Defending Football Manager: The Brains Behind the Ratings

Each football fan has their favorite pundit and would reject the suggestion that a computer screen could provide better information.

However, since 1992, football fans have been learning obscure players from the in-depth football simulator Football Manager. The “manager” controls tactics, signings, player morale, and details of real-life football that are glossed over in other simulators. Each player has skills, preferences, and personalities that are digital replicas of their on-field selves.

There are two schools of thought on Football Manager. One, more instinctual, suggests that a video game cannot approximate real life. Sky Sports recently received a blast of Twitter criticism for using Football Manager ratings to analyze new Leicester City signing N’Golo Kante.

However, Football Manager researchers have usually watched those players far more than any Sky Sports pundit. With skills that approach those of clubs scouts, Football Manager researchers watch hundreds of games in their league of choice to develop rating schemes for each player around the world.

So which is true? Can Football Manager ratings be trusted? When evaluating a new signing, should fans stay away from their computer, or can a video game really provide insight into a player’s talents?

In an exclusive Twitter interview with Everything is Futbol, Brazil’s Head Researcher for Football Manager Paulo Freitas revealed that much more research goes into a Football Manager rating than a Match of the Day transfer analysis.

A brief glance at his Twitter feed (@Cynegeticus) suggests his knowledge of Brazilian football. He has inside transfer contacts and a plethora of opinions on the business of the Brazilian game. Born in Brazil and a supporter of Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo, Paulo is immersed in Brazilian football.

Like a Premier League scout, when Paulo sits down to watch a Campeonato Brasileiro match, he jots down as much as he can about as many players as he can: “how the player moves, technical stuff like his passing … and [especially] mistakes he makes.” He then rates them on a range of attributes: from the simple (acceleration, first touch, or finishing) to the complex (bravery, teamwork, and leadership).

Also decided by Football Manager scouts is a range of abstract criteria that have nothing to do with on-pitch performances: adaptability to a new country or team, versatility across different positions and formations, and off-the-pitch personality.

Indeed, Paulo believes not much is lost between a real-life footballer and his Football Manager avatar. In addition to forty-two skill attributes and seven personality types, players have “preferred moves” that simulate their specific styles, like the way Frank Lampard “arrives late in opposition area,” Arjen Robben “cuts inside,” or Mesut Ozil “tries killer balls often.” Football Manager scouts are also responsible for observing these tendencies.

In many ways, Paulo’s job sounds like that of a club scout, and he admits readily that ratings are often results of their scouts’ opinions. Well-known players generally receive multiple evaluations, but those from unknown clubs may be subject to one scout’s interpretation. Physical attributes are easier to discern, he says, while mentality and decision making can be difficult because sometimes “there is not enough evidence about them.”

When comparing real and digital scouting, the differences are small, he says: “what changes is how the [information] is used, but otherwise the system [of observations] is pretty similar.” Club scouts may have to do more comprehensive dives into certain players, but the Football Manager team analyzes every player, which requires watching incredible amounts of footage. One of the hardest parts of Paulo’s job is unique to Football Manager: “translating the real-life ability into numbers.”

Otherwise, he struggles with the same difficulties as do scouts from Manchester United and Chelsea. Deciding on their version of “good,” differentiating between good form and improvement, and separating opinions from analysis are challenges that Paulo struggles with just as much as does a club scout.

Paulo readily acknowledges that real football is more difficult than Football Manager, even if the players are accurately represented; if every manager could win the Premier League with Ipswich Town, even Jose Mourinho would be out of a job.

Time goes far more slowly, Paulo says, and you cannot pause to think. Furthermore, you cannot fully control what happens in the real world. Making a joke on the tactical skills of Football Manager players, he notes that “there are no tactics that might work too often.” Sorry, that 4-4-2 with a direct, narrow diamond would not win day in and day out in the Premiership, folks.

The most unpredictable part for Paulo, though, is one part of life that no computer can capture: a player’s mind. “Players have much stronger personalities than any game can simulate,” he says. Choosing to go to the wrong club, getting a big head from success, and media noise can all impact a young player’s development in a way that is beyond the simulation skills of Football Manager.

fm2Our conversation eventually turned to the most-criticized part of Football Manager: young players’ “wonderkid” status. In recent days, critics of Sky Sports have listed players who set Football Manager screens alight with goals, assists and marquee performances but never lived up to the billing in real life. Freddy Adu; Nicolás Millán; Lulinha; three names that are tellingly obscure to football fans but roll easily off the tongue of any die hard FM-er. All were favorite young players in Football Manager, but their real-life careers derailed.

