A blog by Nick Turner
The new season, brimming with possibilities. Watching the ‘setting up new database’ screen eager to meet my backroom team and introduce myself to my squad. Once the formalities with the chairman are over with, I attend a press conference to give the fans the chance to see me in action.
A few questions in and I am quizzed on how it feels to be the manager of a club so close to my heart. I respond passionately, gushing about how much of an honour it is and how I hope to build success over the course of coming years.
7 virtual months later, football manager me is kicking his heels at the job centre. Guiding my beloved side to rock bottom of the premier league, unbalancing the books and destabilising key backroom figures in the process. I leave behind a team lacking identity, void of tactical understanding and without any hope of survival.
I could feel the AI fans turning on me through social media outlets. I can imagine the computer generated me being shunned by fictional friends and family, as my tarnished reputation would leave me struggling to gain another managerial appointment.
But where did it all go wrong?
I have had success in the past, who could forget Colchester F.C winning back to back promotions as champions of L2 and L1, and coming within touching distance of the Premier League within four seasons. Or parachuting in for the last few weeks of the season to save Bologna from relegation, then turning them into Italian stallions at the top of Serie A. Not to mention the Valencia team that unsettled Barca and Madrid at the top of La Liga. So why couldn’t these achievements translate into success with Middlesbrough F.C?
First things first, to get my excuses in early, real life Middlesbrough finished the season in 19th position, with a meagre 27 goals to show for the full campaign, so relegation looks par for the course for this group of players. Also as this save was pre-January, in the real world an extra £15 million was made available to the manager during the winter transfer window to aid the survival battle. I had no such luxury.
However, after some analysis I have put this failure down to some crucial factors;
This is my favourite team, so I should know the players and what they are good at right? To some extent this is true, but my view of the team’s ability is obscured by fond memories and emotional ties.
Of course, Gaston Ramirez is good enough to build a team around, isn’t he? Remember that goal he scored against Bournemouth earlier this season? I was wrong.
So what if Olympic Marseille have offered £10 million for Christian Stuani, a player who doesn’t feature in my first team plans, he scored the goal to get us promoted last year and he could prove to be useful again. Wrong. I should have drove him to France myself.
Victor Valdes is a Spanish legend who arrived at Middlesbrough earlier this season attempting to rebuild his career after serious injury and a stay in Manchester that he will be eager to forget. I ignored my scouting and coaching team, who told me that at this point Valdes was only good enough to be a championship goalkeeper, they must be wrong, the man used to play for Barcelona!
I stripped injured Grant Leadbitter of the captaincy and promptly handed the armband to Valdes. His winner’s mentality would keep his performance levels at the very peak of his abilities and his leadership attributes would light the way for other players to follow suit. Wrong.
The players in the squad as a collective were not good enough, however as they are my heroes I couldn’t see this until it was too late. I hoped some tactical tweaks would bridge the difference between AI results and the real world, letting the ascension up the table begin.
My initial team meeting was not a success in that I believed we could make a genuine push for the top half, whilst my players felt that staying in the league would be a great achievement. I watched the morale go downhill as I blamed the squad for being unambitious. Even my new captain Valdes deserted me. I’d like to think Leadbitter was begging the lads to go with my vision, but he was probably to smug by this point.
Strong analysis of the playing squad is crucial to any success in FM. I had pre-determined before the game began what my starting line-up was. By not using the data available to me and going on gut instinct, I left myself open to failure.
I wanted free-flowing expansive football that entertained the fans. I wanted to dominate possession and score goals. I wanted to be tight at the back whilst giving my players the creative freedom to express themselves and do the unexpected. I forgot that whilst Boro were my heroes, they were not Barcelona.
Teams at the bottom of the premier league generally do not play to entertain, they play to survive. My outdated 4-2-3-1 Wide was ineffective. I slotted players into positions that they were not suited to in order to get them on the teamsheet. The tactics I began with were not suited to my players ability. For example, we were not good passers of the ball, this was highlighted in the very first team report I looked at. I ignored it and attempted to play tiki-taka football.
