As someone who first caught the Football Manager (FM) bug 20 years ago, two decades have done little to blunt my enthusiasm for the iconic game I still call “Champ”.

For the benefit of younger FM addicts, sadly unaware of Champ legends like Everton flop Ibrahima Bakayoko and 16-year-old Bosnian-Norwegian goal machine Eldar Hadzimehmedovic, the term “Champ” is short-form for “Championship Manager” – the previous incarnation of the series.

Such was the addictiveness of the game, players – or “Champers” – would routinely lose all perception of time. I would sometimes find myself alone in a dark living room at 3am, celebrating wildly as glitchy text commentary told me I had won the Champions League as manager of Aston Villa. That is what Champ does to you.

Champers sometimes become worryingly attached to “re-gens” (fake players randomly generated as youngsters as the game progresses). For me, one who instantly springs to mind is the unstoppable Russell Muggeridge, an imposing midfield general who led my Southampton side to unprecedented glory on FM 15. Some say we need psychiatric help. For me, more Champ is the only therapy.

Down the years, the game has effectively become something resembling a religion for myself and a small handful of fellow-Champers I know. Sadly, though, what we refer to as “RL” – real life – has recently started getting in the way.

I only managed to squeeze in about 400 hours on Football Manager 17. That’s what happens when you make questionable decisions like entering full-time work or a long-term relationship.

But one night last month, as I lay awake in bed, I resolved to roll up my sleeves and wind back the clock when this year’s version came out. I made a personal pledge to spend the next 12 months “Champing” myself into glorious oblivion.

So it was oddly spooky when I overheard Burton Mail sports reporter Josh Murray on the phone to a colleague the following day.

“No, sorry mate, I love the game, but just won’t have enough time to devote to it.”

My ears pricked up as Josh explained he was being offered a free copy of Football Manager 18 (FM18) to write a review. I’d never believed in fate until that moment.

Now, having received the best email of my life, containing a free FM18 download code, I’m in deep once again. And here is what I think of the latest incarnation of the real “beautiful game”.

Getting started

Football Manager 18 review
The first screen pretty closely resembles the last few Champs

The first thing I noticed as I gleefully loaded the game for the first time was a first for Champ – intro music. A very average tune by jump-up electronica act Chase + Status and indie band Blossoms offends my ears a bit as I click through to the home screen.

Amid the usual options of challenges (being thrust into various mid-season scenarios with specific targets to achieve) and network games, I loaded a new career game, quickly designing my manager avatar, Mike Bassett, and selecting Liverpool.

I always start by picking one of the big boys to ease myself in, but will eventually begin the seemingly-impossible challenge of launching my beloved Aston Villa to world domination.

As is usually the case, the screen resolution and font have been sharpened up to give the menus a fresh look, but the navigation of said menus is pretty much identical to FM17.

There are actually quite a lot of new features, though, many of which do make the game just a little bit better. It quickly becomes apparent that the level of detail is deeper than in FM17.

Scouting

Football Manager 18 review
The player search screen

Scouting for players has again moved on. Simply put – it is now harder for clubs that aren’t super-rich to sniff out top players. The main reason for this is the introduction of scouting budgets, with which you buy “packages” to determine how far your player searches take you. If you want instant access to lists of all the players in Brazil, you now have to pay for the privilege. The cost of packages is deducted from your scouting budget at end of each month and, if there’s not enough cash, you can’t keep them the following month. For Liverpool, this presents no problem whatsoever, but those managing in poorer leagues may find it tougher to unearth those shiny Champ gems.

Football Manager 18 review
Scouting packages are a new feature

You can customise how often you get reports, whether it be every time a scout has assessed a certain number of new players or after a specified time period. It is even possible set different parameters inside and outside of the transfer windows, which is handy for those who like to plough through seasons without the distraction of a sudden five-star scout report. All too often, I’m making steady progress when an unreal wonder-kid pops up in my news feed, prompting me to scramble frantically to sell players to raise the funds to buy him. This can make your season positively glacial.

