Derby FM20 – December 2020: Post-Fergie Time

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

It seems the board takeover is back on. Is it just me, or am I justified in feeling a bit unsettled that I hear about these things via the media? The rumours and media chit-chat are strong enough to make me believe that in the end I will have new employers, and I can only hope they are good ones. Whilst any manager would like more money, further patience from the board, the capacity to add extra coaches, the reality is I’ve done quite well with Mr Morris in charge. I don’t believe he’s been ungenerous, and there appears to be a genuine intent to help the team to become competitive.

Maybe our new overlords will agree to throw extra transfer funds in my direction. There’s little left in the pot and all manner of tantalisingly transfer-listed players to scout, and I’m forced to reduce my meagre budget further. It’s pointed out to me that Kevin Stoger‘s minimum fee release clause of £24 million is now actually lower than his stated value to the club (which has risen to the dizzying heights of £26.5 million). I remember agreeing that initial contract, thinking it would be just fine to recoup such a decent fee for a free signing, pure profit, only over the weeks to fully appreciate just what he adds to the cause. I don’t want to lose him. The only recourse is to offer him a new deal, which wipes out the release clause but in return improves his salary by seventeen grand per week, and to make those funds available I have to remove around a million from the rump of my transfer monies.

At least that should resolve the pressing issue of the Austrian’s future, though I might lose Marc Stendera in January, the midfielder pressing for a loan move due to his lack of playing time. I agree, because quite frankly it’s such a reasonable request, but if he and Christian D’Urso do end up moving in January we will be left perilously short of midfield cover. To add to the fun, Emile Smith Rowe is removed from any action for the team due to a case of pulled knee ligaments he suffers in training. This will keep him out for up to three weeks. Now, I know what you’re thinking – Emile has done pretty much nothing, so why worry about it? And you’re right, but it comes down to the nebulous concern of having cover to call upon within a squad that’s threatening to boil down to its bare bones. Not for the first time, I’m considering the recall of Morgan Whittaker from his loan spell at Millwall. The teenager has done well, scoring six goals in 18 appearances albeit at League One level, as he helps the Lions to figure in the promotion picture (they’re second). On paper, Morgan is far inferior to the Arsenal man, but he really couldn’t do much to be more valuable to us and I would take that at the moment.

The managerial roundabout continues. As Lee Johnson leaves Bristol City to take up the Newcastle challenge, a considerable one with the Geordies rooted to the tables lower reaches, Bournemouth and Tottenham both sack their trainers. Jose Mourinho has gone! Spurs are tenth, which can’t be edifying for the club that once parted ways with Pochettino for their own apparent good, and to show their ambition they have cited Zinedine Zidane as his most likely replacement. The French legend chooses to manage AS Roma though, so it’s back to the drawing board with Roberto Mancini the new favourite. Eddie Howe is relived by Bournemouth after guiding them to the relegation zone. That seems a little unfair. They finished seventh in 2019/20, so you would have to argue that he deserves more time, but on the other hand anyone who snaps up Mario Balotelli for their answers has it coming to them! Ronald Koeman is the lazy man’s pick for that particular job, one I personally see as rather promising with that enviably assembled set of players. Plus Balotelli. In terms of stability, new Southampton manager Roberto Martinez is considered to be on shaky ground having lost four of his five games in charge as they sit in twentieth place.

We’ve got a home fixture against Manchester United to take in. Ole’s Red Devils dispatched us in the Carabao Cup last season, a debacle of a fixture that saw us have two men sent off as we gifted them the easiest of 2-0 victories. We have to hope for a more disciplined showing this time. The opposition are as terrifying as ever. They finished third in 2020 and look just as potent this time around. I watch a video of their 8-0 demolition over Astana in the Champions League and shudder, but they also scored draws against Boro, West Ham and Norwich recently, which tempers the fearsome statistic that they haven’t lost a single tie since October. Their summer dealings have undoubtedly strengthened their ranks. Otavio has been an impressive attacking midfielder since his move from Porto, yet the amount spent on him was small beer compared with the £60 million plus fees they paid for Rodrigo Bentancur and Clement Lenglet. More frightening than any of these is the zero pounds they shelled out in adding Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan legend has the sort of goalscoring record to make anyone’s mouth water, or perhaps that should be their eyes if they’re making plans for how to stop him.

Otherwise United are about as strong as challenges comes at this level. Their one significant sale is Fred, which as you know amounts to no significance at all. We’ve still got to cope with Pogba, De Gea, Fernandes, Rashford and all the other household names, even though Mr Solskjaer seems to have transfer-listed half their stars. If you have the cash and a spare couple of hundred grand in your wage budget you can perhaps look at Messrs Mata, Jones, Lingard, McTominay and Sanchez (several hundred thousand for the latter). ‘Poor’ Alexis’s star has fallen, hasn’t it? The former Arsenal god’s fall from grace has something poetic about it, though his downfall is football’s loss really. Beyond the enormous sums of cash money that are involved is a disaffected great footballer, whose silky skills should grace the division in which he’s playing. Instead, he’s on the fringes of his team, available for £11 million and with his future uncertain. Lucky he has those beloved dogs of his, who he can now feed with solid gold Winalot, right?

We can pick Jayden Bogle once again, while Bielik partners McKenna in central defence and Max Lowe is picked at left-back. Pedraza is on the bench, due mainly to his capacity to cover Lookman on the left wing. Jatta continues his starting place, with the news that Hlozek might be fully fit in time for the Burnley game at the end of December. It’s about as good a side as we can put together right now. I think they put in an excellent performance against Liverpool, but that’s in the past now and we need to go again.

It’s a nervy start. Jatta and Lowe quickly earn yellow cards. Within the first ten minutes Lenglet heads them ahead from a corner kick, only for VAR to reveal that the ball hasn’t crossed the line. Shortly after that Martial puts them in front, but he’s ‘done a Maradona’ and controlled a difficult free kick with his hand, so it stays 0-0. We grow more comfortable and by the 21st minute Jatta has a headed attempt that hits De Gea’s crossbar.

