The importance of team selection

The only time Keano has something in common with Franklin

Benjamin Franklin’s pearl of wisdom that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”, oft wrongly attributed to Roy Keane, the hardman who uttered it hundreds of years later, is as applicable to Football Manager as anything. The best, most experienced players tweak from game to game as opposed to most new players who download a winning tactic that sees them through each match through match engine exploits. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with that but if you’ve created your own tactic (which I think is the most rewarding to play FM) it is very hard to go from match to match playing the same way. You WILL get inconsistent results even if you have a great team because, at any level, different teams have different ideologies and will play differently against you. Forget the doom and gloom though, simple and basic changes are mostly the best to make to get a result.

A lot of people play a reactive game where they will make wholesale changes depending on the opposition; this can be extremely effective if you get your plan right but a lot of the time you won’t have a team that are professional and good enough to play a 4-1-2-1-2 one week and a 3-6-1 the next. If you do (lucky you!), you may well be interested in FMAnalysis’ series on Reactive Tactics, please do check that out.

As I said, for us mere mortals, it is better to make simple changes to protect your obvious inadequacies and exploit the opposition’s obvious inadequacies. I don’t think anyone will argue that a fully fluid formation is better than one which is ‘awkward’ – players look much more comfortable and confident in their instructions and they clearly perform much better. I like to use only one or two shouts based on the pitch size and the weather and then rely on something wholly more powerful than tactics – players.

Players ultimately dictate the result of a match. In previous versions it may have been possible to win with a perfect tactic as players did not think for themselves and you could effectively control them; in recent versions players have had their own brains and freewill and the game is more than tactics nowadays. If used correctly, aided by tactics and motivation, as both of these factors still hold importance, players are usually the swing of a match and can mean the difference between a drubbing and a good win. It’s really important to try and build a versatile squad with a number of different options for each position. Furiousuk (@furiousukfm if you’re on Twitter) wrote a very good thread about Squad Building on the SI forums, take a look at that.

In practice

The match I’m going to use as an example is a Europa League clash against Fenerbahce. My Tottenham side were close favourites due to the home advantage but the opposition gave me plenty to think about; looking at their team report, they possess a strong, aggressively pressing side which could be a problem. I’m using an update so they have the newly signed Dirk Kuyt to add to long standing servants Gokhan Gonul and Volkan Demirel and the speedster striker Moussa Sow.

Demirel is a solid goalie, with few weak spots. The only place he might be a little suspect is from long shots as his Composure is only 14 and Concentration even lower at 10, but not bad enough to consider channeling my whole strategy towards exploiting it. If he was slow then I might consider playing more through balls and if he was poor aerially I might do the opposite and opt to cross it in but he’s solid at pretty much everything so all I did was put Sandro’s long shots up to Sometimes.

At the back Fabio Bilica is an ageing centre back who lacks pace but is composed and brave. He’d deal with pretty much anything aerially and I’ve not got a striker who could beat him in a header. I expected Joseph Yobo to start alongside him, an equally strong centre-back aerially but one with more pace – he didn’t actually start as it turned out but I didn’t think he was fast enough to change my decision anyway so it wasn’t an issue. They instead started a grey fake player (I didn’t load Turkey so they didn’t have a full squad) who lacked pace just like Bilica so they played right into my hands.

Gonul is reflective of the team as a whole – aggressive, fast and hard working. Not much new there, and ahead of him was the workhorse Kuyt, who would surely be getting right in our faces and making it hard to play. The other main threat was from Moussa Sow who possesses just as much physicality but less work rate and more pace and trickiness; he wouldn’t be too much of an issue when we had the ball but he would certainly pounce on any loose ball Kuyt et al managed to scavenge for him.


  • Aggressive pressing side
  • Great goalkeeper
  • Deep 4-2-3-1 which would protect defence well


  • Slow defence
  • Possible susceptibility to long shots
  • Pressing would leave space behind for pace
  • Kuyt is relatively poor when attacking

Team selection

The formation is one I use in nearly every match, and was by no means set up for Fenerbahce. I’ll go into it more in another article so I won’t mention that. The main premise for each selection was that we need to be composed. Some of the best sides in the world at the moment press high but Fenerbahce have aggression that the likes of Spain and Barcelona lack so it was all the more important to pick players with good Composure who could relax on the ball and not be intimidated or pressured. The lowest Composure across my team was 13 and many of my players were preferred to the alternative because of their composure.


