Team DNA: Hoofball, Pragmatism, and Violence

When people talk about great teams or memorable teams they are often referring to teams with a very clear identity, a DNA that runs through them. It’s such an important part of club and team identity that this idea of a club vision or ethos has made its way into FM20. Certain teams are now categorised by their desire to give youth a chance, play attacking football, direct football and so on. It all adds a flavour and depth to the game that gives us a chance to build teams with a vision. To make our own blood and thunder gegenpressing devotee’s like Klopp’s Liverpool, make a tiki-taka fetish of possession like Pep, or even replicate the no-nonsense Burnley way with Dyche.

Teams with such clear identities tend to be built on principles and concepts that move beyond what the actual tactics and instructions are. This ethos and vision bleed into the recruitment and the properties the players are meant to have. I’ve mentioned this previously when considering statistics, but many Football Manager players have a DNA that they recruit for. They have properties or attributes in a player that they value more than others as they link to the ethos and tactical style the club is taking on. The key example of this being FM Grasshopper’s writing on fibra and the attributes they value.

In this brief blog I’m going to cover what the DNA for most of my sides is, and why. It doesn’t apply to every save and team I manage. But to be honest it does apply to most. I’m a creature of habit.

Real-World Inspiration for our DNA

I have to admit to being drawn to maybe some unfashionable and questionable tactical ideals and teams. This isn’t because I think they are the best, or how the most beautiful football should be played. But they speak to me on a villainous and pragmatic level. Whilst many might worship at the altar of Pep, Klopp or Total Football, I tend to shun this. Not because it is without merit but because my head had already been turned by the dark arts. By shithousery. By resultism.

I’m a big fan of the Crazy Gang. The 1980’s Wimbledon. I don’t support the side but love the all-action, brutal, by any means (on and off the pitch) approach. They may have been lacking in subtly and finesse but they understood the holistic nature of football in a way they are not often given credit for. They used (and abused) the psychology of football long before most did.

It’s not just the likes of Vinnie Jones and Fashanu that I look towards though. The statistics of longball, the pragmatism of some modern managers, and the use of the resources you have available to win by any means all appeal. Winning pretty is good, but winning ugly is also better than losing pretty for me.

Dark Arts and Enforcers

This tackle.

That’s it. That’s the blog.

Just kidding. But it’s a key example of a player putting the hurt on a key member of the opposition. Almost literally stamping their authority on the game and putting doubt into the minds of the opposition. In the fantastic crazy gang documentary, a lot of the former players make it clear how much psychological and physical warfare was part of the game. They wanted players watching them and not the ball, worried about a clattering tactical.

They wanted them nervous. Off-balance. They wanted the opposition to hate playing them and to be more bothered about surviving the match than they were about winning. They wanted an edge and a threat that money couldn’t buy – largely because they well, didn’t have any money. With fewer resources on offer, they needed to use the dark arts. The tackles off the ball, or over the ball, to swing things in their favour.

And it worked. They flew up the leagues, made it to the top flight, and beat a very strong and fancier Liverpool side in the FA Cup (also the first time a penalty was saved in an FA Cup final).

In FM20 terms there are some real benefits to this kind of hyper-aggressive use if the dark arts. Breaking up play, and breaking players being two of the most obvious. The rest I’ll save for another article. But I live for this and get very proud of my team when they get stuck in.

DNA unsporting
No.30 demonstrates the old Rubgy adage of ‘You can’t go anywhere without your legs’

Misapplied Statistics and Longball/Longpasses

I’m a big fan of longballs, or long passes as Graham Taylor prefers.

Getting the ball up quickly and without fuss to the strikers has long been a hallmark of English football. Or hoofball more accurately. This was because of the work of people like Charles Reep, who (mis)applied statistics to football.

There was some misinterpretation involved but their reading of the statistics was that more goals and successful moves came from a limited number of passes. And that getting the ball up front quickly was the most effective route to goal and by extension the win.

Even though there are flaws in the stats it was adopted by a lot of managers, like Egil Olsen. And was already in use separately by the likes of Graham Taylor and the Crazy gang with no little success. This success was because although the stats were flawed a long pass (rather than an aimless long ball) can result in a good chance. And if your opponents aren’t able to keep possession and pass you out the game you can keep creating high octane chances from these long passes. As noted in various football works domestically this approach was fine as few teams were technical enough to really punish a team player hoofball. But as Graham Taylor and others found out once they played better, non-domestic teams that could keep the ball, the effectiveness of longball was blunted.

