Football Manager can be a great game. It can be enormous fun when things are going well and you are banging in goals left, right and centre. And it can induce rage and frustration like almost no other game I’ve played.
Yet that is part of its charm, and possibly indeed part of football’s charm. The struggles and the frustration make the good times all the sweeter. If we ever have any.
This season has to rank as one of the most frustrating I can remember in nearly 30 years of playing football management games. From an incredibly strong position in early March, the team would fall apart and… well, read on to find out what happened.
The season up to March couldn’t have gone much better, if I’m honest. Right from the opening game away to Juventus, we were on the money – the Turin giants requiring two Dybala thunderbastards to rescue a point. Even two opening draws in our Europa League group wouldn’t dissuade us as, lessons learned, we’d stroll to top spot then perfectly executed knockout victories over Besiktas and Marseille.
Desperate for a trophy, I’d also put a lot of emphasis on playing strong sides in the Coppa Italia – paying off with victories over Salernitana and Atalanta preceding a two-legged masterclass against Milan.
And two cup campaigns didn’t detract from our league performances either. Following an incredibly tough set of February fixtures that would include the Coppa Italia semis, the Europa League knockouts against Marseille and league games against Roma, Inter, Lazio, Napoli and Milan we were sitting perfectly placed to see out the season in style.
A Coppa final and a Europa League quarter against Leipzig would straddle 10 remaining league games in which we’d play the teams ranked 20th, 18th, 12th, 11th, 10th, 8th, 16th, 19th, 17th and 15th. What could go wrong?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
That horrendous form would see us lose the Coppa final, go out the Europa League in the quarters and not only miss out on Champions League football but also finish behind Bologna – to whom we’d loaned our young striker and scorer of 16% of their goals.
And lolz at Cremonese. They didn’t even have the excuse of Shane Long up front.
So what happened? Well a few things, I guess. We had some horrendous luck – stuff like this:
With that goal effectively ending our hopes of beating RB Leipzig, the Coppa Italia final was our last chance of silverware and we were somewhat unlucky in the final, going toe-to-toe with Roma before finally succumbing to an 87th minute winner from former Samp striker Patrick Schick.
The league is where our real issues were. Neither particularly unlucky nor particularly competitive, we simply failed to repeat our form from earlier in the season against teams from the bottom half. Why?
I initially thought there was something lacking in our squad’s mental attributes – consistency, leadership, etc – but nothing obvious stood out from a review. Perhaps there was an element of the opposition playing better than their league position would suggest because they were fighting so hard to survive. Frosinone, Pescara, Sassuolo and Torino were all on relative upticks in form when we played them. But still, I’d have expected better.
If I’m honest, I think a lot of the fault lies with my tactical choices. Throughout the season I’d played a possession-hungry 4-3-3 with a flat 3 in centre mid and advanced wingers. I’d prioritised defensive stability, using a static holding double pivot without committing the wingbacks forward too much – and was largely successful as we averaged less than a goal a game conceded.
It did, however, stifle our attacking intent somewhat – which is fine against strong teams who will eventually get frustrated and look to press us, thereby leaving space in behind for our rapid front players. But against weaker teams who are looking to nick a result and quite happy with a draw, not so much. Indeed, the opposite would occur and I would get frustrated, push on late in the game and get hit on the counter.
Looking at the results themselves it was clear that goal scoring was the issue – there were only really two games where the defence completely failed: against rivals Torino and away to Pescara. In both games, we conceded late goals as we pushed on to get back into the game. The blame lay at the opposite end where our attacking prowess was limper than my jokes.
A detailed look through the stats on my “effectiveness view” would back this up. Our key passes per game are relatively low with regular starting midfielders Bahia, Barella, Linetty and Praet all well below one key pass per game. Meanwhile, our shots per game were also relatively low with no-one averaging more than 3 per 90 minutes.
As an aside, Erkan Eyibil – who missed a quarter of the season with various non-repetitive injuries – was a partiucularly bad omen, winning just 25% of the games in which he appeared.
So, long story short, it was my fault. I didn’t re-adjust to the weaker opposition and simply continued with what had been a successful approach against much stronger sides. This year, we’re looking to rectify that with an option to move to an attacking 4-2-3-1 that plays a bit more direct and looks to encourage more risky passing rather than ball retention.
It doesn’t look all that different to the 4-3-3 above but small changes can have a big impact – pushing the wingbacks forward and focusing more on utilising the wide areas should be very effective against poorer sides who look to sit deep and narrow. It will result in a lot less possession that the 4-3-3 but hopefully see results improve.
To help, there’s also been some significant strengthening of the first team squad – not least bringing wonderkid striker Cosimo Marca Da Graca back from his successful loan spell to do stuff like this:
We also brought in the man who assisted that goal – someone of whom I heard a lot in previous versions of FM but never signed myself – Gabriel Barbosa, or Gabigol. I felt like I needed a more direct goal threat from the right to match the promise of Jamie Yayi Mpie from the left and, thus far, the free signing from Inter has been producing the goods.
Sadly though, we’re not yet a club who is able to hold onto our star players and it’s quite likely that, in time, the likes of Da Graca, Yayi Mpie, Gabigol et al will earn themselves moves to bigger sides.
We lost Emil Aduero (£17m+ to Man City), Jakub Jankto (£34m+ to Arsenal) and Dario Maresic (£22m+ to Juve) last year and this term we’ve been forced into selling Karol Linetty (£32.5m+ to Spartak Moscow). If we’d done what we should have and qualified for the Champions League then we’d likely have more chance of retaining the services of such key players but, honestly, I don’t know how much it would change my overall approach.
Take the example of Nicolò Barella, currently our best player and subject of prolonged interest from the likes of Arsenal, Man City and Liverpool.
He is, quite clearly, a phenomenal midfielder but I took a long time to confirm his £30m signature from Cagliari because the fee, to me, seems astronomical. Now, 18 months later, he is refusing to sign a new contract for less than £160kpw so will likely leave as soon as a big club stumps up his £71m minimum fee release clause.
I simply cannot get used to these inflated figures as ‘normal’. The teams I usually play as in Football Manager would not be giants of the big leagues and so it’s been a long time since I had what would be considered a top budget. And even if I could afford it, I’m not convinced I’d ever sanction a £160kpw basic wage and will, for the immediate foreseeable future, stick with a more moderate approach.
So, as well as Gabigol, this summer we’ve brought in the likes of Gennaro Ruggiero, Raoul Bellanova and Sandro Tonali as we look to futureproof the squad against the predations of the giant clubs.
No doubt in time, if we’re successful, I’ll be forced into paying the big bucks, if not in transfer fees then certainly in wages, but for now I’m much more comfortable with attempting to punch above our weight. Our board and the media still fancy us as an upper mid-table side who should be challenging for the Europa League slots. After last year’s debacle, I’m looking for much more than that.
Champions League qualification is an absolute must.