With each passing year, Sports Interactive iterates on the long-standing fundamentals of its Football Manager series. A slight tweak here and there: applying some ease of use adjustments, or tinkering with the 3D match engine like a manager moving pieces around a whiteboard. Some of these tweaks might not become evident until you’ve spent hundreds of hours entrenched in the virtual dugout, while others may only affect those eccentric enough to deploy a tactic featuring a Raumdeuter. In Football Manager 2018, minor refinements are similarly sprinkled throughout; but, crucially, there’s also a significant new addition, and other impactful overhauls, that are palpable from the get-go, profoundly changing the way you manage and interact with your team on a daily basis.
The first of these is a new module called Dynamics that focuses on the topsy-turvy world of player morale. The concept of squad happiness has existed in Football Manager since the early days, but the cause and effect of your actions was previously hidden behind an algorithm we weren’t privy to, which made managing your player’s mood a case of pure guesswork and gradually learning through repetition. That all changes in FM 2018, as each interaction with your squad now has a clear, defined outcome that helps keep your chosen group of expensive primadonnas in check. A detailed hierarchy displaying your team leaders and most influential players advises you on who not to annoy; social groups determine which individuals sit around the breakfast table with each other based on parameters like their shared nationality and how long they’ve been at the club; and myriad other menus track your player’s individual mood, their confidence in you, and the consequences all of these variables has on team chemistry.
A harmonious squad generally leads to better results on the pitch, with the team’s collective mental state contributing to the quality of their positioning, vision, and reactions during the course of a match–making it imperative for you to maintain your team’s high spirits if you have any notions of success. Football is a results-based business after all, and player power is definitely a factor in FM 2018. If the squad is displeased with how you’re doing on match days, or how you’re handling their various personalities off the pitch, you’re liable to find yourself unemployed. Thankfully, with the addition of a hierarchy and social groups, there’s a surfeit of valuable information guiding your decision making that helps you understand how to handle different types of player.
If a rugged team leader comes into your office complaining about a lack of playing time, you’re going to have to weigh up the risks of introducing him to the starting line-up when he might be off form, or face incurring a potential player revolt if you turn him down and piss him off. Conversely, if a player on the lower rungs of the hierarchy comes to see you with the same issue, telling him he’ll have to remain patient is less likely to upset even a small portion of the dressing room, and may not bother anyone at all. Admittedly, conversing with players in FM still lacks the subtlety of believable human interactions, but with all of this new information on hand, player reactions appear more logical than ever, and keeping influential players onside will ensure there are fewer unhappy players knocking on your door. It’s a fun, personable new module to toy with, and it emboldens Football Manager’s recent focus on the human side of the beautiful game.
Meanwhile, an overhauled medical center places an increased emphasis on Sports Scientists, with each one providing you with crucial information on how and why your players are suffering from injuries, and how you can counteract their pulled hamstrings and twisted ankles from occurring too frequently. If there’s a busy period coming up where you’ve got, say, three matches in seven days, you’ll be advised on which players are most at risk of sustaining injuries from the wear and tear of successive action. It forces you to be more proactive with your training schedules and player selection, as you’re encouraged to adjust the intensity of training sessions on a week-by-week basis, and intelligently rotate your team in an attempt to keep your squad healthy without sacrificing results, (which also ties into Dynamics and how you can maintain squad harmony through frugal management of your team’s playing time).
Dynamics also factors into FM 2018’s improved scouting system. When it comes to finding new players, you’re now able to set a scouting budget: spend more and you’ll cast your net wider; spend less and you can rely purely on the existing knowledge of your scouts. However much you spend, the process of unearthing new talent is slow. Your scouts will gradually build a picture of the type of player you’re looking at, represented by a rating out of 100 that covers their attributes and also the type of personality they are. A player might be good enough from the statistical side of things, but will they gel with your squad? Maybe they don’t fit into any social groups, or maybe they carry too much influence and will risk upsetting the balance of your dressing room. These are the types of things you have to consider when signing a new player, and it makes each transfer window much more engaging.
AI logic has been modified, too, ensuring other teams are smarter at handing their transfer business. You’re unlikely to see the likes of PSG spending ludicrous amounts of money to stockpile talent they’re only going to leave rotting on the bench as has been the case in previous years. Transfer fees and budgets have also skyrocketed to reflect these astronomical times, with teams (particularly in the Premier League) holding out for more money for even the most marginal of talents.
When it comes to assembling your team on the pitch, the tactical interface is relatively unchanged. There are new player roles like the Carrilero and Mezzala, and more player instructions such as the opportunity to direct your central midfielders into wider areas–that give you more options when it comes to establishing your team’s playing style. But it’s disappointing that this aspect of Football Manager hasn’t seen any substantial developments. Building your tactical plan is still far too rigid and restrictive, and would benefit from giving you more control over how your team functions, particularly during specific phases of play. The current tactical interface is serviceable, and there’s now a plethora of useful analysis that pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of your setup, but a more robust system would elevate this aspect of the series in a crucial way.
Once you emerge out of the tunnel, the 3D match engine is at least better at demonstrating how each team follows your tactical setup. Any adjustments you make mid-match are immediately tangible, and players have enhanced intelligence all over the pitch. You’ll see strikers timing their runs behind the defensive line, players opening up their bodies to curl Thierry Henry-esque finishes into the bottom corner, and midfielders will generally play a more expansive brand of football–if you let them. There are still baffling moments where players will inexplicably stop dead in their tracks, which is particularly troublesome in defence. And goalkeepers are still inconsistent–one moment they’re saving everything that’s thrown at them, the next they’re palming a daisy cutter into their own net. It’s certainly not perfect, then, but the 3D match engine does continue its steady progression after a poor showing in FM 2016 and the same can be said of this series as a whole.
For a game that’s so consuming you might not even realize the sun’s gone down, it feels almost irresponsible to proclaim that giving you more things to do is a resounding positive. Yet the way these new and overhauled systems coalesce with Football Manager’s deep and emotional fundamentals is fantastic. The series’ propensity for telling emergent stories has only increased with this emphasis on player personalities and morale, and it bleeds into every other facet of Football Manager 2018’s design, from transfers and injuries, to team selection and tactical considerations. These are changes that tilt the simulation closer to reality with captivating aplomb, and ensure that the armchair managers among us are kept busy for another whirlwind 12 months of 40-yard screamers and cup final heartbreak.