We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve all imagined best XIs for the leagues we followed, perhaps poaching stars we loathe (but grudgingly respect) from rival teams or wondering just how much better Player X would be if Player Y were pulling the strings behind him.
And would a Premier League XI really wipe the floor with everyone? Or would they invariably bow to the might of Lionel Messi and La Liga? Or the rumble of Cristiano Ronaldo and Serie A? What if you could combine the green gunslingers of Borussia Dortmund with the seasoned winners of Bayern Munich, tossing in a smattering of Kai Havertz and pinch of Timo Werner? How devastating would Kylian Mbappe and Neymar be with a supporting cast drawn from all over Ligue 1?
What of the other leagues? How does the cream of Major League Soccer stack up against the European elites? What about Liga MX? Or, indeed, Brazil‘s Serie A, that inexhaustible conveyor belt of talent?
Eight of us got that opportunity. Eight of us were charged with creating and turning that dream into reality — well, FIFA 20 simulation. We got to pick our 23-man squad, just like any manager before an international tournament and figure out our best XI. There were some ground rules, of course: no more than four from any single club in the 18-man matchday squad and no more than seven from one club in the full 23-man squad. That was a way of pushing us, of forcing us to make tough choices rather than taking the easy route of picking a Liverpool– or Flamengo-based XI. It also offered a slightly better sense of a league’s depth, rewarding those that are a little less top-heavy.
We didn’t just pick the players, either. We chose the formation, the tactical approach, the set-piece takers, whether or not to press. By the time we got into it, we were so jazzed up I found myself giving a team talk to my laptop screen.
It got nervy too because, fundamentally, while we’re all colleagues and all respect one another, we’re also competitive. Mark Ogden, in charge of the Premier League, knew everybody was gunning for him. Nicky Bandini and Sid Lowe, charged with picking the perfect supporting cast for Ronaldo and Messi respectively, sweated over their choices. Julien Laurens did most of the trash-talking and even dressed up as his alter ego, Georges Clopp (nope, me neither). Tom Marshall quietly drew up nefarious counterattacking plans based around the raw speed of Enner Valencia, and Noah Davis unearthed MLS gems. As for Gustavo Hofmann’s Brasileirao, we had no idea what to expect as he channeled his inner Jorge Jesus.
Me? I went back and forth over whether there was a way to play Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland together, and whether Denis Zakaria was any good or whether I simply liked him because he didn’t play for Dortmund or Bayern. (That limit of four from one team was a killer, like I said.)
The die is cast. The Rubicon has been crossed. We’re in our groups, knowing that half of us are going home after the round-robin stage. We’re not just playing for nations, we’re playing for the hundreds of millions of fans around the globe who support a particular league. No pressure there then, none whatsoever.
May the Gods of the FIFA 20 code be merciful with us … and let the Battle of the Leagues commence! — Gab Marcotti
THE RULES / THE FORMAT / HOW THIS WORKS
As Gab mentioned, the rules were strict with regard to stacking each team from the best clubs, with tournament squad and matchday restrictions on the number of players from one team forcing the managers to be creative and free-thinking in their approaches to each game.
We entered their squad selections manually to get all their chosen players into the eight squads — managers were also allowed to pick which kit their teams played in — and then simulated the games, computer vs. computer, for seven-minute halves to determine the winners. With eight teams, we randomly drew the two groups of four for the first stage, with everyone playing each other once. The top two in each group went through to the semifinals, with the winner of A taking on the runner-up of B and the winner of B facing the runner-up of A. Games were set to end in 90 minutes for the group stage, with extra time and penalties active for the knockout rounds.
