Football Manager is a funny old game. Back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, games like F.A. Premier League Manager 1999 and Championship Manager 2000 were widely played due to their brilliant simplicity. You could finish seasons in one afternoon, raid the Macedonian First division for fictional players good enough to win the Premier League, and sit back and enjoy the game A.I. which seemingly always relegated Manchester United in the first season and saw the mighty Bury reach the Champions League after a few years. Despite this glaring flaws, or perhaps even because of them, it was at this time that the series was most widely played. As the years have passed on, the games have become more realistic and thus much more complicated. While still much loved by its devout fans, the sheer perplexity of the recent editions has meant the game has become somewhat of a niche for a select few people who both enjoy football and extreme number crunching. Admittedly, I am one of those people and I’ve religiously played the last two versions, and in last year’s edition I managed to win numerous Champions League titles with Huddersfield Town, albeit at the expense of hundreds of sleepless nights and enough hours of gameplay to reach 2028 which, believe me, is no mean feat.
So I was understandably very excited when I got this year’s edition for review. I decided to choose a challenging club that could perhaps be a bit more rewarding earlier on than Huddersfield, so I chose Newcastle to manage because, well, how hard could it be to be better than John Carver?
Upon starting the game I noticed that the entire interface has been overhauled for the first time in a few years. Last year’s version was complex and metallic, and someone looking over your shoulder would probably assume you were doing the accounts for some online marketing company rather than playing a manager simulator. This year, however, the menu’s and options are more colourful and kind of jump out at you, and while it takes a little getting used to it is actually a lot better and gives the game a much nicer feel. As I looked through the clubs players and set up a few basic formations, I was surprised to find that they too had been simplified. The complex percentage based team instructions are replaced with a menu of commands such as “Push Higher Up” or “Exploit the Flanks” and both before and during the game you can click on any number of these to get your team playing your style. I guess you could say this feature is a little more Harry Redknapp than Arsene Wenger, but after a while I actually started to prefer it. The scouting menu is another thing that’s been significantly changed and once you get used to it’s both easier and quicker to interact with.
Now, I’d usually describe myself as a bit of a totalitarian manager. By this I mean I like to decide everything from who has to stay late in training to run laps because their stamina stats fell last month to what it is my under 18 team eat for breakfast. However, I wanted to get through an entire season relatively quick for the sake of this review so I decided I wouldn’t really have time for all of my usually follies into those areas so I used the staff sidebar to delegate a lot of the more complicated stuff to my assistant manager (some Dutch guy I hired, the first thing I did was sack Carver!) However, I was amazed to see here that you can actually get your staff to do a lot more than just the tedious training regimes. If you so please, you can have your Chairman renew player contracts, your Director of Football sign young up and coming players, your Chief Scout to set scouting assignments etc. Basically, the game caters for you to put in as little or as much as you like, and this might be something that could bring back the casual players of all those years ago.
By the end of the window I’d brought in a Virgil Van Dijk from Celtic for a bit of muscle in defence and Luciano Narsingh from P.S.V. for some flair on the wings. Come the first match of the season at home to Southampton I was raring to go and eyeing up my highly illustrious goal of mid-table mediocrity. In the pre-season friendlies I had my team playing like the 08/09 Barcelona, pressing high up the pitch trying to win the ball back at the earliest opportunity, then suffocating the opponent with constant short passing and a methodical build up once we did have it. Unfortunately, as you probably may have guessed, my naivety certainly got the better of me here. Within 10 minutes we were 1-0 down to a Sadio Mane counter attack and after 30 minutes my left back received a second yellow because he’s not as good at pressing as Jordi Alba. Not the ideal start, we went on to lose 3-0.
As I came to terms with both the game and my team, we found ourselves in 16th place after 6 games, and things were starting to get ugly already. Club ‘legend’ Steve Harper came out in the media and said our game away to Liverpool was a ‘must win’ as we didn’t want to find ourselves in the relegation zone. Funny that, I’d say Newcastle must be the only club you can be a legend at after making 12 appearances in 10 years. Still though, I realised I needed to be a bit more pragmatic in my approach and spent the week before hand focusing on defensive positioning, changed the team’s philosophy from ‘control’ to ‘counter,’ and had the whole defence play a little deeper. We went to win 1-0, and until you experience overcoming the odds against a much better team yourself, you really can’t appreciate the beauty of Football Manager. When Ayoze Perez broke down the wing and cut it back for a breaking Moussa Sissoko to finish, I quite literally punched the air in joy! And as Lazar Markovic hit the post after being played through in the 83rd minute, I swore with nervousness. But we held out, and it truly did fill me with a great sense of achievement. While essentially the game is just menus and number crunching with a match engine that you run about 50 times per simulated year, it has that unique ability to draw you in. It can at times be perhaps more frustrating than any game should be, but it can also be infinitely more rewarding.
