Why I’m fed up with Football Manager
Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
I know football can be strange at times. I know results go against the form book all the time. I know teams have bad days where they just can’t get going. I know managers are often powerless in the face of poorly-performing players. But I’ve seen enough – Football Manager 2013 is impossible to handle without effectively bludgeoning it into submission.
Since buying the game when it first came out as a beta, I’ve started a lot of careers on there as usual. I am usually inclined to start with good teams, or at least teams with money – it’s difficult to turn around teams with poor squads and no money quickly, and I like a short-term game because they usually don’t hold my attention for very long before I start another career.
Also I usually take quite a long time in careers, either searching for players, playing all the friendlies, spending a while on tactics, and the aforementioned cheating – restarting matches if I feel that a poor result wasn’t justified. As I have shorter careers, I perhaps take individual matches more seriously than if I had a 20-season career, so I am more inclined to restarting matches. I try to avoid this where I can but sometimes I can’t help myself – I don’t like losing, especially unfairly, and the problem is once I restart one match, inevitably it leads to a second, third, fourth and eventually any match where I don’t win. And with this year’s version, I think I’m cheating a lot more, and it’s because I feel like I’m being cheated a lot more.
The reason? It’s virtually impossible to build a long string of good results, and it’s especially noticeable when you have a very good team.
A couple of months ago I started a game as Villarreal, whose squad is by far and away if the best in Spain’s Segunda Division – the players they retained are mostly Primera Division quality, and there is a big gulf between the two divisions, especially in the game which does have a tendency to exacerbate the difference.
But once into the league season, I found my team having plenty of lacklustre performances. Teams they should have been thrashing they were either meekly scraping wins against or even drawing with or losing to. It was incredibly frustrating – I had the players, I had the right tactics, the players were motivated by my press conferences and initially had positive morale. But then they’d just go onto the pitch and be really sloppy for no reason – passing was slow, the players would give the ball away easily and struggle to get it back, they weren’t creating chances, they weren’t chasing loose balls or hassling opposition attackers. It was as if they didn’t care.
Soon results were getting out of hand – the inexplicable draws in the middle of a very good run lowered morale, which led to defeats, and we started to slip way behind early pace setters Las Palmas, whose team was much less talented than mine and yet beat me comfortably. I had no depth beyond my excellent first choice players, and no money to spend on changing that, but the expectation was to win the league, which looked very unlikely. So after only 2 or 3 months of the season, I bailed – I applied for a few jobs and ended up taking the Sunderland job.
But I was determined to crack Spain, so I started a new career, beginning at Atletico Madrid. I built a strong side in the summer, and almost immediately beat Barcelona 4-0 in a ridiculous game at home. I went on a great run which put me top, but gradually 1 or 2 weak performances started creeping in. This time, I couldn’t hold myself back – I restarted one or two matches, and inevitably this led to more. By the end of the season it felt like I was restarting every single match, so keen was the game to make me trip up. But I couldn’t afford it as Barcelona and Real Madrid’s relentlessness meant I was always only a defeat from being reeled in, let alone considering the effect the loss of confidence would have. I won the league and everything else I entered, but it felt hollow.
So I started another career, this time at Luton Town, who have the best squad in the Conference in the game by a long way. I built on top of the squad still further with free loanees, and ended up with a team that FM was telling me was good enough to compete in League One, let alone League Two or the Conference.
And yet once again, the team became consistently lacklustre in games – that same sloppiness and lethargy as happened with the Villarreal team, despite the fact that the game was telling me that my team was better than the rest of the teams in the Conference and was high on confidence and morale. I’m not necessarily just talking playing against good teams here – I was playing some really bad ones that were struggling to pick up a win from anywhere and low on morale, and I was playing them at home, but I was struggling to beat them.
After just two matches I had started restarting games, which was incredibly annoying as I’d just started afresh in the hope that I wouldn’t. After about 15 matches, I’ve given up altogether – it has become virtually impossible to win a match without several attempts, which means it’s impossible to sustain form over anything longer than about four or five matches and that I’ll inevitably lose the lead of the league. This is not logical – I know football has a tendency to throw up surprise results, but the way leagues pan out is that if there is a team that is far superior to the rest of the teams in the league, they sustain good form for the whole season and win the league by a long way virtually every time. Even a team like Manchester United in the Premier League this season can win by a long way without being that much better than the rest of the teams in the league – this is the reality of football.
I initially thought my struggles with Villarreal were specific to that club but the fact that it has happened again with Luton shows that it’s not a coincidence. I’m happy to accept a defeat if it’s deserved but the way I see it is I don’t deserve to be losing these matches in this way – I’m doing everything right and yet the players are just deciding to play terribly, while the opposition are almost super-human, and everything the game is telling me suggests it should be the opposite. Plus after that, a defeat will almost certainly lead to an extended run of bad form, which means you can’t afford to lose – and yet the game isn’t letting you win.
The problem as I see it is that a lot of these matches seem at least partially pre-ordained before you’ve even started, in terms of form, team talks and press conferences answers, and I don’t believe that’s fair, especially as a lot of this is hidden – as far as the user is concerned, if morale is high in the team it shouldn’t be a problem, and yet the game may have already determined that the players are going to play badly in the next match. How can you work around this?
