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Team Talk: Football Manager 2014 Mid-Season Chat

A Game Of Two Half Thrones

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RPS used to be a bunch of foot-to-ball fearties, but times change, and Adam and Graham are on a mission to make sure there’s no one left at the site who doesn’t understand the offside trap. Adam wrote the WIT. Graham made us into regens. They compared notes.

Now the pair have gathered again to discuss their thoughts after a further six months of intensive training. How does the match engine hold up? Has the new tactics system ever felt limiting? How has the mid-season update changed play? All this and more awaits below.

Adam:

Adam: The referee has checked his watch. The whistle approaches his lips.

The season is almost complete and Football Manager 2014 is fully updated and in its final form.

What have we learned? It’s been a buggy season, that’s for sure. Odd results, the downfall of giants, a pile-up at the bottom of the Premier League table.

But that’s the real world.

Graham: FOOTBALLS.

Adam: Calm down!

Graham: I have left behind the banal modern reality of Premiership football. I exist now in the near future, the year 2018, where my favored Football Manager 2014 career trundles on, where I am a tournament-winning hero, where Man United aren’t shit. I only ever play one career in each yearly iteration of the series. And I would like to talk about that journey a little.

BUT.

I think you have more technical, measured, update-related chatter we should cover first, for it’s the more useful and interesting part.

Adam: Yes – first of all, and you no doubt noticed this one yourself, but the crash related to Turkish player names has been fixed as part of the final update. PHEW.

The match engine, which is routinely mocked and insulted, is in the best shape of its life. Goalkeeper AI, in particular, seems to avoid some of the excessive daftness that would occasionally cause problems in the first release.

The gap between the most skilled and the least skilled has also been exaggerated further in some instances – clearest example is dribbling, where a pacey player is now much more clearly rocket-like. Play an FA Cup game with non-league opposition against global superstars and it’s painfully obvious which side is which.

And who has eaten all the pies.

Graham: Question: how much of the match engine updates apply to existing saved games? Because just yesterday De Gea gathered up a ball, kicked it off the backside of a defender, and chased it into the back of his own net.

That might just be De Gea though.

Adam: Indeed. Mistakes aren’t eradicated completely – and I think the changes to goalkeepers were less about distribution and more about their habit of dropping balls and letting them ooze into the net. Or scoring own goals with the back of their head from corners.

But, yeah, the changes should work in save games. The only thing that won’t work is the transfer updates, obviously.

Graham: No Mata/matter joke joke, etc.

Adam: Fiddly as the match engine changes are, they seem to be working toward a common goal that so much of this iteration is directed at. And that is to replicate the experience of a manager at different levels rather than replicating the experience of a person sitting in front of a computer clicking on a series of databases and sliders.

Graham: Example?

Adam: By making the difference between skill levels broader and more immediately noticeable, the engine forces the lower league manager to concede that he is going to have to adapt to route one sooner rather than later no matter what. There’s less chance of a flukey run down the wing – Hefty Johnson, the part-time fullback who works as a Butcher’s Apprentice, simply doesn’t do the whole running thing.

You know how in Civ a bunch of spearmen would occasionally kill a tank? And that’s certainly within the rules of the game?

Graham: You’re saying Ewoks now have no chance of destroying the Empire?

Adam: That’s an example we can all understand. It’s possible. It’s always possible. But the chance of something similar happening in FM14 is reduced because there are so many more variables and they are being stretched. I think – and some people will argue otherwise – that SI are attempting to eliminate the one-size fits all tactic.

But at the same time, tactics do feel less immediately flexible than in previous versions. Sometimes it takes a good twenty minutes of a game to work out if anyone is actually listening when I tell them to play deeper or wrap the cables around an AT-AT’s legs.

Incidentally, my current game is with Welling United. I started unemployed and am trying to fashion a place for myself in fitbah history.

Adam: I realised how much I’d come to rely on backroom staff in other jobs – when you don’t have the people in place, or they’re cack-handed, it’s like playing with a stripped down interface. I’m playing in the dark, Graham, and I don’t like it one little bit.

(I love it)

Graham: Do these new changes diminish the likelihood that you’ll be able to take your Wellies all the way to the Champion’s League?

Adam: The fact that I am me diminishes that possibility. It eradicates the possibility and then devours the scraps of the possibility and later voids them into a stinking pub toilet that hasn’t been cleaned for weeks. I have never been very good at getting the best out of a bad bunch. I intend to jump ship as soon as anyone comes calling. Stockport even.

It would take far more patience and, yes, I think the possibility of those glory stories is reduced this time around in general, not just with the latest update.

Graham: I just looked it up and Welling United’s nickname is The Wings, not the Wellies. Which seems like a wasted opportunity, but then their logo is of a winged horse.

