Monday, 13 February 2012

Flight of the Canaries

About this time last year I vowed in this post to never touch another game in the Football Manager series for as long as I live. Yeah, fat chance that would ever happen. Fancying myself as a bit of a miracle worker like Paul Lambert, this time I decided to take on the tremendous challenge of managing relegation favourites Norwich City. Ten seasons in, here's how I've done...

Now obviously I didn't exactly have the resources of a Manchester City or Anzhi Makhachkala. That is to say I commanded a handsome bank balance of -£5million. Yes, that is a minus. As such I would have to use my resources wisely. I'm not the sort of manager who takes half-arsed measures expending resources on mediocre players just to plug gaps. I look for the best I can attract and afford at a given moment. This is a general rule I use in approaching all my Football Manager games. If I feel there is a player who can add something, I'll get him. I will not, however, buy Benzema just because I can. And so, given the limited resources and my comparatively shitty squad to the rest of the Premier League, I would have to proceed very contemplatively in building a completely new squad.

Obviously I wouldn't have much flexibility in the transfer market, even if there was a player I thought could help toward my goal. Further, there would be no guarantee he'd want to come on the meagre wages I could offer. What I could do however was invest in the club's infrastructure to bring players through the youth system, as well as make heavy use of my scouts in scouring the globe for kids with bright prospects. And so, I embarked on a cradle-snatching campaign of obscure youngsters on the cheap - many you will not have heard of on account the majority were regenerated players. Clearly it would be unwise to stick teenagers in my team and hope for Premier League survival, especially with the likes of Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool, Man Utd knocking about. This was a plan for the longterm, one which would come to fruition over many seasons.

And so I would need some more experienced players in the interim while my youth coaches got to work. I very frugally spent what little money I had, for example by the third season I had managed to purchase the majority of Newcastle's back-line (Danny Simpson, Steven Taylor and Ryan Taylor) for a combined total of £7.6million. Likewise I signed Rafael van der Vaart from Spurs for £3.5million and Man City's Andy Johnson for £4.5million. Such acquisitions were greatly aided by the little trick of using 48-month payment plans, enabling me to spend beyond my means. It was a gamble should I not recuperate the cash in prize money, but fortunately it began to pay off. I managed to maintain a foothold in mid-table and even challenge for cups.

This isn't to say that every youth player I purchased was a success. Many times I received scout reports which proved wholly inaccurate. I bought one player for £5million when he was about 15 because of a glowing scout report only to simply write him off on a free transfer because he didn't develop to his maximum potential. Admittedly such a purchase was a bit of a one off - I don't like paying more than around £2million for a player under the age of 20 - but it is indicative of the risk you take. Every player in this age bracket, no matter what the scout report says, has to be considered a gamble. The scout can certainly identify players who have bundles of potential, but even with the optimal training, tutoring and first team experience, there is no guarantee they'll reach that scout's 4-star potential rating. I would say that only around 35-40% of all the youth players I brought in ever made the cut. But these risks were worth it, as will become clear. Read on...

Of course one needs tactics. I've always admired the way Germany play - a 4-2-3-1 system which is defensively compact but unleashes 'blitzkrieg' by pouring numbers into any exploitable space - and it was this which I set out to try and replicate. However, for the first three or four seasons I was unable to employ such a system, simply because I didn't have the required quality for it to work. Thus I used the trusty 4-2-2-2 system from my Everton game in hope of just outscoring my opponents. Happily, it paid off in terms of Premier League survival, and so I waited until I had the quality to attempt the German system. (Note that it is a variant of these philosophies.)
Click to Enlarge
So let's break it down. How does it work and who does what?

Philosophy: I started out as 'Rigid', wary that my young team might not be particularly disciplined when it came to holding their shape. It's difficult to attest to the overall effectiveness of 'Rigid' given the variables of 'youth', but while I certainly wasn't playing the blitzkrieg football of the Germans yet, it did however get the players used to the formation without ever really screwing up in a mega fashion. When I was confident that they had developed to a point where I was satisfied and gained enough first team experience, I introduced the 'Balanced' philosophy. This saw an increased fluidity about their play as the team acted more in unison in the transitions between defence to attack.

Strategy: At first I experimented with 'Counter', again mostly out of fear that these were still young players and would likely be caught out by superior opposition. This was reasonably successful, but more so was setting it to 'Control'. Where 'Counter' invited the opposition to attack, 'Control' allowed me to dictate play while bearing in mind my opponent's counter attacking threat. This turned out to be much more effective than cowering behind a deep defensive line in hope of a break. However, 'Control' isn't particularly good if you're up against a team which is superior to yours and so, given this was still a developing team, my results against the bigger sides invariably went against me.

