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Xaor’s Corner: Defending Part 1

EA went all out with Tactical Defending for FIFA 12; Now I’m revisiting the defending topic, as well as investigating whether pressure is still a problem.

See all previous articles here.

It isn’t since mid October, just weeks after FIFA’s release, that I have put much focus on the defensive side of the game in these fortnightly articles. Then, in the Unholy Gameplay Trinity, I outlined the reasons why I felt, even after the collection of changes packaged as Tactical Defending, that the defensive side of FIFA was one of the three areas which demanded the most attention for FIFA 13.

I come back to the topic with hundreds of hours more play on my side, and some of my opinions have changed, though most have solidified. Most crucially, recent play has forced me to renege on my earlier comments that FIFA had been liberated of pressure, and so one of the motivations for this piece is to look into why pressure is still a major complaint in the community, and what should be done about it now.

No issue or complaint has been as synonymous with FIFA this generation than the one surrounding pressure. In response to this, EA made tweaks in FIFA 10 and 11, which did little to solve the problem, so with FIFA 12 EA overhauled the defensive system with an intended consequence being a reduction in the effectiveness and overuse of pressure.

Yet, the more I play FIFA 12, the less convinced I become that things have improved significantly. Especially at the sharper end of head-to-head seasons, there seems to be as much pressure, and, sadly, pressure abuse as there ever was. With FIFA 13 on the way, I hope that EA are, for what must be the fifth game in a row, considering what they must to do to knock this problem on the head.

Defining ‘pressure’

Before I get into much detail, I want to make a few things clear about my position on this. Pressure is not, in of itself, a problem. There is nothing particularly unrealistic about playing in a game where there is a lot of pressure on the ball carrier and his team.

However, the pressuring you see in FIFA isn’t equivalent to the pressuring you see in real life. In real life, it’s usually a team based effort to cut off options and cut down space, whereas in FIFA it’s usually a defender sprinting like a headless chicken into the ball carrier over and over again until they’re successful.

To add to that, there simply aren’t the disadvantages to high pressure tactics that there ought to be. You should notice a significant effect on stamina such that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up as the game goes on, and the holes pressuring players leave should be easily exploited by opposition players, but neither of these consequences seem to materialise.

The balance is damaged at least as much though by the lacking effictiveness of the alternatives. Defending in a more patient style, as almost all teams do, is simply not reliable enough to be competitive. It’s very hard to be able to trust your team to defend in a manner where you allow your opponent time and space when you cannot rely on consistency with any particular tackle, throughball, ball over the top, cross, or perhaps even more inevitably, massive brainfart from your supporting AI.

It’s usually better to give your opponent absolutely no time, and just rush them knowing that even if you fail you’ll be able to keep trying, than to rely on a variety of mechanics which simply cannot be relied on. This, in a sense is the balance problem that we have with defending, and one that affects, and is affected by, almost every other area of the game.

Momentum & Locomotion

Which ever way you look at it, the biggest issue is the sheer lack of space in FIFA, or, to be more exact, how quickly space can be closed down. That’s why pressure is so effective in FIFA – because whatever space you have can disappear in the blink of an eye. Why is this so? Plain and simple, this is a problem caused by unrealistic movement/locomotion physics.

In a sense, it’s all about acceleration. Players can accelerate, deccelerate (a form of acceleration), and turn (another form of acceleration) too easily and without penalty. This has major ramifications in attack and defence. In terms of how it affects space, it practically means that you cannot use it in FIFA as you can in real football, and, generally speaking, you have a lot less space and time in FIFA than you would in real life.

The problem is then exacerbated by unrealistic reaction speeds, especially noticeable when the contain buttons are being used, or more generally, when the AI is involved rather than a human, something I’ll come to in part 2.

What you should be able to think when you are on the ball is that you can safely move, or pass into/through areas that, not necessarily are vacant, but areas that will be vacant momentarily. You should be able to count on the fact that any player running in a particular direction will not be where he was in a second’s time. From a practical perspective though, you cannot play with this assumption in FIFA, and in a sense this is why the dribbling game in FIFA is so dry.

This fact is something which, as an attacker, you should be looking to exploit all the time. You can run at a retreating defender, cut inside an opponent who is running along side you, or aim passes which will just cut through between moving defenders. While you can do these things every so often in FIFA, the margins are much tighter, and all too often you can be surprised by a player going from sprinting to stopped in the blink of an eye.