We go ahead on the half-hour mark. A well worked passing move into their half finds Chirivella picking out Lowe in an advanced role. He has options in the area but instead goes for the short pass to Ademola Lookman, who’s been involved in the action throughout and runs onto the ball, firing it low across the keeper’s body. A lovely and beautifully designed goal, the players achieving that telepathic knowledge of where each other is to make it all work.

Within a minute, however, we’ve undone all our good progress. Bakery Jatta is dismissed for a second yellow, really the culmination of a string of petty fouls, which is criminal considering they have mostly been committed against Brandon Williams, who he ought to have the beating of without resorting to shithousery. The German was sent off against United in the game last season, and all his good play in regaining his role is sullied in a few bad-tempered instances.

Down to ten men, there’s little we can do but retreat into our shells, try to end the match as a contest, play defensively and waste time. It’s lucky for us that Ole has United playing a slow, patient game. They go about their business as though time is endless, which works for us. Steadily and with grinding inevitability they ease themselves into a more attacking front. Players are committed further forward, and they’re unfortunate to be sucker-punched further in the 85th minute. A clearance in our box has Hughes pumping the ball forwards. Only Sebastiano Esposito and two United defenders are there and the Italian seizes possession. Using sheer pace he evades the attentions of Lindelof and drives into the box, having the temerity to lob De Gea in making it 2-0.

We’re celebrating wildly, but it isn’t over yet and any match against United involves the unknown factor of time added on, even in the post-Fergie era. In the 92nd minute, Martial’s cross is bundled over the line by Paul Pogba, who manages to get a foot in despite the closing in of two defenders. Later still, when the ground is a cauldron of shrill whistles as the crowd try to get the referee to blow for full-time, they finally get the equaliser. We’ve been lacking numbers on the right for obvious reasons, and Williams is unmarked when he rattles off a fierce shot from outside the box. It turns out to be a wonder strike, which beats Montipo, who’s sailing towards the ball but can’t do a thing to halt it.

I could be upset about only getting a draw, particularly the way we let a 2-0 lead slip so late in the game, but in truth I’m delighted that we played with such heart and for most of it with ten men. Jatta on the other hand is now on a short leash. I’m convinced we would have won had he reined in his aggression and remained on the pitch. How can we rely on someone who has such a dangerous tendency to see red? He’s banned for Burnley, so we are reliant on a not fully match fit Adam Hlozek being ready on time, which isn’t ideal either for the team or for him.

Derby FM20 – December 2020: Anfield Rap

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

In the approach to our crunch match at Anfield, we learn that the latest board takeover is once again not happening. Mr Morris has apparently ‘quashed the links’, and that is that, but the Four Four Two website claims this isn’t the end of the speculation, and we might shortly be working for new owners. To be reading about this in the media is a bit discomforting. I don’t think I’m being precious when I suggest I might prefer to hear the news via the horse’s mouth, especially as I am a key employee, but maybe it’s just the case that no news means there’s no news.

And in any event it’s all a distraction before the important matter of our meeting with Liverpool. The press bills it as:

I can’t argue with that. We’re fifth in the table, four points away from sharing the top spot with the boys from L4, yet beyond the mathematics the actual gulf between the two sides is enormous. Jurgen Klopp guided the Reds to a surprisingly poor fourth place in 2019/20, which wasn’t enough to do for his job prospects and indeed prompted little panic in the boardroom. They’ve made one significant signing in the summer – Zebre forward Paulo Dybala; you might have heard of him – and made next to nothing in player sales. Pedro Chirivella is one of the only two to leave permanently, whereas a number are out on loan, including Shaqiri and Origi. In short, they’re as good as they ever were, and that’s very good indeed.

Looking at where they went wrong last season, it appears they were open to the sucker punch at home. Defeats at Anfield to Everton, Leicester and Newcastle shouldn’t have happened, which gives me a little hope. As consolation they won the FA Cup, downing Chelsea 1-0, but they will have seen the Champions League campaign as a disappointment. Paris Saint-Germain did for them in the quarter-final, and while we all know that the French big spenders can beat anyone I would expect anything less than another final appearance will be viewed as not good enough.

After a slow start to this campaign their work is now taking on relentless proportions. Following defeat at Old Trafford in mid-October, they haven’t dropped a single point in any of their competitions. Their record in the Champions League reads at six played, six won, which includes two victories over Barcelona. Along the way Arsenal have been beaten 6-1. They’ve recorded a 5-1 slamming of Newcastle and put four past Chelsea. Their 35 goals scored overall puts them second behind Man City, but defensively they’ve been rock solid with a stingy ten conceded. They’re the best at creating chances, have already notched up 206 shots and they’ve been awarded more penalties than anyone else.

Every measure you choose to look at indicates nothing less than a comfortable home win for them. I’m writing these words before playing the game, taking a crumb of comfort from the organised brilliance of our away victory at the Emirates and hoping this means something. In the meantime I’m fully aware that Liverpool on their day can batter anyone. There’s little more humbling than watching defenders fail to deal with their forwards, allowing them to run riot, and even if they do then there’s the potential for Wijnuldum or Henderson to sneak through unmarked and cause the damage while Mane and Salah keep everyone busy and looking elsewhere. They’re a scary beast.

Beyond that, I’m genuinely pleased for the long-suffering Liverpool supporters who are at last seeing their team rise once again to the heights after a very long absence. When I was a kid they were unstoppable, like an inevitable machine steamrolling over anyone who was unlucky enough to be standing in their way. For that reason I kind of hated them, and just to show how long ago all this was I had a sneaking liking for Manchester United, the perpetual patsies, who seemed to spend endless millions on trying to catch up only to fall short, time after time. All that changed from the early 1990s, when Alex Ferguson finally found the formula for transforming his side into a perma-winning practice and Liverpool fell away handily at the same time. They’ve had a few false dawns since then. Under almost all their managers – Evans, Houllier, Benitez, flipping Brendan Rodgers – there have been moments to suggest the corner was about to be turned, only it didn’t happen until an outsize, charismatic German boss finally knitted together a unit capable of becoming the cream once more.

