FM2015: Experiments with Manchester United — The Premier League campaign is upon us!

For those of you who are new to this series I’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks, it’s basically a tool for me to continue indulging my deep-rooted addiction to Football Manager. Seeing as I felt simply playing the game wasn’t enough, I thought writing about a save would be the most productive thing for me to do, and certainly the next best thing to playing the game (and it has proved to be exactly that — I haven’t actually played the save I write about in this series for 2 weeks; I thought it’d be impossible for me to write about my first season if I was halfway through the second; it’s difficult enough as is!). And so, what you’re reading is the third installment of this series that is the brainchild of my highly deformed, riddled-with-debilitating-addiction mind: a 6- or 7-part series — I really can’t afford to write more articles than that, owing to my desperate yet failing attempts to maintain some semblance of order amid the chaos that is real life — about a save I started with Manchester United in FM2015.

It’s been almost two weeks (and I do apologize for the delay, a virus caused all my web browsers to crash, and I had to re-install Windows, thus losing FM2015 and this save. In light of these events, the purpose of this article has been adjusted. Now the last installment of this prematurely abandoned series, all I’ll do is summarize the first 3 Premier League games of the season (and one Capital One Cup fixture) in the style I had intended to use throughout the series, and any potential follow ups. I’ll write another article, summarizing the league season using whatever screenshots I’d managed to take at the end of the season, but the main purpose of this article is to ascertain whether you guys like my style enough to want to read more) since I wrote the second installment of this series, in which I discussed Outgoing Loans and in-match Tactics, and gave a brief overview of my approach to Training. If you want to take a look at the Transfers I made at the start of the 2014-15 season, click here. Just one last bit of housekeeping before I get started with a look at our Pre-season preparation and the first two months of the Premier League campaign; I started this blog on 14th May, and have written 20 posts since then. The blog passed the 1,000-reader mark sometime last week, so I’d like to (belatedly, thanks to the virus-enforced blackout) thank anyone who’s been tolerating my rambling this long. Writing about football (Manager) is great fun, and I’d probably do it even if 3 people (including the ones I paid) read my work, but receiving the feedback I have has been extremely gratifying.

Anyway, down to business.

Pre-Season

We started off amid a storm of injuries, with just about every member of the squad suffering from some affliction that merited weeks, and sometimes months, on the touchline. Valdes and Carrick were indisposed for the remainder of the calendar year, and there was no point including Luke Shaw in my plans for the first 2 months of the campaign. Falcao was injured from the very beginning, and that meant he got very few minutes to prove that he was capable of justifying his exorbitant loan fee and weekly wages. Robin van Persie and a few others would also be on the sidelines for a large part of the pre-season training camp in China.

Man Utd 3 – 1 Man Utd Under 21s

The first game of pre-season was a bit closer to home, with the senior team facing off against the Under-21s in Leigh, Greater Manchester, in what was mainly an opportunity for me to test my team’s suitability to my selected formation, and to gauge the ability of some of the Under-21 players, in order to decide whether any of them deserved a spot in the first team.

Man Utd v Man Utd Under 21s_ Overview Overview

Rooney gave us the lead in the 23rd minute, scoring from the spot after Tyler Blackett felled Ashley Fletcher inside the box. A minute later, we doubled the lead, with a Rooney cross from the left side of the pitch headed past Lindegaard by the unlikeliest of candidates for a near post header, Juan Mata. The second half saw us emerge with a seemingly comfortable two-goal cushion, but a frantic opening 5 minutes saw that lead halved, then restored. Callum Evans beat our LWB Daley Blind and put in a superb cross that James Wilson got to before either Smalling or Jones, and we had been pegged back to 2-1. However, after a spell of quick exchanges of possession, we broke down the left, with Blind playing in Fletcher, who switched the ball to Rooney, who squared it first time for Spanish attacking midfielder Juan Mata to slot in his second, effectively sealing the game. The game saw a flurry of substitutions that killed any lingering momentum, and the last 30 minutes were treated as a training exercise for fitness reasons.

A solid start to pre-season, with no player shining except for two-goal Juan Mata and captain Wayne Rooney, who had a hand in all 3 United goals. A sign of things to come during the season ahead?

Shanghai Shenhua 0 – 2 Man Utd

The first game of the training camp saw us travel to Shenhua, with former Premier League icon Tim Cahill in their ranks.

Shenhua v Man Utd_ Overview Overview

We opened the scoring through Angel di Maria, who sneaked in at the first post to connect with a Phil Jones flick-on from a Rooney free-kick on the right side of the pitch. We sealed the result 6 minutes before half-time, with Rooney showing why he is unique, sprinting 30 yards up the pitch after winning a clearing header from a Shenhua free-kick, making two bone-crunching tackles, carrying the ball almost the entire length of the pitch before replicating Mata’s second goal against the Under-21s, feeding the Spaniard with a low cross. Game over, and I changed the in-game instructions to a much less taxing combination, opting to see out the game and build fitness.

