"Get Back! Get Back!"

How re-coding the back line awareness can fix 3 key issues that have been plaguing the PES Series. Plus a look into the tactical side of the beautiful game.

What started as an idea, quickly became an obsession. Why does every game feel like an end-to-end through ball fest? Why can't I build possession from the back? Why don't the great passers of the game stand out? As a member of the Community, I know proper keepers and shooting have been at the top of the wish list for quite some time (recent patches have addressed these issues, though not perfect, they suggest Konami is aware and will have them rectified for PES 2015). Not far behind however, you could argue the most talked about gameplay issues have been through balls, passing individuality, and the CPU's attacking A.I. I believe I have discovered a big part of the problem and a big part of the solution: THE BACK LINE

THROUGH BALLS

During halftime of the Liverpool v Southampton match the other weekend, I decided to give PES 2014 a run out. I chose Liverpool and was destined to make Southampton my bitch! The match started out per the norm, the A.I. strung 2 or 3 passes together and sent a lofted through ball down the right wing where my left back decided to pinch inside and vacate the space (another issue for another time) but in the end I retrieved possession. I moved the ball around the back then pushed possession to my midfielders, and as I looked up the pitch I saw Southampton's back line literally standing on the midfield stripe…this isn't Barcelona or Bayern Munich let me remind you…this is Southampton! So I sent a through ball on the ground leading a fleet footed Suarez who was making a run in behind and BOOM! 1-0. It became 2-0 then 3-0. All through balls behind Southampton's back line that led to breakaways. It didn't matter where I had the ball on my side of the pitch, Southampton was not moving their back line deeper. 

 Back line position in relation to the ball.

Back line position in relation to the ball.

In football, after you win possession in your own final third, you have to contend with the opposition's front line pressure that is geared to winning back the ball. Some teams press high while others drop. This is actually a tactic PES replicates extremely well. However, in real life when you move the ball past that front line pressure, the majority of teams in world football drop their back line and midfielders deeper so they don't get beat in behind. Only when teams play inferior opponents or need to score do they risk keeping that back line very high when the front line pressure is breached (unless your one of the big boys in football). PES does not do this well. Against Southampton I couldn't build up possession from deep even if I wanted to because the A.I. would NOT drop their back line.

We can all agree PES has been built for end-to-end counter attacking football the past few seasons. For those that love that style of play, addressing the back line will not effect your game, in fact it will only make counter attacks more realistic and more rewarding. The way the A.I. has been coded has forced users to play a certain way-- through balls or beat a back line defender 1-on-1. By the A.I. realistically dropping their back line and midfielders in a manner related to where the ball is on the pitch, no longer will constant end-to-end through balls be a must to get into scoring situations.

Now why are those through balls so accurate? That brings me to my next point…

PASSING INDIVIDUALITY

PES is and has been built on speed, not passing, for the latter stages of the current-gen cycle. Over the past few years, it had appeared the need to sign great passers in Master League was coming to an end.  Especially with members of the Community wanting more control over the power & accuracy of passes. I too love more control over passing but it is a delicate balance as not to lose that precious individuality. So I wondered are stat cards such as  "weighted pass" and "one-touch pass" really useful or just for show…

They definitely ARE useful, however the main problem once again lies in the awareness of the A.I.'s back line. Listen, the passing depth that PES had on the PS2 was from a different era with less user input. Time's change. I still believe the development team can find a magic formula that balances user input and stats but I'm sure its complex. Nonetheless, through experimentation and testing I have found that true passing skills do come to fruition when you have the A.I.'s back line pushed deeper. The pain of it all is you have to force yourself to get into those situations.

Now what I have been doing is getting behind the A.I.'s high line and holding up possession in their final third. The A.I.'s back line then sets up anywhere from 18 to 30 yards from its own goal. During my research, I have found "weighted pass" and "one-touch" cards become extremely useful, as players like Xavi, Pirlo, Iniesta, etc. have the ability to hit those perfectly weighted incisive through balls in the condensed space between the A.I.'s back line and the keeper. Sticking with the Barca theme, I noticed more often than not players such as Pedro and Alexis have trouble hitting those same weighted and accurate passes. Their knifing through balls tended to be a little too powerful or go bit astray from my intended target allowing the keeper or defender to take care of business. 