Group A: Premier League (Mark Ogden), Major League Soccer (Noah Davis), Italian Serie A (Nicky Bandini), Liga MX (Tom Marshall)
Group B: German Bundesliga (Gab Marcotti), La Liga (Sid Lowe), Ligue 1 (Julien Laurens), Brazilian Serie A (Gustavo Hofman)
What was Gab talking about when it comes to customization? We gave the managers every possible option in the regular game mode of FIFA 20 when it came to building their teams and their tactics. They had 33 formations to choose from (the max in the regular mode; FUT formations were excluded for this tournament) as well as five clear defensive styles and four offensive styles for their teams to adopt in each game. (The managers were obviously allowed to start fresh in each game when it came to these customizations.)
The five defensive styles: Balanced (press in midfield, fairly neutral setup); Pressure on heavy touch (aggressive play high up the pitch to force turnovers); Press after losing ball (team will apply pressure for 7-8 seconds following a turnover); Constant pressure (think “heavy metal football”); and Drop back/allow opponent possession (team will sit deep and play on the counter).
(An additional customization on defense was offered for how deep they chose to defend on a 1-10 scale, with 1=deep block and 10=high line.)
The four offensive styles: Balanced (players make support runs into space as needed); Long ball (think “English football in the 1980s”); Fast build-up (quick transition and get up field as soon as possible); and Possession/slow build-up (more intricate and controlled passing to create space).
In addition, managers were able to make additional tweaks including the number of players in the box for corners and free kicks (on a 1-5 scale as in FIFA 20, with 1=fewest and 5=most) as well as the general strategy for number of players making runs into the box during open play (on a 1-10 scale, with 1=fewest and 10=most as in the game). Finally, managers got to select their set-piece takers (corner from the right, corner from the left, free kicks and penalties).
All information was entered into a Google form by each manager so nobody could see or have early access to their opponents’ tactics.
Game on! — James Tyler and Rob Moore
Gab Marcotti defends his Bundesliga team will entering ESPN FC’s Battle of the Leagues in a South African kit.
THE SQUADS AND OPENING WORDS FROM THE MANAGERS
Once the squads were submitted, we asked each of our managers to explain their choices before the tournament began.
Mark Ogden’s Premier League
My squad highlights the true depth of the Premier League and the quality of players from top to bottom. In other leagues like La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga, the concentration of the best players at the biggest clubs leads to a less competitive division, but in England, you can select from the likes of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Norwich and still find players capable of performing against the best.
This squad possesses flair players and destroyers, goal scorers and creators, and does not need to rely on the top stars from Liverpool and Manchester City to make it capable of beating every other major league.
Chosen kit: Manchester United
GK: Ederson (Man City), Rui Patricio (Wolves), Martin Dubravka (Newcastle United)
DF: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Man United), Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Aymeric Laporte (Man City), James Tarkowski (Burnley), Ben Chilwell (Leicester City), Luke Shaw (Man United)
MF: Kevin De Bruyne (Man City), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), Emiliano Buendia(Norwich City), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Ruben Neves (Wolves), Etienne Capoue (Watford), Bruno Fernandes (Man United), Bernardo Silva (Man City)
FW: Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
Nicky Bandini’s Serie A
Leave your tired stereotypes about Italian soccer at the door: This is a squad built to score goals. How could it not be, in the year when Atalanta‘s attack was the talk of Europe and Lazio‘s strike rate was not far behind? Lautaro Martinez was a painful cut, but there are only so many strikers a team can carry. Ronaldo is undroppable and Ciro Immobile is averaging more than one goal per game. Romelu Lukaku edged out his Inter teammate, Martinez. I went back and forth for a long time between Paulo Dybala and Dries Mertens, too.
My first instinct was that we should line up with a three-man defence, following the lead of three teams I have drawn on heavily: Lazio, Inter and Atalanta. But including Aleksandar Kolarov and Giovanni Di Lorenzo means we have some flexibility to use a back four and potentially get some more of that attacking talent on the pitch.
Balance, I’ll be honest, is a concern. Can Ronaldo really coexist with these other forwards? Will Papu Gomez and Luis Alberto tread on each other’s toes? Lucas Leiva might have some lonely shifts in front of the defence, but I think the rest of us will have fun.