Adam: I call them The Stumps. If they ever had wings, those wings were sold to hungry revellers in a Chicken Cottage long ago.

One thing that I’ve observed is that United seem to do quite well. Which is fine – real events would have been hard to predict. But the in-game media reckon they’ll win the 2013/14 league, and they often do, and don’t seem phased by the management change.

Adam: For all the cleverness of the player stats, skills and personalities, I can’t help but feel that the AI managers are less well-formed. Even though the game is called Football Manager, it’s a game about players and clubs rather than managers, in some ways. I’m not sure how dramatic a difference a managerial change makes.

Graham: In my game, I displaced Moyes by taking over United. He ended up at Napoli a few years later, was sacked after a year, and is now manager of Stoke. This seems in some way a more likely reality.

Adam: Let’s talk about player roles because they are, I think, the most important part of tactical setup now.

I can never make Van Persie do anything worthwhile – in times gone by, I would have found a system that worked with him in it, on an FM forum somewhere. But now, I feel like I need to build a system from the ground-up with every change because the links between one area of the pitch and another are separated out.

My natural instinct is for Van Persie to play as an advanced forward but without the right support, that leaves him isolated. And when I play as United, my formation doesn’t make room for him. So I drop him.

How do you manipulate the Dutch?

Graham: Well, this overlaps with another thing that I wanted to touch on. But basically, aren’t strikers broken in general? I’ve found some success with False 9s and Deep Lying Forwards, but if you want them to be a Poacher, or a main goal-scoring threat, that doesn’t seem to work out.

Alec: FOOT-TO-BALL IS FOR BABY-MEN
Alec has left the room
Alec has entered the room
Alec has left the room

Graham: Oh Alec. Such a hooligan.

Adam: Was he streaking? It looked like he was streaking.

Graham: All I saw was a tiny picture of a Skyrim man’s face.

Adam: Chewing a pepperami.

Graham: I’ve been reading on forums and there’s accusations that this is a match engine thing. That wingers are overpowered and SI have nerfed strikers to stop games featuring a glut of goals.

Graham: Based on my own anecdotal experiments, strikers certainly don’t seem to get the goals you’d expect. You only need to look at stats for real players like Messi to see how, as soon as the FM engine takes over, the number of goals they get drops by a third.

And so I, too, have struggled to make Van Persie do anything for me. I’ve only had slightly more success with Rooney, by dropping him in that F9 role.

Adam: The striker thing does fit in with my experience, yeah. I think it’s the weakest part of the engine and the one that requires the most work, from players to succeed and from SI next time around. Through balls are much more effective, at the centre of the pitch, than crosses. Which tend to go to defenders much more often than not.

I think FM will always struggle with players like Messi. he’s such an outlier that if you DID design him in-game, he’d seem like a cheat. A hack.

Graham: The Matthew Le Tissier problem. It’s just not believable that he’d score that many.

Adam: My most successful tactic with strikers is to have the more advanced player in a support role with an attacking false 9 behind. It doesn’t immediately make sense on paper but essentially, it’s asking the player deep in the box to act as a creative target man of sorts, looking to make runs and drag the defense out of position.

Graham: Have you found any roles you felt particularly over and underpowered? Does the Trequartista actually work?

Adam: With the Welling Stumps I’m currently managing, I chuckle every time I ask one of my players to adopt the Trequartista position. They don’t know what I’m talking about and think I’m either speaking in tongues or having a stroke. But, yeah, I find it works but I tend to use it when I’m packing the midfield and pressing for a goal against a team with a leaky defense.

Adam: One of the biggest eureka moments I had was realising that setting the mentality to ‘attack’ is often less productive than keeping it ‘balanced’. Those settings aren’t helpfully named, although I understand why they range from ultra-defensive to overpowering attack

Graham: What does “attack” actually do in practical terms? I did abandon using it eventually.

Adam: Really, they’re about positioning – a replacement for the old arrow system in a way – so an ‘attacking’ mentality means players push up the pitch quickly when the ball is with their teammates. That’s not a good attacking strategy AT ALL if you want to play small passes to feet through a strong midfield. Everything breaks down far too quickly.

That’s my interpretation of it, from an embarrassing amount of playtime. Attacking works if you’re playing the ball into space for people to run onto, or hoofing it toward the box.

Do you miss the old tactical options?

Graham: I miss the arrows. Those little dotted lines were both gloriously simple and absurdly overpowered.

My experiences in the more recent Football Manager games are few and far between though, sadly. I don’t miss the sliders, that’s for sure.

