FM2015: Experiments with Manchester United — Introduction and Transfers

For those of you who have played any version of SEGA’s Football Manager series, the aptly-named and ridiculously immersive simulation of football management, you will know there are very few experiences as addictive as spending hours glued to your computer screen, lost in the hyper-realistic virtual world inhabited by your footballing heroes. Everything about the game, from creating innovative tactics, mastering man-management skills that do away with actual inter-personal interaction, instead opting for the rather more convenient clicking of a mouse, and sorting out the club’s wage bill, to entering the transfer market looking for players who provide perfect combination of technical, physical, and mental attributes never fails to reel you in from the word go.

What really drives home the addiction is the feeling of total control of and responsibility for the fate of your chosen club. You shape legacies, creating and destroying careers with a few clicks of a mouse. You create detailed footballing philosophies, establishing a blueprint for the style of play you most identify with, and control everything from roles occupied by players within your chosen tactical philosophy, to fine-tuning your training regime to get the best out of your players and team. You can spend hours poring over years of statistical analysis, right down to variations in players’ performances over a few seasons, and ruthlessly discard those who fail to live up to expectations. For the hundreds of thousands of devout football fans who dream of the big stage, this is as close to the real deal as it gets, and offers the best chance we’ll ever have of validating our vision of the way the game should be played and a club should be run. And the beauty of it all is that we can do all of this while hunched over a computer screen in our bedrooms. For all these reasons, and innumerable others, I have truly never experienced any addiction as strong as that to Football Manager.

In fact, the only two things I consider nearly as addictive as playing the game are: watching videos of other people playing the game, and talking to others about memorable exploits in my  Now I’ve done more than my fair share of the former, whiling away precious hours following Youtube channels on which fellow FM-ers upload videos of their saves, and I have often found myself whooping with joy as those dots in the 2D match screens orchestrate beautiful passing moves to dismantle opposition defenses. True story, last week I actually got up on my feet and clapped at my laptop screen at one goal scored by popular Youtuber Spencer Owen in his FIFA 15 Ultimate Team series “The Zarate Kid”. But I digress. Before I get back on track with the intended direction of this post, I must suggest you read this article about FM addiction, and how it could well be a medical condition.

http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2015/may/05/is-being-addicted-football-manager-medical-condition

Here’s an excerpt:

Dr When you play the game, how do you feel?

Me Genuinely?

Dr Genuinely.

Me I feel like a god.

Dr Really?

Me I feel like a god, sat astride a mountain, staring down at the mortals as they scurry like ants, desperate to do my bidding, fearful of my wrath. Is that weird? That is weird, isn’t it?

Dr Eeeerm….

Very rarely have the irrational behavioral tendencies brought about by a deep-seated unwavering addiction to the game been so clearly expressed. This directly speaks to the notion of control that I touched upon earlier, albeit in language more appropriate for a Game of Thrones setting than the corporate world of football management.

Having spent weeks of my life playing the game, and a few more days watching and reading about others’ accounts of their wondrous feats in fake football management, I have become extremely tempted to try my hand at the latter. I feel my experiences with the game have been extensive and immersive enough to warrant being written about and brought to fake life again. I have been mulling over the right way to do this, and the right career to write about, and was thrilled when a good friend suggested we embark on a career with the same club in Football Manager 2015, and compare our progress over a few seasons. We’d actually done this earlier in the calendar year, starting with Derby County in the Championship in FM 2014, but for various reasons we didn’t see the challenge through. I got sacked in my third season at the club (I secured promotion in the 2013-14 season, and finished a respectable 7th in my first season in the Premier Division, but a run of 1 win in 13 in my second season in the top flight saw the Derby board summon me for emergency discussions, threatening to sack me if I didn’t attend. Slightly offended, I chose to resign, and spent 6 months unemployed, before taking charge at Wigan Athletic, then in the Championship. Over the next 10 years, we finished 2nd in the Championship, and then 9th, 8th, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, and 1st  in the Premier League, winning 3 FA Cups, 6 Carling Cups, and 1 European Champions Cup, on the way to becoming the most valuable club in world football. I consider Sander Vink, a towering 6′ 6” Dutch centre-back regen–signed from PSV Eindhoven for 20 million dollars, and a certified legend at Wigan–one of my most memorable players, and certainly one of the best. I wanted to provide screenshots of that save, but the game crashed on me, thus bringing one of the few sources of pure joy in my life crashing down around me.

