Football Manager 2021 Review – Football’s Coming Home
Football Manager 202124th November, 2020
Football Manager 2021 is finally here. This is always something I look forward to. I've spent close to half-a-year of my life playing Football and Championship Manager titles and, like billions of others, the loss of football thanks to COVID was felt. With matches having returned, albeit behind closed doors and unable to watch them at a pub with friends, we're still not at that moment where I can say, with a song in my heart, that football's coming home.
What I can say is that the release of Football Manager 2021 certainly feels like a big step in the right direction for someone like me. I've been playing Football Manager for over twenty years now, and I've reviewed the previous four (2017, 2018, 2019 & 2020) for this very site. Does this continue the fine tradition of refining and perfecting, while still adding new features, or is this the one that sees Sports Interactive needing to return to the dugout for a tactical refresher? Let's find out.
Sports Interactive has always pushed to be as close as possible to the real thing, though they won't keep it too far from entertaining. As such, you will see at least some of the impacts of COVID and other real-life issues in Football Manager 2021. As such, your very first season will see those impacts. Your transfer budget, your finances in general, will be stretched thing - possibly to the breaking point - from the very start. Season starting points can be delayed, depending on where you're starting from. Transfers will particularly see a turn towards loan-to-buy, at least in the early stages. Moving beyond the first year, who knows which type of Brexit you'll have to suffer through.
This doesn't simply apply to clubs in the UK, of course. Once players from the countries that make up the UK aren't a part of Europe, there are going to be complications for them working abroad. Then there's the complication of getting work permits for non-UK players if you happen to be any club that isn't at the top of the pile. My usual way of playing the series has highlighted this, with me advancing through the lower leagues as AFC Telford but finding the hiring of anybody not from the UK a challenge, to say the least. One person I did sign is dead weight, me paying the player but unable to play him thanks to work permit issues.
Recruitment, in general, has been improved, while also bringing in some of the more underhanded aspects of football. On the positive side, you'll have more interaction with your backroom staff. Recruitment meetings will allow you, and those you have working with you, to pinpoint where exactly your team is weakest, or at least thinnest. The scouts can then get to work searching for and researching people best suited for that position and your team. Once you've found somebody, then it's time for the negative part of the game. Football that is, not Football Manager 2021.
If you follow the sport at all, you'll know the scourge that are agents. Or at least the scourge that are self-serving agents. You can make the most of this by bypassing the club altogether, approaching the agent directly and unsettling your target. Now, I can't say if it helps move things along if you do this - had I gone the proper route; would I have got the transfer done for the same amount? Would I have even managed to sign the player? - but I do know it's representative of the way the game works and it's certainly annoying when your better players are getting poached.
I prefer not to poach players, though I must admit I've given it a go. You'll enquire with the player's agent, asking them about their availability and interest. Following that, it's not too dissimilar to how you found the previous entry. You can make promises to a player before entering negotiations, ranging from promising something as little as a certain amount of game time to something larger, like spending even more in the transfer market to strengthen your squad.
Not only are your discussions in the transfer market and contract discussions more detailed, but Football Manager 2021 also takes interaction throughout the game to a whole other level. No matter if it's a press conference, a team meeting or even a one-on-one chat, there's a lot to see. Rather than simply having positive, negative, and neutral responses, these can then further be broken down, with it being quite obvious that positive and negative are very subjective and based on the conversation at the time.
To further add to the nuance that you can find in a press conference, Sports Interactive have included gestures such as smiling, wagging your finger and slamming your desk, to name a few, as a replacement for the older tonal system where you would be calm, assertive, passionate. As the start of this paragraph states, it adds to the nuance. You can smile while giving what is explained as a negative answer. When you have a quick chat with one of your players, you can shake their hands, pat them on the shoulder or even wrap your arm around their shoulder.
This is probably the worst part of Football Manager 2021. Honestly, from a personal perspective, the talking has always been the worst part of any Football Manager game. In the past, there were moments where your answers felt like they mattered, pretty much just saying the right thing to a disgruntled player, but it felt superfluous for the most part. In this version, it's become a lot more impactful, with the promises you can make in a discussion being more varied and the impact of your responses being picked up on more, particularly if your chairman doesn't like a response you've given to the press.
