Like numerous football-geeks out there, I’m a big fan of Sega’s Football Manager video game. This football management game franchise started in 2005 and was preceded by similar text-based simulators. You might play Championship Manager instead, from Eidos, which is actually the game that FM diverged from. No matter which one you play, the concept is the same. It’s not FIFA or Pro Evolution, where you control your favourite players, FM is about building and managing a team, player transfers, training, development.
Boring you say? Not for some us. Let’s face it, when you’re in your 30s you’ve given up on the dream of becoming the next Maradona/Pelé/Zidane. Hell, you’ve even given up on becoming the next Titus Bramble. At this point, you’re thinking that you’ve watched enough football to be a better manager than Jose Mourinho, or at least Gary Megson.
This is, of course, just as delusional as thinking you can dribble around entire defences a lá Lionel Messi, but, well, you can dream, can’t you?
Thanks to the magic of video gaming, however, you can get a lot closer to being Alex Ferguson than you can to being Wayne Rooney, and without having to worry about interacting with actual human beings. Let’s face it, knowing what we know about the personality of your average professional football player, this can only be seen as positive.
Now, as with most games, there is a large group of gamers who basically play it to win, adopting whatever methods and tactics are more likely to get them the greatest achievements in the game. That is not what this post is about. This post is about people who, like me, instead play it as a way of testing their own concepts of how to tactically manage a real football team.
Many of us feel that not only could we manager a football team successfully, but also could do so with new and revolutionary tactics and strategies. You don’t just want to win, you want to change the face of the sport with the equivalent of “total football” for the new millenium, straight from your imagination.
But do we? Or do we just resort to the well-known 4-4-2 and constantly transfer players trying to get slight improvements at each position?
The fan as manager
Football fans, as a group, are a highly reactionary bunch. One bad game, or even on missed chance in a crucial moment, can cause the fanbase to immediately ostracise a player. Most football managers are experienced or intelligent enough to look beyond single instances and instead focus or a player’s larger body of work and how it ties in with a long-term strategy. It is after all, their job. And if they don’t do their job correctly, they are fired.
Of couse, you can be fired in FM. But really that’s no great concern, because you can always start another game. So we just use the game without too much fear and we bench a forward who doesn’t score as much as we want and we go out and buy a veteran 36-year-old to give us a slight positional improvement instead of simulating another season with a youth player and going through the trouble of improving him.
But instead of doing that, why not treating the game as real? Or as real as it can be, anyway. If you were really the manager of a football team, what would you do? Assume that your motivations are not only winning but also keeping your job, ensuring that the board and the players are relatively happy with you and most crucially, that you’re dealing with real people rather than bits and bytes.
What would you do then?
When I started doing that, I discovered a few things about myself.
The 10 habits of somewhat successful virtual football managers
1. I like players who can play multiple positions, but I really like to have cover at every position. A starter and a backup, 22 men in the squad, and a youth player at each position. My buying strategy is position driven, rather than talent driven and I am quite capable of skipping an up-and-coming talent if he plays in a position for which I already have cover.
This is bad. It’s not actually a good strategy because positional cover can and should be developed, especially when it comes to backups. Transfer strategy should be more focused on bringing in the best talent into the squad.
2. When I develop youth players, they must be trained in at least two positions. I like “complete” midfielders and defenders, who can play either in the centre of the pitch or to one of the sides. For example, central midfielders will also usually be training in left or right midfield, depending on their preferred foot.
3. I like four-man-backlines. Don’t take my fullbacks away! Not only do I use them for defence again wingers and wide midfielders, they are key to building attacks from the sides, alternating with midfielders. Fullback is one of the positions where I will always go out to spend some money to improve and I don’t like forcing central defenders into those positions.
4. Train for durability. When taking over a team, one of the first things I do is change the training settings to improve the overall team conditioning. One of the things I hate is having a player miss a start because he’s very tired. I’d rather manage squad changes based on performance than fitness and I dislike heavy squad rotation. Give me 11 starters and 5-6 dependable and multi-skilled subs who’ll mostly stay healthy and fit through the season and I’ll give you a top-tier squad. This, of course, is slightly in conflict with point number 1. I have essentially 22 players that I have acquired because they are capable of starting, but I’m only giving chances to 17 of them. Injuries are the only thing helping me achieve a sort of rotation and, hopefully, some measure of squad harmony.
5. I don’t like using a target man up-front. I prefer forwards who can create and finish and who will alternate position, becoming the passer on one play and the target the next. At the same time, I do prize finishing as a skill and I will train all my forwards to make sure the can shoot accurately, even above training for fitness. A forward who struggles to score is not much use to me. Emile Heskey, you have no place in my squad.
6. I prefer central midfielders who play deep and who can defend. When I use attacking midfielders, I prefer that they either play out on the wings or play well up-front near the forwards. My preferred central midfielders are not dribblers but rather players who are adept at defending and cutting off opposition passing lanes and generating passing lanes of their own in attack, linking up with the wide midfielders or with forwards dropping back via passes.
7. I would rather use zonal marking than man-marking. This is especially true for my central defenders. I want them both ready to deal with any threats coming into the box. It’s too easy to focus on a single player and lose track of his teammates. I prefer defenders with high awareness who always know where they are and where the oppoonent and know when to back off rather than go in to challenge for every ball. I’ll prefer a defender of lesser physical skills, such as speed or height, as long as they know how to be in the right place at the right time.
8. I don’t like to press until the last quarter of the pitch. My primary defensive philosophy is “Contain”. Take away passing lanes and targets and you control most opposition attacks. I don’t mind letting opposition attackers dribble a bit close to the penalty box as long as we’ve got his passing options covered. I know our defence is working well when the opposition tried a lot of long shots.
9. When one of our players is red-carded, my main focus is defence. If the player sent off was a defender, I will always immediately make a change to set up a four-man backline again and usually remove one of the forwards.
10. I am extremely risk-averse. I prefer winning 1-0 over 4-3, and I hate pushing too many men forward. If I can’t score with 5 or 6 payers in the attack, I prefer to hold possession until I generate a foul for a spot-kick or corner.
Changing my view of the game-world
This last one, when I recognised it as a tendency within me, was a bit of a disappointment. I wanted to be the tactical attacking genius, who manages teams that play beautiful football. Just a couple of days ago, I was praising River Plate manager Angel Cappa for not being the kind of manager that evidently I would be: controlled, result-oriented … boring.
In the past I’ve suggested that video games — and games in general — bring out the real personality in each of us. You can find out a lot about a person by the way he or she competes. And in that discussion, a game like this is a perfect example. And I can’t help but feel it says some terrible things about me. Words like “control-freak” and “dictatorial” and “manipulative” come to mind. Am I really those things? Or is that the impression that I get because I’m taking programmatic bits and treating them like human beings.
I don’t think I’m that kind of person. I believe I have a decent streak of liberal thinking within me (my wife’s comments about me being a control-freak notwithstanding, since they are mostly related to my need to be in immediate proximity of the TV remote). So perhaps I’m wrong about the social relevance of video games. Maybe the way you “game” in just that, a single facet of your personality and one that doesn’t extend to the rest of your thinking.
Food for thought. Now excuse me while I try to take Sportivo Italiano to the Argentine first division. What do you mean I can’t? I did it with All Boys years before they did it in real life!