Chosen kit: Atalanta
GK: Samir Handanovic (Inter), Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus), Salvatore Sirigu (Torino)
DF: Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Milan Skriniar (Inter), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Stefan De Vrij (Inter), Manuel Lazzari (Lazio), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Robin Gosens (Atalanta), Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma)
MF: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), Miralem Pjanic (Juventus), Lucas Leiva (Lazio), Papu Gomez (Atalanta), Josip Ilicic (Atalanta), Luis Alberto (Lazio)
FW: Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus), Romelu Lukaku (Inter), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Paulo Dybala (Juventus)
Mark Ogden backs his Premier League team to win Group A in ESPN FC’s Battle of the Leagues.
Tom Marshall’s Liga MX
It has been all about trying to find a balance. Going up against leagues in Group A that are stronger on paper than Liga MX means I’ve had to find solutions to try to both contain some of the world’s best attacking players and still be able to do some damage at the other end of the field through counter-attacking football and set pieces. On the other side of the coin, I need enough flair players in the squad to be able to overpower the suspect defense that MLS is sure to roll out.
Northern powerhouse Tigres has seven players in the 23, and rival Monterrey isn’t far behind on four. There is good experience overall and almost half the squad have played in Europe at some point. If the players get their heads down and focus, there’s a chance this Liga MX squad could cause a major upset in Group A.
Chosen kit: Club Leon
GK: Guillermo Ochoa (Club America), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres), Jonathan Orozco (Santos Laguna)
DF: Oscar Murillo (Pachuca), Bruno Valdez (Club America), Igor Lichnovsky (Cruz Azul), Pablo Aguilar (Cruz Azul), Miguel Layun (Monterrey), Luis Rodriguez (Tigres), Leonel Vangioni (Monterrey)
MF: Angel Mena (Leon), Brian Lozano (Santos Laguna), Roberto Alvarado (Cruz Azul), Isaac Brizuela (Chivas), Rafael Carioca (Tigres), Guido Pizarro (Tigres), Luis Montes (Leon), Jesus Gallardo (Monterrey)
FW: Rogelio Funes Mori (Monterrey), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Tigres), Jonathan Rodriguez (Cruz Azul), Enner Valencia (Tigres), Eduardo Vargas (Tigres)
Noah Davis’ Major League Soccer
The overarching philosophy was to pick the best players in the league. Brilliant stuff, I know. Is there a Manager of the Tournament trophy? Asking for a friend. Carlos Vela is the best player in the league, so he’s the starting point. Higher player ratings in MLS generally skew toward attacking players — you have to scroll way down the list before you find any fullbacks — so it’s a relatively offense-oriented squad.
One decision that fans might question is Michael Bradley over Diego Chara. While the latter has a higher rating, he would be the fifth Portland Timbers player selected and the most replaceable. I’ve watched Bradley play for years and I’m hoping that his intangibles translate into digital form. Plus, I don’t expect either one of them to play anyway, so whatever.
We are the underdog here. We could play conservatively, try to minimize the talent gap, and squeak through with a bit of luck. Or we could go for it, play Serie A’s best straight up, have a bit of fun, and maybe make some memories. Since I’m unfireable, we’re going with the latter. We’re pressing after we lose the ball — I assume we’ll have the ball at some point –building quickly from the back, striking fast.
We’re running a 3-4-3, tilted toward attacking because we’d rather lose 4-1 than 1-0. Captain/free-kick taker/all-around stud Vela and Josef Martinez lead the line with Cristian Pavon providing a youthful injection of pace. (We’re saving Chicharito for our matchup against Liga MX.) The midfield is a Portland Timbers trio (Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, and Yimmi Chara) with an Alejandro Pozuelo sidecar. Our backline is three center backs: Walker Zimmerman, Ike Opara, and Aaron Long. Who needs fullbacks anyway?
If we go down, we go down fighting. Thermopylae.
