APPLYING A PRAGMATIC APPROACH TO FOOTBALL MANAGER

Gareth Southgate has now led England to a World Cup Semi-Final and a European Championship Final in successive tournaments, making himself and the legendary Sir Alf Ramsey the only men in history to lead England to the Semis or further at two major tournaments. Surely this makes him a national hero?

Not quite.

A lot of England fans feel that their side reached the final in spite of Southgate, rather than because of him. Why? Due to his safety first, pragmatic style of play, and some of the decisions he made both before and throughout the tournament.

Although I (along with many others) don’t always agree with Southgate’s decisions, I do feel he needs backing, as ultimately results are king and he’s better at getting them than many managers in our history. I also find his approach interesting, he’s very much his own man and knows what he wants from his players. Over the course of the Euros and the time since, I’ve been thinking about how certain aspects of Gareth’s management would translate to Football Manager, and whether they would lead to success.

SQUAD SELECTION

The biggest talking point before the tournament started was Southgate’s decision to include four right-backs in his 26 man squad. Trent Alexander-Arnold of course missed out in the end through injury, but Kyle Walker, Reece James and Kieran Trippier all made the squad. Southgate explained at the time “What I would say is you’re looking at four right-backs, and I know people feel I have an obsession with right-backs, I just see four good footballers. Trippier can play right-back or left-back, Trent can play right-back, wing-back, I think he can play midfield. In the last few days I’ve seen Reece James play right of a back-three, at wing-back and in the middle of midfield.” In the end Walker and Trippier both played important roles, while James also made an appearance, because all of them offered something different to the side.

Walker was the undoubted first choice right-back, starting all but one game there when Southgate used a back 4, the only exception being the Scotland game where Reece James was given the nod for his attacking talents. When Southgate went with a back 3, Trippier was the man to play as the wing-back on the right side with Walker moving back into the central three. Walker’s recovery pace is a huge asset, and a large part of the reasoning for him being selected over Coady, White and Mings, all natural centre-backs.

Trippier also started the opening game, but at left-back, ahead of naturals Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell. Southgate knew what he wanted though; Trippier offered a calm and experienced head in a tournament opener, especially next to the relatively inexperienced Tyrone Mings, who replaced Harry Maguire. He also offered a great set-piece delivery, which has been crucial to England over the years, and missing somewhat from the squad with no Trent or James Ward-Prowse, who many thought should have been Trent’s replacement in the squad.

Of course, with the majority of saves in Football Manager being at club level rather than international squad building and selection is a different process, but there are still things to take away from Southgate’s thinking.

One thing I’m particularly guilty of is building squads that are too large, partly because buying players is my favourite part of the game, but also because I’m paranoid of suffering from a massive injury crisis. This of course is unfortunate but a part of football, I remember the days of Carrick and Fletcher playing at centre-back for United, and everyone saw the effect it had on Liverpool losing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez last season. The majority of outfield players offer some level of versatility, even if they only have one natural position. So rather than fill a squad with 30+ players, bust the wage budget and have a dynamics nightmare, it’s worth looking for players who can offer solutions to potential problems. With such similar skill sets, a lot of defensive midfielders can do an admirable job at centre-back as we’ve already mentioned, and many strikers are now also asked to fulfil a role out wide as well. My favourite though, is having a talented but hard-working winger with a little bit of defensive nous who can make the switch from a back 4 to a back three easily viable.

Dwight McNeil is a good example of this. Although wing-back isn’t one of his listed positions, he has all of the attributes to perform there to a good standard as well as being an exciting attacking talent. This extra unseen versatility can be crucial to a pragmatic manager and make surviving with a small squad a breeze.

OPTIONS OFF THE BENCH

When Jack Grealish was given the iconic number 7 shirt for the Euros, for many it was a sure fire sign that he would be the player Southgate built around. Even competing with talent like Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, Grealish was seen by fans not only to be a certain starter, but a versatile asset too, as he can play on either wing or behind the striker, plus deeper in the midfield if needed.

Despite this, he played just 172 minutes and only started one game, as Southgate preferred to bring him off the bench to help see games out. His ability to carry the ball further up the pitch and draw fouls from opposition players was crucial in disrupting any momentum the opposition could gather and relieve pressure on England’s back line. Of course there’s a lot more to Grealish’s game than that, City haven’t spent £100m for him for nothing, but with England not needing to chase a goal in many situations throughout the tournament this was the aspect of his game Southgate felt was most crucial and used accordingly. It’s interesting that in the Semi Final against Denmark, Grealish was the first substitute called upon when England needed a winning goal, albeit not until the 70th minute, but as soon as England got that goal in Extra Time he was also the man sacrificed to make way for an extra defender. Southgate felt he couldn’t fit both Grealish and Foden into the team with the state of the game, and wasn’t afraid to sub a sub to readdress the balance.

A more minor example was the contrast in use of Marcus Rashford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin off the bench, especially in the earlier games. Very few people expected Harry Kane to be replaced in both of the opening two games, and even fewer still would have expected to see Marcus Rashford as his replacement. Calvert-Lewin was taken as Kane’s understudy, but due to the situations that arose in game, Rashford’s pace and direct running were seen as crucial to what Southgate wanted and so he was given the nod through the middle. In fact, the only time that Dominic Calvert-Lewin replaced Harry Kane in a straight swap was in the Quarter Final win over Ukraine, where the Spurs man was rested for the final 15 minutes with the game settled at 4-0.

