First up I would like to apologise for the utterly heinous title to this piece. It appears our editorial policy has veered into the wall of the pun and I’ve had to fall in line, which is why you’ve recently read titles such as “Basque to Basics” and “Basque to the Big Time”. It’s been wall-ful.
What wasn’t so wall-ful, however, was our fourth season in National. Long-suffering readers of this column will be fully aware of my ineptitude when it comes to Fooball Management and of our on-off love affair with relegation.
This season, however, we mainly stayed away from the league’s bottom and focussed our activities on its lovely mid-section. How did we improve from the potentially catastrophic to the merely mediocre?
Read on to find out.
Midway through 2015-16 season I had been forced to face the fact that our midfield was woefully off the pace. According to the comparisons page we were sixteenth for passing and creativity, eighteenth for stamina and teamwork and fifteenth for technique – all out of eighteen. By signing Florian David and Cheikh Bangre I had redressed the issue somewhat, but ran into a bit of luck when former Marseille stalwart Benoit Cheyrou decided that he would happily live in the Pyrenees.
Cheyrou not only scores highly in almost all of these problem areas (his technique is only ten) but he also gave us leadership – something we desperately lacked.
We tipped the wrong end of the comparisons chart on that skill, and while few of us ever sign a player purely on the fact they can lead, we were urgently short in that area. Prior to Cheyrou’s arrival, Jermore Hergault had captained the side, with a measly 11 for his leadership. To put that in context – the average player in the top scoring side in the league in this area had 11.17.
Cheyrou would give us a lot more than just long range passing and the ability to switch our attacks from one side to the other.
After ten games we sat a very promising sixth, partly down to some good form and partly down to some more good luck. We destroyed RAF 4-0 at our place in a particularly eye-catching result, but in truth it was mainly down to their profligacy that we won so comfortably.
We lost the return fixture 2-1 – and it could have been many more – and I decided finally, finally, to ditch my 4-3-3.
In my first post on this game I explained the supposed machinations of the tactic and while there are obvious problems with it, some of the restrictions on FM14 (such as not being able to tell my advanced forwards to close down opposition full-backs) held it back.
Still, we’re not playing real football on FM, we’re playing a computer game and I could either shelve what I think could be an excellent strategy or carry on in National until my luck finally runs out and I end up in CFA-A,B,C or D.
I chose the coward’s way out.
Perhaps I should have stuck to my principles until the match engine was patched up enough to accepted my unquestionable genius but it was becoming less and less fun watching us hang on in there.
So what did I do?
It’s been documented on Twitter recently that I’m a Liverpool fan. And as all Liverpool fans of a certain age (too old to remember the league wins properly, but old enough to remember this team) I’ve held a certain affection for Roy Evans’s Spice Boys.
Sure, they were arrogant, inconsistent and got nowhere near reaching their full potential, but they were very fun to watch. I decided I would recreate one of the more simple tactics of the mid-nineties, so while Ajax were going through their own unbeaten season and almost retaining the Champions League I’ve tried to emulate a team that beat Bolton in the final of the League Cup and lost to Man Utd in the FA Cup final.
I will draw the line at white suits, however.
The plan is actually pretty simple. I have two centre backs that harass and attack any opposing striker who tries to control the ball in our half, knowing that any missed interceptions or challenges will be covered by the third man at the back. He’s not a sweeper, but his instructions aren’t as aggressive as the other two and he is allowed to put his foot on the ball if needs be.
On either side I have a marauding wing back. Told to get further forward they actually scored a few for me towards the tail end of the season. A possible development would be to get them to try to penetrate the box inside the opposition fullback, rather than outside as they do currently, but for that I would need players with much better finishing, decisions and composure.
The two in midfield are a deep-lying playmaker set to defend but with more direct passes (Cheyrou) and a runner, again told to get further forward but to cut out the long passes and shots as I don’t have the National’s version of Steven Gerrard for this role, I have Michael Thomas.
Beyond them roams an AM. Encouraged to play more direct passes, Florian David topped the league’s assist charts, setting up his teammates ten times in the second half of the season and notching four goals himself. Although a long way from Steve McManaman mark two he’s been the main player to benefit from the change.
Up front I’ve had to alternate between playing two advanced forwards and one AF and one player dropping deep, depending on the available personnel. My preference is for the latter as it should drag a defender out of position and create space for David and my BBM to move into but so far they’ve worked equally well.
One forward did himself particularly proud this year – the much maligned Amadou Soukouna. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a striker hit a goalkeeper so regularly in a one-on-one situation but his pace, along with the PPMs I added of moving into channels and beating the offside trap meant he got to do this many times. Sixteen league goals – and nine assists – mean that he’ll be a big miss in 2017-18.
Because he moved on a free for more than three times the money to a team just promoted into our league. Dick.
Yet, another player could have stolen Soukouna’s limelight had he not been quite so thoroughly cockish himself. I moved winger Zaven Bulut into one of the AM roles as he has excellent attributes for pace and dribbling, and after five starts he had scored four goals. So far so good? Of course not. Apparently he was mightily peeved at being played out of position and consequently had a right old moan to the press about the stupidity of playing him up front when he apparently couldn’t do a job there. Idiot.
Bulut just hung onto his £400 a week contract by virtue of the fact he can also play right wing-back, but for someone who could have been one of my team’s star players he’s likely to be cover next season.
One of the main advantages of the 5-3-2 approach was that we now average about 10% more possession each match. While we have scored 2.1 goals a game since the switch we conceded just over 1.5 in each match, compared to 1.3 for and against before. There were some horrendous individual errors which account for the defensive weakening (including four own goals, without which the average would be 1.25) and I’m confident we’ll improve on this in the coming season.
We eventually cruised to eighth and forty-nine points, nearer to promotion than relegation and I currently hold a job security of 68% – a far cry from the emergency board meetings of two seasons ago.
Talking of the board, they decided to cast their magic once again, building a new stadium at a cost of £8.75m and doubling the capacity to just shy of 10,000. It seems rather an exorbitant outlay when all would like them to do is relay the pitch, but with the tax payer contributing £3.95m of this in the shape of a council grant it’s not all bad news. Unless you’re a tax payer, in which case it’s probably time for a riot.
The rest of the money is coming out of my wage budget for the next twenty years at approximately £5k a week, but given I’m unbelievably parsimonious such frugalities don’t really pose a problem.
And so to next season. One of the most enjoyable aspects of FM is bringing through youth players. Previously I’ve been unable to do this due to the abject youth production at the club, however, we’ve slowly developed a few prospects, not least of which is Ahmed Boughanem, who shall forever after be known as “Flair 20”.
I gave Flair 20 a couple of run outs at the end of last season and the first thing he did was try to score from within his own half. He’s still short in several areas, but I do hope to be able to give the likes of him, Allan Roche and William Moreaux some game time next season.
And so for the first time in three seasons we’re looking forward rather than simply over our shoulders. I genuinely don’t know how quickly we can progress, but with a proper footballing tactic, some better players and the promise of a new season we have an outside chance of staying out of bottom four for the entire season.
To end I would like to look back at a man who has provided me with much frustration, joy and amusement over the last two season – Amadou Soukouna. Not for his goals, his misses or his strops, but for inspiring a headline so execrable that neither Shrew nor I would ever deign to use it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one, the only, the…