What is it? A football management sim with a database used by actual football managers.
Expect to pay: $50/£40
Developer: Sports Interactive
Reviewed on: i7 9700K, RTX 2080 Ti, 16GB RAM
Since it began back in the day-glo kitted ‘90s, Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series (née Championship Manager) has walked a fine line between showing you what’s happening and leaving you to fill in the blanks. It’s easy for those outside its gravitational pull to take the piss out of all the spreadsheets and a match engine that still can’t match PS2-era FIFA, but they’re missing the point. FM’s great trick is in getting you to believe so deeply in its world that your imagination pours into all the cracks.
Which is all well and good. But when Football Manager 2021 comes along and brings with it a newly detail-rich match engine and sports data analysis figures that quash any ambiguity about your tactics, the seasoned manager is faced with a bit of a culture shock. You’re no longer envisioning the exact shimmy by which Jaden Sancho found the space to ping in the Champions League final-winning cross, you’re seeing it verbatim. It isn’t quite Dylan Goes Electric, but it’s a landmark moment in the series nonetheless.
And, in case there’s any ambiguity, a positive one at that. Because although there was a lot of charm in FM’s ethereal nature when it came to which tactics worked and which got you thumped so badly you rage-quit, reloaded, added a new manager called ‘Revenge, You Tw*ts’, gave them the job at your opposing club then sold all their good players and put a youth team striker in goal - sorry, I got locked in there. Although there was charm in its mystery, there was a lot of frustration too.
There’s nowhere for inefficient or nonsensical tactical systems to hide now. You can see where they break down, via an initially befuddling array of heatmaps and graphs which show the areas your players are covering, where passes are going astray, why you’re not getting crosses into the box, and, in those rarest moments, why you’re belting everyone who visits your home turf.
Because you’re given newfound power to discover the inner workings of formations and tactics, it’s no longer enough to just sign incredible players, send them out onto the pitch and expect them to trot back to the dressing room with three points. Honestly, you can have Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar in your starting eleven, but if they’re not getting the balls delivered to them even a mid-table outfit like Arsenal can shut them down.
FM21 makes this path towards tactical enlightenment a bit easier on you via some UI tweaks and a more involved tutorial phase. Upon taking over a new club, you’re invited to build a tactical approach from scratch. This starts not with a formation, but a philosophy: the death-by-passing Tiki-taka used by Barca and the Spanish national side to such great effect in the noughties. Klopp’s Gegenpress. Or the League Two purity of Route One. Each approach requires different talents from your squad beyond their positions, relating to specific roles - if your full-backs are the stay at home types, you’d be unwise to build a tactic based around them sprinting up and down the pitch, overlapping wingers and getting involved in attacks.
Your backroom staff makes a few suggestions as to which approaches and formations best suit your current squad, but as ever you’re free (and often wise) to disagree with them completely. After all, perhaps you’ve plans to bring in some fresh talent to enforce a new system altogether.
And when you do, another of FM21’s significant changes rears its head. Agents can now be approached directly to strike up transfer talks, and while they’ve had individual personalities and opinions of you for many editions, those stats and values carry new weight this year. Because if you can forge a good relationship with just one of these dreadful, bloodsucking parasites, a whole portfolio of players becomes a bit easier to sign. Agents can quickly take the temperature of a potential transfer, letting you know if there’s any interest from the player and what their salary demands might be. There’s no point nickel-and-diming a transfer fee with the manager if your target has no intention of moving, after all.
It’s not just agent relationships that count, of course. As odd as it sounds, this year’s update lets you add gestures to your interactions, in addition to the classic tone-of-voice options (in seven years as Fulham manager in FM13 I don’t think I uttered a single word that wasn’t ‘assertive’). So if you’re really angry with your primadonnas in the dressing room, you can literally kick a water bottle now to get the point across.
These are all welcome features, and they contribute to a greater level of depth in a series you’d need James Cameron and his mini-sub to chart the depths of. But what they also contribute to is the scourge of the FM career: Wading Through Treacle Syndrome. Getting through a calendar week used to take about four clicks in the CM days: now it’ll take you through a national lockdown. There’s so much information in here, and FM21 just doesn’t know which of it is really pertinent. Dealing with dressing room rebellions and post-match interviews gets tedious enough after a few months, but as time goes on they’re punctuated by stories in your inbox about a player you shortlisted seven years ago pulling his hamstring. It’s within your power to unsubscribe from a lot of the FM-spam, but that’s a chore in itself. Sports Interactive has been shrewd about adding valuable features in recent years - now maybe it’s time to grease the cogs of its enormous machine for an easier passage of time between matches.
And yet the urge to get to the next match is as strong as ever. Perhaps /more/ than ever, actually, thanks to that revised match engine. You can see the difference in quality between League Two football and a top flight match, and between the weakest and strongest players on the pitch, like never before.
For another year, then, Sports Interactive somehow makes a compelling case to go back to the franchise you probably spent 500 hours on last year. The differences might look subtle to an outsider, but they change your decision-making on a profound level. Even though it’s more of a slog than ever to clear your inbox every week, FM21 continues its winning streak.