In part 2 we broke through the anxiety ceiling to make the all important decision of which team to manage. Decision made, we move on to the tricky problem of how to play.
But before we get too far, there is one problem; I still don’t own the game. And having made a conscious decision to steer clear of the demo this year, I am entering the great unknown. I have no idea what my squad looks like in FM terms. I don’t know what the roles and duties are. I don’t know what the strategy and philosophy options are or even if they still exist as concepts.
Whilst this blank canvas gives me the opportunity to start from scratch, it makes writing a pre-emptive blog somewhat problematic. So, rather than attempt to go through my actual squad and tactics at this stage, I thought it would be interesting to document the internal trials and tribulations I experience even just thinking about tactical options.
Tactics used to be so easy of course. I’m English, so 442 was the default option. A couple of quick, skilful wingers, two workhorse centre mids and a poacher up front. Happy days. If I went rogue, I might stretch to a 433 or even (gasp!) a 352.
But that was pretty much it. No playmakers, no deep lying this or supporting that. Simple options for a simpler time. As the game has evolved, so have the options and whilst this has undoubtedly created a richer, more involving experience, for the anxious mind, this multitude of options can feel overwhelming.
In my 2014 save I scratched the itch that I had for a 442. After using it in the non-league I began to see the limitations, at least in the way I wanted to play. I organically moved toward a more specialised system, alternating roles and changing things up.
In recent years, my main tactical influence has been Rafa’s Liverpool team of 2008. Utilising a 4231 shape, it was the strongest spine of a team I can remember in recent Liverpool history. Reina in goal, Carra at the back, Mascherano and Alonso in the middle with Gerrard behind Torres upfront. What a side that was. And so my recent tactical exploits have centred around trying to replicate this, although I soon ran into trouble.
The goalie is a fairly simple position. He’s just a goalie, right? But then I’m playing a possession based game so maybe he should be a sweeper keeper. But then what distribution settings do I give him? And what if he gets caught too far upfield? And what if I sign a different goalie who can’t meet these requirements?
Let’s try the defence. A solid bank of four, a nice easy set up. But what’s this? Cover, stopper, defend, limited defenders, ball playing centre backs. Good grief. And fullbacks, should they be attacking, supporting, defending or all three? Should they be ordinary full backs or wing backs. Should they be symmetrical or asymmetrical and do I need to think about the role in front of and next to them? Boy, this is getting complicated.
Midfield then. Alonso always had to be playmaker and always Mascherano had to be ball winner, I told myself. A ball winner must surely be defensive which means Alonso must be on support. But then Alonso gets lost in the middle of the park and doesn’t play the deep lying role I intended so perhaps he needs to be defensive. But how can a playmaker make the play with a defensive mindset? And what do I do with his buddy, I can’t have two midfielders on defend, and surely a supporting ball winner makes no sense?
Okay, let’s move further forward. I like a good winger and the role behind the striker is straight forward, right? Right? Uh oh… So if I want attacking wingers, surely my attacking mid needs to be on support. But how can an ‘attacking mid’ have any role other than, you know, attacking? But they can’t all be on attack or I’ll leave a ruddy great hole in the middle of the park. And who will hang back and create? Maybe the AMC should be a playmaker then. But I already have a playmaker further back, I don’t want two of them. But it’s Gerrard, he has to be playmaker, creator and scorer all rolled into one.
And what about the striker? If the trio behind are on attack, he has to go on support. But who ever heard of a supporting striker? How will he score any goals? But if not him, who? Not Gerrard. And the wingers don’t create enough on support. Oh I’m so confused. I need to go and lie down for a while.
And this is when I had the actual team I was trying to replicate! Imagine the fun since of attempting to replicate Rafa’s tactic with different players, shoehorning Charlie Adam into the Alonso role or Andy Carroll as Torres. To the surprise of no one, I repeatedly failed.
The mental muddle continues as I explore other tactics. Watching real life football, I often put on my FM goggles; how does this shape translate; what would this role be; how do I replicate these instructions? On the whole it is healthy, thought provoking stuff, FM helping me to watch football at a deeper level.
But there is a more sinister side. I flit endlessly from one great solution to the next. After deciding very firmly that I’m a Rafa man, I set my heart on 4231. But then here comes Conte with 3 at the back and I have an urge to try and implement it, only I’m too scared. Then I think back to the successful sides of Ferguson-era Man Utd and pine for the glory days of 442. But then I think, ‘hey, if I was manager of Barcelona, how would Messi fit into a 442? In fact now that I come to think of it, how would he fit into my 4231? And what if I mentally piece together a dream 11, how would those players fit into my preferred system?’ So I chop and change, making mental leaps this way and that, backwards and forwards. And this is before I even think about what my philosophy, style and instructions will look like.
I am reminded of a scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data is attempting to explain a tactical scenario to Picard and goes through the various options, then options on top of options. He basically ends up in a scenario of, ‘if he knows we know he knows we know…’ to which Picard tells him he is over analyzing. And this is what I am doing. Of course a fantasy 11 wouldn’t fit into my system. That isn’t how (successful) tactics work. You can’t decide on a shape and tactics set and then simply drag and drop players into it. Each player has an effect on those around him and the key to successful management is to figure out the balance of roles and responsibilities that complements the players available. Andy Carroll is not Fernando Torres. Charlie Adam is not Xabi Alonso. And try as he might, as I will no doubt soon discover, Alberto Moreno is no Djimi Traore.
I think I know how I will line up when I unwrap the game on Christmas morning. Then again, I might change my mind once I look at the squad a bit closer. To be honest, I have no idea. But then isn’t that half the fun?
The big day is fast approaching and I can’t wait to get started. Which is kinda awkward because I don’t have much choice.
So join me in the next instalment just after Christmas as I take my first tentative steps back into the world of the greatest game on Earth.