Alright friends, I’ve been listening to The Football Manager Podcast from The Athletic, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring for their latest Football Manager challenge. If you’re not familiar with Football Manager (FM), it’s a youth exploitation role-playing game with some football (soccer) tactics on top. At least, that’s how I play it. The challenge is to start with Sunderland, an English club fallen on hard times, and take them back to glory. If you aren’t familiar with Sunderland and you have even a passing interest in football, go watch the Sunderland ’til I Die documentary. It is Shakespearean tragedy on a football pitch and does a fine job explaining how the club has gotten to where they are today.

I’ve setup my game with only the English leagues, a large database, and myself as manager with the checkboxes ticked for having the appropriate ability to a manage in League One. I am not using attribute masking for this save. I did on my Verona save, and I literally spent more time poring through leagues and teams looking for players than I did in the rest of the game combined. Screw that. With attribute masking off I can filter down the players to a manageable list and save myself a ton of time. I’m justifying this by saying that any modern football club is going to be able to lookup player stats in far more detail than FM provides, so it’s a wash.

When you first land in a FM save, it’s overwhelming. I’ll try to explain a few things as I go.

First up, you need to have a look at your squad to see what kind of tactics they can play and where you have holes. Sunderland have a fairly decent squad from day one, so I went with a pretty standard 4231. I wanted to keep it simple and let the side’s superior quality win me matches. One of the principles I’m following here is that I won’t download a premade tactic. Also: no save scumming.

Here’s how my tactic looks.

I’m using fullbacks set to attack, which gives me plenty of width in attack without having them quite as far forward as wingbacks would be, so my defense is reasonably solid. My midfield is a Deep Lying Playmaker set to defend, which causes him to drop deeper and look to play a variety of passes through the lines and across the pitch. My other central midfielders are on basic, support roles, which helps us keep shape and provide lots of passing triangles through the center of the pitch. The wingers are an inside winger on the left who cuts inside and shoots and an attacking winger on the right who tends to go to the byline and shoot in the side netting. I prefer him to actually cross the ball, but the fullbacks are providing crosses, so I can’t really complain.

If you look at the team instructions, you’ll see that we’re playing a high line and pressing with More Urgent intensity. It’s not Jurgen Klopp heavy metal football, but we’re also not Liverpool, (other than Ben Woodburn, who is, technically, Liverpool).

The next thing you should do is setup your set pieces. I don’t do every last one because I’m lazy, but I set attacking and defending corners and freekicks, but not even all the freekick options. The FM podcast hosts are shaking their heads at me, I’m sure.

My defensive corner routine is nothing special. I put players on the posts and keep most of the team in the penalty with a mix of zonal and man marking. I do like to keep my AMC on the edge of the area to clean up headed clearances and my striker forward to enable counter attacks. If I were really minmaxing this, I’d adjust those players for every match to keep my tallest players back and my fastest players forward, but I don’t. Maybe next season.

This is my current attacking corner routine, and the one I’ve used all season with pretty good success. I have 9 goals from my centerbacks, with maybe one or two from free kicks, and at least two or three from my strikers charging into the area and getting headers. I do keep three back, but that’s because I was burned too often by counterattacks in my Verona save.

In my Verona save I used this and mixed it with far post and edge of area routines. None of the three were terribly compelling, so I went with near post here, and I have zero regrets.

I’m using mixed delivery on free kicks. We’ve scored at least one banger directly from the taker and one or two more from headers. This is an area I could do better.

Once you get your tactic setup, you’ll want to do something about training and friendlies. In the preseason both training and friendlies exist to increase fitness and build knowledge of your tactic. I tend to play two friendlies a week against inferior competition, then mix in one or two better sides toward the end. I didn’t grab a pre-season training screenshot, but here’s one that shows typical training midseason.

I like to mix in the match training to keep the bonuses from attacking movement and defensive movement (they last a few weeks each), plus adding in plenty of set pieces. What you don’t want to do is run your players into the ground when they’re already playing two matches a week, so I’m using lots of technical sessions to increase their skills without as much impact on their fitness.

The season started with us being short a few coaches and scouts. I hired some. There’s no magic, really.

I wanted decent coverage in each category, which I have. I’ll worry about this more in the future when I have more money to hire better quality coaches.

Like I mentioned, Sunderland start with a pretty good side and no glaring weaknesses. Looking at the squad, I did decide to make a few additions. Ben Woodburn came in on loan from Liverpool and immediately claimed the AMC position for himself. Jamie Allen came in from Coventry for 90k with a 20k bonus due after 50 appearances. Barrie McKay came in from Swansea for 41k with various addons that could take it to 75k. Jamie has slotted well into midfield, rotating with Max Power (a real player and a brilliant name), Josh Scowen, and Carl Winchester in the two central roles. Barrie’s transfer was in October, just before the covid-delayed deadline. He’s been a great addition and has played on both wings.

Our results at the end of September could hardly have been better.

The shootout victory over Leeds was very well received, and even the shootout loss to Wycombe went down fine since we had exceeded expectations. Our results in the league were the stuff of dreams.

Things progressed well from there, which is saying something.

We pretty much just cruised through October and November. We haven’t been outplayed in a single match.

It definitely helped that we had very few injuries, though you can see the downturn in December. That coincided with Max Power, the heart of our team, spending two weeks on the sidelines with an injured foot. He was back in time to help us take full points from promotion contenders Hull and Accrington, at least.

I could hardly have asked for better results. Here’s how the table looks on 1 January.

Looking ahead, I’ll try to make some moves in January to sign some players with expiring contracts, including moving some of my oldest, most expensive players (Aiden McGeady and Grant Leadbitter) to free up some wages.

We’re clearly in a great position going into the second half of the season, but this isn’t even the halfway point. There’s a shocking number of matches to go, and one or two key injuries could easily derail us.

Here are the lads that will hopefully carry us back to the Championship in a few months’ time.

Update! Part 2 is here.