SCOUTED play FM24: Forest for the Trees
In Chapter One, we get the job.
CHAPTER ONE: NEON GENESIS EVANGELOS
6PM, THE FOREST GROUND, JULY 1ST
Evangelos Marinakis reaches one wall and turns. He marches, hands clasped behind his back, to the other.
“Survival in the Premier League,” he says.
I nod. Obviously.
He continues to pace, his chin up. When he speaks he waves one finger around as if delivering a royal decree.
“Meeting our financial targets,” he says. Yep. “Not breaking our spending limits.” Yessir.
He stops and turns to face me. He leans forward, placing two massive hands on the desk. I gulp like a cartoon character. His beard tickles my forehead.
“And now the big one,” he says. His grin is maniacal. “The key to your survival here.”
Here we go.
“Sign and develop young players.”
I can’t help it. I laugh. I throw my hands towards the dead-white industrial lights like they’re the sun. Hallelujah.
He mistakes my mirth for enthusiasm. We shake hands wildly, laughing with our bellies and staring into each other’s eyes. The receptionist walks in behind us, sees the picture - two grown men swinging each other’s arms around, tears streaming into their beards, crazed eyes locked and afire - says nothing, and leaves. I pay her no mind. Right now, Marinakis is my world.
“Welcome to Nottingham Forest,” he says.
Outside, the midsummer sun - the real one - is waning.
I stand on the banks of the Trent and dial. They all pick up. Llew, Joe, Jake and Phil. Steve last, because it’s 6am in Melbourne and he spent the night watching Uzbekistan’s Under-15s.
“Boys,” I say to SCOUTED. “I got the job.”
FOREST FOR THE TREES
This may shock you, but I - the founder of SCOUTED - am no Football Manager veteran.
My first experience with the series was, perhaps atypically, on the PSP. I vividly remember the first save I was proud of - I turned Blackburn Rovers into Europe’s dominant force. The fact I was a fifteen-year-old who’d Googled the most broken tactics in the game and copied them exactly didn’t stop me from feeling like Fabio Capello.
When my parents brought me my first iPhone - the iPhone 5, I was the talk of the class - the first thing I did was purchase Football Manager Touch. Again, I looked up how to break the game, broke the game, then pretended I was Pep Guardiola’s chosen son.
I know what you FM maniacs are thinking - these are the baby games. The training wheels. The versions you play when your laptop’s in the shop and the withdrawals are setting in. Well, I have dabbled in the main game, too. In fact, my Steam library says, of the three FM games I’ve owned prior to this year - FM13, FM14, FM15 - I’ve played 72 hours, 30 hours and 56 hours respectively. Dear reader, and I promise you this is the truth: I have no recollection of any of this.
The only main game I do remember playing is FM21, and Steam says I only have 57 minutes on record with that. Um, I’m pretty sure I didn’t take Reading to the Premier League (and then get slapped around with such merciless brutality that I gave up) in less than an hour, lads.
All this is to say: doing a Football Manager playthrough on SCOUTED has always made sense. We love Football Manager. We love the team at SIE and I think they’re quite fond of us, too. And we know lots of you, our readers, play far, far too much, and we’re worried about you, and you should go outside.
But I also knew how everyone would expect a FM series on SCOUTED to look: Llew Davies, the Michael Burry of scouting, using his enormous cranium to outwit the silly algorithms and sign every U-21 genius not strapped down. What you wouldn’t expect is me, an idiot who has no idea what he’s doing, to take the wheel.
But I have a secret weapon: I have SCOUTED on speed dial. Llew’s cranium is mine to peruse. Stephen and Joe are my scouting department. I have Phil scouring South America and Jake producing dataviz as we speak. You cannot simply buy this kind of power. (This is a lie, you can - football clubs, we’re available for consultancy, please call me.)
So, Mr Marinakis. You think you’ve signed an untested, dashingly handsome young manager to keep you in the Premier League. Instead, you’ve signed an untested, dashingly handsome young manager with friends who know stuff.
This is Forest for the Trees: a relative noob’s first playthrough of Football Manager 24, powered by the biggest group of scouting boffins in independent football journalism.
Let the games begin.
9AM, WILFORD LANE, JULY 2ND
Once the mirth subsides and the contracts are signed, my tenure as manager of Nottingham Forest begins.
I am immediately met by a barrage of purple emails so dense I go cross-eyed. I take them one at a time and aim for the one thing I’m already an expert at: clearing my inbox.