Klopp’s achievement at Anfield can’t really be understated. This is a hard time for any team to rise to the top, given the ubiquity of Pep’s Manchester City, and they are having to do it the hard way, establishing a pattern of consistent victories to reduce the odds. There are only a few times when I’ve looked at teams on Football Manager or even its predecessor and seen little I could add to improve them. The AC Milan side of the early 1990s was one of them. Liverpool circa 2019/20 are another. Sure, there are always better players out there; I would argue it’s impossible to construct the perfect squad. But seriously, there are so few gaps within Klopp’s roster that they’re the super-rare instance of a team that’s oven-ready, good to go from the minute you take over. I’m very jealous. We’d all like a side like that, though most of us need to construct them from the existing scraps that are good enough and it takes several years to get them to the requisite level.

Enough procrastinating. On to the moment of truth. Adam Hlozek is injured so it’s time for Bakery Jatta to earn his spurs in the line-up. We’re without the suspended Jayden Bogle, so I’m hopeful Ivan can put the moaning about his unfair treatment to one side and concentrate on keeping Mane under wraps. It’s a cool and wet Saturday evening at Anfield. I instruct my players to adopt a cautious approach. We know we’re in for a blitzkrieg from the home team, so we are to soak up the pressure as best we can and see if we can get any breaks. No one is especially optimistic, but we have beaten good teams before now and there’s nothing for us to lose. Everyone expects Liverpool to walk over us. Maybe they will. But there have been several times this season when we’ve bucked the odds, so why not do it here…?

The first half is a case of weathering the storm. The home side have a slew of scoring opportunities, and their pressing is fantastic. The pressure on us to recycle the ball quickly is immense, my boys having so little time to find any comfort, any rhythm at all, and their teammates needing to move constantly and unpredictably for us to keep possession. We have the edge in the latter element throughout, but mostly it’s a harmless effort to keep it away from marauding opposition players. The Pool have Dybala as their forward, and he’s terrific, with Lallana, Salah and Mane lined up behind him to present an attacking front of no little threat. That said, before the break they don’t create too many clear-cut chances. We defend like dogs, Stoger and Hughes dropping back to deal with the added numbers gathering to pummel our goal, and Chirivella is everywhere, tasked largely with shadowing Salah but otherwise demonstrating all the awareness that we’ve so far found priceless.

I don’t believe we have registered a single shot in those 45 minutes. We’ve rarely vacated our own half, in truth. If this was one of those 1970s matches where you can see where the action has taken place by how churned up and messy the pitch is, then the home half would be pristine, ours a mudbath. They’ve clearly had a telling off over the break because they push even harder. Mane has a go that cracks off Montipo’s crossbar. But they’re also creating gaps for themselves, and it’s in these that we strike.

Look how the home team try to rush players back to deal with our threat. Sebastiano Esposito can have off games like everyone, indeed I have private concerns that we may have another instance of Troy Parrott on our hands, where he starts well enough but descends into moribundity. Not a bit of it. An excellent strike to cap off our patient and probing attacking move, which also features excellent movement from Jatta as the willing playmaker.

Liverpool increase their efforts, almost an insane blizzard of red shirted marauding for us to cope with. Oxlade-Chamberlain has a crack that Montipo has to fly at full stretch just to tap the shot away with his fingertips. Curtis Jones gets the ball from the resulting corner. Ivan, who plays an immense game, steals the ball from him and clears it out of harm’s way. A poor pass from McKenna is intercepted by Jones, who works the ball forward to Salah. ‘Little Mo’ hurtling towards goal is one of the more terror-inducing sights in football; fortunately his shot is weak and caught by the keeper. Finally in the 94th minute Jones pokes it across the line from Dybala’s cross, and I think that’s it, fair enough, we gave it a good go. But it’s called back for offside, the winger clearly in front of our last defender when he collects the assist.

And so via a combination of luck, stiff and constant defending, VAR help and confidence, we come away with a heroic 1-0 win. It leaves us a single point off the top of the table, with some of the other big shots playing against each other. Manchester City batter Arsenal. Spurs and Chelsea see out a 0-0 snoozer. We have Manchester United next, another top side on the horizon, and who knows what will happen here…?

Derby FM20 – December 2020: Bittersweet Victory

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

In order to get across all the detail these pieces need I am genuinely playing the Derby County Football Manager save at the rate of a single match each day. If I run to two then that means I have to write up the following day’s post also. It makes for painstaking progress through the season, and after a result like the defeat to Brentford it leaves me seething for much longer than I probably ought to be. I can’t explain it in any satisfactory way. The side we put out should have been capable of at least securing a draw. All I can finally put it down to is that it was ‘one of those results‘, an aberration at a time when we have concentrated well and performed admirably so far. Any side is capable of beating anyone on their day, after all, otherwise why would you spend money on watching your lot play when you know for a fact that the result will go against you?

So maybe that’s all it boils down to, what Gareth Southgate used to refer to as ‘a bad day at the office‘ when the Boro side he managed collapsed pathetically to yet another team we should have been putting away. And yet the result rankles. There are things I could have done differently. Because Derby are doing all they can to stay in the division I am inclined to defend our leads once we go ahead. If we have scored in the first half then at the break I will introduce time wasting and consider adopting a cautious approach, and I didn’t do either against the Bees. Basically I felt I didn’t have to. It’s only Brentford… And that’s where I came unstuck.

Sure, I can blame individual players. Some of them had less than superlative games, and given they are all used in their natural positions and roles there ought to be few excuses. But people will always have an off-day. Apart from the frequently cited Lookman (blows hot and cold) and Smith Rowe (close to freezing), no one has really shamed themselves. So perhaps it is on me, partly at any rate. Almost certainly, I should treat the opposition with respect, whoever that happens to be, remembering there are no easy games at this level.

This time we’re facing Norwich City at home. It’s our last ‘straightforward’ fixture before we take on Liverpool and Manchester United, and I’m keen to both get revenge for the Brentford loss and bank some points before we really enter the grinder. Not that there’s anything simple about the Canaries, a fact underlined by our defeat. They finished in mid-table in 2019/20 and they’re similarly placed now. Still managed by Daniel Farke, continuing to add to their ranks in a logical and smart fashion, which suggests they are taking their time in the Premier League seriously. Sometimes you see teams go up and can almost picture the Chairman rubbing his hands gleefully over the newfound riches coming his way. Norwich actively want to stay here though. They’ve spent well and with each passing season get just that little bit stronger. There’s a lot here for us to admire and even emulate.

