Not everyone starts his FM career with a top side with the financial means and facilities to crank out homegrown talent on a regular basis. In fact, some clubs are severely strapped for cash and cannot free funds to invest heavily in the development of talent. Just fielding a somewhat-decent first team squad takes up most of the available funds so developing your own talent isn’t really an option. How exactly do you improve a club like that? You let others develop the talents for you as if you were some sort of FM variant of the cuckoo.
You see, cuckoos are notorious tricksters, shortcutting the chores of parenthood by hiding its eggs in the nest of other birds, which wind up hatching and raising them. A similar strategy can be applied to FM if you know where to look, how to scout and what to look out for. You let other clubs develop talents only for you to snap them up and use them; the cuckoo transfer-market strategy.
The key to this strategy is how the AI behaviour for big clubs pans out in the pseudo-reality of the Football Manager universe. Much like in real life, the top clubs in Football Manager are naturally inclined to hoard talent in a way similar to Scrooge McDuck acquiring money. These clubs often have a sugar daddy investing copious amounts of money, which allows them to make a play for pretty much any emerging starlet, whether they actually need these players or not.
Whilst it can be hugely frustrating for the selling clubs to lose their starlets to the money-bags from London, Paris, Madrid, Munich, Leipzig or Barcelona, you should appreciate the bright side of this state of affairs. These top clubs usually have exquisite facilities for both youth and senior players, not to mention a fine coaching staff and the best medical teams money can buy.
They have done the hard work for you in a lot of ways. By the time they hit their mid-twenties, these talents have often developed into decent professional footballers, just not of the level that can waltz into the line-up of a European top team. That doesn’t make them any less useful to the teams one or two (or more) pegs below the Barça’s, Bayern’s, Chelsea’s, PSG’s, Juve’s and Real’s of this world. The AI seems to favour a strategy that seems them release these players or sell them off cheap, which is where you can swoop in. Just have a look at some of these players I signed for Polish Ekstralasa side Lech Poznań.
This is Finn Seitz, a 26-year-old pacey and versatile winger. As you can see, he’s been on fire for me in the Polish Ekstralasa but he would be an asset for a great many teams. Gladbach, a solid German top 5 club by now, deemed him surplus to requirements and released him. As you can see, he spent most of his career thus far with the BMG II squad, a team with a low reputation, which by association means Seitz has a low reputation. Once he was out of contract and released by Gladbach, he was more than willing to discuss terms with anyone willing. Most of the competition consisted of Second and Third Bundesliga clubs, which means competing financially isn’t even that expensive of an affair.
This is Bernhard Diroll. Much like Finn Seitz, he’s a fast and skilful winger. Again, this player would be an accomplished first-teamer for a great many teams in Europe but because he spent most of his career languishing in the depths of the lower leagues, his reputation does not quite match his skills and attributes. The quality of the facilities and coaching and obviously present talent have seen him develop well. He’s not quite good enough for the first team so he was released. We snapped him up, dirt cheap.
My final example is Hicham El Azhari. We snapped him up from the reserve squad of PSG. He obviously has a lot of talent, seeing as how PSG signed him at a young age from Sparta Prague. He made a few first team appearances and he was on fire for the reserve squad in his final season at the club.
This example is symptomatic to how the AI treats talents in this game. No human manager in their right mind would have released El Azhari. Even if he was just playing for the reserves in the Ligue National, these are the kind of performances that would normally warrant either a promotion to the first team squad or perhaps a loan-period with a team active in a higher division. The AI simply chose to let this player’s contract expire.
At this point, you would expect other teams to be swarming all over El Azhari. After all, he has been absolutely stellar in his final season, even if it was at a lower level. Let’s look at his performances in the Ligue National in a spider graph.
El Azhari was a creative and goalscoring genius. He also has quite a bit of pedigree, being not only a 55-times-capped Moroccan youth international, but also hailing from the impressive academy of one of France’s finest teams. In real life, clubs would be fighting over a signing like El Azhari, throwing money at him like there was no tomorrow. In FM, he sat at home, without a club, for nearly six months until I took over in Poznań and found him unattached.
I think these three examples (and I could provide a great many more if needed) are symptomatic of a few shortcomings in the game. For starters, the game’s contract-extension policy appears to be geared towards a player’s current ability compared to that of its first team squad, without considering the development trajectory of when said player would be loaned away to another club. Secondly, the reputation of these well-developed players remains low because they play most of their football at a relatively low level, which seems to impact the recruitment of the other AI clubs. The poor recruitment appears to be the third issue, as the low reputation of players like these ensures that they remain off the radar for many teams, while in reality, they would be instant-impact players for many teams in Europe.
So how would you make use of this in a Football Manager environment? What is the cuckoo-strategy? In a nutshell, it looks like this.
You start off by putting your scouts to work in November and December. Start targeting the top clubs in Europe. A few that always yield a decent result for me are:
- Bayern München;
- Borussia Dortmund;
- Hertha BSC;
- Borussia Mönchengladbach;
- Bayer Leverkusen;
- Schalke ’04;
- Paris Saint-Germain;
- AS Monaco;
- Stade Rennais;
- Olympique Marseille;
- AJ Auxerre;
- AFC Ajax;
- FC Barcelona;
- Real Madrid;
- Athletic Bilbao.
First of all, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Secondly, you will notice that there are no Italian and English clubs included. These leagues generally offer no real reserve competitions of note to play in, so instead of reserve football, the younger players are often loaned to other clubs, which may drive their reputation up. This makes them less attractive for my cuckoo-strategy to efficiently work. It does not mean that these clubs are not capable of developing quality players, it just means that these players often have more realistic reputations.
Just go to the reserve squad of a top side and select any view-filter that allows you to see when the contracts of the players in that squad expire. Don’t start pre-selecting, just multi-select and scout all of the players with an expiring contract. If you have the attribute-masking turned on, you can’t even realistically rule out anyone anyway, so just let the scouts do their work and come up with an initial report.
When the initial reports come in, don’t read too much into the star-ratings your scouts give them. They are not entirely useless, but these ratings tend to vary from report to report. Instead, look at the attributes of this player. Would they suit the role you want this player to play in your team? Are their character-traits the scouts have uncovered that would make him a poor signing? If the initial report looks promising to you, just go ahead and scout on until you have 100% scouting knowledge.
The final steps are common sense mixed with financial prudence. When you get the chance, test the water and offer them a deal. If the deal makes sense in terms of the finances involved, go for it. If you are hesitant or want to explore other options as well, don’t go in. Continue scouting. With such low reputations, these players generally don’t draw a lot of interest, and you can gamble on uncovering other options or simply wait for their contracts to expire. Being a free agent for a while tends to lower the demands players are willing to make.
A few pointers when looking at players to scout:
- Players around their mid-twenties generally make for better targets than players in their early twenties. More time at the club equals more time to develop.
- A player’s history can tell you a bit. If he’s not played a lot for the reserves, chances are he’s just not that good at all. Players with a fair few loan spells and plenty of games for the reserves tend to have developed better and therefore make for more interesting targets.
A final note to this article would be that this is mostly newgen-related. Most players in the starting database have set Potential Ability and Reputation values, which makes it harder to make use of the setup I described. Newgen players seem far more susceptible to the flaws I pointed out.