Welcome back to On The Break and the first post of the FM21 cycle! I hope everyone who is reading this is happy, healthy, and can say the same for all of their family and friends. This post is just a little run down of my time with the Beta so far, as we approach the full release on November 24th. I’ll talk a little about my save with Watford, although I was also updating in a Twitter thread HERE, so feel free to check that out too. In a second post to be released soon, I’ll talk more about the game itself, and my likes and dislikes of the changes and new features.
So at the time of writing this, I’m on just over 45 hours of gameplay, which in a week is a quite a lot compared to the rate I usually play. Lockdown has given me more time to have a decent look around and get into a save, although I’m not the most in depth FM player, so by no means have I tested every area or looked at every screen.
WATFORD FC – MY BETA SAVE
There wasn’t really much rhyme or reason as to why I chose Watford for my Beta save, I mostly put it down to Ben Foster, the Cycling GK! Watching his YouTube videos gave me an interest in Watford above most other clubs, plus they have some really talented young players such as João Pedro, Domingos Quina, Adalberto Peñaranda and more.
Plus, if any side was going to get a cheeky Beta boost from Miles, it was bound to be Watford!
We started the season with no transfer funds, and overspending on wages by 100k per week, so in my first meeting with the squad I promised that the squad would get smaller, because there were plenty of high earners who I felt could be moved on. The issue with this was getting decent fees for the players we were happy to lose. I wasn’t prepared to get mugged off. We didn’t do our first deals until a couple of days before the end of the season, selling Christian Kabasele and Andre Gray for a combined £21.7m. The saving in wages was more important than the transfer fees though, as Gray was on 70k p/w, an obscene amount in the Championship for a player who was going to be back up at best. Matt Phillips was brought in as a replacement. I don’t necessarily think Phillips is a better player, but he was 50k p/w cheaper.
The other signing I made early on, I prematurely touted as the best signing I’ll make on FM21 full stop. That’s a huge claim at anytime, but here in the Beta, it was proven to be absurd.
On paper, this signing was incredible. Vinícius Júnior has ability far, far, far beyond the Championship, having already played a full season with Real Madrid and being capped by Brazil. To be paying 10% of his wages too, less than 20k p/w, made him a bargain that I couldn’t pass on. He did okay, he really did, but I expected so much more.
The season started very slowly, we won on the opening day, beating Middlesbrough 1-0, but then incredibly went on to draw all of our next 5 league games, leaving us down in 12th and honestly by that point, already putting us out of the title race.
By January we had managed to turn some draws into wins, and sat 3rd in the league, but we still weren’t looking convincing, often struggling with how clinical we were in front of goal. The chances we were making were good enough on the whole, we were often outperforming opponents on xG even when we didn’t win the game, I just didn’t have a striker I knew I could put my house on when the chips were down. I did get a bit of joy by moving João Pedro from the right-wing and playing him up-front, originally to cover a Troy Deeney injury, but then because he was the man in form. This meant dipping in to the January transfer window, signing Helder Costa on loan from Leeds to replace João on the right hand side.
January was a shocking month for us though, with only one league win in 5, and Blackburn had a 12 point swing on us, moving them above us and Brentford, and leaving us 10 points off the Automatic Promotion spots.
A strong run of form in the back end of the season saw us overturn that deficit, and despite getting thumped away to Norwich and Brentford within the last 4 games of the season, we did just enough to scrape over the line.
We told the board we would win the league and we didn’t get close, so the season doesn’t really feel like a success, but getting back to the Premier League was vital, and we achieved that. On a personal level, I was a bit disappointed that it took changing to a 4-2-3-1 Gegenpress system to go on a run of form good enough to get us there. I started with the aim of not using the tactical presets and creating my own system, but with that not working, and my assistant saying we suited the preset, it seemed silly just to continue struggling for the sake of my pride. I hope that as we get further into the FM21 life cycle we don’t find that only certain ways of playing are effective in the match engine, because as it stands right now FM21 is playing very nicely.
THE SECOND SEASON
I’ll be honest, season two of this save was a shambles, right from the get go. I didn’t want to leave it out of the post, but I was playing through it so quickly that I didn’t take any screenshots after I did my transfer business, so this is just going to be a written summary of what happened and why it fell apart.
I stand by my transfer business, I think despite all the issues, the players I brought in all added extra strength, and would arguably all start in the strongest XI from that squad. Marcus Edwards in particular was really impressive in a struggling side, he’s a player I’d love to manage again at some point this year.
The issues started with trying to clear some of the dead wood from the squad. Players like Kiko Femenía, Craig Cathcart, Craig Dawson, and even Troy Deeney were all players I wanted to actively lose, but they were all in the core social group and influential players, so when I tried to get some bids for any of them the whole squad hated it. Of course, this is something I should have seen coming, but realistically none of them were good enough and they needed to go. By the end of the transfer window, they were all still in the squad and playing games, which shows I didn’t do all the business I needed to. The defence in particular struggled, we just didn’t have Premier League quality at the back.
