To many, Football Manager is more than a game; it’s a passion. I’ve had complex conversations about tactics, the use of the trequartista and the benefits of a 3-5-2 formation with people I didn’t even know, all because of Sports Interactive’s seminal series. The latest game to roll off of the Football Manager production line is as packed with tactics, statistics and fine-tuned details as those before it, but with a few new additions, as well.
Football Manager 2016 seems to be designed to build upon the new systems introduced in the 2015 version of the series. Indeed, many of the things that fans of the series complained about have been tweaked and fixed. Sports Interactive have also made steps to include as many different versions of the main game as possible, as well as introduce features that many of its customers have called for.
The Football Manager series allows players to take over the helm at almost any football club in the world’s top divisions. From player recruitment to scouting to tactics, everything and anything can be at your control. The sheer amount of information presented to the player can be staggering – something that newcomers to the series may struggle with – butFootball Manager 2016 also offers a number of tooltips and tutorials to help players familiarise themselves with the interface. Admittedly, it’s tough to judge the game on these merits as a veteran of the series – the UI experienced a major shift in Football Manager 2014, which has given regulars time to adjust.
Other changes have occurred in the man management side of the game. Football Managerhas always aimed to make your players feel like human beings with wants, needs and feelings. Drop a veteran striker in favour of a fresh-faced youngster and he might knock on your (proverbial) office door to have a word with you about respect. In previous iterations of the series, however, these little tiffs with players could erupt into full mutinies from key players and staff, no matter what your style of management. This feature has seen some work and now it feels far more fluid. Players will stick up for mates and favoured personnel but couldn’t care less about some 17-year-old in the reserves who feels like he should be in the first team.
When Jose Mourinho dismissed West Ham’s defensive game as “19th century football” he could not have been more wrong. In the football games of the 19th century, defensive football was simply not played. Players dribbled until they lost the ball, passing was considered to be unmanly and distinctly underhanded.
Teams in the 19th Century were dominated by gentlemen amateurs, and the beautiful game was designed to be played, not to be watched. Teams in the 1870s lined up with six or seven forwards, before the (at the time) revolutionary pyramid formation – a 2-3-5.
It is this ground-breaking (to 19th century minds) formation that I will be using in an experiment to see how well that style of football might be used today. My tools? A copy of Sports Interactive’s Football Manager 2013, an eager West Ham side and big Samuel Allardici, the pseudo-Italian tactical tinkerer behind bringing (according to Mourinho) Victorian footy to the modern era.
As this is an experiment, rather than a full game, I will not be making any transfers, in or out. Unfortunately, due to the fact that my copy of Football Manager is a year behind (and despite it having a fan-created updated database), the exact team that faced Chelsea won’t be able to be recreated, but a majority of the players from that fateful night will be there.
Additionally, as Football Manager only allows 5 attacking players in the striker’s third of the pitch (the philestines), I will adopting the more “modern” 2-3-5 formation from the 1870s as opposed to the 1-1-8 or 1-2-7 formations seen before then.
Wrexham were the first team in Britain to successfully utilise the “Pyramid”, winning the Welsh Cup in 1877. According to Caxton’s Association Football (1960, 432) “for the first time in Wales and probably in Britain, a team played with three half backs and five forwards”.
The formation achieved defensive and offensive stability, with the two full backs covering the wide players of their opponent while the three half backs in the centre covered the opponents strikers. This is, of course, in an age where midfielders and defenders were less fluid, and therefore rarely joined attacks.
So how does West Ham’s new revolutionary tactic pan out?
The need for rigidity means that my new players will have to be told to keep their need for expressive football in check. This is about good attacking football, none of that defensive stuff. Andy Carroll has plenty of support up front, with two advanced forwards, each supported by a winger either side of him. That should help any link up play we need.
The ball will be played forwards as quickly as possible – to avoid any unnecessary tactics like passing or, heaven forbid, tiki taka.
The first few games
A friendly match against the West Ham reserves turns out better than I first expected. The two covering defenders coped surprisingly well when being overrun by 4-5 players at a time, conceding only one goal over 90 minutes. An interesting side-effect of the 5-man attack appears in the form of midfield domination.
Despite a number of them being told to focus on attack, the centre of the park seems to often have 8 of my 11 players squeezed together, rushing for the ball, not unlike most Sunday league matches. Passing is as direct as expected, mostly being distributed down the wings, which in turn lob the ball into the centre where often my 5 attackers are heavily outnumbering the opposition defence.
However, this is one match against sub-par opponents. What will happen when the 19th Century football tests itself against proper Premiership opposition?
The new season
After a series of intense, goal-heavy friendly matches, 19th century West Ham are ready for their first test of the season against a Sunderland team at the Boleyn Ground. With a straightening of his tie and a glance towards the dressing room clock, Samuel Allardici, tactical mastermind, prepares to send his players out to pit Victorian gusto against modern fluidity. The bell goes and Samuel, forgetting his Italian roots, lets rip with a cry of “f****ing have ‘em lads!”
The game is tense and for an agonising 20 minutes the play is shared in the middle half of the pitch. That is until Maiga and Carroll gang up on a hapless John O’Shea, who can’t decide which one he is supposed to mark and falls over in a tackle that is half confusion and all rubbish. Maiga passes through to Carroll who, with the ball bouncing awkwardly at knee height, throws himself like a leaping salmon towards it. He connects, nodding the ball past a flailing Keiren Westwood.
