Title: Football Manager 2021
Developer: Sports Interactive
Genre: Sports Management Simulation
Available On: PC, Xbox One/Series X/S, Stadia
Version Tested: PC (Steam)
Official Site: footballmanager.com
Release Date: November 24, 2020
It’s the eve of an important cup final for my team. I’ve looked at the opposition report – we’ve beaten them once already this season, but as every fan knows, form goes out of the window in a cup final. I set up the team I think has a good chance of winning, and then the praying begins. Over the course of 120 minutes, there is a flurry of chances for both teams before culminating in a 1-0 defeat.
I should be devastated, but the match I just sat through had me on the edge of my seat like no other Football Manager game before it. It was then I realized something very important – I’d forgotten that I was watching a simulation. Obviously, the graphics were a clear disconnect – this is no FIFA or PES after all – but it was how the game emulated the real-life sport so well that truly surprised me.
Perhaps that is Football Manager 2021’s greatest triumph. The main aim since the dawn of time for sports games has been to deliver the greatest possible representation of their sports – and FM21 may be closer to that goal than any football (or soccer, yes, I know where this website is based) game that has come before.
Beneath The Surface
It all feels so good on screen, from when your team plays perfect one-touch football like prime Barcelona or grinds out a tough result away from home as if you were Jose Mourinho himself, backed up by the amazing feeling that you made that happen. Taking the direct player control (like PES and FIFA) out of the player’s hands and leaving it to your tactical acumen creates a simultaneously rewarding and agonizing feeling for when things go good or bad, and this year’s game improves that further by simplifying the tactical creation process and adding new ways to measure improvement.
There aren’t many headline changes this year with FM21, but the small tweaks all add up to the most satisfying edition of the long-running management sim. While FIFA is slated every year for not innovating enough year-on-year, Football Manager can be painted with the same brush going off of big features alone – but that would be so disingenuous to what is actually here.
xGee, I Wonder How Well I Did
As we move towards the ever-increasing importance of statistical data within sports, it was about time for Sports Interactive to add expected goals (or xG) as a metric in FM21. Simply put, expected goals analyze the quality of chances a team creates and attaches a score based on how likely a player is to score in that scenario. It’s a great way to analyse your performance in a game, and see what areas you need to improve, both in training and the transfer market. For example, you can have 20 shots, but an xG of 0.6 if your shots were particularly low quality. However your opponents may only shoot 4 times all game, but if you give up simple chances, those might add up to an xG higher than yours.
Football Manager always had an obsession with stats, and this year’s game presents it better than previous entries. With a couple of clicks, you can get reports on your performance in xG and per-match stats that can guide you on where to improve. It’s a much more meaningful way to help guide new players on what direction they should take next into building the best side in the world.
Match Made In Heaven
Aside from all of the gameplay nuances in FM21, going in and out of a match has also been dramatically enhanced, with more screens to build up the hype. Match programs displaying line-ups are a nice touch to real-life equivalents, as are the new press conferences, which are now 3D rendered, complete with a new UI that now features gesture reactions that replace the emotions of the past. They still ultimately mean the same thing, but adding context to your words grounds them in reality more, and helps sell your decisions.
However, while the match screen UI has been changed in Football Manager 2021, unfortunately, it has lost some functionality for seemingly no reason at all. Before you used to be able to add and move around each window pane, but now that is restricted to resizing the pop-up “tablet” window, which displays in-game stats and other customizable widgets. Bizarrely though, you no longer have the ability to customize what stats are shown on the left-hand side widget, or even move/remove it, despite the same widget on the right having these things.
Verdict: Aside from those minor issues, Football Manager 2021 delivers the best playing entry in the series to date, and with a comprehensive suite of UI and performance improvements, it all adds up to provide enough staying power to last hundreds or even thousands of hours in gamer’s libraries.
- Matchday experience is the best it's ever been
- Smart additions to UI make managing less fussy
- Some fantastic optimization
- Match UI is (bizarrely) not as customisable as before