Being a football manager is about more than just a series of spreadsheets. Stats, fitness, and financial decisions all matter, of course, but football is, ultimately, a game played, run, and enjoyed by human beings. Humans who are flawed, under extreme pressure, and driven by emotions as much as they are exorbitant wages—although the latter certainly helps.
It's the focus on roleplaying a manager as a person, rather than just a results-generating machine, the feelings and expressions between the readouts and the menu screens, that excites me most about Football Manager 2021.
Every FM has a theme that ties its raft of new features together. Last year's Club Vision allowed you and your board to agree your organisation's long-term direction, thereby defining its identity for the seasons ahead. This year the focus remains on identity and character, but is smaller in scope and perhaps far more important: you.
In other words, what kind of manager you are. Will you have the warmth and charm of Jurgen Klopp when dealing with the press, but be a firm-but-fair disciplinarian behind the scenes? How about the showmanship of camera-loving Jose Mourinho? Or, err, whatever approach Ian Holloway takes? Any football fan will understand the importance of this in real-life football's perpetual soap opera; The popularity of documentaries like All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland: 'Til I Die lies in our fascination of what our idols are really like.
FM21 promises to give us more control in deciding the character of our manager than ever, starting with the new Gestures system. Now, in the many and various interactions you'll have with players, agents, and media, you'll have some new non-verbal signals to choose from. You can stick your hands in your pockets to seem more aloof in a broadcast interview, point at someone to intensify and personalise your message, or throw a water bottle in the dressing room to show your disgust at a sub-par first half display.
While this might sound insignificant, it bleeds into almost every aspect of the game and all the interactions you have with your club's stakeholders. Gestures appear in the new informal, instant messenger-style Quick Chats and the revamped press conferences. You'll be presented with opportunities to define your manager by what they say or their body language constantly, and see how your audience reacts. It looks much more natural and immersive—sometimes the only real answer is a shrug of the shoulders—which is sort of the raison d'être of Football Manager.
I'll have to wait and see its impact when I get hands on with it myself, but it could help FM21 be the series' strongest outing as an RPG.
Elsewhere, Sports Interactive has spent time developing each stage of a match: before, during, and after. Pre-match you'll get your opponent's team sheet and, while you won't be able to change your squad, you can still make tactical tweaks based on the thoughts of your coaching staff. The refreshed UI of the dressing room will give you a fuller, more streamlined picture of the body language and reactions of your players. This is also useful at half time: If a player on your subs bench is enthused by your team talk, consider replacing them with the sullen player you've just drenched with your thrown water bottle.
Speaking of during a game, you'll also get more intelligent advice from your dugout. No longer will you be, well, overrun with the same advice: Yes, SI is aware of the memes.
And, as with the dressing room and press conferences, match UI is much more clean and thoughtfully presented. You'll unleash shouts, decide gestures, and make substitutions in the spot a manager would actually sit. With that out the way at the bottom of the screen, the on-pitch action—which now boasts better animations and lighting that takes advantage of HDR for beefier rigs—has room to breathe.
We cannot wait for this 😎 https://t.co/6ubu2v3N0GOctober 18, 2020
Perhaps the biggest addition is xG (Expected Goals). Working with sports analytics company, SciSports, SI claims to have developed a much more comprehensive way of determining how many goal-scoring chances teams have in a match. With the added context of defender's positions, shooting player's distance from goal, and shot speed, it's intended for SI's take on xG to better tell you the story of the game, available as shot maps and graphs available at half and full time. These learnings can then feed into next week's training: If your xG is high and you didn't score, try prioritising shooting practice.
If you use match data to your advantage and keep your squad happy enough to win trophies, the new end-of-season package is designed to better celebrate, or commiserate, your exploits in the previous 12 months. Trophy winners will be treated to better ceremonies including confetti cannons and Jordan Henderson-style trophy lifts.
It was hard to tell how it all looked in the online presentation I was given, but any attention paid to help celebrate major wins is welcome. You'll also get enhanced contextual information such as social media reaction, accolades like goal of the season or player of the year. And financial data, if that's your thing.
Other new features will make recruitment much simpler for newer managers. You'll meet with your new Recruitment Manager a month before the transfer window opens to work out your acquisition strategy based on your squad's shortcomings. Your new Analyst will also turn reams of data into digestible, actionable information, which should make this pivotal time in your season less intimidating. The transfer market itself will be unpredictable and thus more realistic, too—how this and many other parts of the game will be presented with the looming spectre of Covid-19 in mind will come in a specific blog from SI in due course.
As with pretty much everything, football has been significantly affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The game stopped in most places around the world for several months and stands remain empty. Of course, SI has been affected, too: director Miles Jacobson tells me "it's a miracle we're releasing this year."
Scheduled for release on November 24, it is later than planned, but the sheer number of overhauls and new features would have been a surprise even in a normal year. In a turbulent year for real football, things are looking rosy for Football Manager 2021 this season.