The inclusion of more questions and answers, as well as the inclusion of more types of conversations, is a mixed bag. The way it performs is considerably better, that much I will say. It can be terribly tedious when the press conferences, particularly before a big match, feature dozens upon dozens of questions. So many are repeated as well. In a matter of just a few months you'll have journalists asking the same question about how vital that star player is to you, when how essential he is hasn't lessened since they asked you just last week.
It's not only the interactions system that has seen an upgrade. The two other core areas that have seen improvements are in the information & stats made available and shown to you and the matchday system. Starting with the matchday, you'll see that the UI has been dramatically improved, allowing for a greater focus on the on-pitch action. While this doesn't look great - Football Manager will never look like FIFA - it still looks much better than before.
The reason behind this is through two simple reasons. The first is that the action and details on the pitch are greater than before. There are more details on the players and animations seeming smoother and, most of all, it's the way the action is displayed, with a variety of camera angles being used to closely represent the real game. Another aspect of the on-pitch action is an improvement to the AI, with players now acting more realistically, not simply sticking to one single move, having their ability to change their mind mid-decision based on the new options available.
Speaking of presentation, this has also been improved off the pitch too. The general UI is similar to that of last year in design. However, the use of colours is more attractive and easier on the eyes, also particularly useful when showing the information and details that you need to help you in the management of your team. The biggest new piece is also found during the matchday, this being xG, or expected goals. You'll know if you're generally playing better, even if you're losing, through a much higher expected goal figure than your opposition.
Using the data collected through general play, the new Performance Analyst and Recruitment Analyst roles will collate this data as they would in real life, helping you see who in your team is performing better than others as well as showing you which players on your shortlist are performing to a very high standard. These will use all available data to create simple, digestible, graphs to highlight everything from goals per game, to tackle success %, and more.
Another new feature is that you'll also find an end of season report, showing you the highlights of your season and moments to remember, the new arrivals and departures, the finances of the club during the year and finally a simple summary with a generated quote from an outlet to summarise the season for your club. Hopefully, like me in the season I've taken the above screenshot, you'll have exceeded expectations. If you're fortunate enough, you'll also get to see your team lifting a trophy.
One thing I've never spoken about in my many reviews of Football Manager is the speed of the game. I don't mean general play, that is clearly determined by how you prefer to take your turns. Transfer windows, naturally, take a lot longer - especially if you're having to tell the other teams to stop nagging you. The reason I'm saying this now is because Football Manager 2021 is the smoothest and fastest I've ever known it to be. Even with more leagues activated than ever before, the game is running smoother than ever. It only takes a little time when saving.
Football Manager is always a game that is difficult to get into, and this isn't going to change, or at least not in any way I can imagine. Football Manager 2021, as is common for the series recently, is making that push into making it as accessible as possible. The presentation has been improved, data is made more readily available, and the matchday action is better than ever before.
Football Manager 2021 is a niche game. It's essentially a collection of detailed but exceptionally well presented excel spreadsheets. However, this collection is still by and far the best way to experience the beautiful game in a videogame. If you want to be a football manager, this is the way to go.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by the publisher.
Football Manager 2021 is by far the closest representation to the beautiful game you can find. With an improved matchday engine, improved AI and even more datapoints than ever before, all represented in a more digestible method, making it more accessible than ever before. However, there's still no doubt that the series is still going to have a high barrier to entry, and it has some irritating issues, such as repetition in the press conferences and other interaction aspects. Issues aside, this is yet another improvement and superior entry to the series.
- Improved matchday engine and UI, easier to see the on-pitch action with player AI allowing players to act more believable than ever before.
- The general UI is made clearer and more attractive through the use of colour while remaining the ease of navigation is kept.
- Increased access and presentation to information and stats make things more understandable and make great use of the new staff roles.
- Improvements to the transfer system, particularly how it's changed in the first season as a result of COVID, and progresses following that, make it more realistic.
- Still quite inaccessible for newcomers.
- Press conferences, player talks, and more are still quite irritating. They've been improved and expanded but can be too repetitive.