As I prepare for the 2021 season, I’m surprisingly busy with an Argentine’s right leg. Maxi Moralez is absent from practice this preseason with an MCL injury and a sprain in the final quarter of last year, and I miss his influence both on the court and in the locker room. As the new, completely unsuspecting manager of NYCFC, I had relied on frasquito to document the mistakes I would inevitably make in my first season as football manager in 2021.
I’ll attribute this to Football Manager 2021: It made me a football fan, which I think Sports Interactive can be pretty proud of. As an American, my contact with football (and therefore also with football games) was very limited. Here the sport is still viewed with a certain amount of suspicion and referred to as “soccer” – this is to distinguish it from American soccer, which is a game in which armored men carry and throw a ball that falls into the gaps between Long stretches of advertising are taking place for low carb beer, defense companies and treatments for erectile dysfunction.
While my experience with football isn’t inherently in-depth, I’ve made it my business to understand the sport since we wrote about Football Manager 2021. I’ve led medieval dynasties through simulation games like Crusader Kings III, how much harder running could a football club be? Given the opportunity to review this year’s version of the most important soccer game, I wanted to find answers to the following questions: Can you learn soccer first by playing Football Manager? Second, is it worth anything if you’ve never played before? Finally, is this year’s edition adding anything to enhance that experience?
I am pleased to announce that the answer to all of these questions is yes, although it is not an unconditional yes. As in most years, veterans of the series will find all the essentials right where they left them – FM21 is very similar to FM20, which I have been told is very similar to previous soccer managers.
According to Sports Interactive, this year’s focus is on you – the newly minted manager of the football organization you choose. This has resulted in a multitude of changes affecting much of the game, though many of them subtly have no immediate impact on the moment-to-moment experience of replying to emails, browsing prospects and tactics and Select teams.
The focus this year is on you, the newly minted manager of the football club you have chosen
The new ‘Quick Chats’ and ‘Gestures’ systems are interesting enough on paper, but they are both a bit unreliable in the beta version of FM21 that I played. An assistant coach might suggest that I speak to a player about his or her development, but this option isn’t always available when I start a conversation. Gestures – like throwing water bottles through the locker room – suffer from vagueness in many cases that have often made their use more frustrating than the simpler sound system of the past. It’s a problem that also occurs with the touchline calls – what exactly do I say when I “encourage” a player? Football Manager is about role-playing, and this ambiguity in communication can seriously hamper this aspect of the game.
While I like the idea of gestures in concept, in practice I find that they require a different level of interpretation in order to be used effectively. They don’t add clarity to the game, but add another level of darkness to the one aspect of football that I should understand intuitively: people communicating with each other.
What does clarify, however, is the newly introduced xG (Expected Goals) statistic, which tracks your team’s performance in games with a much more helpful granularity than the score can reflect. XG is calculated based on player position, teammate position, ball height, and a host of other variables that the match engine keeps crunching. XG tells a fuller story about your team’s time on the field, even if your players end the day without a goal.
Many of the concerns I had while playing the beta version of FM21 were peacefully resolved with the arrival of the day one patch. An illegible pass card that used to appear at halftime has been replaced with the much more helpful shots on the target card, and the touchline controls that allow me to issue shouts, individual instructions, and substitutions for my squad now work like a charm.
In this year’s Match Engine, I find that everything comes together – even if it is not without its own shortcomings in the beta phase. There are still places where the graphics engine is struggling to interpret the underlying math, and players are still spinning like mannequins without moving their feet when throwing in, for example. The overall effect of this year’s improvements, however, is to create a much more lifelike simulation of watching a real soccer game: the animations are much smoother, and players seem to be making more realistic decisions about their positioning in the formation.
Perhaps most importantly, the movement of the ball itself has been vastly improved. This, perhaps more than any other single factor, is the reason FM21’s match engine crosses the line of truthfulness for me, to the point where I most often felt compelled to watch full matches at normal speed, rather than accelerated highlights. I imagine you need to see this in action to understand what I mean here, and it may not work for everyone.
FM21 achieves a critical mass of realism, which means that I have a cup of coffee on game day and let myself in for the duration
For me, FM21 meets a critical mass of realism that makes it clear that the best way to learn about my team is to see them in action and apply them from the sidelines as training, mental readiness and interpersonal dynamics watching (and often yelling) all come together for a single performance. When it’s game day, I like to tilt my chair back, have a large cup of coffee and make myself comfortable for the long run.
My current season, as the manager of Bath City FC, I’ve taken the reins to meet my colleagues in the hometown of PCGamesN in weird ways. The Bath troop, a ragged gang of semi-professionals with a few grizzled veterans and a neglected youth organization, got off to a difficult start with me when I managed to give a thoroughly depressing introductory speech on my first day at work. I had mildly suggested that we lower expectations for the season and try to make it to the knockout round of the Regional Cup, and the players hated my bravery – they felt like I was ambitious and, worse, disrespectful to me their hard work and skills.
It took months – almost all of the preseason – to regain her confidence and mend the noxious atmosphere I had brought into the locker room. Tried to be an encouraging soccer dad from the sidelines which only managed to further disillusion the squad. Inspirational speeches before friendly matches were greeted with yawns. It wasn’t until I started pulling the players aside to criticize poor performance in training – and assert myself as they pushed back – that some of the team leaders began to believe that I might be worth their time. I made some adjustments to the training schedule to give our goalkeeper an extra focus on technique and we worked on our cruel pass. The mood at the club improved and I was even able to sign a few promising central defenders to deepen a blatant weakness on the bench. The mentoring group began to pay off and more of the boys were spending their free time together.
Connected: The best management games on PC
One of the last games of the preseason is against Haringey Borough. The team had improved, but still wasn’t quite gelled. I decided to replace one of the regular training sessions on Thursday with a team outing. I have no idea what the guys were up to during that trip, but I prefer to imagine that they visited the Jane Austen Center which is just around the corner from the PCGamesN offices. Either way, they returned to the club with a collective head full of steam and held Haringey in a hard-fought 2-2 draw.
It was really something to watch her out there too. These were people who had started the season and were barely ready to look at me, with some of the older players considering leaving the team or training. Now here they were, skillfully knocking long passes through the wings and even managed the occasional loft cross. That wasn’t good football I’ve seen, but it was a hell of a better sight than when I started training in January. When the rain fell on the field in the waning minutes of the second half, I was really proud. We were ready and I couldn’t wait to see the season opener.
Same but different: Take a look at our FM20 review
Ultimately, I think that’s why you should probably play Football Manager 2021. Not because of the new list of features (some of which are very good), and not because it’s an improvement over last year’s edition (which it is). That’s because there are few games that can convey that particular kind of performance pride that you get when you inspire someone to do a better job or a team to work better together. I’ve learned as much about football as I can over the past few months, doing exercises in eFootball PES 2021, and yelling down the field for counterattacks in FIFA 21. That was a lot of fun, but neither game can really hold a candle to the feeling of Football Manager 2021’s well-deserved achievement – whether or not you lift a trophy at the end of the season.