Internal strife is hinted at by the transfer list requests handed in by Max Aarons and Emi Buendia. Both players know they could be in for a move to some bigger outfit and want to force the issue. The Argentinian winger has since backed away, but Aarons is still available, albeit at an inflated asking price of £102 million. No one is going to shatter the transfer record for a defender in paying that amount, so the situation has become a tense stand-off. I suspect if someone makes Farke a reasonable offer for Aarons, say half the amount they quoted, then the player might force the issue and threaten a dressing room revolt if he doesn’t get his switch. There’s nothing more derailing than a squad in uproar, the factions of those who support the full-back and others opposing him eating into that necessary, complete focus on the job in hand. If this ever happens to me, my tendency is to sell the disquieted player as quickly as possible and put it behind me. I’d rather have a happy and stable squad than any escalation of hostilities, and if teams do indeed show an interest in Aarons then it will be interesting to see how the manager handles it.

The other way out of trouble is for Farke to bag some good results and in that way persuade his more disaffected stars that they will never be happier than they are right now. I can’t argue with many of his summer signings. Conor Coady is a good, solid top flight addition to the defence. Niclas Eliasson, a Bristol City winger we scouted heavily last season, has been added for £11 million, and they’ve also handed a promise to play more matches and figure prominently to Danny Drinkwater, captured from Chelsea for £6.75 million. The Blues were so eager to see the back of Danny that they are willing to pay half his wage for two whole years, a sum that is more than we lavish on many of our biggest stars. Another Rams target, Harry Wilson, is here on loan, as is Matias Vecino, a highly capable box-to-box midfielder who they’ve borrowed for the season from Inter Milan. All fair additions. You can sense the squad growing stronger as a consequence of signing each player, and in Vecino they have their very own Cambiasso, named in honour of the onetime Leicester midfielder who had an enormous positive effect on his team and who helped to springboard them on the road to glory.

I name a strong line-up for their visit. Bielik and te Wierik are our centre-backs, flanked by Pedraza and Bogle, the latter just one yellow card away from being suspended. We’re fully fit, raring to produce a better showing than the Brentford game, and my pre-game words advising them that they have something to prove with the media heaping praise on them hits home. The Canaries come out with a cautious look about them. They’re fielding two defensive midfielders ahead of a four-man defence, intimating their aim to claw out a result from this one. It’s unusual to see a team play so timidly against my newly promoted lot, and it makes for a contest short on highlights. Norwich are happy to keep the ball, mainly in their own half, spoiling and grasping at occasional sniffs at an attack.

We get a breakthrough in the eighteenth minute. Esposito has the ball close to their goal line. He’s advanced of any teammates, having latched on to a ball that’s been launched forward, and he’s surrounded by defenders, so he holds it up until Hlozek arrives in support. The striker drags some of his markers away with him, and Hlozek has time to plant a cross, which Ademola Lookman heads in at the far post from close range, avoiding the attentions of Aaron.

And…. that’s about it. To our surprise, the opposition appear to shrug their shoulders and accept this isn’t going to be their day. Montipo has one decent save to make, the sort of catch and grab that makes it look as though he’s earned his money, though in truth the Buendia shot was aimed right at him. Bogle gets his booking, which will remove him for the Liverpool game, and that isn’t good. Worse still comes towards the end, when Hlozek is taken off with what emerges to be a twisted ankle. It’s an innocuous injury, suffered when he’s chasing a ball, but it will remove him for three weeks, essentially robbing us of our best player for the rest of December. That’s a blow.

Still, I’m happy with the victory and our clean sheet, a little stunned that it was claimed so easily but grateful given the challenges to come. Elsewhere, Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at the Emirates against Burnley demonstrate it isn’t just ourselves who fail to do the business when they really should, and this keeps us in the giddy heights of fifth place. There’s a seven-point gap to seventh now, so even if we collapse against Liverpool and United we will be in the European spots when we emerge at the other end.

Derby FM20 – December 2020: Stung by the Bees

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

A December schedule featuring five league matches means I might need to do more rotating and keep a closer eye on the team’s medical advice. If we have one game per week then it’s generally possible to make minimal changes to the side, however when the fixture list is heavier that’s the time for niggling, short-term injuries to start kicking in. I know we have a good first eleven, and that the quality drops sharply when we start digging beyond those players, but that’s what squads are for and I work on the basis that everyone is facing the same concerns as I am.

I come second in the Manager of the Month award for November. Jurgen Klopp is an almost inevitable winner. The panel don’t tell me why they chose him over me – we both had one hundred per cent records – but apparently there’s a lot to be said for a dazzling smile.

As we get close to the January transfer window there are a few players unwanted by their clubs who could come under our microscope. Brentford’s Ollie Watkins is listed for around £4.8 million. He plays on the left wing and it’s a position where we don’t have anyone who’s excelled. He’s 24, English, and while Tony Henry’s scouting report claims he’s playing at Championship level this could improve. Jack Harrison of Manchester City is available for about the same price. Everything about him seems the same as it is for Watkins – 24, English, a Premier League prospect. I’m not sure either player is going to provide any answers for us, though can they really be any worse than Emile Smith Rowe has been to date? Is it even worth considering the recall of Morgan Whittaker from his loan spell with Millwall? Potentially more exciting than any of these is Lille winger Timothy Weah, son of George, already a USA international and a youngling at 20. His club don’t want to sell him, which they’re right to feel in my opinion, yet physically he has everything we could ever want and he could be an instant fit.

Any thoughts about signings need to be balanced against monies we have available for transfers – for the moment there’s precious little in the bank, though the overall financial picture is improving with another £2.5 million profit from the month. Those TV revenues soon add up, and we have three more ties taking place before the cameras in December. That said, we are still in the process of a board takeover so it isn’t as though anyone is in a position to confer newfound riches on me right now.

Newcastle draw with Burnley in the televised Tuesday game and sack Steve Bruce. No shocks are issued at this news, nor the list of likely candidates to take over, which includes Brighton’s Graham Potter and Ralph Hasenhuttl, recently dismissed by Southampton. It really is a managerial merry-go-round, isn’t it? What’s Ralph done to earn this job? Be rubbish at another club, that’s what. Dear oh dear.

