What is it? The latest instalment of the long-running Football management sim.
Expect to pay From £40/$60
Developer Sports Interactive
Release November 9, 2021
Reviewed on GTX 980 Ti, Intel i5-4690K, 32GB RAM
Link Official site
When Ossie Ardiles returned to manage Spurs, he decided to play to their strengths. They had five world-class strikers, so they all started. It was breathtaking... and a disaster. I find that kind of devil-may-care, joie-de-vivre irresistible, and that's why I've sucked at football manager sims all these years, since the Kevin Toms classic on the 16k ZX81. I'm a fan, and the intricacies of the game are often too arcane. Just play better, I scream, occasionally out loud.
So, the Football Manager series has always frightened me. There are menus and charts and significant obfuscation of the systems by which it functions. It's the big and clever simulation for the statistician and the connoisseur whose dish is data. Sports Interactive's commitment to quality is an extravagant feast for those with the patience and acumen to get to the bottom of the bowl.
Yet the tutorial system that made last year's game more beginner-friendly returns, fooling you into thinking you know what's going on. You start with the club philosophy, which is ideal. I chose the gegenpress, the high-tempo blend of "get into 'em" and possession football, and this establishes the formation, the instructions to the players and the training sessions for your staff to conduct.
Then you're up and running. All the other areas—transfers, scouting, staff recruitment, finances and so on—are then introduced over a few in-game weeks. You can do everything, or just delegate and follow advice from your backroom team. This is sensible stuff you've forgotten, things you don't want to bother with, and guidance that may or may not make sense. It's tempting to think you can do better, but you ignore them at your peril. Cautious mindset, versus Luton? No way, you think, before attacking and getting stuffed two-nil. The new Data Hub provides an astounding quantity of visualisations and analyses. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing though. This functionality is not for the faint-hearted. I ordered a report from my analytics team, and they replied: here is a mysterious picture and contained within, the secret of your failure. I was none the wiser, so I ignored it.
Football Manager unfolds at a snail's pace. Five hours in and I was still in the first week of my mismanagement of my childhood team. I got to my first competitive match after 13 hours, still unsure of how the team would perform in the league. I began to delegate huge swathes of admin and yet, real world days were passing me by. And I kept clicking continue. On to the next match, and the next. It is compelling, like thirst is compelling.
Last year, the arrival of a proper match animation was the moment that the veil was removed between what you thought was happening and what was actually going on. This year there's a whole new match engine. Player movement, the passage of play and animation quality are all improved, but it's an incremental development. You need to interpret it like another graph. It might be more fluid on release, as the Match Engine reviewed wasn't final, but you see players gliding diagonally, as they turn. No one seems to tackle anyone when you're watching. The extended highlights seem somewhat random, making me question what I'm missing. I see players become tired, their positions and movement, but there's no chance of believing what you're seeing. Nevertheless it's thrilling, in the way that radio commentary, the vidiprinter or the noise of the crowd heard in the concourse can be. When the net bulges, the emotions are real.
The transfer market is tremendous stuff. The most basic option gives you 20,000+ players who can be scouted and refuse your offers, and deadline day is edge-of-the-seat stuff. I tried to get good money for a player running down his contract, knowing he'd be upset if I got in his way, and yet lining up a replacement that I could only afford once the wantaway left-back had been sold. Executing that piece of business was like three points away to the league-leaders. The fans moaned on the social media feed, but haters gonna hate.
The illusion breaks down elsewhere, mostly when interacting with the players. I congratulated the dressing room on a decent performance, and they were all instantly demotivated. A player complained that he hadn't been offered a new contract, but there was no option to tell him that the club's finances meant I couldn't offer him anything even though I wanted to. I promised he'd get a new contract next season, but he had a big strop out anyway, making trouble in the dressing room. You want to be Ted Lasso, but you'll find yourself swiftly corralled into being Alex Ferguson by events and dialogue trees that are out of your control.
A season into the game and my team played out of its skin one week, and sank into themselves the next, my job saved only by the club's low expectations. Somewhere in the layers of data, scattergrams, radar flowers and bar charts was the answer, but I had to accept that while the game was deep and smart, I just wasn't.
I did notice that my team had 19 points after 15 games, precisely what the real thing had accrued in the same time, and I suffered the same ennui—that crawling sense of dread and misery, that, yet again, the season was coming to nothing. Normally I block that out, but here I was looking at my inbox, about to be interviewed by a journo who had developed inexplicable hatred of my positivity, that no sudden nastiness on my part could assuage and I just upset the rest of the press corps. You can apparently influence journos, I just didn't have much luck doing it. I started biting my nails, something I only do watching live games.
If you want to share such misery, there’s the fantasy draft system allowing you to take that fantasy football league with your mates to another, professional level. With more options in competition complexity and budget, and improvements to the draft itself, there’s never been a better time to share out the humiliation of failure.
If it were a team, Football Manager 2022 would be Liverpool. No big new signings, but there's already a star in every position and some real talent coming out of the youth team, if you're patient. If it were a player, it would be world-class, the kind of signing that excites the dourest of fan. But without appropriate management, it's Gareth Bale. Flashes of godlike genius interspersed with periods of mysterious mediocrity. It's a vocation rather than a game, but as the saying goes: if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life.