For a 'Balanced' team playing 'Control' to work you will need players who are good on the ball, able to pass and with a heavy preference toward strong mental stats in determination, teamwork, work rate and composure. It is worth noting that I only changed from 'Rigid' and 'Counter' to 'Balanced' and 'Control' when I thought my players could handle it. This was largely an arbitrary judgement, but I would generally say that my players were competent enough around 20 years of age, after a couple of seasons having been bled into first team football and their stats had improved.

The rest of the Team Instructions are default, with the exception of marking. This is set to 'Zonal' which sees players in and around the ball move toward it like a swarm. It pushes the opposition player out to the wings which makes it difficult for them to build an attack as they are constantly being harassed by your lot. Given the shape of the formation your players also more or less maintain a ubiquitous presence on the field, leaving the opposition with little space to play.

The theory behind my team instructions is that the movement of your Inside Forwards, your attacking Full Backs and an Attacking Midfielder push and pull the defence this way and that, creating space for someone to score. You can add Team Shouts if you like, but they're generally not necessary most of the time. Saying that, I am quite fond of a set I've named 'Dominate', which yells at the players to Push UpRetain PossessionStay On Feet and Hassle Opponents.

Role: (GK) Goalkeeper
Duty: Defend
Notes: Self explanatory really.
Thierry Koné - French keeper signed from AJ Auxerre for Free in the 2017/18 season. Number 1 for both Norwich and France.
Fabrizio Ignesti - Italian keeper signed from Inter Milan for Free in the 2018/19 season. Second choice for Norwich and Number 1 for Italy.
Dusan Jovicic - Serbian keeper signed from OFK Beograd for £900K in the 2018/19 season. Third choice for Norwich and capped twice by Serbia.

Role: (DR/DL) Full Back
Duty: Attack
Notes: It's crucial that these guys bomb up the pitch as I don't use my wide players as wingers in the traditional sense. Your Full Backs will provide the main attacking threat from the flanks, as you will see.
Erwin Post - Dutch right-back signed from Blackburn Rovers for £6.5million in the 2015/16 season. First choice for both Norwich and Holland.
Richard ÁvaloUruguayan right-back signed from Defensor Sporting for £275K in the 2020/21 seasons. Seen as probable successor to Erwin Post and capped sixteen times for Uruguay.
Niko Simic - Croatian left-back signed from Dinamo for £1million in the 2013/14 season. Norwich club captain with fifty-nine caps for Croatia. My best player along with Petr Sacha.
Rob van den Herik - Dutch left-back signed from PSV for Free in the 2012/13 season. Fantastic servant to Norwich as back-up to Niko Simic.
Gökhan Çelik - Turkish full-back signed from Galatasaray for £1.3million in the 2017/18 season. Young utility man who covered in times of urgency.

Role: (CB) Central Defender
Duty: Defend
Notes: Your staple central defender. No nonsense, just knock it clear.
Pablo Romero - Argentinian defender-right-centre signed from Espanyol for a club record £23.5million in the 2021/22 season. Tall and fantastic potential and became a permanent feature of the Norwich central defence in his first season.
Jean Héron - French central defender signed from Manchester City for £6.5million in the 2016/17 season. The 'heart' of the Norwich defence.
Martijn Isa - Dutch defender-left-centre signed from Ajax for £5.5million in the 2015/16 season. Main partner of Jean Héron until Pablo Romero came in. Also tallest defender in the Premiership standing at 201cm.
Steven Caulker - English central defender signed from Fulham for £3.1million in the 2014/15 season. Like Isa, was phased into a backup role with the rise of Jean Héron through the ranks. However, Caulker is perhaps also the most reliable defender that I have.

Role: (MCR) Ball Winning Midfielder
Duty: Support
Notes: You'll want a player capable of winning the ball back, but also with enough strength, composure, passing and technical ability to hold onto the ball and set off attacks.
Ross Barkley - English central midfielder signed from Everton for £18.5million in the 2018/19 season. Reliable stock midfielder who always pops up with a goal.
Richard Broz - Czech central midfielder signed from Teplice for £550K in the 2014/15 season. Dependable midfielder who gets the job done.