We are taking on Brentford in midweek. The London-based outfit went up at the same time as we did, taking the second automatic place, and for this one we’re travelling down to the Community Stadium, a smart and intimately sized ground that isn’t far from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. For me they were among the favourites to go up last season, and that’s just what they did despite conceding four points to us in our head to heads. We beat them 2-0 in August 2019, before a far more significant return match at Pride Park in April 2020 ended 1-1. On the latter occasion a late Lord Rooney penalty spared our blushes as we were aiming to seal the division title.

We’ve both changed rather a lot since promotion. The Bees lost their manager, Thomas Frank, who took the Everton shill, and they’re now coached by none other than Steven Gerrard. The purse strings are tighter at Brentford than they are for us. Stevie G has added Arthur Masuaku from West Ham, Cluj’s Billel Omrani and Alexander Scholz, a centre-back who was previously with Wolves. But he’s made more from player sales. Said Benrahma has gone to Jeonbuk in the K League at a cost of nearly £12 million. Julian Jeanvier and Emiliano Marcondes have also been sold for princely sums. I haven’t heard much about any of these footballers, but whether they’re better as a consequence of their movements or Stevie G is a managerial genius, they’re in sixteenth place in the table. They’ve won two matches – over Chelsea and Newcastle – and come through November with three straight defeats. It might be the ideal time to take them on. The Law of Sod would indicate that as we are currently in very good form we simply must lose this one.

And lose we do. On a shocking wet afternoon in London, I make a series of changes in trying to keep a fresh group of players for Norwich at the weekend. Ivan starts. Te Wierik replaces McKenna and Baker is in for Stoger. Bakery Jatta gets the nod over Hlozek, and suggests an easy outing for us when he scores from Esposito’s incisive assist. Great hold-up play from the striker and a superb bit of positional work from Jatta, who shows on replays that Pinnock ensured he was onside. In the second half we’re beaten twice from set-pieces; hoisted by our own petard, if you will. The second, Jansson heading in a free kick by Fosu, is particularly hard to take. There’s an argument to be made for these moments being the luck of the draw; after all, anything can happen with a free kick aimed in the right direction. But Ivan conceded the foul needlessly, and we could have defended much better as the ball sailed into a packed penalty area.

The points don’t really matter very much. We can absorb a defeat or two, but to lose here feels like a blow. The Bees were there to be beaten. We shouldn’t have had any troubles, and the figures reflect our dominance. As always though, you don’t take your chances and you get your just desserts. Once again, I’m let down by both Lookman and Smith Rowe, neither winger doing anything of note. I wish we could terminate the latter’s loan. This kid’s meant to have Premier League quality, but he’s been shocking. We’re paying him twenty five grand per week for this! Oh well, bring on the Canaries…

Derby FM20 – November 2020: Misery in Monochrome

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

November finishes with a home tie against Newcastle United. We’re third and they are dead last, having accumulated a grand total of 5 (five) points so far. Steve Bruce has spent the best part of £60 million on ‘talent’ in the summer, and the club was bought out by a supporter-led consortium in 2019, so the bigger picture is that the outlook is very slowly improving for them…. But this is a slow process. They aren’t suddenly going to go from all those years of under-investment to hitting the heights as they did back in the 1990s, and I suspect they will probably need to go down and regroup, come back fighting and stronger, before they can truly begin to re-establish themselves within the level where they should belong.

Of those acquisitions, the best has been Mario Rui, the 29 year old Portuguese left-back drafted in from Napoli. By all accounts the player is deeply unhappy, having already asked to be sold as a consequence of a signing promise being broken. I know all about these, and I wonder if Brucey guaranteed that the Magpies would be fighting for a European spot this season, whereas their form suggests anything but that kind of finish. Rui looks good though. Despite the malaise he’s been a consistent and effective performer, linking well with Allan Saint-Maximin, by some distance their biggest threat from the left wing. Newcastle spent heavily (£27.5 million!) on Wolves defender Matt Doherty, a decent yet staggeringly average right-back who cost them more than Hughes and Hlozek combined. Ghanaian striker Caleb Ekuban has been signed from Trabzonspor – again, little to concern ourselves with where he’s concerned. Winger Marko Pjaca is there on loan from Zebre. The Croatian is in the fourth year of being at teams other than his mother ship on temporary deals, suggesting that a future with Chelsea surely awaits.

Newcastle scored a thirteenth placed finish in 2020. This earned Brucey a stay of execution, yet his position at the helm looks close to untenable and Sky Sports News is entering an unseemly period of being on sack watch, dispatching Keith Downie to warm up his usual spot outside St James Park and report on the same things that may or not be happening, possibly tomorrow, perhaps later. What a dog of a job, though no doubt Keith is highly used to discussing problems, turbulence and tribulations at the north-east megalith, listening to the despairing wails of Newcastle supporters as their team lurches towards yet another crisis.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this must be a hell of a challenge to take on. The new owners have apparently restored the riches to NUFC, or at least they’re reinvesting back into the club rather than siphoning off their resources like certain unethical owners might choose to do. It makes me realise how lucky I am at Derby, a much smaller operation but one run by people who at least care about it. The turnaround at our opposition is going to take some time. Even as their takeover was taking place the club’s Academy was being lowered to Category Three. Within a system where Category One (we’re at this tier) is the best and Four the worst, this is a shocking state of affairs for a region that prides itself on developing great footballers. There really ought to be a production line of talent, regularly conveying players into the first team, but the occasional Longstaff aside there’s been precious little action. What a shower. You know it’s going to become a lot worse before it starts getting better.

Not that any of this suggests we should be treating them lightly. It’s a gift-wrapped opportunity for us to pile on the misery, to make it a hat-trick of victories in November while pushing the Geordies just that bit closer to the drop. I want us to take a positive approach, to play on the front foot and put them under pressure. Pedrza comes in for Lowe. McKenna starts alongside Bielik in the middle. Hlozek gets his place back on the right wing and Smith Rowe makes it back on to the bench because one day, some day, surely he has to find a morsel of form from behind the sofa.

