernabeu to face the 17-time Champions League winners, lining up in Nagelsmann-inspired 5122/532.
The squad were not familiar with the tactic. Some of the players were the proverbial “square pegs in round holes.” Nevertheless, we scalped the Virus, 3-2, and drew the second leg, 1-1, to claim a spot in the semifinals.
It was not the silky, sexy football the Duruji Kvareli supporters had come to know and love.
But it was ruthless. It was effective.
More importantly, it was clear that we could optimize the tactic to make the attack more sexy. More silky. More smooth…while remaining faithful to Nagelsmann’s sharkmouth principles.
After further in-game testing and tweaking, PM Haaienvuist (“grapefruit sharkfist”) was born.
Nagelsmann’s Sharkmouth Principles
This post will assume that readers have a passing familiarity with Julian Nagelsmann and his background, as the current manager of RB Leipzig.
While this post is not intended to be a comprehensive, authoritative analysis of Nagelsmann’s sharkmouth principles, it will assume that readers are not familiar with those principles.
Of course, Guido and I covered this ground rather thoroughly in Live Every Week Like It’s Shark Week — our post from the FM 20 cycle. But instead of simply telling you, dear reader, to go read that prior post, or laboring to re-make the wheel in order to not plagiarize myself, this post will begin with a brief summary of Nagelsmann’s sharkmouth principles, before turning to my implementation of them in FM 21.
In short, Nagelsmann’s sharkmouth tactics are characterized by three fundamental principles: (1) utilization of a “boxed” front 4, featuring two 10s supported by two central midfielders who attack the half space; (2) prioritization of verticality in possession; and (3) hyper-aggressive pressing when out of possession, focused on forcing the opposition wide in the early stages of their build-up.
(If you would prefer to skip the summary of these principles, you can jump straight to the discussion of PM Haaienvuist, here.)
Tactical Principles, Part I — Nagelsmann’s “Magic Box.”
Although Nagelsmann will adjust his team shape to address the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent, he has historically set up his XI in one of two formations — a 4222 or a 532/5122.
The distinctive hallmark of Nagelsmann’s tactic, however, has been the utilization of a “box” front 4 — two number 10s supported by 2 central midfielders, a setup that has echoes of the 1982 Brazilian “magic box” formation.
The boxed front 4 is also what gives the formation its distinctive haaienbek (“sharkmouth”) moniker — with the central midfielders drift wide to attack the half-spaces, creating an attacking shape that resembles the gaping maw of a shark.
Tactical Principles, Part II — Let’s Get Vertical.
When in possession or transition from defense to attack, the XI has a singular purpose — move the ball forward, with the entire XI working to create space and passing lanes in the opposition defensive block/press, through their initial positioning and aggressive off-the-ball movement.
When building from the back, this is primarily accomplished through the advanced positioning of the wingbacks and utilization of a double pivot.
In terms of positioning, the centerbacks split wide to provide initial passing options, while the wingbacks immediately push high and wide.
The initial positioning of the wingbacks means that the opposition is tasked with either: (1) defending the full width of the pitch, which opens up space in central areas; or (2) leaving the wingbacks uncovered, which means they can serve as an outlet to break a defensive block or press.
Centrally, Nagelsmann relies a double pivot. In the 4222, the double pivot is comprised of the 2 defensive midfielders. In a 532, the central centerback will step into the defensive midfield strata, to form the double pivot with a lone defensive midfielder (as demonstrated in the Tifo video embedded above).
In both setups, the players in the double pivot will not take up positions in the same horizontal line — rather, the ball-sided player sits deeper, allowing him to receive a pass and progress the ball foward to the far-sided player.
In the final third, verticality remains the defining principle, with the following nuances:
- The wingbacks are fully-engaged in the attack, providing wide passing options and stretching the defense;
- The central midfielders drift wide and move forward, looking to attack the half spaces;
- The boxed front 4 (the central midfielders and two 10s) work as a unit to overload the central areas of the pitch and unlock the defense with fluid movement and passing combinations (e.g., 1-2s and shadow runs) to create and exploit space; and
- The players comprising the double pivot shield the defensive line and provide structure, while also supporting the team’s attacking movements.
