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Football Manager 2021 knows just what to change and what to leave alone

The Football Manager 2021 key art, featuring footballers doing high-fives.
(Image credit: Sega)

If there's ever a time for poring over spreadsheets and xG graphs, it's right now in winter 2020. Cometh the hour, cometh the Champ Man.

Strictly speaking Football Manager 2021 is a different bloodline of course, but we all knew which road to take in 2005. And in the intervening 15 years, so skillfully have Sports Interactive drip-fed progress into its magical database that the imminent new release looks at once unchanged and futuristic. The inbox, the naked beauty of a 'Finishing: 20', the seething frustration, they're all just as they were. But they're now joined by sports data readouts that'd have Jonah Hill in Moneyball scratching his head and a revamped match engine which I really shouldn't be as excited about as I am.

I think we all know by now how much to expect from a new Football Manager. It's never going to suddenly look like FIFA when you enter the stadium, and thinly disguised spreadsheets will always comprise the majority of its 'action'. But it's testament to the series that despite its addictive effects, and thus the likelihood that you've several hundred hours of the last game under your belt, the next one almost invariably feels fresh enough to justify starting all over again. Just like last year you pick a suit for your avatar, sign Andres D'Allessandro on a free and, with all the imagination of a Marvel movie screenwriter, send your hometown club to the Champion's League final.

(Image credit: Sega)

What novelties await you along the way to that implausible 3-1 victory over Bayern? Most strikingly, a match engine that's capable of showing a lot more. Even a Dwarf Fortress player would say it looked a bit rudimentary, but fidelity isn't what FM's going for. Instead, this year's 3D visuals capture the shape and movement of your team that bit better than before, as well as individual moments of brilliance. I'm not talking McGeady Spins here, but it's still gratifying to watch your star signing slink past his marker with a few changes of direction and pace. 

FM has a long and proud tradition of absolutely shitting the bed whenever significant match engine changes are introduced—keepers leathering it into their own nets, that sort of thing—but I've seen no evidence of that at all this year so far. What I am seeing a lot of, though, is opposition goals. 

The old way of doing things has been an increasingly precarious perch for FM managers in recent editions, and just so we're clear I mean setting up a 4-1-2-3 with wing-backs and showing everyone onto their weaker foot. But this year, with an increased emphasis on all the data analysis stats and screens available to you, it feels like the game really wants you to pay attention.

(Image credit: Sega)

Using all the heatmaps and missed passes, you can build up an idea of where your formation isn't working. It might be as simple as a personnel change—one of your DLs is a pacey passer, say, and the other likes to stay home and elbow wingers in the back. Only one of them will be right for your particular system. Or perhaps it's their role at DL—support or attack? Wingback or full-back? These have been dilemmas for FM players for many years now, of course, but now there's that bit more visual feedback to inform your decisions.

Using all the heatmaps and missed passes, you can build up an idea of where your formation isn't working.

This has always been a series to reflect the changing complexion of the sport, recognising the rising importance of press conferences back in the Mourinho era and subsequently chucking them in the early FMs, or ramping up the finer details of contract negotiations after Rooney's latest Machiavellian move with United's lawyers. This is the era of systems, rather than players, and if you want a taste of how well that's reflected in FM21, have a go at Fantasy Draft mode. 

My watertight system since its inception in 2016 had been to spend big on 11 players while everyone else watered their budget down on a full squad, but while I'm devising a tactic for my rabble of shaven-legged millionaires I hit a problem: there's no one system they all fit into. Thus, I'm drubbed by James Buckley's Bus Winkers FC despite the fact they're largely mid-tier Premier League players and my squad comprises nothing but the cream of Serie A. I don't have a system for all the talent, so I lose.

(Image credit: Sega)

There's more depth to communication, both internally on a one-on-one basis with players and staff and with the media, but personally I've always found this a bit of a chore and my opinion hasn't changed with the arrival of more conversational and tonal options. Of the other new features, a proper season review feels like a real highlight and it really gets to the heart of what FM players want—to bask in numbers and figures that have taken on profound personal meaning over time.

Transfers are handled a little differently too—they've felt a little bit 'videogamey' for years, especially if you have Sky Sports news on during transfer deadline day and hear snippets about how these deals are done, often via vampiric agents cutting massive earnings for themselves while clubs exchanging personnel occurs as a kind of indifferent by-product. So it proves with FM21's revamped system, which allows you to approach agents directly. They all have an opinion of you, and relationships can be fostered over time, so it's worth getting on the good side of a bloodsucker with plenty of tasty players on their books. 

It's the complexity of building a successful system, and an apparent removal of emphasis on individual player ability that should prove most enticing this year, though. Some players might not want to get their hands quite as dirty as FM21 is asking them to, but for those players there's always FMRTE or Liverpool.