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Xaor's Corner: Defensive Intelligence

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In keeping with the top priority theme, I’m switching focus to defensive AI, and arguing why FIFA 14 must not go without improvements to Defensive Intelligence.

See all previous articles here

I don’t think there is much point in debating which problem, out of Locomotion Physics and Defensive AI, is the bigger problem. Both are gamebreaking to FIFA from a balance point of view, and they, more than anything else, make FIFA frustrating to play.

Perhaps though, it is worth arguing why these two deserve more focus, by some distance, than everything else – and why it would be so damaging to FIFA if other things were focused on ahead of them, especially if it was a bells-and-whistles upgrade, like Tactical Freekicks.

Many people, including myself, consider a tactical upgrade/overhaul to FIFA to be a major priority. Changes which encompass not only FIFA’s tired, clunky and inaccessible team management interfaces, but also improvements to how strategic and tactical changes played out on the pitch would go a long way to improve FIFA’s authenticity. This would also go a long way to reinvigorating the variety of play on offer, particularly against the AI, and emphasise tactical nous alongside dexterity when considering FIFA from a competitive standpoint.

But, is it really possible to imagine a change like this being really successful without the defensive AI first being up to scratch? When FIFA’s AI is incapable of defending competently in any realistic style, regardless of formation or team tactics, it’s hard to imagine changes to Team Management making a huge amount of difference. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be overjoyed if team management upgrades were on the cards for FIFA 14, but without the more foundational, fundamental changes first, I’d expect much of the improvement would be lost amidst defensive implosion after defensive implosion.

When FIFA 13’s Attacking Intelligence improvements were announced, there were many who questioned how the defensive AI would stand up to it. EA allayed fears that defensive AI would be overrun by the more incisive and aggressive attack, and they weren’t wrong to do so: FIFA 13’s AI holds up more or less as well as FIFA 12’s did, and FIFA 11’s did. The problem is that FIFA’s defensive AI hasn’t been good enough for, at the very least, the entire generation.

Yet, FIFA 13 is no goalfest, even if chances come to readily, due to a myriad of issues which together, keep everything in ‘balance’. For the most part, that’s due to two things: motion physics, and reactions. Fast goalkeeper reactions lead to ludicrous shot stopping capabilities, and fast defensive ones make for too many unbelievable tackles and interceptions*. Most of all, borked movement physics allow pressure to be applied too easily, too constantly, and without serious penalty.

*Interceptions are vastly improved in FIFA 13, with far fewer cases of players spindling as balls pass them. However, their ability to react to quick, sudden passes is a little gutting at times, making intricate passing that bit more difficult. The previous issue was that all too often they wouldn’t attempt interceptions. Now that they pretty much always do, their success rate seems a bit too high

It can be no wonder, when you really focus on just how bad the defensive AI is. To make up for such unbelievably inadequate intelligence, there must be something else spectacularly wrong, and that’s what you see with the balance of FIFA’s defending right now. Like with movement physics, I have written about defensive AI before, but here I want to put a greater focus on it with its own article as it is, if not the #1 issue that FIFA 13 has, certainly the #2.

Marking

One of the most blatant problems with FIFA 13’s defending, is marking. In almost all cases, marking is simply too loose (something I can’t seem to remedy using the sliders), granting attacking players too much space even in danger areas.

A clear example of this is the marking on clearances. It’s so easy on FIFA 13, as it has been for a while, to pump clearances up the pitch and straight to the unmarked feet of your striker. The defenders just don’t seem to be aware of where the attacking players are in this situation, especially when you have a fast transition between attack and defence.

Ideally, defenders who are staying back should be positioning themselves ready for a change of possession, and making sure that no opposition attacker is able to find themselves high up the pitch with a ton of space. Instead, their positioning in this situation seems to be unrelated to the position of attackers.

Where in reality a clearance or punted long ball will be contested almost everytime, in FIFA the opposite is true. Clearances, which are by nature more about getting the ball out than distributing it to anywhere in particular, are far too often successful passes. Nothing in FIFA biases more to the counter attacking team than this. You may have worked very hard to pen your opponent back into his box, but as he can get the ball out reliably, your play is in vain.

A more extreme example can be seen when you head back your opponent’s goalkick to a striker. Almost without fail, your striker will be unmarked and often with a good chance at goal. The centerbacks don’t care about the potential threat while the ball is in the air, and they simply don’t have the time to make up for this later.