Only seven minutes later the score is doubled. Kevin Nolan lofts a tempting cross into the box to find the chest of big Andy once more. The former Liverpool plays turns on his heel and smashes a shot high into the net.
The dream start takes a bump in the 34th minute, as Giaccherini crosses from wide to an Adam Johnson in acres of space. James Tomkins comes hurtling towards the winger like a rhino in heat, but he has too much ground to cover. Johnson plays a return to the diminutive Italian who slots a shot into the corner. 2-1.
After half time more disaster as Sunderland score from a free kick conceded by a desperate Tomkins, dispossessed on the edge of the area by three Sunderland players.
The goals keep coming, though, as the five-man attack of West Ham piles pressure on Sunderland more traditional (and some would say boring) four man defence. A corner from the left hand side finds Maiga, who calmly tucks away the Hammer’s third.
Yet more confusion leads to a West Ham goal as the fearsome five overrun Sunderland’s defence again. This time Petric is set loose in the box. He makes no mistake in putting Big Sam’s Victorian team 4-2 up in the 72nd minute. Sunderland grab a late third but it’s too late, and West Ham claim their first victim in the season.
To be honest I was utterly surprised at how well the formation worked. Sunderland’s four man defence looked at times floundering, with the two centre backs have to try and mark four players at once on occasion. The three midfielders, though pretty much adding nothing to the forward play, helped out in defence admirably. A 4-2 result on the first day of the season? Hardly boring stuff, eh Mourinho?
There’s fifteen minutes before the game. The excitement of the crowd permeates through the fading colour of the away dugout walls. Sat all around me are seventeen pairs of eyes, looking at me with expectation. I turn, pointing to the door: “you don’t need to hear anything from me, you know what to do.” I cross to a young goalkeeper, about to make his first appearance. I’ve watched him grow as a footballer from his first game in the youth team almost three seasons ago. “You’ve got what it takes, there’s no pressure” I tell him. He seems to have relaxed. My star striker, signed from non-league, looks to have switched off so I point him out “keep it up; I expect a performance from you tonight!” The bell goes and the players leave the dressing room and take to the pitch. My words, customised using the game’s team talk option, ringing in their ears.
San Marino FC’s first league game in the Serie A is a resounding success, winning convincingly 3-0. I’ve never been more proud of pixelated football players.
This is your life in Football Manager (FM) series. You’re thrust into one of the most stressful, yet highly paid, jobs in world sport. The series that started as Championship Manager in 1992 has been running for 21 years and developer Sports Interactive has seen the game all the way from the bedroom (quite literally, founders Paul and Oliver Collyer designed the game in their Shropshire home) to the heights of having millions of fans worldwide. The series is renowned for its tactical accuracy and in depth knowledge of the football world, so much so that real football clubs use the game’s scouting system to find potential players.
I am asked by people, often who have seen me playing it, “Why do you even play this game, isn’t it just a glorified spreadsheet?”
You can see how people would look at Football Manager’s interface and make that assumption. The tactics screen, in many iterations of the game, has been comprised of sliders, drop-down lists and check boxes, often for every single player or position. After remembering what each facet of the game does, you do sometimes end up feeling like you’ve entered the Matrix. Each option does have a use, and even minor tweaks can affect how your players can play, which has lead to a vibrant online community springing up around the game, sharing tactics and formations that they have all used to gain glory. The game’s tactical depth is mocked by some, and every year clubs get letters from FM players offering to take the manager’s position thanks to their experience in the game. Everyone is an armchair tactician in the pub, in the stands and even on nights out you can hear people criticizing Arsene Wenger’s transfer policy. Football Manager gives those armchair strategists the chance to prove their worth. Indeed, stranger things have happened. Student Vugar Huseynzade was promoted to manager of FC Baku’s reserve team based on his success with the same club in Football Manager 2011.
Football Manager is known for its addictiveness. I had never considered playing the sim until 2010, preferring the more action-orientated FIFA series. Someone lent me the demo, and suddenly my evening had gone from 7PM to 4AM in what seemed like half an hour. Since that fateful day I have racked up a horrendous amount of hours on the series (2857 at time of writing). There are a number of reason that keep players coming back time and time again. One reddit user told me that “no other game gives me the same immersion or emotional response … to go from sublime joy of scoring a late minute winner to the absolute stomach wrenching feeling of watching your team concede in the final minutes.” The immersion is an important factor in the game. Every player has a personality, and they will let you know what they think of your tactics, team talks and general policy. You get to know each player quite intimately, so much so that you find yourself confusing their actions in the game with actions in the real world. More than a few times I have found myself disliking a player in real life only to realise I did so because they were rude to me on Football Manager. Being able to manage your favourite team gives players the chance to interact with football at a deeper level than standing in the terraces, interacting with all the stars you see from far away on a Saturday up close and personal in the game.
The series shows no sign of slowing down, with Football Manager 2014 having been announced a short time ago. It’s consistently been in the top five games played on Steam by player count, and there are gamers I know out there with game hours that put even mine to shame. The game turned me from journeyman football supporter with no real knowledge of the wider game into a tactical guru*. Football Manager stands head, shoulders, shin pads and studs above other sims in the genre, and looks to hold that place for a long time to come.
To quickly return to that San Marino side: Serie A champions 2016 and Champions League winners 2020. I Thought I’d just gloat about that while I had the chance.
*May not be true.
Thanks to reddit.com users “Swolo” and “Bill_and_Ben” for their input.