Another time-saving phenomenon comes when a scout presents their latest list of recommended players. New one-click options to discard, acknowledge, continue scouting or get analyst reports speed up the process of getting a full picture of a player before making new signings. A new recommendation rating out of 100 allows for a more precise judgement. Elsewhere, opposition reports are more detailed than before, revealing your rivals’ player roles as well as how they have set up and a summary of their tactical style.

The Transfer Market

My mission at the start of the game is to sure up Liverpool’s famously-leaky back-line by scouting for ‘keepers and centre-halves. The already-established feature of scouts knowing roughly how much each player costs stops me wasting time bidding for those who are overpriced and those I simply cannot afford.

And the list of those players has grown longer than Ryan Giggs’ playing career, as the recent super-inflation of transfer fees is reflected in the game. I offer fourth-choice right-back Jon Flanagan out for sale and, the next day, he is sold to Stoke for £10 million. Paul Dummett costs nearly £20 million and Southampton want £90 million for Virgil Van Dijk.

Football Manager 18 review
Aymeric Laporte’s contract demands proved too much

I bring in silky Juventus centre-back Daniele Rugani for a bargain £24 million. Before settling on ball-playing defender Rugani, who matches my desire to play out for the back, I bid the £58 minimum-release fee of Aymeric Laporte – a man I refer to as “The Door” (Alexandre Lacazette is “The Tape”). However, the extra £15 million I’m asked to pay in additional fees convinces me to pull out. My search for a centre-half also leads me to some pretty shocking assessments of player stats. While, for the most part, Champ has always done remarkably well in rating players’ abilities, I am a little perplexed by big Bournmouth bruiser Steve Cook being given a passing rating of 14 (out of 20). My search for a goalkeeper ends when Atletico demand £90 million for Jan Oblak – the only interested player who can significantly improve more ‘keeping options.

I notice something else – compared to last year, there seems to be a fewer bids for my top players. The frequency of such bids really irritated me on FM17. Rejecting bids would only ever result in players spitting out their dummies and unsettling your entire squad, usually at a really inappropriate time of the season. This time, only Paris St Germain express an interest in anyone, coming in for Roberto Firmino. The rest of my top players are left alone, but that might just be because most teams have already spent most of their budgets for the summer transfer window – next summer could be a different kettle of fish altogether.

Tactics

Football Manager 18 review
The tactics screen

The process of preparing your team for battle is even more comprehensive than in the last Champ. Many people have been put off FM by the complexity of the tactical instructions you can give players, while other Champers (usually the unemployed ones) revel in it.

The main tactics screen contains more information than last year, meaning you don’t have to do as much messing around between menus to gather information. Another big potential time-saver comes in the form of “match plans”, which can now be set to come into action when specific scenarios occur. So you can now set your team to automatically switch to a more defensive formation if you go a goal up with 15 minutes left, or change to four up-front with a quick, direct style if you need a goal in the last five. For those who like to micro-manage their way through games and use lots of different systems, this will make things far less fiddly.

Football Manager 18 review
Match plans mean less need for mid-match tinkering

Occurring before each game, tactical meetings are a completely new feature that allow you to tweak your approach with non-permanent changes tailored to counteract your opponents’ strengths. You can emphasize specific facets of your game. You can tell the lads to concentrate more intensely on keeping possession or attacking down a particular flank, for example. Again, this is a great feature for those who like to tinker.

Personally, though, my “old Champ” instincts always tell me it’s best to develop an attacking tactic, capable of producing a goal at any moment, and stick with it – for 90 minutes, every single game. First, I set my shape, opting for a 4-2-3-1, based on the players Liverpool have at their disposal, then my player roles. I notice there are quite a few new options, including a centre-mid who drifts wide when you have possession. This seems ideal for anyone playing a midfield diamond or back-three. I opt to stick with what I know for now, setting up pretty much like the Reds do in RL. So far, my “plug and play” instincts have been justified, as I’m top of the pile after about 15 games.

