Hi there, and welcome to part three of this new Football Manager Blog.
As promised, today I'm going to be talking about player positions / roles, the "role-playing" aspect of football manager, and how it relates to real life.
But first, our ongoing feature...
GREAT FOOTBALL MANAGER QUOTES
Arsene Wenger may have left Arsenal under a long-building storm cloud, but there's no denying he's been one of the great managers of the Premier League. The above quote is interesting, because it puts me in mind of the way he converted Thierry Henry from an okay winger to a terrifyingly potent striker. And this links in very well with the subject of today's blog.
There was a time in Football Manager's history (and I'm thinking back to when it operated under the Championship Manager 97-98 banner) when there wasn't a huge amount of complexity in the game. You bought and sold players, picked a formation, and chose whether to play a passing or long-ball game. There wasn't much else, to be honest.
But as the game has evolved, you now have to deal with player personalities; players who will challenge you on your decision making in the transfer market, and so on. There are agents with personalities, and members of the press who might deeply respect you, or hate your guts. This has introduced an element of role-playing into the game. (And of course, if you're playing against other gamers, the role-playing element is very intense.)
At this point, I ought to make clear exactly what I mean by role-playing, because, as with many things in life, it means different things to different people. Most young gamers these days will automatically assume it refers to a kind of computer or video game. But when I say Role-Playing Game (RPG), I'm talking about the type of game in which the players sit around a table with pencils, paper, and funny shaped dice, enjoying a game that is all about personalities, and which is limited in scope only by your imagination.
My experience with these types of RPGs overlapped with my gradual addiction to Football Manager. It started in the 80's, when a mate showed me a book called Freeway fighter. This was an adventure gamebook; something I'd never seen before, and was a load of fun. I soon found out it was part of a series of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I played loads of them, such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
I was vaguely aware of a game called Dungeons and Dragons, which I imagined was purely an American phenomenon, but might be a bit like a multi-player version of adventure game books. But then I saw a set of D&D rules on sale in Sheffield, and ended up joining a group of RPG-ers, many of whom remained friends for decades. We played D&D, and Rolemaster, and Champions, and Call of Cthulhu, and many, many other great RPGs. But as we all started doing more adulting, with full-time jobs, marriages, kids, mortgages and so on, we found less and less time to do the prep for old-school RPGs. By the time my old RPG mates had been scattered to the four winds, many of us had converted to playing computer-based games in our own homes. I wasn't the only Football Manager addict - most of us were football mad!
I missed RPGs a lot, but I found that as Football Manager increased in complexity, introducing the aforementioned role-playing elements, it kind of became a substitute for RPGs. And this changed the way I approached playing the game. I went from playing as wanting to beat the [game] system, to playing it by imagining; If I really were the manager of this football team, how would I deal with [this match / this player / this agent, etc] in real life? And then I'd pick the option in the game that came closest to matching that.
This where I differ from some players of FM. I'm not interested in downloading a killer tactic, and I have no interest in learning how the game works under the hood, in order to exploit any weaknesses. I play it as a role-playing game. And this approach affects the way I go about choosing how I want my players to play - their tactical roles and duties.
I remember once coming across a story told by ex-Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday striker Mark Bright. When he signed for SWFC, he had little time to get to know the other players before playing his first match. Apparently, then-manager Trevor Francis's tactical briefing for Bright consisted of telling him to just get the ball to either John Sheridan or Chris Waddle. Bright went on to form a formidable strike partnership with SWFC legend David Hirst (when Hirsty was fit). I'm sure as time went on, Bright received a lot more detailed coaching from the gaffer, but I know this much: In real life, football players don't have little coloured discs above them that tell the manager how comfortable they are playing in a given role.
How much can you even trust what the game says about what a player's best role is?
Here's Jonny Leko, who's been at my club for a few seasons, as you can see. And under his name, you can see the description 'winger'.
While he's been at the club, I've always trained him in the position of AML (IF).
Looking on his development screen, we can see his natural position is AMR (W). His role suitability for this is a lovely big bright green circle.
But wait, on the above screen, you can also see a bright green circle on the AML position! Well, let's have a closer look! See below for his AML position (where I've been playing and training him for a number of seasons)...
So, he's also a natural at AML, but his best role-suitability in that position doesn't get a full bright green circle.
I don't even know what that means. Like I said earlier, I play FM as an RPG, trying to imagine what it would be like in real life. And real life footballers don't have these 'helpful' icons.
The OCD part of me wants to see full, bright green circles on the tactics screen. Below is a shot of a fairly typical team selection for the current season on my save:
Not a lot of full bright greens there, but these players have played a lot of games in this tactical setup, in a SWFC team that has become the top side in Europe.
This kind of sets me thinking about the relative pros and cons in football of whether you make players fit your tactical plan, or whether you construct tactics around the players you have. I suspect in real life football, there is often a combination of the two approaches. Clearly, Arsene Wenger saw something in Thierry Henry that made him think striker, rather than winger, was his natural position.
But if you're the manager who buys, say, Andy Carrol, you're not going to try to play him as a number 10, are you? He's the type of player who, well, you know exactly what you're going to get, and there's not a lot of point playing him in any other role than as (in FM terms) Target Man (attack).
On the other hand, take a player like Harry Kane (in real life). You could successfully play him as a target man in either attack or support roles. He can also do a great job as a number 10. And although he doesn't have blistering pace, you could even play him as an advanced forward, because he doesn't mind running in behind.
Now, I wonder exactly what real, top managers say to their players about roles and duties, and how they coach them. Surely, you can't just say to a striker, 'I want you to play as a target man'. Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch and Harry Kane are all target men, but you get very different things from them. Each of those players probably has a very different opinion, channelled by their own perspective, of what it is to be a target man. You can take the same view with many roles in the game of football, and it's not only the roles, but how each individual manager interprets them. Harry Kane playing for Sam Allardyce would almost certainly be unrecognisable from a Harry Kane playing for Roberto Martinez.
I understand that a game system like Football Manager has to have, for want of any other term, playing options in the game interface. But I sometimes find these options a bit clunky, and not completely reflective of real life. It's not too heavy a criticism because of course FM isn't real life - it's a game. But I do hope that as the game evolves, the options for how to deploy players become more subtle, with a less obvious, less in-your-face interface. I could see that bringing the game even closer in line with RPGs, and I for one would have no problem with that at all.
Thanks for stopping by. Next time, I'll (probably) be talking about dealing with the chairman!