Every virtual, and real, manager hopes to leave a legacy at their club by developing a squad – and reserve squad, and youth squad – that will be so beautifully, so carefully constructed that it can take care of itself for the next ten years and then carry on long after leaving. It seems particularly apt, considering the big news of the past few days, to talk about this subject.
I have always been interested in the processes of long term management and the way in which managers look into the future and predict so accurately, in many cases, what’s on the road ahead. Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to build squads time and time again, before ripping them apart and making them even stronger in their response to challenges from Blackburn, then Arsenal, then Chelsea and then Manchester City, is admirable.
“He has served his time with a club where he has built, and ruthlessly rebuilt, the playing squad five times to sustain its leading position atop the English Premier League”
The New York Times
Fergie was so great because he was able to build teams around players that he knew would be great in the future. It wasn’t until three to five years after he had sold huge names like Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Jaap Stam that it became clear what had been on his mind. There would always be another player that would have the team built around them and a couple of others, and the team would be stronger than ever. When van Nistelrooy left, Tevez and Rooney came to the fore; when Beckham left, in came Cristiano Ronaldo; when Stam left, Rio Ferdinand replaced him a year later.
I have too often played with a short-term approach. I have indeed signed youngsters, dreamily imagining their progress over the years and yes, I have often seen this come true, but it’s not satisfying. It’s not quite what I imagine Ferguson, and other great managers, are/were doing in the manager’s office at 3pm. It’s hard to imagine any truly great manager twiddling his thumbs and hoping that his best youngsters will turn out to be his best players. Far easier is the image of them tirelessly building up a picture of their ideal squad in five years time, fitting the whole thing together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s hard to imagine any truly great manager twiddling his thumbs and hoping that his best youngsters will turn out to be his best players”
So that’s what I – almost – resolved to do. I have previously written about the importance of covering weaknesses within your team, and how to do that as well as the importance of planning in youth development; this approach to squad development is a natural progression of that. (There are many questions in that article, but hopefully this will address them). I want a squad that is built around my best young players, wastes no time with those that won’t be around when these players are at their peak, with a transfer policy that is centred on filling in the gaps of this “dream squad”, gets the best out of that core of players and develops a club culture that is bulletproof.
Anyone who is close to me or is a fervent reader of the blog knows by now that any time I have a bit of a break from FM, I ease myself back in with a Manchester United save. The past two months have been one of my longest breaks, with only sparing, unenjoyable games taking my attention. It seems convenient considering the context to do the same as usual and take comfort in the arms of Mr Robin van Persie. Ahhhh Robin.
Establishing the core
Chelsea are probably the most blatant example of a club which had a solid and dependable core of players which remained in place throughout their period of success in the late 2000s. Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba became the faces of the club and they noticeably struggled without any one of them. This group has now aged and Drogba has moved on, but their roles in the success of their team cannot be overestimated. Even the usually slow media picked up on the importance of these players.
I want to take on the idea myself but in a different way, by looking a little lower down the club pecking order, making my core of long-term players much younger players. Chelsea’s group were all getting on by the time they had the players around them to be a major force and they are now, arguably suffering as a result. Here they are:
You might notice some glaring omissions: Robin van Persie, certainly, Wayne Rooney, probably, Antonio Valencia, perhaps. But you will also notice the age of the players that are there, Kagawa being the oldest at 23. These are all players that should be mainstays for a long time bar any major injuries or developmental problems. The only ones that may find their places under threat in a couple of years are Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley but they have the potential to go far and are probably better on FM than in real life (at the moment).
It is important to note that this does not mean that Rooney, van Persie and the like won’t play for me. They certainly will, but the distinction is that they are not being built around because of the Dutchman’s age and Rooney’s inevitable plea to leave. The same goes for Vidic and Ferdinand – they are key players right now and may well play just as many, if not more, games than their younger competition but their days of being integral – and being financially rewarded for this – are gone.
A cohesive transfer policy
An area where I have long tripped up is the transfer market, buying players for the now and viewing prospects in that context, rather than their potential to fit into this future team. It would be absolutely absurd to buy a centre back when I look at the solidity that the future partnership between Smalling and Jones can offer, just as it would be a waste of money to buy an attacking midfielder when Kagawa is so good and Cleverley can still be moved there.
