It's not been an easy year for football, and that means it's not been an easy year for the people who make Football Manager. In fact at times it's been "incredibly painful," as Sports Interactive's studio head Miles Jacobson put it to me, referring to the features that had to be postponed, and the decisions that had to be made. Football Manager is a rare game that's tied very closely to real life, and real life's been a mess.
Somehow, FM21 isn't - in fact, after a good few hours with the alpha, it's actually looking great. The new features are impactful and in most cases long sought-after, breathing life into some slightly dusty old systems and adding new ones that instantly seem to work.
But making a sim is always going to butt up against problems, especially problems in the real world, and the way they tend to get in the way of the fun. For reasons that are self-evident, this year's pushed that tension quite a bit further. For a start, the obvious question is scouting. Football Manager's a series that relies on its superlative database of players, maintained by hundreds and hundreds of volunteer scouts, usually hardcore fans, who each look after a single club and report up to their league or region's lead researcher. The problem, obviously, is that scouting a game requires you to be able to watch it. And for there to be any games to watch.
Thankfully, that's been less of a problem than you might have thought. For one, a lot of the heavy lifting for FM21 was done earlier in the season, in most cases, while the rest of the disruption varies wildly from place to place. "Taking the UK as an example, all games were on," Jacobson told me, "and we'd seen enough of those throughout the year anyway. We also had special dispensation to go to stuff - I'm officially an employee of a few clubs - so I've been able to get to way less games than I would normally go to, I'll normally do 50 plus live games a season, but I've been able to see a smattering of games."
"And in different countries around the world, they had different setups - in some countries you were still able to go to football, in some countries they cancelled the whole season, in others they did what happened in England, where they had more being streamed. So we haven't really been hurt by it." It was harder with under 23s and youth games, he did add, and harder to see first-year apprentices - the 16-year-olds coming through the academy system to the youth teams, and then reserves - "but I'm pretty comfortable with the way things are. It also helps that we have a couple of thousand footballers now who are alpha testers of the game - they're very vocal if their data is wrong!
"So we're still fixing data now, and we will be all the way up to release, but fair, factual rating of players - with the exception of those first years where there might be a few gaps - it's business as unusual, right? That's why I also think it's better to be honest about this stuff. We're not gonna just turn around to you and go 'Oh no there's no changes at all!' - of course there are, there's a bloody global pandemic going on!"
The other side of that, of course, is the features that have been tweaked or changed, or newly added from scratch for the game this year. That's the part Jacobson was referring to as painful, because none of the changes to the plans were just a clean cut. "We moved loads of stuff," Jacobson told me. "From [FM] 22 to 21, from 21 to 22, and 22 to 23, and back to 21. It wasn't just a one way thing, we had to be sensible with the way that we're working, because I was concerned for the mental health of my team as I am for our players," he said, reminding me of the big push for in-game advertising that highlights the issue.
The decision-making itself, when it comes to those new features, is fascinating, genuinely. One thing I've been curious about for a little while is the 'hidden attributes' that all 800,000-odd players and staff in the database have, behind the scenes. If you weren't aware, as well as the visible attributes like Finishing or Pace, players also have a handful of invisible ones (visible with the in-game editor, if you're curious and don't mind technically cheating). They include things like Dirtiness, Injury Proneness and Professionalism, all ranked out of 20 like the usual ones, and I've always wondered why some of them, Professionalism especially, given how often it's talked about, remained hidden.
"Professionalism is in the game," Jacobson points out, "it's just not in the game as a number. All of those data points are visible in the game, but not as 'real' numbers - they're maybe in text or the way that player reacts to you. There's more information there than just the raw attributes. It's very deliberate that we don't display those numbers, because what does Professionalism mean anyway?
"All of those text descriptions of those [hidden attributes] are taken from an amalgam of those, where they're basically merged together in different ways. So just having one raw number [visible], there just isn't much use given the way that we use them and the way that they're used as equations. If you have the editor you can see them, but it just wouldn't be of benefit to most people who play the game."