One new barometer is the “intensity” bar, which tells you how much strain your tactics are putting on the players. In my case, it’s worryingly high. I start getting a mind-boggling number of injuries as I enter the new season. This may persuade me to make a second tactic for when I’m several goals up (or down) in games. A slower tempo and less pressing could be useful to protect my charges from the constant muscle strains and tears that plague my own withering physique.

Looking at the choice team instructions, I see they are identical to FM17 – except a new “look for underlap” feature, which seems taylor-made for use with inverted wing-backs.

Football Manager 18 review
Players develop partnerships around the pitch

Another very visible feature on the main tactics screen is the presence of lines drawn between players on the formation board. They denote how effective two neighbouring players function are as a partnership. As I play on, I start to see this in action, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mo Salah linking up far better as their understanding improves. The fact they seem to be perfectly gelled after about five league games is perhaps a little quick, but I’ll take it.

Match Engine

I’m a good few months into my Liverpool season and I’ve found very little fault with the match engine – it appears to be the best yet. There have been some infuriating issues with FM engines down the years. Many will remember one version of the game (I think it was FM08) when, quite comically, goal after goal would come from whoever was in the “near-post flick-on” position at corners. I recall Bacary Sagna netting 40 goals in one season by standing at the near stick and casually deflecting corners in every game. Last year, although the engine was great overall, I had a few bug-bears with it.

Football Manager 18 review
The 3D match engine

In the FM16 engine, about 99 per cent of your goals came from an overlapping right-back squaring the ball for a tap-in at the back stick. Sports Interactive (the game’s creators) over-compensated to rectify that feature last year, with the link-up between wingers and full-backs made so ineffective it became pointless having both in your set-up. That seems to have been addressed this time around. It’s easier to get your full-back or wide player into a good crossing position – but not too easy.

Another feature of the last game that seems to have been looked at is how easy it was for the opposition to get in with a hoofed long-ball over your back-line. Even though I’m playing very high up the pitch, this is now a far rarer occurrence than in FM17.

Football Manager 18 review
Obviously I’ll love the match engine with scorelines like this

The way your players get around the pitch is noticeably less robotic than before and more-accurately resembles human movement. Some roles that had been ineffective for me on FM17 have been improved. I play a false nine and shadow striker at the top end of the pitch and they definitely link up like they’re meant to. All too often in FM17, a false nine’s whole game would consist of getting the ball 30 yards out and smashing in shots. Now they lead the line better, run in behind when it makes sense to do so and get on the end of moves with late runs into the box. The shadow striker or inside forwards – both on support duty – are usually furthest forward during periods of sustained possesion.

Sadly, one thing that’s not changed is the fact players take far too many long shots, even when told to work the ball into the box or shoot less. About half my shots are from range every game, which gives me serious Champ rage.

Player Interaction

A new phenomenon has been introduced here – “squad dynamics”. Champ has placed more emphasis on your group’s unity and created a clear hierarchy among each squad. Social groups and cliques are formed, often seemingly based on how long players have been at the club. The squad dynamics screen is the new home of the “team meetings” tab, where two clicks of a mouse can usually salvage your entire squad’s morale overnight – ridiculous stuff.

Football Manager 18 review
The dynamics screen

One feature of the last game I felt was a little over the top was how easily players would get dissatisfied – and that appears to have continued. It only took about four or five matches for James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to knock on my door about a lack of first-team action. The range of options you have to resolve players’ issues is more comprehensive than on FM17 – and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

When Milner came a-knocking, I asked Jordan Henderson to intervene and persuade the well-liked utility man he was being unreasonable. At first, “Hendo” said he wasn’t comfortable getting involved. But he soon changed his tune when I told him he was an influential player and it would be greatly appreciated – and Milner instantly dropped his concerns. When Firmino wasn’t happy after I’d rejected an approach from PSG, I underwent exactly the same interaction with his pal “Phil” Coutinho (ironic, given his own RL determination to force a move to Barcelona). It worked again – and has done several times since. As usual on Champ, I now have a go-to option to placate mardy players, rendering the plethora of other interactions completely redundant.

