One of my favourite football stories is from a recent interview with charismatic Real Madrid boss José Mourinho. He relayed an anecdote about his time at Internazionale with football's current enfant terrible, Mario Balotelli. The mercurial Italian was the one striker fit for an important Champions League tie, with all others injured. Booked three minutes before half-time, Balotelli spent the 15-minute break being begged by his manager not to get into trouble. Mourinho recalls what he said at the time: “Mario, I cannot [substitute] you. I don't have a striker on the bench. If we lose the ball, [I want] no reaction. If somebody provokes you, no reaction. If the referee makes a mistake, no reaction. Mario, please.” Mourinho grins. “Minute 46: red card.”
The point being that a manager is never entirely in control. Once those players cross that white line, your influence is relatively limited. You can bark instructions, adjust tactics and make substitutions, but for all the hard work you've invested, the game is now in the hands of 11 men you have no choice but to put your faith into. Football Manager fans will know that feeling all too well, and the latest entry in the series makes its most major tweaks in how and when you're able to interfere.
The landmark addition is the new Classic mode, which rewinds the game to something more akin to Championship Manager circa 1998, delivering fewer options and quicker seasons. There's also the initially worrying addition of paid-for unlockable managerial aids.
I'll get to both of those, but if you're a long-time FM stalwart, you'll be happy to know the game's core sim mode better captures the caprices of the game than ever before. Certainly, the 3D match engine is more believable than ever. Look at the pitch, and you'll see a wealth of improvements.
For starters, the animation is superior. It's far from perfect, with the odd instance of players moonwalking onto through-balls, while substitute warm-ups are occasionally a touch too energetic. During a typically powerful run from an authentically industrious James Milner, my eyes were drawn to the Duracell bunny frantically bouncing up and down to his right. But watch the games from a more distant viewpoint, and you'll notice subtle tweaks to positioning, movement and body shape that make it seem much more natural. If you've stuck to the comparatively abstract top-down perspective until now, give it a go: you might be surprised.
You will see the odd AI flub: instances where defenders and goalkeepers get awfully confused, with the latter thumping the ball into their own net. But you'll also see off-the-ball runs, delicate chips, bamboozling deflections, goalmouth scrambles and sundry other subtleties that prove an altogether convincing facsimile of the real thing. The mistakes are only jarring because the rest looks and feels so right. And when 'right' involves a slide-rule pass through the heart of the opposition defence and your striker latching onto the ball to lash it into the roof of the net for an injury-time winner, just try not to punch the air in delight.
But time spent spectating is only
a tiny percentage of the Football Manager experience. The rest of the time you'll be looking at screens full of words and numbers; a glorified spreadsheet, the detractors say. They're still not entirely wrong, but this is a slicker, more intuitive and more readable interface than before. Sports Interactive has learned some tricks developing for portable consoles and smartphones. It's a textbook example of how to make a game more accessible without losing anything important.
Ditto the new Classic Mode, which slices out many of the minor tasks to focus on the basics. Is that enough to win back those who've moved away from the series as it has grown increasingly complex? Certainly it's possible to get through the season that bit quicker without having to worry too much about tax issues and the like. Press enquiries are now restricted to a single question – enough to give you a flavour of the media interactions modern managers have to deal with on a regular basis, but not so much that it distracts you from the bigger picture. And if you find that you miss dealing with the press, you can always revert to Sim Mode and ask your Director of Football to assume the responsibilities you're not willing to deal with.
By contrast, if you're particularly time-poor or just want to whizz through non-vital games, you can set up a series of Match Plans that automatically change tactics if you need to chase the game, or if you fancy adopting the classic catenaccio approach when you're a goal to the good to keep things tight. In other words, it's as hands-on or hands-off as you want it to be – or as your leisure time allows, at any rate.
If you're an inexperienced manager shakily taking the reins of a big club, it's even wise to relinquish a few responsibilities. At Man City, I noticed almost all my players had low morale, with the vast majority expressing doubts about my ability to handle the job. Just to make things worse, Roberto Mancini would pop up regularly to comment on upcoming fixtures, warning of opposition danger men. Wary that he was casting a long shadow, I decided to hire a very experienced assistant to take responsibility for training and team talks. Delegation needn't be a dirty word; control freaks may find that they're unable to unite a divided dressing room without a little help.
You're also given the opportunity to make life easier for yourself with a range of cheats (sorry, 'accelerators') you can pay real-world money for, although most are automatically unlocked along with certain accomplishments. After an indifferent start to the season as City manager – which in itself is pretty much akin to an infinite money cheat – I found myself with an apparent must-win Champions League game in just the third week of October. The press speculation was accompanied by the legend 'become unsackable', an option that proved extremely tempting under such early pressure.
You can refresh your transfer budget, remove work permit limitations, or even increase the likelihood that top players will join your League One stragglers. It's fantasy football, then, but isn't that what Football Manager is all about in the first place?
Cynics would point to the addition of cheats as evidence of a franchise dumbing down for the casual player. Yet they're not even an option in Sim Mode so as not to upset the purists, so it's hard to argue too vociferously against their inclusion. Not least because the game is as challenging as ever, even in Classic Mode, and even with this optional assistance. You might think you've happened across a formation to accommodate the egos of your striking quartet, but then you're humbled 4-1 at home by Wigan and forced to rethink things. An entirely hypothetical situation, you understand.
Having played three full seasons across the top English, US and Italian divisions – as well as a bit of tinkering as an unemployed manager touting myself around the lower leagues – I've noticed a few things cropping up a little too regularly to be put down to simple tactical ineptitude on my part. While you'll occasionally happen across more direct sides, most play a passing game that would shame the tiki-taka talents of the Catalans. You'll frequently see drilled crosses from the byline tapped in by strikers, even when you get your winger to track back in order to double up against pacy wide men. Sure, you'll benefit from a number of similar goals, but it's an unrealistically common occurrence. You may also find that you concede an alarming number of instant equalisers.
They say you're most vulnerable when you've just scored, but the game often doesn't give you an opportunity to close ranks before your goalie's picking the ball out of his own net.
Still, as with Classic Mode, it's reasonably easy to ignore the gristle and concentrate on the juicy meat of the game, and there's more than ever to chew on. The network game now allows you to take your side online to compete against other players, while a series of scenarios – typically lasting half a season – give you a more tangible end goal to work towards. Besides, few games regularly generate such brilliant stories as this one. One of my favourites came during a league match, when injuries, suspensions and a poorly-timed bout of food poisoning left me with just one fit striker. I needn't tell you his name. He came in at the break having been booked for persistent fouling, so I made a point of adjusting his instructions to lessen the chance of confrontation. Minute 52: red card.
Expect to pay: £30
Release Out: now
Developer: Sports Interactive
Multiplayer: Up to 32 players