FM21: How To Survive In The Top Division

First of all: Congratulations! You worked hard to get your team to the promised land of the Top Division in your nation! That’s the good news. The bad news is you have to survive in the top division while competing with the big clubs on a shoestring budget in FM21. AND with a smaller amount of staff. AND with inferior players.

Luckily, not all hope is lost! This is why we play Football Manager, to test ourselves against the big boys and to topple them on the way to greatness. But first things first, you have to survive that first season. Below, we will go through the different ways of achieving this.

Can your Current Squad survive?

The first thing to do after promotion is to evaluate if your squad is good enough to compete at a higher level. This is where you have to ignore your sentimentality towards players and be ruthless on your squad where needed!

Time to Evaluate! Is your current squad good enough to survive in the top division?

On my current save, I previously managed Wigan Athletic from League 1 up to the Premier League with back to back promotions. As much as I loved them, I knew most of my squad was not Premier League quality. Replacements were needed and quick!

The best way to decide was to look at any games you played in the previous season against top flight teams. How did the players perform? Was it a close game or were you smacked around the pitch for 90 minutes? Also, did your team destroy your league en route to promotion or just scrape through in the play offs?

Cup games against top division opponents should give you an idea if you can survive with your current squad.

For my Wigan team, we played Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup Quarter Final and (not surprisingly) were beaten 4-1. Despite this, we played Nottingham Forest in the previous round and should have beaten them, but drew 0-0 before winning on penalties. With both clubs in the Premier League, it was clear we could compete, except against the big clubs of the division. This gave me confidence in my squad after promotion.

Buying Top Division Players

Yes, transfers get many a football manager licking their lips at the bargains and the talent they can buy. But this time, you are buying to survive. Bear in mind as well your club reputation will affect the quality of players you can bring in as well. So if you take Enfield Town from Tier 7 to the English Premier League, don’t assume you will be buying wonderkids from your first season there!

Are you going to trust that 17 year old youngster or the experienced veteran when surviving your first season in the top division (Be honest!)? Mental attributes make all the difference in a relegation dogfight and bringing in strong, mentally tough players with top flight experience can aid you in key matches.

After leaving Wigan, I currently manage Norwich City in the Sky Bet Championship with the aim of promotion the Premier League. One player I bought with me from Wigan (with these amazing mental attributes below) was Jacob Davenport.

Jacob Davenport: Seriously good mental attributes in the battle for survival.

This man is only 25 years old but has the mental attributes of someone in their thirties. He was worth every penny of the £74,000 (not a typo) we paid to Blackburn to take him to Wigan initially. He gave us that bite in midfield, doing the dirty and aggressive work on the way to survival in the Premier League. Here’s hoping he can repeat the performances for us at Norwich!

Players like these complement your more technical players when promoted to the top division. When your team is being outplayed by better quality teams, you need players who will Get Stuck In!

Teams may not take you seriously

Now this was certainly true on previous versions of Football Manager. After you win promotion, you start your first season in the top division… and your opponents have put the reserve team out against you! What gives?

If you are lucky to have a low reputation, teams may not take you seriously. I don’t have that luxury at 3 1/2 stars above.

It all comes down to your club reputation, which is likely to be lower than every other team in the division (especially if you started WAY down in non-league). This means the opposition may not take you seriously, so you can sneak some results at the start of the season to make survival more likely.

In addition, you may have the “Promotion Bounce”, which is when a newly promoted team starts the next season in good form and picks up some wins. If you can take advantage of this, your aim of survival can be given a boost early in the season. Coupled with your opponents not taking you seriously with team selections, this could lead to some solid results for your squad.

I don’t think Wigan got the memo about the Promotion Bounce when starting their season…

Sadly, I did not get this at Wigan when promoted to the Premier League. We started the season with only 3 wins and 11 points from our first 10 games. Our club reputation was 3 stars, so teams did not take us as lightly as a lower reputation clubs. Remember this when you find yourself promoted with a Dulwich Hamlet and take advantage of your lack of reputation!

Do Not Panic!

Being promoted to the top division brings the possibility of being thrashed by the leagues top teams and feeling the sheer pain each time. In these situations: DO NOT PANIC!

The best way to see how your team is coping is the games which you should be winning or drawing. These are likely to be teams around you at the bottom or (if you’re lucky) in mid-table. If you’re winning these games, great! If you’re performing badly or losing consistently, then you may need to make some changes.

This was my record at away games with Wigan in my first season of Premier league football:

Away days in the top division can be painful. Make sure your home game results get you to survival.

Depressing to read huh? Imagine watching those heavy defeats happen before your eyes. Amazingly, we recovered from these defeats to finish 11th in our first Premier League season. The key is to not panic and don’t think your squad cannot compete. Survival is your goal in Season One; the big boys can be targeted in later seasons.

Defensive Midfielder’s are key to Survival!

Facing more illustrious clubs on a weekly basis means you are going to encounter a lot of higher quality players. Quality players who will be able to play through or destroy your defence regularly. Your defence are going to need help from the rest of the team if you want to survive in the top division.

One way to counter this is to use a Defensive Midfielder, who can sit in front of your defence and help win the ball back. This is not a tactics guide per se, although this article may be of use to you in using a Defensive Midfielder, but using one can be useful in a variety of formations.

Jean-Philippe Gbamin: Strong and a crunching tackler. Key to survival I reckon.

Take my newly promoted Norwich team, for example. Now that we are facing better opposition next season, I am training a 4-3-3 tactic which utilises a Defensive Midfielder, most likely to be new signing Jean-Philippe Gbamin. He will have the job of breaking up opposition attacks and covering for defenders when they go forward for set pieces.

The useful part of a Defensive Midfielder is the ability to either mark an Attacking Midfielder out of the game completely or to utilise a Deep Lying Playmaker at the base of the midfield to create chances or counter attacks. There are other options available, but playing a defensive midfielder can help break up opposition attacks and keep them away from your goal.

The position where Jean-Philippe Gbamin is likely to slot in.

Underdog Team Talks

When it comes to team talks, you want to relax and motivate the players, knowing nothing is expected of them during your first season in the top division. This is where the underdog team talk is effective.

Usually, after promotion, you will have a team talk option stating “no-one expects anything from us”. Another team talk to use is “Let’s avenge our last result against this lot” when your team were previously beaten by your upcoming opponents.

A Phil Brown style team talk is unlikely to work on your team if you wish to survive.

These team talks will help motivate your team, especially if they are aware they will be in a relegation scrap in their first season in the top division. After your promotion season, do an End of Season Team Meeting and make your squad aware they will be fighting relegation next season (assuming your Board are just asking for survival). Use this to aid your team talks the following season and ease the expectations on your players.

Survival Awaits!

There is much to consider when attempting to survive your first season in the top division of your chosen nation in FM21. From making sure your squad is competitive to using the correct team talks and NOT PANICKING! But you have taken your team this far. And I believe you can take them further. Establish yourselves in this division and the world is your oyster! Or rather you can begin to achieve mid table mediocrity.

But who plays Football Manager for mediocrity?


Make sure to follow me on @Craig_FM1 and @DictateTheGame for more Football Manager news; guides and content. Check me out as well on YouTube and on Twitch for episodes and streams of Football Manager 2021.

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FM21: How To Survive In The Top Division