If playing with more than one human per team, like in Clubs, a further problem arises, where by positioning a player manually to the intersection  of the half-way line and the touchline, you can find yourself unmarked from every single time and with even more space. This all indicates defensive AI which doesn’t have nearly enough focus on marking, especially when their own team is in possession.

There is a second problem which contributes greatly to this, even though it’s not specifically an AI issue. The issue is that players do not automatically lock in and contest for a ball without some direction from the player. It can lead to a game which feels less ‘on rails’, but it leads to far too many cases where you cannot contest a pass, cross, or loose ball, because you are not locked into the path of it even if you are better placed than your opponent to get it.

Particularly when your player is off screen when you switch/are switched to him, it is totally unreasonable to expect that we can direct him. This doubles with the loose marking to ensure that not only are you too far from your opponent to make a difference in a lot of cases, but you will be delayed significantly before you can actually get your player to try and get to the ball.

Midfield

The mentality of the midfielders in FIFA is, once again, a big issue for FIFA’s defending as a whole. Though the midfield is now much better at involving itself in attacking play as of FIFA 13, the same does not go for its involvement in defence. In fact, now that is far further up the pitch far more often, one could argue that the defensive AI problems are somewhat exacerbated by FIFA 13’s attacking AI improvements.

The midfield just seems disinterested in defending. It is still far too common to see the midfield strolling around or jogging back as my opponent attacks goal. An example sticks in my mind where I was in a 4v4 between my defence and my opponent’s attack, but my midfield were not even trying to come back as my opponent crafted a serious goalscoring chance. Instead, they were happy to be on the right side of the rest of my opponent’s two central midfielders who were further up the pitch.

It’s as if they don’t really understand how threatening any situation where your opponent is near goal with even numbers or a numbers advantage is. It’s one thing, perhaps, for the midfield not to be pelting back if the defenders outnumber the attackers 4 to 2, but in a 4v4 situation the midfield really ought to be busting a gut to get back and help.

It’s almost as if they don’t really understand how threatening a situation like this is. It’s one thing, perhaps, for the midfield to not be pelting back if the defenders outnumber the attackers 4 to 2, but in 4v4 I expect to see my midfield busting a gut to get back and help. This also highlights how much of the midfield’s positioning is dictated by the attacking team’s. Because my opponent’s central midfield was staying deep, my central midfield stayed with them. It’s good to see they are aware of their opponents, but they need to be able to see when their opponents are a threat, and when they are not.

Another issue with the midfield’s defensive mentality is often seen when dealing with counter attacks. One of the things I’ve got very used to on FIFA is that my corners are as much of a threat to me as they are to my opponent. If I fail to use the corner, then I’m likely to be vulnerable to a major counter attack. Somehow, even though both my opponent’s midfield and mine will start in the penalty area in a situation like this, when the counter attack breaks out my midfield will all be on the wrong side of theirs. All too often, a counter attack like this will see four or five attackers breaking into half a pitch of space, and obviously building a dangerous attack.

Again, I think this comes down to a lack of ‘defensive AI’ when on the attack. Even when attacking, there has to be an appreciation of where the opposite team’s attackers are, so that when things do go wrong, there is a chance to deal with it.

Even when they do get back fast enough, they still don’t seem nearly active enough when defending. There’s far too much ball watching going on, and it leads to a feeling that you are defending on your own all the time. Ideally, we should be able to see the midfield making far more clear efforts to close down the ball and cut off, or mark passing options – right now I don’t think they seem to do any of these things. On occasion they might, by coincidence, happen to block a pass, but it never looks like they are doing it purposefully. More over, I never really feel that anyone other than the player I’m controlling is doing anything particularly worthwhile.

Defenders’ AI

What of the defenders themselves? For a long time, there has been a sense that what is really lacking in the defensive line is a unified approach to what they are doing. They are very much four (or three, or five) individuals acting alone, and while they should be individual, they don’t seem nearly aware enough of what their teammates are doing, making them highly prone to committing footballing suicide.