 Perfectly weighted pass from Totti to Gervinho.

Perfectly weighted pass from Totti to Gervinho.

Over two weeks I tested this philosophy out with different teams and different players and have come to the conclusion that when the A.I.'s back line and midfielders move deeper in a more natural position related to where the ball is on the pitch, and the space between the keeper and back line is condensed, passing stats become invaluable to breaking through that last line.

Side Note: When the A.I. is playing their usual high line look at how much space is between the keeper and the last defender…it's probably about 50 or 60 yards easy. If you have attacking players on your front line that are fast, you don't need a great passer. Anyone can send a through ball into space and have a speedy player go get it. This is the main reason why it appears through balls are so accurate--too much space, very little technique needed. 

CPU'S ATTACKING A.I.

I'm sure every PES fan this generation has said to themselves, "I wish the A.I. would possess the ball better and attack differently." I absolutely agree. There needs to be a better way of differentiating team styles, and I believe this will be a focus for the development team. With that said, part of the problem is us--the way we play. I have no doubt the majority of PES fans employ either a counter attack or possession tactic. These feature high defensive lines and high pressing because…

WE WANT THE BALL!

In essence, the A.I. shares the same problem we users face when starting attacks from our own final third. Where's the space? The space is behind our high back line. How can we expect the A.I. to build up attacks when we give them no space to do so! If the A.I. is going to create chances they HAVE to play overly direct. The A.I. will always be reactive to what the user is doing until A.I. reaches human levels. The deeper the user's back line when not in possession, the more unpredictable A.I. attacks become. 

 The high back line limits the play styles of the attacking CPU.

The high back line limits the play styles of the attacking CPU.

The issue here is the A.I. does not punish the user enough for playing a high line. If I'm playing a high line versus Real Madrid in PES 2015 with Levanteand Madrid has possession, I want the A.I. to rip me apart! Force me to respect my worthy opponent and convince me it is in my best interests to drop my back line deeper after I lose the ball. If this happens, fans will see the A.I. play a better brand of attacking footy.

SOLUTIONS

First, I want to praise the attacking tactics of PES 2014 when it comes to the user. Players move together as 1 unit. We've all heard stories from training where managers such as Guardiola and Wenger tie connecting ropes around their 10 outfield players. So if one player moves, the other 9 players have to move too. This helps players understand where they should be in relation to where the ball is on the pitch. Sorry to say the defensive side of the ball hasn't been given that same love… yet. I have a sneaky suspicion the defensive A.I. and tactics will be much improved for PES 2015

Further more, during a chat with Jose Aguirre from Fifa Soccer Blog and 8-bit Playground, he came up with a concept to cut up the football pitch in thirds. Your final third, the opponents final third, and the space in between. Each team would have six tactics. Three attacking and three defensive; one for each third of the pitch. Also PES needs to bring back the ability to pre-set subbing a particular player or change a particular tactic at a time in the match of the user's choosing, whether it's because you are trying to take the lead or preserve an outcome. The natural ebb and flow of matches would be seamless and epic! Below is a link to Bayern Munich's system early on in Guardiola's reign, check out how Bayern change formations and tactics in relation to where the ball is on the pitch. 

As you have just seen, defensively Bayern played a 4-3-3 pressing high up the pitch with a high back line to regain possession when the ball was in their opponents final third. They dropped to a 4-1-4-1 when the ball was in the middle third of the pitch and their back line dropped to about 40-30 yards from their own net. Then, they changed to a 4-4-1-1 when the ball was in their own final third and their back line held up just outside the 18 yard box. It's this level of depth that I hope to see in PES very soon.  

In conclusion, I believe re-coding the back line awareness will help eliminate some of these niggles that have plagued the series for the past couple of years. If Konami can take it one step further and successfully get teams to move defensively as units, like they have accomplished offensively, it will go along way to making a more realistic and fun footy game. I did not mention animations, ball physics, or the momentum system in this article but make no mistake they too go hand-in-hand with alleviating these issues. The competitor is focused on the casual gamer, it is Konami's time to rise again and create that hardcore football game for the hardcore football player! Bring on PES 2015!