Wait, I’ve digressed again. I hope this will not become a regular feature of this series, although I have always been susceptible to tangential thoughts and rambling digressions when it comes to talking about Football Manager. I could go into the details of my excellent Wigan, Tottenham, Newcastle, and Manchester United teams in FM2012, or even my rather brilliant career at Man United in FM14, to which a whole other post should be devoted.

However, I’ll get straight to the point of this article. Once I found a version of FM15 that actually worked on my laptop beyond the initial saving of a file, my friend and I decided to take charge of Manchester United with the same broad remit: to apply our own unique philosophies to every aspect of the running of the club, and compare and contrast our progress over a few seasons. I doubt we’ll get to even 5 years in charge, let alone a decade, such is the frequency with which we discard saves and begin new ones, but even a season or two should provide interesting insights into the way we prefer to run a football club. Granted, we could have chosen Accrington Stanley or AFC Telford to make the career more challenging, but when given the chance to manage the Matas, Rooneys, and Robin van Persies of the world, who in their right minds would say no?

And so, my friend — whose frustratingly excellent FM series you can follow here: https://thewanderingguide.wordpress.com/ — and I began our careers last week, and I shall devote this series on my blog to giving blow-by-blow accounts of my exploits in the 2014-15 season and beyond. I hope you enjoy this, and I’d love to receive any feedback you may want to provide. As you have seen, I am prone to being excessively descriptive about the game, and may just go off on a tangent about how , a la Spurs and Gascoigne, I offered Jonny Evans a house if he agreed to leave the club no questions asked, but by and large I shall try to stick to the following structure, devoting one post to each broad topic:

1) Intro (basically what you’ve been reading) + transfers

2) Tactics + Misc preparation + pre-season

3) Season: important games/monthly reviews

4) End-of-season review: stats, league table, player + team stats

5) Player review: new signings + best players + misc. thoughts

6) Plans for next season

And so, onward ho to my first season in charge at Manchester United.

Taking charge. Welcome to Old Trafford.
Taking charge. Welcome to Old Trafford.

I truly am delighted to be given the job, although it is pretty sad that Louis van Gaal was kicked out without having managed a single game. Although I’m not complaining, since he left me with three pretty decent new signings in Angel di Maria, Marcos Rojo, and Ander Herrera. However, the coaching staff may need to be looked at. There are 18 scouts when only 14 are needed, and not all the coaches are up to scratch.

I'm not complaining about that weekly salary. Not one bit. I wish I could actually cash in on some of it!
I’m not complaining about that weekly salary. Not one bit. I wish I could actually cash in on some of it!

I got all the formalities sorted pretty quickly, and didn’t negotiate any additional club philosophies to be judged on. I’m pretty happy to work with what has been stipulated, since I’m very used to adhering to the three areas of focus: attacking football, possession football, and a focus on the youth system. I have always tailored my approach to the transfer market to allow for one or two youth team players to be given a chance in the domestic cup competitions, and with United’s fabulous youth setup, there should be no dearth of youngsters capable of stepping up from the Under 21s. I’ll look at the likes of Andreas Pereira and Patrick McNair to contribute this season, with Vanja Milinkovic-Savic coming in next season. I’m also highly impressed by Ben Pearson, and I’ll send him out on loan this season, with a view to promoting him into the first team next season. I also usually sign a couple of teenagers in the transfer market, allowing them to develop in the U-21s and U-18s for a season or two, before throwing them into the first team.

