Football Manager 2019 review | New tactical approach is a winner

Tom Hoggins
Football Manager 2019 is out now for PC and Mac

We go again. A familiar battle cry for the football fan, you imagine it’s also a mantra for the Football Manager team at Sports Interactive. Challenged each year to improve on the world’s deepest and most prominent Pep-simulator. Or Mick McCarthy-sim, I guess: you pay your money, you take your choice.

Building on an existing framework of extraordinary footballing knowledge each year, Football Manager is never less than all-absorbing, but the task at hand is convincing players to hang up their tracksuit in one career to start over in a new game. To go again.

Football Manager 2019 is a more significant year than most. Sports Interactive has moved studios and restructured, undergoing what studio director Miles Jacobson calls a ‘soft reboot’. The same is true of the game; given a visual overhaul and a selection of significant changes to freshen up the bootroom.

It isn’t drastic, of course, but significant enough to make Football Manager 2019 the most interesting FM release in years. The new look is a combination of the full-fat Football Manager’s bewildering amount of information and the slimline Football Manager Touch’s more punchy aesthetic.

The game has had a visual refresh, with the default skin favouring purple matched with your chosen club's colour

The abundance of purple might be an acquired taste (and you can load in new skins anyway), but it works for me. Football Manager 2019 feels more readable and navigable than the last few years, with your chosen club’s colour weaved in to add a bit of personal flavour.

The headline of it is accessibility, as much for veterans wanting to move around easier as new players. Which is a theme that runs throughout. One of the first things you come across in FM19 are the ‘inductions’. Largely designed to help introduce the new training and tactics modules (more on which shortly), the inductions are tutorials that walk you through certain aspects of the game and give you more of an idea on where your impact as manager can be felt.

Even as a long-term, if not ‘hardcore’, player of the game I found the inductions useful, encouraging me to delve into areas of the game I have previously neglected. For a new player looking to indulge in FM’s details, I imagine it is essential. The inductions can be brought up at any time too, meaning you don’t have to overload on information before cracking on with revitalising Yeovil’s fortunes.

Importantly for German fans and fans of German football, the Bundesliga is included and fully licensed in this year's game

Those new modules are the game’s most significant gameplay rework this year. Training, in particular, has been made significantly more involved. You can now set up to three highly specific training sessions per day, from set-piece delivery, to attacking engagement, to recovery. As with most things in Football Manager, your level of involvement is up to you. Schedule every single session yourself, if you wish, or leave the entire lot to your assistant. Or you can assign what each week’s focus is; be it technical, tactical or physical, and your coaching team will fill in the individual sessions. You can then go in and tweak to your heart’s content: an extra training session there, extra focus on a weakness there.

My Watford team is currently going through a terrible goal drought, so I’m scheduling some more finishing sessions. I also like to have my players do Team Bonding or Community Outreach at least once a week, which isn’t usually included in the coaches plans and seems to have fostered a decent atmosphere in the dressing room.

Also a small feature that I love is that players now get ratings for their training performance each week. You were given reports on player’s training performances before, but here it is more frequent and detailed. It gives you an idea of which players are pulling their weight. If poor match performances are dovetailing with a dip in training, it might be time for the axe. Or at least a chat with the player to find out what’s going on. Conversely, if a hot prospect is having a blinder on the training pitch, it may well be time to bring them into the first-team fold.

You can tweak the training schedule to your heart's content

As a significant new addition this year, the Training module does have issues to iron out. The level of detail is extraordinary, but there is a lack of clarity. The sheer weight of it can be overwhelming and there isn’t enough of a general overview for you to address broader issues. I have had several players coming to me complaining about the high level of quickness and strength training, for instance, but struggled to identify where those complaints stemmed from. Each training session details what areas it benefits, but those particular aspects didn’t seem to be popping up often enough for it to cause discontent. Not that I would want to change it, Jose Holebas, buck your ideas up.

Still, while the module clearly needs work over the next iterations, that I am delving around in an area I have wilfully neglected over the years is a good sign that Sports Interactive are on the right track. More holistically successful is the new tactics module. Rather than all of your match plans being lumped into one area, you are now able to individually tweak approaches for when you have the ball, don’t have the ball and in the much-talked about ‘transition’; that essential period of readjustment when possession has changed feet.

While it initially may have you scrabbling around to find the instruction you want in each module, this more granular approach works really well, giving you a lot more freedom to exploit your team’s strengths. You can choose from an array of pre-set tactics, from Jurgen Klopp’s high-intensity Gegenpress, to ‘Vertical Tiki-Taka’ and Route One football. These may suit your team to a tee, particularly if you are aping your team’s real-life approach. But they can also be tweaked, or used as education, giving you an idea of how the component parts of a particular tactic break down. It has the enviable quality of being both deeper than before, but more accessible in its workings.

The tactics overhaul is arguably FM19's most effective change

There is more clarity in your choices across the pitch, opening up FM’s systems more than ever before. Something as simple as visually representing your ‘line of engagement’, the position to which your team will push up to engage their opponent’s, gives you a much clearer idea of where you are pressing or ceding space. Which can also be seen in another improvement in the match engine (also enhanced by more convincing ball physics).

In fact, with the exception of the work-in-progress training, more clarity across the game is a real theme. There are no significant changes that make this the case, just a concerted effort by Sports Interactive to bring its existing features to the fore. The recently introduced squad dynamics, for instance, feels like it is playing a more important role largely because it is a lot more visible across the game. Now you are much more aware of the leaders in the dressing room and can set up ‘mentoring groups’, which can mix fresh and experienced players to improve their game and integrate them more fully into the squad.

Football Manager 2019 is the most compelling and involving upgrade of the game since, for my money, the superb FM14. While some old niggles remain --press interaction still needs its proper overhaul, for instance-- its commitment to openness and accessibility has not come at the cost of its extraordinary depth. Quite the opposite. We go again.

  • Football Manager 2019 is out now for PC and Mac