Normally no one would raise an eyebrow when they heard that Arsenal whooped on Wigan in a Carling Cup match. But this victory wasn’t particularly noteworthy because of how Arsenal did it, (although that was also impressive) it was noteworthy because of whom Arsenal did it with. Facing a Wigan squad playing at near full-strength, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger eschewed starting his top players, and instead he decided to field a squad of teens, the average age being 19. Kind of looks like a mismatch, right? Well, not really. The youngsters not only outplayed their older compatriots, but they also did so in frighteningly dominating fashion. After the match, Wigan manager Steve Bruce simply said, "They were frightening."
So why is the above story notable? Well, I firmly believe that Wenger has presented and validated an easy and sure path to managerial success; a blueprint to football supremacy. Furthermore, he has taken all of our Football Manager or PES Master mode dreams and brought them to reality. So as I offer you some tips and strategies for FIFA 09's Manager mode, keep this cliché in mind: Imitation is often the most sincere form of flattery.
Get Your Game Right
What I am about to write may seem like common sense, but like some say: sometimes common sense isn’t common. So, before you can find any measure of long-term success off the pitch, you have to be able to get it done on the pitch. Now this is not meant to be disparaging, but the biggest difference between FIFA and other games such as Football Manager is that you have full control over your team’s play. So take full advantage of that and try and make sure you’re playing at your full potential. Honestly, if you can’t string a together a cohesive and consistent attack or dutifully defend worth a damn, you’re just going to be in for a world of hurt -- especially at the higher difficulties such as World Class, and the more competitively difficult leagues like the EPL.
Thankfully for us OS people, BrianFifaFan has released a ton of really great material to get any football novices started on the right track to ruling the football world. His guides (courtesy of EA) are simply chock-full of in-depth information on all things FIFA, and I would be lying if I said that his guides haven’t taught me a thing or two as well. So if you want to become a whiz, I heartily recommend them as must-reads for experts and novices alike.
But besides reading BFF's awesome guides, what improving really comes down to is what Allen Iverson once wisely said: "We’re talking about practice man." And that’s just it, the more you play, the better you will get. I know it may not happen quickly, and it may not be an easy process, but one day, someday, things will just click. We’re talking about practice, indeed.
So once you’ve got things locked down on the pitch, you’re ready to move on to the next step: picking a team.
The Two Divergent Paths
Perhaps the most important and decisive move you’ll make in regards to Manager mode is simply selecting what team to play as. In fact, this decision will have a major impact on numerous aspects of your managerial career, and it will change how you will proceed in the short and long term.
There is no denying that the football universe is simply immense, especially when compared to North American professional sports; this enormity is truly represented in FIFA 09. With a multitude of leagues and various levels of play, it is almost impossible to account for all possible avenues of play. So I’ll assume for the sake of brevity that the majority of Manager mode players will take one of two possible routes. They will either go big at the start and select a powerhouse such as Manchester United, Real Madrid or Inter Milan, and go on to completely dominate the competition. Or they will go the upstart route, and select to play in less prestigious leagues with talent-deprived squads while trying to bring those minnows up to powerhouse status.
Obviously, those who go the first route will immediately face an easier task because of the sheer abundance of two important elements: talent and money. With millions at your disposal, it shouldn’t be too difficult to buy yourself a powerhouse squad or supplement an existing one.
For example, I started out my initial Manager mode experience playing as Manchester United. I was left with upwards of $100 million in my transfer kitty, and it wasn’t too difficult to buy great young players like Mati Fernandez, Bojan, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Aguero and Daniele De Rossi to solidify my amazing squad. So going this route may be fun, but it just feels like it’s a bit too easy. And really, where’s the fun in that?
As for those who choose to follow the second path; well, they’ll find that things are more difficult. And it’s those players that earn my sympathies, because playing in the lower leagues can be a pain in the arse at times. However, to work and strive toward seemingly impossible riches is an undeniably exhilarating experience. Truly your reward will be greater in the end if you succeed.