It’s not like this in every part of the game – there is serious inconsistency in how fast players can accelerate and deccelerate in different situations. The worst cases tend to be when moving into a tackle animation or when an interception/block animation is triggered, and you will occasionally see a player quite literally going from sprinting to stopped mid stride.

There is one real exception to the rule of acceleration rates being too fast, and it’s with jockeying. When jockeying, and it’s been like this since FIFA 09, your movement becomes floaty and imprecise. It’s ironic, because movement when jockeying should be extremely responsive – it is after all why players jockey in real life, taking advantage of the ability to spring off their heels so that they can react to the movement of an attacker.

It is impossible to underrate the importance of movement physics when it comes to producing a realistic and exciting experience, and it’s why I keep mentioning it and will continue mentioning it. It’s not the only thing wrong with FIFA’s defending, but now that the press buttons have gone, it’s pretty clear that it is the primary cause of the problems, and that it probably was all along.

Tackling Consistency

So what else? Well, I’d love to see some changes to tackling to make tackling a little more consistent, and a little more cut and dry in terms of where the ball goes after a tackle. One of the most frequent cases of utter-random-BS in FIFA, is tackling only for the ball to spill straight to another attacker, or back to the same one, typically leaving you in a much worse position than you were in before making the tackle.

Tackles should fail in this way only occasionally, and, if it is going to happen, it should happen more often if you have charged into the tackle. For the sake of a less frustrating, and more balanced experience it would be much better to be on the cut-and-dry side of realistic here. It would really improve the viability of patient, more realistic defending if you could rely on making one good tackle, as opposed to having to pray each time you make one.

Whether this should be done by just tuning down the elasticity of the collision between the ball and the tackler, or with some kind of intelligence in the defender to NOT kick it into danger, I’m not so sure, but I think one or the other needs to be done.

Jockeying v Contain

Removing the press buttons, as EA did with tactical defending, meant that EA would have to do something to replace them. I had felt (and suggested) that this could be done by combining serious improvements to jockeying (note what was written in the momentum section), and some buttons to provide more overall control over your teammates.

Instead, EA decided to add the contain button and the secondary contain button. When held, the contain button jockeys for the user, with the user being able to alter the range from the attacker. In most senses, it does this terribly, positioning itself between the goal and the attacker, which is very rarely what you want. The only advantage is that containing players react incredibly quickly and, combined with the lacking significance of momentum, this means they can follow the attacker like a mirror image.

It’s hard to really say much good about contain. It’s banally stupid when it comes to positioning, such that you can’t really use it that easily as part of a defensive unit. Yet, it has its uses in how fast it reacts, or, to put it another way, it is useful only because it’s unrealistic, and of course because the alternative is unrealistically bad.

But, if the responsiveness of jockeying and contain were brought into line, would contain be useful at all? I doubt it. At the very least, it would need to become a lot better at positioning itself laterally (or else allow some user input into its lateral positioning), but I’m really not sure how much that would add above or beyond an improved jockey function.

So, I think we could do away with the contain function altogether, which would free up more space on the controller. The secondary contain function probably needs to stay, though again, the inhuman reaction rate needs to go.

Interceptions

Most of the time, changes of possession in real football are due not because of tackling (very few tackles are made in a football match), but because of players losing the ball through error, and interceptions. FIFA however is still very much a game where tackling comes first and interceptions are very hit and miss.

To me, what always seems strangest is which interceptions are made and which aren’t. So often, I’ll see my perfectly placed defender spindling on the spot or stupidly watching the ball go past him by inches. I believe this may be, to some extent, down to a change made in FIFA 11 to how players lock into the path of the ball. To make your player move towards the ball now, you must negotiate it with the analogue stick most of the time.

Particularly with auto-switching move assistance set to none, this becomes practically random, with the position of your analogue stick as the ball is played creating a luck lottery in regards to whether your player will lock in or not.

This belief is bolstered by the differing success rates of two different ways that you can try to intercept passes. One of them works almost every time, and that’s running through a line of pass you suspect your opponent will use. This works because as the ball is played you will necessarily be moving towards it, and your player will simply run onto the ball as if it was passed to him.

However, if you try to place yourself on that line, it will very often miss you by inches without your player even trying to get to it, and that’s because at no point do you lock into the balls trajectory. To block a pass in this manner usually requires the ball to hit you, because your player won’t try to get it himself.