Adam: It’s odd – in some ways there’s much less micromanagement now that the sliders are gone. But it’s also the case that one player in the wrong role can make entire movements fall apart, again and again.

Graham: I like that they’ve switched to using the language of actual football. It’s not just more intuitive, but there’s a bit more of the fantasy about it. FM is always about the push/pull of the realities of the match engine and the fantasies that you project upon it. Being able to deploy someone as a False 9 or Target Man or Box-to-Box Midfielder sells the idea of my tactics to me just through the word, regardless of the reality of the simulation.

Adam: I said this in the review, way back when, and my feelings have been confirmed over the months – this game is much more about managing individuals within the context of a team and squad, whereas previously FM and CM felt like adjusting cogs in a machine.

As you say, it captures the fantasy better and I love it for that. It’s a role-playing management simulation.

Graham: Do you find it easier than before to spot tactical problems? My main issue with the game – and it’s an issue with me as much as with Sports Interactive’s design – is that I can’t tell what’s a match engine problem, what’s my own anecdotal bias, and what’s a tactical problem I need to resolve.

Adam: I quickly conform to the match engine’s idiosyncracies, which perhaps makes me too lenient. Mostly, it looks and behaves like a football match, with all the variance involved in the real thing. But where it doesn’t, as with the strikers, I find ways around the problem based upon the engine’s own previous displays rather than an attempt to find a ‘real-life’ solution.

I watch every match, comprehensive highlights, which does give a great overview of which particular relationships aren’t working. And also means I can change a role, switch things around, and then swap them again five minutes later if another problem rears its head.
There’s a lot of experimentation involved but, on the whole, I do find it easier to make an impact with decisins during a match, for better or worse.

Graham: I think you’ve said before that you prefer to go for the lower league minnows, and often start careers as a jobless vagabond. What’s the longest career you’ve played? Do you stretch off into the future, or prefer to linger around present day scenarios?

Adam: I am the man of tomorrow. Not literally – that would be daft – more like the man of 205x. I’m petitioning SI to have the game transition into Speedball by the end of the 21st century, as an Easter Egg but also an entire cyborg murderball management game.

Graham: I like to play one career and change teams throughout that career, and I enjoy the process of discover new, skillful regens and adopting and training them. But I find my interest waxes and wanes with that career over the year I’m playing the game. I’ve only recently returned to it after a long period away.

Adam: Sadly, in this version I haven’t found time for a good long run because I spent so much time experimenting with different leagues and nations, to get a feel for the whole thing. My Welling Stumps are the future though. I’ve just finished my first season with them. Media reckoned we’d be relegated back into the Blue Square South but we finished a respectable 9th.

Graham: I’m wondering whether you experience something similar, what keeps you playing or coming back, and where you find the boldness necessary to move teams? Because I get simultaneously bored of my current job and too attached to certain elements of it to change.

Adam: I’m a mercenary little urchin. I’m more likely to aim for a job offer from a top club than work my arse off trying to take a non-league club to glory.

But, yes, I’ll spend weeks without playing and then binge for an entire weekend.

I may have mentioned this before as well, but I really enjoy just observing the simulation. Seeing what’s happening elsewhere in the world. I love watching matches at world cups and picking a favourite to follow when England are inevitably knocked out. I always watch the Champions League and FA Cup finals, even if I am toiling away in the conference and nowhere near them.

The existence of a world outside my own reach is a constant fascination in games of all types and CM was one of the earliest examples – and FM continues to be one of the best

Graham: Agreed. In 2018, I’m just about to watch the World Cup. I’m looking forward to it.

It’s giving me something to do in my off-season, when there’s not really anyone around that’s worth buying. Because I’m already so great.

Does your enjoyment in playing the game dribble away as regens become a larger fixture and recognisable players retire?

Adam: Good question – if the game started with regens and no real players, I’d be less interested. As I would be if I simulated into a regenerated future. But I love seeing the world develop so watching known players retire and take up managerial and coaching roles fascinates me, as does watching their replacements come forward.

The transition is the thing. Like, I noticed that Frank Lampard was a 56 year old Scout at West Ham once, in a previous version, and that made me happy for some reason.

Graham: It is great, watching old players become managers. I remember in an old game of Champ Man 2 Italia, in which Gianluca Vialli switched from being my best player to being my greatest managerial rival. I’ll never forgive him for getting the Italy manager job ahead of me.

The regens, I realise, are why I only play one career. If I find a good, real player, I know I’ll only want to buy them again in the other career. If the game creates a great regen, I’m hurt at the idea of switching to a new database where they don’t exist and will never exist.

I get unreasonably attached to the players, and soon can’t tell the difference between the real and the regens.

Adam: Which game does the series most remind you of? It’s obviously not FIFA, despite the feet and the balls and the haircuts.

