Boy, has this one been delayed, eh? Not sure if many of you were waiting for it, slowly ruining your manicures with nervous nail-biting; regardless of that, fear no more for it has arrived. When we left off, we had just escaped relegation with a late-season revival courtesy of playing the game how it’s f*cking supposed to. The skies were blue, the grass was green, we were happy and (in the words of the great Kevin Garnett) anything was possible. But FM, FM never changes…
The trials and tribulations of the youth manager
I’ve mentioned time and time again in this series that for RFC Liège the only way of climbing (even if temporarily) out of bankruptcy, was to develop and sell youth players. It’s not nice, but the huge issues that have arisen from trying to get rid of older players for even the slightest profit have proven that it is the only way. However, I hadn’t really followed the Helen Lovejoy-maxim; it was time to think of the children.
For the most part, I had left youth development to its own. After hiring HoYD Fabien Barrillion and some youth coaches that felt acceptable enough, I stepped back. I only checked that kids were more or less performing and that they weren’t being played in positions that didn’t fit their skill set, but that was about it.
Part of it was, of course, laziness, but it was also aided by the fact that you can’t get involved with the youth teams without FM giving you the “well, you do it if you’re so smart” attitude and disabling the Development Centre. That essentially makes it so you have to delegate it completely or get entirely on top of it.
That being said, after yet another less-than-satisfying batch of players, it was time to do it. For the levels below U18s, of course, you can’t do much more than hiring a good HoYD and hope that RNGesus looks upon thy enterprise kindly, so that I did. Out went our guy Barrillon and in came Indian former-Journeyman Sunil Chhetri. He was vastly less prepared for the job than the Frenchman, but had one thing on his behalf, his Model Citizen personality. If he could help our kids come out of the academy with a bit more professional mentality, it’d be a step in the right direction. Everything else could be gained paying for his badges.
With the U18s and U21, however, the work truly began; how could we make sure our kids were better prepared for their future (that of being sold for profit, of course)? My starting point was Cleon’s now mythological Ajax post on the SI forums. Of course, it has aged by now, but the core principles remain as it outlines the process used by the club to develop players. My main takes (at least for now) were the shape to be used, favouring integral growth of the players across the pitch, and well as the use of a short squad that forces the coaches (the AI coaches in this case) to rotate and spread playing time as evenly as possible.
Setting up the squads was relatively easy. With the new batch of you players incoming, it was a good moment to pick and choose. Most of the younger players found a spot according to the 16-player configuration in the U18s. A few of them, the most talented, went straight into the U21s, with those who had been displaced either moving to the first team, looking to get a loan, or getting set for release.
The tactics, however, weren’t as easy. For starters, your youth setups can’t play any tactic that the First Team doesn’t at least train in. There is no way to have them play something else unless you allow the Youth Managers to play their favoured style. That forces you to hire someone with your very same tactical identity (which is very limiting for anything but the very elite of clubs), and even then you can only do it if you haven’t taken any responsibilities in the team, else it locks up to whatever you setup up as the primary trained setup for the First Team.
Without any other real solutions, I decided to create an “identity” tactic with the core principles I was aiming to develop players for and use other slot for the first team’s tactics. But what should that look like? The Ajax method, as per Cleon and…well, Ajax, dictate youth sides should play a 3-4-3 Diamond, like that used by Cruyff’s Dream Team Barça.
That shape allows you to train wide players along the entirety of the flank, as well the CM but also allots space so that the strikers get experience as AMCs, developing their creative side, and by the same token permits centrebacks to develop their passing game as DMCs.
Nevertheless, that means the team must play not with three centrebacks, but rather a back four with one of the central defenders stepping into what is the DM position in Football Manager. And that was trouble.
Early tests showed that FM wasn’t taking too kindly to my new style. The youth sides were both scoring and conceding at alarming rates, but usually more of the latter. I wouldn’t mind, except as far as I know getting consistently low rates hurts player development, so I went for a compromise. We changed the 3-4-3 into a 4-2-3-1, with a regular CB and a BPD to “mimic” the DM role.
After that, it was time to put some work into the training regimes. Until then, I had mostly looked over the players individual training, keeping tabs on how they performed and developed, and not much else. It had been for a while that those with first-team potential became apparent almost immediately, and for the rest only a vague hope remained. So how could we improve that?
I long wanted to create specific training schedules for the kids, so I went about it. For quite some time now, I’ve worked on a four-phase training schedule set, with a rotating focus on every one of the “phases of play”, that is Attack, Transition to Defense, Defense, and Transition to Attack. Therefore, I decided to alter those slightly, slowly shifting the focus as the players moved through the sides. After reading an article by Guido Merry detailing how he had gone about creating his youth training schedules I knew I was on the right track. Training for the U18s would be focus solely on technical development, with the tactical and physical parts of the schedule being added for the U21s, and the set plays part only coming into play for the first team.
Now, because of reasons that will become apparent soon, I haven’t been able to see how this will affect our youth development in the long term. However, the short-term gains have been very impressive, with players catapulting forwards in growth in ways that I hadn’t previously seen. This is certainly something that I’ll look to implement sooner in future saves, but laying the groundwork has been interesting.
Signing by the numbers
All that is fine and dandy, except things weren’t going great for the first team. After finishing last season as mid-table hopefuls, finally having returned to a style of play I wasn’t ashamed to call football, this season had started as a trainwreck.
Every virtue that had distinguished us in the latter stages of last season was now a symbol of our inconsistencies. Our high press became a guarantee of teams playing around us, our high line became defenders consistently getting found out with long balls, and our passing game became stagnant and non-creative. It was all very… Arsenal, for lack of a better word. By the end of December, we were sitting bottom, with just three league wins; something had to change.
