FM Mythbusting: Being “FMed”

it-happensWe all love Football Manager, don’t we? Yet there is one complaint that always crops up year after year.

Here’s the scenario. You’ve just played through a match where your team has been absolutely dominant, for want of a better word. You’ve had 30 shots at goal, 60% of possession, an 85% pass completion rate… but the opposition won 1-0, scoring from their only shot in the entire game.

Congratulations, you have just been “FMed” (or “FM’d”, if you’d prefer to spell it that way). Now what?

You could assume that something’s wrong with Football Manager. You could even vent your frustration on social media, or on the Sports Interactive forums – or even on Reddit, where grown adults turn into temperamental teenagers with anger management issues. I mean… a result like that would never occur in real football, would it?

What if I told you that this actually happens more often than you think? What if I pointed out that your FM team’s inability to turn ‘dominance’ into a result might actually be down to your tactical decisions?

This article will not tell you how to stop your team from being “FMed” ever again. This will simply explain why such lop-sided results can happen in Football Manager and in real football. It’s time for some FM mythbusting…


THE STATS DO LIE

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Man City had 76% of possession against Newcastle… but lost 2-1.

The great 19th-century American writer Mark Twain once attributed this famous quote to Benjamin Disraeli, the former British Prime Minister: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

If Disraeli did actually say that, he might well have foreseen the rise some 140 years later of football-loving video gamers relying too much on stats. (Just to be clear, I’m writing about match statistics, such as shots and possession. I’m NOT referring to things like Finishing and Determination, which are player attributes.)

Look at the obsession with possession stats, for example. If you can consistently keep the ball, you can’t concede goals; ergo, you can’t lose matches… right? Actually, that’s wrong… to a point.

Writing for the Telegraph in 2014, Jonathan Liew found flaws in this apparent logic. In the 2013/2014 season, for example, the team with the most possession won 66.7% of Champions League matches (excluding draws), but only 55.3% of Premier League games.

Liew also analysed 105 matches from that season’s A-League in Australia, finding that only 43% were won by the same team that ‘won’ on possession. Again, he’s not including draws here.

Tiki-taka is perhaps not a viable strategy Down Under – or indeed in any lower-quality league, where errors in possession are more common and often more costly. By contrast, counter-attacking seems to be rather more effective. As José Mourinho once said, “Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.”

You’re probably thinking, “Yes, Christopher, but that was five years ago! Surely possession matters more in today’s game?”

Actually… those stats haven’t changed much in five seasons. Last week, I was watching a Tifo Football video on whether throw-ins should be abolished (they shouldn’t). Writer Ben Jacobs pointed out that 55.3% of PL games and 66.4% of CL matches were won by the teams who kept more of the ball.

So, keeping 64% of possession throughout a season might be all well and good if you’re Pep Guardiola and you have a squad of elite players who rarely falter (oh, hey there, Norwich City). However, strong counter-attacking sides like Burnley in 2017/2018 and – of course – Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City two seasons earlier have shown that you can be successful without hogging the ball.

In other words, current Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers’ old mantra of “if you can dominate the game with the ball, you have a 79% chance of winning” is not necessarily true.


SHOOTING YOURSELF IN THE FEET

Likewise, if your team has 30 shots in a game, all that tells us is… well, your team had 30 shots. Whether it was a 40-yarder smacked into the top bins or a 4-yarder scooped over the bar, every attempt on goal adds 1 to the shot count. As far as that statistic is concerned, a well-taken penalty has as much value as an easily-blocked shot from a difficult angle.

If you have a game where your team ‘dominates’ on shots yet loses, why not have a look at where exactly your players were shooting from? Open up the match report, and go into Analysis > Players, click on your team, select ‘Shots’ in the drop-down menu, and finally click ‘Select All Events’.

This example screenshot is from one match in my Shrewsbury career, where we had 21 shots (but only five on target, highlighted in orange) and still lost 2-0 at home to Walsall. As you can see, we created precious few opportunities inside the area, with perhaps our best one hitting the woodwork (in blue). Instead, we resorted to firing long-range shots that were either sent off target (yellow) or blocked by defenders (red).

Watching the highlights over again, I saw that we struggled to stretch play out and create space deep in Walsall’s half. Also, we were playing at a steady tempo, which perhaps gave the Saddlers’ defence more time to regroup and block our shots when they did come. In that scenario, increasing the tempo by a notch might have made a difference.