Chosen kit: Seattle Sounders
GK: Kenneth Vermeer (LAFC), Eloy Room (Columbus Crew SC), Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders)
DF: Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Ike Opara (Minnesota United FC), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), Jorge Moreira (Portland Timbers), Ali Adnan (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Emiliano Insua (LA Galaxy)
MF: Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto FC), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers), Jonathan Dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Yimmi Chara (Portland Timbers), Sebastian Blanco (Portland Timbers), Pedro Santos (Columbus Crew SC), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
FW: Carlos Vela (LAFC), Josef Martinez (Atlanta United FC), Nani (Orlando City SC), Cristian Pavon (LA Galaxy), Javier Hernandez (LA Galaxy)
Gabriele Marcotti’s Bundesliga
The limit of four per club in the match day squad implies some tough choices, but I squeezed in Thiago and Achraf Hakimi in the stands in case we have injuries. It meant, of course, that guys like Serge Gnabry, Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels aren’t there, but that’s OK because I feel we have depth in attacking midfield and central defense, and Yann Sommer isn’t that far behind in goal.
I like the flexibility too with many of these guys — I can put Werner up top with Robert Lewandowski, move David Alaba to left-back or Lukas Klostermann to centre-back. I wanted to have my game-changers out there and then populate the rest of the team with versatile guys. Bas Dost, obviously, is a sentimental choice.
Chosen kit: Kaiser Chiefs (we don’t know why either)
GK: Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach), Peter Gulacsi (RB Leipzig), Alexander Nubel (Schalke)
DF: Lukas Klostermann (RB Leipzig), Niklas Sule (Bayern), David Alaba (Bayern), Jerome Roussillon (Wolfsburg), Dayot Upamecano (RB Leipzig), Salif Sane (Schalke), Achraf Hakimi (Borussia Dortmund)
MF: Joshua Kimmich (Bayern) Axel Witsel (Dortmund), Marco Reus (Dortmund), Jadon Sancho (Dortmund), Kai Havertz (Leverkusen), Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach), Charles Aranguiz (Bayer Leverkusen), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern), Filip Kostic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
FW: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern), Erling Haaland (BVB), Bas Dost (Eintracht Frankfurt), Timo Werner (RBL)
Gustavo Hofman’s Brazilian Serie A
The team structure is based on Flamengo, Grêmio, Palmeiras, Internacional and Santos: There is no Corinthians team in FIFA 20. We have a mix of talent young and experienced players, also respecting the limit to select from each club. Fast forwards, high-quality midfielders and strong defenders. Our idea is to have a balanced team, playing at high tempo and pressing the ball when we lose it. The initial chosen tactic is the 4-3-3 at offense, with one very good passer as the only defensive midfielder to provide a good transition. Compact blocks at defense are our basic requirement for the players. We are the underdogs, but it’s possible to dream.
Chosen kit: Gremio
GK: Weverton (Palmeiras), Vanderlei (Grêmio), Thiago Volpi (São Paulo)
DF: Daniel Alves (São Paulo), Rafinha (Flamengo), Filipe Luís (Flamengo), Caio Henrique (Grêmio), Pedro Geromel (Grêmio), Gustavo Gómez (Palmeiras), Lucas Veríssimo (Santos), Víctor Cuesta (Internacional)
MF: Matheus Henrique (Grêmio), Tchê Tchê (São Paulo), Gérson (Flamengo), Edenílson (Internacional), Éverton Ribeiro (Flamengo), Giorgian de Arrascaeta (Flamengo), Carlos Sánchez (Santos)
FW: Bruno Henrique (Flamengo), Everton (Grêmio), Dudu (Palmeiras), Gabriel Barbosa (Flamengo), Paolo Guerrero (Internacional)
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti plans to hex Sid Lowe and his Group B competitors in the Battle of the Leagues.
Julien Laurens’ Ligue 1
This squad is built with what Ligue 1 has the best to offer. There are world-class players and more low-key ones. There is youth but also experience, some physical players but also very good technical ones. There is a lot of leadership in there too, with some strong characters.