I'm curious about Professionalism especially because, like a lot of football fans, I wiled away the matchless weeks of spring with football documentaries. Glossy, fly-on-the-wall productions like Amazon Prime's All Or Nothing, or the earthier tragedy of Sunderland 'til I Die, have blown some once-sacred parts of the game wide open. There's just enough in there to learn a bit more about how transfers go down - a lot of agents and a lot of panic, it turns out - and, deliciously, how legendary gaffers like Jose Mourinho motivate their players. Like the echoey shouts of "Come on lads!" you can now pick up from crowdless games, much of it's been reassuring, as much as anything: all the money in the world and they still say the same things as the pub team down the road.
But what about Sports Interactive - has football's new-found openness brought any revelations there about how it's really done? Perhaps unsurprisingly: not so much.
"We already have that kind of access!" Jacobson laughed. "I've been in those training meetings for years - I'm really lucky in that I get to go to training sessions all over the world," and that, combined with the range of footballers who test the game ("those range from Ballon d'Or nominees to players at non-league clubs"), means that the studio's already known about the inner workings of clubs for while. He's keen to point out the little FM logo on Mourinho's laptop, though, which you can spot in a tactics meeting in All Or Nothing episode. "Somebody there - whether it's Jose's machine or someone else's, I don't know - but to have Football Manager installed on the training ground laptop kind of shows us where we've come from a little bit. It was pretty cool."
Football's other great opening, meanwhile, has been in a kind of new dawn for talking tactics. Publications like The Athletic have sprung up, which plunge into specific teams' setups with unprecedented depth, and the conversation in general seems to have shifted. Today, football at the very top is about structure, specifically pressing structure, which some have called management's last big secret. Pressing's no longer just about "get in amongst 'em, lads". Now it's more delicate, the "heavy metal football" of Klopp's Gegenpress playing more like an orchestral cover: if one player in the entire group is just slightly out of tune - a yard off their spot - the whole thing falls apart.
Football Manager's not quite at that level of precision yet - "we haven't got down to Pep Guardiola levels," as Jacobson puts it, with Guardiola famous for physically planting his players on near enough exact blades of grass during in training, but FM21's getting close. Jacobson points to the new, animated explainers for player roles, the jobs you give them within their positions, as part of that, where little GIF-like clips will play within the game's tooltips to show you exactly what you're telling that player to do. It still feels a little early in the alpha build - you get the same animation for a role with an "Attack", "Support" or "Defend" duty, which I imagine will change to distinct ones for the final thing - but if nothing else it solves the problem of Inverse Forwards versus Inverted Wingers, and slightly raises the chance of me using a Segundo Volante.
"We believe there's enough variation already with the tactical model that we've got at the moment for people to recreate pretty much everything," Jacobson adds, although: "Can't do overlapping centre backs yet," he laments. "I would have loved to have done that this year, but the pandemic genuinely got in the way of that one." Another trade-off, alas.
Trade-offs are two-way though, at least, and so for everything pushed back a year or two, something else has thankfully come in. A big one, related again to that explosion of new-media sports coverage, is Expected Goals, or xG, which are a fancy, decimal-heavy stat created to show how many goals your team should have scored in a match. If you have an xG of 3.2 but your team only put the one goal away, that supposedly tells you that your forwards are underperforming, compared to how much the team as a whole creates. Like everything in football though, it's not that simple. In fact, xG in its current form makes it look so simple that Jacobson actively hates it.
"I absolutely refused to have xG for three or four years in the game," he said, "because I think most of the systems that are out there at the moment are rubbish. They're nonsense. Any of those systems that don't take defensive positioning into account aren't fit for purpose, and shouldn't be used by anybody in football." How did it end up in FM21 then?
"About a couple of years ago a guy called Dr. Matt Taylor arrived [at Sports Interactive], and he was very passionate about xG, and I turned round to him and said, 'If you come up with an xG that isn't rubbish, then yeah, you can have it, but we would have to do our own.'" In brief, after teaming up with a company called SciSports and another xG aficionado from Manchester City, Sports Interactive now has its own, branded version of it, called SIxG, that uses "lots of extra indices" - including defensive positioning, of course - to calculate what Jacobson claims will be a far more useful stat. He has high hopes for it, too, suggesting it might have a similar impact to the team's famous scouting database, which is now used by some Premier League clubs (and may well be why the game's installed on Mourinho's laptop).