- One of the 10s is often given license to roam beyond the spatial confines of a typical 10, while nevertheless staying central.
It is important to note that while verticality being prioritized does not mean that this is direct, “Route 1” hoofball. The XI must be purposeful and aggressive in moving the ball forward, while remaining patient and deliberate in the final third when the situation demands it.
Tactical Principles, Part III — The Haaienbekpress, Because Gegenpress Isn’t Hipster Enough.
Finally, Nagelsmann typically employs a highly-aggressive press, characterized by: (1) aggressive counter-pressing in the moments after losing possession; and (2) an extremely aggressive, high press and defensive line when out of possession.
When I say haaienbekpress, however, you should not assume that this simply gegenpress by another name.
The difference between the two being Nagelsmann’s “boxed” front 4, and how that shape affects the shape of the press.
Consider Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool — one of the sides most closely associated with gegenpress in the current game, if not “the” side who define gegenpress as that term is used (and misused) today — a side which typically employs a 433 or 4231 formation, and thus uses wide midfielders/attackers to press high in the wide areas, supported by a fullback who sits in a more conservative, defensive position.
In contrast, Nagelsmann presses aggressively with his boxed front 4, supplemented by his aggressive wingbacks, anchored by his defensive midfielder(s), in order to congest the central areas of the pitch and force the opposition to play out wide. When they do, the ball-side wingback engages with the central players shifting to “trap” the opposition against the touchline (using the line as an “extra man”), aggressively blocking off passing lanes and man-marking possible passing options, in order to force the opposition to play a long, low percentage pass forward under heavy pressure.
This approach requires that Nagelsmann’s wingbacks not only participate in the press, but do so in extremely advanced positions, leaving space could be exploited.
To address this weakness, Nagelsmann employs a defensive pendulum. Quite simply, as the opposition swings the ball to one flank in response to the congestion in the center of the pitch: (1) the ball-side wingback and centralized midfielders and attackers remain compact and move to “trap” the opposition along the touchline, as described above; while (2) the “free” wingback on the far side tucks into the back line which then shifts as a whole to cover the space behind the ball-side wingback.
PM Haaienvuist – Implementing Nagelsmann’s “Sharkmouth” Principles In FM 21
As with my prior Nagelsmann-inspired tactics, I chose to utilize a 532/5122 shape which morphs into a 334/226/235 in the attacking phase.
In terms of individual player instructions:
- The wingbacks are both instructed to shoot less often.
- To facilitate our version of a haaienbekpress, the shadow strikers are both instructed to close down more and are tasked with marking specific positions — the left-sided shadow striker is instructed to mark the opposition’s right-sided centerback, while the right-sided shadow striker marks any defensive midfielder.
PM Haaienvuist – Observations Regarding Team Shape, Roles/Duties & Instructions.
Several things should be immediately apparent, if you are familiar with my Nagelsmann-inspired tactics from FM 20.
I selected the 532/5122 shape for two reasons. First, while the ME prevent us from implement a true defensive pendulum, deploying three centerbacks provides much needed cover for our aggressive wingbacks. Second, I wanted to utilize a libero on an attack duty (my favorite role in Football Manager) to create a dynamic, aggressive double pivot.
We utilize ball-playing defenders to prioritize verticality, on a cover duty to protect against opponents who look to play direct. (While long balls over the top are less effective than they were early in the FM20 cycle, this role/duty combination was far more effective (in all phases of play) than any other, in this system.)
We utilize complete wingbacks to ensure maximum aggression, and most readily replicate the haaienbekpress within the limitations of the ME.
As with FM 20, I utilize a roaming playmaker in the defensive midfield strata to create our dynamic, aggressive double pivot. While our average positions screenshots (below) tend to show the roaming playmaker RPM and libero occupying the same space, that is a function of the average. In-game, they tend to operate on different horizontal and vertical axes, combining to help build from the back. In the final third, the libero stays more central, while the roaming playmaker drifts wide to both sides, supporting play across the width of the pitch.