There’s a bumper crowd at Pride Park for this one, with Newcastle’s travelling army filling out their allocation and being in full voice, which is more than I can say for their side. It’s a decent autumnal afternoon, dry and mild, and a dour first half in which we pad out our foul count without producing anything on the pitch. The thing is the Magpies are just as bad. Their attack is of the minimal kind. Apart from Saint-Maximin, who at least runs at our defence and tests the keeper, there is absolutely nothing to them, very little for us to fear. It’s painful work. We’re playing as though we can turn up and have the points handed to us; the front three are especially meandering as we hand Dubravka one of his easier times in goal.

It isn’t anything like good enough and I tell the players exactly that. For the second period we are going to go with an attacking mentality, the players charged with getting us that precious goal, and we set about putting our visitors to the sword. As it is it takes us until the 81st minute to get a winner. Bakery Jatta is on for Hlozek by this point. The Czech has been game but ineffective, and maybe Jatta’s pace will cause panic among the Barcodes. He’s driving into their penalty area when Stoger finds him with a cross-field pass. Evading the slack attentions of Rui, he nets from a tight angle, a confident finish that’s reminiscent of last season’s forward at his best. We could make it 2-0 when Doherty fouls Smith Rowe just outside the box. Chirivella tries a floated ball in yet all Bielik can do with his header is launch the ball into outer space.

All the same, it’s a 1-0 win and I’ll take that any time. We won’t often get the victory so cheaply. The opposition rarely give us anything to deal with, despite Saint-Maximin trying to make something happen on his own. Chirivella wins the match ball. He’s spent the entire time trying to keep Shelvey under wraps, which should be fine given the midfielder’s limitations but is made harder due to his sheer willingness. There’s a suggestion that I should warn the players to guard against complacency, but is that fair? It wasn’t a vintage display from us, and yet we did enough to get ourselves over the line and for now that is completely good enough.

The month ends well. We’re an incredible two points away from being at the top of the table, but December is going to be a month for character building with some very tough matches to come. One reprieve is that our Boxing Day encounter with Manchester City has been postponed due to them playing the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Bournemouth on that day. All that means, however, is that we get them in January instead, the vagaries of the fixtures computer scheduling us to play them twice in the space of four days. What a treat, huh?

The FA Cup third round draw is made. We will be taking on Birmingham City, who are currently tenth in the Championship. Before any of that we have a schedule of five league ties in December. The fun begins with a visit to fellow promoted side, Brentford, another opportunity to bag some points before a string of televised fixtures deal out some potential ass-whuppings before the harsh gaze of the camera’s eye.

Derby FM20 – November 2020: The Sack Race

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Another international break, two weeks with little to do although I hear that the club is in the process of another board takeover. I have no idea how seriously to take this news, the impact it will have on me or my squad. There’s always the possibility that if it goes through the new broom will be a benevolent passing tycoon who has a particular fondness for footballing organisations with named links to male sheep, but in my experience the effect generally means little. Besides which, I’ve a growing fondness for Mr Morris, the sense that he can be quite generous if I catch him ‘on a good day’, his genuine care for the club, his often cutting and curt shutdowns when I make a request for something I think of as perfectly reasonable. Sometimes, it’s a case of better the devil you know, isn’t it?

Ivan is the latest player to come moaning to my door about his lack of playing time. While he’s quite correct to point out that I promised him more football than he’s actually getting, he’s another victim of signing players on the basis that we’d be performing at a lower level to where we actually are. For added kicks he’s up against Jayden Bogle, one of the most promising of the team’s youngsters. I call his bluff, offer to place him on the transfer list, and he backs off. It’s a cruel and unjust way to treat him, but he’s clearly now playing second fiddle at right-back and I adjust his importance to the team accordingly.

Another recent moaner, Bruno, suffers a hip injury as a consequence of a training accident (something to do with falling awkwardly on a bollard – very nasty), and he’s out for nine weeks. It’s no big loss to the squad as a whole, yet that leaves us with three fit centre-backs, with a busy December schedule on the horizon. I order in extra stocks of cotton wool for cocooning the players between matches.

Next up for us is a trip to Southampton, who are currently 19th in the table. Their lowly status has done for Ralph Hasenhuttl, one of those Germanic managers who became all the rage in England in the wake of Jurgen Klopp’s successful transition to football on these shores. It turns out there really is only one Klopp and that people who have managed in the Bundesliga are not as a rule geniuses. I imagine Ralph misses the salad days when he was in charge of RB Leipzig, steadily constructing a squad built to challenge the German elite set-ups. As for the vacancy at St Marys, it seems nailed on that they’ll look to reappoint Ronald Koeman, who’s been available since he resigned from the post of the Netherlands national team trainer. The Dutchman had a couple of wildly successful seasons with Southampton a few years ago, so presumably they are hoping that lightning will strike twice.

Other Premier League managers under pressure right now include:

  • Steve Bruce – almost too predictable this one. Brucey Baby always felt like an uncomfortable fit at Newcastle, who had been working with Rafa Benitez before him and by most teams’ standards that’s a tough act to follow. The Magpies are dead last in the table, and your man’s position is viewed as very insecure. But who on earth would want a job like his, as long as the regime in charge of the organisation remains in place and treats any bit of business beyond creaming off the profits as a complete rigmarole?
  • Sean Dyche – disc-bearded manager of Burnley, hovering just above the relegation places and you’d imagine that the longer they’re under threat the sweatier his situation becomes. In his favour is the length of time he’s been in charge at Turf Moor, his intimate terms with the players who are all Dyche signings and fit his vision for the playing personnel. If he keeps them out of trouble then I expect his job prospects will improve; otherwise it depends on the desperation of the boardroom to gamble on a new manager with Premier League survival on the line.
  • Eddie HoweBournemouth are in a similar position to Burnley. A manager who’s been in post for a long time, surviving on relatively slender means, and his survival rests on how perilous the side’s status becomes. In many ways he’s a victim of his previous successes. The Cherries have been playing above their natural status for a number of years now, and no doubt everyone wants to see the good times continue, but will this be with or without their talismanic head coach…?

Along with Mikel Arteta and Frank Lampard, my position at Derby is considered to be untouchable right now. All the same, I have the lowest reputation of anyone managing at this level. I’m on three stars. Even Jonathan Woodgate stands on three and a half. The only outright five star boss is Pep Guardiola, with Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Fat Frank bubbling just under that godlike tier. So that’s the standard to aim for, is it?