With regard to the season expectations, I reached an agreement with the Board that continental qualification, and I’m talking European Champions Cup, not the Euro Cup, is a realistic and eminently achievable target. I’ve been given a $107-million transfer budget and a $5.75-million weekly wage budget to work with. The club is currently spending $ 4,931,880 per week on wages, and I’ll look to dramatically reduce that in 3 or 4 transfer windows by offloading dead-weight such as Jonny Evans, Victor Valdes (I’m sorry, he may be a multiple Champions League winner, and a World Cup-and-twice-European Championship winner, but there is no way I am paying $115,000 a week for a 32-year-old keeper who will miss the first 3 to 4 months of the season anyway), Ashley Young, Nani, and Tom Cleverly. I’m slightly affronted by the fact that United are paying $2,175,000 to just the top SIX earners in the first team, given that I have rarely paid that much to entire teams on Football Manager. Paying $206,000 per week to Antonio Valencia and Anders Lindegaard continues to rankle.

The complete lack of control over player wages needs to be addressed immediately.
Call me frugal, but the complete lack of control over player wages needs to be addressed immediately.

To make matters worse, the club has already indicated that I’ll only be allowed to retain 30% of all transfer revenue, given the club is paying $6 million per MONTH in debt repayments. I’ll try and cut down the wage spend to around $3,500,000 in a couple of seasons; this’ll automatically mean less star players earning hundreds of thousands a week, creating space for young players to be promoted to fill gaps in the squad. Also, it’s a bit of an ego trip to see four or five teams pay higher salaries per season than you, but still finish below you in the table!

Let’s take a look at my transfer activity, including deals for staff members, to conclude this post.

Outgoing Transfers

The first task is always to trim the squad, creating spaces and funds to bring in desired targets.

Ashley Young

As I’ll show you in my next post, I rarely play with wingers (although I did do this in the United save in FM14 I touched upon earlier, using Wilfried Zaha’s pace to full effect; I ended up selling him to Paris Saint-Germain for $51 million, even though he was valued at $22 million), and therefore I was keen to get rid of Ashley Young as quickly as possible, especially given that he wouldn’t get a game in the CAM position either, what with Mata, di Maria, Rooney, Januzaj, Fellaini, Nick Powell, and Andreas Pereira to choose from. Luckily, Swansea came in with a decent bid of $23 million, slightly below his market valuation, but I couldn’t be bothered. Unfortunately, as is often the case with a big club selling players accustomed to huge paychecks, Swansea demanded that I pay Young $110,000-a-week for 2 seasons. I complied, given it still saved me a good $90,000 a week.

Jonny Evans

Evans is just too easy to dislike. In all fairness, he’s actually a decent player in the game, and I remember him finishing in the Premier League Team of the Year on a couple of occasions in my FM14 save, after I’d sold him to Arsenal. But I didn’t feel like managing him, especially since his report showed he’s fairly slow, unlikely to improve, and–most importantly–susceptible to injuries. Newcastle came in with a $20 million bid, which I duly accepted, agreeing to contribute $30,500-a-week to his wages for 2 seasons. Goodbye, Evans.

Anders Lindegaard

The Danish goalkeeper didn’t last long either, since I already had De Gea and Victor Valdes in the first team. $5 million was a decent amount; I potentially could have gotten more had I played hardball, but I was desperate to get him off the books.

I haven't been too busy in the transfer market, but I feel the signings will all bed in very well.
I haven’t been too busy in the transfer market, but I feel the signings will all bed in very well.

The only other major outgoing transfer was that of Michael Carrick to Arsenal in January for the paltry sum of $600,000. He was injured at the beginning of the game, and played barely a handful of games, and it was always my intention to get rid of him (i.e. to not offer him a new contract, given his current deal would expire in the summer of 2015). I didn’t complain when I got paid to get rid of him in January. The fans weren’t happy at his departure, and let their displeasure be known.

Radamel Falcao

In a move that will probably not make sense to anyone but me, I terminated Falcao’s loan deal almost immediately. Now, his attributes are almost all sensational, and he scores 30 goals a season in just about every FM15 save I see on Youtube, but the fact that he is prone to injuries and would have cost me $425,000-a-week made the decision to terminate his loan seem sensible. Also, I felt his absence would give players like Ashley Fletcher and James Wilson a chance to get some game time under their belts.

Falcao's attributes are off the chart, but so are his wages.
Falcao’s attributes are off the chart, but so are his wages.

