Sir Alex Ferguson was a manager renowned for his squad building skills. “Fergie’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future,” Ryan Giggs once told newspapers. “Knowing what needs strengthening and what needs refreshing–he’s got that knack.” I want to look at my approach when building a squad, what is important and what isn’t, what are the do’s and don’ts. If you want your chance to build a dynasty á la Fergie’s, you might find this useful information.
When building a squad, there are a couple of key aspects I focus on to put myself and the team on the road to success. I focus on the demographic structure of the squad, I look at a form of performance-based analysis and finally I worry about the transfer policy. The demographic structure defines the capacity of managers to make up a balanced squad from the point of view of age, experience and contract length so as to guarantee sufficient long term stability. Secondly, performance-based analysis refers to the managers’ ability to objectively identify the strengths and weaknesses of their teams in order to find collective and individual solutions to improve results or anticipate eventual problems. Lastly, transfer policy defines the managers’ capacity to renew the pool of players available to optimise, or maintain over the long term, group unity, demographic balance and performance levels. Ultimately, the aim is to have a talented squad with sufficient depth to it, without having to deal with too many unhappy players complaining about being left on the bench.
Building a dynasty á la Fergie is all about obtaining positive results over the long run, which in turn depends largely on the manner in which a team is structured from a demographic point of view. This means we need to focus our attention on a number of variables;
- Size; too few players can leave you short of able players in critical phases of the season, too many players can lead to dressing room mutiny;
- Age (or experience); you need players from different age brackets, the right mix between young talents, players in their prime and a few seasoned veterans;
- Contract duration; you want players to stay with the team for extended periods of time, not in and out within a year or so;
- Stability; it is important to have a stable squad, with no personality clashes or complaining players and not too many players moving around.
In my eyes, you need a well balanced squad. That means your squad shouldn’t be too big in size and it needs to be balanced in terms of age. This permits young footballers to develop alongside more experienced players and progressively replace them as pillars of the team, maintaining a sort of conveyor-belt of first team-ready players bleeding into first team as others are sold or retire. A balanced structure in age to achieve this flow of talent is, in my eyes, a necessary prerequisite to maintain a satisfactory level of stability over the long term. From this point of view, it is necessary to limit the number of transfers by privileging the recruitment of young talents who can potentially become part of the team project over the long term. Within this framework of stability, that favours the integration of new recruits, the signing of long term contracts, with automatic extension options, is generally beneficial not only on a sporting level but also economically.
Squad depth is definitely an important part of the demographic structure of squad building, especially when you are managing a team in a league with a fair amount of fixture congestion. When you play two or more games every week, you are going to need plenty of players to keep challenging for silverware on each and every front. Suspensions, injuries and just fatigue are going wreak havoc over the course of the often long and grueling season, so you are going to need a squad with sufficient depth.
Size-wise, I would recommend keeping squad-size to around 25 or so first team players. This is the same amount of players you are generally allowed to register for most competitions, be they domestic or international. You can try to maintain a larger squad of course, but this will often prove difficult because players will demand playing time and if you do not rotate them sufficiently, you could have a dressing room mutiny on your hands. So as a rule of thumb, I would recommend sticking to a squad of 25 players, give or take a few names.
Should you wish to see the depth of the squad, the game offers an actual squad depth button, which looks roughly like this. Ideally, you want at least two different players for every position, provided ofcourse you actually use said position in your tactics. For instance, whilst there are a few strikers in my squad, the very nature of strikerless ensures they are either re-trained or sold rather quickly.
In an ideal situation, there are different names all over the board. The squad detailed above has several versatile players in it, who are the best option for multiple positions. Whilst this is in itsself not a negative feature, I want to zoom in on versatility in a different part of this post. The most important thing to take away from the screenshot above is the depth for most positions, with two to three good players for the key positions.
In proper dynasty teams like Fergie’s Utd, young players were given the time and conditions to succeed, most older players were sold to other teams while they were still valuable properties, and a few top veterans were kept around to lend continuity and carry the culture of the club forward. In other words, the squad consisted of a balanced mix between all ages. The majority of the players were in their mid-twenties to late twenties, making for a balanced squad. Whilst it can be difficult to let go of older players who have always served you in a loyal way, it is sometimes for the better of the entire team that you do let them go.
In order to achieve a properly balanced first team setup, it is important that you also realise when players are coming into their prime. For most field players, their prime comes between their mid-twenties and late-twenties, for a goalkeeper, this prime period generally starts a few years later but extends well into his thirties. An ideal squad setup age-wise would look a little like this.
