Football Manager as a franchise is something of an anomaly. While games push for increasingly better graphics or more consistent frame rates, its almost spreadsheet-based nature makes it feel refreshingly sterile. Despite this, the series has legions of fans that pick up a copy every year – safe in the knowledge they may not need to buy anything else. We're pleased to report, then, that Football Manager 2020 might be the franchise's best outing in a long time.
Despite a fascination with data and stats, Football Manager has always been about the heart in mouth moments of scoring a late winner, or squeaking into top spot at the end of a challenging season. It captures the emotion of football better than most sports titles, but you wouldn't have thought it – it's entirely menu-based, and the game's 3D match engine (while taking a few steps forward again this year) feels more functional than anything, a slightly more visual barometer of how well you team heeds your instructions.
As with the past few years, Football Manager 2020 is essentially two games in one. The first, the full-fat version, offers painstaking levels of granularity – you can try and coach David Luiz out of his marauding runs forward, or get Harry Kane to work on a new shooting regime that may see him get ever deadlier in front of goal.
So far then, so Football Manager, but the reason the franchise has always endured is in its ability to create the most unlikely of stories. My local team Southend United may be burying themselves at present, but in Football Manager I can build the team to my image – they could be Champions League winners by 2025 if we play our cards right (spoiler alert, it remains unlikely).
This romanticism is a huge reason why the new systems make such an impact. For one, Club Vision is now tailored more closely to a club – my beloved Arsenal board want attacking football and a focus on youth. That's the same as in year's past, but now there are targets set for long-term goals.
These goals can be "finishing in the Top 4" within the next two years, "win the Europa League" within five seasons, or any other metric – including working within budgetary constraints or signing players under a certain age.
These targets actively changed the way I approached every seasonal milestone – as I approached my first January transfer window I knew I needed to start blooding more youngsters in the first team, so I resisted the urge to splash out on new signings. Not all of these objectives are mandatory, but even the "favoured" ones can get you into the board's good graces – which can be helpful in the case of an Unai Emery-style slump.
Sticking to the theme of creating a footballing dynasty, interactions with players now offer increasing depth. When signing a player or offering them a fresh contract, you can now offer a suggestion as to their playing time in future seasons.
This means no longer will you be close to signing a 16-year-old wunderkind, only for them to reject you for not suggesting they'll be first team captain within two minutes of joining. Now, you can offer them a chance as a "Fringe Player", for example, before introducing them into your cup-squads with a view to more regular opportunities next season. The knock-on effect is that this player is more likely to be patient and work harder for their chance.
We're also very pleased that backroom staff finally offer tangible assistance. Your assistant manager and other staff will often suggest team lineups, and you can agree, disagree, or make tweaks to their team sheet – making the whole process feel more collaborative. It always feels helpful, and somehow doesn't end up feeling like more inbox junk as you might expect. Staff can also contribute to discussions on your tactics page as well, suggesting what works and what doesn't – taking some of the guesswork out of the game.
In fact, that theme is taken even further this year by an increased number of helpful tutorials. Starting Football Manager 2020 without having played before is no longer the "maths meme" – there's context given to everything.
There are plenty of smaller tweaks that longtime fans will appreciate – press conferences and boardroom meetings now offer their own backdrops, while you can switch staff responsibilities on plenty of screens (no more digging into the staff menu and changing everything there).
There's a greater emphasis on colour, too – meaning scout reports no longer feel like itemised receipts full of numbers and you can focus solely on how good a player is or could be. One of the most helpful new additions is the new Scouting Reminder system which updates you on a player if they've learned a new position, or suffered an injury-related setback.
For all of the positivity, some niggling legacy issues remain. For one, players can still occasionally be insanely overpriced. We understand that teams will want to hold onto their best players, but asking for outrageously huge sums when a bigger club swoops feels a little counterproductive when it then affects the player's morale. On top of that, many press conference responses are in dire need of updating after a few years.
Football Manager 2020 – 5/5
– Reviewed on Steam
Football Manager is back and its focus on long-term construction of a footballing powerhouse is refreshing for a series that previously felt solely focused on the short-to-mid term. The only challenge you'll have now is keeping in the board's good graces long enough to leave your imprint on a club.
- The best sports sim around
- A big focus on long-term goals
- Board objectives are interesting and influence the way the game plays
- Lots of recycled press conference conversations
- Occasionally over-inflated fees for players
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