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Football Manager 2023: Pre-season at Old Trafford

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This article was previously on manunitedanalysis.com

With Football Manager being officially released this week, it is finally time to take the Reds back to the elite of world football. In FM23, I will be running a save with Manchester United where I look to the Reds back to where they belong – the top of world football. Man United is one of the biggest clubs in the world, but in recent years, this hasn’t translated into results. After Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, United have struggled to win silverware, let alone compete with the top clubs in England. With this season being the 10-year-anniversary of Ferguson’s departure, it is only right to take over Old Trafford in FM.

In this save, the overall objective is to dominate England and Europe. While we will project this first season and the future at the end of this article, it all starts with the pre-season. This first week we will have a complete look at the first pre-season, going over the results, tactical plans, transfer activity, and the general direction we are heading. Without much more to say, it is time to begin this challenge!

Results

While pre-season results are not of much importance, performances are. Especially in the first season, the pre-season friendlies are important for testing out tactics and getting to know your team. At first, I opted for a more vertical and intense tactical system. This proved far from effective as we struggled to overcome SV Darmstadt 98 in the first friendly. The final result was 2-2, but there was a significant lack of control and quality chance creation.

Despite it being the first game, I was far from happy with the performance and decided to change things up. We will take an in-depth look at these tactics in the next section, but I essentially opted for a much more possession-based approach.

This new tactical look proved effective from the start, with a dominant 73% possession in the first match. The effectiveness was not quite there yet, but the tactical foundations were on display. As the matches went on, there were many little tweaks and details made to develop these tactics further. The progression was evident, but most importantly, it was clearly starting to get the best out of the players. This success was capped off with a dominant 2-0 win over Bayern Munich.

After another tough test against Atlético Madrid, we played Utrecht in the final pre-season friendly. The 5-1 was satisfying in itself, but the performance was perfect. We were able to not only dominate possession but also create 3.40 xG worth of chances. The pass map – which we will look at in the next section – was also starting to look the way I want it.

Tactical plans

As mentioned, there was a complete change in direction after the first game, tactically speaking. The initial plans were to adopt a traditional gegenpressing approach and tweak it as the seasons went on. Although this approach is very basic in FM, I believed it would bring a straightforward system to hit the ground running. In the first game, however, I was really unhappy with how disconnected the collective felt. After some thought, I decided to scrap the original tactical plans and use pre-season to build towards a dominant and possession-heavy tactical style.

To begin with, the formation did not change. I will probably create a few variations in the structure as the season goes on, but initially, I kept it simple with a 4-2-3-1. The aim of this structure is to create significant numerical superiority in the middle of the park. With a possession-based approach in mind, I wanted numbers around the ball while still being balanced with the duties (Defend, Support, and Attack).

To create this superiority, both wingers have inside-forward as their roles, with an additional instruction to stay narrow. While this midfield-five – if you want to call it that – packs the central lanes, the fullbacks are responsible for maintaining width. They are both set as wing-backs with an Automatic duty, as it has really given me what I want structurally.

In the match against Utrecht, we are able to see a perfect illustration of this structure in the pass map. There is a significant connection between the midfielders and the wingers, as instructing them to come inside has successfully increased their contribution in possession. The structure is essentially a reflection of the tactical style I want – heavy possession through approximation and numerical superiority.

Before looking at the tactics behind this style, I want to go over the team selection I have found success with. Similar to real life, Lisandro Martínez and Raphaël Varane form a centre-back partnership with Tyrell Malacia and Diogo Dalot as the fullbacks. While Dalot will probably be in the team week in and week out, Luke Shaw could certainly compete with Malacia for the starting role. In the midfield, Casemiro forms a duo with Christian Eriksen behind Bruno Fernandes as the attacking midfielder. Both are reaching the end of their careers, so restructuring and rejuvenating the midfield will certainly be a task as the seasons go on. Antony and Marcus Rashford are the wingers while Cristiano Ronaldo is the centre-forward.

Unfortunately, for most positions, this starting eleven is quite clear. Although there is depth in each position, the quality on the bench isn’t extremely exciting. In the transfer window, as we will see later, I have addressed some urgent areas. As contracts run out and the seasons go on, there will be open heart surgery, as Ralf Rangnick would say.

Moving on to the tactics, all of the roles can be seen below. Aside from the ones I noted earlier, it is worth explaining the centre-backs. I believed going for two ball-playing-defenders would naturally encourage a more vertical approach, which is not what I wanted. I left Martínez as a BDP because the Argentinian has great ball-playing attributes and traits. However, with Varane, I have put the French as a simple central defender as I want to encourage simple and short passing.

