It's that time of year again. With Europe's elite leagues well into the new season and Christmas just around the corner, Football Manager 2021 has arrived to put you in charge of your favourite team.
After an amazing year with FM20, Sports Interactive has a high bar to clear this time. With an understandably difficult development, can FM21 deliver the goods?
This review was conducted on the FM21 beta, which is not a final version of the game.
Matchday experience is a winner
A lot has been added and changed for FM21, but the biggest change comes when you get ready to hit the pitch with your team.
In previous versions of FM it was easy to just dive right into a game so fast that you forgot to change out your cup goalie for a key game or left your ultra-attacking tactic on against a big opponent. That is no longer the case.
SI has gone a long way to make the matchday experience more all-encompassing and engaging. Your pre-match briefing is tied into the build-up, giving you a chance to actually look at the advice and make changes.
You get a confirmation screen for your tactics and team lineup, allowing you to tweak and change your tactics before the game. You can even specify that changes are made for this game only, meaning your base tactic remains unchanged for the future.
Once you head into the game you get more familiar presentation screens before kick-off, giving you the sense of occasion playing a game should come with.
These additions all make managing more engaging and fun. It gives games a sense of weight that wasn't present in FM20.
It encourages a hands-on approach to matches that draws you further in to the game and builds a bigger sense of accomplishment.
Match engine takes a step forward
Football Manager doesn't have FIFA-level graphics, and it never will. What FM21 does have though is a much-improved match engine.
After spending FM20's development fixing the marking system, SI has put a lot of work into finishing. With more animations and options, FM21's match engine provides a more realistic representation of how players shoot, how goalkeepers move, and remove some of those one-on-one frustrations players have had for years.
That's not to say that every shot is a goal, but players make better decisions (the good ones anyway) and react in more realistic ways.
The in-game screen has also been completely overhauled to give you a new experience, one that is much-improved from FM20.
Player energy has been overhauled to be less obvious, body language has been replaced with faces, and the stats are easier to find.
It's quicker to make changes on the fly, and the shouts are no longer guaranteed to spark a certain reaction.
Then there is the addition of xG. It had a lot of fans excited, and some bemoaning the continued takeover of advanced statistics.
While SI has put together their own formula for xG, it is little more than an extra tool to judge how your team is playing. You can ignore it if you want or embrace it and look for ways to maximise your opportunities.
The main use of it for us has been to show when our team was very unlucky or stole a result. In that regard, it is a terrific way of understanding if you really did get "FMed" or if your team simply didn't create the opportunities you thought they did.
Some changes are only skin deep
While the matchday experience is a real winner, some of the new features this year don't leave much of a mark.
From a recruitment meeting with your scouts & backroom staff to new ways of interacting with your team, there are a lot of new screens and choices to make this year. However, none of these really change the way you play the game from FM20.
You can still manage the way you did in the previous year. You can set scout assignments in the same way, and while the recruitment meetings are a nice addition they can get repetitive within a season very quickly. As a result, you don't miss anything by skipping them.
If you aren't one to set your scout assignments yourself it's an extra bit of help, but you should really sort out your scouts yourself. Especially if you have limited resources and are managing outside one of Europe's elite clubs.
The same goes for the interactions. The new screens and gesture systems are nice, but the gestures carry descriptions that basically make them the same assertive/aggressive/cautious as the tone from last year. Once again you can quickly get a feel for which gestures work well and when to use them.
While the presentation of meetings is improved, their overall impact on your game hasn't changed. Players will still react in the same ways and make similar demands as before. Just don't throw too many water bottles in the dressing room and everything should be ok!
So is Football Manager 2021 a hit? Absolutely!
While the tactical meta doesn't seem to have changed, the game does have a fresh enough feel to justify spending your money.
The financial and footballing impact of covid has been really well balanced by SI. They added the monetary hit to teams but with fans in the stadium you can rebound quickly and won't suffer too much, making your escapism all the better.
The matchday changes create an atmosphere that makes you want to pull on your team-branded suit and pace the touchline. It's an engaging and engrossing game that continues to innovate. Those innovations don't always hit the mark, but when they do it's a game-changer.
FM21 draws you in and makes you think like a manager far more than previous versions.
RealSport Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)