"It's gonna be really interesting for me to see which parts of our model flow out back into football. We've got big plans for the future with it - and this is xG version 1.0, we will be adding more stuff to it over time - but it will be interesting to see whether we end up helping define the standard for football, because we believe ours is better. And I know that's an arrogant thing to say! And I don't normally say things in that way. But in this case it's just pure fact."
It's also, hopefully, instructive. It's replacing Clear Cut Chances as a metric in-game (already a bespoke stat, for what it's worth), and for Jacobson would ideally give people a better idea of how they're doing. "Anyone can have 30 shots in a game just by taking a shot from the halfway line every time you have the ball - that'd be pretty stupid to do it, but people have their tactics set up in a way to do that in FM - so the xG indicator is going to be an important education tool for that, I think."
The instructiveness of a feature also seems to form another branch of Sports Interactive's thinking when it comes to designing features in general. Arguably the biggest change in FM21 is the introduction of gestures, as part of the 'interactions' system, which replace the long-serving cluster of 'tones' you could take when handling anything conversational, like team talks or press conferences. Now, instead of being "assertive", say, or "calm", when telling your players their first-half performance was embarrassing, you can open your arms wide, point your finger, or lob a water bottle across the room (seriously). There are now 30 of these that the game chooses to give you a handful of as options each time, as opposed to the set six tones, and that alone causes a pretty major shake-up to how most people will have cruised through their interactions for the last ten-plus years. It's driven at least in part by the fact that not enough people realised the importance of handling yet another presser yourself - or at least didn't enjoy doing them enough to care.
"When people are overlooking stuff, that means that we should be changing that feature," Jacobson says. "It's never down to the consumer and the person playing the game making mistakes; it's us making mistakes by not pushing that feature hard enough. Press conferences and interactions was a key example of that. We started seeing around 40 or 50 per cent of people playing the game were just getting their assistant to do that every time. It means that they're not realising the effect." Now, he says, even the "hardcore" who play numerous seasons with each save are attending pressers on the regular.
In FM21 these conferences will be even more important, too - or at least the importance is more obvious. "It affects players and it affects the board, and it is something we've worked on under the hood this year too, for it to have different effects." Now, ahead of every conference you'll get a quick brief from your club's Press Officer, who tells you what the board wants you to talk about or avoid, gives a summary after the fact, and sits with you in the conference itself - with a swanky new visual overhaul - to give you a general read on the atmosphere in the room. Press will also become more hostile or amenable depending on whether you give them a good answer, too, and press coverage itself affects things like the pressure on players or the opinion of your boss. "The whole game is a universe," as Jacobson puts it.
Similarly, transfers haven't been overhauled but do benefit from a brilliant little tweak, which has had an impact on my save already after a few hours. Now, you can quickly call up agents to get a sense of what it'll take to get their players to join. Leon Bailey's agent told me the 22-year-old wanted to be made captain at Manchester United if he were to join, for instance, which landed his scout report pride of place in the bin. Others might tell you to qualify for Europe or come back in a few months - or might change their minds anyway once you do. It's a small touch, but a big step towards the realities of agent-driven transfers today, where most deals are agreed 'in principle' in some hotel lobby or haphazard phone call first, before the first official bids are even lodged.
Realism, as always, is what it comes back to with Football Manager. Towards the end of our chat Jacobson talked at length about the suspension of disbelief that comes with games like this, and the importance of holding that together while, in some cases, it's better to step slightly back from reality. An example is injuries - FM fans can be famously irate when it comes to players getting injured, and the game actually does that old developer's trick of implementing "70 to 80 per cent" of the injuries you'd actually get in the real world, because reality feels like too much (although Jacobson notes the introduction of Sports Scientists and injury tables showing you where you team stands next to the average has drastically helped with the perception there, too).
Better yet though, an example that came up at least partially by accident. I was curious to know if Jacobson had any advice for players - Football Manager is famously opaque, amongst other things, when it comes to explaining how some of its systems work, and so I wondered if there was anything specific that people always missed - or if there was something I just still keep missing myself. "I think one thing that always surprises me is people ignore Opposition Instructions quite a lot," he said, "which is a very key thing in the match engine. So, you know, if you are reading this: do your Opposition Instructions, it's important!"
He goes on though: "but again - maybe we haven't made it clear enough to people how important those are to do." Maybe next year.