A Vintage Year: Why Football Manager 2016 Delivered The Goods This Year

We’ve reached the point where the majority of us have said our goodbyes to Football Manager 2016. Across the community, players are signing off their saves and leaving their final thoughts on an FM that has – for the most part – been considered a bit of a vintage for the series.

As someone who loves clambering on a good bandwagon, I could hardly resist the opportunity to join in the reflective fun. So here are my thoughts on FM16 and why I developed a particularly soft spot for it this year.

Love at first sight?

Many of you will be aware that I reviewed FM16 for The Guardian when it first released last year. Having played the series for the best part of a decade and a half, the pressure of accurately reviewing it for a national newspaper weighed on me in the first thirty hours of play time.

Nevertheless, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed FM16 in comparison to its predecessor. FM15 felt like a game where big meaningful changes were taking place, but no-one had fully gotten those shifts under control. As a result, it took away the gentleness of FM 14 and failed to support players enough as it made the shift to a more total game – making it a pretty brutal experience.

But even though FM16 retained that difficulty, it pulled off a bit of a Dark Souls by ensuring that it always felt fair. Improved menus and interfaces made it much easier to analyse performance of the impact of managerial actions. Prozone provided players with an enormous amount of stats that they could (or couldn’t) call upon to help them out. Even the staff menu improved so you could get a quick gauge on how your team were doing.

Ultimately, FM16 left me feeling at review that it was going to be a game that rewarded you for what you put into it. Be lazy or fail to manage the whole picture at a particular club and it would happily mess you up. But give it the respect it deserved and indulge in its depth, you’d find that it was one of the more accessible FMs around.

It remained a big unwieldy beast, but at least someone had handed you a whip to try and train it this time round. This meant FM16 consistently felt like something worth rolling around with, as the next three hundred hours of game time showed.

Two memorable saves

I managed to do something twice in FM this year that I haven’t done for a long time; I managed to indulge in two long term saves that held my interest. Though both were different in character and maintained my interest for different reasons, it’s the first time in many a year where the number of saves I started could be counted with a single hand.

The first one to capture my interest was, surprisingly, the beta save. I took over at Leeds United during the review period and stuck with them for the best part of two seasons. It was a typical beta save in the sense that I used it to feel out the engine and started to learn who the players who I should (and shouldn’t) be signing.

But unlike most of my beta saves, which finished after I got bored with the first team I was messing around with, this one held my interest when I took over at Oldham shortly after sacking in the Leeds job.

My performance in two and half seasons at Oldham exceeded anything I’ve ever done in a Football Manager save. Back to back promotions with a team of average Championship players and a net spend of a couple of hundred thousand quid was a watershed moment for me.

It showed how much pleasure I could get from organising a particular tactical system, investing time in really identifying and signing the players who could fit it (Kwesi Appiah and Julio Plezueguelo being two particularly excellent examples of this) and sticking with it. We fluked our way out of a particularly low quality Championship season, but the fact that I got a team into the Premier League with the 23rd lowest wage budget in the league will remain a landmark achievement.

Still, that save eventually petered out. Getting battered week in week out in the Premier League got demoralising reasonably quickly, which led me to an unsuccessful stint as Ireland manager and then one last promotion at Crystal Palace.

But I was, truthfully, tired of English football at that point. I hadn’t loaded many leagues because it was still based on a beta save, which meant the game world felt a bit Anglo-Centric. I was also at that point where the best young players at the start of the game had all gone to other teams and my 18 months as an international manager had blown my chances of properly scouting the regen pool. It basically meant that it was time to move on from the save, which is when I fell in love with Benfica.

I, unfortunately, couldn’t complete my self-imposed challenge of breaking the Guttmann curse over three seasons at Benfica. Aside from one incredible near miss (a 2-1 defeat in my first season in the Champion’s League final against Barcelona), I didn’t get anywhere near as close as I’d like to succeeding in my goal. But it was, overall, another excellent save that I thoroughly enjoyed and that I’ll retain fond memories of for quite some time.

Funnily enough, the least enjoyable part was being successful domestically. Until the final season, when Carlo Ancelotti popped up at Sporting Lisbon, I never really had a convincing domestic challenger to make winning the league feel anything other than a formality. The joy of the save instead came from the construction of teams that merged together Benfica’s brilliant young talents, the best of Portugal and South American gems.

I had some fabulous players in that side to play around with. Geronimo Rulli is an FM favourite for good reasons, as is the bulldozing Renato Sanches and the continually underrated Nico Gaitan. But equally, I developed enormous soft spots for players who had never really entered my FM radar before.

Diogo Jota proved to be an excellent and tricky inside forward, before Borussia Dortmund swung in and poached him. Nicolas Tagliafico and Lucas Otavio proved to be two of the best ever first season signings I’ve made, both becoming first team stalwarts (and yellow card magnets) throughout my time in charge. And my final XI of Karius, Diego, Juan Jesus, Paolo Oliveira, Tagliafico, Thiago Maia, Renato Sanches, Ganso, Guedes, Gaitan and Milik (with quality replacements for each of them in every position) is arguably one of the strongest I’ve ever assembled for a team outside of the European elite.

It was, in short, a glorious slow burner of the save. The tactical experience of playing on comprehensive highlights, the enforced breaks between sessions caused by an insane work schedule and the emotional rollercoaster it put me on (e.g. that first season Champion’s League final defeat) meant it occupied hundreds of hours of my life quite happily.

And I even managed to round that save off with a nice little diversion too. After deciding to resign from the team after our European dreams went up in smoke in the 3rd season, I found time to take a terrible Werder Bremen to safety in the Bundesliga with an incredibly unconvincing win in a relegation play off after picking up a more convincing 11 points from the final eight games of the season.

My final FM16 summary

But in all of my saves and all of the teams I managed, I felt that I was part of a convincingly simulated football management world. And it was the richness of these two saves that convinced me that FM16 is one of my favourite versions of the game in years. Obviously, personal in game history is definitely clouding my judgement and a couple of aborted saves might have easily tainted my feelings about the game.

But what I noticed across the community while I was talking about this save was how many other people also retained interest in a handful of saves. Guido Merry’s insane save was probably the best example of this, but I saw dozens of writers and creators stick to a handful of saves happily this year. There was less shifting and swapping of sides, with much more emphasis on long term team or tactical construction from most writers.

In my opinion, that is testament to the strength of FM16 and the way it encouraged virtual managers to master the material in front of them. Rather than feeling like something you could game with a super tactic or easily settle into once you’d found a magic formula, it felt like FM16 continually stretched me – forcing me to evolve and adapt to stay ahead – and the rest of the community which meant everyone had a greater sense of pride in their achievements.

Of course, nothing is perfect and there are things that I think we all want changed for FM17. The next phase of the FM match engine needs to be rebalanced away from favouring crosses because it forced FM16 players to either field wingers or attacking full backs (reducing tactical flexibility). Furthermore, there are plenty of calls for improvement of AI managerial behaviour when it comes to them constructing coherent sides and behaving sensibly in the transfer market (e.g. ridiculous low ball bids for players that would even make Arsene Wenger feel uncomfortable).

Still, I believe that FM16 delivered the goods this year. In a year of general nonsense and madness, it’s been nice to be able to retreat into an excellent entry into the FM series. Let’s hope FM17 delivers the goods too.