In the possession settings, there is a lot going on. Being at such a high level of football, the high number of instructions has not proven to be a problem. In general, they all lean towards creating a possession-heavy and dominant style. The attacking width is set as narrow to really encourage the approximation in the middle of the park. To capitalise on this congestion in the middle of the park, I have directed the players to focus play through the middle. Further forward, I turned the overlapping options on to encourage the fullbacks to get forward and push the wingers inside.

The passing directness is turned all the way down while the tempo is left in the middle. Pass into space is also turned off. These instructions again lean towards controlling the game. In the final third, I have kept mixed crosses on as with Ronaldo in the box, I don’t mind whipping early crosses. In order to maintain a controlled approach, I instructed the players to work the ball into the box. The instructions to dribble less and be more disciplined are also turned on in order to be consistent with the strict possession-heavy approach.

 

The tactics will always be a work in progress but as we begin our first Premier League campaign, this is what we are going with. It has proven extremely successful in the pre-season friendlies, and after many tweaks, it looks ready to go.

Transfer activity

In this first transfer window, I did not want to go overboard with the changes. There is an obvious need for a rebuild in this United squad, but I want to take it slowly. Pieces will be slowly yet effectively replaced towards a final puzzle, where potential is combined with quality to form a balanced yet extremely talented squad.

In this first season, there were two significant departures. Anthony Martial left on loan to Milan as no clubs came forward to permanently sign the French forward. Until his contract expires, we will be constantly looking to move him on as he is not a part of my plans. The second was Anthony Elanga, who left on loan to Fenerbahçe. The Swede is not a part of my immediate plans, and after he comes back from Turkey, we will reanalyse the situation.

With signings, there were four arrivals at Old Trafford. Two of them will be diving straight into my first-team plans while the other two were made for the future. The first is Fer Niño, who came from Villareal. The Spanish striker comes as the replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be turning 38 this season. Despite being 21 years old, Niño has great attributes for a centre-forward. Similarly to Ronaldo, he won’t be expected to get much involved in possession, but rather make runs in the final third, finish chances, and initiate the press. With Ronaldo still being a part of my plans this season, Niño will have time to settle in and slowly break into the starting eleven.

The second signing is Nicolás González, who came from Fiorentina. The Argentinian international is a left-footed winger who will compete with Antony for the starting spot on the right-hand side. With this signing and Martial’s departure, there is a clear balance in wingers now, with two inverted wingers on each side. González is a very good player with great attributes all around. Additionally, he is still very young at 24 years old.

While those two signings will be diving straight into my first-team plans, the next two were made with the future in mind. Maxi Perrone comes from Vélez Sarsfield at just 19 years old. The Argentinian will be in the first team but made available to play with the U21s in this first season. Despite the young age, the deep-lying midfielder has very good attributes to build on. He is a dynamic midfielder, capable of dictating possession with great technical ability as well as providing a good defensive presence. As the current midfielders reach the end of their time with United, Perrone will be slowly prepared to assume the Reds’ midfield.

The final signing followed a similar strategy. The 20-year-old Mohammed Diomande came from the Danish side Nordsjaelland. The Ivorian wonderkid is a more advanced midfielder than Perrone, with well-rounded technical attributes. Physically and mentally, he also has very impressive numbers. Diomande comes in with great potential and as the seasons go on, he will slowly be integrated into the first team. This first season, the Ivorian has gone back on loan to his previous club.

With this activity in the transfer market, the experience matrix looks much more balanced. There are a number of young prospects such as Alejandro Garnacho, Facundo Pellistri, and Kobbie Mainoo being integrated into the first team. Additionally, players like Martínez, González, Rashford, and Dalot will be entering their peak soon. There is great balance all around, and as I look to improve and restructure this squad, this balance will look to be maintained.

Season objectives

Looking ahead to the season, it is important to set some objectives for the competitions. In the Premier League, we are obviously not quite ready to compete with the likes of Liverpool and Man City. This first season, we will look to fight for the top four and qualify for the UEFA Champions League again. The cups are a good opportunity to grab silverware in this first season, so reaching the final in either cup would be ideal. Finally, in the Europa League, we will be looking to win it, or at least reach the final.

As we look to take Manchester United back to the elite of world football, this first season will be crucial in getting off to a good start. The standards are very high – both for performance and results. Step by step, Old Trafford will host glorious nights once again.

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