Football Manager makes sense to me again. The series had slowly driven me away as it crammed more detail into its already stat-heavy simulation of football. I never seemed to be able to tell what information mattered, and which decisions were the cause of my various triumphs and failures.
Classic Mode changed that. Introduced last year, it strips back the game to something that, on the surface, resembles Championship Manager from ten years ago, but is underpinned by the same rich simulation that drives the main game. The mode returns in Football Manager 2014, and it's still my favourite way to play the game. This release doesn't have any equivalent flagship feature, but the hundreds of changes it does make are important. Most notable for fans of modern football is the inclusion of expanded player roles, and a tactics system that replaces sliders with the language of real football tacticians. That means being able to deploy players in the midfield as a trequartista, a false nine or an enganche.
Doing so allowed me to influence the outcome of matches in meaningful ways. I brought Marek Hamsik, a traditional enganche, from Napoli to Manchester United, but found success playing him in different kinds of roles in different matches. It's both simpler and a better representation of how football is now played, and allows you to better represent the tactics of teams like Real Madrid or Arsenal.
If you want to see your tactics play out, the match engine does a great job of showing the consequences of what would otherwise be abstract decisions. People are always quick to criticise the 3D version of that engine – and it's true its animation doesn't compare to something like FIFA, but there's a flow and rhythm to FM matches that's more realistic than any other football game.
You'll be better off making match decisions for yourself. Football Manager lets you expand the role of your assistant manager, letting them take control of the parts of the game that overwhelm or bore you. In the middle of matches, that includes listening to their recommendations, the quality of which are dictated by the stats of your managerial sidekick, but also by the strange blind spots in the game's AI. When Man Utd are struggling to get many shots on target, for example, clicking the button to apply Steve Round's advice saw my squad booting balls at goal from all over the pitch, ignoring my strategy of retaining possession.
When I play the game in Classic Mode I like to watch each match myself, but the Instant Result button lets you complete seasons even quicker. Last year, pressing it felt random – a big gamble. To help, you can now set up Match Plans, telling your assistant when to use substitutes and what to do should you be trailing at half time.
No matter how the matches turn out, there's more variety in both the press's questions and your responses during pre- and post-match press conferences, and you can forge relationships with specific hacks and use them to frustrate other teams before big matches. If a player on your own squad steps out of line, you can now tell them off in more subtle ways without public condemnation or large fines.
When combined, these tweaks and tactical shifts let me better understand the series' ambitions. Sports Interactive are building a world, not a game, and one populated by people rather than statistics. They're approaching football with the same scope and ambition as the designers of Dwarf Fortress. It feels more like an Alex Ferguson RPG and less like the baffling strategy game I once struggled to control.
The scarf I hold aloft still has 'Classic Mode' stitched on it, as it's still the most elegant distillation of Football Manager, but I can see now that it's only a matter of time before I'm swallowed whole.
Deep, exciting and, for the first time, as human as real football, Football Manager 2014 has hit the back of the net.