But what if you’re having loads of shots blocked inside the opposition’s area? Maybe you’re being too gung-ho against a team that’s defending deep and narrow, thus leaving the penalty box crowded when your side is on the attack? In that case, consider making a few tactical tweaks – including dropping your own defensive line a bit – to try and draw the opposition out.

In summary, it’s no good if your team fires 30 hopeless long-rangers off target when the opposition clinically drives home its only shot from point-blank. Quality matters more than quantity. After all, the only statistic that really counts is the one everybody talks about when the final whistle blows – the full-time score.

Of course, games like these could just be down to your attackers feeling unduly burdened with pressure and thus snatching at chances. Or perhaps the opposition keeper is having a blinder. It’s not exactly rare for an apparently mediocre team’s goalie to basically keep his side in matches by himself – think Tom Heaton, or Lukasz Fabianski, or David De Gea.


IT HAPPENS

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Algeria won this year’s AFCON Final with their only shot on target.

“But Christopher”, I hear you ask, “Where are the real-life examples of these results happening?”

Did you watch the Africa Cup of Nations Final this summer? Algeria won it 1-0 with what proved to be their only shot on goal – a 2nd-minute effort from Baghdad Bounedjah that took a huge deflection off a Senegal defender and looped in. Senegal had 62% of possession and mustered 12 shots on goal, but a combination of their wastefulness and valiant Algerian defending meant that Aliou Cissé’s team went home as runners-up.

What about the second leg of that Europa League qualifier between Kilmarnock and Connah’s Quay, which the Welsh visitors won 2-0 to go through to the next round? The Scottish hosts were well ahead on the shot count, yet the Nomads turned around a first-leg deficit with their only two shots on target – and one of those was a penalty.

One game that’s even fresher in the memory is Everton’s home defeat to Sheffield United last weekend. The newly-promoted Blades won 2-0, despite having just ONE shot on target (which Lys Mousset converted after United’s first goal went in off Toffees defender Yerry Mina). Marco Silva’s hosts had 16 shots, but only three were on target – and Dean Henderson saved them all.

Another example comes from the 2018 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup – and a vital group game between Germany and the United States. The USA had 26 shots to Germany’s 13, and eight corners to their opponents’ one. Crucially, though, the Americans were wasteful and ill-disciplined, while the Germans were typically calm and clinical, running out comfortable 4-0 winners.

And who could forget Atalanta’s inability to score against Empoli in April, despite having 47 shots on goal (18 on target)?

If you at the stats and diagrams, and if you watch the highlights, you’ll see what happened. Most of the shots were inside the box, but players like Alejandro Gómez and Duván Zapata were nowhere near their lethal best, with Gómez failing to find the net from nine attempts. Equally, though, you have to credit Empoli’s goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski for producing several outstanding saves.

I could go on and list loads of similar scenarios from recent years, but then this post would be ridiculously long. Besides, there’s something else I’d like to talk about…


TURNING TABLES

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Bottom-of-the league Wolves 2, top-of-the-league Man Utd 1.

There’s another scenario that some FMers say is an example of them being “FMed”. Their team is top of the league and on a lengthy winning streak… and then they travel to the team that’s rock-bottom and out of form. What happens next? A 1-0 defeat for the leaders, obviously.

Well… it’s not as if that has never happened before. The date is 5 February 2011, and Premier League front-runners Manchester United are putting their unbeaten record on the line at Wolves, who are in last place. Nani put the Red Devils ahead after only three minutes, but the Red Devils quickly lost focus – and ultimately lost 2-1.

(Incidentally, that happened on the same day Arsenal squandered a 4-0 half-time lead at Newcastle. Now there’s another result which would have had some FMers crying “conspiracy”.)

Confidence is usually a good thing in a team that’s challenging for honours. However, there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. If you allow your players to get complacent and take seemingly inferior opponents lightly, they could end up making silly – and costly – errors.

On a similar note, Liverpool had two surprising results over the course of eight days in January 2018. Having won 4-3 against then-unbeaten champions-elect Manchester City barely a week earlier, the Reds’ own 18-match run without defeat was abruptly ended by last-placed Swansea. Liverpool kept 72% of possession in that game but fell prey to a rare Virgil van Dijk mistake that Alfie Mawson duly punished.

One of the big things we love about football – and indeed most sports – is its unpredictable nature. There is always the possibility of an upset in any given match, no matter how many players Bayern München tear away from their Bundesliga rivals. If the best team – or athlete – always won all their matches or all their events, we wouldn’t bother watching, would we?

