Sometime ago back in 2012, there was a story running around about a guy who landed a top football management job based on his skills in the Football Manager game. You can read about that story here. That’s a pretty damn good effort on his part and probably every fan’s dream even if its only the Azerbaijan league. There’s also another story about how the Everton football club used to scour the Football Manager database for hidden gems and unknown wonderkids as the reputation of the player database was that good. As you can see, the wider football manager community this ‘game’ quite seriously, and its following rivals any of the leading computer games on the market like Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Call of Duty. If you look at the steam sales stats on Steamspy, you’ll regularly see it being in the top 10 games sold and also top 10 currently playing. It’s kind of bizarre to think that a game that is fundamentally spreadsheet based could have such incredible appeal and success. But after playing the latest iteration, which is probably my sixth or seventh Football Manager title (I started with CM 97-98), its easy to see how this football management phenomenon shows no sign of stopping.
Make no mistake, if this is your very first Football Manager game, then you have a bit of catching up to do. This is about as daunting as you get, yet the sales show that people do get stuck into it, work it out and have a great time. There’s no tutorial here, you pick the club you want to manage, out of thousands around the best leagues in the world, and its straight down to business. First you need to scour through your team, assessing your player’s abilities and picking a formation to suit. You are totally free to either choose a formation and put your best possible players in each of the positions, or pick your best players and adjusting the formation to suit. If you find you have gaps in your squad, you can go scout for players from other clubs where the game’s database has literally hundreds of thousands of players from all over the world. Compensate the parent club by making a transfer offer and if its accepted, you can then make an offer to the player to join your club. The best players will always want to join clubs with better reputations so don’t expect signing anyone from Real Madrid if you’re from Accrington Stanley.
You get a bunch of friendly matches to start and help you form your ideal strategies and tactics. There’s a full 3D match view and you can choose to watch the entire game, or just the highlights, or you can switch that off entirely and just go for the text like old style championship manager or just have the result displayed without showing the game at all. Rinse and repeat for the duration of the season. You’re probably thinking that it doesn’t sound too complicated, but what astounded me was the level of depth and the limitless options available to the player through every single facet of the game.
Let’s take formations and player roles for example. Back in the early days of FM you had pretty fixed positions like Defender, Midfielder, Forwards and a few variations in between like Attacking Midfielder or Defensive Midfielder. Now in FM2015 (or maybe its been implemented earlier than this, I’m not sure as this is my first game since FM2010) for a Forward alone you have a wide range of roles you can choose from such as Complete Forward, Advanced Forward, False Nine, Deep Lying Forward, Defensive Forward and so on. For every one of those roles you can also choose whether to have the player defend, support, attack or on automatic. So after tinkering for a while, my preferred formation for Everton was a 4-3-1-2 narrow formation with a straight back four consisting of two full backs (left and right) and two central defenders both on automatic and letting the AI dictate if they need to attack or defend depending on the situation on the pitch. As I had some pretty good central midfielders I decided to play them all. I set two of the midfielders up as ball winning midfielders as they had high stats in tackling and positioning and one as a central midfielder as support to link up ball movement. I used an attacking midfielder as I often found that without one, it was hard to link up the play between central midfielders and forwards. The game will continually give hints through the use of assistant coaches in the game either to go long or play an attacking midfielder to better link up the the play. I found that with a central attacking midfielder, its far easier to retain possession and work the ball into the box than it is without. This also allows the forwards to push further up the pitch allowing more space for the attacking midfielder to operate. I also used one Advanced forward (Lukaku works wonders here as his strength is in running into goal) as I wanted to play as many through balls into the box as I could and one deep lying forward as support to get between the defensive and midfield lines. Of course its up to the player to decide on the formation that suits his team, and there are boundless opportunities to test, tinker and innovate. I’ve played 4-4-2s, 4-4-1-1, 3-4-3, 4-3-3 and a whole bunch of other formations to see what suited best and that’s before we even analyse what the opposition is playing and how to counter their set up. It’s all very deep but at the same time very rewarding especially when the goals start banging in.
After setting the formations, you can then tell your team the style of football you want them to play. Do you want them to play short, or long, retain possession or go direct? Do you want them to go in hard in the tackle or soft? Work it into the box or hit early crosses? Close down more or back off? With every option you pick, there are positives and negatives. For example if you play at a higher tempo closing down people will be more effective, but you’ll use more energy, and you’ll noticeably see your player’s fitness lower and he won’t be as effective later in the match. If you play short passing, do you actually have the players to do so, (high stats in player movement, passing and intelligence and flair are required) and is this a good strategy given the players the opposition is playing? All of this can be changed on the fly pretty easily in game giving the player a lot of control over the simulation.
If all this sounds rather daunting and let’s not beat around the bush, it is, then one simply needs to read up on more strategies through one of the many blogs around on the internet, and most of all experiment around to see what’s working and what doesn’t. Watch the 3D match to see how the team is leaking goals, or where the play breaks down, the path to success is for all to see, it just takes a little bit of time to understand football mechanics and philosophies. It helps if you watch football to start obviously. This is a game that’s had 20 years of iterations and its been continually built on every year with new features and new depth. I was shocked how much bigger the game had gotten from just 5 years ago. This game is older than Windows itself. But what’s undoubtedly true about this game, is that its fundamentals of role playing as a football manager is just rock solid and the week to week, match to match, moment to moment gameplay is addictive as it was the day it first came out.
If anything I’d say some of the current additions added to the game recently probably pad out the game a bit too much. I was over the media pre match and post match conferences rather quickly as they end being a ton of text to read and too often similar every week. While praising the opposition manager through the media can build rapport with them and later on make transfer dealings easier, its not a fundamental requirement in the game. Similarly there’s a ton of emails and stuff to read through every week, from scouts telling you to check out the players they found, to match results in other leagues, to other clubs you subscribe to for their news, to weekly, monthly, yearly awards, to injury updates and so on. A lot of these you can turn off and fine tune to your liking but the more news the better right? I mean you want to be the first to know about starlets and wonder kids from other leagues. Also without any sort of tutorial its pretty tough for the uninitiated so I’d like to see them build one for future versions. While the assistant coaches give valuable advice, for the newcomers its going to sound like gibberish for a while before putting the strategies together to make the whole thing to work.
So to summarise the premise is simple, manage a football club and put a winning team on the pitch. The depth is astounding built over 20 years of iteration to make the best and most accurate football management game ever. This game continually gets better and better over time with million of players world wide spending hundreds and thousands of hours crafting a team from a pure love of football, strategy and tactics. I’ve just completed my first season with Everton football club, and it took 35 hours to complete. I struggled into ninth position in the league, but managed to keep my job and the board happy enough by winning the FA Cup and (ha! achieved more than Bobby already) and reaching the quarter finals of the Europa League (called the Euro Cup in game). I was at despair halfway through the game as I didn’t win in 8 matches (5 losses in that run) then rebounded in superb fashion changing my formation to a 4-3-1-2 and reeling off an 11 match unbeaten run with (9 wins in that period). I jumped out of my chair when I won the FA Cup, and I was tearing my hair out in 13th position 20 points behind 6th place. It’s the closest you can get to the thrills of managing a football club and it does it rather well I say.
Score: 8.5 Zidanes out of 10