Football Manager 2011 (FM) is released this Friday in Europe and tentatively dated the 16 of November in the US. A Football Management ‘simulator’ you are put in charge of basically any club of your choice in a ridiculously realistic setting. Playing Football Manager can often be like taking a degree in football, you learn the rules of each league, the transfer rules regarding ‘Bosman’s’ and the compensation clauses in signing youth players and also you will learn to love, hate and covet players you may never have heard of.

For the uninitiated playing FM can be a daunting task, the sheer level of depth in the game could easily turn someone off, it is not a ‘pick-up-and-play’ game. However, if you are a fan of football it will reward you for those first tough hours as your team get’s demolished by all and sundry because you haven’t prepared accurately. Your players may not develop because you haven’t the right coaches. Players will become disaffected because they aren’t getting playing time and you told them they were indispensable and the board may sack you because you’ve led the club on the road to financial ruin. It is the level of depth though that makes the game so rewarding.

For football lovers it is the ultimate in fantasy football, you can take charge of one of the European greats and tinker with systems and tactics to your heart’s content or you can scrimp and save and try to turn your local team into world beaters. It is all possible but it takes a lot of hard work. Yes, work, the game takes on the role of a second job, one where your mistakes will cause you to squirm in your seat and your successes feel euphoric. It may sound that I’m eulogising but that’s because I am, Football Manager is one of the greatest games in the world about the greatest game in the world.

I’ve played Football Manager and its previous iteration ‘Championship Manager’ since the turn of the Millennium. It has helped me develop an almost encyclopaedic level of knowledge about the world game, through its global scouting network it has predicted stars year upon year.  It knew Ronaldinho would be a star since his Grêmio days and Arjen Robben to be a fleet footed threat since his years at Groningen. The game acts as a world class scouting system (even being used by the back-room team at Goodison Park to identify players to target) & you will also see transfers happen in the game which may get mimicked in real life. (I remember seeing Robert Pires at Arsenal long before he actually signed there.)

The development and utilization of player’s, much like real life, is one of the key factors to success in FM. Whether you are a ‘players to suit your tactics’ man (like me) or a ‘tactics to suit your players’ man the game accommodates for every taste. You can lump it long, play tiki-taka or just keep attacking down the left if you are using Tottenham. Every option is available in an in-depth tactical creator, or you could use basic controls to set up a basic frame-work as you seek to strengthen the playing staff.

FM is still not perfect though, it has its flaws, The actual matches themselves are displayed in either a rudimentary 3-D system or a top-down 2-D system that sometime’s detract from your enjoyment. Also the game engine itself can seem ‘scripted’ that is to say that the game will invent situations that don’t seem feasible. However, when I think about it, seeing Angola lose a 4 goal lead in 20 minutes and having your captain miss a Champions League winning penalty are things that happen in real life, sometimes it seems you have to take the rough with the smooth. Most criticisms I can think of the game i.e. No full licensing, a rudimentary graphical engine and clunky menu driven interfaces are nit picking of the highest order. What we get in Football Manager is the most in-depth, realistic depiction of our beloved sport year on year. Yes, you can’t actually play the matches, yes it can seem like nothing more than an advanced Excel spreadsheet but it isn’t supposed to be these things. If you can’t be bothered with training, realistic transfer systems, tactics and the media pick up PES11 or FIFA 11. If you want a taste of what it is actually like trying to correct the issues at Liverpool have at it. (Coincidently this is what I tried to do in the Demo, I didn’t fare too well. Gerrard and Torres were out for a long time with injury and my right back ended up being Bernard Mendy because Glen Johnson was a defensive nightmare. Sound familiar?)

For long term players of the series the above is all old news, so for you I’ll just sum up what to expect when you DO pick-up the new version come Friday:

  1. The new ‘conversational’ interaction: In FM you used to have to wait for a player to respond to your requests or declarations now it is instantaneous, also the player’s are more temperamental than ever before. I had Paul Konchesky have a go at me for placing him in the reserves almost immediately. We had a chat about it and he requested a transfer in the end, bit of a diva that Konchesky.
  2. The new ‘set-piece’ creator: A personal favourite of mine, I was always irritated at the lack of depth in set-pieces in FM as it continued to dominate in modern football. That has changed now though, however you do have to give up valuable training time to your ‘genius’ concoctions. I got caught on the break when I tried to be too clever with a free-kick.
  3. Dynamic League Reputation: Those three words will mean nothing to the uninitiated but everything to the FM pro’s. It used to be that if you were using a club in a lesser league, say, Slovenia, your best players could be picked up by the bigger leagues. That’s realistic you may think, the problem is that that could happen even if you had won the Champions League back-to-back. Your fame never really trickled down to the rest in your league and could leave the domestic scene boring. However that has now been changed, in the new game if you or your league continue to do well in Europe you will have a bigger ‘reputation’ in the game. Key to signing and keeping the very best players.
  4. Advanced Training Options: The training element of the game has been static for several years, tacking on bells and whistles with each new season. However this year there has been a significant change. You can now focus your training further, is your keeper crap under a cross –train him up. Can your full-back steam passed anyone but never lasts past the 60th minute – get his stamina up.

These little additions help improve an already exceptional game and continue to add nuances you can exploit to make your team that little bit better. Each time you start a new game you start a new story, one that you write yourself. I always buy the new FM and each year I wonder why but when I play the new version I invariably find myself thinking ‘I can never go back’ to the old game as I get used to the new options, features and up-to-date data. So sorry Ipswich, you had me for 20 years last term it’s someone else’s joy to have me helm the club. I think there’s a team on Tee who have a big stadium a bit of Money and need a new manager. See you in a few weeks when I can tell you if Javier Pastore is worthy of the hype and whether I can forgive Jamie Mole this year. (It was a flipping sitter you silly English berk!)