We’ve all tried looking for the next Bobby Moore or Franco Baresi on Football Manager, that immovable object at the heart of your defense to form the backbone of a team that can dominate for a decade. We’ve all pored through reams of data on dozens of highly-rated center-backs, and we’ve had scouts prepare report after report about their strengths and weaknesses. After around nine months of doing this on Football Manager 2015, we’re fast approaching that time of year when we begin to look forward to the next iteration of everyone’s favourite hyper-realistic football management simulation (I won’t go as far as to call it a “game”; to borrow from a legendary Liverpool manager, I can assure you it is much, much more important than that).
As the countdown to Football Manager 2016 begins, I’m sure we’ll all be treated to several new updates, improvements in the user interface, and exciting features in scouting, contract negotiations, and the transfer market (I, for one, am hoping we can manage Under-21 teams on a full-time basis, among other things). However, there can really be no question that the most exciting aspect of the new game will, like always, be the players. Which new wonderkids are waiting to be unearthed, which players are available on a free transfer, or entering the final year of their contract? Which young stars from FM14 and FM15 have deteriorated, and which have improved? I’m going to try and guess an answer to that last question, by looking at the five young center-backs I think will be the best on FM16. Obviously, all I’ll have to work with is the players’ development in real life, the data from FM14 and FM15, and most importantly my experiences playing with and against them on the last two Football Manager games.
I’ll be dealing purely with center-backs in this post, but would love to write about the hottest prospects in other positions if the feedback is good. On that note, I’d love to know your thoughts about the players I write about, and the ones I’ve missed out on that you think are among the handful of young center-backs who turn into legitimate legends in the Football Manager universe.
Let’s get started.
5. Doria, Marseille and Brazil
A fantastic left-footed center-back with as balanced a set of attributes as you could ask for in a 20-year-old. Usually players have excellent attributes on the Technical and Mental side, but their Physicals let them down. Or they have fantastic Mentals and Physicals, but their Technicals let them down. Basically, you rarely find a player, other than the likes of Messi and Ronaldo and the usual suspects who breathe the rarefied air reserved for living legends, who can be called truly complete in every aspect of the game. And you can be sure you won’t find too many such players who are 20 years old.
I’ve seen Doria mature into a world-class center-back in almost every save I’ve played in FM14 and FM15. He almost always ends up at a Paris Saint-Germain or (in most cases in my experience) Man United by 2017 or 2018, and you rarely see him get ratings of less than 7.2. or 7.3. And that’s on Football Manager 2015, which is notorious for being prone to way too many defensive lapses and is generally an attacker-friendly game.
Play Doria on the left-side of your central defensive partnership, and you have someone who can head (15), mark (14), tackle (14), pass (10), has technique (14), concentration (11), composure (14), determination (16), and is physically a monster. He has the Positioning (12), Anticipation (13) and Composure (14) to be a highly capable covering defender, a role that I prefer one of my two defenders to be excellent at.
The main reason Doria isn’t higher on this list is that I have a strong feeling his attributes and potential for growth will be downgraded in the game given his woes in real life. He joined Marseille in a 7 million euro deal but failed to make a single appearance for the French side, and his return to Brazil on loan with Sao Paulo has been unspectacular. Another example of a player who is an absolute beast in the game is Man United’s Phil Jones, who consistently achieves 7.40-7.50 average ratings over a 40-game season, and can play at center-back, right-back, defensive midfield and even as a ball-winning central midfielder. His attributes in the game will almost certainly go downhill given his stuttering development at Old Trafford.
4. Aymeric Laporte
Next up on the list is a French center-back who plays for Athletic Bilbao and is devilishly difficult to sign (I have never signed him), and for good reason. One look at his attributes will tell you he has all the makings of a world class defender with an education at one of the most attack- and possession-oriented teams in Spanish football. The Bilbao youth graduate has strong Physicals for a 20-year-old in all categories bar Balance (9), and his “internal Mentals” (attributes that indicate individual mental strength and don’t involve interaction with team-mates) are all superb, ranging from a solid 10 in Composure to 15 in Anticipation and Bravery. Strong core Technicals of 15 in Heading, 15 in Marking, and 17 in Tackling make him highly suited to the Premier League, and a 13 in Technique and Passing, and 15 in Positioning make him perfect for a more technically-proficient side that focuses on possession-based football.
Indeed, the team I’ve seen him join most often on my saves is Arsenal, where he consistently scores average ratings of 8.05-8.10 throughout full seasons. Rarely caught of position, excellent in the air, a strong marker, and an able passer, Laporte breezes through games. A class act. The only issue with him is the ridiculous amount of money it takes to sign him, with even 40 million dollar bids usually insufficient to interest Bilbao.
3. John Stones
A Rolls-Royce of a defender if there ever was one. F0r managers like me who enjoy managing top clubs in England, Stones is an absolute must-have; not only is he by far the best English center-back in the game, his home-grown status adds to the long list of reasons I make him one of my first signings when looking to rebuild a side’s defense.
His attributes in FM14 were already excellent, but FM15 saw a significant increase in all the attributes you look for in a ball-playing defender: Marking (12 to 14), Passing (14 to 15), Composure (14 to 15), Concentration (13 to 14), Decisions (11 to 13), and Positioning (13 to 15), in addition to most of the Physicals.
Stones can play at center-back, right-back (thanks to excellent Crossing, Acceleration and Stamina), and is a major threat from set-pieces — what else would you expect from a 6’2” center-back with a 14 Heading and 15 Jumping Reach? He rarely commits fouls, gets caught out of position, and is a consistent performer. He’ll easily get an average rating of 7.45-7.50 a season, and seeing as I am at my wit’s end to find any weaknesses in his game, I think it’s fair to say he was excellent in FM14 and 15.