Defoe was one of the key selections that I perhaps wouldn’t have made if I didn’t do a little preparation. I was fully aware that Bilica was lacking in pace and would probably play, and Defoe was the only realistic option to exploit that issue. I could’ve perhaps played Steven Fletcher who has decent pace and would give them a bit more of a battle in the air, but Defoe’s tendency to Break the Offside Trap swung it for me. He is a classic speedster, a classic poacher and a classic goalscorer.

Defoe’s clear physical dominance

van der Vaart

With only one attacking midfield spot, and Modric playing well recently, the only real possibility for ‘VDV’ to start was on the right wing. An alternative would’ve been a classic winger like Aaron Lennon or Andros Townsend but a playmaker seemed like a better choice to me. I suspected Modric’s impact would be less than spectacular because of the two DMCs Fenerbahce played but at the very least he would’ve kept them occupied; ergo, the creativity to put Defoe through had to come from elsewhere. The Dutchman went on to get the man of the match award as well as an assist.

VDV vs Lennon: clearly different players

The selection of van der Vaart is, essentially, what I’m trying to put across here. It demonstrates how you can change your team’s dynamic purely by selecting a different player – he has the PPM to cut inside and by the nature of his game, he came inside more than Lennon would have. I didn’t disrupt the team’s fluidity by changing his role, I just allowed him to perform out how he would, and how most natural AMCs would have, by coming inside and by putting balls through the defence, as opposed to endlessly sprinting down the line and knocking the ball in. I’ll stick my neck out and say selecting Lennon would have led to a less favourable result; whether you agree with that or not is up to you.

Did it work?

Yes. We won 3-0 with goals from van der Vaart, Defoe and Gareth Bale – almost perfect. The first goal came from van der Vaart rejecting a cross opportunity, turning inside and putting a curler in the far corner, Defoe’s was a lovely individual goal in which he used his pace to full effect, dashing past 3 or 4, and Bale finished the win slotting in after a goalmouth scramble.

VDV curls home

For two players who were specifically tipped to have an effect on this game, to play well and be involved in goals is surely testament to this kind of strategy. It is not so important to change your tactics as to change the players within them. This is a perfect way to play in most matches in my opinion, though of course there will be occasions when your base strategy just doesn’t fit. It is learning to know when you need to make big changes, and having the restraint to stick to small, logical and sensible changes that will dictate your success.

11 comments on “The importance of team selection

  1. Great read and has given me a bit more clarity of thought on team selection. Love the way you use the comparison between Defoe and Balica as I have never thought to do this before but will do now. KUTGW

    • Cheers for the praise, you’re very kind! The comparison feature isn’t something I use often in fairness but it is a really good way of seeing how players match up, especially in midfield.

  2. I have to admit if i played them, would i have changed Lennon for VDV? Doubtful, i personally would of used Lennon’s pace and probably played on the counter letting them press me deep then attack quickly. However that extra little bit of research into their team guranteed you a win, and showed that i would of being wrong and how your selection was vindicated.

    • Cheers for the comment Yamo. I would’ve agreed with you on Lennon had I been away from home but as home favourites I felt relying on pacey counters would be a bit negative. It probably still would’ve been a winning result with Lennon but it’s hard to say when VDV scored and assisted to get the MoM award!

  3. ‘The best, most experienced players tweak from game to game’

    I never, ever tweak my tactics yet I’d consider myself to be one of the most experienced FM players about. I’ve never followed this whole mantra of changing tactics for games or changing tactics depending on scout reports. In FM I believe in playing to your own teams strengths no matter what. And what I’ve found is that in FM if you have a quick Poacher you always stand a chance of scoring in any game.

    Tactically I settle on something I’m happy with and stick with it until I deem it needs changing(sometimes I for seasons upon seasons playing the same tactics). Most of the time those tactical changes come in the transfer window when I can reshape my team to fit either new tactics I have in mind. I don’t think people should ever get too hung up about tactics in FM. You learn what does and doesn’t work by playing the game, once you know what works it largely just becomes a case of buying players to fit the system.

    • It was probably wrong of me to claim that every experienced player plays like this because, as you say, some people can stick to the same tactics for years at a time and still do well. It depends on how you play the game, clearly, and if you know your stuff then you can do well on FM with very little effort. It’s my firm belief that anything can work if you put logical and sensible reasoning behind it and try not to follow what I’ve learnt about what works and what doesn’t. It’s a more more fulfilling experience if you don’t follow the same ideas that you know ‘work’ because that can become stale and make FM incredibly easy.

  4. ‘Fulfilling experience’ Well it again boils down to how you play and what you want. Was I fulfilled when I played a 3-4-3 to success? Yes I was. Was I fulfilled when I played a sweeper formation to success? Again I was. But that was due to me being inspired to try and make those things work in FM.

