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Readers of either of my previous blog series may remember how I used my time with FM to explore various facets around mental health, particularly in how the game both triggers and aids my experiences with anxiety. After struggling to get much further than August of the first season in FM18, I thought it was time to revisit the format. As before then, this will be less about results and trophy hauls (although I’ll hopefully have plenty of those) and more a running commentary of the various mental challenges the game throws up for me, however petty they may seem. Here We Go Again… I had expected FM17 to last me a good couple of years. The plan was to get a long term save on the go, skipping the annual instalment cycle. Sadly my save never really got going. Starting out as Liverpool I felt overwhelmed. A change of scene to Eastbourne brought back echoes of my successful FM14 save with Sutton but a panicked resignation soon saw me floundering. From there, I flip flopped endlessly, caught in a loop of Liverpool-Eastbourne-Liverpool-Hastings-Eastbourne-Liverpool-Hastings. Finally my creaking PC had enough of my seemingly endless procrastination and gave up the ghost. A 40th birthday present delivered a new rig and, as if sensing my new found powers of processing, Steam saw fit to slash FM18’s asking price by 66%, neatly rounding out the last of the birthday money. This time round I was certain. I want this to be a Liverpool-centric save. I wasn’t interested in replicating Jurgen Klopp per se but I would happily take influences where they fit my own philosophies. But as it turns out, this is where the problems started… Line Up Everybody, Line Up Oh it should be so simple (‘should’, a word I’ll come back to). Ask any Liverpool fan how to set up the current team and you’ll likely get a similar answer. 433 with Salah cutting in from the right, Mane from the left and Firmino up front. The midfield 3 can be rotated whilst anyone worth their salt will look to bring in a centre back and a goalie. Yep, pretty straightforward. Right? Trouble is, I’ve never played 433. Since the days of Rafa, I’ve only ever played 4231 in the Premier League or 442 lower down. I don’t really get 433. No problem of course, every day is a new opportunity to learn. But here we encounter our first of many petty anxieties. When you set up a manager you are prompted to enter your favourite formation. It is entirely arbitrary, other than setting it as your starting grid on the tactics screen and influencing the opening journalist questions. Play for long enough with a different set up and it will change. Knowing the strengths of the Liverpool formation, I know it is best to play 433. But I can’t. Because it’s not my favourite formation. Saying it is would be a lie. And so I choose 4231. And having chosen 4231, I can’t very well now change my mind when the game starts and choose 433 now, can I. Okay then, we can work with 4231. Salah can still go on the right, Mane left and Firmino up top. It alters my midfield roles but it’s workable. But what’s this? Salah and Mane are cutting inside, just like they do in real life. But I don’t like wingers cutting inside, I like them playing wide, getting cross in with their strongest foot. But that means playing Salah as a winger on the left. What sort of fool plays their best player out of position on the left wing? And whilst we’re at it, Naby Keita has already agreed to join next season. He looks like an all action midfielder who would excel in a box to box role. But I’m now playing 2 in midfield who really both need to hold. Would he fit? Would I get the best out of him? Good grief, I’m worrying about fitting in a player that we don’t even have yet. I play a game anyway with Salah on the left. A friendly against my home town team, Hastings United. We beat them 14-0 with Salah grabbing a hattrick and assisting 5 more. Across pre-season he helps himself to a total of 17 goals in 10 games. All from the left wing. Blimey, eh. We start the season at the Etihad and despite my worst fears we run out 2-1 winners. This might actually work! Next game, we lose to West Ham at home. 2 games and another defeat later, I switch off having determined that my 4231 was a failure and that I was a fool to select Salah at AML. I switch to 433 for my next try with Salah at AMR. We again play Hastings, this time running out 7-0 winners. 7 isn’t as many as 14. Salah doesn’t score. This means my formation isn’t as good. I am failing my best player. This is a disaster. I switch off. Next I revert to 4231 but retain Salah at AMR. We limp to just a 4-0 win. It’s worse. I turn it off. Deciding all bets are off I move to a 442 with Salah up top. It doesn’t match his best position according to the pie chart but surely puts him in the best position to score. But it’s 442 for goodness sake. 442! Who plays that anymore? All the best players operate in the AM strata. And so I switch off. But if I play 433 then I’m going against my own football principles, sacrificed on the altar of getting the best out of one player. And that’s where I find myself after 3 weeks of loading and quitting. No real rage quits based on results, rather petty thoughts intruding on and ruining my attempt at starting a game. Fleetingly I think of switching to a non-Liverpool save before deciding that doing so means I’m not a real fan, as if my real life fandom is dictated by my FM actions. No Change, No Change Phew, deep breath. It’s no wonder I don’t get anywhere with these saves when even progressing past the manager set up screen is a victory. One of the lessons from therapy was that if you don’t make changes then you won’t see changes. These FM saves are about challenging my thinking, pushing myself into areas of potential discomfort and working through how it feels. As much as it goes against my instincts then I am going to stick with a 433, using inside forwards to cut in and supplemented by overlapping wing backs. I know it isn't exactly revolutionary in the grand pantheon of FM tactics but it still represents a pretty fundamental shift for me. It isn’t my favourite formation (yet), it rubs against my usual way of thinking. But it fits what I want to do. And hey, I can always add a winger role on one side down the line when either Mane or Salah goes, which would have the added benefit of making my attack more unpredictable. Why not just stick with the 4231 and Salah at AML if it was working? It is a reasonable question. I just can’t help but feel that it worked because Hastings (and most of my pre-season opponents) were duffers and that once I stopped playing teams the equivalent of punching bags, and instead an opponent who would hit back, my overly aggressive, overly wide strategy would crumble and leave both Salah and Mane isolated. Despite myself I still want to use it, so much so that I've changed my mind half a dozen times whilst writing this. The funny thing is, I don’t even really like 4231 that much! It leaves a gap between midfield and defence, the AM strata gets isolated from CM and the wingers go so far wide they cross from the front row. Plus I only have one natural AMC and it totally screws up how I want my midfield to be shaped, forcing me to utilise 2 holders instead of a lung busting BBM like I would prefer. Hey, why have I been using this thing? Still to Come… Formation decided, next time we’ll walk through pre season, training, scouting and why I already have an anxiety over player recruitment.