There is simply no good reason at all that players shouldn’t automatically move towards a ball they can clearly get to. There is simply no good reason why we should have to do something which is second nature to any real football player. Not only that, but we’re not in a suitable position to react, as soon as we are switched to a player to move towards the ball. Sometimes we are, by luck, but when we aren’t we get royally screwed by this bizarre mechanic.

This, I believe, is not only behind the lacking interceptions, but also quite a lot of other problems scattered throughout the game. The crucial thing is that players really need to at least try to get to passes which they are really close to. Doesn’t matter if they miss every now and there, it would be so much better to know that they just tried to get there, rather than right now where it seems they really don’t care even if the ball is going through their legs.

End of part 1

Unfortunately, as so often happens, this is getting far too long to fit into one article. In the next part, I’ll be covering the rest of the major issues as I see them affecting the defensive balance, including: reaction  speeds, artificial intelligence, shielding, stamina, first touch, as well as some ideas about new defensive controls. Until then, as always, make sure to comment with any strong feelings, whether you agree or disagree, and comment about any ideas you have as to where the defensive balance is going wrong or right.

Join the discussion
  • Eric

    @Kop shirt pulling could be done by repeatedly tapping b from behind. It slows the attacker down(but only in h2h and world class or lower difficulties), and might result in a foul.

  • Teabag

    Great article. Pressure becomes a problem as you move up the H2H leaderboard as everyone plays that way, most games end up low scoring especially on manual.

    Players change direction and the acceleration speeds are to quick and I’m sick of making tackles which ricochet back into the strikers path. Also, someone commented on slide tackles were the striker gets up before the defender even if the defender has sent the striker flying. I don’t think the slide tackle has enough distance to them either.

    Contain is pointless, EA need to work on improving the jockey system.

  • goalski

    Another great article thanks Xaor. I can’t wait for the next one as the player reactions drive me nuts! I could be very wrong with this but I get the feeling that EA consistently create programming that they know is incorrect to counter the issues that arise that they have no answer for. For example, EA seem to have a great deal of trouble accurately recreating defensive AI in regards to positioning, marking, working as a unit and tactically, so they do several things to counter this. 1) An attacker will begin a good run, but the instant that you begin to press the pass button the computer will stop the run dead which creates an incomplete pass. 2) An attacker will make a run with a consistent angle/speed, but the instant you begin to press the pass button the computer will give the attacker a ‘speed boost’ and change his direction sending him offside, again creating a turnover. 3) EA have given the defenders unrealistically fast reaction speeds to counter their poor positioning to create turnovers. 4) EA make players such as Gareth Barry (while hogtied), able to catch Aaron Lennon (in a Bugatti Veyron , and with a 20m head start), to yet again make up for the abysmal positioning.
    I know this is a little off topic, but I also feel that rather than weighing things up the computer decides very early on what is going to happen and ‘manufactures’ that result to suit. A good example of this is when I have played 60 mins of a game, created chances (but not scored) and have generally been in control (until I score a goal). Within 5 mins of scoring the opposition (regardless of ability, stars etc), will complete 30 passes in a row that I can’t get near, will dodge my every tackle with ease, will get the ball back from any tackles I do complete on the rebound, will wander down the park while the AI obligingly moves my defenders out of the way, and will then send a volley top corner from 25 yards. I also scored a goal the other day when the defender that was sprinting across to tackle me slowed down, changed direction away from me and then just stood and watched. What the??? This kind of thing seems to happen in FIFA 12 more than any other sports game I have ever played. When the computer does score a goal I would like to know at what point did it know it was going to score? In real life we never know we just hope, and the computer should be the same.

  • mfmaxpower

    Oh, and not a fan of the word choice “locomotion” – sounds like you’re talking about trains!

  • Toby Ross

    @mfmaxpower: It rings much the same bell in me too, but, it was on the suggestion of Aaron that I use it. Locomotion is the name EA use internally for a wide range of issues including acceleration, deceleration, jog speed, and momentum. Aaron posted this in the GC forum in the gameplay priorities thread. I have to admit, it’s not my favourite name!

  • Glen

    I think in terms of balance interceptions are lacking because of how efficient contain works. If interceptions where more common then there would be no reason not to play the silly formations and pressure tactics.

    With regards to shirt pulling, I use it sometimes and it is very effective in areas like stopping a cross. If you using it sparingly and time it well you can use it as a way to get alongside a player and subsequently make the tackle.

  • scoorey

    I don’t think realism is the end goal when it comes to pressure. Remember it’s not a 90 minute game of football, it is usually 5 minute halves and defending with patience like a real team is never going to be good enough to get enough possession for the game to be fun. Already with the defending as is, it is impossible to get the ball off your opponent if they wish to keep it.

