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Football Manager 2017 can’t handle the ‘Christmas Tree’

Reviving Carlo Ancelotti’s famous formation can bring you huge results.

We’re not all FIFA everything. Many FIFA enthusiasts and casuals alike love the deeper managerial dive Football Manager has to offer. Beyond FIFA, we’ll dabble in FM, FIFA Mobile, and yup, even PES. Enjoy our first extracurricular offering, focused on FM 17!

Now that Football Manager 2017 has been out for several weeks, a certain few observations have been made about the match engine. Wide play and wingers are fairly ineffective, striker-less is as popular as ever, two shadow strikers paired with a false 9 still messes with the match engine and narrow formations are generally overpowered. Not all of these observations are foolproof or set in stone but that's generally been the chatter within the FM community.

Speaking of narrow formations, the ‘Christmas Tree’ popularized by Carlo Ancelotti in the mid-2000s is one that I've found to be ultra successful and can make even the most basic midfielders look like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in their prime. It's a fluid formation meant to pack the field and dominate possession thanks to energetic and dynamic midfielders comfortable with the ball at their feet but it's not without its faults. That being said, if you have a glut of technically proficient midfielders and you want to retain possession as a means of defense, then give the Christmas Tree a try!

The Background

I’ve tested this formation with a couple clubs, from Real Madrid down to a second division Swedish side but my aim was to take FC Lorient to the Champions League within five years and, lo and behold, we just missed out on qualifying in my first season despite a squad that had little to nothing to speak of.

However, I was able to snag a good hold-up striker in Real Madrid’s Mariano a promising attacking midfielder in Nemanja Mihajlovic from Partizan and Ajax’s wonderkid Abdelhak Nouri on loan in my first season. These three were the key pieces in making the Christmas Tree work thanks to their work rate and ability to hold on to the ball while the pieces around them ran into the appropriate channels. You will need the tip of your shape to be above average in its creativity and able to hold on to the ball in tight spaces, I can’t emphasize this enough.

The Shape

Obviously you’re free to mix and match the roles any way you’d like, but these are the ones that have worked for me and the players at my disposal. Your advanced playmakers should have a high work-rate as you’ll want them to press the opposition in order to win the ball back quickly and begin passing them to death. I’d normally have the deep-lying playmaker sit in the middle of the pitch but I like how he interacts with my left-back so I’ve moved him off to the side. You will want to incorporate a ball-winning midfielder or halfback if your fullbacks are being burned on the counter so keep an eye out for that.

The Instructions

The tighter marking and closing down could be troublesome if your midfield can’t handle it but once you’ve won the ball back, the quick passing and overwhelming numbers advantage in the midfield will be well worth it. I’ve opted for direct passing but keeping passes short, slow and deliberate will also provide a high number of chances so feel free to adjust there.

The Pros

You will dominate possession and passing stats for at least a full season before the CPU figures out what you're up to. As you can see in the screenshots from my Lorient save, a team not particularly rife with master passers, the Christmas Tree allows you to hold on to the ball in the center of the pitch for prolonged stretches of time as long as your players keep it moving quickly and fluidly. With a smart hold-up man up top involving others, you should have no issues creating quality chances with streaking attacking playmakers running past the striker. Crossing won’t be a key part of your game, but at least you won’t be giving away the ball cheaply on random dumps into the penalty box.

The Cons

You will get hit on the counter, you will get exposed out wide, and it will hurt. A lot. Now, you can take steps to minimize the damage by having one midfielder sit back and look to win the ball back, but with such a narrow formation the spaces behind your fullbacks will be inevitably exposed. Having center-backs with pace is vital as they’ll often be left to mop up for your fullbacks. You’ll also want your center-backs (and even your keeper) to have high passing attributes as this is a shape which requires some creativity by all, but this could be a double-edged sword if your defenders decide to pull off their best Xabi Alonso impression and pass it creatively when punting it away is the best option.

The Results

No particular stats stand out, but this was versus the league winner as the road team.
Note the possession percentage and 6/10 shots being on target.
Over 230 more passes and three clear cut chances compared to none.
A difference of 424 passes completed.
Over 330 more passes completed and nearly 60 percent possession.
Another display of almost half the shots being on target thanks to huge possession numbers.

As mentioned, this is a strong formation which seeks to aggressively attack deficiencies in the match engine. Decent midfields will become above average while your team will create a high number of chances thanks to large possession numbers. However, make sure to keep an eye on your fullbacks leaving your center-backs out to dry and your keeper all on his own when the opponent is pumping in cross after cross. Additionally, like all formations the opposition will become wise to your tricks by the second season so make sure to throw some wrinkles in there. You can maybe tinker with player roles or slow down the tempo, but either way, always look to stay one step ahead of your opponent and experiment during the offseason.

That being said, should you need a quick fix for a floundering season or want to catch your opponent off guard, few formations will be more effective in FM17 than the hallowed Christmas tree!