Imagine a vaccine researcher being called into the office of her manager, and being given the news that she most wanted, and most dreaded.
“Congratulations!” her boss declares. “The Covid-19 cure which you have been working so hard on is an unqualified success – thanks to you, millions of lives are going to be saved, and countless more extended.”
The vaccine researcher smiles in a self-satisfied way, and who could possibly blame her? Her name will forever be spoken of in the same way as that of Edward Jenner, and the pubs she is responsible for opening again will surely never deny her a drink on the house.
And, yet, the researcher’s smile is tempered with sadness, for she knows all too well what is coming next.
“But”, the boss continues, “it does pose us a problem, because you have been so thorough in eradicating SARS-CoV-2 that there is no possibility of it ever emerging again. Sadly, that means I have no choice other than to make you redundant, but you leave with the eternal gratitude of eight billion souls.”
We know, though, that it doesn’t work like the little story above: natural selection causes the virus to mutate, and existing vaccines developed to fight it can be more or less effective against these novel variants. So the researcher’s work is never quite done, because the virus is never solved – it is only, at any point in time, in a position where it is more, or less, dangerous.
Frustrated Football Manager players will have experienced much the same thing, and before I even start a new save, it’s something I want to discuss.
I remember declaring a couple of seasons ago that real-life football was officially dead, because Manchester City’s possession-hogging had served notice of its demise. For the first time in history, there was the acquisitive power of a state, multiplied by a long chain of elite footballers, multiplied by a way of playing which pretty much negated risk – you can station your defensive line as high up the pitch as you like when the probability of you losing the ball is so minimal. Any day now, I expected Pep Guardiola to be told he had cured football, and to take himself off home forever, his work done.
We all know what happened next. Opponents devised tactics to test that high line, the weakest part of Guardiola’s game plan, City were squeezed in the vice, and have had to develop a new way of playing against the new way of playing, which came as a response to their new way of playing.
Yet, as a Football Manager aficionado, I find it hard – still – to accept that the change which keeps zoonotic viruses, and actual football matches, interesting, should be so apparent in the game, too.
The sense of achievement I feel when the things I know combine beautifully with the things I suspect, and my team goes on a little unbeaten run. Tipped to finish bottom out of 11, yet the well-drilled, confident amateur or semi-professional team are riding high in third place, and I am daring to think about maybe having a go at promotion.
And then, the downswing begins, and there’s nothing I can do about it. The AI adds more meat into its central midfield, putting three in there instead of two, with three narrow strikers in front of them, and none of my tweaks can prevent it from running riot.
My instinct is to try to find room in the half-spaces, the channels, or from very wide positions, because I am telling my attack-minded players to avoid the congestion in central areas. Use width, and try to isolate their full-backs, but I keep being funnelled back into the middle of the pitch, where I do not stand a chance.
And so the problem, as with coronavirus, becomes one of time. The longer it takes you to develop another vaccine, the more people die. The longer it takes you to implement (that is, to think of, train, and have your squad familiarise itself with) a different formation, the more likely you are to get the sack.
One of the things I am asking myself – and I will test this – is whether it is possible to maintain the same formation, playing in the same way (so, with consistent, or similar team instructions around things like the defensive line, line of engagement, and pressing urgency) whilst tweaking ‘only’ the roles and duties, and continue to gain better-than-expected results, at least for a time? Does altering the roles and duties in your cautious 4-5-1 buy you the extra months for your squad to familiarise itself with a 4-4-1-1, or 4-2-3-1?
The sheer variation of roles makes me suspect that the above is possible, when I think about the difference between an Advanced Forward, and a Pressing Forward, and a Ball-Winning Midfielder as compared to an Anchor Man. Of course, the point is moot at the level I like to play at, because my initial crop of players don’t have the versatility – either as individuals, or across the squad – to switch between roles in that way (though even at amateur or semi-professional level, there are, say, lots of Poachers and Target Men.)
Is this switching between roles, to a greater or lesser extent, the key to preventing the AI dismantling you, or at least part of the answer? If there is no vaccine for the current strain of Covid, then a flu jab is better than nothing at all, so long as it keeps you alive for a while longer.