Since breaking my Madden NFL 21 duck earlier in the year, I’ve traded handegg for football, because I paid full-price for FIFA 21 at launch and I figured I should get my money’s worth. My relationship with EA Sports’ soccer simulation is a storied one: I lost countless lunchtimes to FIFA Football 2003 – the one with Roberto Carlos on the cover – as my school friends and I had a league we’d play through, and while it wasn’t a particularly great game, I cherish those memories to this day.
But, honestly, I’ve been warm-and-cold with the FIFA games for well over a generation now: I think the gameplay lacks the authenticity of the current PES series, and the presentation is miles off NBA 2K21 and MLB The Show 21. Yes, the series is in a better state than Madden NFL 21 – which, presumably due to its lack of worldwide appeal, gets a fraction of FIFA’s budget – but in recent years I’ve struggled to really get “into” it.
One of the problems, of course, is that I’m just not very good at the game – or, at least, I’ve been unable to compete online. I’ve had this weird problem with the FIFA franchise where I’d be able to smash the AI on, say, Professional difficulty – but, conversely, I’d get crushed on World Class. This has always rubbed me the wrong way: it felt, for the longest time, like I either had the option to win every match 8-0 or lose it 2-0. For this reason, I’ve found myself tiring of the franchise fast.
Controversially, though, I’ve become addicted to Ultimate Team modes, and I wanted to give FIFA 21 another go. Now, I’ve played Ultimate Team plenty in the past, but it’s never held my attention like Diamond Dynasty and MyTeam in competing franchises. The thing I respect about FIFA is, due to football’s global popularity, its card collecting mode is denser than anything you find in other titles; the downside to this is you end up with a Club filled with crap cards.
But FIFA 21 is, by a country mile, the most popular sports game on the market – and, as someone who likes sports games a lot, I was eager to give it a proper go. I didn’t really have a set goal when I embarked on this journey – if you read my Madden NFL 21 article, you’ll know that I did a lot of research on tactics in order to better understand the sport so that I could finally win an online match – but it’s not like I’ve never won in a FIFA game before; I just wanted to get better.
Building a Better Squad
I’d already played a little bit of Ultimate Team in FIFA 21 when I decided to put together this article, but my situation was dire. The first problem I had was my Squad: I was running – or, should that be, crawling – with 34-year-old Raúl García as my striker, and I had just over 50 Chemistry. For some reason I always assumed that the game would be balanced in such a way that I’d be able to compete with even a bad team; I was wrong.
So my first objective was to overhaul my team completely, and I spent a bit of time fiddling with cards I already had in my Club’s roster. I read online that Pace was one of the most important attributes, and because I was conceding a lot of goals, I decided to select a 4-4-2 formation with two holding midfielders to give myself extra protection; I ended up with a squad that had the likes of Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings in it – a pretty weak team overall, but better than what I had.
However, having fallen as far as Division 9 – !!! – in Division Rivals, I knew I needed to both improve my game and my starting lineup, so there was no point in even playing online yet. Unlike Madden NFL 21, I’ve grown up watching and playing football my entire life, so I knew what I was doing wrong in games; I was basically incapable of defending: I’d switch to my centre backs whenever the opponent was in my half, and I’d draw them towards the ball, leaving myself wide open every single time.
Even though I knew this was my problem, I struggled to break the habit, and I knew I had to practice at defending. I started to watch some great YouTube content that explained what I should be doing in certain scenarios, and while everything I learned made practical sense in terms of real-world football tactics, when I started to apply that in FIFA 21 matches I saw massive improvements to my game.
For example, I mentioned earlier that I elected for a 4-4-2 formation with two holding midfielders, but I’d often let my opponents pass through them; once I started actually using them to block off passing lanes and force them to go out wide, I stopped getting carved up quite so easily. Make no mistake, I was still conceding a lot of goals even against the computer, but suddenly I was able to retain my defensive line better and at least see some improvements.
I started to slowly dial up the difficulty in Squad Battles to World Class, and I was beginning to get clean sheets. I learned how to defend one-on-one situations, by forcing forwards outside and at the very least limit them to low percentage shots at the near post. These were all skills that I knew I’d need to use online, where the standard of play is generally much higher. I managed to get a 0-0 against an 88-rated squad with decent chemistry on World Class difficulty, and I knew this was a breakthrough.
Of course, while a 0-0 against a team featuring Mbappe and Messi is all well and good, I wasn’t scoring at the opposite end of the field. By neutralising teams, I knew I’d improved defensively, but I was basically unable to score. At this point, I knew personnel was a problem, and that I’d have to overhaul my entire team. I was getting to the point where I was feeling more confident about my ability to compete online, but with the greatest of respect, I knew Redmond wasn’t going to cut it.
I’d earned a fair few Coins and Packs just by playing the game at this point, but I hadn’t been messing around with the Transfer Market too much. I knew I was going to need to sell players in order to purchase better ones, and to my surprise I was able to build a pretty decent team with not much money at all. Of course, I was buying basic Gold cards rather than unfathomably expensive FUT Icons, but things started to come together.