So why would these unexpected results happen to your FM team? For example, why would your La Liga challengers go from beating Barcelona at Camp Nou to suffering a humiliating home defeat to Real Valladolid shortly afterwards?

Again, it could be complacency or poor man-management… or it could be tactical. Barça might be more inclined to go on the attack at home, allowing your similarly aggressive system to exploit the spaces they leave. You might not get that same luxury at home to certain underdog opponents, who may sit back and play very cautiously, in the hope that they can spring a surprise on the counter.

Different opponents – and different scenarios – often require different approaches. I’m NOT saying you should use a three-striker ‘cheat tactic’ against Barcelona and then park the bus against Valladolid, as that would be silly. Just think more carefully if you’re going to assume the same team and tactics that humbled Messi, Suárez, Rakitic et al will simply steamroller over ‘Los Blanquivioletas’.


EA SPORTS: IT’S IN OUR GAME TOO!

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What some FIFA players would call a ‘scripted’ game – recreated on FIFA 98.

So, as you can see, anything can happen in football, and many results can defy statistics and/or logic. The experience of being “FMed” is not exclusive to Football Manager. Indeed, most – if not all – football video games can produce such results.

For at least a decade now, there has been a huge ongoing debate in the FIFA community about “scripting”, particularly in online matches. Certain players believe that developers EA Sports have secretly written some code into the game series that apparently boosts teams when they’re losing and weakens them when they’re winning. A form of rubber-banding, if you will.

The FIFA subreddit is littered with posts from irate players who claim that the game is rigged because, for example, they outshot their opponents 26-1 and lost by a single goal in the 89th minute. Does that sound familiar?

Personally, I stopped playing modern FIFA games several years ago, so I can’t confidently argue for or against the existence of scripting. I will, though, point you in the direction of FUTfacts – a FIFA fact-checking website which has several interesting articles on this subject. Some of these articles might also hold some relevance to FM too:

I’ve already touched on why the ‘better’ team in a match doesn’t always win, but those two articles should provide some valuable insight.

You might as well explain “why football is inconsistent”. You team could be on a long winning or unbeaten streak and then suddenly have an off-day. Remember when Barcelona were two games from completing an undefeated La Liga season in 2017/2018… and then shipped five goals in 56 minutes at Levante?

Likewise, teams can win and lose against the same opponent in the same season. Real Madrid comfortably beat Getafe 4-1 away from home in August 2018, only to suffer a late 2-1 defeat to them at the Santiago Bernabéu six months later. Go figure.

Some FIFA players see “momentum” as a mechanic deliberately put into the game by EA to make lop-sided matches more even by handicapping/helping the winning/losing team. As the article states, though, there is no concrete evidence to back up these claims. In that sense, “momentum” is a myth.

Of course, momentum shifts can and do happen in football. Your team could be heading for disaster or coasting to victory, but one goal can completely turn a game around. The 2018/2019 Champions League Semi Finals are perfect examples, as disgruntled fans of Barcelona and Ajax will attest.


IN CONCLUSION

Football is an enthralling and often unpredictable sport, where the better team usually wins – but not always. Sometimes you’ll watch a match and scratch your head over why the so-called ‘dominant’ team failed to win (I support Arsenal, so I know that feeling all too well).

As a long-standing and revered football simulation, Football Manager should reflect the real game’s somewhat random nature. If you could just stockpile all the very best players in the game and destroy every opponent 10-0 without fail, you could hardly call that a simulation, could you?

So… before you throw your computer out of the nearest window because the opposition smashed and grabbed a late win, just take a deep breath… and think clearly.

For starters, think about why exactly your team failed instead of blaming it on the AI, the match engine, or George Ezra. Did you overcommit to attacking the opposition and leave your defence exposed? Did you not create enough space to cause problems? Did you get too cocky against a team that had nothing to lose? Or were you just horribly unlucky?

In football, just like in life in general, things don’t always go your way. As Michael Stipe from R.E.M. probably said once, “Everybody loses… sometimes.”


So what do you think about this FM phenomenon? Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or tweet me @Fuller_FM.

FMCI am now a member of FM Creators – a community which includes some excellent, like-minded Football Manager bloggers, streamers and YouTubers.

You can follow us on Twitter @FMCreators and join us on our Discord channel.

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