How I fell in love with a fake football team – and learned to love myself

My lockdown habit of watching virtual Arsenal fixtures on Football Manager is insane. But so is watching Arsenal in real life. 

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Has Franco Vázquez been a good signing for Arsenal? That’s the question I’m debating with myself at the moment. Yes, he’s brought much-needed depth in the No 10 position, adding a creativity to the Arsenal side we badly lacked last season. And he has played a starring role in the controlled 3-1 demolition of Everton, and won’t provide too much of a long-term block to Emile Smith Rowe’s path to the first team. His versatility is an underrated asset, too. Playing in front of the defence in the first leg against Braga, when we were rocking, he brought serenity and stability and had a hand in all three goals.

The side looks better when he’s in it. He’s made Nicolas Pépé the signing we hoped he would be a year ago, and gives us an option when Granit Xhaka is on a yellow and having one of those days.

But he lacks pace, and is another loan signing  of a 32-year-old, no less. Is that really what we need right now? Yes, in theory he allows Smith Rowe room to develop, but in the here and now, Vázquez is keeping the 20-year-old Academy product out of the team, and his £3.25m annual salary isn’t small change after all.

The bigger problem, though is that Arsenal hasn’t signed Vázquez  at least not in real life. In the real world, the Argentinian remains a) a Sevilla player and b) 31 (and he will be until he’s 32 because that’s how it works). So why am I fretting over his form and fitness?

The answer is that in the world of Football Manager, the game I personally dedicated much time recently to playing, Arsenal has signed Vázquez. He was Mikel Arteta’s first signing in his first full summer in charge. Something has happened to me in lockdown: I have decided to give international football management a go. 

My approach to Football Manager is simple. I start the game unemployed, with a coaching licence, and a slew of languages under my belt  I tend to pick the ones I might, had things gone differently, actually become fluent in  but with no football career of my own to speak of, and work my way up.

I used to regard international football as a tedious adornment to the real business of winning leagues, but a series of tweaks in recent entries have made it a compelling option in its own right, so I’ve taken a role as manager of Belgium’s under-21s.

See also: Jonathan Liew on Covid-19's disruption to the sporting calendar

International football involves a lot of travelling to watch your players, but to my surprise, you can watch any game on Football Manager  you don’t have to have any of your players involved. So, when I don’t have a Red Devils starlet to watch, I’ve started to watch Arsenal’s games.

Why? I can’t even say that it’s particularly good escapism from the real-world travails of Arsenal. Football Manager’s Arsenal is better for a full summer with Arteta at the helm, but the team's familiar weaknesses remain. David Luiz is always capable of a moment of madness, and the team as a whole has a familiar tendency to self-destruct or to make life difficult for itself. Against Roma, the team was a goal and a man up with two minutes played  they ended the tie desperately defending a 2-1 lead. The baffling dissonance between Arsenal’s ability to progress into the latter-stages of the FA Cup and the club’s ability to do the same in literally any other competition, regardless of the quality of opposition, remains. And as the Vázquez signing illustrates, the troubling corporate strategy of Arsenal under our owner Stan Kroenke is as uneven and focused on ageing and expensive stars as it ever was. And they’re not even real.

Yet, somehow, when the virtual Vázquez plays through Alexandre Lacazette to score, I feel happier. I experience a version of the same highs and lows watching a virtual Arsenal, in which the players, manager and opposition are all the product of the same artificial intelligence, as I do watching the real Arsenal, albeit at a lesser pitch.

Crazy, right? Well, up to a point. It’s hard for me to come up with a reason why it is sane and reasonable for me to eff and blind when Arsenal concede in real life, but completely irrational for me to hold my head in my hands when Marcus Rashford scores with his first touch. (I did say that it was horribly close to real life.)

One of the things I feel I’ve done well in lockdown is grow more comfortable with myself, with my own company and eccentricities. It’s mad to feel happy or sad when the real Arsenal win; nonetheless, it adds a rhythm and pleasure to my week. The virtual Arsenal do, too. That’s strange, yes, but I’m learning to live with my strangeness.

See also: Hunter Davies on football without a crowd

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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