I experienced this frustration-laden path for myself when I wanted to tough it out in the lower leagues. I decided to play in League Two in England because that gave me the longest in-game path to the top. Unfortunately, I had next to no personal knowledge or linkage to any of the teams. So I closed my eyes and randomly chose a squad. In the end, I had selected to play with Dagenham & Redbridge, or as they’re more commonly known, Dag & Red. Starting as a half-star rated team that didn't have a single player rated in the 70s, I knew I had my work cut out for me. But with dutiful scouting, thorough work, and ambitious transfers I was able to bring them up to League One, win them the Football League Trophy, and raise them to a three-and-a-half-star rating -- all this occurred in a single year. How I accomplished this will be the basis for discussion later.
So as you can see, there are many valid ways to play Manager mode, but what team you pick will ultimately determine how your journey goes.
Building A Foundation
Suffice it to say, after finding a suitable team to play as, the next step is figuring out how you want to play. Do you go 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 5-4-1 or something else? Do you emphasize offense or defense? Rely on crosses or passing it around on the ground? Slow build up or constant fast breaks? Non-stop pressure or lull opponents in and seek to counter attack?
If you’re not sure what to do, or you are not really familiar with football formations or tactics, I again refer you to BrianFifaFan’s guide. He does an admirable job of distilling a massive amount of football minutiae in FIFA friendly terms. If that’s not your cup of tea, this site does a reasonable job of explaining the various formations as well. To be clear, figuring out a successful tactical strategy is largely a personal issue and there is really no wrong answer.
But the important factor here is that the strategy you choose will change how you play and what players you should target. So whatever formation you choose, try and stick with it and build your main squad with that formation in mind. For example, I’m personally a fan of using 4-2-3-1. This formation requires four rearguard players with great marking and heading ability with a touch of pace, two defensive-oriented but versatile midfielders, three offensive midfielders with superb pace, dribbling and passing ability, and a lone striker with enough size to contend with multiple defenders, enough speed to get by anyone, and enough finishing ability to make the most of any opportunity.
But no matter what style you choose, I recommend that you first build from the back. By that I mean you must make it a priority to secure your back line and defense. It may not be a glamorous target, but it is a must if you want to succeed. The best teams in the world are often not the teams with the most goals for but the least goals allowed. So keep that in mind before you go forward.
Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number
Now that you’ve secured a team and style, obviously, you’re left with the last element: the players. And it is here where I look towards the great example of managers like Alex Ferguson and the previously mentioned, Arsene Wenger. They simply will not accept failure. Acting with them in mind, my management strategy revolves around the mantra: youth, youth and youth.
So why do I do this? Well, there are obviously two huge benefits, which are low cost and high potential. By modifying the phrase "buy low, sell high" you can potentially have a plan where young players can yield extraordinary results for an obscenely low initial cost. This is especially notable during the start of your second year when many younger "regen" players are made available. More importantly, you deny your opponents an opportunity to benefit from these players. Also, by giving these players an opportunity to learn, play and grow together you give them a great environment to meet their full potential. And when those players become prohibitively expensive or expendable, you are probably able to sell them off for a reasonably nice profit.
But when you follow this plan, you must be extremely careful, especially when you start with a lower league team strapped for cash. You can’t just go and sign every youngster under the sun. Before you begin to target any player you must consider how they fit into your preferred playing style. Does he have the necessary stats I need out of a player in that position? What are the overall costs? In other words, have a plan in place and stick to it. If you’re not careful, you’ll have wasted time and money and experienced losses as a result. So be sure to research, compare and think before you go and sign any players.
Don’t Underrate Depth
Another key to achieving success in Manager mode is realizing that one player doesn’t make a team. After I think I’ve got a nice and solid first-team squad, I immediately try and shore up my bench and reserves. This is especially important for lower-league teams that have less money to put into areas like conditioning and fitness, which leave your players (especially the younger ones) constantly starved for stamina.
I believe that when you begin deliberating on your bench players, you’re allowed to be a bit more versatile in whom you select to bring in. They may not perfectly fit into your main strategy, but they can offer something different than the rest of the roster. For instance, if you mainly play a 4-4-2 with two smaller forwards, you might want to have one taller striker on hand in case you want to emphasize crosses into the box.