Mezzalas on an attack duty are the ideal central midfielders, given their default settings. They provide a vertical passing outlet when building from the back (often dropping deeper than one would initially expect), and drift wide in possession, looking to aggressively attack the half-spaces. Suffice to say, this role/duty is tailor-made for our interpretation of Nagelsmann’s tactics.
(In all candor, I did experiment with various roles/duties on the right-sided central midfielder, including a mezzala on a support duty, while working to optimize the tactic. However, I found that utilizing 2 mezzalas on an attack duty was not only the most “faithful” interpretation of Nagelsmann’s tactics in transition and possession, it was far and away the most effective role/duty pairing in our overall tactical setup.)
The shadow strikers are also obvious, in that we need these two players to be incisive, attack-minded players who will be aggressive in our haaienbekpress. (Note: given issues with the movement of shadow strikers in the current ME (an issue Guido has addressed), I have not instructed either shadow striker to “roam from position.” They are hard-coded to “move into channels,” but beyond that we want them to remain central.)
As noted above, we have also tasked the shadow strikers with man-marking one of the opposition centerbacks and any defensive midfielder. The idea here is two-fold. First, this is intended to assist with our haaienbekpress, in general. Second, it is intended to address an issue I’ve seen with strikerless tactics in the FM21 match engine, where players in the attacking midfield strata drop into our defensive third during the defensive phase.
Now, I love having my entire XI engaged in all phases of play, but this can mean that we are stuck in our defensive third, especially against aggressive, skilled teams who should be able to play us off the pitch. If our attacking midfielders are too deep, there is no pressure on opposition players sitting 35-40 yards from goal, meaning our opponents are able to maintain/recycle possession at will. More troubling, we have no immediate outlet or viable counterattacking threat when we recover possession. Assigning our shadow strikers to man-mark the opposition in this manner solved both issues.
In terms of our team instructions, there is a very deliberate, delicate alchemy at play.
By selecting a very attacking mentality with standard passing and a work ball into box instruction (combined with our roles/duties) we find the right balance between verticality and deliberate, purposeful play — a balance between aggressive, high tempo football, and patient, probing play when looking to break down a determined, compact opponent in a low-block.
Instead of trying to force our way through that proverbial parked bus, the wingbacks stretch the play while the libero and roaming playmaker look to unlock the defense from deeper positions, all while the “boxed” front 4 move between the lines to create and exploit space.
We could increase the tempo and/or passing directness to “match” a superficial interpretation of verticality as a tactical concept, but it would not produce the football we want to emulate in the current FM21 match engine.
Now, you will note that we are utilizing a standard line of engagement and defensive line by default. This is something I will tweak during the course of an individual match, or tailor to a particular opponent. After all, this is not the most “faithful” interpretation of the haaienbekpress. However, given limitations of the current FM21 match engine, raising the lines will increase the insanity of the press has two knock-on effects.
First, against superior opposition, raising the lines tends to destabilize our backline without providing an offsetting benefit — more risk, for no greater reward.
Second, against inferior opposition, raising the lines would increase the intensity and efficacy of our haaienbekpress; however, it limits our options in transition and in the attacking phase. We need to encourage inferior opponents to leave their defensive third and become less compact before we recover possession. In other words, by sitting slightly deeper, we are creating space to attack and exploit against inferior opposition who might otherwise simply stay in a compact, low block.
Finally, you will note that for all of the aggression implicit in Nagelsmann’s haaienbekpress, we are using the team instruction stay on feet. This is both how I like to set up my tactics, and consistent with Nagelsmann’s philosophy.
PM Haaienvuist – Results Matter.
As anyone who has created tactics in Football Manager knows, there is a point where theory runs headlong into the quirks and limitations of SI’s match engine.
The natural question being, does the tactic work, in-game? Is it effective?
As noted above, the entire purpose of the tactic was to prepare a plucky Georgian side to stand up to the giants of European football.
The first match was away to Telavi, a domestic rival, several days before our trip to the Bernabeau. The 2nd XI annihilated them, 5-nil. And, as we know from the introduction above, the 1st XI went on to eliminate Real Madrid 4-3 on aggregate, with a 3-2 win in Spain and a 1-1 draw back in Georgia.
