He was once labelled as the “next Pele” after turning pro at age 14, yet his career so far can only be described as an underwhelming fiasco. Freddy Adu was supposed to become a phenomenon, he was destined to become Lionel Messi before there was a Lionel Messi. That is the best way to describe the level of nonsensical hype that surrounded Adu when he began his professional career surprisingly many years ago at the age of 14. An MLS-driven marketing machine proclaimed him their American saviour, and the magazine covers and TV commercials alongside Pele helped make him a household name before he ever became a professional starter.
Fast forward to 2016 and rather than saviour, Adu is seen as a cautionary tale. And he knows all too well what his name has become in the world of soccer, if not all sports. It has become synonymous with failure and unrealized potential. You seemingly can’t go a few months without someone trotting out Adu’s name when discussing sports busts and unmet expectations. But could this all have been prevented somehow? Could this bust have been averted by either player or the various clubs?
From a Football Manager perspective, the choices a player makes off the pitch, while certainly a factor of importance in Adu’s tale, are negligible to us since we cannot influence them. There are other factors we can influence though, factors that could, in an advanced stage of looking for new players warn us to stay away from a certain player.
In my eyes, there are six factors which you can work with to decrease the chance of signing the wrong kind of players for your club.
- Does the player you want to sign fit in the squad regarding his attributes and the role he is supposed to play?
- Does the player you want to sign fit in the squad regarding his attributes and style of play the team uses?
- Does the player you want to sign fit in the squad regarding his personality?
- Does the player you want to sign fit in the squad regarding his demographic traits?
- Are the finances right in this deal when you look at the transfer sum and wages?
- Did you hype the player somehow?
To summarise, these are the factors to consider.
Does he fit the role-profile attributes-wise?
When I assess the performance of 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, however, 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.
The lesson for any manager worth their salt lies in assessing which roles you need in your team and judging a potential signing on his ability to play in one or more of these roles. If a player is a brilliant Inside Forward but average Winger, and your squad uses Wingers and not Inside Forwards, should you really be signing this player?
Does he fit the tactical profile attributes-wise?
For me personally, establishing a tactical identity isn’t difficult. My blog is called Strikerless for a reason and I have written quite a few articles on how I feel my teams should play. If you’re looking at detailed information, I recommend you revisit this older piece. In case you don’t want to read the entire article, these are the main points that make up my tactical identity.
- We will play a brand of football which focuses on high energy execution of the three P’s, pressing, penetration and possession;
- We will play as a cohesive unit, attacking and defending as a team;
- When we have the ball, we will use technically proficient players to create varied attacks and mixed focal points. We value brains of brawn;
- When we do not have the ball, we will use counter-pressing tactics to win back the ball;
- We will impose ourselves on our opponents first and foremost and be reactive only when strictly necessary. Let our opponents be the ones to react to us.
Besides the obvious requirements per position, which are discussed in the previous paragraph, there are the secondary attributes I like to see in my players, in an effort to create a sort of team spirit. Most of these attributes are supposed to supplement the strikerless pillars that form my tactical identity. These attributes are sometimes part of the role requirements for a player but definitely attributes I look out for regardless of position. Most of these are mental attributes, brains over brawn.
Aggression – How combative is this player?
If you are looking for an energetic and forceful player, willing to impose his will on a match, you want a player with high aggression as a low attribute can result in a docile and unassertive player. Aggression is not the same as violence, though the two can go hand-in-hand.
Anticipation – Can this player accurately predict the movement of other players?
When you have a tactic heavily reliant on players moving all over the place, you want players who can read the game, predict who moves where and when.
Composure – Can this player perform under pressure?
Pressure means pressure from opposition players, but also pressure to score or pass in an important moment. Can he keep his cool in difficult situations? With players always moving and in tight spaces, you’re going to need players who can keep their nerves under control.
Decisions – Can this player make the right decisions?
For me, this is one of the most important attributes in the game. A player is constantly presented with options, this attribute determines if the player chooses the best option. It also controls how and when an option is performed, in conjunction with attributes like creativity and technique.
Stamina – Decides the rate of decline of the players’ condition
The higher this attribute is, the longer a player can keep going without getting tired. It’s fully connected to the match condition of the player. All the constant moving takes a lot out of your players, so you’re going to need fit players.
Teamwork – Can this player set his own ego aside to benefit the team?
Players with a low value for teamwork are players who will put their own best interest before that of the team, whereas a high attribute means the player would base decisions on what is best for the team, not what is best for himself. Since I use a Very Fluid tactical setting and want my team to function as a cohesive unit, I want players with high teamwork ratings.
Technique – What can this player do in terms of technique?
The easiest way to describe technique is that it controls the width of the player’s technical range. The higher the attribute, the more the player can actually do with the ball. Since players in a strikerless formation have to work in tight spaces and in a high tempo, a decent rating for Technique is a welcome bonus.
Work Rate – How active is this player?
Players with a low value for work rate would rather not spend too much time in off the ball decisions, which basically means they’re just lazy and only start moving when they have the ball or are involved in a phase of play. Players with a high value for work rate will make themselves available and involve themselves in play as much as possible, which suits our ultra-aggressive, hard-working and mobile style of play far more.
Is his personality compatible with the rest of the squad?
When you sign a new player, he needs to fit in with the existing group. For me, there are two factors we need to consider here.
- Adaptability; players need to adjust to new surroundings and a new tactical approach when brought in from other clubs, especially if they are foreign;
- Personalities; players with the same personalities go well together, clashing personalities tend to cause trouble.
The first factor I want to examine is the adaptability, which is a major contributor to the overall 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. Of course, there are ways to help speed up this integration process. Foreign players can be sent 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.
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.
How does he fit into the demographic setup?
When we look at the manner in which a team is structured from a demographic point of view, 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;
- Squad status; too many captains or perceived captains on a ship tends to be a recipe for disaster.
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 the 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 maintaining 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.
Now, 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 gruelling 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 to play 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. If you sign a new player, you should have room in the squad for him to slot into.
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 of 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, signing a new player means they need to slot into one of these age brackets. A discrepancy of one player in each category is not a problem, but a too young or too old squad will eventually come back to haunt you over the course of a season. I advise you to exercise care in such situations.
The final factor to take into account is the squad statuses 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:
How do the finances look on this deal?
Signing new players is all well and dandy, but the finances are always important. Signing a new star forward for 50 million is just fine, but signing a new rotation option for the same sum seems quite ludicrous. You have to exercise caution in your spending since frivolous spending sprees could see you end up in the red financially.
Did you hype this player somehow?
When you sign a player and he has great attributes or has 5-star potential but then he plays quite average or doesn’t reach that potential, you’re disappointed. He’s still a decent player, he just doesn’t hit the hype or level that you had envisaged. Does this make the player a failure or a bad signing, or did you fail to curb your own enthusiasm?
We’ve all fallen into this trap before. You sign an 18-year old Brazilian for 20 million and you can’t wait to start him. His first few performances are bit underwhelming though, with a few goals, but surely not the barrage you were expecting. Was the player in question a failure? In my eyes, failure is not being good enough. Does not being as good as expected but still a decent performer qualify as failure? Surely not.