The first email of note is a recommendation to expand the scouting team. Alone in my office, I chuckle. These fools. These silly sausages. They have no idea the power I wield.
That said, the top recommendation is Stuart Harvey, currently of Sunderland. We’re huge fans of Stuart’s work at SCOUTED, and - I hope he doesn’t mind me saying - he is a long-time supporter of our work, too. I wonder if I can leverage that goodwill into my first major signing. Stuart and the SCOUTED boys together would be unstoppable.
Stuart rejects my contract offer. I punch the wall in my office and have a little cry.
I’ve had enough of email and rejection for one day, so I turn my attention to the squad instead. I picked Forest for two reasons: firstly, because I lived and studied in the city for four years, and it has a special place in SCOUTED lore (Stephen came to live with me for six months, it was cute, we wrote the first Handbooks together in my apartment there); secondly, because they have one of my favourite squads in the Premier League.
Here you’d expect me to say something intelligent to defend that opinion, perhaps involving stats of some sort; honestly, my infatuation with Forest is purely based on vibes. A 21-year-old centre-back who plays with unrestrained Brazilian verve. A discarded wonderkid from Manchester United, who flies down the wing and takes his shirt off when he scores, even if there’s half an hour to go, it’s only an equaliser and they go on to lose. Callum Hudson-Odoi, an old SCOUTED favourite ready to reignite his career. Ibrahim Sangaré, who had my friend Alex quivering on camera for years (never has a link been so important to contextualise a sentence). Taiwo Awoniyi, the clumsy-on-first-glance target man who is shockingly balletic and has a killer instinct. And finally, the jewel in the crown, the king of vibes, the freewheeling, hard-running technician with personality for days: Morgan Gibbs-White.
I set up the squad on my tactics board and start moving the pieces.
Firstly, I know with Forest’s speed and athleticism up front and out wide, as well as the general strength of the teams I’ll be facing, building a fluid counter-attack will be key. If I can squeeze opponents centrally in possession, have Sangaré and his (to-be-determined) partner gobble up the ball and let MGW do his thing in transition, I’ll be onto a winner. I think.
In that moment, I instantly develop a new fear: Jon Mackenzie, standing over a tactics board, howling like a wolf; a thumbnail, my beleaguered face in bright colours; the title: Why Forest’s out-of-possession shape is a disgrace.
I slap myself and try to concentrate.
The board defaults to a 4-2-3-1 shape, with MGW in the ten. This apparently best suits the current squad, but I know such a shape would require a smart pressing structure to stop better teams from playing through me, which I am not clever enough to build and not stupid enough to try. Instead, I move Morgan back to form a three in midfield. I did this because Thomas Frank said to on Sky Sports, but also because packing the midfield against better sides makes obvious sense. MGW will need time to adjust to being a deeper 8, I guess, but the role’s not that different so I hope he’ll pick it up quickly - I desperately want to build the team around my king of vibes.
Then I notice he is on holiday, which is elongated by the U-21 Euro’s. Fucking hell. I’m facing most of pre-season without the central piece to my grand plan. I resist the urge to get him on the bell and tell him to sack off England - I haven’t even met the players yet.
Instead, I consult my tactics board for alternatives; if I can get ten players to understand the system, then surely MGW will slot right in on his return. Nicolas Dominguez is the best fit, Danilo a close second. Then my eyes light up as I notice who the club have brought in on loan before my arrival: Andrey Santos. One of the many thousands of teenage wunderkinds plucked from South America by Chelsea and tossed into their endless maelstrom of talent churn, I know his name well from countless hours of editing Llew and Steve’s copy. At just 19 and with absolutely no Premier League experience - or any European experience, for that matter - Santos fits Forest’s hilariously gung-ho philosophy perfectly, and SCOUTED’s too.
I grant Dominguez the honour of ersatz-MGW for now, but with every intention of introducing Santos to the role slowly. It’s a risk: if he’s brilliant then I’ve only increased the value of an asset for Chelsea, which I’m loathe to do; but if he’s merely quite good, perhaps I can convince him to join my crusade to conquer the Premier League with an army of children.
Here’s how the first team looks heading into pre-season (back four and instructions not final, don’t kill me):
I emerge from my tinkering with a solid plan and a glaring problem: although Hudson-Odoi and Anthony Elanga are exciting options in the wide areas, they’re also…the only options. I don’t want to resort to pushing MGW out there often when he’s so key to my plans in midfield.