The best and worst-case scenarios for young players can be seen by trawling the list of wonderkids from Football Manager 2010. Five years later, the best of them could make a world-class team. Stars from Bayern Munich (David Alaba and Robert Lewandowski), Barcelona (Jordi Alba), Liverpool (Phillipe Coutinho), Swansea City (Jonjo Shelvey), Paris Saint-Germain (Marco Verratti), Real Madrid (James Rodriguez), Everton (Romelu Lukaku), Dynamo Kyiv (Andriy Yarmolenko), or Manchester United (Morgan Schneiderlin); any of those names sound familiar? All are wonderkids available for cheap transfer fees in Football Manager 2010 that have blossomed into talented players in 2015. Equally impressive are those that are getting off the ground, five years later. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, available for $975K in the game, has endured injury sagas and now looks to start for Bayer Leverkusen; Alphonse Areola ($12K), on the way up for Paris Saint-Germain, is cutting his teeth on loan at Villareal

For each player that has “made it” in real life, though, there are several wonderkids that never got to the big time. Just a run down the list of strikers tu rns up a few that got left by the wayside: both little-known players such as Levan Mchedlidze, Stephano Okaka, or Ariel Nahuelpan; as well as fallen stars like Carlos Vela, Nicklas Bendner, and Wellington Silva.

Paulo is candid yet confident about the struggles of finding wonderkids. “Predicting the future is always hard as a lot of things can go wrong,” he says, recalling the aforementioned Lulinha. The young midfielder scored 16 goals in 16 games for the Brazilian U-17 side, including starring performances in the U-17 South American Championships and the Pan American Games. He attracted offers from Chelsea and commanded a £24m fee before deciding to stay at Corinthians. Soon, Paulo says, he “got rushed into senior level and couldn’t handle it well.” This misfortune is difficult to predict for fans and analysts alike.

Furthermore, Football Manager researchers do not have the resources to fly across Brazil to visit U-16 matches. Paulo cedes that judging potential is hard, but finding quality youth players is hardly a crapshoot. The speed of progress, technical skill, and how a player performs against older players can all be indicators to his potential. The touch of players like Robinho, Diego, and Neymar at youth levels attracted Paulo’s eye, and he oversaw the rise of these success stories on both Football Manager and in real life.

Even when players’ careers did not go as planned, as in the case of Lulinha, Paulo believes that the wonderkid prediction was not incorrect, but that intervening variables took control. In fact, Paulo says most wonderkids “had the talent and sometimes show glimpses of that talent,” even years later. This response to many Football Manager detractors reflects the fact that, at one time, Freddy Adu and Lulinha were targeted by Manchester United and Chelsea.

Football Manager cannot predict the future, but neither can any Sky Sports pundit. These researchers are not football purebreds; Paulo became an assistant Football Manager researcher through his involvement on a message board. What most Football Manager scouts bring, though, is a multifaceted understanding of the game, impersonal analytical skills, and a sharp eye for a player’s skill. Football Manager’s database is not a random collection of numbers, but an expert opinion of someone knowledgeable about the league, region, and game; often much more informed than a talking head in a TV studio.

For now, Paulo has his own picks for greatness: Luís Henrique of Botafogo and left-back Jorge of Flamengo. If they do not succeed, he will no doubt blame outside factors, not the researchers’ analysis. But, just to be sure, better sign them in Football Manager; after all, it’s not so different from the real thing.

Big thanks to Paulo Freitas (@Cynegiticus) for agreeing to speak to me about Football Manager and sharing his stories. If you have any interest in football, give him a follow on Twitter – he knows his Brazilian football.

Henry Trotter is a student at the College of William and Mary, and a veteran of many failed soccer journalism experiments. A Paul Scholes lookalike by trade and a lover of coffee, stories, and plane tickets, Henry has never been much good at Football Manager. In fact, he was fired by his two favorite clubs, Everton and DC United, in consecutive seasons.