Why be inspired by it then if it’s flawed? Because it links to some more modern statistical ideas that have a better grounding. One is the idea of POMO’s, or positions of maximal/maximum opportunity. This is the idea that certain areas of the pitch are more likely to lead to a goal if the ball is played to them. Normally in and around the box.

Another is the role 2nd balls can play. You might not win the first longball but you can set up a team to build on the scraps and start an attacking move much closer to the opposition’s goal than you otherwise could manage.

Finally if it leads to more chances in the box then you are by default upping your xG. I’m all for that.

Pulisball and the Rise of Rory Delap

Pulisball is a playing style for the pragmatist. You need someone to shore up the defence and steady the ship? In comes Pulis to set up your defence as two banks of (at least) four. The fullbacks suddenly get swapped out for centre-backs and they do a lot less pushing up. The amount of space left for the opposition is squeezed and the game plan to frustrate the opposition is on.

Set pieces were used by Pulis as a great leveller and with majestic long balls from the like of Rory Delap Pulis created teams where the goal threat came from an unexpected and difficult to stop source. This isn’t limited to Delap either. Over at WBA Pulis used statistics similar to POMO about where best to place free-kicks in and around the box to improve the offensive output of the team.

This combination of pragmatism and set pieces is fantastic for small teams in FM20. If you need to shore up your defence, squeeze out some extra goals, and use long throws and set pieces to cause xG creating chaos in the box then Pulisball is the way forward.

Big Sam Can

Chronologically Big Sam should probably come before Pulis. As it’s his Bolton side that really inspires. Though the (relative) success with the likes of West Ham, Sunderland, Everton and Crystal Palace are all more recent indications of his ability.

I won’t wax lyrical about the Bolton side as I think Simon Kean at Dictate the Game does a far better job than me. But suffice it to say Big Sam’s work there demonstrates again how to over-perform with a small team with limited resources. He used statistics and sports science in a big way to squeeze more and more out of the team and was as much of a pioneer of these methods in the English game as the more respected Wenger was.

This reliance on data and getting the cutting edge is something I take some inspiration from for FM20. You can see it in the By the Numbers series. He was long ball but he was also about POMO and data. But more than this Big Sam also demonstrated the transition from being a long ball team to one that could incorporate style and flair. Jay Jay Okocha anyone?

The Burnley Way

It’s probably a tad unfair to describe Dyche as a complete longball merchant but he is by necessity a disciple at the altar of hoofball. He would much prefer to call them long passes, and is actually quick flexible tactically when lining up against other teams. But the core of his approach is about a well-disciplined team that fights for the ball, keeps bodies between the goal and the opposition, and isn’t afraid to get the ball forward to the targetman.

It’s probably a different blend of pragmatism to the likes of Pulis but one that is no less successful. Burnley are yet another example of a team with modest resources fighting for a place at the table with bigger clubs that can spend well beyond their means.

The discipline, hardwork and grit here should translate well into Football Manager.

Our Football Manager DNA


Taking all this nostalgia into account I gravitate to hoofball. I like to play a longball style, normally with a back four. With fullbacks that get altitude sickness. A targetman and a starting eleven of very angry individuals that view the likes of Vinnie Jones, Joey Barton, Alan Smith and Lee Cattermole as role models rather than warnings.

The general aim is to kick lumps out of the opposition all over the pitch, whilst keeping a solid backline. Nobody backs down from a tackle, no matter where on the pitch they are. If we can intercept the ball great, if we have to break leg even better.

DNA starship troopers
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Then once the ball is in our possession they can then fire it forward to the striker combinations from deep. The full-backs don’t need to venture too far forward. And wingers are limited to whipping it in onto the head of a giant targetman.

The centre of midfield is a luxury. And exists largely to provide an extra body going forward (sweeping up second balls from hoofs to the strikers) and an extra body shielding the defence.

We need to recruit players with this sort of violent, unhinged and physical leaning DNA.

Flat Four Four Bloody Two

In FM19 and the start of FM20 this took the form of a fairly flat 442. All players get stuck in, time-wasting is low. Crosses are from deep and freedom to dribble and shoot is reduced for pretty much everyone.

Hoofball DNA

I played around with the mentalities and some of the instructions to adapt to when teams sat back or attacked. But generally, it hit hard, caused problems, and got plenty of long balls in. Variants of it also led to my best/worst discipline showing ever.

