Football Manager — Glory to Sporting (Part 1)

Warning: This is one of those nerdy, overly serious Football Manager stories. Something, depending on your sensibilities, you’ll either love, or hate.

To those hundred or so foolish souls who read the first 8 chapters of my Football Manager fiction ‘Tracción’ firstly may I extend my thanks, and secondly, my apologies. The pretentious, cod-existensial epic that I had planned was snuffed on the vine due to my save corrupting. And while I have considered re-starting Carlos Tracción’s epic journey through Uruguay’s lower divisions, at the time of writing that remains just an idea.

So what instead? Some thing more conventional. Taking my cue from Alex Stewart’s fantastic FOOTBALL MANAGER MEETS MONEYBALL I have decided on asimple documentation of my Sporting Clube de Portugal (Aka Sporting Lisbon) save. No existentialism, more data.

Why Sporting? I liked the idea of lifting a club out of time. To blow the dust off what used to be a famous name. I considered a few clubs — Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Ajax Amsterdam or GNK Dinamo Zagreb may still yet get the Tracción treatment — but for now, it was Sporting, the club, in recent times known for little more than being the club that produced Crisitano Ronaldo.

With the club in hibernation my aim was pretty simple — to win the Champions League within 5 seasons. Easy.

Season 1 (2014/15)

First things first. I may have underestimated the task in front of me. According to the game data, Sporting are the 22nd most ‘famous’ club in Europe, but glossing over the squad it seems that this may be more based on its historic name rather than its current playing staff.

Of the 25 first team players at the club, only 6 have a value over £1million — André Carillo, a Peruvian right winger; Rui Patrício, goalkeeper and club captain; Diego Capel, a Spanish winger; Adrien, a hardworking box-to-box midfielder; William Carvalho, the brightest thing to come out of the famous Academia Sporting in some time; and the current star player, Nani, whom Manchester United are literally paying to stay away from Old Trafford.

That said, when i delve a little deeper into the playing staff my pessimism is assuaged ever so slightly. In fact it may just be that Sporting are football’s best kept secret. There are weak points — my strikers, apart from Algerian Islam Slimani, look pretty pedestrian and, most notably, my central defence looks as leaky as one of Vasco da Gama’s galleons that would have set sail from 16th century Lisbon; but in João Mário, Jonathan Silva, André Martins and Cédric I have, along with Carvalho, a core of young, talented players around which I can build something.

Its clear that youth will be the key to my success. In addition to league rules being that only 30 of your squad can be over 19 years old Sporting won’t be able to compete with clubs financially — to add to the challenege I’ve set the initial available transfer budget to zero — but, what the club has to advantage is its excellent youth facilities and youth recruitment system. If I am going to succeed, its clear that scouting and development of young talent will be key.

As with most game starts the first thing I do is look at the coaching and scouting staff — if you want to build something your foundations must be sound. Sporting’s staff are woefully inadequate for the task at hand, a club with ambition with no dedicated first team coaches and only 5 scouts? I go to the board and request an expansion in budgets in both coaching and scouting, both of which are accepted and give me confidence that the hearty ‘match my ambitions’.

I bring in 8 coaches — including Paul Scholes as a shooting expert — Alan Irvine as Head of Youth Development and 10 scouts — one of whom being a certain Ivan Zamarano — with the specific remit of searching the globe for youth talent to build towards something. In the short-term, as previously mentioned, the issue is defence. I have no money, so search high and low for a central defender. Slim pickings abound, I start getting desperate, and eventually manage to scrape in Neto from Zenit on a season-long loan. Elsewhere I bring in 3 Brazilians on free-transfers to add a bit of depth, but all-in-all, if I am going to make any waves in my debut season it’ll be hrough tactical management, rather than building through transfers.

I decide on a simple 4–5–1 tactic to play to the (limited) strengths of the squad. The lack of riches in defence mean that despite the attacking talent of my wing-backs I’m inclined to limited how much they get forward. In midfield, a simple 3-man set up with Adrien providing the power, João Mário pushing forward to link with the forwards and an alternation between attacking Martins and the more defensive Carvalho depending on the opponent. On the wings Capel and Nani will provide the speed and creativity, with the latter playing more as an inside forward than a winger; and upfront, hopefully Slimani’s strength in the air will take full advantage of Capel’s crossing ability.

The media predict Sporting to finish 3rd, a position they’ve only achieved once since 2009, and in truth not much threat to either Benfica or reigning champions Porto, aiming for their 4th successive title. If I can break that duopoly in any way this season, it’ll represent progress.

I win 7 of my first 10 league fixtures, including an impressive Nani-inspired 3–1 victory over Porto at home. Less inspiring is my form in the Champions League. Draw in a group with Real Madrid, Schalke 04 and APOEL I only manage a single win in my first three fixtures, against the latter, whereas in against the former two, I concede a total of 13 goals and score just 2. The scope of the challenge in front of me to bring Sporting to a level of continental competitiveness is writ large.

My lack of strength in-depth, mixed with the youthfulness of my squad starts to tell over the “busy xmas period”. Despite finishing 3rd in my Champions League group — and qualifying for the very much unwanted Europa League in the process — Sporting were hot on the heels of Benfica coming into December, but a series of 5 league defeats, culminating in a disasterous 4–1 defeat to Belenenses means the Verde-e-Brancos drop down to 4th. More worryingly, Nani fails to score throughout that period. A change in tactics is needed.

As the transfer window opens Borussia Mönchengladbach come in with a bid of £5.25 million for Diego Capel. Whilst the winger has provided the majority of my assists, his season rating is a dissapointing 6.65 and is valued over £1million less than the German club’s bid. I accept and look to spend the cash in a summer re-building. My one expense — a young Brazilian striker Pedro Rocha, unearthed by Zamorano, signed for £25,000 plus a few add-ons, remember his name.

The sale of Capel, in addition to an injury to João Mário neccesitates a switch up. I bring in ‘winger’ Matheus Pereira from his regular spot on the bench and push both him and Nani into ‘Inside forward’ positions. In midfield, I move Carvalho into central midfield alongside Adrien and bring back Spaniard Oriol Rossell who had impressed whilst on loan in Belgium to play as an anchorman; this, I hope will allow my wing-backs the freedom to push on and overlap my inside-fowards.

The change has an almost instantaneous effect. In fact Sporting go on to only lose just one league fixture in the second half of the season, the problem is, neither do Benfica. But the drastic change in form means Sporting back up to 2nd, a position which is made certain with a thrilling last day of the season 3–2 win over Belenenses.

In the Europa league, Sporting stumble past Anderlecht before getting knocked out by Napoli on away goals, another reminder that even Europe’s second-tier competition is still a step ahead of Portugal’s Premier Division.

Despite the positive league position, it would have been nice to finish with something more than Champions League qualification to show for it. Unfortunately, my “relax and play your game” team talk doesn’t have the desired effect as Sporting go down to the League champions Benfica 4–1 in the Taça de Portugal final.

Elsewhere

Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho wins the Premier League player of the year as The Reds push Man City all the way in the league, with the Citizens finally winning out. Luis Enrique is sacked as Barcelona manager, his replacement, Roberto Mancini. Bareclona’s La Liga rivals win the Champions League.

Conclusions

The foundations starting to set, the first season was always going to be more about learning rather than achieving — though the 2nd place in the league was a bonus, not to mention a financial boost — and with the key issues identified, the summer transfer window will be about pushing on, adressing the issues and hopefully makeing more in-roads in Europe.

Team of the year

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