With FM17 top of my Christmas wish list, countdown the days with me as I set the groundwork for my latest jaunt into the digital domain of football management. Over the next few weeks in the run up to the big day I will run through the decision making process for starting a new game, with regular updates on my game to follow thereafter, all with a something of a twist. Welcome Back Having played the series since its inception in 1992, the 2014-15 season represented a watershed moment in my relationship with Football Manager. After years of starting, failing and rage quitting, playing FM came to feel like a mental test, one that I kept coming up painfully short in. But after the threads of my life started to unravel and I found myself first entering, and then emerging from, a stint in therapy to tackle depression and anxiety, I was inspired to try one last time. I started at the bottom, prepared to learn and work my way up. And I blogged my way through the whole thing, charting not just the highs and lows in game but in my mood. How did FM influence my real life anxiety issues? How did they in turn influence FM? The save took me from the non-league to the Premier League, via the birth of my son and the death of my dad. It was the most rewarding save of FM I have ever played. My journey ended with a comfortable mid-table Premier League finish and a World Cup jaunt with the USA. I walked away a little wiser and a little happier. I genuinely thought that might be the last time I played FM, what with family and other commitments becoming heavier. But after a two year break I decided the time was right to dive back in. Once again I will chart my journey via a blog, this time utilising a more structured format, with weekly updates on VG Almanac. But one thing that will not change will be my approach to writing. No filters, no editing, no holding back. This will be a story about my game for sure but it will once again play out against the background of my life and how mental illness can influence, and be influenced by, my videogame experiences. The Story So Far As someone probably once said, you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. I won't trawl through my full mental history, although anyone with a desire to do so is very welcome to read the various blogs on my website. The short version is that after hitting the proverbial wall, I spent three months in therapy for depression and anxiety before emerging to find I had been made redundant. Thus began the challenge of reintegrating myself into the workplace whilst also trying to implement the behavioural changes and strategies I had been taught. Three years on, I find myself in a complex place where I am both happy and yet in many ways more anxious than ever. My work life is settled if unspectacular. I occasionally find myself torn between a desire to push forward and a fear that holds me back. I feel both that I undervalue myself and yet am incapable of any more. My dreams remain unfulfilled, balanced against the fact that I am home in time for the kids to go to bed and leave the office behind me at 5 when I leave. Other complexities have emerged, including where I see myself fitting in, but ultimately I have come to the conclusion that it is the right place for me right now. My home life has become more stressful as my children grow. Twins are inherently more difficult than a single child, something only parents of multiples can ever truly appreciate. Combined with the introduction of my boy going through the terrible two's, the house sometimes feels like a soft play centre with three wailing banshees running wild. I continue to fall short of the unattainable parenting standard I set for myself, which perhaps only helps to fuel the anxiety cycle that I so often find myself pedalling. But no matter the stress, no matter how much I might lose my rag sometimes, I remind myself that this is the life I chose. I wouldn't have it any other way. Anxiety remains a constant companion, that mate who always seems to turn up on the doorstep even when you don't remember inviting him. Others would likely be surprised at the things that cause me genuine internal panic, masked by the calm façade that I attempt to maintain. A decision to go back onto antidepressants earlier this year was mine alone, as was the decision to seek some additional therapy sessions, and I take comfort from my ability to assess my mood and take proactive action. Life is a journey, an ongoing series of lessons with homework every day. My last FM session taught me that I was flexible, adaptable and more capable than I realised, something that seeps into and derives from my real life experiences. FM also caused me to question who I was, how I define myself. And these are issues I continue to wrestle with. I enter FM17 then in some ways anxious yet at the same time a little more prepared, a little more confident and feeling ready to face down the challenges that may come my way. Still To Come In the next instalment we explore the crippling anxiety that comes with the simple act of deciding which team to manage.