While last year's game focused on improving things for the long-term Chris Wilder wannabe – development centre, club vision, etc – Football Manager 2021 implements changes that make it straightforward for anyone to enjoy from the get-go. There isn't a single improvement that steals the headlines, but the culmination of countless small improvements make FM21 a no-brainer upgrade. That's not to say there aren't some, er, questionable design decisions made in this iteration, but as a whole, Football Manager 21 is a more complete package.
Fluid, attacking football
Release date: November 24, 2020
Platform: PC, Mac
Developer: Sports Interactive
Every aspect of Football Manager is vital, from training to transfers, but the place you immediately notice improvements is on the pitch. The game still doesn't flaunt the FIFA-esque visuals plenty of fans desire, but every animation from shots flying into the corner to last-ditch sliding tackles look more fluid and natural.
Player behaviour has gone the same way too. Last year, it would be nothing short of a miracle if a player scored a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Now, the striker is very much favoured, as would be the case in real life. Cutting the ball back across the face of goal has been non-existent in Football Manager for years too with wingers preferring to blast the ball into the side netting, baffling armchair managers everywhere. While that can still happen, you sometimes see a cut back, squaring it to a teammate in front of goal instead. Small improvements like this are seen throughout the course of a match, resulting in a wider range of goals being scored and ultimately more variety and realism. I've even seen multiple players chip the 'keeper, including Mane in the last minute to beat my Manchester United team 3-2...
Outside of match days, the biggest overhaul comes in the form of how you interact with other people, be it your players, the media, agents, and more. If you're speaking to someone in person – for example, answering a question from a journalist or having a one-to-one chat with a player about his concerns – you can select which body language you want to use. Pointing your fingers is assertive, outstretching your arms is welcoming, you get the gist. These do have extremes, like throwing a water bottle during a team talk or banging your fists on the table in a press conference, but for the most part these are the previously seen tones such as passionate, calm, or aggressive simply rebranded.
The layout and design of all interactions has changed too. In team talks, your players are lined up in the shape of a dressing room, to mimic what it'd be like actually speaking to them. It's great for immersion, but makes it harder to see information at a glance, like reactions to your pre-match speech or half-time water bottle hurl. In press conferences, the journalists are laid out as if they were sat on chairs, with the questions bouncing across the screen from one reporter to another as you answer them. While this does make press conferences more visually appealing, the diversity of responses is still incredibly lacklustre and makes for repetitive press conferences once again. Rather than just changing the layout, the entire system needs to be revamped, because speaking to the media is a crucial part of a football manager's job but is frankly boring in-game.
UI, xG, and GG
If I were to list all the minor tweaks and changes to Football Manager 2021, I'd be here all day, but there are a few smaller additions that have proven to be essential during my first full season. Topping the list is xG. If you're an avid football fan, you're familiar with the concept of xG, or "expected goals". This is a stat that analysts use to judge how many scoring opportunities a team has had, so if your team's xG is 1, you're expected to have scored a goal. 2-0 up with an xG of 0.3? You're clinical in your finishing, scoring from unexpected scenarios.
It hasn't been in FM until now but there isn't a chance I can go back to playing without it, because it is so essential to judge how your team is performing. Some aspects are still missing, like the ability to see a specific player's xG-per-90 throughout a season, but when it comes to stats in the middle of a match, it's a lifesaver.
The matchday UI is also significantly changed, intending to put an emphasis on the action and make it more like a TV broadcast. Accessing your tactics and substitutes is now at the bottom of the screen in the "dugout", so you can make quick subs and see your players' fitness levels and morale at a glance.
The problem is that a player’s morale is now represented by a face icon, which means very little compared to the brief descriptions and coloured arrows the series had previously. Knowing how players have reacted to your shouts is much more difficult, because you need to click on each individual to see the word. Apparently a red smiley face means they look complacent, a green smiley face means they're inspired, but a red unhappy face means overwhelmed? It's not game breaking, but does feel like a small step backwards amidst the leaps and bounds forward, trying to fix something that wasn't broken.
A special shout out has to go to how well Sports Interactive have optimised Football Manager 2021. It runs like an absolute dream, even on lower-end machines, with loading and saving times quickened across the board. It's something that will likely go underappreciated since it's not affecting actual gameplay, but is worth mentioning thanks to the vast array of machines and builds people will try to play Football Manager on.
Football Manager 2021 is the most accomplished series entry in years. It's more accessible than ever, there are countless quality-of-life changes that make this iteration feel like a serious breath of fresh air for devotees, and the match engine is the best it’s ever been. There are a number of great minor additions that I haven't mentioned here – pre-transfer window recruitment meetings, removal of percentages for fitness, "regen" player faces looking miles better, to name a few – which all come together to make this a pure delight to play. Our test build features a few minor bugs, like pass maps looking like there are a hundred players on the pitch and the interviewer not turning up for post-match interviews, but in true Sports Interactive fashion, I've little doubt they'll be patched before long. Even with those small flaws it's safe to call Football Manager 2021 the best one yet.