Even now, it’s hard to speak about it without feeling a surge of shame. I have played every version of the Football Manager franchise, all the way back to the one with the angry man on the box. I have written extensively about the game. I built a Norwich side on Football Manager 2007 that rocked the world. But I was shit at Football Manager 2015 and, up until recently, I was shit at Football Manager 2016 too.
I tried to play with big teams and it went horribly wrong. I didn’t even make it to Christmas as Arsenal manager. I tried to play it with small teams and the patience that my chairmen had with my hapless struggles made my failures feel even worse. Whoever I managed, however much I wanted it, I couldn’t string two wins together.
This Christmas, we ran a page of advice from the excellent George Osborn (not that one) and it seemed to go down well. But in the two months since, we’ve noticed that many of you are still struggling. So I thought that perhaps some more advice might be in order. I’m still nowhere near the levels I achieved in the past, but I do know what I’m doing wrong now. And I know how to start getting better. That’s a start.
In the old days, you could whack a CD into your tower, fire up a new game of CM01/02 and be into the first international week within an hour. You couldn’t quite do a season in a night, not unless you had a very understanding employer/school teacher, but half a season was a realistic target for a three or four hour session. This rose-tinted memory is the primary reason why so many people struggle with the new game. You cannot just slap down a starting line-up, tap continue, stop occasionally to upgrade players, and wait for the trophies to roll in. It just doesn’t work like that.
George wrote about the benefits of having a strategy from the start, and he’s right. But you don’t just need a strategy for your team. You need a strategy for you too. Pace yourself.
Don’t feel that you need to complete pre-season in a session. If you put pressure on yourself like that, you’ll rush through it, you’ll make mistakes and you won’t get any benefit from the experience. Take your time. Spend an hour familiarising yourself with your team without pressing continue. Use the CTR+K command to make little notes on the players. Set up training routines and, again, remember George’s advice to think holistically. If you’re going to play free-flowing, attacking football, work on the technical abilities of your players. If you’re using tactics with which your players are worryingly unfamiliar, increase match training time and focus on your formations.
When you’re up and running, you can move through the season at a pleasingly steady rate of knots, completing three or four fixtures in an hour. But at the start, when you’ve got that crucial period of time to lay down foundations, don’t rush yourself.
The same goes for individual matches. If Pep Guardiola could pause a game at any point, don’t you think he’d do it? He’d be pausing and adjusting every two minutes. You have that power, so use it. When you lose possession, freeze the game. Look at your team. Where are the gaps? If you’ve got two central midfielders, an advanced playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder perhaps, there’s every chance that they could both be in front of the ball. The computer has a free run at your defence. What about when you’re attacking? Hit pause when the winger beats his man and look up the pitch. Have you got enough options pushing towards the box?
And finally, beware of watching key highlights only. Key highlights will be limited to goalscoring opportunities, but these, by definition, can often be moments when your defence has failed in some way. It’s a common problem for managers to be convinced that their defence is dreadful, when actually it’s dealing with the majority of threats so well that it’s not even generating highlights.
When you speak to other struggling managers (we have a support group), you’ll often hear the same complaint. “I’m using the same tactics I’ve used for years,” they say, “but it doesn’t work. I just can’t find any consistency.” And we hold our troubled friends in our arms, we wipe away their tears and we tell them what happened.
You see, the AI that controls the computer managers has been souped up beyond recognition in the last couple of years. Football Manager has, for want of a better way of putting it, become self-aware. It is watching you. And it is learning how you think.
If you play, for example, an attacking 4-2-3-1 (one of my favoured ploys in years gone by), it won’t be long before the computer finds you out. You’ve got four players in attacking roles. Some of them might be in roles that free them of defensive responsibility, some of the players might have low work rates or low teamwork attributes. You’ll be two teams in the same shirts, four attackers and six increasingly frustrated defenders. You’ll find that the computer will outgun you in the middle, using three men to your two. Or it will overload your fullbacks. Or it will play counter-attacking football, using raw pace to exploit those whopping great gaps you’ve left.
Every match is an individual battle now. There is no magic tactic. And if you use the same plan for too long, the better AI managers will assess it and exploit it. Think Brendan Rodgers with that back three. It was brilliant for weeks and weeks and weeks and then Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa ripped Liverpool a new bumhole at Wembley. There are some simple tactics that work well as a base, like a 4-5-1 where everyone is in a supporting role and the only instruction is to retain possession. But you’ll still want to tweak things every game, to take advantage of things like pisspoor fullbacks, tired midfielders or overly aggressive defenders who might be lured into fouling your speedy forward if you instruct him to run with the ball more.
No less an authority than Jonathan Wilson stepped in to help my team last month, telling me to play two left wingers for five minutes against a weaker opponent, clicking the ‘exploit the left flank’ button at the same time. It worked too. That’s why he writes all those books. Another AI opponent, punishing me with their attacking wingbacks, was dismantled when I switched to a direct, ‘twat it onto the flanks’ game and got behind them. That was my idea. Invert that.
The door swings both ways. You have to be fresh and aware for every game to ensure that you’re not outwitted, but equally, every match offers the chance to surprise and vanquish the opposition.
Go easy on yourself. You can’t win every match. You won’t win every match. This game got more realistic and it got hard. I can’t stress this enough, but the period when you could start a game and glibly say, “I’m going to make Runcorn the best team in the world,” has passed. It’s still possible, doubtless someone’s done it, but it’s very, very hard. People who can make Runcorn the best team in the world are like those weird kids on Blue Peter who could do a Rubik’s Cube in 15 seconds. Be impressed, but don’t feel that you have to match them.
You need to be patient and you need to recognise that, just like the real thing, life can change very quickly. I spoke to a Premier League manager recently and he was discussing momentum. He said that you don’t know what it is, but you know it when you’ve got it. And you don’t always know why you lost it, but you know when it’s gone. Sometimes all it takes is one fortunate win and the tide turns. So don’t slam the lid down on the laptop and storm out of the room when you lose. Also, don’t kick the laptop off the side of the sofa. Trust me on that one.
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