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Football Manager 2021: 20 teams you need to play as

Football Manager
(Image credit: Football Manager)

When you’re first loading up Football Manager, choosing your character and thinking about the team you want to take control of, you’re greeted with the team that you support as the default option. But really - who plays as their own team?

No, different bonds are created in FM. Loyalties are forged to random third-division Italian sides that you guided to a Champions League final in 2027 on FM14. A National League club you managed in FM17 who built a stadium in your name. A small, African nation that you led to the 2034 World Cup final on FM19, only to be beaten on penalties by Sweden. 

If you’ve not tied yourself down to a club in the new version of the game, we’re here to help. Here are our top picks of who to manage this time around. 

1. Barcelona

Let’s start with a big one. You might have heard of this lot.

Taking over a sleeping giant is one of the most exciting challenges in Football Manager - and though you could hardly describe a team of Barcelona’s ambitions as “sleeping”, they’re in a transition period that will take some navigating. Big names have left, there’s a world-class academy at your fingertips and starlets like Ansu Fati, Pedri and Trincao to utilise, while Ilaix Moriba and Nico wait patiently, too.

There’ll be an expectancy on attractive football but given that all Barca really need is someone to stretch play, this is a straightforward first job to play with. Plenty of talent worth offloading - you could pick one of Griezmann, Dembele and Coutinho to generate £60m plus, for example - and then there’s the transition into post-Messi years. You might as well get him on your coaching staff, too. 

2. Schalke 04

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It never rains but it pours in Gelsenkirchen. They recently went 30 games without a Bundesliga win in the real world yet still boast a top academy, big stadium and a big name. Can you turn it around?

Schalke have four wonderkids: 20-year-old centre-back Ozan Kabak, 17-year-old utility man Arbnor Aliu, Welsh wing wizard Rabbi Matondo and fellow wide-man Sidi Sane - who could be fire if he’s anything like the other great Sane to come out of Schalke. The goal is to return this faltering side to its former glory via derbies with Dortmund - there’s plenty to build around to get you started.

3. Wigan Athletic

Recently relegated League One side Wigan Athletic are the biggest club that you can get a job with in England from the point of unemployment. The challenge is quite simple: get the Latics back to their late 2000s pomp.

Money is tight to begin with at the Lancastrian club, so you’re going to have to use your wits, along with a few free transfers. But the expectations are strangely skewed. This was a team who were comfortably avoiding relegation before the points deduction - yet they’re expected to be relegated to League Two with most of that same squad at the start of 2020/21 season.

Wigan is a straightforward job to take on. Good youth, good stadium and a nice kit with no sponsor. Give it a whirl. 

4. Arsenal

Alexandre Lacazette

(Image credit: PA)

Another underachieving A-lister in the European game, Arsenal don’t give you too much backing in your first season - surprise, surprise. But the second season? That’s where you can really have fun with the Gunners. 

Mesut Ozil is leaving on a free next summer - and you can actually use him in your first season. As is David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi and on-loan Dani Ceballos, freeing up half a million in wages every week. The likes of Hector Bellerin, Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette will command big fees while Arsenal’s famed Hale End academy is churning out some of the best - and most valuable - youngsters in the game. Give it three years, you should have won a Europa title at least.

5. Paris Saint-Germain

Unlimited pots of money? Check. The best young player on the game? Check. A squad packed full of top players ready to be sold for a revolution? Check. 

It’s easy to see why Mauricio Pochettino has taken the Paris Saint-Germain job: it’s a stem cell of an opportunity. You could turn PSG into anything you like with the players and the facilities at your disposal - make them into the new Galacticos, bring through an entire squad of academy graduates or turn them into Europe’s newest culture club only signing players with a 20 rating for flair. You have the tools to do it all. 

6. Red Bull Salzburg

Dominik Szoboszlai

(Image credit: PA)

Just because RB Leipzig is a little too obvious - what and PSG isn’t, FFT? - why not take over Red Bull’s second-biggest European enterprise?

RB Salzburg is bringing through some of the biggest talents in the game. With a top academy, decent players in the first team already and scope to build Austria more as a footballing powerhouse, there are considerable resources that you can use with a save here. Oh, and why not add another affiliate club while you’re at it? Imagine you’re making RB Swindon. 

7. Kaiserslautern

Kaiserslautern are the 10th most successful German club ever and play in a stadium bigger than Chelsea’s. Yet somehow, the 1999 Champions League semi-finalists are rotting in the third tier in Germany. 

Rebuilding the Red Devils into a feared force again is one of the most satisfying jobs in FM. Like fellow sleeping giants 1860 Munich, Kaiserslautern fans bitterly hate Bayern Munich - but given that they exist in their own town, free of bigger rivals, they’re a great club to turn into a franchise worth moving to. 

8. Saint-Etienne

Saint-Etienne

(Image credit: PA)

Saint-Etienne are also from a big city in their country. They’ve also tasted big success in the past. But given recent struggles of narrowly avoiding relegation last season, they’re due a big kick up the backside in FM21.

This is the club that produced Wesley Fofana and William Saliba. They’re always going to manufacture talent - Adil Aouchiche is one to build your team around - and there’s a fierce rivalry with Lyon to get excited about, too. Claude Puel is a groundwork-layer, after all - see Leicester City and Southampton. Now’s your chance to jump in and create something special - though you’ll have to wait till your second season to have any kind of transfer budget. 

9. Auckland City

It’s not just the big leagues that are worth checking out in Football Manager. Oceania has seen a lot of detail added this time around - and you’d be hard pressed to find a more dominant side than New Zealand’s Auckland City in the game. 

If you’re just getting to grips with FM and want to go somewhere you’ll have very little knowledge of, this could be the trick. There’s scope too to build the nation too and turn New Zealand into a much higher-rated league in terms of reputation.

