Playing Football Manager makes me a better and more knowledgeable football fan. I don't get to know the names and trajectories of upcoming wonderkids anywhere else, and it makes me sound cultured when I can tell my mates about a promising new player from the Austrian league. There's a big wide world out there, outside of the Premier League, full of talent that's ripe for the picking.
In Football Manager 2023 that's never been truer, and if you're a fan of playing with virtual spreadsheets and trying to take your tiny hometown football club to the Champions League, then there's nothing better.
I have spent 18 years trying to do just that. Football Manager 2023's ua-realism allows me to sign off from my work emails at 5 pm and into my fantasy emails at 6 pm. An army of researchers work to make the player database as true to life as possible, so learning the game directly transfers into real-world football knowledge, in a way that no other sports simulator does. And, like all the other iterations that have come before, I am totally hooked.
In Football Manager 2023, I am a manager, but I am also so much more than that. I'm the head coach, chief financial officer, director of football, a whole HR department, and media relations. I reckon José Mourinho actually works less than I do in Football Manager. The micromanagement can be done in your own way—I can burn 25 hours on recruitment, scouting, tactical setup, and optimising training schedules, or I can delegate most of that to the backroom staff and breeze through the first pre-season just handling recruitment.
The trouble with all this?
It's really overwhelming, and the experience feels almost identical to Football Manager 2022.
It also looks similar to FM22. I started with 2D on FM05, and the 3D engine has bumbled along since its introduction, looking like an iPhone game. FM fans don't play FM for the graphics, but FIFA 23 it is not. The sound is also something that has not moved forward in my opinion. It's way off what a matchday sounds like—the crowd droning so inaccurate it's unbearable. A morsel of audio excitement comes with the new UEFA licenced Champions League anthem. Mute until you qualify, unmute for one game, back to mute.
There's a term in the community: “you've been FM'd”. When no matter what you do, the RNG gives you better stats performance-wise, but makes you lose the game. But this also happens often in real football—take Leicester winning the Premier League for example. The rage induced by this will never go away. The biggest overhaul to the match engine this year is that the AI manager is smarter, and will change its tactics throughout the game. Something that makes the game harder, and sometimes even more rage-inducing.
The match engine is a mature beast, and whilst changes come year on year, the limited amount of animations in the 3D engine sees very little variation game-to-game. I get the same stupid red card as my midfielder hacks down an attacker with two feet from behind once or twice a season. It still feels like football though, and your players react to every change you make from the sidelines, for better or worse.
Tactically, new defensive systems have made blocks and shape even smarter, especially when playing with my preferred five-defender wing-back shape. New options have appeared for offside traps, aggressive transition play and defensive width on crosses. This is great for players like me, who sign five amazing new attackers every season and leave the defence threadbare.
But set pieces still feel like a lottery, and I've always found messing with things like corner routines causes more misses than goals, so I leave them to default. To save me from downloading a broken corner routine from the Steam Workshop, I'd love to be able to hire a set-piece expert and let them draw up what's best for my team.
I've signed for my club, Coventry City, where I have desperately been trying to hold together our core of young talent. I'm essentially preventing them from furthering their careers, and selfishly trying to get them to fire the club to the top. By the time I actually play a competitive game—you know, the bits that actually test marriages—I'm a couple of hours in and I have several new players to parade before the media. Let's be honest, the 24-hour news culture around global football revolves around transfers—and it's also my favourite part about FM23.
First, I have to take a look at the new squad planner, but even that has its teething problems. I love a free transfer, and trialists are missing from the latest squad depth analysis, so I've got no staff telling me if these players are better than my current crop. I've done it myself, but putting four extra clicks into something I used to see in one view is frustrating. Where the squad planner has helped recruitment is the experience matrix: a one-pager on the spread of age and skill level within my team. It's handy to see where I'll have gaps in a few seasons when experienced players leave, with no development or emerging players coming through. It certainly saves panic-buying expensive players in their peak.
Then, each transfer window, I'm summoned to recruitment meetings by my chief scout to tell me where I'm going right or wrong. Sports Interactive have changed these to make them better reflect what goes on in the footballing world, but I feel the extra 'conversation' and changes that come with recruitment focuses have made this an even longer process.
I will miss FM22's meetings that went something like “Here, Alex, look at these great players in positions we are short on. Please consider buying some of them.”
A new dynamic timeline is a seemingly small integration but it jolts the memory when you're years deep into a long-term save. The joy in Football Manager and the addictiveness comes with the stories you make up in your mind about cup finals won, starlets unearthed and legacies written. Still to this day I remember the joy that a new-gen Dutch central midfielder gave me as I nurtured him through the academy into a treble-winning international (Niek Smith, I miss you).
Choosing a club you know makes getting in reasonably straightforward, but the exotic football manager takes an extensive database and dives into the unknown. The size of your database determines the depth of the game and the further afield you can go. Pick a size from small, medium or large, or select more leagues and players to import into the advanced database setup. A bigger database with more players equals more bargains to be uncovered—don't forget to load South America. Technically, the game is lightweight, so most PCs will easily run these chunky advanced databases. I'm also playing on my Macbook, because a January transfer window is the best companion on trains and planes.
Mods will come, in time, to introduce even more playable leagues in deeper parts of football's pyramid system. The Football Manager modding community usually has a fix for things like the real names, along with missing badges, kits and player faces on day one. These add a little bit of extra immersion which is missing with blank faces and generic badges, and are especially useful if you don't know who the team you're running is. There's a swathe of FM players who end up supporting the random foreign clubs they run on the game, buying shirts or even flying abroad to watch 'their team'.
No other sports game offers a wider range of challenges you can set for yourself, playing your own way with only your imagination. Play out a rags to riches, knock one of the big boys off their perch, or simply aim to dominate the league with your favourite team for a generation.
If you need to save scum to fix results and go on a 100-match winning streak, you do you. Need to sell your 36-year-old non-league striker with no knees to Real Madrid for £100m? Sure. I have no beef with any community member who needs to do this to get their kicks. I did it when I was younger, but I don't get the satisfaction anymore.
New fans will get the ultimate football management/strategy/sim, but might find all the bells and whistles quite intimidating. Seasoned Football Manager managers will not feel the revolution of the game they played last year, but they'll play it anyway. See also: all sports games on an annual release.
There are introductions at the start of every save that try and make FM more user friendly for beginners, but if you want to get the hang of the game you can try the Xbox Edition, which returns to PC via Game Pass. Think of it as the Touch version of the game, which is now exclusive to Apple Arcade and Nintendo Switch. It's a bit like the original Championship Manager 01/02—you've got tactics, transfers and games at your fingertips. It serves as a great introduction to FM, before going footballs-deep into the 'full fat' version.
Still despite the fact that the latest iteration of Football Manager has fed my management addiction, I can't help but feel that Football Manager 24 needs to add something more drastic in order to stay relevant. Years of tech debt and the crunch of an annual release are preventing the Sports Interactive team from delivering a new era of their bestseller, and it may threaten the game long-term.
In what form this revolution will come is anyone's guess, but given they're working on women's football in the background, they may well have an ace up their sleeve that'll ensure any future instalments start with a bang.