I call Marinakis and ask how much budget he has spare for incomings.
“Zero,” he says.
I ask him to repeat that, please; his Greek accent is a little thick. Ze…ze…ze-fifty million, perhaps?
I ask whether Olympiacos could help out, wink wink. He says maybe, but the Premier League’s regulators are watching him like hawks. I say: but Newcastle are talking about Ruben Neves? He says yes, but Olympiacos aren’t an entire fucking country with deep capital ties to the British Government, are they? I say no, I guess not.
My hopes of signing an army of wonderkids are dashed. I’ll have to hope the Saudi Public Investment Fund are really interested in one of my ageing players, like Willy Boly or Cheikhou Kouyaté. I don’t even mind if they loan them back to Newcastle.
If I can’t hoover up talent from elsewhere, I’ll have to bring it through the ranks. I make a note to do a deep dive on my youth squads later and ask Llew to tell me who’s good. For now, I need to meet the senior team.
10AM, WILFORD LANE, JULY 4TH
I look around at the men before me. Boys, so many of them. I see astonishment in every pair of eyes; nobody expected a manager this young, this dashingly handsome.
I puff out my chest in the direction of Joe Worrall, the big dog of this group. I lay out my intentions for the season, repeating my directives from Marinakis. They agree with them all - until I add something of my own.
“I want a decent run in the cups, lads,” I say. “This team is good enough to push for that.”
The air is sucked out of the room so quickly I’m surprised there’s enough left to breathe. Felipé’s face falls like a wax figure pushed too close to a fire. Worrall looks like I called his mother something unsavoury. I was not expecting that.
“With respect, gaffer,” Worrall says, with no respect at all, “that’s really not fair on the boys.”
Huh. I say I’m disappointed in their reaction but I stand by my expectations. In my little black notebook, I scribble the words: teach these spineless losers some ambition.
Seething, I set up the customary intra-squad friendly to get a first look at my team in action. It’s a draw, but my first team win on xG, which Twitter tells me is worth just as much.
Santos plays as the creative eight for the second team, Dominguez for the first. They’re both brilliant. The MGW-shaped gap in the dressing room shrinks very slightly.
4PM, MEADOW LANE, JULY 8TH
Having made a colossal mess of my first impression on the team and with no money to fix the squad’s issues, I march towards our first proper pre-season fixture, hoping to work out my stress in the only way a manager can: by jumping up and down in my technical area and shouting obscenities at officials who earn a fraction of my salary.
Unlike most friendly games, this one carries an unusual amount of jeopardy: it’s against Notts County. This is a dangerous team for two reasons. First, Ryan Reynolds said so. Second, they’re riding high on their promotion back to the Football League. But most of all, a loss will turn the fans against me immediately, pre-season or not.
I’ve been to Meadow Lane once before: Stephen and I visited for a freezing cup tie in the dead of winter once, many years ago. It was so cold I’ve forgotten all the details, except it wasn’t very exciting. Hopefully, my return will be just as dull for the home fans.
It is. I play the available members of my first team in an attempt to build cohesion. We strangle the life out of Macauley Langstaff and his fellow Welcome to Wrexham cast members, while Anthony Elanga has the time of his life on the left-hand side. Sangaré struts around like he’s playing opponents who were, until a month ago, non-league footballers. The competition for the third midfield spot heats up as Danilo comes off the bench and scores an absolute screamer.
I’m left disappointed when we concede a sloppy consolation from a corner. But I can forgive a lapse of concentration this early and I don’t mind giving the home fans something to enjoy. We win 4-1 and ensure the Forest faithful who made the gruelling one-mile journey will down their Jaeger bombs tonight in joy rather than misery. Rock City is going to be packed, lads.
My first few weeks at Forest end with muted jubilation. It’s only a friendly, after all. But as I debrief the boys in the dressing room at Meadow Lane, even Joe Worrall cracks a small smile. I’ll win him over. Eventually.
Thanks so much for reading this first chapter of Forest for the Trees. We’re trying something new here: please, get in the comments and let me know what you think! I know we have a mass of long-time FM players in our readership, so this is your invitation to give me advice, pointers, and tips and tricks. Together we’ll take Forest to European domination. Or I’ll get sacked by Christmas. Either way, we’ll have fun.
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‘Til next week. Up the Forest.