10. PSV Eindhoven

PSV

(Image credit: PA)

PSV Eindhoven has one of the nicest balances of squad in Europe, right now. Eran Zahavi, Philip Max and Mario Gotze are more established names ahead of wonderkids like Mohamed Ihattaren, Donyell Malen, Cody Gakpo.

The name of the game is in challenging Ajax for that one Champions League spot. This is a former European Cup winner too, don’t forget. There’s plenty of talent coming out of the Netherlands and it’s fairly easy to sign talent in the Dutch league. 

11. Inter Milan

If you’re a manager who plays lone forwards and you’d like to spend time sculpting a team in the transfer market, here’s an idea - take over Inter Milan and sell one of Lautaro Martinez or Romelu Lukaku, then use the funds to rebuild elsewhere. 

Inter Milan expect you to be solid defensively. They have a history of signing top South American players and originally split from AC Milan because they wanted to be more international than the Rossoneri - hence the name - and incorporate foreigners into the set-up. That’s enough of a back-drop for you to build an exciting new squad off the back of Antonio Conte’s good work. Why not sell both your star strikers and put faith in wonderkids Sebastiano Esposito and Eddie Salcedo?

12. AC Milan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

(Image credit: PA Images)

...or why not do the opposite?

AC Milan are well-funded with a big stadium, too (disclaimer: the same one). But instead of being defensive and open to foreign exports, they’re traditionally reliant on local talent and more expansive tactics. This is not only a big chance to get Zlatan Ibrahimovic in your coaching staff, it’s an opportunity to rebuild a Sacchi-esque or Ancelotti-inspired 4-4-2 team purely with homegrown talent. 

13. Sheffield Wednesday

Deducted points at the start of the 2020/21 season, Sheffield Wednesday are living in the shadows of their local rivals. Why not take them back to where they belong?

Wednesday’s starting XI is good enough to get you close to the play-offs but the back-ups leave a lot to be desired. Given that the club have been through two managers already this season, they’re going to be quite the challenge - but tempt Jack Wilshere on a free transfer and you just might manage to work wonders with these mis-firing Owls. 

14. Benfica

Benfica

(Image credit: PA)

When legendary manager Bela Guttmann was refused a modest pay rise at Benfica back in the 1960s, he put a curse on the club to not win the European Cup for 100 years. Eight European finals later, the curse is still holding up.

Can you be the one to break it? Benfica, or SLB as they’re known as on FM, have around a dozen wonderkids, a steady academy and a top hitman in Darwin Nunez. If you can keep a few of the talents around and invest the money you receive wisely, there’s no reason you can’t win at least a Europa League in your first couple of seasons. 

15. Bolton Wanderers

Bolton Wanderers may be in League Two now but remember when they were the talk of the Premier League? Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo all balling in the same side - at one point, Bolton had an incredible number of players who were captains at international level.

Those days are worth reliving. Taking Bolton back up to the top is one thing - doing it with the same style is quite another. See how many legends you can tempt to the club on their way down - imagine the Trotters in 2025, lining up with the likes of Paul Pogba and Neymar in midfield, well into their 30s but leading Bolton to the Champions League campaign that Sam Allardyce never quite made. 

16. Deportivo La Coruna

Deportivo

(Image credit: PA)

Deportivo La Coruna were the last winners of La Liga aside from the big three and Valencia. Now, they’re languishing in the third tier. Someone needs to put that right.

There are great young Spanish players coming through and plenty of stiff competition in Spanish football right now. The top tier is due a shake-up though. With many teams playing similar styles in La Liga in 2021, what will you bring to the table when you arrive in 2023? It’s a big challenge but restoring the glory to Depor has been a solid FM option for yonks, now. 

17. Inter Miami

OK, who doesn’t want David Beckham as their boss?

The Florida start-up already has the likes of Juventus has-beens Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi on board. An MLS save requires plenty of reading the manual - signing players is a job in itself - but it might be fun to take a cool, new club and produce something brand new, all the while signing Europe’s over-30s. Plus, those kits are just lovely. 

18. Atletico Ottawa

Atletico Ottawa

(Image credit: PA)

Canada are hosting the World Cup with the USA and Mexico in six years’ time. Getting started on Atletico Ottawa now - an affiliate of Atletico Madrid - gives you the opportunity to build Canada’s footballing prowess now.

The club are newly founded - just like Inter Miami - and they’re aiming to win the Canadian Cup against the three Canadian MLS teams, Toronto, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact. Plus, there’s the Mexican dominance in the CONMEBOL Champions League you could try and break. Why not take the Canada national job too, build the reputation of the country and see how far you can take everyone’s favourite friendly North American nation?

19. Athletic Bilbao

You know the drill by now with Athletic Bilbao. Only Basque players allowed, a top academy and a fight for the La Liga Champions League spots with some of the big boys. But this year, it’s more fun than usual. 

Nico Serrano, Juan Artola and Nico Williams are a triad of wonderkids worth building on, too. These three can lead your attack for years to come - all you have to do is forge a platform behind them. Will you be as “out there” as Marcelo Bielsa was with his tactics, though? The choice is yours.  

20. Watford

Watford v AFC Bournemouth live stream

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When FourFourTwo spoke to Football Manager director and Watford fanatic Miles Jacobson recently, he revealed that he only plays as the Hornets when he’s playing a save. Is the game secretly skewed to favour the Vicarage Road outfit?

Well… no. But still, Watford have three or four wonderkids, a wacky kit, the best squad in the Championship and owners who are cool with you doing whatever you like so long as you win. Can you be the only Watford manager to ever last longer than three weeks? Other than Miles, of course… 

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