Football Manager is a series that proudly boasts of the kind of consistency very few other annual franchises can. Every year, Sports Interactive puts out excellent games that appeal to millions not through flash and panache, but through sheer complexity and addictiveness, and every years, players put hundreds upon hundreds of hours into these games, before jumping on to the next entry to repeat the process all over again. Predictably, Football Manager 2021 is yet another solid release in the series, and though it is, by design, an iterative upgrade, it features some of the most noticeable and impactful improvements FM has made in years.
“Spreadsheet simulator” is a term that gets thrown at Football Manager all too often, and while naysayers use that to levy criticism at it, series fans hold that up as one of its biggest strengths. Like its predecessors, Football Manager 2021 is brimming with stats, graphs, heat maps, analyses, and what have you to pore over for hours on end as you tinker with your team and its backend staff and management and figure out how to turn it into a well-oiled machine that wins trebles on a yearly basis.
"Predictably, Football Manager 2021 is yet another solid release in the series, and though it is, by design, an iterative upgrade, it features some of the most noticeable and impactful improvements FM has made in years. "
For fans of the series, that stuff is, of course, very much still present in this year’s game- what makes it stand out more is just how better presented it is, and how much more nuanced it feels. There’s been UI overhauls in a number of places, from press conferences and pre-match team talks to the match UI itself, and what they lead to is a much cleaner looking game that still has heaps upon heaps of information to analyze, all of it presented in more accessible and compact fashion than ever before. The point of Football Manager 2021 is still, of course, to study the game rather than play it – FM fans wouldn’t have it any other way, after all – but thanks to numerous quality of life improvements and tweaks, that aspect of the experience is even more engaging than it has ever been.
Some of the UI changes don’t work out as well. For instance, figuring out player morale during matches is much harder. Information on their morale and on how individual players are reacting to your instructions in a match was once collated and presented in a single place in previous games, but now has to be accessed separately for each player in FM 21. Then there are other issues that have plagued the series for a long time, which still continue to be a problem, such as repetitive press conferences and media interactions that end up feeling like a chore barely a few weeks into the season.
Outside of these press conferences, however, interactions on the whole are a marked improvement over previous games. Rather than having what felt rather limited choices in how you want to express yourself in past entries – where you’d be deciding whether you want to be assertive or sarcastic or aggressive and the like – Football Manager 2021 now also lets you pick gestures. If your team is doing terribly in a match, you can try and kick them into shape during your half time team talk by throwing a water bottle on the ground. If a certain press member is being too persistent with stupid questions, you can shut them down by banging your fists on the table while giving aggressive responses. These are still additive flourishes in an interaction system that’s still largely iterating on previous games, but they’re nice touches that allow you to add a bit more personality to one-on-one dealings.
"The point of Football Manager 2021 is still, of course, to study the game rather than play it – FM fans wouldn’t have it any other way, after all – but thanks to numerous quality of life improvements and tweaks, that aspect of the experience is even more engaging than it has ever been. "
Transfers have also seen some relatively small but still vital improvements. Crucially, before approaching a club with transfer talks for a player, you can now approach that player’s agent beforehand to suss out how interested they are in joining your club, figure out what their clubs might be looking for in terms of transfer fees, and even make promises to the agent that might make that player more agreeable to joining your club. Sure, technically you’re poaching these players, but hey- if it helps me get Jadon Sancho into Manchester United, I’m willing to do whatever it takes. It’s still a bit too easy to game the transfer system by signing superstars with relatively small upfront fees as long as you add a bunch of conditional bonuses though, so hopefully that’s something Sports Interactive will try and fix in the future.
Another area where Football Manager 2021 makes remarkable improvements is the match engine. As I mentioned earlier, FM has always been a series that’s more about managing your team and your club than it has been about the on-pitch action, and that’s been reflected in how it presents its actual football matches as well, which – to be polite – leave much to the imagination, visually speaking. Football Manager 2021’s on-pitch action still pretty much looks like a 20 year old football game, but there have been major improvements to the engine nonetheless.
Players seem to be much smarter, there is more dynamism and intelligence to the plays they make, they’re much more reactive to what’s going on on the pitch, and instances where they do maddeningly stupid things with the ball are far less frequent. Even though there’s still much that’s left to the imagination, FM 21’s match engine works overtime to ensure that what you see on the pitch is a much better representation of your work behind the scenes and off the pitch.
"Another area where Football Manager 2021 makes remarkable improvements is the match engine."
Performance has seen improvements as well. Football Manager games tend to get slower and slower as your career progresses, especially if you’re playing with larger databases, and while that’s still a problem here, it’s not nearly as noticeable. Downtime between crucial management decisions and matches passes by much more smoothly, saving games doesn’t take ages, and the calendar is much less prone to taking an interminable amount of time to get from one day to the next.
All of which is to say, Football Manager 2021 is perhaps one of the best games in the series in a long time. It strikes the balance between accessibility and mind-boggling complexity better than the series ever has, the quality of life improvements it makes mostly work out very well, and the more noticeable improvements – such as the enhanced interactions and the improved match engine – are important step ups from previous games in the series. Once again, Sports Interactive have delivered a game that countless will happily be pouring hundreds of hours of their lives into.
This game was reviewed on PC.