Again, this is hardly a cardinal rule set in stone, but it gives you an estimate of the numbers I’m working with. This is also the spread in an ideal scenario, which is not always a possibility. A lack of funds or a shortage of suitable players can lead to a more unbalanced squad, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but could lead to friction or a lack of possibilities for some age categories.
Since the demographic structure deals with the people you command, it also deals with the rewards they reap for their labor, so contracts are an often underrated part of squad management. Managing the contracts in a responsible manner works in a multitude of ways for the good of the entire team. The first and most important part contracts help you manage is the composition of the squad. By ensuring that your key players are on long term deals, you make sure the players stay around for several years, allowing you time to assemble a squad.
When dealing with younger players, it makes sense to tie them up as long as possible when you feel they can develop into true stars. There’s some sound reasoning behind that decision. If you snap them up at a young age, their wage demands will not be excessive. When you sign them as long as possible and add in an option to extend their contract by a maximum of three years, you can snap up promising youngsters and keep them on low wages for a grand total of seven years.
I used an example for one of my own youth players above. With the contract this player is about to sign, he will be available to the club for seven years on fairly low wages. This helps the squad with its long term continuity. These are players who are in the youth squad, on the fringes of the first team squad, but I use similar contracts for the 18 year olds I sign and my own home-grown players are on these contracts. This is how I bleed youngsters into the team.
When we examine the contracts handed out to the more established team members, you will notice there aren’t many clauses in these contracts. I generally opt not to use any clauses that end up costing me on the long run. Yearly percentual wage rises are a prime example of clauses to avoid at all costs, as these tend to skyrocket, especially in combination with long term contracts. Any clause that deals with percentual increases of wage should be avoided like the plague. The same applies to minimum release fee clauses. If you want to sell a player, it’ll be on your terms and not because of some silly clause. You want time to prepare for a player leaving instead of living with the insecurity of a player leaving at any time as soon as a player meets his release fee clause. Just like percentual wage increases, you should avoid minimum release fee clauses like the plague.
Much like the age setup I described, these contract settings are a rule of thumb. In some cases, be they financial or sporting, short term deals with many clauses can be preferable. These are, as I mentioned, rules of thumb I use to build my squad, they are not set in stone.
Stability or chemistry
The final factor to take into account has to do with the stability of a team, team chemistry if you will. It’s a term that is rather all-encompassing, as it focusses on a number of variables within the FM universe. To be more exact, stability looks at the following factors.
- Adaptability; players need to adjust to new surroundings and a new tactical approach when brought in from other clubs, especially if they are foreign;
- Tactical familiarity; the entire team takes a hit to its tactical fluency when too many new players are introduced at the same time, a steady and stable environment suits the team better;
- Personalities; players with the same personalities go well together, clashing personalities tend to cause trouble;
- Squad statusses; too many captains or perceived captains on a ship tends to be a recipe for disaster.
The first factor I want to examine is the adaptability, which is a major contributor to the overal stability of your squad. This factor is a hidden attribute which kicks in when you bring in new players, either domestic or foreign. The higher this hidden attribute is, the faster new team members manage to integrate into the squad. Ofcourse, there are ways to help speed up this integration process. Foreign players can be send on language courses or can be helped out by having a countryman present in the squad or even by being tutored by a more seasoned player.
Tactical familiarity is the next factor we examine and it is probably the most important thing to concentrate on for me. It determines how well your squad executes the tactic on the pitch, so you want to get this as fluid as possible. When you bring in a lot of new players or the players in the squad aren’t gelling, tactical familiarity suffers as a result. Again, it’s important to get the team as stable as possible to make sure the familiarity doesn’t go down.
Player personalities are a vital part of Football Manager and sometimes are overlooked by people, but you really ought to pay attention to them. Squads with personalities which don’t match properly can go down in a fiery ball of epic failure Mourinho and Van Gaal would be proud of. The coach reports will generally indicate if a player suits the overall dressing room atmosphere or not.
The final factor to take into account is the squad statusses for the players. Overall, you want to have a balanced squad. Taking a squad of 25 to 28 players as the norm, most of the starting eleven should have their squad status set as either first teamer or key player. The remaining senior players will have their status set as either squad rotation or backup, whereas the younger players who are not regular starters are merely described as hot prospects. To summarise:
In a real squad, it would look a little like this. Please note that the numbers are slightly skewed because my squad is slightly bigger than 25 players (mostly because the Argentine rules allow me to register 30 players for first team duties).
A brief summary of the demographic structure
Any club with the ambition to grow and improve must have a manager who is capable of objectively evaluating both individual and collective performances and requirements. Individual performance depends on the capacity of clubs to bring together players with complimentary characteristics, as well as on the matching of footballers’ profile with the mental, physical, technical and tactical skills requested to play in a given position with respect to the style of play performed. Moreover, individual performance is influenced by team configuration in general.
