I used to believe that ‘balance’ in Football Manager meant an appeal to perfect symmetry when working on a formation, but I no longer think this is the case.
It’s an understandable trap for a human, with human eyes, to fall into, because we in some way associate symmetry with both nature, and with beauty, and hence I would believe that my symmetrical formation was both natural, and beautiful.
I would end up with something like a flat four in midfield, with another one either sitting or advancing from a perfectly central position, with a single striker also stationed exactly down the middle.
You might be able to anticipate the next immediate problem that this would cause: that of width. If one full-back is instructed to get up the pitch, then both need to do so. If one of my wingers is defensive, or inverted, then the other one follows suit. So I’d at times use a four-man defence, with no holding midfielder (because the fifth one was in the attacking midfield strata) and yet both my wide defenders were busting a gut to escape the confines of their own half. Ever wondered why the AI is always able to catch you on the break?
These days, I try to discard the idea of ‘symmetry’ – because it makes you predictable, and leaves you either a) begging to be hit on the counter, or b) dragged so deep into your own half that eventually you’ll make an error, or fall victim to a long shot from an adjacent postcode – and instead, I think more about balance instead.
Balance, for me, means that if your left-sided wing-back is given an attack duty, the left-sided central midfielder is required to help out defensively. If your central attacking midfielder is being told to ping risky passes all over the place, and frequently run from his position, there’s someone more disciplined in behind him in case the ball is turned over. If you have a ball-playing central defender, then at his side, and in front of him, there are colleagues who hold the fort, and don’t try to overplay.
I urge caution with the number of attack duties you assign in a team, anyway. If your lone striker is given an attacking duty, I find that he can become isolated. If your attacking midfield role, and one of your two central midfielders, are both given attack duties, the AI will surely and inevitably find a way to drive a bus through the gaps which are left.
I prefer something like one attacking central midfielder, balanced out by more circumspect roles around him, and an attacking full-back or wing-back. There’s enough movement in front of those types of players to make the risk of the role and duty worth the gamble (where as, with an attack-duty striker, all the movement is behind him) and you aren’t being so bold that all your team is high up the pitch, and easy to counter-attack against.