  • Rhubarb rumble

    @Glen

    I quite like the push/pull feature and think it is effective if timed right especially against quick wingers. Although I’ve occasionally been over zealous with it resulting in yellow cards. I think it represents part of the game quite well.

  • kgx2thez

    Spot on as usual Xaor.

    The ability of the CPU to react faster to a 50/50 ball drives me mad. I can make one of my 3 perfectly timed tackles in a match and the CPU, who I just dispossessed will react while my defender will be stuck in mud.

    While I prefer the contain style to the mad pressure that was previous FIFA iterations I feel like players are too stuck in their positional areas. The imbalance between marking space and a man is too heavily favored towards space. Often, while controlling a CDM, I will notice my backline in a pefectly vertical line, no one even attempting to stray from their positions. What ensues is attackers who far too easily get the ball at their feet on the edge of the box.

    I know you probably have Part 2 already written. Hopefully it will touch on the lack of differentiating styles employed by the CPU. Seems like every CPU team will try to pass the ball into the net and on higher difficulties the CPU attackers will pirouette around the box with Iniesta & Xavi like control.

    As always, keep up the good work.

  • Toby Ross

    @Scoorey: I’m not sure that really follows. Any reduction in the frenetic pressuring would easily be countered by reductions in passing accuracy, improvements to interception likelihoods, better AI positioning and so on. Overall I’m pretty sure the balance would be kept absolutely fine, though the general pace of the game would slow a little bit (surely not a bad thing).

    You’re right that it’s incredibly hard to get the ball off the opponent if they just play it around the back… I always find the difficulty there is being able to pressure them effectively as a team because generally you can only work with two strikers, and I don’t think you’d get the ball back in real life that easily in those circumstances. You would use far more of your team to try to win the ball back in that situation. So, I see that as an AI issue which can be solved separately really.

  • David

    Great article. These points that you brought up are so true. I believe turning, acceleration, deceleration, momentum etc. are way too inconsistent in fifa. This also happens in attack as any fast striker out forward in the box can zig zag all day with much ease. I mean.no momentum, weight, balance seems to be taken into consideration and this is something I expected with the new impact engine buy out left me wanting. Also don’t get me started on the cpu when they are behind by one goal in the last ten minutes of the match, here any concept of realism and simulation is thrown out of the equation as you’ll see cpu defenders running full speed one way only to abruptly stop and all the sudden miraculously stick a leg in for a successful tackle. Forget about fatigue, when the cpu need to score every player on their team plays like its the first minute into the match. Anyways, totally agree with you. Can’t wait got FIFA 13.

  • markov

    @David

    The reason the AI becomes incredibly powerful when a goal down and 10 mins left in a match isn’t down to scripting, it’s because it changes its tactics to ultra attack.

  • walker

    I’ve come to understand why Fifa becomes so boring after a while even though graphically it looks amazing.

    All the movement and player runs are identical, for example when I’m on attack if I move a player into exactly the same position as a previous move, all my AI and the opponent cpu AI will make exactly the same movements as the previous move. There is no randamness regarding AI movement on either mine or the cpu’s side. This makes the game repetitive and why the game becomes boring.

  • Dan

    Ok this nothing to do with defending but I always get situations where I’m attacking in the oppositon half an have at least 2 passing options and if 1 of my players is in an offside position my pass always goes to him even if I pass in a different direction with the players in a certain distance of each other. I hate this

  • jon

    You should’ve talked about the amazing ability for a defender to block a shot. More often than not shots are wide, not blocked.

  • Toby Ross

    @Jon: I think that’s really a reaction rate issue more than anything.

  • Konsta K.

    Terrific article.

  • Chris

    Excellent article by Xaor. Sometimes i wonder why the FIFA community dont realise the blatant lack of inertia/ momentum which ruins the experience after a few month, It is totally unrealistic, Implement the Player Locomotion instead of including so called new features every year which only helps to increase the meta critic ratings

  • Chris

    It is clear that Lack of Player Locomotion is the root of all the Problems in FIFA. In fact i’m afraid that the reason it has never been in FIFA is because their game engine was not designed to accommodate it in the first place. If this is the case, then it will be disappointing because Konami achieved it even on inferior PS2 hardware. I expect EA to go even further

  • Toby Ross

    Excepting one thing Chris, which is that FIFA 08 had pretty good locomotion physics, if not technically the best we’ve seen.