How Football Manager is tackling the strangest of seasons

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?