Violent DNA

I don’t know when games get called off but I must have been close after what I now call the battle of Mourneview.

The Belfast Diamond

In FM20 I hit a few bumps with the Hoof Harder formation and had to adapt it beyond a few player and team instructions. This involved moving a midfielder back into the DM spot to cover the defence and act as quarterback. The other midfielder pushed forward into the AM spot to be better positioned for picking up 2nd balls and to feed the two strikers.

Diamond DNA

A striker role also shifted with a pressing forward eventually being prefered over what was originally a deep-lying forward. Everyone still got stuck in but this diamond had the benefit of forcing the issue when in possession.

Belfast Battering Ram

This formation is the latest one I’ve been using with Belfast Celtic. In our 3rd premiership season we are in our…third relegation battle. Our team is under powered, poorly paid and struggling to finish off games. Only one striker seems to be doing anything and we need to be asking more of opposition defences.

Battering Ram DNA

Bring on the battering ram. Three up front but that’s about the only major change from the diamond above. With the right strikers it makes a world of difference though. We still play the ball long, we still put in crunching tackles. But with the false 9 we cause chaos in the box as we force most defences to make difficult decisions when picking up strikers. With the wingers on attach we can have 4-5 players all causing problems when we hit on the counter.

Metrics and KPI’s

Other than watching the match how do we determine if we are playing the way we want? How do we determine which attributes best reflect the DNA of our team? The easiest and most objective and less biased, thing to do is use metrics or key performance indicators. If we are playing the ball long and using a targetman we want to know how many headers we are winning. If we are playing a fairly attacking formation then we need to know how many goals/shots we are getting. We want to mop up balls and counter so interceptions will be key. And above all else, if we are being combative all over the pitch then tackles matter.

This means we need to focus on KPI’s like key tackles, interceptions, key headers and normalised statistics like headers per 90. In fact, we need as many per 90 as we can.

In attack then we will look more at KPI’s like shots per 90, goals per 90, headers still, and may things like offsides if we have strikers playing off the shoulders of the defence as they wait for long balls and through balls.

Attributes and our DNA

With the tactical framework in place, some matches under our belt, and a good understanding of how to measure if we are performing as we want (KPI’s) we can translate this into the attributes we need. For Dictate the Game I ran an analysis that pointed out which attributes best predictor success for our different KPI’s. With our KPI’s, in turn, letting us know how close to the principles of our tactics we are sticking.

Attributes DNA KPI Defence
DNA attributes attack

Using a form of regression analysis I mapped the attributes that significantly predictor success against the attacking and defensive KPI’s we have for our playstyle. Taking all this into account we came up with the following for our DNA:

Primary DNA attributes

  • Aggression
  • Positioning
  • Jumping Reach

Secondary DNA attributes

  • Heading
  • Marking (defenders)
  • Finishing (attackers)
  • Bravery
  • Strength

Aggression makes sense for our DNA. If we want to be the Crazy Gang then we need that, same with the likes of Bravery and Strength. What is perhaps more surprising, and something that wouldn’t have been picked up if we’d gone for our gut feeling or common-sense view of what fits out playstyle, is the importance of Positioning and Jumping. But this reflects the fact we are playing longballs, and defending against them. We are getting into aerial battles so need to be able to leap like angry demented salmon, and position ourselves well to get the edge over everyone else.

Is the DNA a success?

Kind of. I realise that’s not the most confident of responses but basically we’ve had success but we’re not world-beaters. And that’s how it should be. If this kind of brutality ball, longball, hoofball approach is what we call the right of the weak. The resort of the underdog. Then we shouldn’t be winning everything. We should be overperforming and then has the team gets stronger we should adapt our tactics to reflect our position as favourites, as a strong side with more resources.

It has done the job though. In FM19 I won several Tahiti based titles and cups, qualified for a World Cup, won the Oceania Champions League. This is all with a hoofball approach that was embedded in our DNA.

In FM20 that success has carried on initially, even if I have moved to the diamond formation (and then more of a battering ram). Over in Tahiti with have another OCL win. With Northern Ireland we’ve taken Belfast from being an unplayable side to the top flight, with a couple of cups on the way. The same DNA is being used.

I’m not going to win and dominate like Barcelona or Real Madrid. But I am going to bruise some ego’s, break some legs, and enjoy every long pass into the mixer.