The season progressed nicely and come January, during which I signed tough tackling Paraguayan Edgar Barretto for a bit of steel in midfield, I found myself in 7th position and going along nicely. However, I was soon to fall victim to another feature of the game. While the morale in my squad was very good (and as any Football Manager player will tell you, morale is the second currency of the game) due to our form, the performances of Moussa Sissokko attracted interest from league leaders Manchester United. Now, this is a situation I was in last year and there used to be ways to bluff your way out of it. As the player came to my office to have a chat with me through the interactive chat feature, something which has also been much improved, he asked to leave for Champions League football. I told him he was simply too important and that if he stayed here we could perhaps challenge for the Champions League the following season. That was not good enough for him however, and he left the office telling me he wasn’t happy with how I was handling the situation. In last year’s version, he would have sulked for a couple of months then went back to normal; however this year I noticed that the majority of my team became unhappy. Disaster! Results on the pitch began to become affected as we lost at home to Stoke then away to whipping boys Burnley. Eventually, my captain came to me asking for me to call a team meeting to deal with the teams concerns. Pretty much the entire team told me I was being unfair not to let Sissokko leave, so in the end, for the sake of the rest of the teams’ morale I had to back down on the issue. Now, luckily enough for me Manchester United never came back to make another offer so I got to keep my star player but I must say that new aspect of player power added to the game is both realistic and a great game mechanism to have.
After a season in which the players I inherited performed much better than expected, we eventually went on to finish fifth, ahead of a woefully underperforming Manchester City and behind Everton whose Roberto Martinez won manager of the year (hah!) I got a new contract offer off Mike Ashley, shut up the early critics of my reign like Steve Harper and Les Ferdinand, and got a nice transfer kitty of £20 million to spend for the forthcoming season, so the dream of making the Champions League is actually real! But what about the game itself? Well, despite the fact I’ve pretty much universally praised it so far as I’m such a big fan of the series, I can also say that it’s not without its fault’s. The newly added interactive tunnel interviews lose their novelty early on and are pretty much just an inconvenience. Setting up individual training routines for your team is also so complicated you might want to get an actuarial accountant to help you with it. Also, the match engine, another thing that’s significantly changed from last year, can be very frustrating at times, I mean how realistic is to see Steven Taylor be beaten by the bounce of the ball every week as the other team get in behind and score? Actually, forget that! Generally speaking though, the game itself is great and for any football fan out there that wants a game that’s both incredibly challenging and rewarding I’d highly recommend it. But, with that said, while I usually completely immerse myself in the world of the game, hiring and firing all my staff, training all my first team and reserve players and trawling through the depths of the South American youth setups in search of the next Messi, I effectively done a speed run through one season of this year’s game and I was very surprised with how much I enjoyed it. And for those who want to fire through seasons even faster than I did, there’s always the ‘Football Manager Classic’ mode, where most of the complex number crunching parts of the game are completely streamlined in favour of a more arcade like game style. While it’s not as simple as its ancestors from 1999/2000, I think that Football Manager 2015 has definitely taken a step towards trying to win back part of the larger football fan base to its games, a task that it could definitely achieve with a bit of recognition. A great game, addictive and truly enjoyable, 9/10.
Finally for today I'd like to thank the people at Cash Gen who provided the game to review and who have kindly provided a copy of the game for one lucky reader to win. You can have a look at their site if you click here and all you need to do is to answer this simple question to put your name in the draw for the game.
When Arsenal won 1-0 away to Juventus on April 23 1980 who scored Arsenal's goal on the night which put them through to the European Cup Winners Cup Final. You can post your answer in the comments or send it to me by emai at firstname.lastname@example.org or even just send me the answer on Twitter (@JamrockRover). Goòd luck to all who enter and I'll be in contact with the winner in the next few days so they can claim their prize.