In both matches, we were outmatched on paper. We were not familiar with the tactic, which was in need of optimization. And several players were not fit for the roles they were playing. But there was potential.
We tweaked, tested and refined the tactic over the coming months. Some of our early adjustments did not last, as we experimented against Manchester United in the Champions League semifinals — another team that was our superior in every measurable respect.
We blew it. We lost 3-2 at Old Trafford, thanks to an own-goal and some bad luck. In the second leg, we had to chase the game and were undone, again, by a combination of bad luck and an own goal, losing 3-nil. But, in both legs, we stood toe-to-toe against one of the in-game giants of the footballing world. If Lady Luck had been on our side (or if we had figured out the alchemical process earlier), perhaps we would have advanced.
We spent the next few months optimizing and refining the tactic, to reach it’s current, final form.
Our initial goal was to strengthen our defense, without sacrificing our attack against both domestic and continental competition.
In the 5 months following our elimination at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Manchester United, we played 28 matches in all competitions. We won 27 of those matches, scoring 117 goals in the process. How many did we concede, you ask? One.
One goal. Away to — who else — Julian Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich, a side who played us off the pitch 13 months earlier, in the 2036 UEFA Super Cup:
The key take-away being — we once again stood toe-to-toe with one of European elite, matching them blow for blow even though they should have annihilated us.
More importantly, the football was exactly what we wanted to see — an effective interpretation of Nagelsmann’s sharkmouth principles, that plays aggressive, entertaining football.
(Note: Similar testing in non-documented, offline saves has shown comparable results and performance with both Brondby and Malmo, in domestic and continental competition.)
While I despise the current state of the analysis tabs in-game, screenshots from the Bayern match (above), and Champions League matches against Basel and Gary Cahill’s Monaco demonstrate the overall effectiveness of the tactic and typical team shape.
Of course, just as with any tactic, we have days where our players couldn’t find water if they fell out of a boat, and struggle to score. But we are — without fail — dominant in those same matches. A 2-nil win away to Rustavi from July being a perfect example — one of the most lop-sided 2-nil wins I’ve seen.
Nothing Compares To A Good SharkFisting.
Let’s be clear. PM Haaienvuist is not a “perfect” tactic. Nor is it intended to be.
It is not built to exploit or “break” the match engine.
Rather, PM Haaienvuist is intended to be faithful interpretation of Nagelsmann’s sharkmouth principles, to the extent permitted by the current FM21 match engine.
It is the Megan Fox of FM21 tactics — high-octane, no-holds-barred, sexy football that has no room for the faint of heart, but always leaves you satisfied.
PM Haaienvuist is not plug-and-play, even though I’ve IR’d any number of matches in my offline, tactic-testing saves with no noticeable deviation in results (even if there’s an obvious advantage to tweaking in-match). In-match, I will tweak and adjust as any of us would. The most common adjustments are: (1) raising the defensive line and/or line of engagement; (2) switching to regroup instead of counterpressing (very infrequently); and (3) when chasing the game, remove the “work ball into box” instruction and add “run at defense.” I can’t explain all of this. It’s simply the product of playing this game for longer than I care to admit, and playing almost exclusively with strikerless tactics for years now.
If you want to follow along, I’m currently utilizing PM Haaienvuist with Duruji Kvareli in Duruji Subsequent Threadsave, my second attempt to conquer world football beginning in the 5th tier of the Georgian footballing pyramid.
If you’d rather join the party, you can download the tactic here: PM Haaienvuist (via Google Drive).
If you are looking to dig deeper into Nagelsmann’s tactics, I would recommend the following articles/videos as starting points, in no particular order:
- The Voetbal International article referenced above, by Sam Planting;
- Total Football Analysis’ written and video (embedded above) analysis of Nagelsmann’s tactics at Leipzig, by Lee Scott and Max Bergmann;
- Tifo Football’s 2017 analysis of Nagelmann’s Hoffenheim tactics (embedded above), by Joe Devine and Alex Stewart;
- ESDF’s 2017 analysis of Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim tactics, written by Dave Selini; and
- This Football Bloody Hell article, by Craig Moniz.