Iain Macintosh has been playing Football Manager and its previous incarnations since 1993, but alarmingly he’s still not particularly good at it. We asked him to break the ring of security at Sports Interactive and ask one of their football analysts for some advice...
Iain Macintosh: Thanks for meeting me, Mr X. I’m glad you’re here, I need your help.
Mr X: No problem, Iain. Just don’t ever let Miles know that I spoke to you. The secrets of the game are just that; secrets. If he finds out I’ve blabbed…
IM: Don’t worry, he doesn’t need to know. You’re doing a good thing here today. You’re helping your fellow Football Managers.
Mr X: What do you need to know?
IM: More than anything else, I need to know how to win. In the old days, I just chose a formation, bought some good players and then happily pressed ‘continue’ over and over again until the silverware came flooding in. But that doesn’t work now. Why?
Mr X: Those old days have gone, Iain. Football has moved on. Look at how much is written about tactics, how much analysis there is out there. Managers at the highest level of the game are completely aware of players’ strengths and weaknesses. They know what they’re up against and they plan accordingly. It’s the same in Football Manager. We’ve had people who ask us why their team or their key players have tailed off towards the end of a season, why they aren’t having the effect they used to earlier in the year. It’s because the computer’s scouts have had a look at them. It’s because the computer managers are making specific plans to stop you.
IM: Hang on. Are you telling me that Football Manager has become self-aware?
Mr X: To an extent, yes. A more accurate way of putting it would be to say that it’s become more like real life. They watch and they learn.
IM: So, if I played a 4-4-2 game with wingers running at full-backs and a high line and so on and so forth, but changed to a deep 4-5-1 without any warning, the first team I met would be taken completely by surprise?
Mr X: Definitely. They’re getting scout reports just like you. They’re not going to be able to guess your late change, they’ll be set up for what you usually do. They’ll have no idea at all. How long it will be before they figure it out is down to the manager and how smart he is.
IM: My God, I had no idea. I really have to learn to take each game as it comes…
Mr X: Absolutely. You should aways think about the opponent. Don’t just keep the same tactics for every game just because you’re winning. Adapt to what you face. The scout reports are there for a reason. If the computer uses them, you should use them too.
IM: I usually just pick a basic formation, see if it works for the first half and panic when it doesn’t in the second.
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Mr X: Well, there’s your problem. And remember not to always look for the simple answer. Instead of playing all out attack to score goals, think about your opponent and look at what they’re doing during the game. If they’re sitting deep and standing off you, then your surges forward might not work. Instead, you should take a look at dragging them out, perhaps with shorter passing, or by deploying a deep-lying forward to lure their defenders out of position. Player roles are crucial now and that’s as relevant to the defenders as it is the attackers. It’s very much like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, you have to have the team linking up, covering for each other. If there’s a hole when your players bomb forward, how are you going to plug that hole? If you’re playing a quick team and you’ve got no-one back when you attack, it’s not going to take long for them to find that space and exploit it. There’s no one formation or tactic that works, you need to watch the game and draw your own conclusions
IM: So, I’m probably not helping myself by only watching key highlights?
Mr X: I used to be a key highlights kind of guy, but now I’m extended. I noticed that I was missing things. The more detail you go into, the more control you have. A lot of people say to us, “My defence is terrible,” and they’ve nearly always got key highlights switched on. At that level of detail, generally all the highlights are going to be goalscoring chances, so you’ll only really see your defenders when they screw up, you won’t see the 90-95% of the game where they don’t. We simulate a football match down to every 1/4 of a second of football. If you played 90 minute match on other football games, you’d end up with a 38-38 draw. It would be fun, but it wouldn’t be realistic. Everything you’d see in a real game, you’ll see in Football Manager. Including the good defending.
IM: Okay, so tell me three key things that I can take from this conversation.
Mr X: Firstly, there’s no magic formation. You need to combine the right sort of player with the right sort of game plan. Secondly, don’t expect to win every game if you just use the same tactic every week. The computer is watching you. Finally, remember that everything you know about football is applicable here. Use your head, watch and analyse. And don’t give up.
IM: Thanks so much for helping me, Tom.
Mr X: No problem, Iain. Hang on…did you just call me, Tom?
IM: Oops. Don’t worry, I’ll edit that out of the final cut.
Mr X: Make sure you do. Miles caught one of our data guys fraternising with a journalist last year. We never saw him again. He had kids, man. He had kids.
IM: You worry too much, Tom. Leave it with me. And thank you. Thank you on behalf of everyone who has ever struggled.
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