While I accept SI need to have some kind of feature involving managers dealing with unhappy players, I’ve always found this part of the game tedious and repetitive. How you could improve it, I don’t know, but it’s always a pain in the Champ-hole when your relentless march towards the next game’s interrupted by moaning players.

Match Day

The graphics of the 3d match engine, including how the players move on and off the ball, have definitely been sharpened up, which is great to see. There’s more control over camera height and zoom, giving you more ability to customise your view of the game.

Football Manager 18 review
The analysis screen mid-match, complete with heat map

Being a Champ dinosaur, though, I still prefer the 2d match engine – a bird’s-eye view depicting your players dots. Not only can you better-assess where tactical tweaks may need to be made, but it leaves more to the imagination. That has always been the beauty of Champ, even in the days when the only option you had was text commentary. You could see the words “Shevchenko tries to lob the ‘keeper”, then the flashing exclamation “Shevchenko scores!” and picture the elegant Ukrainian coolly dinking the ball over an on-rushing goalie diving at his feet.

Football Manager 18 review
I still rock the 2D match engine

The same options are there in terms of one-click changes to your team’s mentality and pre-set tactics, as well as the usual range of touch-line shouts that tweak your tactics or enable you to give the lads a rocket from the dug-out. Again, as a rigid tactician, this isn’t something I mess with. Perhaps the most irritating thing for me is that you can no longer one-click your way to the full, detailed match stats screen. And the fact there also doesn’t appear to be a split-screen view option, whereby you can watch the action with the full match stats permanently displayed, is completely nonsensical. Making tactical changes and subs appears to be slightly quicker, though, in fairness.

Football Manager 18 review
The pre-match screen

Team talks and opposition instructions are unchanged from before, apart from the fact you can one-click your assistant to set the latter. After each game, you can tell players why you subbed them, which can stop them getting mardy. It’s also possible to give the same individual team talk to multiple players at once, which cuts down on mundane, repetitive clicking.

Conclusion

FM18 has the same appeal that’s been part of every single version since I first played the game in 1997. It is absorbing and addictive and has incredible game life, with an array different ways to tackle the challenge of leading your club to glory. You can manage pretty much any professional or semi-professional team on the planet, win in a range of styles, sign thousands upon thousands of different players, choose to spend big on “galacticos” or build through basement bargains and youth players. You can stay loyal to one club and take them up through the leagues or enjoy a glamorous globe-trotting career, changing clubs and leagues every season to further your career.

There have been plenty of additions to the game across the board, from new player partnerships and pre-match tactical briefings to a new emphasis onsquad dynamics. For me, though, that stuff has never held my attention for too long and my assistant is always employed to deal with most of it before too long.

The crux of the game is the match engine – and this one appears to be the best yet. When they have gelled properly, players follow your instructions more accurately than in FM17. The satisfaction of moulding your team into a cohesive unit playing to your master-plan is what Champ’s all about – and a strong match engine and tactical framework are vital in those terms.

Transfers have been modernised to reflect the crazy money currently flying around, but it’s all relative and the big boys have the spending power to match an over-inflated market.

The range of tactical options has again been marginally expanded in terms of new roles and team instructions, but remains almost identical to last year.

Player interaction remains a bit of a bug-bear, but I struggle to see how it could realistically be made much better. Perhaps stripping it back down to its minimal form would better suit my taste.

The match day experience is where I have even bigger reservations. There are just too many clicks needed to do what you want to do and it is pretty cluttered, with too many features. It is also a bit laggy. Even on my i7 64GB desktop, there are too many moments where the clock stops and the game stutters.

But all said and done, do I recommend this game? For any of the millions of people who have an obsession with football (and consider themselves, to any degree, students of the game), the answer is most certainly “yes”.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a title to win. I’ll see you next year!

Rating – 9/10



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