With the November 13 initial release of Football Manager 2016 almost upon us, if you thought you’re the most excited person on the planet, well, get in line. For the last few weeks, I’ve been revisiting fond memories of epic saves in Football Manager 2014 and 2015, including a historic decade-long stay at Wigan Athletic, a trophy-laden five-year career at Manchester United that saw the expansion of a stadium, a new all-time club-record goal-scorer (Andre Schurrle, in case you’re interested), and the emergence of three or four guaranteed legends from the youth system, and, most recently, a short-lived season-long stint at United in FM15. However, needless to say, most of my attention has been devoted to the upcoming version, and the possible saves one could embark on.
Throughout my time playing Football Manager, I’ve focused mainly on clubs in the Premier League, occasionally dabbling in management in the Championship. I’ve rarely looked abroad for lack of familiarity with players and, quite honestly, any special connection, let alone affiliation, to the clubs. Therefore I’ll almost certainly be taking charge of a Premier League side for my first few saves in Football Manager 16. Having considered the 20 sides in the Premier League, these are the five teams I think present the most exciting challenge for managers in the new game. To make things interesting, I’ve selected one side from each of the following categories — title challenger, European Champions Cup qualification challenger, and newly-promoted side — with the other two teams vying for a top-ten finish, and potentially Europa League qualification. Let’s get started!
With Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, and Artur Boruc all departing St. Mary’s at the start of the 2014/15 season, and Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne, and Toby Alderweireld seeking pastures new at the start of this campaign, Southampton has seen dramatic change over the last 24 months. The likes of Dusan Tadic, Ryan Bertrand, Sadio Mane, and Graziano Pelle have helped build a fantastic new core to the squad, but players like Victor Wanyama, Matthew Targett, James Ward-Prowse remain attractive targets in the transfer window.
The dual challenges of achieving European qualification while staving off interest from bigger clubs make the manager’s job at Southampton a particularly attractive one. Recent upheavals to the squad will allow the incoming manager to stamp his authority and imprint on the squad and playing style, and the club’s track record of nurturing quality talent through its youth academy will add to the dilemma: does one spend big to keep up with rivals like Tottenham and Everton, or is keeping an eye on the future more important?
Of the three newly-promoted sides, only Bournemouth stands out as worth managing. I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Norwich or Watford, but the former has very few players that excite me, and the latter has by far the best squad of the three sides, making ensuring Premier League survival a little less of a challenge at Vicarage Road. Bournemouth, however, present the happy alignment of a number of factors that make taking the hotseat at Dean Court well worth your time.
Firstly, you’ll find very few clubs with a more fascinating rags-to-riches story than Bournemouth; teetering dangerously on the edge of relegation from the Football League in 2009, they went on to win three promotions in six seasons, earning a spot in the Premier League for the first time in their history on the final day of the 2014/15 Championship season. Secondly, they’ve won the hearts of neutral supporters with an extremely attractive brand of football, and Football Manager 2016 will allow managers to test themselves against the standards of Eddie Howe’s former sides (as if we really need any more reasons to get immersed in the game).
Thirdly, and crucially, taking charge at Bournemouth will allow us to see how the side would have done in the Premier League this season had they not lost talismanic striker Callum Wilson to an anterior cruciate ligament injury in late September. Wilson had scored 45 goals in his last two seasons (at Coventry and then Bournemouth), and would have been integral to any success Howe would have achieved this season.
3. Manchester United
How exactly is taking on a 13-time Premier League-winning side that has spent almost £300 million pounds in the transfer market in two seasons a challenge? Well, consider this. Record signing Angel di Maria left the club in the summer, while the club also lost Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie — two extremely potent goal-scorers in Football Manager 2015 — leaving them with only three recognized first-team strikers, two of whom are 19 years old with 90 senior professional appearances between them.
Add to this the fact that Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger are both in their 30s, and United’s youth system is showing little evidence of a world-class youngster waiting in the wings, and you have a squad that will need further tinkering in the transfer window. The final straw is the obscene wages United pays to its players, which makes getting rid of the likes of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Anders Lindegaard, Victor Valdes, and now Sergio Romero all the more challenging. What does one do with Wayne Rooney? Will you relent to fans’ pleas to see Ander Herrera given game time? Where does Marouane Fellaini feature in your plans? These are all questions that will need to be answered by whoever decides to take over from Louis van Gaal.
However, managing Manchester United will have its perks: namely, the opportunity to see Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay, two wonderkids from recent iterations of the game, play and grow together, and the chance to bring those magical European nights back to Old Trafford. I will be taking charge of United in my first FM16 save, and I’ll write an article about my specific motivations for doing so, and hope to have it up soon!
2. West Ham United
What with their 13th and 12th-placed finishes in the last two seasons and the departure of Sam Allardyce, and pundits predicting bottom-half finishes for Slaven Bilic’s side, it’s easy to forget just how good a squad the Croatian manager has at his disposal. New signings Angelo Ogbonna, Nikica Jelavic, and Dimitri Payet, and loan signings Alex Song, Carl Jenkinson, Victor Moses, and Manuel Lanzini add to the likes of Winston Reid, James Tomkins, Aaron Cresswell, Cheikhou Kouyate, Mark Noble, Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia, Mauro Zarate, and Andy Carroll, giving the side a strong, hard-working British core with a healthy dose of South American flair, and African work ethic.
One of two other incentives for taking charge of West Ham is the spectacular start Bilic has made to life in the Premier League; away wins against Arsenal, Manchester City, and Liverpool, and the recent home defeat of Jose Mourinho’s struggling Chelsea, are not to be taken lightly, and it will be interesting to see how far one can take West Ham in Football Manager 2016.
Also, the club’s move to London’s 60,000-seater Olympic Stadium for the start of the 2016-17 campaign should add significant weight to ticket receipts and hence the transfer budget available, which will provide the push required to move West Ham from a top-ten challenger to a prime candidate for European football.
With Luis Suarez and club legend Steven Gerrard having left the club, and Brendan Rodgers sacked in October, it truly is a period of transition at Anfield. Incoming manager Jurgen Klopp will have a huge challenge on his plate, and the early evidence shows it will take a lot more than four seasons for him to deliver a long-awaited Premier League title to the Kop. I feel Liverpool presents the biggest challenge to a Football Manager fanatic because of the distinctly average squad, and the significant obstacles to Premier League glory created by Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and even Spurs, all of whom have better and more well-rounded squads.
A major problem for Liverpool will be that Football Manager traditionally undervalues their two best players — Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho; both were less effective in Football Manager 2015 than you would have expected given their actual ability, with Mario Balotelli ironically their best striker in the game. With Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke, Danny Ings, James Milner and co. unlikely to steal the show, a lot will depend on how effective Coutinho and Sturridge can be in the game. Let’s not get started on Sturridge’s injury issues.
So there you have it: my take on the five most exciting managerial opportunities in the Premier League. I’d love to know which clubs you intend on managing when Football Manager 2016 is released!