The game was closer and cagier than the first, and even though we had more shots on goal (19 vs 17 in the first game), the ball was most often circulated in midfield, as evinced by the fact that our two best players were Herrera and di Maria. In a lower midfield diamond of Fellaini (CDM-BWM), di Maria (LCM-AP), and Herrera (RCM-RPM), we only had one physically imposing ball-winner, and this probably contributed to us marginally conceding control of the midfield in our first two games (Ben Pearson played against the Under-21s instead of Herrera). These two games left me hoping the introduction of Wanyama to the team would help us control games in the middle of the park.

Guizhou Renhe 0 – 4 Man Utd

Finally, things clicked into gear, as we fielded an almost unchanged side, bar a barely-fit Falcao coming in for youth product Ashley Fletcher. Daley Blind opened the scoring from an Antonio Valencia cross down the right. That our two wing-backs created the first goal shows how dominant we were, as do the stats: 24 shots versus 12, and 55% ball possession. Blind was involved in the second goal, crossing from the byline for Falcao to score from an excellent flicked header. Rooney had a hand in the next two goals, setting di Maria up for a well-placed finish, before scoring at the near post himself.

Renhe v Man Utd_ Overview Overview

With regard to insights from the game, the really valuable one was that using wing-backs, especially with players suited to the roles, can work wonders. As you can see, Blind and Valencia had excellent games, involved in 2 and 3 of the goals respectively. Fellaini’s physical presence was crucial in winning the ball back for Falcao’s goal, although Wanyama was again missed, with us conceding majority control of the midfield yet again. A feature of the first the matches was that the percentage of the game for which the ball was in our possession in our defensive third was always in the single digits, with huge emphasis on midfield and attack. Having wing-backs, a packed midfield, and decent ball-playing defenders allows us to make quick transitions from the back.

Jeju Utd 1 – 0 Man Utd

For reasons quite beyond my understanding, our next game was against Korean opposition, not Chinese. That we lost this game can be put down to us being on the receiving end of FM’s affinity for screwing with our minds. With 24 shots against Jeju’s 5, and 59% possession, I cannot fathom how we didn’t score, let alone win.

Jeju v Man Utd_ Overview Overview

New signings Wanyama, Mina, and Rojo came in, and Jones played at RWB, and you can see our fitness levels were generally poor, worse than they were after the previous 3 games. Managing fitness would have to be a major part of my plans for the season, despite the lack of European football.

Jiangsu Sainty 1 – 3 Man Utd

We ended pre-season on a positive note, with Mina, Rojo, and Valencia giving us a comfortable win tarnished only by their late consolation. Di Maria had by far his best game (or should I say most effective game) since joining, setting up Mina for a 20-yard thunder-bolt into the top corner, and then Rojo for — wait for it — an overhead kick at the near post from a corner! Valencia scored a left-footed beauty to seal the game.

Jiangsu v Man Utd_ Overview Overview

As I had suspected, Wanyama’s inclusion for the games against Jeju and Jiangsu saw us control the midfield, and cemented my faith that the signing would come good for me over the course of the season, despite Wanyama only achieving 6.7 and 6.9 ratings in the two games.

We entered the first game of the season, a home tie against newly-promoted Burnley on the back of a largely positive pre-season, with my tactical system largely validated given the expected domination of midfield when at full strength, and the quick transitions from the back, the penetration provided in wide areas by advanced full-backs, and the instrumental role played by Juan Mata in the attacking midfield position. Apparently the training camp had a highly positive impact on team morale as well, a welcome change from FM14, where training camps have negligible positive effects.

Let’s now take you through the first 6 weeks of the Premier League campaign, with 6 league games and one Capital One Cup game played.

Man Utd 4 -1 Burnley

The first game of the Premier League season got off to a flying start, with home advantage and a nearly full-strength side (with loanee Santi Mina in for Robin van Persie, whose recurring muscle injuries meant he couldn’t realistically be a part of my Starting XI plans till November or December) allowing us to cruise past newly-promoted Burnley.

Man Utd v Burnley_ Overview Overview

 First-half goals from Rooney (2) and Juan Mata saw us just about wrap the game up at half-time, allowing me to make all my substitutions (and change in-game instructions to Lower Tempo, Retain Possession, Look for Overlaps etc) at the hour-mark, to coast through the second half without taking unnecessary risks and tiring our players even further. Burnley capitalized, scoring in the 67th minute, but substitute James Wilson restored our three-goal cushion with a goal on the counter. In summary, a solid start to the season.