    For me FM now is stale and boring. I’ve managed in most of the leagues, I’ve played all the formations I want, I’ve achieved everything that has ever appealed to me. All FM boils down to is experience. I know what to look for when buying players, I know what will and won’t work tactically. But that doesn’t mean I only have one or two ideas when it comes to buying players and making tactics. To me now there’s no challenge to FM, not within the current leagues available.

    As for firm beliefs my firmest in FM is that you can make any club a success if you stay there long enough. Its all fine and well thinking things out ‘logically’ but you can overthink in FM.

    • Knew it was you, Ross!

      Aye, I know what you’re saying. You’ve done some fucking loopy things on FM that were clearly fulfilling and exciting to try and get working (which you did). That’s a belief I definitely share, because it is clearly quite simple to achieve anything with a club if you have a bit of patience. The point I was making was that this way of playing, tweaking for each team and using my players to do that, is a good way for people to overachieve without much effort. I don’t think anyone would argue that you’re one of the most experienced guys around and I certainly can’t say that I know the exact ‘formula’ for a winning player. I can’t write things that give people experience but I can write about ways of playing that allow you to experience FM and get to know the game without watching matches on full and spending hours on each match.

  5. You play the game differently to me and I like that, if people are bored of FM but don’t want to go league hopping then changing the way you play can make the game interesting. Last year I spent most of it playing Nationalistic and Sustainable Management, only signing players of the nationality of the country I was managing in and trying to always make a profit or break even in the transfer market. Those things really kept me into FM11.

    The Scouting Opposition feature is a feature I’ve scarcely used this year and last. I used it for a bit at Cheonan and with Russia this year, with Cheonan I used it to try and help me crack the ACL. But a lot of the time the scouts were coming back with nothing on the opposition, no advice on pre-match prep, nothing on how the team played, they’d just rate the oppositions players. I dunno if that’s down to the teams I played being largely greyed out or if that’s FMs way of telling me to get better scouts(although in fairness I did try a few different scouts out in the role and they all failed me, high tactical knowledge, high determination, I tried all those whacky theories out, nowt got me detailed ACL reports) Scouting Opposition could be a great feature but I’d truthfully rather have my Ast Man or a coach doing it. That way their tactical stats and other strengths could come into play in the reports.

    The Backroom Advice bars on a staff members Information were a nice wee touch, but they could and should play a much bigger role in FM. Advice given from staff should be more indepth and we should be given reasons as to why we should do something. The Ast Man says we should play a high line in the next game, why? The youth coach says Antoine Polonski should try and play first time balls, why?

    Infact fuck it. ‘Why?’ would be the greatest feature in the history of FM. You didn’t get this job, why? You were sacked, why? That player wouldn’t fit our tactics says the scout, why? Ast Man says a 4-3-3 suits us best, why? FM should tell us these things. You didn’t get the job because the compensation would be too much from your current club. You got sacked because you were consistently reckless with finances and wage budgets. That player doesn’t suit our tactics because we play inside forwards and he likes to dribble down the wings. A 4-3-3 would suit us because of our pacey wingers and big man striker.

    • Aye, I remember your game from last year. It was really refreshing to see someone put such restrictions on themselves. Can’t think of any better way to make a game enthralling for a long period of time (2080s was it in the end?!) than that.

      The team report is really good for me. A lot of the time it confirms what I already know of the team from experience or from real life style but goal/tactic analysis can be brilliantly useful sometimes. It could be something as simple as noticing that most of their goals conceded are assisted from the wing and then playing down the flanks to exploit that. Admittedly, you have to use inference and deduction a lot of the time to get the most out of it, and as you’ve noticed, it doesn’t give you a whole lot of tactical details (watching a previous match is the best way to find that out from my experience) but you can obtain a fair level of detail from it if you use a bit of guesswork. Sometimes it tells you absolutely nothing and you have to wing it, but I don’t think scouts make much difference to that – it’s quite an ’empty’ feature and sometimes you just can’t squeeze anything out.

      Finding out Why would be brilliant in so many areas of the game. 80% of the advice seems to have no basis to it – I’d love to know why my coach thinks I should train a player to switch the ball to the other flank or why I should scout so and so. The board can talk some absolute shite too – I’ve heard of someone whose MUFC board was ‘devastated’ by a draw with Udinese months after the match. Can’t imagine it’d be too hard to code either – there must be some background reasons for each advice, event etc in the code to calculate the result.

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