This match represents another opportunity to snatch the points while the Saints are in transition. David Horseman is their caretaker manager. They have some players who would slide into our set-up with ease. Danny Ings is their captain, a troublesome striker who had a good 2019/20 and isn’t quite hitting the same heights during this term, though no doubt he’ll be licking his lips at the prospect of facing fresh meat. His main supply line comes from Nathan Redmond, a left winger who to me is best known for being the player I rejected in favour of signing Demarai Gray in a recent Football Manager save. Bogle’s going to have to be at his best to match him for pace, though you’d have to argue he has done better against more vaunted stars. Joe McClaren’s pre-game scouting summary reserves special praise for James Ward-Prowse, very much the Saints’ version of Will Hughes as an engine room within central midfielder. Personally I see Mario Lemina as the more frightening opponent. I’m not even sure why and Joe’s report is a bit dismissive of him, but to me the Gabonese midfielder looks like the one who has to potential to unlock us.

The lucky viewers of Sky TV have the opportunity to catch us again on Sunday, so we watch as the other results filter through. Sheffield United beat Brighton to move within a point of us. Chelsea overcome Manchester City 1-0 in the big match of the day. A minor groin injury incurred by Scott McKenna keeps him out of our starting line-up. We’ll go with Bielik and te Wierik. Jatta plays for us, with Hlozek returning from international duty in a less than perfect overall condition. Otherwise we’re unchanged.

The Saints start with an intention to swamp us. Pressure comes thick and fast, with shots rained in and Redmond pulling out every trick in his repertoire to overcome Bogle’s attentions. The wastefulness of their efforts gives some indication of why they’re in trouble though. Chances go wide, or over, or Montipo has routine saves to sake. In the meantime they’re open to the counter-attack. Will Hughes scores a fifth minute screamer when he latches on to Jatta’s assist outside the area and beats Forster with his launched shot. He’s delighted. Before half-time, we’ve made it 2-0. Bogle takes a throw-in close to their goal-line. Receiving the return pass he crosses into the area, where Ademola Lookman has three defenders between himself and goal. What else to try but an errant bicycle kick, a showboating effort that he pulls off with aplomb. Up until this moment, Ade has been having one of his more pedestrian games, but this makes up for it.

Early in the second half, Oriol Romeu heads in from Ward-Prowse’s wicked corner, beating Chirivella in the process. It’s a reminder, as though we need one, that we need to be serious-minded, and our approach becomes more cautious. We time waste more frequently. Old traits, like keeping possession, kick in. The fouls count rises, as we commit double the number of whistles blown as our opposition to spoil their forays. Bogle gets booked. Hlozek comes on for the ailing Jatta and himself sees yellow. Lookman goes off with a lower leg injury that at the time looks really serious, but turns out to amount to a couple of days’ treatment. Most importantly, we prevail. We can confess to some luck, to taking our chances better than the Saints did and for the rest of the time putting in a display of rearguard action that earns praise for te Wierik and Bielik.

Victory here is enough to boost us up to third place, though a mere glance at the sides behind us should indicate how long we’re likely to remain there. That said, we have now played five games without losing and on Saturday we will get an opportunity to pile on the misery for Steve Bruce, the Longstaff brothers and their groovy buddies when we entertain Newcastle. And we need to accumulate the points now. In December we have a sequence of playing Liverpool and the two Manchester giants, so it’s going to be important to enjoy being in the upper places for as long as we can.

Derby FM20 – November 2020: Trouble at Mill

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Three months into the season and the inevitable starts to happen. I signed a number of players back in January who were to join us on free transfers in the summer. These were all Championship standard ballers, and had we remained at that level they would have figured much more prominently in this campaign, however we endured the bad luck of being promoted instead. So now we’re stuck with these guys, or more precisely they’re stuck with us, not really good enough to play for the team yet here all the same. They aren’t featuring much, and they’re unhappy.

The first to approach me is Christian D’Urso, the 23 year old Italian playmaker. I snapped him up from Cittadella in Serie B, impressed with both his potential to improve and the meagre ten grand salary he was demanding. Until a few years ago, D’Urso was a prospect at AS Roma, but they finally ran out of patience with him after a string of indifferent loan moves before cutting him altogether. In the second tier I feel he could have made a significant contribution. We could have done with a Mezzala, which is his primary role, and he has qualities that are open to enhancement, however now we’re rubbing shoulders with the big boys he’d just as likely be a liability. Chris wants a loan move to give him some much-needed playing time. Turning out regularly for the Under-23s is clearly not pushing the buttons for him, and I accept his request to be available. Teams are interested, all as expected playing in the second tier, and it looks as though his future will be there. Whether he grasps the reins and improves himself to the right level, or his experience with us comes to mirror his time at Roma, only time will tell.

I’m also moaned at by Bruno. The back-up centre-back, a 30 year old we snapped up from Levante as a cut-price replacement for Perr Schuurs, has appeared in a couple of Carabao Cup matches but never in the league. Way back when I agreed a contract with him I said he’d be an important player, and indeed he would have been regularly rotated in and out had we remained in the Championship. Here, he’s by some distance our fourth choice, well behind McKenna, Bielik and te Wierik in the ranking. Bruno demands more playing time. I tell him we’ll sell him instead, and he backs off begging for patience. As a consequence his promised playing time is decreased and I have no doubt that this will end at some point in the future with the player making an anonymous exit.

Believe me, I don’t feel good about any of this. I made plans for the squad based on where I thought we’d be playing, and now we aren’t those schemes have been amended. Neither do I think the above complaints will be the end of the issue. Baker, Jatta and most of all Lord Rooney have lost out this season, and I suspect it will be a matter of time before I’m having difficult conversations with them also.

And still the matches come. We are entertaining Aston Villa at the weekend before the latest international break kicks in. Most important for me is to try and maintain a level of harmony among the players. There’s little worse than a sense of disgruntlement spreading, and while managing a squad of 25 when only 11 can play a game means that people will always miss out, if I can keep things more or less onside then I will have done a worthwhile job here.