With FM12, I noticed that if I had a very good side, the way it would usually stop me winning was the other team parking the bus, or the opposition goalkeeper having the day of his life. Now I can understand having 60% possession and 20 shots but drawing 0-0 once in a season, but when it happens a few times in a row it just looks daft. And it’s very frustrating. This year, though, FM13 has gone even further – if it wants you to fail, it makes all of your players rubbish, instead of just the strikers, and all of the opposition players brilliant, instead of just the goalkeeper.
The way matches are effectively pre-ordained to make one side sloppy and the other side brilliant just makes the matches look ridiculous and futile, as it suddenly becomes very difficult to actually do what a manager does best – manage and organise the team in a match. Essentially if the game has said “sorry pal, you’re going to lose to Nuneaton”, you can play them in a 2-3-5 or 5-3-2, or use Attacking or Contain, and it won’t make a jot of difference.
And yet the “opposition manager”, controlled by the computer, can seemingly change the whole game as and when it feels like it. For some reason, if a particular change by either manager changes the pre-ordained result, it doesn’t just make the manager’s team play much better – it makes the other team play much worse. Despite being a genius, Jose Mourinho cannot magically make the opposition players go from being sharp and quick to sloppy, ponderous and lethargic after bringing on Luka Modric. If the match changes after a change like that, it’s because of the tactical implications, not because of the mentality. I can understand the players panicking after a change but not suddenly becoming slow and stupid. It’s just totally illogical.
The Football Manager games have always been on the premise that a match is a competition between the two managers, and that the computer manager has the same options as you. But I’ve increasingly felt that the opposition manager is colluding with the part of the game dealing with the matches themselves, and that they’re working against you – the overdrive kicks in and it’s game over.
This is why it’s not realistic – for a game that includes so many player attributes and statistics, it’s always happy to completely override them and make brilliant players rubbish and vice versa just so that it can have the “right” outcome. Obviously as it’s only a computer game determined by numbers there are only going to be a limited number of outcomes, but it seems to be done in such a crude way that the destined result becomes clear very early on in matches. A lot of the frustration comes from the fact that you know you’re not going to win this match within the first couple of highlights in the first half, because you can clearly see that your players are slow and ponderous while the other players are running rings around you and passing it around like Barcelona, and any changes you make can’t and won’t alter that.
Given that this is ultimately a video game, how is this fair? There should always be a way out of it in the match – in real life, the way to shake players up is the half time team talk, but even if you shout aggressively at your players to get the hell on with it and they respond positively with “seemed to gain focus” or “seemed motivated”, they go back out there and play in exactly the same manner. Even if you change the mentality to Attacking, it takes until the other manager switches to Defensive before it has any impact. What’s the point of these features if they make no difference to how your team is playing until the computer decides that they can make a difference?
As I said, I know players have bad days, but in actual football matches, nine times out of ten the form book is followed. Football isn’t that unpredictable – the best teams nearly always win league matches and thus the leagues themselves. Momentum is built over a long period of time. The manager of a good team usually has a fairly easy life. FM mostly pre-ordaining results effectively reduces the user’s responsibility (and thus the whole game, in effect) to building squads, and yet even that is cast aside as soon as you get a few wins – you’ll be knocked back soon enough, after which the attibutes of your players will be deemed irrelevant, and you have to start the process over again.
How often does this actually happen in a real season? The teams at the top of leagues usually have a couple of wobbles in their season, a dip in form lasting three or four matches – rebuilding form is not a constant cyclical process of “four wins then three defeats then four wins”; most of the time, a team’s form is stable through the season, be it consistently good or consistently bad. And yet when playing FM13 it feels like you’re in a constant battle with some unknown force to try and prevent the team spiralling out of control, and that that force will eventually overpower you and you’ll end up mid-table or worse, whatever the ability level of your squad.
Maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on individual matches – but then I thought that was the whole point of actual real life football. Managers aren’t allowed long-term building these days – they are judged on short-term results which puts a greater emphasis on tactics, team talks and substitutions. And don’t believe for one minute that they don’t have an effect on these things. If FM13 has decided those are irrelevant and it’s going to override anything you do, how can you do your job?
Not only is that not football but that’s not video gaming either – it’s watching a computer do a thing. If you had a deus ex machina like that in other video games there would be uproar. Imagine if you were playing a first-person shooter and the game decided you were doing too well, and so decided to bring out some bad guy with a rapid-fire rocket launcher that doesn’t actually exist to kill you. That’s essentially what it feels like FM13 is doing every time you get into a good run of form – it wants to stop you and will resort to any means necessary.
I honestly don’t understand what I’m supposed to do – I’d take a defeat if I knew I could bounce back straight away, but I’ve done this enough times to know that you won’t. A defeat in FM will lead to more defeats, regardless of what you actually do. The game just feels so out of control that I don’t know why I’m wasting time, effort, energy and emotion on it.
So I’m taking a break. I don’t know how long for – it might be a week, a month or a year, but I can’t deal with it any more. I don’t want to play a football game that desperately wants me to fail to the point where matches are virtually rigged against me and I can’t do anything about it. I’m being punished for having a good team, and that’s not how football works.