Key takeaways: All my expectations for the role performed by Wanyama and Fellaini were met, with their hard-tackling and physical approach to the game allowing us to win back possession quickly, and dominate their midfield. I started the season with Fellaini playing as the CDM with a BWM-Defend role, and Wanyama as the RCM with the BWM-Support role, and so Wanyama was expected offer a little more creatively. I ended up swapping their positions later on in the season, since Fellaini’s slightly superior passing ability meant he could do better in the Support role. On an un-related note, Wilson’s goal got me thinking about his role in the team for the season. With Santi Mina (7.3) showing signs of a positive understanding with Rooney, and with van Persie eventually bound to return from injury, how much game time would Wilson get?

Everton 4 -1 Man Utd

All hopes of us carrying on from where we left off against Burnley to create some early season momentum in our push for the European Champions Cup qualification places were dealt a shattering blow, with Romelu Lukaku and Leighton Baines absolutely destroying us. Goodison Park was always going to be a tough place to play, but little did I anticipate just how effective the big Belgian striker would be.

Everton v Man Utd_ Overview Overview

In the build up to the game, I centered my Opposition Instructions around the obvious threat of the Baines-Lukaku combination, with Baines being closed down more and showed onto his weaker foot, and Lukaku being marked tightly, closed down, and showed onto his weaker foot. I felt Rafael coming in at RWB for Phil Jones — who played there against Burnley — would be a positive, even though he was rushed back from injury, but the game got off to a poor start, with Lukaku scoring a header from a deep Baines cross in the 9th minute. A goal from Barry in the 39th minute forced me to make more attack-minded substitutions, with Januzaj and Herrera coming on for Wanyama and Fellaini before half-time in a move that proved to be suicidal. With all physical presence lost in midfield, Besic and Barry had a field day, and Lukaku absolutely dominated Smalling and Rojo. They were 4 goals up at the hour mark, and a goal from Rooney proved nothing more than scant consolation. After our excellent performance against Burnley, we were brought crashing down to earth.

Key takeaways: SIGN LUKAKU! I was mindful of the need for a long-term replacement for van Persie, and made multiple bids for him, but given he’d only just joined Everton for 28 million pounds, and was tearing teams a new one every weekend, Everton demanded upwards of 109 million dollars for him. Er, maybe not.

Stevenage 0 – 3 Man Utd

A seemingly straightforward draw in the Second Round of the Capital One Cup proved to be no problem for a partially weakened side, with us progressing with no major issues. I say partially only because the drubbing at Goodison Park reminded me not to take opponents lightly. After all, who wants to be on the receiving end of “an FM game”, if you know what I mean. And I say no “major” issues simply because it took us 38 minutes to score, and our next two goals both came in second-half stoppage time.

Stevenage v Man Utd_ Overview Overview

My selection saw Smalling, Rojo, Fellaini, di Maria, and Mata all rested, and my decision to give the likes of Tielemans and Januzaj a game was vindicated, with the former enjoying an assured if unspectacular first-team debut for Manchester United, and the latter getting 2 assists to his name. Our supremacy over Stevenage was apparent in that only 11% of ball possession took place in our defensive third.

Key takeaways: Despite our limited activity in the transfer window, we seem to have reasonable strength in depth. My rotation policy will be key in maintaining freshness and match fitness.

Man Utd 5 – 0 Queens Park Rangers

Our second Premier League home game of the season saw us return to winning ways after the disappointment against Everton, and in emphatic fashion. With Herrera in for an injured Fellaini our only change from the Everton game, and most of our first team players rested against Stevenage, we had no problems steamrolling a hapless QPR, with Rooney scoring his second brace in 3 Premier League games, and taking his tally to 6 goals in 4 appearances. Rojo scored for the second game in a row, again from a near-post header from a corner, proving the effectiveness of my attacking corner settings (see the second article of the series for a detailed description of my Tactics). But the most welcome news from the game was that Rafael scored two goals from RWB, using his amazing Physical attributes to bomb up and down the flank.

Man Utd v Q.P.R._ Overview Overview

Key takeaways: Rafael and Blind have been doing very well in the wing-back positions, and offer a lot going forward. Their higher position up the pitch allows the whole team to press higher, and they have been combining very well with Rooney, whose Defensive Forward-Support role means he is constantly putting pressure on opposition central defenders. With the wing-backs pressing high as well, they are well-equipped to find him with quick passes when we win the ball, and Rooney’s excellent finishing allows us to score on the counter, a United trademark.

Anyway, as I said earlier, owing to the extremely unfortunate re-installing of Windows on my laptop, I lost this save, and will discontinue this series on account of not being able to write detailed match descriptions. It’s been great fun writing about this save, the transfers, and my preferred tactical approach. I hope you enjoyed this article, and the two that came before it, and I really appreciate the positive feedback I’ve received.

I took some screenshots of the overall season results before I started working on this series of articles, and therefore I’ll officially conclude the series by giving you a review of the campaign in as detailed a manner as possible. That article should be out in the next two days!

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