Too often, players will cover runs, or push up to press a player without thinking about the consequences to the other defenders, and without those other defenders reacting to the changing situation. How often do you see a fullback covering a winger’s run on his own, entirely breaking the defensive line and making it easy for attackers to get behind the defence in an onside position? These kind of mistakes can, on their own, lead to golden chances for your opponent. Similarly, how often does one of the two center backs push up to put pressure on a ball carrier, leaving an enormous gap behind him with no-one to fill it?

The defensive AI should, of course, make mistakes, but it shouldn’t regularly be making ones this basic. What this tends to lead to is two different options for how you can defend in FIFA. Either, you act like a plate-spinning Circus performer, trying to fix the problems the defensive AI is making as fast as they are being made, or, you try and deal with the attack before the defensive AI can make the difference.

Pressure tactics are so useful, in part, because it decreases your reliance on the AI doing it’s job properly. Formations which rely on a heavy defence (eg. 5 defenders and 2 CDMs) work well because it decreases your reliance on individual defenders playing intelligently. Trying to do something in between – relying on a thin (let’s say, four players, backed up by central midfielders) defence – is a frustrating exercise in futility, and it also means that you’re spending a lot of time doing things which are rudimentary, or frustrating yourself trying to do things which are nearly impossible, like playing a reasonably safe offside trap.

The defensive AI desperately needs better awareness of what is going on. They need to react more accurately to threats, and they need to cooperate with their defensive play. If one player covers, others will need to fall back also so that it doesn’t end up breaking the defensive line. If one player decides to push up to put pressure on the ball carrier, then the others need to close together to plug the gaps. Most of all, it would be good to see them playing offside traps themselves, especially while the manual offside trap trigger is so dangerous to use.

Arguably, they also need to do more to play with you. As opposed to the current situation where you’re trying to play with your deeply unpredictable (and frankly pretty stupid) teammates, surely it would be easier if they were taking your lead in the defensive line, so that if I push up to play someone offside, they should be able to notice and do the same. In attack, you feel like you are being supported – there is no reason why it shouldn’t be the same way in defence.

Team Controls

A thought keeps coming back to me with regards to defence: is the way defending works in FIFA (and all football games, for that matter), really the best way forward? In attack, the individual focus makes a lot of sense. The ballcarrier is always doing the most important stuff: dribbling, passing, crossing and shooting. In contrast, with defence, the responsibility at any one time is spread across the entire team more evenly. In particularly, it is the midfield’s negligent play which makes me yearn for greater control over my whole defence, rather than the individuals within it. The individual-centric system in FIFA right now seems like a stuck tradition, and more and more I question whether it may not be the best way forward.

At the very least, I am convinced that we need a more comprehensive set of teammate controls, which currently comprises Rush Goalkeeper and Teammate Contain, as well as the Quick Plays, Offside Trap and Team Pressing. Teammate Contain is obviously the most used right now, and it’s the only real way you can get your teammates to help out when defending. That strikes me as fairly limited: you can only ever do this with one player at once, and which player that is is not something you control, secondly, you can only contain: what about all the other things you might want a player to do?

You are only ever able to influence a small fraction of the way your team defends in FIFA. The gap, in theory, is made up by AI and tactics, but this is a very large burden for two areas which currently, are very weak. That burden could be hugely eased if we had controls which could allow us to make more of a difference ourselves, and, this would probably lead to defending feeling a little more involved than it is now.

This isn’t strictly about AI, so I won’t go any further in this article, but I really think there’s a debate to be had about the entire nature of defence within FIFA (and PES) being on the wrong tracks, and that a radical change (one which would make so called ‘Tactical’ Defending look thoroughly cautious) could be made. Simply put – who says defending should work like this? I will certainly follow this up with something more concrete at some point in the year.

Conclusion

It shouldn’t be hard to conclude that we really can’t have yet another year with defensive AI as poor as it is now. FIFA is so held back by it, that almost no matter what other changes are made, FIFA 14 would still be a similarly frustrating, imbalanced experience if improvements are not made to this specific area.

These improvements will have a big effect on FIFA’s overall balance. Add competent defensive AI to he ridiculous reaction speeds and poor movement physics and we’d likely be left with bore draw after bore draw – for me, changes to defensive AI are best paired with the changes to locomotion and reaction speeds that I’ve argued for previously. FIFA 14 may be the last FIFA before attention switches to the next-generation in a massive way. If this era of the FIFA franchise is to be ended right, then let’s have at least one where the defensive AI does as much to help you as it does hinder you.

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