I knew I wanted to stick with Kevin Trapp in goal because, while he’s far from the best keeper in the game, I was comfortable with him. So I started to work out from there, adding Bundesliga players to my defence, and eventually settling on a French theme. I replaced Redmond with Marcus Rashford, and saved up a lot of money to buy a basic version of Paul Pogba in midfield, who I liked as a CDM. For a while I used Francis Coquelin alongside him, but the goal was always to get N’Golo Kante in there.
I added Anthony Martial in attack, and paired him with Moussa Dembélé; suddenly I had lethal pace, perfect Chemistry, and a rapid defence. But I still wasn’t really scoring very much at all against decent teams in Squad Battles: yes, I could batter teams with ratings in the 70s purely by using the explosive pace of my forwards, but faster defenders completely neutralised my attack. Even with a vastly superior squad, I knew there was work to do.
I learned that I needed to adjust the roles of my players. Martial and Dembélé certainly had the pace to get in behind, but I wasn’t instructing them to do so; I changed their roles, and they started to make more off-the-ball runs for me. This allowed me to use their pace to better break the lines. I also looked into Skill Moves; fake shots, for example, gave me a means to better beat defenders, and while I don’t think I’ll ever be able to perform the kind of trickery you see on YouTube, I started to be able to make space for my forwards against hardy centre backs.
Once I started comfortably winning Squad Battle games on World Class, I knew I was qualified to give Division Rivals another go, and I was interested to see how I fared against human competition. I now had a very good squad, but crucially I’d learned how to attack and defend; there was no way I’d be staying in Division 9 for very long.
To my surprise, even in the doldrums of this division, I was still coming up against squads better than mine – we’re talking 89-rated teams, most of the time. And, despite all that I’d learned offline, I was conceding a lot of goals, too. I’d find that I’d be able to keep opponents to two or three shots per game, but I’d concede all of them; conversely, I’d have upwards of ten shots myself, and only put away one or two. Losing a match 3-1 despite dominating the game became a tough pill to swallow.
But I found that wins would come in groups: I’d get three or four on the bounce, move up into Division 8, and then lose a couple and drop back down. My one goal, really, was not to embarrass myself: I didn’t mind losing, I just didn’t want to get battered 8-0. And to my credit, that never happened: there was one match where I went 3-0 down within about 30 minutes, but ended up fighting my way back to 3-3; a huge achievement against a player who was definitely a shade better than me.
I currently find myself in Division 7, and while I know there’ll be people reading this chuckling to themselves at such a lowly achievement, the difference in my overall play is night and day. If I could play myself from two or three weeks ago, I’d probably win 15-0; the progress has been dramatic. I’m still making silly mistakes and panicking defensively when I shouldn’t, and I’m not scoring as many goals as I feel I should be, but there’s no question I’ve improved a lot.
The next steps for me are to work on improving what I’ve got. There are better versions of Pogba and Kante, for example, which would enhance my midfield for a fee; I’d love to get someone like Eric Cantona upfront, but I know it’s going to set me back millions of Coins. I’m at a stage now, with my squad, where I’m basically trading any cards I earn and saving my Coins so that I can make minor improvements to the players I’ve already got.
I’ve actually mostly enjoyed playing online; no one uses a microphone so I haven’t encountered anywhere near the amount of abuse I faced in Madden NFL 21. I did receive some very salty messages, but generally I think FIFA 21’s matchmaking works well; I feel like I’m playing against players at a roughly similar skill level, and this is leading to some competitive matches with fun ebbs-and-flows; sometimes I get roundly beaten by a better player, other times I win comfortably as well. Fair.
As such, unlike Madden NFL 21, I think I’m going to continue playing throughout the rest of the season. I’m well on my way to qualifying for a Weekend League now, and while I’d expect to get thumped by that kind of competition, I have set myself a goal to keep improving my squad and see how I match up in that kind environment; I’ll definitely write about my first Weekend League once I make it. If I could get just one win, I’d be very happy.
I do think FIFA 21’s Ultimate Team puts a little too much emphasis on your squad; a better player with an equal squad will beat you, but a better player with a better squad will absolutely demolish you. With some cards above 90 attracting prices in the millions, it doesn’t always feel entirely fair. But building a competitive squad is undeniably addictive, and I’m not sure it’d have the same appeal if you could easily add, say, Cristiano Ronaldo to your roster.
I think what the game needs is a better suite of modes, particularly for offline play. Squad Battles was useful for me when I was learning to play the game, but I compare it to something like Conquest and Showdown in MLB The Show 21, and I’m much more compelled to actually use my players offline in those modes than I am to do anything in FIFA 21. There’s loads EA Sports could do here, but it feels like it’s placed all of its attention on multiplayer, and left solo play to languish.
However, I must admit, I’ve garnered a greater appreciation for FIFA 21’s gameplay now I’m playing at a better standard. I still think there are some big issues; AI controlled players behave strangely sometimes, and it can be infuriating when you’re in an online situation and a player refuses to jog towards a loose ball or your pass goes completely astray for no rhyme or reason. But I’m playing more like “real football” now, and I even surprised myself how, when watching the recent Chelsea and Manchester United game in the Premier League, I was paying more attention to the roles of each player on the pitch and thinking about how I’d be managing each offensive and defensive encounter.
Are you any good at FIFA 21, and what are the areas of your game that you need to improve at? What does your Ultimate Team squad look like, and have you ever entered a Weekend League? How do you think EA Sports could improve the mode? Play a long through ball in the comments section below.