As well as struggling to get the squad how I wanted it, I also felt I was given a bit of a raw deal by the board. We were promoted and played our best football in a positive Gegenpress system, yet at the end of the first season the board changed the club vision to ‘prefer’ defensively solid, direct, counter-attacking football. The antithesis of what the squad knew and had been built around. I tried to negotiate this out and was instantly dismissed, which I think is an issue with club visions in general, this year and last. I may have only been in the job a year, but I got us promoted and was trying to tell the board that a change of style would see us suffer, I think that should at least be discussed, not just dismissed out of hand. It seems very hard to get even minor requests negotiated unless you’ve been at a club for years.
Some of my signings, most notably Sander Berge, were made because of a change of system, I had to give it a try after all. So I dropped the AMC to facilitate playing with a Half Back (Berge) and set up a counter attacking system, just praying it would be successful. It wasn’t.
In my defence, we were given a horror start. A narrow defeat to Palace on the opening day was undeserved, we dominated the stats and xG and only lost to a Andros Townsend wonder goal. After that though, we faced Man United (Home), Liverpool (Away), and Chelsea (Home). We lost all three games by an aggregate of 11-3, so much for defensively solid. That was followed by a drab 0-0 against Fulham, sat one place above us in 19th at the time.
We hadn’t been able to improve the defence, and our strikers proved in the Championship they weren’t clinical, which was being proven more than ever in the Premier League.
After a home defeat to Burnley, also struggling, I gave up on pleasing the board, we needed results, and fast. Going back to the 4-2-3-1 Gegenpress yielded 2 wins and 2 draws from the next 4 games, we were back in touch, but the board were on my backs. I had to try and balance results and club vision, which led to a mishmash of styles and formations, 3 at the back one game, full attacking press the next. It was horrible, Everton, Arsenal, and Palace again all dispatched us, and then it came.
The board wanted a chat, and here’s where the situation starts to leave a very sour taste in the mouth.
I went into the chat and told them that in a month it would look better, trying to buy as much time as possible. In the end I had to make that an official promise, but it was at least a month rather than a points total. In hindsight, I think the points total might have saved my job. Consecutive 4-1 defeats away at Villa and Liverpool left me just smashing continue to get the inevitable over with, but with United and Arsenal up next, I needed to do something. I tried once more to build a counter attacking system that would suit the squad. It wasn’t particularly direct, but if I got results and was more defensively solid, surely that would be enough.
We stole, and I mean STOLE, 3 points from Old Trafford, somehow. Man United with a front 4 of Sancho, Fernandes, Martial and Greenwood, had an xG of 2.02 to our 0.40, but when João Pedro ran through in the 88th minute and silenced the crowd, I literally jumped out of my chair.
Amazingly, we followed this up by beating Arsenal 3-2 at home. If anything that result was more surprising given that we went behind twice, and scored in the 95th and 96th minutes to pinch it at the death. At this point, I was ecstatic, if only I had come up with this system earlier. Next game up was a home game against Brighton, 16th vs 18th, a huge 6 pointer.
Remember I said about a sour taste in the mouth? Yeah, this is where it got me.
Watford beat Brighton 2-1, but I wasn’t in charge to see it happen.
The day after the Arsenal game, I was sacked. Despite securing surely the 2 most surprising results of the season back to back, the board decided my assistant could do a better job than me and hired him as Interim Manager until the end of the season long before my month to improve things was over. I can only assume that it wasn’t directly affected by recent results, and was down to the club vision, because surely no board would pick that time to fire their manager, at least until they lost again?
Let me be clear, I don’t think my sacking was unfair. The board wanted a mid-table finish by playing direct counter attacking football, and I was in a relegation scrap trying to play more expansive football. I do think however, that the board have a lot to answer for. Changing the entire playing style with no room for negotiation, and then expecting a mid-table finish on top of that, is asking a lot of any manager. What I do think was unfair, was not giving me the full month to improve things. The club vision objectives must work on a sliding scale, so even if I wasn’t playing direct football, I was counter attacking more and getting closer to a mid-table spot, meaning my rating should have been improving. Plus, the other areas of the visions like transfers and the 5 year plan were all pleasing or ahead of schedule, so they weren’t a detriment either.
Do I think I have a lot to answer for as well? Hell yeah!
I never really felt comfortable as manager of Watford, at no point did I have a system or squad I was truly convinced by. As soon as I failed to renegotiate any of the club vision points, I knew I was in trouble. I changed systems too often and too radically, didn’t bring in enough quality to get the results I needed, and paid the price. I think I’d have kept Watford up, but that wasn’t what they were looking for.
At least I’ve got all of FM21’s life cycle to shake it off!
Wow, that was a lot longer than I expected it to be! I was actually going to put my thoughts about the game itself in this post too, but that would make it far too long, I’ll bring that out as a separate post in the next few days! If you’ve got this far, thank you for reading. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything and putting too much pressure on myself to rush posts out has caused all of my previous saves to remain unfinished, but I’m back, enjoying writing, and so far loving FM21. Hit me up in the comments or on Twitter if you have any thoughts!