I’m waiting for Nani and Chicharito to return to the club next season, so I can sell them as well. My friend said he was contemplating renewing Cleverly’s contract (also set to expire in 2015) just so he could sell him, but I wasn’t prepared to take that risk. These players can be hard to sell sometimes, as proven by Nick Powell, who is still at the club despite my rather frank communication that his time at the club is most likely over.

Incoming Deals: Loans + Permanent

Now for the interesting stuff.

Victor Wanyama

Again, my reason for bringing the 23-year-old Kenyan in will become clear after the next post, where I discuss my tactical setup, but let’s just say that I value hard-working, physical midfield enforcers with high attributes for tackling, strength, stamina, work rate, and determination, since they complement the rest of my midfield perfectly. I only had Marouane Fellaini who fit into that mold, and given the unnaturally frequent occurrence of injuries on FM15, this clearly wouldn’t be enough. I explored options such as Sami Khedira (a tad expensive, I know, but with superb attributes across the board. Unfortunately, he signed an extension with Real Madrid a few days after I publicly declared an interest in him.

Edit: I’m reading this on 26th August, a full two months after it was posted, and I can’t help but be amazed at how realistic Football Manager is. Just as Sami Khedira used my public expression of interest in signing him to coax Real Madrid into offering him a huge bump in wages in a cushy long-term deal, Sergio Ramos has done so in real life. FM, I tip my hat to you.

Other candidates included Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton wanted $48 million for him, and so I politely declined), Maxime Gonalons (who had done very well for me in my United save on FM14, and would have been dirt cheap), and–believe it or not–Nigel de Jong, the former Manchester City midfielder, and notorious wanted criminal.

Well, they do say United failed to adequately replace Roy Keane in midfield. Any takers for Karate Cunt de Jong?
Well, they do say United failed to adequately replace Roy Keane in midfield. Any takers for Karate Cunt de Jong?
Nigel de Jong has attributes to die for, including EVERYthing in the Mental list, in addition to excellent Marking, Stamina, and Strength. An enforcer if there ever was one.
Nigel de Jong has attributes to die for, including EVERYthing in the Mental list, in addition to excellent Marking, Stamina, and Strength. An enforcer if there ever was one.

No, seriously, I did go for de Jong, only to cancel the transfer because of his age and wage demands, and his susceptibility to injury. The idea to sign him came from the huge success of a deal I conducted with Wigan in the FM2014 save I mentioned earlier. After my first two seasons in the Premier League, I signed then-34-year-old Argentinian midfielder Javier Mascherano on a two-year deal from Velez Sarsfield for $250,000. He acted as the perfect leader of a midfield consisting of the likes of Ryan Ledson, Josip Radosevic, Jack Collison, and Chris Cohen, and was stellar during his time at the club. He undoubtedly helped raise the profile of the club, allowing us to sign top European players such as Ivan Rakitic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Anthony Martial, Gerard Pique, and Dani Alves, to name a few, later on. Anyway, I felt de Jong could come in on a short-term deal and give our midfield that strong presence both on and off the pitch, at least until I found the right player for the long run. You can see from his attributes why he would have done well for us.

Anyway, I ended up paying $26 million for the younger Victor Wanyama. Given his incredible attributes, age, and lower wage demands, he was a very attractive signing, and should fit into the team perfectly.

Wanyama is no slouch, with unbelievable Mental and Physical ratings, and superb Tackling to boot.
Wanyama is no slouch, with unbelievable Mental and Physical ratings, and superb Tackling to boot.

Eder Alvarez Balanta

Anyone who has ever played FM14 or FM15 knows about this Colombian behemoth. Arguably one of the best defenders in the game, he becomes unplayable at age 21, when his attributes reach their absolute pinnacle, and it was a no brainer bringing him to the club. At $14.5 million, it was a bit of a steal as well, and I loaned him back to River till January 2015.

Those attributes at age 21 are a bit of a joke.
Those attributes at age 21 are a bit of a joke.

Worryingly, though, his report shows he is fairly susceptible to injuries. Might have to watch out for that one.