We played wide which left big gaps to be exploited. I took this risk as I felt we would create more chances this way, despite the club having a shortage of capable wingers. Time and time again more resolute teams easily dealt with our threat, biding their time and taking the opportunity to sore when it eventually came. To many close calls. To many 1-1 draws. To many 1-0 defeats.
By the time I started to change my tactics they were either half-baked ideas tested for 20 minutes or a contradiction of existing instructions that were still in place (Pass into space-Retain possession). This meant the players were unclear on what was expected of them, playing in a shape which did not suit them, in roles they were unfamiliar with.
This was the final killer blow. The budget was reasonably limited so making the right decisions on who to sign was critical. Below are some of the main signings.
- Deivid (BPD)
- Mark Little (FB)
- Javier Eraso (BBM)
- Kuki (W)
- Guido Burgstaller (RMD)
- Lewis Grabban (AF)
The main area we needed some real quality to play the system I wanted were the wings. We signed 18-year-old Kuki, but he wasn’t yet ready to influence the Premier League season. Guido Burgstaller was a good, versatile option and did fairly well but he wasn’t a major improvement on what we already had, and mainly ended up being pushed around the team to cover for injuries.
Grabban only featured for the under 23s. I bought him as a backup and to put some pressure on the first team. He was not good enough to displace Alvaro Negredo even on his worst day. I had bought him for well under £300,000 and I was still ripped off.
Mark Little is an attacking right back from Bristol City, he is cheap and easy to get hold of. I sign him nearly every save I have (aside from top teams) as he provides good cover and always plays well beyond his ability providing you play to his strengths. That being said, he is not the man to build a PL team around.
Javier Eraso was a slight improvement on what we already had in the centre of the park, as a box to box midfielder he chipped in with goals and was a consistent performer. However, we already had four players for this position before his arrival so this signing wasn’t necessary.
Deivid was a versatile option who could play as a ball playing CB or a ball winning defensive midfielder. He was about on par with what we already had, but his versatility came in useful and he did relatively well.
I did buy other players, who were then sent immediately back out on loan, and a lot of 18-19 youth prospects were brought in, with these players expected to be my ready-made first team in five years’ time. I barely made it past 5 months.
The keeper situation should also have been resolved. Boro have three keepers (Valdes, Guzan and Dimi) on the books in FM17 and two others out on loan, however none of them are really stand out Premier League players, and in a newly promoted team this became a big problem in the struggle to survive.
This was an average team. However, they had a deep squad with plenty of cover for positions, and maybe with 3 players of real quality coming in, would have stood a better chance against relegation. Had I sold Stuani for £10 million, combined with my transfer budget and any deadwood I could shift, this would represent a sizable kitty to reinvest in quality players. I also didn’t want to spend money on a fantastic playmaker for example, as this would displace one of my favourite players from the fold.
- I kept players who weren’t good enough in the line-up when they weren’t performing because I liked them in real life.
- I played a system that didn’t fit these players as I had an idealistic view of how I would like Middlesbrough to play.
- I created rifts in the team by stripping Leadbitter of the captaincy, then challenging the team to achieve beyond their means (this also had implications with the board).
- My transfers only sought to take up a large chunk of our budget without actually improving the squad, we had plenty of additions, but not which improved the team or really filled the positions we needed. This also left us no room to manoeuvre in January to make any improvements, and the board were not confident enough to back me by that point.
I have learned my lesson. There is no sentiment in football. You are judged on results not intentions. Your team is judged on how they play and not how you would like them to play.
The difference between managing a team in which you know nothing about and the one you love is that you are required to use the data FM provides to make your decisions, and you’re not affected by leaving out your favourite players when they don’t produce the goods. You can afford to be cut throat and make the calls you believe to be right. You are free to play how it is needed to win, even if it goes against your clubs’ values. For this reason, I don’t recommend playing as the club you support, no matter how tempting. From now on, I will secretly watch Boro’s progress from afar, in whichever league or country I wind up in. After all, we are the managers, not the fans.