Exploiting Space: The Playmaking Defender


Jul 8, 2010
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Welcome to the second article in the 'Exploiting Space' series - this edition is all about the Playmaking Central Defender.

Those of you who follow the blog, or have followed me on Twitter, know that I enjoy creating roles out of nothing. The full-back was a previously underused role, so I wrote about the Inverse Wing Back - a wing back that cuts inside, often accompanied by a touchline-hugging winger playing in front of them. This drags a defense apart through its exploitation of space, and due to the relatively positive feedback I received on the piece, I thought I'd try and write another similar one.

A concept that has always interested me, in terms of football tactics, is the underutilised resources in football. Whilst the team is attacking, what do the defenders and goalkeepers do? Surely if you could find a way of getting them into the game you could gain a competitive advantage? We've seen the all-conquering Spanish and Barcelona teams attempt to do this with marauding wing backs and ball-playing central defenders - it's not a new concept. Quite often, in tactics that play with high pressing, the striker is the first line of defense - they pressure the opposition defense and attempt to win possession in the opposition third. So why can't your defensive line be properly utilised as the first line (or 'layer') of attack?

What is the Playmaking Defender?

The basic premise of the Playmaking Defender is that they're a step up from a Ball-Playing Defender. In order to create this, I've simply altered a few of the settings of the BPD's original player instructions, as well as making him my primary playmaker in the side, as per the team instructions. I've found that this has a fairly large impact on the amount of ball the Playmaking Defender receives.

As you may have guessed, the Playmaking Defender creates a very odd structure to a side. It essentially creates another 'pivot' in the side, from the defense. This then means that the fullbacks (or wingbacks if that's what you're into) become akin to the wingers in the side. This creates two separate attacking 'layers', as illustrated below.


As you can see, the use of the Playmaking Defender requires attacking full-backs and a box-to-box midfielder in the centre of midfield. As well as this, there are two men spare from the attacking 'layers' who are the CB and DM. I've used these as very limited ball-winners - the job of the CB is generally to find his more creative defensive partner. However, the DM obviously has more options as he's in the centre of the pitch. His attitude generally depends on how your team operates - if you're a possession based side then he'll look for your Playmaking Defender, but if you play a direct passing style then he'll often just bypass him and look to launch an attack himself.

Real-life examples of the Playmaking Defender are rare. This is because any central defenders that show the remotest sign of technical ability are often shoved into the centre of midfield. It's perhaps an indication of my admiration for Marcelo Bielsa in that this is another style of role that he's used, alongside the Inverse Wing Back. When he shifted Javi Martinez from CM to CB, he used the Spaniard as a Playmaking Defender.

Something else I'd like to mention at this point is the difference between the libero and the Playmaking Defender. We've seen numerous examples of a libero throughout history, Franz Beckenbauer being perhaps the most famous. The difference between the two is the freedom they're given (after all, 'libero' does translate to 'free'). Whilst the libero is often expected to stroll up the pitch and contribute to attacks in the attacking third, the Playmaking Defender is almost always required to sit back and simply play a role in creating and providing for others.

The Playmaking Defender in Football Manager

"The main job of the Ball-Playing Defender is to stop the opposing attackers from playing and to clear the ball from danger when required.
However, unlike standard central defenders, the Ball-Playing Defender is encouraged to launch defence-splitting through balls from deep to generate counter-attacking opportunities."

This doesn't really differ much from the role of the Playmaking Defender.

As you may have already realised, the role is fairly specialised. And because of this, we need someone suitably at ease on the ball as well as being defensively solid. Here's the man.


As you can see, he's not a particularly bad player. The first thing to look for is always the key defensive attributes. It's all well and good having a Pirlo-esque playmaker in the Playmaking Defender role, but they're going to leave you vulnerable at the back. Fred, however, has an excellent mix of defensive assets and creative juices.


This is perhaps the most important section of this article as the Playmaking Defender is just that - a playmaker. Whilst the Inverse Wing Back is capable of making something for himself out of nothing, the Playmaking Defender relies on his teammates in order to give him passing options.

Combination One: The Midfield Runner

As you can see from the pitch image posted at the beginning of the article, your central midfielder is required to make runs in order to give the central defender another option.

Originally, in the early stages of developing the Playmaking Defender, I played with a Deep-Lying Playmaker in front of Fred. This was because it was that midfielder's best role. But it's always more important as to how the team as a whole plays and the system functions much more fluidly if he were a Box-to-Box midfielder.

Not only does the central midfield runner give the Playmaking Defender an extra passing option, but he also helps to link the two layers of attack, between the Playmaking Defender and the Advanced Playmaker at CAM. Since making the switch from DLP to BTB I've seen miraculous differences in the team's results as well as Fred's performances.