Role: (MCL) Deep Lying Playmaker
Duty: Support
Notes: Needs to be capable of clearing up anything infront of the defence, bringing it out from defence, and starting attacks with a range of passing. He should be the one dictating the tempo of your team.
Marco Bonvini - Italian defensive midfielder signed from Palermo for £18.25million in the 2018/19 season. Deep-lying-playmaker who is one of the most consistent players in my squad.
Florian Dufour - French central midfielder/attacking midfielder signed from GF 38 for £3.2million in the 2017/18 season. Nippy little player who adds a bit of zip to proceedings.
Christoffer Ljungström - Swedish central midfielder/attacking midfielder signed from Malmö FF for £950K in the 2014/15 season. Excellent servant to the club and one of the few who could be truly described as 'Mr Norwich'.

Role: (AMR/AML) Inside Forward
Duty: Support
Notes: These don't operate in the way you might think. I've set them to never cross the ball and to roam from their position to increase the fluidity of any attack. This lot are always moving, looking to get in the box and nab a goal. This is also why your Full Backs are so far up the pitch for it is they who compensate in providing the balls into the box.
Roman Ferstl - German attacking midfielder-left/striker signed from Stuttgart for £3.5million in the 2018/19 season. Think the new Thomas Müller.
Lars Kügler - German attacking midfielder-right-centre signed from Borussia Mönchengladbach for Free in the 2020/21 season. Backup to Patrick Palmer.
Patrick Palmer - English attacking midfielder-right/striker signed from Southampton for £2million in the 2016/17 season. From the same youth system that produced Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Palmer quickly became a prolific goal scorer and is now first choice on the right side of midfield.
Tim van Rijn - Dutch attacking midfielder-left signed from Ajax for £1million in the 2017/18 season. Brilliant little player used in rotation with Roman Ferstl.

Role: (AMC) Attacking Midfielder
Duty: Attack
Notes: Again, given the freedom to roam, however he is also asked to drift into the channels in support of the Full Backs as the AMR/AML invariably run off elsewhere. The effect of this is to create space and literally tear your opponent's defence appart as they try and track all your forward players.
Cristiano Campinoti - Italian attacking midfielder signed from Sampdoria for Free in the 2021/22 season. This wonderkid brings loads to the team. When it looks like they've run out of ideas, this guy will add fresh impetus.
Sergey Pisarev - Russian attacking midfielder-right-centre signed from Spartak Moscow for £6K in the 2015/16 season. This guy was an absolute steal at six-grand who is now Vice-Captain of Norwich. As a testament to what a bargain this guy was he is now being linked with £40million+ bids to Europe's top clubs.

Role: (STC) Advanced Forward
Duty: Attack
Notes: This is the player who is both the focal point of your attack while also quick enough to chase down a ball or able to lay off a pass. Think your Rooneys or Van Persies of the world for the type of player you require.
Petr Sacha - Czech striker signed from Slavia Prague for £450K in the 2014/15 season. It cannot be stressed how important this guy has been for me. Never gets injured and sporting a goal record greater than one in every two, he along with Niko Simic have proven to be the greatest coups. Also scored fifty-six goals in sixty-nine appearances for the Czech Republic.
Callum Bromby - English striker who came through the Norwich Youth System in the 2017/18 season. First player to see the full benefit of my investment into young talent, his four-star potential a testament to that.
Ian May - English striker signed from Manchester United for £3.5million in the 2020-21 season. Had reasonably good potential when I signed him but Petr Sacha and Callum Bromby have kept him from getting the first team XP required for development.

So what has this team of unknown regenerated players managed to achieve in 10 seasons under my tenure?

English Premier Division:
Winner x1 (2021)
Runner Up x1 (2022)

FA Cup:
Winner x1 (2018)

League Cup:
Winner x2 (2020, 2021)
Runner Up x1 (2017)

Community Shield:
Winner x1 (2018)
Runner Up x1 (2021)

Winner x3 (2018, 2020, 2021)

European Super Cup:
Winner x1 (2021)
Runner Up x2 (2018, 2020)

Champions League:
Winner x1 (2022)

You read that right! I won the Champions League, transforming relegation battlers Norwich City into Kings of Europe inside ten seasons. I could scarcely believe it, my first season in the competition not thinking I stood a chance. I should have really gone out in the semi-final, Arsenal hammering me 2 - 0 in the first leg at the Emirates, but the return game at Carrow Road saw a smash-and-grab as I scored three and held on for dear life. The stage was set for a final against European giants, FC Bayern München. Here's what happened...

In light of my success and growing fan base, the board have decided to build Norwich a new stadium. No indication of what it will be called yet, but I'm hoping at least a stand named after me. Perhaps something along the lines of the S.A.F Stand (harhar, my initials too), preferably with the 'S' the right way up. Here's to another decade in charge of my beloved 'Narch'.

And with that I pledge never to play this....Oh, who the hell am I kidding?! See you next year...