Now, I’ve talked a few times in this series about how hard it was at times for me to find players that would markedly improve our squad. Adjustments made to our scouting network, as well as the improved range from being in a higher division have certainly helped, but that is just one part of the equation. With Liege still projecting to lose ~10M a year, signings had to be made on the cheap, with most of our incoming players still arriving on a free, or for marginal fees.
It was around this time that FM Stag tweeted about the Analysed screen on the Scouting Centre, where your Recruitment Analysts work is put under the highlight to help you find value.
The thing is I’ve never really have focused on stats on Football Manager. I am a huge fan of advanced analytics’ use in real-life football, where I think they can provide unprecedented insight into a footballer’s true output, regardless of style, attitude or how hot his girlfriend is… But on FM, where you can objectively look at a player’s actual qualities, I’ve never fancied taking a deeper dive into stats.
However, a while ago FM Stag put to me a side of the argument that I hadn’t previously considered. He pointed out that he saw in stats a coming together of how a player’s entire array of skills (attributes) worked together. It’s been quite some time since we had that conversation, but now, having just been pointed out a way to find value players and with my back against the wall, I decided to try his theory.
So, into the numbers we go. With our team lacking quality pretty much all around and transfer money limited, I took a page from Clough and Taylor’s book and decided to strengthen the spine of the team; a new centre-back, a new defensive mid, and a new centre-forward.
The first player to jump at me was the CF. Italian Luca Gagliano was killing it in the Belgian Second Division for Waasland-Beveren (four goals by December might not look like much, but the season-end top goalscorer had 11). I particularly liked the fact he was underperforming his xG, meaning he could have potentially scored more. Arriving for a fee of €400k he was our most expensive signing yet, but we weren’t done
For the DM, I did some digging and found someone with very interesting numbers for defensive metrics like interceptions per 90, key tackles and headers won; with a top rating in distance covered per 90, the effort was also there. It was Joeri de Baets from Royal Excel Mouscron, who were relegated last season. Initially, they wanted astronomical amounts of money for them, being as they had no intention of selling. However, Liège was a top tier side (even if not a very consolidated one), so the dance started. First talking to the agent, then declaring an interest, putting some pressure on them in the press, and finally sitting through a bore-fest at one of their matches. The kid wanted to leave, so they buckled under the pressure. It still cost us €1.2M though.
Lastly, the centreback; for this one, however, I didn’t use a calculator but my guts. Jorge Herrando was a CB for Racing de Santander, and they were using every trick in the book to make him leave, having him play with the reserves and offering him out almost for free. His numbers, naturally, weren’t that good, but he would be our best centre-back by some distance attributes-wise. For the meagre sum of €35K he was our player.
So did it work? The numbers thing… did it make us better?
Well… yes, rather spectacularly.
We got 6 wins starting in January, which is twice as many as before, with Gagliano scoring a brace on his debut and going on to make it seven goals in eleven matches. Herrando was a rock in behind, making our defence look a little less helpless. Sadly, De Baets got injured in early March, but what he managed was starting to look promising after a slight adaptation period.
In a much closer relegation race than last season, it took us into the last few matchdays to get to safety, but we managed a very similar season, even down to the record and points tally.
Why I’m choosing to end this series
Despite considering myself a football history enthusiast (or even a football historian perhaps), I don’t really hate modern football. Sure, it’s got many flaws, but it also has many good things. By the same principle, so do every age of the sport.
However, one of the said “flaws” is that whole eras of a club’s history can no longer be told by one name. Sir Alex Ferguson retired and the age of the manager as an institution ended pretty much there and then. Not because he was irreplaceable (which he was), but because modern football could never allow so much influence to be concentrated on one single person. Just a couple of years later, even Arsène Wenger had to give up some of his powers to remain at Arsenal. Of course, you can do it in FM, provided you don’t screw up along the way. It requires a level of dedication that few possess (one I certainly don’t), but it can be done. Yet, it feels odd and out of place. A manager spending anywhere close to a decade at a club seems magical in today’s football. More than that and it gets epic. Two and a half decades, múltiple promotions and an unlikely UCL win? You might as well have dwarves and dragons in that story… Continuing to be Liège manager felt… unsatisfyingly unrealistic.
There was another issue as well. I’ve always thought Wenger should’ve ended his Arsenal tenure in 2014. Perhaps it would’ve been too much after the heartbreak of 2006 when his stock was at an all-time high and he probably had one more good job in him; perhaps he knew that the storm was coming and he thought nobody would be better at steering that ship. But by 2014 he had done it. The dark and frugal age of the Emirates loan payments was over, the skies were blue and he even had ended that hateful silverware drought. It was a perfect send-off… and he ruined it. There’s value in knowing when it’s been enough.
I often get too attached to teams and players I play in FM, and sometimes it gets to a point where I get real frustration from virtual failures. Of course, real-life stress doesn’t help, which means I also end up venting real failures through FM frustration. So that’s gonna be it. I loved my time with RFC Liège, but I don’t think another season as hard as this one will be good for me.
I’ll keep the good memories, no doubt. In seven seasons, my jokey side-save became my main project for FM21, taking a storied team somewhat closer to where it belongs. We got two promotions, renovated a stadium, built another one from the ground up, kept the ship steady through financial storms and got RFC Liège back to the Belgian First Division for the first time in 30 (in-game) years. Liège’s next manager will lead the team out for the first match in a new stadium, as a top tier side. It’s the one regret I’ll have, but like I said, a club’s history can no longer be told by one name.
Of course, I’m not a legend in FM terms. Too little silverware for it. But if a real Sant et Marine fan is reading this, I hope you enjoyed my journey with your club. I certainly did. It was legendary for me…