As highlighted above, stability plays a central role in the production of performance. Aside from the sporting characteristics of players, their personalities are also important in optimising the collective effort. The demographic structure of a squad also has a decisive influence on the level of performance of a football team. For example, it is much easier for a footballer to be competitive in a stable, harmonious environment, than in an unstable and conflictual context.
Evaluating performances goes a lot further than just looking at which players are playing well for either my own team or other teams. These are the variables I take into consideration for my player profiling:
- Versatility in roles;
- Versatility in positions.
When I assess the performance of my players, be it current players or potential signings, I have learned the hard way to look past their past performances. These are not an indication of how this player will perform for your side. A player may have been fielded in a different role, in a different style of tactic. Look at the attributes a player has and see if they fit the role you want a player to play, don’t look at past performances, as they can be deceptive.
When managing the Dutch national side, I once suffered an injury blow to both of my intended central midfielders, Strootman and De Jong. Whilst the former was easily replaced by moving De Guzman back a line, I struggled to replace the latter. Ebecilio, Van Ginkel and Clasie were all in contention for the spot. Instead of focussing on attributes, I was persuaded by Clasie’s sublime season at Juventus, where he was absolutely instrumental. On the pitch how-ever, he was no ball-winning, defensive-minded midfielder, which was what my team desperately needed. Instead of looking at attributes, I got blinded by reputation and performances for a club team, where Clasie filled an entirely different role.
Versatile players in terms of roles
Tying in nicely with the assessment of the attributes a player possesses, is the fact that I want my players to be capable of fulfilling multiple roles within the same position. Let me show you an example of what I mean by that.
This player can play in central midfield and he can effectively play in almost any role as well. His profile is rather well-rounded, so he possesses a nice blend of attacking flair and defensive grit, making him a versatile player to have on board, since he can fulfil several roles within the squad. Whilst he is primarily an offensive player, he can deputise in the defensive department when needed. Let’s have a look at the player in question.
Leandro Correa is a prime example of a player scouted because he is versatile in terms of roles. When you limit your squad to a maximum of 25 or so players, you want players on board who can play in more than one role. This is mostly a useful trait for players in central positions.
Versatile players in terms of positions
Besides the versatility in roles, you also want players who are versatile in terms of their positions. Often, those two forms of versatility go hand in hand, but I do want to mention the difference between the two. You want players who are capable to play in multiple positions either horizontally or vertically on the pitch. Leandro Correa is an example of a player who is versatile position-wise in a vertical way. His coach report indicates the following.
Now let’s use a second example of a player who is versatile in his positions in a more horizontal way. Alfredo Benítez is capable of playing in a central role as well as a wide role. He has the pace to be an effective threat in either position.
When you limit your squad to a maximum of 25 or so players, you want players on board who can play in more than one position. Unlike with the roles, it doesn’t matter if these players are fielded in a central or wide position.
A brief summary of the player profiling
Modern football is changing. With money becoming more and more important, the club landscape has changed. That applies to FM just as well as real life by the way. There is now a top tier of untouchable clubs who, like big businesses, get constantly richer and keep football alive with a trickle down of capital (Man City, PSG, Chelsea, Bayern) and then there is a secondary tier of clubs who provide a safe shop window for investors.
It seems rather unlikely we will ever see another ‘Ajax ’95’, a team which (arguably pre-Bosman ruling) bypassed economic restrains to achieve romantic glory. However, the most organised and forward thinking boards can overachieve and rise up the tiers. Take real-life examples such as FC Basel, Ajax, Porto and Sevilla. They understand that, in capitalist football, all staff are up for sale and will only remain at the club until they have reached their peak. The best businessmen know who to sign cheap and even more importantly; when to cash in before hitting a glass ceiling.
Realistically, any club of smaller stature can grow the fastest and safest by investing in talented players under the age of 24, preferably from a league with a lower standard than their own, because it keeps the price low. Take for example Ajax signing the Danish talents Viktor Fischer, Niklas Boilesen and Lucas Andersen at a relatively young age from various Danish clubs.
Now you could label such clubs as “selling clubs”, since they are unable to hold on to their best players year after year. That wouldn’t be too far off the truth, as these clubs have to sell or risk losing their players for free and thus losing their investment in players. For such a system to work, it is necessary for clubs to recruit suitable players at their lowest possible cost. A fantastic network of scouts would is a prerequisite for this approach to work. For more information on this policy, I would like to refer you to an earlier post of mine.