There are five Paris Saint-Germain players in the squad, although picking only five was tough. Lyon and Monaco are also heavily represented, which again is a fair representation of the league. Neymar and Kylian Mbappé are obviously the standout players, but pairing the French superstar with Wissam Ben Yedder could be lethal, while there will be plenty of creativity with the likes of Neymar, Houssem Aouar, Cesc Fabregas, Florian Thauvin and Gelson Martins, whose pace will be very handy too.
The great thing about this squad is its versatility. Those players can adapt and play in different styles and formations. They will be very pragmatic. They will be hard to play against but we will have a strong collective and fluidity in their play.
Chosen kit: Paris Saint-Germain
GK: Stephane Ruffier (Saint-Etienne), Benjamin Lecomte (AS Monaco), Geronimo Rulli (Montpellier)
DF: Youcef Atal (Nice), Kenny Lala (Strasbourg), Juan Bernat (Paris Saint-Germain), Malang Sarr (Nice), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), Jason Denayer (Lyon), Laurent Koscielny (Bordeaux), Lucas Perrin (Marseille)
MF: Thiago Mendes (Lyon), Tiemoué Bakayoko (AS Monaco), Cesc Fabregas (AS Monaco), Yann M’Vila (Saint-Etienne), Hossem Aouar (Lyon), Florian Thauvin (Marseille)
FW: Gelson Martins (AS Monaco), Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain), Memphis Depay (Lyon), Wissam Ben Yedder (Toulouse FC)
Sid Lowe’s La Liga
Computer games? What are those? There will be “managers” (ahem) who look at the stats and the ratings and chose console formations, but what where’s the fun in that? Instead, here’s a team that takes the best of La Liga this season, (mostly) the people who are actually playing well not just the ones whose numbers are good on screen.
It takes quite a lot of it, too: 11 clubs are represented. What’s the point of four clubs accounting for the whole thing? Oh, and it’s chosen with a bit of feeling as well, some heart. Because, well, that’s what this manager wants. And what any decent people would. Symbolism as well as sport.
A 4-3-3 formation is our basic approach. Funnily enough, just as some teams were allowed to break rules and others weren’t, the simulator doesn’t actually allow for the *kind* of 4-3-3 wanted — yet another spoke stuck in Spanish wheels by the clear and shameful conspiracy launched by our evil overlords at ESPN — but that’s what it is. And so from that basis, it was about choosing a balanced squad of players that could work around that, each with their own particular qualities.
The first handwritten list, with help from a small assistant manager who didn’t always agree, was almost 30 players long. But here’s the final list. We’ve got Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique at the back (although the form they’ve been in, Djene, Gabriel and Ezequiel Garay might even be better), attacking full-backs (Yuri Berchiche and Marc Cucurella on the left; Jesus Navas, Kieran Trippier on the right), Jan Oblak in goal and arguably *the* three outstanding players in Spain this season among the men for the midfield: Casemiro, Santi Cazorla and Martin Odegaard. Plus Dani Parejo, Saul and Luka Modric. Tasty.
Up front is Lionel Messi, of course, and Luis Suarez, the man who still manages to be underrated, with Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Inaki Williams as the options to go with them. Whoosh. Mind you, it was tempting to put Bale at left-back.
We’re looking good and in that kit, all the more so.
Chosen kit: Real Oviedo
GK: Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid), Fernando Pacheco (Alaves), David Soria (Getafe CF)
DF: Yuri Berchiche (Athletic Bilbao), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid), Ezequiel Garay (Valencia CF), Gabriel (Valencia CF), Jesus Navas (Sevilla FC), Djene (Getafe CF)
MF: Dani Parejo (Valencia CF), Casemiro (Real Madrid), Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Santi Cazorla (Villarreal CF), Saul (Atletico Madrid), Martin Odegaard (Real Sociedad), Marc Cucurella (Getafe CF)
FW: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid), Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Inaki Williams (Athletic Club), Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)