Combination Two: The Wide Options

This is fairly self explanatory because I've already explained the majority of it in previous sections. However, its the area in which the majority of your Playmaking Defender's passes will go so it's important to consider.

Two of the potential options in the first layer of attack are your full-backs, as illustrated by the pitch diagram above. Therefore, you need to make sure these players are going to offer a threat, offensively. In my setup, I have my LB as an Inverse Wing Back and my RB as a touchline-hugging Wing Back which creates different options for the Playmaking Defender. However, any type of attacking fullback would work equally as well, I'm sure. Just make sure they're more than capable going forward.

Combination Three: The Layer Bypass

This combination is even more simple, but I feel its worth mentioning because it really does make a difference if you have suitable players for the role(s).

As I may have already mentioned, the Playmaking Defender plays with a fairly direct passing style. His job is to spot through balls and play them, creating counter-attacking opportunities for the side. Whilst this is often through the first layer of attack, it isn't always.

In some cases, the Playmaking Defender won't have good enough options in the first attacking layer. When this is the case, he will either attempt to recycle and wait for a new phase of attack (see next combination) or bypass the first layer and look for one of the players in the second layer of attack - any of the three attacking midfielders or the striker. Which options he picks will depend on the type of players you have in these positions, and what your team instructions are. If you have a striker who is excellent in the air and is set as your team's primary target man, then of course you're going to see the Playmaking Defender bypass the first attacking layer more. If you have two wingers who love to hug the touchline and create space in the middle of the pitch for your CAM, then he's likely to receive the ball more. You get the idea.

Here's a beautiful pass from Fred which bypasses the first layer of attack.


As you can see from the image above, there's a limited number of options available for Fred. It's usually only at these times that he'll attempt to make a ball like this, but it's certainly helpful when he does. The three attacking midfielders are all marked out of the game, the midfield runner has two men besides him and the two fullbacks are also being marked due to QPR's well-drilled 4-3-3. Fred could play the ball to the anchor man in front of him who would then either recycle the ball and create a new phase of attack by passing back to the limited defender, or launch the attack himself by exploiting the space on the left of the pitch (from a run from the Inverse Wing Back). However, he plays a pin-point pass through to the striker, Neto.



I'd like to think that's the role completely covered but in reality there's probably a large number of factors I haven't even considered. One of these is how the opposition's tactics and strategies affect your usage of the Playmaking Defender. In reality, it's possible for a team to nullify the threat fairly easily.

However, this often leads to an opposition team creating a weakness elsewhere that didn't previously exist, and is often win-win for you. If you have a Playmaking Defender in your side, then it really adds another string to your bow. For example, if you encounter a team that plays two up-front then it's difficult to create time for your Playmaking Defender to play effective passes. However, this means that they'd have to use a 4-4-2, 3-5-2 or go completely unorthodox. If they go 4-4-2, you shift your playmaker to where the Box-to-Box midfielder was, but instead use a player who is more of a creator than a runner. If they use 3-5-2, then make your team exploit the flanks and ensure your full-backs are properly utilised - this will create an overlap and allow your wingers more time on the ball.

As you may have guessed, the Playmaking Defender also works best if you yourself play a 4-2-3-1, or a similar variant. I'd love to see it attempted in other formations, but I operate almost solely with this 4-2-3-1 (I don't really need to change my formation as the use of a Playmaking Defender means I can make tactical shifts and still gain an advantage) - if you want to try it with another formation, then be my guest. I'd love to hear from you.

And I hope you've enjoyed the guide. Please tell your friends.

The Coffeehouse: FM Discussion | Discussing the intricacies of Football Manager
any chance on involving inverted wingback & the playmaking defender an another other roles in a final tactic??
any chance on involving inverted wingback & the playmaking defender an another other roles in a final tactic??

Yeah, I'm working on this at the moment. Will do a full tactical review of my 4-2-3-1. May take a while though.
I think the best real life example of this kind of player would be Mats Hummels.
Yeah, both work well. Someone commented on the blog saying they were going to try it out with Hummels. It's apparently also worked successfully with the likes of Maynor Figueroa as well, so it's not just for top class players.
Yes, although he is not as good as Hummels. I don't think he would do as good as Hummels in a similar role if playing for another club.

That's 100% subjective, if you're talking about real life and not FM. "If playing for another club" is pure bull, Piqué plays for Barcelona and Hummels plays for Dortmund, that's all.
That's 100% subjective, if you're talking about real life and not FM. "If playing for another club" is pure bull, Piqué plays for Barcelona and Hummels plays for Dortmund, that's all.

Just saying that I doubt Piqué could play that role so efficiently in another team. Barca's style allows him to go forward without risking too much.
This concept inspired me a lot! This is definetly a thing I will be trying out in my long-term save.
Thanks :)