Progressing into the Advanced category, things start to pick up. Much like the trusty through ball I am well versed in the chipped variety, often utilising it in game (indeed often from entirely inappropriate angles). Corners can be a weapon if used correctly and its the type of fiddly little skill that can be easily overlooked and so one well worth mastering. Presented with a specific target area I discover that my kicks are woefully inaccurate, reflected by only picking up a bronze trophy. Clearly some work to be done in this area. Similarly free kicks prove particularly troublesome. It is useful to develop an understanding of the basic technique (aim with R, curl with L) but my strike rate is low, highlighting another area of technique that requires some extra training.
Asking team mates to help with the old Gegenpress is an essential skill in the modern game and it is no surprise that, like tackling, this more agricultural skill comes naturally to me as we hold the gold trophy aloft. I’m surprised however by penalties from the goalies perspective. I can’t recall having to do this in a match situation but I reel off a string of fine saves, notching another gold award, control of the ‘keeper in these instances as simple as the push of the direction stick. Finally I’ve always appreciated a curling drive and it’s not a surprise to me that I walk away with a gold in the controlled shot category. And that brings an end to the Advanced category. On to Expert (gulp!).
We start with those camera hogging glory hounds that favour a spectacular volley or header. I’m okay with the noggin’, a ball at head height a fairly simple task to nod in one direction or another, although scoring from them in a match situation is another matter entirely. Within this controlled environment, with only a token defensive pressure, I do okay but no better. It’s at this point I also realise a tendency I have developed to forget to string commands together and instead slavishly following the on screen prompts. Here for instance I need only run into position and hit square but it takes a few missed opportunities for me to think about also squeezing R1 to sprint ahead of the defender.
After a stunning overhead kick there is perhaps no greater sight in football than the impudent chip over the goalie. Simply executed with a squeeze of L1 whilst shooting, it’s another of those skills that I have never successfully applied in-match but within this environment find simple, registering another gold trophy on my second try.
Whilst a chip or volley is a nice condiment to a satisfying meal, the art of the one-two pass is a staple part of the footballing diet and one of those skills that has always eluded me. My passing range has been mired in X, L1 and X or circle and so this is the type of flourish I have been looking to add to my game. It requires a bit of extra thought and planning, both in the action you take with the original passer and the action with the pivot. This is the first skill I have really struggled with. I find it a hard concept to get my mind round effectively performing two actions at once and the silver award feels rather generous.
With this combination of skills established I then have the chance to try them out under the banner of Attacking Situations. For those slouching at the back of the class, this is a chance to find out how closely we were paying attention. And things do not go well. In the face of free choice I panic, forgetting most of the lessons learned and reverting to type, relying on curled shots and through balls. Belatedly I try and implement a one-two but without success. It is apparent that away from the on-screen prompts and instructions, controls beyond the basics remain far from second nature.
And we end the training with a bit of a free form exhibition, rolling through a set number of ball skills from over-the-head flicks, feints and dummies. I manage to successfully pull off a couple but the time runs out before I can complete the set. And before you know it, the final whistle blows and it’s time to hit the showers.
In some ways I find the Advanced and Expert training disheartening, especially the Attacking Situations routine. It is clear that outside the specific screen prompts I lack a basic grasp of the finer points of the game. Indeed this is magnified when I take part in Free Training. With the whole pitch mine to play with and only a skeleton crew to oppose me I struggle to pull off any skills of note, managing just a couple of tame efforts on goal.
To an extent this reinforces my fears. To become truly adept at the game there is so much to learn and so, like with Football Manager, I wonder if this type of game has simply evolved beyond me. It’s a nonsense of course and I come back to my original premise. If this were, say, Tomb Raider or Half Life I would spend several hours with it until I felt fluent in the controls, eventually racking up 10-20 hours in completing the thing. So what right do I have to think I can dabble here and there, getting by on my real world love of the sport to get me by in-game? Like anything, mastery will only come with application.
Training may be over but I still have a lot to learn.