September 2, 2014

FM Experiments: Man U's Formation Problems, Part 1


Manchester United are a lopsided team. While every soccer fan or analyst from the most amateur to no less than Van Gaal himself cried out for better defenders and holding midfielders, Manchester United's Ed Woodward went out and bought two of the best attacking talents available in the transfer window: Angel Di Maria and Falcao.

A team that already had two world-class strikers and two tremendous backups added the best forward on the market. A team that lined up in a 3-5-2 with wingbacks added an attacking winger. These big buys didn't fill gaps, so the internet jokes turned to this: Designing formations which would accommodate the talent being brought in to Man United.

This lovely formation to the right was my favorite, a 1-7-2 "inverted umbrella" including (almost) all of United's starter-quality attacking players at the expense of every defender but one.

That formation will be my starting point in this new series in which I simulate Manchester United's forthcoming season in Football Manager 14. In this series, we'll find out which formation best suits Man U's lopsided set of players for the year to come. In Part 1, we will tackle the 1-7-2.

Sorry, Louis Van Gaal: We at Man United have found an American in his 20s with no managerial experience, so you're out.

Here's the 1-7-2 suggested above translated into Football Manager. For this whole series, I will let the game auto-assign roles and duties so my touch on the experiment can be as light as possible. We're just trying to judge the formations, not my (formidable) ability to concoct those magic combinations of roles and shouts and player instructions.

This formation actually fit very easily into Football Manager. Maybe the 1-7-2 inverted umbrella is secretly totally viable in the match engine, who knows? You may notice I accidentally switched Mata and Rooney, but they are playing the exact same position, so hopefully that juan mata very much. Now it's time to click "Go On Vacation," leaving poor old Ryan Giggs to hew as closely to this tactic as possible, week in and week out. Let's see how things go.

I checked in after a couple of months to find the team in very bad shape. Young, Valencia, Rooney, and Januzaj were all nursing injuries. Somehow, incredibly, this team was lacking players in an attacking position, with only Di Maria left capable of playing either attacking winger role. This sort of bad luck may have colored the results so far:

Manchester United had been relegation candidates in the early going. But you will notice a few other signs that the league table wasn't old enough to be trusted: Liverpool hovering only a point above Man U's relegation spot, QPR in third, Man City in dead center. Things would surely turn around, but would I keep my job long enough to see the 1-7-2 formation truly tested?

No. That promising American manager, Nathaniel Edwards, was back to waiting tables at the Aon Training Complex cafe, or whatever.

I lost the job in November, painfully early. Replacing me was Diego Simeone, the fiery Argentine manager and Johnny Cash cosplayer.

Simeone righted the ship for Man U and took them to a seventh place finish. You can see the point where all the yellow circles for draws and red circles for losses turned into a bunch of green circles right when he took over. So what formation was he using?

Simeone decided to go with whatever you call the 4-4-2 with two attacking wingers. In my head I always think of it as "The Hexagon" for the shape it makes between the forwards and midfielders. The formation puts Van Persie on the bench and Mata out wide, but otherwise just about forms a reasonable team (mediocre defenders aside).

The 1-7-2 may have had some bad luck here, so we may revisit it later on. But for Part 2, we'll move on to the next great parody formation for Manchester United: The one-sided 3-5-2.