When I was still finding my way in FM, I would always have ball-playing defenders in my tactics, regardless of which playing style I was trying to achieve.
I knew ball playing defenders also create chances in addition to their normal defending duties. Looking at them in this light made me think that the vanilla central defender role was inferior and not worth giving a try.
I was obviously very wrong. Both these roles are crucial in their own rights, as I will explain below.
First, FM22 describes the two roles with this exact wording, “The main aim of the two roles is to stop the opposing attackers from playing and to clear the ball from danger when required”
However, what separates the Central Defender from the Ball Playing Defender is that the Ball Playing Defender is also expected to launch defence-splitting through balls from deep to generate counter-attacking opportunities.
This is where I believe most FM players get lost. When trying to come up with a possession-based tactic where the attack will start from the goalkeeper and progressively move through the midfield and into the final third, I would impulsively go for the Ball Playing Defender without thinking through his in-game description.
My possession-based tactic was screaming for a Central Defender, but I was too hung up on the fancy-sounding Ball Playing Defender that I did not notice this.
Thinking through what the Ball Playing Defender did in the said tactic. Rather than simply laying off the ball to the more creative regista, he would take it upon himself to launch long diagonal balls to my wingers, or over the top through balls for my Pressing Forward(at the time called defensive forwards) to run after.
In world football, the very best defenders do this with ease. The likes of Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk, Nathan Ake, John Stones, and Jules Kounde are all comfortable playing long balls and through balls from deep despite playing in possession-heavy teams that prefer building play from the back.
They pick and choose their moments, making it unlikely for them to launch through balls while they have their central midfielders unmarked and in good positions to receive possession of the ball.
You can achieve something similar in FM without using the Ball Playing Defender.
If you have a centre back with good vision, passing, and technique, assigning him the Central Defender role then asking a coach to teach the player relevant player traits like “switches ball to the other flank”, “tries long-range passes” and “brings ball out of defence” will have the player behaving similarly to the examples given above.
Doing this makes you get the benefit of playing the centre back in a role that does not actively ask him to play risky passes, but the player traits that he possesses will make him try those passes when the situation requires them, like counterattacks being on the cards.
The Ball Playing Defender in football manager is more suited to a counter-attacking style of play that will have the team transition from defence to attack in the shortest time possible.
Think of the Real Madrid team that won the UCL title three times in a row. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane playing as Ball Playing Defenders would actively look to launch the ball to the flanks from where Gareth Bale in the RW and Marcelo playing very high from the wing back position almost as a left winger would look to exploit the opposition’s defence with their pace and trickery.
Long-range passes and through balls were a feature in that team, as their central midfielders Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and Casemiro never ventured too far into the attacking third preferring the team’s attacking wing backs, Carvajal and Marcelo to pick up the creative burden and deliver crosses to Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.
With this in mind, I only ever use the Ball Playing Defender role if I am building a tactic that relies on long balls and quick transitions.
If I am playing a possession-based style, I always prefer the Central Defender role with the knowledge that my Centre Back will keep things simple without resorting to hopeful long balls that will more often than not lead to my team losing possession.
Ball Playing Defender and Central Defender Duties In Football Manager
The defend, stopper and cover duties are all found in both the Central Defender and Ball Playing Defender roles.
Since both roles defend in the same way, the above three duties will work the exact way whether assigned to a Central Defender or the Ball Playing Defender.
Starting with the defend duty, the centre back assigned this role will stay in line with his defensive partner and look to do the standard defensive work of breaking up attacks and preventing the ball from getting into the box.
The defend duty is suitable for a two man central defence, where it is much easier staying in line and playing the offside trap much more effectively.
For the stopper duty, the centre back assigned this role will leave the defensive line and push forwards to close down players before they get to the area.
This duty can work in a two-man central defence partnership, but it is much more effective in a three-man defence where one of the centre backs will move forward but still have enough cover in behind him so that the goalkeeper is not exposed in case he fails in stopping the attacker.
Another consideration is that when using a stopper, it is unwise to have a player in the defensive midfield position as it will only lead to both of them occupying the same spaces, especially when the team is defending.
The cover duty on the other hand makes the centre back to drop a little deeper behind the defensive line and sweep up through balls.
This duty is also much more effective in a three-man defence compared to when using two central defenders.
To use it to its full potential, you need to be playing a high defensive line that carries the highest threat of being caught out with through balls.
When doing this, your central defender will then need to have good acceleration and pace to catch up with the long balls before the opposition’s striker gets to them first.
With both the stopper and cover duties, I never play the offside trap when using either of them since most of the time, the central defenders assigned the roles will not be in line with the rest of the defence which might make it easy for the attacker to stay onside.
I also never use the stopper and the cover duties in the same tactic. This combination will create massive gaps in your defensive shape as the centre backs will be moving in opposite directions
Player Traits Suitable For Central Defenders In Football Manager
The following player traits will aid your central defenders to be more effective in starting attacks from the back or finding players in the attacking thirds with accurate long balls. You can assign them to either your Ball Playing Defenders or Central Defenders depending on your tactical style
- Brings ball out of defence – Rather than aimlessly clearing the ball, the centre back will more often than not take it upon himself to progress into the midfield positions, assessing his passing options.
- Tries to play out of trouble – Very similar to the player trait above, but in this case it applies when the centre back is under pressure from the opposition, rather than kicking the ball out of play or hoofing it up field, he will try to pass or dribble his way out of trouble
- Tries Long range passes – If the centre back has good passing, this player trait will aid him in picking unmarked wingers or strikers in the opposition’s final third.
- Likes to switch ball to other flank – Similar to the player trait above, this player trait applies when the play is concentrated on one side of the pitch, the player is more likely to play it across to the other wing where there might be an unmarked overlapping fullback.
- Tries killer balls often – normally suited to attacking midfielders, this player trait might be useful if your centre back has exceptional passing, technique and vision.
In conclusion, both the central defender and Ball Playing Defender roles are useful in their own ways. You can even use both of them together if your tactical style allows it.
There is also the Libero role, which offers more than the two roles I’ve discussed above. You can read about the libero here.