Football Manager 2023: We took a team of the best players not at the World Cup to the World Cup

Some of the world’s best players will not be at the 2022 World Cup.

Erling Haaland, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Mohamed Salah are among those whose nations did not qualify, so I decided to gather them into one team and see how they’d perform using Football Manager 2023.

(I’d already conducted an experiment to see how a team filled with players who were not picked by their countries at the World Cup would perform. To find out the results, click here.)

One rule I gave myself was only being able to select three players per nation. The team — which I’ll refer to as Best of the Rest — ended up being a who’s who of global superstars from 20 different countries.

Because they are all superstars, I tried to make it more difficult for myself by putting them in a ‘Group of Death’ alongside Germany, Japan and Spain, taking the place of Costa Rica in the real tournament.

Here’s how it played out.

The squad

I had 48 players on my shortlist but only space for 26. Most of the squad picked itself.

Federico Chiesa picked up an injury in this save and therefore ruled himself out of contention, which led to an unexpected call-up for Riyad Mahrez.

Jorginho, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wilfred Ndidi, Leon Bailey and Mykhaylo Mudryk were unlucky to miss out. The thought of having to call them to let them know they hadn’t made it filled me with dread. So I texted them.

Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Jan Oblak, Gavin Bazunu

Defenders: Andrew Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Oleksandr Zinchenko, David Alaba, Milan Skriniar, Edmond Tapsoba, Merih Demiral, Mykola Matvienko, Vladimir Coufal, Matt Doherty

Midfielders: Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella, Hakan Calhanoglu, Franck Kessie, Ismael Bennacer, Martin Odegaard

Attackers: Erling Haaland, Victor Osimhen, Mohamed Salah, Luis Diaz, Riyad Mahrez, Dejan Kulusevski, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia


Warm-up game

I felt like Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2006: I had a ‘golden generation’ of talent, but if my debut was anything to go by, I will definitely waste that potential.

We scheduled a tune-up fixture against Ghana, the lowest-ranked side in Qatar. Their squad, however, is not the weakest in the tournament. Even still, this should’ve been a win. But we lost. A penalty from Mohammed Kudus led to a frenzy of media pressure.

As I slinked back to my hotel, I had every major media outlet camped outside demanding answers.

I was on fraud watch. How could I not be?

If we failed to make a deep run, I knew that 10 years from now these players would be releasing autobiographies and selling excerpts to the newspapers all about how I failed them at the 2022 World Cup.

I had eight days to find a solution ahead of our opening game against Spain; eight sleepless nights.


Group stages

First group-stage fixture – Best of the Rest vs Spain 

This is Luis Diaz’s world and everyone else is just living in it. Two goals in the first half from the Colombian winger, coupled with a red card for Spain, had our fans in dreamland.

And then the second half kicked off and it got better: Salah and super-sub Osimhen added gloss to a scoreline that sent shockwaves around the world: 4-0.

FM23 Best of rest squad vs Spain

This was the best result in this team’s history. Granted, we’d only played two fixtures, and one of those was a loss, but still, this was a win that will live long in the memory.

The only downer in an otherwise historic evening was that Haaland barely contributed. I wasn’t worried, but if he was goalless against Germany in our next fixture, I’d have some thinking to do.


Second group-stage fixture – Best of the Rest vs Germany

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A few players were tired, with Barella bordering on being too knackered to start, but I told the lads that if they get the job done against Germany I’d rotate the entire starting XI against Japan.

It was risky, to think ahead when we hadn’t even beaten Germany yet, but my tenure so far was anything but conventional. I felt like a genius and entirely clueless at the same time.

FM23 Best of the rest 2 vs Japan

Barella responded to my promise of a rest by taking a break prematurely — his first-half red put us in a pickle. But Haaland’s header was enough to get a 1-0 victory.

Two games, six points, five goals for and zero conceded. Qualification was secured and that debut defeat against Ghana was a distant memory.


Third group-stage fixture – Best of the Rest vs Japan 

We rotated the full XI and ground out a 2-0 win, courtesy of another goal from Osimhen and a penalty from Kessie, who, for what it’s worth, was this team’s best penalty taker, with a rating of 18/20 in FM23.

FM23 best of the rest 2 vs japan

A largely successful start to the tournament. We’d gone from an underperforming team with doubts about the manager to a high-flying team with doubts about the manager. Next up? Belgium.


Second round – Best of the Rest vs Belgium

If we lost, all goodwill would vanish — history doesn’t care about teams eliminated three rounds before the final.

We won 2-1, but the score doesn’t do us justice. We dominate every phase from start to finish, aside from a sloppy period to start the second half.

fm23 best of the rest vs belgium 2

I could take credit, but when you have Haaland, Salah and Diaz leading the line, tactics are secondary.

I was nothing more than a bystander, happy to ride the coattails of the stars. Serbia now stood in our way.


Quarter-final – Best of the Rest vs Serbia

I’ll admit it. I got cocky. The quarter-final of a World Cup and I was resting players as if a place in the semi-final was a guarantee. It wasn’t.

All the outfield players were rested. Only Oblak remained. I’d probably have got the sack and been a laughing stock if we lost, but the media don’t really hold me in high regard anyway, so who cares if they pile on?

FM23 best of the rest vs Serbia 2

The plan to rest my starters backfired when we trailed 1-0 at half-time, prompting five changes that brought two goals in the second half: 2-1. Haaland picked up a knock but should be back in time for the semi-final.

There were questions about my management style, but it was me, and not my critics, in charge of a side two games away from immortality.


Semi-final – Best of the Rest vs Denmark 

Somehow The Athletic’s reporters got wind of our starting line-up four hours before kick-off. It became known that I would revert to my strongest XI. But just when they thought they had me figured out, I threw a curveball and substituted five players again at half-time when we were 1-0 up.

Those replacements, led by Osimhen, who bagged a second-half hat-trick, responded in the best possible fashion and the game ended 4-0.

FM23 Best of the rest WC semi final

Nobody could quite work out what my policy for team selection was. Even I didn’t know. Was this part of my plan all along? I honestly had no clue, but the media didn’t need to know that.

Heading into the final, it was Osimhen, and not Haaland, who was our top scorer, with five goals. If we beat Spain then one of the flukiest and most clueless managers in world football would soon join an exclusive group of actually competent managers.


Final – Best of the Rest vs Spain 

Leading up to the final, I’d only used the same starting XI on three occasions. For the biggest game of my nascent managerial career, I had no choice but to revert to the 11 players who coasted past Spain in the group stage.

I wish I could pretend this game was in any way interesting. But it wasn’t. Haaland had a goal disallowed, but for the most part, it was tedious. Even I was bored. However, a late winner from Salah made the boring 91 minutes preceding that moment worth it.

FM23 best of the rest wc final vs spain

All of a sudden, I had gone from a laughing stock novice to a history-maker. My name was linked with clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona. But I took the drastic step: I retired.

(Top photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)

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