Review

Football Manager 2021 review: a much needed escape to football fantasy

4/5

The impact of Covid-19 could have lead to a transitional entry of the famous sim, but Sports Interactive has produced its finest performance

FM21
Football Manager 2021 is out now for PC and Xbox

Despite its extraordinary detail and intrinsic link to the real world, Football Manager remains one of the finest fantasy video games there is. How else is it that I can create a glorious alternate reality in which --instead of my beloved Watford being miserably relegated at an empty Emirates Stadium in the midst of a global pandemic-- Norwegian wunderkind Erling Braut Haaland instead fired my Hornets to a spectacular domestic double double in front of thousands of fans?

The Champions League remained elusive, alas, as I escaped into the previous Football Manager as a glorious respite from real world travails both on and off the pitch. What’s striking about Football Manager 2021 is that developer Sports Interactive needed to deal with these particular issues on an altogether more profound level. Covid-19 not only led to the brunt of the game’s development being done remotely, but changed the face of football as we know it.

So where to go with that? A conundrum the game’s director Miles Jacobson addressed by (rightly) saying: “people have always used FM to create their own fantasy world and now, more than ever, they need something to take them away from reality… not to remind them of it.”

What a fine job it does. Coronavirus exists only as a ghost in FM21; fans pile into stadiums, squads are not ravaged with illness or periods of self-isolation, press conferences notably take place in packed media rooms rather than on Zoom (more on that later). But a dedication to realism remains, with the fixture list shunted back to our current melee and many clubs facing the harsh realities of the financial impact. Depending on your choice of club; budgets may not be what you are used to.

And so it was I found myself yet again in charge of Watford, facing the double-whammy of relegation to the Championship, a non-existent transfer budget and a clutch of players looking to move on. Any thought that the lack of Covid might strip FM21 of its latent realism was put to one side as I had to revisit the (very real) stress of will he/won’t he transfer sagas involving Ismaila Sarr and other star players. The bewildering balancing act of trimming the wage budget, keeping antsy players happy and retaining a squad strong enough for a promotion push.

You can now set up recruitment meetings with the club hierarchy to discuss potential transfers

It remains a remarkable pleasure that FM is capable of producing such different challenges and varying narratives. While the game is constantly getting better at telling those stories, bringing more humanity to a game sometimes pejoratively described as a glorified spreadsheet. Last year’s ‘club vision’ was a major introduction that untangled the different priorities of different clubs, allowing you to build a variety of narratives. This remains key (perhaps even more so, given the financial differences) and there is no similar grand change to FM21. Instead, the game is an impressive smorgasbord of smaller changes that focus on two things: bringing more humanity to your day-to-day operations and more pizzazz to match-day.

Most eye-catching of which is a new ‘gestures’ system, which allows you to display more specific body language when talking to players and press than the previously broader ‘aggressive’, ‘assertive’ and ‘passionate’. Now you can storm into a dressing room and throw water bottles, or bang the table during a presser. In private chats with players you might offer an arm around the shoulder or a pat on the back, depending on your relationship and intention. You might argue it is window dressing, and to a certain extent it is, but it also comes with more feedback. Press conferences, in particular, are more in depth. Now the attendant media are laid out in front of you and react to each of your answers differently, while your press officer will give you a feeling of the atmosphere in the room. Club execs will also encourage you to answer or avoid certain topics.

Media questioning and team talks are still a little repetitive, if given an overdue rewrite, but as a whole these changes give a more layered and nuanced edge to conversations that can have an impact on players performance and relationships. It can have a greater impact in the transfer market too, with you able to directly approach agents to see if a prospective signee fancies the move before you lodge any enquiries with the club. Dangerously close to tapping up, perhaps, but an option clearly exercised in the real world, with players becoming more open about pre-transfer chats as they explore their options.

The match day interface has had a significant overhaul

Ultimately, of course, most FM players are in it for the match day and FM21 has had a noticeable overhaul. The most useful information is now spread more thickly over the top of the match engine. Alongside quick access to subs, tactics and shouts; player’s fitness and performance are stacked across the bottom for you to peruse at all times.

It makes it much easier to see how things are panning out for individuals over the course of the game, although with some concessions. A player’s on-pitch mood is now represented by emojis of sorts, with colour codes giving you an at a glance idea of their body language. You need to click on an individual player to get more information, and whether that red sad face means nervous or frustrated, but having it to hand without having to delve into another menu is undoubtedly a boon. More abstract icons have replaced percentages for fitness and match sharpness, which I was initially sniffy about. But it is probably a closer recreation of picking your players if they seem ‘fresh’ rather than agonising over picking a 97% fit second stringer because your star man is at 91%.

Everything is just more accessible and neatly organised, even if some changes will take veteran players a period of adjustment. You have ‘The Dugout’ across the middle, with your coaching staff offering up tactical advice and your ‘Tablet’ to the right which highlights useful statistics. And for the football nerd, you now have access to the in vogue expected goals (xG) stat which can help give you a rounder picture of your overall performance.

The match engine is noticeably improved too. That visuals are better and animations are smoother is a given for an annual update, but there have been important changes to the AI and action. Strikers one-on-one with the keeper are far less likely to blow it and pea-roll a shot and the goalkeeper’s shins; as was their wont in FM20. While wingers who squirrel their way for the byline will look to square the ball rather than smashing it into the side-netting, as was their wont in FM20.

Given the turbulence that would affect development of any game, let alone one that is so intrinsically linked to real-world ramifications, you could forgive FM21 for being a somewhat less comprehensive update. Instead it is a game that is both more accessible to newcomers and even deeper for old hands. Most importantly it continues to improve in its storytelling and humanity, providing a richer escape to fantasy football at a time we need it the most.