When considering squad depth in Football Manager, it’s important to make sure that any subs you expect to change a game either enhance or tweak your ‘plan A’, or offer you a distinct ‘plan B’. Sometimes just a personnel change will make the difference, especially if a starter is under-performing, but generally your best 11 will start and suit your system the best so it’s important for your subs to offer something different. Sometimes all it can take is one or two attributes; if a side has a slow or ageing defence, chuck a rapid youngster on the bench and give them something new to think about, even if he isn’t a first team regular. If your side are able to score goals and get ahead in games but struggle to hold on to results, get some experienced heads with high work rate and teamwork onto the pitch, they don’t have to be defensive players or better than who’s starting to make a massive difference.

Dan James of Manchester United is a great example of a handy bench player to see a game out. Although he’s a good player, he’s not at the level of the great wingers United have had over the years, but his blistering pace is undoubtedly his key asset; and combined with his work rate, determination and bravery he is an excellent outlet when his side are under pressure and looking to get out and keep the ball away from their goal for a while. His pace, combined with his good (but not world class) crossing and dribbling, can also be handy on the counter attack, especially if a striker with an aerial threat is on the pitch. After all, there’s no better way to relieve pressure than scoring an extra goal.

Then there are the more experienced heads, such as James’ team-mate Nemanja Matić. He’s probably a player many virtual managers would look to move on; he’s not a player who would be in most people’s best 11, especially at the age of 32 where his attributes will naturally decline, plus his high wages would make him a more dispensable asset. However, he definitely has a role to play as a calm head to come on late in a game to shut things down. His ability to sit at the base of the midfield and shield the defence could be crucial in seeing out a big game, with excellent technical ability to do so, but more importantly excellent mental attributes that would be hard to get from a younger, more desirable replacement. His composure, decisions, positioning and team-work mean the team can absolutely rely on him to shore things up and rarely make mistakes – and let’s not forget the man can pick a pass too, so can get a foot on the ball and keep a bit of possession or find the out balls, which is so important when under siege.

To many, including myself over the years, Dan James and Nemanja Matić would be the sort of players to go straight onto the transfer list and replaced with superstar signings. They aren’t glamorous, headline making players, but with a bit of pragmatic thinking these kinds of players can go under the radar and help to secure results in ways the more extravagant players couldn’t.

TACTICAL FLEXIBILITY

Okay so this one isn’t exclusive to a pragmatic approach, but it is a very important component, especially combined with the previous two. Gareth Southgate has actually got slightly more progressive in this respect, as at the 2018 World Cup a 3-5-2 was his system, he lined up in this shape for every match with very few personnel changes.

As we can, the foundations of England’s Euros campaign have been in place for three years, with 7 of the 11 making a significant contribution. Only the midfield has seen any kind of overhaul, with the continued emergence of Declan Rice, Mason Mount and Kalvin Phillips. It would be interesting to know if Henderson would have started if he hadn’t suffered with fitness issues throughout last season, but Phillips was excellent and fully merited keeping his place throughout the tournament. England’s major problem at the 2018 World Cup was the lack of creativity and goals from open play, 75% of their goals were scored from set pieces, and so after the tournament Southgate started to use a back 4 system as well, mostly in the Nations League campaign.

This of course doesn’t mean that Southgate was suddenly a maverick, his style was and still is safety first, but the move to a back 4 has allowed him to make more use of the amazing attacking talent England currently have, and try to play a bit more of an expansive game when the situation allows. The back three is still a favourite of Southgate’s though, and he used it twice at the Euros, against Germany and Italy. His reasoning for each occasion was slightly different; for Germany he wanted to match them up and press aggressively, and for Italy he wanted to give his attackers more chance to counter attack a side that are very good on the ball. What was clear though was that he was willing to react to the opposition and change the system to counter tactical problems that the opposition cause, rather than just create a system and hope that the personnel on the day will be enough.

As I’m not very tactically astute, I’m very guilty of just tweaking one system until it plays the way I’d like (or realistically until I win games) and then just making very small adjustments from time to time. Even without intentionally cultivating a versatile squad, most players offer enough flexibility that a 25ish man squad should always be able to fit at least a couple of shapes. It’s better to keep the style of play consistent, maybe just a couple of tweaks, but having a 4-2-3-1 Very Attacking Gegenpress and a 3-5-2 Catenaccio probably isn’t a great recipe.

In my main save this year with Defensor Sporting in Uruguay (a series you can check out HERE) I have shown some tactical progression, as I moved from a Cautious 3-4-3 to a more progressive style, before then switching to a back 4 with a 4-2-3-1 and finally a 4-3-3. The problem is it was a very linear progression, and only ever used one of these systems at a time for every match. A more pragmatic, and effective way to go about this, would have been to train the Cautious 3-4-3 and a back 4 shape from the get go, look at who I was facing and their strengths, and play the shape most appropriate. It’s also important to remember that the positions set the team’s defensive shape, and the roles set their attacking shape and style, so if you want your wingers to work harder in the defensive phase, for example, just changing them from an Attack to Support duty may not be enough, you may need to drag them back to the MR/L positions, especially if their Work Rate isn’t brilliant.

IN SUMMARY

A more pragmatic style may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a different approach to a Football Manager save, trying to notice as much as possible to get marginal gains in areas you may not have even thought about before. Trying to see footballers as more than a set of attributes, and looking further into what they can offer is a huge start, and can give a squad enough flexibility to react tactically to specific opposition. Sometimes though, it’s handy to have a couple of key attributes in mind when bringing a player into the game to serve a specific purpose. All in all though, it’s just about trying to make more sensible and thought out decisions.


That’s it for my thoughts on a pragmatic approach to Football Manager, which have given me a bit of food for thought about how I play the game. If you’ve found this useful, or even just a little bit interesting, I’d love to know with a comment or over on Twitter.

Thanks for reading.

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