Graham: I always think of it in terms of grand strategy. It’s Crusader Kings, for me. The pace. The slow cultivation of people and stats. Putting plans into action across generations/seasons. A world to noodle with, which starts in reality and twists and turns until its wholly and uniquely yours.

Adam: Agreed. So let me put this to you: Crusader Kings seems to be far more popular with RPS readers than Football Manager – why does our audience prefer murder and incest to sporting occasions and sweary men in shorts?

Graham: There’s a certain snobbery at work, for sure. I get that, I relate to that. I share in it, even as I watch literally any football I can find, be it English, German, French, Italian, Spanish or, recently, Brazilian.

But more than that, I can understand why the high drama of murder appeals more than the abstraction of football scores.

Dagenham & Redbridge F.C. 1, Fleetwood Town 2. Doesn’t exactly have the same exciting ring as, oh, your plot to kill a neighbour has failed and now you’re rotting to death in prison but no worries, your idiot son has taken over.

It’s maybe worth noting that I didn’t care about football at all till a few years ago. I’d been away from the sport for over ten years, and I got back into it via a football game, albeit FIFA. That led me to start watching a little bit on TV, which led me to Football Manager, which led me to watching a whole lot more of it on TV.

But when I started back on FM, I didn’t really know who any of the players were or what the recent storylines were. It didn’t matter.

Any more than my enjoyment of CK2 is tied to knowledge of the middle ages. (Because I have none).

Adam: I once said that Crusader Kings II might be more successful (before I knew how successful it would be) if it had an orc in it. I was being facetious to an extent but there’s some truth there. And, similarly, I think Football Manager would be of interest to a different crowd entirely if it were Bloodbowl.

Graham: Yeah. But it’s purely thematic. The mechanics and the simulation and the stories and the drama, I think they’d appeal to RPS readers.

Adam: But, as you say, the knowledge isn’t necessary. Like any game, it’s about systems, and FM works on a higher level than any football punditry on TV. You can’t, for instance, tell your players to “want it more” and expect to win, even though that’s the constant among commentators on Sky – ‘they just wanted it more’. No they bloody didn’t. They are tactically superior and more talented, with a sprig or two of luck on the day.

That said, I would absolutely love a Bloodbowl type game done in FM style.

Graham: What with the database editor and Steam Workshop, I’m surprised there aren’t more fantasy-themed mods.

Adam: Probably to do with the gargantuan size of the thing more than anything. I wonder if it would be possible to make a single league with a completely overhauled theme.

ADD LETHAL INJURIES

Graham: Luis Suarez bit you for +4 damage. You have contracted: Cholera.

The ability to infiltrate enemy teams with spies would be perfect.

Adam: John Terry tackled you for +1 damage. You have contracted gonorrhoea

Can I say that? IT’S A JOKE.

Graham: Gary Linekar. Preferred Moves:
Moves into channels.
Wipes bum on pitch.

Adam: When I spoke to Miles Jacobson, the Big Cheese at Sports Interactive, he said the new dialogue and ‘story’ systems were a strong focus for the next instalment. Only a tiny percentage of that side of things was implemented, so I suspect we’re heading toward a deeper roleplaying experience next year, with more personal interactions to go along with the tactical roles.

Graham: I hope so. I agree with you that Football Manager is a role-playing game, but I also agree that it’s mostly about the players thus far. I would like more simulation of managers, and I’d like that to include more ways with which to act like a person within that world, and less like a manipulator of databases. Conversations welcome, stories even more so.

But as of right now, I think Football Manager is better than it’s ever been. There are niggling match engine issues that frustrate me, but I suspect there always will be. As it is, I never close down the game, it’s always running.

Six months after release, I only like it more. I guess that was the point of this, to work out whether we’d changed our minds.

Adam: Same. I think some long-time fans might be frustrated by the new direction but I doubt many of them will actually go away or burn down Sports Interactive’s offices as they sometimes threaten to.

Any simulation on this scale will have problems and there is an adjustment period, particularly for people thoroughly engaged with actual football, but I’ve found it a joy this year. And intend to stick with the Stumps right through the summer.

Graham: I suspect as the real season winds up, my FM2014ing will only increase. I’ll endeavor to stick with the same career also, even if I resign from United.

Adam: Remember earlier? The spearmen against the tanks? The Ewoks topping the Empire? Man Utd vs Olympiakos. I’m just not sure which team are the Ewoks anymore.

Graham: I suspect I can guess.

I THINK IT’S ALL OVER?

Adam: IT IS NOW
BOSH
BACK OF THE NET
FOOT LIKE A TRACTION ENGINE
GOAL PIE

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