There are areas that do need to be looked at though. There is no striker to head all this up, no replacement for Evra, no strong, defensive midfielder and no-one with their name on the right wing spot, though Wilfried Zaha is looking good.
Of course there has to be a degree of living in the now. Manchester United have lacked the strength of a Roy Keane in midfield for quite a few years and so I have brought in Marouane Fellaini who meets a current problem, is young, and looks the ideal fit for a future midfield also consisting of Kagawa and Cleverley. This is the kind of signing that is an absolute dream for me as he is ready-made and does not have to wait for a more reputable player to make way for him. He adds to the squad instantly and is, importantly in the context of this article, is a forward-thinking move. I won’t always be this lucky though. I still have a world-class strikeforce that simply cannot be disassembled and will continue to provide me with a boatload of goals for at least three seasons. I still have a solid left-back in Patrice Evra. I still have Antonio Valencia on the right wing.
What I can do though is prepare myself for when they are gone, gradually changing the way I go about my transfer business. Every signing has to be about complementing the skills of those in that core group of long-term players.
The striker, for example, will be ahead of Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck. That is an awesome combination of trickery, agility and speed with a little bit of creativity thrown in. Ideally I would have my “striker of the future” have awesome movement and be intelligent enough to create for those behind him, with a bit of an aerial presence to compete for crosses from my other winger (I don’t know who that will be but I like a bit of assymmetry on my wingers.
I want a Trequartista, effectively, but a more rounded type. The more observant might be laughing at the ironic similarity of this player to Robin van Persie – it’s a real shame he’s the age that he is. Nicklas Helenius seems a good option, but he is a bit too old in my eyes. Whoever comes in will have to wait for a couple of years for RvP to come out of his peak, and by then Helenius will be too old.
I have decided on Rayo’s Leo, a cracking player who has only just turned 20 and is a really great creative forward. He might not be the best in the air at the moment but he is 6 feet tall and fits my other needs perfectly.
These are the decisions that go into making a team that will be tactically fluent and truly in sync in the future. This will be a truly devastating squad, because each has a role in relation to someone else’s role. Kagawa’s trickery will be supported by the passes of Cleverley and the inward runs of Welbeck; our striker, as yet unnamed and unknown, will be able to supply all of them by virtue of being particularly creative, particularly intelligent off the ball and specifically selected for his role in the side. This is what I can imagine Guardiola doing, what Ferguson has been doing everyday for 26 years.
Culture is more of a business term than a football term but I feel it sums up the club ethos, values and feel of a team more accurately than “squad personality” as FM puts it. The players that you sign have to fit into one of two groups:
- The first group is those players with the perfect personality for what you are trying to build. At the top of the game this will be Model Professional or something similar.
- The second group is those that don’t have the right personality but are young enough to be tutored and have a clear mentor that can put them into the first group.
No signing of Ravel Morrisons if there are no Ryan Giggs’ to tutor them. In a long-termist approach, I approach culture just as attainable and treat it as seriously as winning the league. I looked at one of my old articles the other day and chuckled at the determination and personalities of my team. That’s the kind of team I want to develop and it needs to be a central part of my squad development.
Fellaini fits right into this. He might not be the most professional of players, admittedly, but he has the determination to fit into the kind of squad I will be building. It is probable he is unsportsmanlike and dirty “under the hood”, giving us the grit that has been part of the best United sides of the past 20 years. There is also another knock-on effect: he begins a domino effect for the squad after this one, tutoring the next player to take over the defensive midfielder role after him.
The new core
This is how things now look after my first transfer window. There are still two unresolved positions, and doubts can still be raised over Welbeck and Cleverley, but it is conceivable that this team, at its peak and with some tinkering, could win the Champions League. I’m not worried that things aren’t complete – I would be more worried if it was complete, since that would give me a really big headache in combining these players with my current, and brilliant, squad. In the couple of years before the retirement/sale of some major players, there is a chance for newgens to come through and then fill in these gaps or trump one of the weaker players in this core.
Squad development should be a long-term worry. But it should also be enjoyable, an extension of your recruitment strategy. It might take more time, and you might have to stop signing players on a whim, but in the long term it makes up a great club.
Last updated on May 19, 2013