Furthermore, employing versatile depth can also allow you to have tactical flexibility that you can adequately utilize depending on your opponent. It’s a nice luxury to have once you have secured your first 11. And when you get your second squad all firmed up, by all means work on your third team. Don’t underrate depth, it will definitely pay off in the end -- but remember to stick to the plan. Consider costs and benefits so you don’t go overboard and raise your salary to an unmanageable degree.
Put It All Together
So as I explained earlier, I managed to bring Dag & Red up to three-and-a-half stars in only a year. How did I do this? Well, I don’t share this experience to brag; it is simply an example of how careful deliberation, targeted transfers and adherence to a plan can bring any team to prominence.
With Dag & Red, they opt to use a default 4-4-2 with a default emphasis on a fast-paced long-ball style. I decided to keep the formation but I ditched the style. Instead, I chose to play a quick but careful style with an emphasis on ball control and overall team speed -- think Barcelona from a few years ago. As an aside before I begin, I must say that making money was easier than I imagined it would be. The money you gain from your sponsor is more than I had expected it to be. But I suppose anything helps when you’re stuck down in League Two
Like I said earlier, I truly believe in building from the back, so my first order of business was finding two center backs to pair up and build the team upon. So right at the beginning of my Manager mode career, I quickly snapped up two young but cheap players. The first was Sidnei, a young Brazilian with good marking skills and nice jumping/heading ability. The other player, Mamadou Sakho, is someone that I highly recommend for all players. Sakho, a youngster from France, has the size and skill to be a force for years.
At right and left back, I honestly prefer players that have some marking ability, but most importantly, they must have some pace. So after I saved up enough sponsor money, I signed a few more Brazilians. The first on my list was Eduardo Ratinho, a FM perennial favorite who fits in perfectly either at right back or right midfield. The second player, Marcelo, was also my first big signing. Inexplicably transfer-listed by Real Madrid, he instantly became my starting left back for many, many years to come. He’s another player I recommend to anyone. One side note: Why these players would sign with Dag & Red, I have no clue. But it is a game and I try not to think too hard about it.
Once I was satisfied with my back four, I began to build myself up in the middle of the park. As a general rule, I really favor having some ball-winners in these roles. In other words, players who are able to stifle the opposition’s attack and win the ball back for my side. For these positions, I looked toward a pair of Spaniards, Sunny and Camacho, two young defensive midfielders who form the rock in the middle while offering some potential on the offensive end.
After securing six players, I couldn’t find any young wingers that I liked, so I opted to improvise. Instead of having two proper wingers fill in on the left and right, I went back to the defensive side of things. After saving some more precious sponsor money, I decided to sign the young Belgian right back, (and another FM favorite) Anthony Vanden Borre and another French defender, the speedy left back Armand Traore. I put Traore on my left wing, pushed Ratinho up to my right wing, and slotted Vanden Borre as my new right back.
Quite frankly, I felt that my low-rated default strikers were already pretty effective, and it was worth waiting to address my forward situation. But once I had the funds, I signed two quick young English strikers, Daniel Sturridge and Febian Brandy. They may not be the strongest of players, but they flourish in my system because I put them in a position to succeed. I also haven’t mentioned goalkeepers much, but that is because I haven’t really noticed much of a difference between lower-rated and higher-rated keepers. My default keepers performed quite admirably, but I did eventually make a small change and signed Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar.
At this point, I had finally reached the January transfer period, and I had accumulated some real money to throw around. So, first on my signing wish list was one of the best young center backs in the game, the Brazilian youngster Breno. Shortly after, I also signed the young Greek center back Kyriakos Papadopoulos. In addition to them, I also bought two more versatile midfielders, Blaise Matuidi and Claudio Marchisio. Both of them can play all around the midfield and give me that tactical flexibility I crave. Finally, I added two more strikers. First, was the tall Franco Di Santo, who gave me a target man in the box; second was my overall best signing, American favorite Jozy Altidore, a goal-scoring machine and probably the star of my team.
After all those moves, I finally believed that I had built a nice and young team to build upon going forward. While no one was rated above 80, they all adequately filled a role and they played great as a team. So while I may not be Arsene Wenger, I can at least emulate him pretty well thanks to FIFA’s Manager mode. And you can too; all it takes is a plan.