I am confident he’ll get even better in FM16, thanks to another excellent season in the Everton season, where his 28 first-team appearances were enough to convince Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich he is worth shelling out 30 million pounds. Assuming he remains an Everton player when FM16 comes out, the game may give FM players their last chance to sign Stones for less then 25 or 30 million pounds, since he’s fast approaching that valuation in real life. I personally see Stones becoming one of the world’s top defenders over the next two or three years, and his performances in FM certainly indicate he’s fully capable of that.
2. Eder Alvarez Balanta
I’d hazard a guess that Balanta is probably one of the most frequently-purchased players by FM veterans over the last two iterations of the game. Players like Youri Tielemans, Memphis Depay and Kristoffer Ajer (the greatest bargain of all time?) have gained momentum of late, but only in FM15. If you go back one year to FM14, only Gabriel Barbosa compares to Balanta from the crop of teenagers in terms of sheer popularity with FM players. And there are plenty of reasons for this.
Despite being just a year older than Doria, Balanta’s attributes are so far ahead of the Brazilian’s. The Colombian center-back scores solid 12-15 ratings in each of the major Technicals and Physcials required for his position, with stand out readings for Marking (18), Aggression (16), and Determination (17). However, that is where I feel the one of the few chinks in his armor begin to appear. Balanta may be the complete defender at age 21, and is helped by the fact that he can play at left-back and has a very low starting wage, making him a relatively cheap target in FM15, but he has proven to be prone to flashes of red every now and then, mainly due to his aggression. In addition to a poor disciplinary record, he is also fairly susceptible to injuries. In one save for Man United in FM15, I signed him in July 2014, sent him straight back to River Plate on loan for the rest of the year, where he played 2 games due to injury problems. When he joined me in January, he promptly got injured for two months five minutes into his first 45-minute run-out with the Under-21s.
In my experience with Balanta, he is slightly let down by his excellent marking and aggressive approach to defending which, combined with his lower-than-average Composure (11), Concentration (12), Decisions (11), Agility (11). This combination of attributes means he gets caught out in defense more often than a player of his quality should. He seems to enjoy marking strikers very tightly, and even though I rarely play with a high defensive line or play the offside trap, he automatically pushes much higher than he needs to, leaving my other central defender stranded and our team susceptible to through balls. In fact, using Balanta at center-back (and facing this problem I discussed) led me to discover the Covering role, which I always use for one of my central defenders, either to compensate for an overly aggressive defender like Balanta, or a slower defensive partner.
Anyway, rambling aside, I have a few issues with Balanta, but there can be no denying that he will only get better on Football Manager, judging by his performances for River Plate in real life, which have been receiving rave reviews. It’s a selfish thought, but I am sure fellow FM fanatics will hope he doesn’t move to Barcelona in real life for at least another two or three seasons (he has been linked to the Catalan giants quite frequently), because if he does, he’ll basically be impossible to buy at any price. Maybe even that won’t completely dissuade some of us though; Balanta is just that good.
But that still doesn’t make him the best young defender on Football Manager.
1. Kurt Zouma
Now, having been through Balanta and Stones’ attributes, which are consistently above average across the board, you may be slightly underwhelmed by Zouma’s readings, especially for Concentration (11) and Decisions (11), two mental attributes you’d want in your defenders. However, look at that near-perfect combination of Heading (16), Marking (14), Tackling (15), Determination (16), Balance (17), Jumping Reach (16), and Strength (17), and you’ll see why I feel Zouma is not only an accomplished defender, but is truly phenomenal at attacking set-pieces.
I may sound like a broken record to those who have read my other articles about Football Manager, but I have never seen anyone as good at scoring from corners at the near post. In two seasons with United in an FM14 save, Zouma scored 25 goals in all competitions, all of which came from corners.
As I mentioned earlier, Eder Alvarez Balanta’s susceptibility to making mistakes at the back made me understand the importance of the Covering role for a central defender, and after a fair bit of experimentation, I arrived at Zouma. His decent ratings for Composure (13), Anticipation (14), Positioning (13) Agility (13) and Pace (14) make him ideal for the covering role, which involves dropping deeper to prevent the opposition from playing through balls.
All this, and he’s only 19. Check out what he looks like at 24:
His I have read a few posts on chat forums about how Nicholas N’koulou is an ideal defensive partner for the slightly erratic Balanta, and while I can’t comment on that, having never managed him, I personally think Zouma provides consistency at the very highest level, and a defensive partnership of Zouma and Balanta would be very difficult to top.
So there you have it: my thoughts on possibly the five best young central defenders FM16 will have to offer. You may have noticed I missed out on the likes of Raphael Varane, Marquinhos, Jesus Vallejo, and other well-known young defenders. Varane was left out because he’s 22, and will be 23 during the 2015-16 campaign, and although he turns into a world-class, 7.80-rating-a-season player in Football Manager, putting him into this list would be a little unfair to the others, seeing as he’s already world-class. Jesus Vallejo was left out because I literally have never played with or against him, so wouldn’t know the first thing about him (on aggregate, I have played around 35 seasons on FM14, but only 3 on FM15).
So these are the players I think you should look at before anyone else when deciding on how to strengthen your back lines. Granted, Laporte will cost tens of millions, and Chelsea and Everton won’t let go of Zouma and Stones easily, but Doria and Balanta should be available for reasonable sums of money, making them irresistible prospects.