Melker Hallberg + Youri Tielemans

As I’ve said, I’m always looking for young players to sign for the Under-21s, before blooding them into the first team over a couple of seasons. And so I went searching for midfielders who could possibly replace di Maria and Fellaini in 3 seasons, given that they’re getting on in years.

A guaranteed first team starter in 3 years.
A guaranteed first team starter in 3 years.

Youri Tielemans was an easy choice, even though I had to pay a lot for him. $20 million up front plus another $10 million in appearance clauses may have been uncharacteristically expensive, but from what I’ve heard and read about him, it was a no-brainer.

A decent squad player in a few years.
A decent squad player in a few years.

Hallberg came in much cheaper, and has decent attributes. He may not become a first team star, but should certainly be able to stake a claim for a position in the first team in a couple of seasons.

Santi Mina

Now, given I rationalized the termination of Falcao’s loan by saying it would give youth players a chance, you might be surprised that I signed another striker. I did so because I could not leave Rooney and van Persie as the only senior striker in my team, especially since van Persie is injury prone as well, and getting on in years. Thus, I went looking for a cheap but reliable striker, and settled on the young Celta Vigo striker, Santi Mina.

Wait, who? I could have gone for the tried and tested FM wonderkids like Gabriel Barbosa, Mitrovic, Berardi, or others, or signed the next sensational unheard-of 17-year-old striker. But I chose Mina simply because his attributes were excellent, and he was cheap. He seemed to have the right mental attributes as well, and I felt he’d do very well alongside the workman-like Rooney in van Persie’s absence due to injuries.

Decent Mentals, strong Technique, and quite cheap: the perfect Football Manager transfer.
Decent Mentals, strong Technique, and quite cheap: the perfect Football Manager transfer.

An initial loan deal with monthly payments of $25,000 was made permanent in January after a series of excellent performances that proved he is no Iago Aspas.

Mateo Musacchio

With Jones, Smalling, Rojo, Balanta, and Mcnair already on the books, why would I spend nearly $30 million on another defender in January? Well, that’s because Musacchio had been exceptional for Villareal in the first half of the season, and given I was slightly short of strength in depth in midfield, I decided to play Jones predominantly as a CDM, thus making space for a fourth senior central defender.

Again, strong Physicals and Mentals, and great core Defender attributes (Heading, Marking, Passing, Tackling) make him a capable first team player).
Again, strong Physicals and Mentals, and great core Defender attributes (Heading, Marking, Passing, Tackling) make him a capable first team player).

Musacchio’s attributes are great, and given he’s only 23 years old, the transfer fee didn’t seem too high.

In all, I spent $106 million, and received $49.09 million, for a net spend of $56,910,000. And as of the end of the first season, I’d reduced the wage spend by $500,000. Given that Valdes, Nani, Valencia, Chicharito, and possibly even van Persie can be expected to depart in the next 12 months, the salaries should reach the $4 million-per-week mark.

Decent progress on the wage spend front.
Decent progress on the wage spend front.

Staff Deals

Not too many changes in staff.
Not too many changes in staff.

As I said, the club was employing far more scouts than necessary, so I reached mutual termination agreements with six of them, including the experienced Derek Langley. My basis for deciding on which scouts to retain is that anyone with “Judging Player Potential” and Judging Player Ability” of less than 17 should leave, although a higher rating for the former can sometimes atone for an average rating for the latter. Obviously, Louis van Gaal found himself out of a job (my internal FM monologue, about which you shall read as the series progresses, attributed his sudden departure to his wife not settling in England. I told you, I’m addicted, and will go to any lengths to augment the hyper-realism of the game).

As for arrivals, I only brought in two coaches, Germany’s Thomas Tuchel for his Tactical and Attacking Coaching, and Italian Ivan Zauli for his expertise in Technical Coaching, specifically Ball Control.

I still think we are a little light on the coaching front, and on several occasions, I had players complaining about a lack of focus from coaches on individual training. Beefing up the backroom staff will definitely be on the agenda next season.

So anyway, that’s about it for this introductory installment to the series. I’ll post the next one in a few days, with detailed analysis of Outgoing Loan deals over the course of the season, and an overview of my Tactics, approach to Training, and our pre-season progress. Thanks for reading!

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