He’s good on FM – The gap between cyberspace and reality

“I’ve not seen him play… but he’s good on FM” – It’s a phrase I’ve used time and again and a phrase people have said to me. For those not familiar, FM in this instance stands for Football Manager and refers to a series of detailed and complex football management simulation games.

The question that I’ve been thinking about most recently, with particular reference to Norwich City is how much real world opinion of players is shaped by what people encounter on the ever increasing range of detailed and hugely popular football computer games. FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) and Football Manager all contain a vast amount of information. However, much of this is entirely subjective, most pertinently the ratings of the players.

With the increasing amount of analysis available to fans thanks to Opta and The Guardian chalk boards you can tell a lot about a players ability. But when it comes to rating them on things like pace, acceleration, positioning, it’s a lot harder to gather information. Therefore rather than being based on actual information, the data tends to be based on opinion.

Each game has a slightly different method of rating players, different categories which define a players ability. Within each game there are also attributes that have always carried more weight and importance than others. Pace always carries far more importance in FIFA and PES because you have such control over the players, mental attributes aren’t nearly as valuable.

FM is at the peak of modern football management games

The trouble with rating players attributes is that it’s rare that you will find two people in the world who will agree completely about a players ability. This problem is further compounded when you have a team like Norwich who have progressed up the footballing ladder rapidly, it gives the people responsible for these ratings less time to form opinions and properly rate the players involved.

As a general basis, I’d say the ratings are usually six months out of date. It’s impossible to do up-to-the-minute attribute ratings for the sheer number of players in their database, in fact, I imagine it’s hard work to change them with any real significance at all. So the changes tend to be subtle, gradual, but that’s never how we see it. Time and again we see players “burst onto the scene” by doing something unexpectedly brilliant.

A good example of this is Anthony Pilkington. When he scored against Villa with a brilliant free-kick, I did wonder if any of the current crop of football games would reflect his obvious ability from dead ball situations. The answer is a resounding no. FM did rate his free-kick taking higher than the others, but also claimed that his left foot was stronger than his right, as opposed to FIFA who think he is right footed.

Anthony Pilkington celebrating scoring his first goal Premier League goal against Bolton

So has Pilkington spent the off season working non-stop on his free-kicks? Well no, because he was injured. So when we look at his quality, it’s hard to suggest that it’s new found, rather that he’s had this ability all along but as he was playing in League One it was widely overlooked. It makes you wonder what other little gems are hiding in the lower reaches of English football. Of course his free-kick against Villa may have been a one off, he may never score another free-kick again, but he has scored goals this season. Further more he’s always looked like he’s had that fabled “Premier League quality” about him.

Most of the first choice Norwich players are painfully under-rated in my yellow and green eyes. Perhaps there is a certain bias to my views, but even accounting for that I still feel like we’ve been hard done by. Not that this comes as much of a surprise, as when you assemble a team of ‘unproven players’, they are unproven for a reason, nobody is quite sure how they’ll do at the top level, well so far, so good. Contrast this with West Ham, who have a team full of players all of whom have experience in the top flight and who are higher rated across the board than there Norwich counterparts but most of whom suffered relegation last season, something Norwich will hopefully avoid.

The difference on paper between the current Norwich and Ipswich sides is minimal in the games, which is ridiculous when you consider the scoreline between the sides both times they met last season, not only that but the Norwich team has clearly improved from last season where as the Ipswich side has arguably got worse. Perhaps these games go some way to showing how much of a team game football is, or just what can happen when a club gets on a roll of success or how hard it can be once you’re on the slippery slope of decline.

Surman scores the first of many for Norwich at Portaloo Road last season.

Unlike the game, a collection of individuals won’t get you anywhere, spirit and determination are crucial. I think if you were to pick one key attribute in all the players Paul Lambert has signed it would be a high level of determination, not only to win, but to prove themselves. Contrast this with an Ipswich side, full of ageing former Premier League players with nothing left to prove and you start to think that motivation could certainly be an issue, something which games struggle to capture.

So how much does the representation of players on games shape peoples opinions of players?

I think it does shape opinions and I think games have a large impact. Like it or not, these games are now viewed as somewhat trusted sources and authorities on football and to some extent with good reason, especially when FM is concerned who scout far and wide to collate an amazingly detailed database of football players from across the globe. The trouble is lots of the information on them is questionable, with simple things like a players height often varying from game to game.

These games largely represent the view of the classic ‘man on the street’. They all tend to play it safe and go with the perhaps more popular opinion rather than an accurate one. They over estimate the ability of players at the big clubs, they find it difficult to accept when experienced players suffer a noticeable decline and continue to rate them highly. Most importantly they seem to think that anyone playing outside the top leagues can’t be any good. But football isn’t that straightforward, if you take a closer look at the lower leagues you can find talent that can compete at the top level. Paul Lambert and Norwich are testament to this. Swansea have shown that you can also play possession football with a team of players who have come up from the lower leagues, it’s no longer just about a group of honest players who hoof it around.

The overall rating of Wes Hoolahan on Fifa 12 is 75, he is the highest rated Norwich player which I have no problem with, just that his rating is lower than it should be. Finally it seems that Giovanni Trapattoni might also have realised that Hoolahan is under-rated and deserves a call-up, although I doubt he spends much time playing Fifa. Pilkington is a 66 which is just pants-on-head-flat-out-wrong and he is also knocking on the door of the Irish squad. It’ll be interesting to see, now that these players have made an undeniable impact on the Premier League and could well feature in the European Championships this summer, what their ratings will look like come the inevitable Fifa 13.

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