The Villans currently sit two places behind us in the table, representing a very solid start to the campaign for them. Their ranks feature a Derby old boy, Perr Schuurs, the young Ajax defender who’s spending a year on loan in Birmingham. Fortunately for us though not for him, Perr is out for a couple of months due to a hip injury, so we don’t need to face him on this occasion. I still entertain notions of making him a Ram in the future. Perr never disgraced himself with us last season, and only his potential stopped him from becoming a permanent member of the side. Thinking back, it was probably a mistake not to find a way to bring him in. Unlike Bruno, Perr could have looked forward to semi-regular football with us. It’s a loss to both the boy and ourselves. He even counts me among his favoured personnel, which is heartening and a little bit tragic.

Villa finished 15th last season, which has kept Dean Smith in his job and allowed them to strengthen as they attempt to cement their place. To my mind, they’re a consummate top flight club, a perennial within the Premier League until their relegation in 2016, which led to a three year spell in the second flight. I recall them being especially potent in the 1990s, when a strong defence anchored by Gareth Southgate and the late Ugo Ehiogu was part of a thrusting young side that ever threatened to break into the elite. Since then their story has been one of making up the numbers, posting middling finishes, fostering the unfeasibly long career of goal-shy striker Gabriel Agbonlahor and being far poorer than this old, grand outfit deserves.

Now they’re back, their ranks added to with Blackburn midfielder Bradley Dack and the exotically named Michael Vlap from Anderlecht. Their key man remains, as always, Jack Grealish, one of those players you look at and wonder how he doesn’t get slapped more often. Now their captain, their most valuable player and saleable asset, it seems clear that we need to stop him. If we can make him have a quiet day then perhaps we will get a chance here. I say this with the usual caveats in place, but I don’t see anything else to worry about too much. Tanzanian striker Mbwana Samatta looks explosive but hasn’t met his enormous potential in terms of goals scored. Tyrone Mings seems little more than a decent Premier League defender. Wesley, the Brazilian striker signed at some expense, hasn’t scored at all this season and I hope we aren’t the side to confer upon him his first goal.

I name my best side, with no surprises apart from dropping Smith Rowe entirely and placing Pedraza on the bench as cover for either Lowe or Lookman. For me, we need a win here. Despite their current position, taking on Villa at home is a great chance for us to snatch the points. Ordering a positive mentality, we play on the front foot and go ahead in the first half via Ademola Lookman, who repays my faith – *ahem* absence of choice – in bagging the opener. We play a neat passing move outside their penalty area before Hughes spots the winger advancing beyond McGinn and picks him out. His volley beats Pacheco for a very personally satisfying opener. We’re able to keep the visitors under pressure for the rest of the half, but as ever 1-0 makes for a slender lead and I implore the boys to not be complacent after the break. Max Lowe looks stressed. He needs to grow a pair.

Villa roar back, no doubt suffering a rocket from their manager. Their equaliser comes from a comedy of errors that has no one on the Derby bench laughing. Scott McKenna takes a free kick almost from our goal-line. Aiming for Lowe, the ball is instead picked off by Strefezza who plays it forward for none other than Wesley. The Brazilian has the errant cheek to nutmeg Montipo in hitting the net. Of course, we concede to a player who was produced precisely nothing so far this year. Of course we do.

But things aren’t over yet. In the 82nd minute, by which point we are far more attacking in hunting down the win, Hughes hits a speculative ball in the general direction of Sebastiano Esposito. Engels gets there first, but the Italian steals the ball from him and sets off, with daylight between himself and the goal. Confident and in form, he slots the ball in at Pacheco’s near post. Even then it isn’t done. Deep into added time, by which point my fingernails are down to nubs and the nerves are heightened on the pitch, Strefezza heads in, only for the goal to be ruled out, VAR indicating that he was indeed offside by maybe half a foot. We hold on, opting for a safety first approach in the dying seconds, and come away with the 2-1 result.

Due to all the teams above us winning their matches the victory here has only served to consolidate our sixth place. There is however a four-point gap between ourselves and Sheffield United in the position below, so whatever happens in our next league encounter we will get to hold on to a Europa League berth for at least a bit longer. It’s probably little surprise, though, to see the big hitters begin to show their superiority and pull away from the pack. Liverpool’s 5-0 spanking of Newcastle demonstrates the disparity of resources at this level. There’s just no living with them when they hit their stride.

As an additional ‘treat’ the above graphic identifies our most significant performers of the campaign. Esposito, Chririvella, Stoger and Hughes have been outstanding throughout, by and large sustaining high performance levels and making all the difference. Though Jayden Bogle gets the ignominious plaudit of being our only red carded Ram, in reality I’m very proud of him. His average rating of 6.94 is comparable with what he produced in the Championship, suggesting – I think rightly – that he’s pushing himself to cope with the demands at this level. Considering he kept Grealish quiet for much of the Villa match that says a great deal for his winning character.

Derby FM20 – October 2020: More Bore Draws

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

A busy week begins with a trip to the Etihad Stadium, where we will face Manchester City in the Carabao Cup fourth round. Despite our good results against the bigger teams we aren’t expecting to get a lot from this, and it will turn out we are right to think that way. I’m forced to rotate a little. Stendera, Ivan, Maja and Lord Rooney all play. It’s perhaps fortunate for us that Pep doesn’t over-estimate the importance of this competition – or he underestimates the Rams – and selects a largely second string outfit. Naturally, their Stiffs are better than most people’s all-star elevens. Leroy Sane is in the side. Patrick Roberts plays to continue his tradition of torturing us from the right wing, and we also have the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Everton to cope with.

The game is a rearguard action for us. Again and again we’re made to defend, our own forays frequently coming to nought as the City press keeps us from developing any sense of comfort on the ball. Individual mistakes are leapt upon. Moments of eccentricity lead to near disaster. The opposition are slick and difficult to live with, and only some wayward shooting and defensive and goalkeeping heroics keep the scoreline at 0-0 for so long. We have a handful of chances. Maja misses. Hlozek fires straight at Muric. Again, Smith Rowe is poor and I resist taking him off until as late as possible, when pretty much every Ram in the crowd is demanding his substitution.

City leave it late until they finish us off. As the game looks like it might head into an improbable extra time situation, the full-back Adarabioyo fires a cross into the area, where the marking on Jesus isn’t strong enough to stop him from scoring in a close range position. I could criticise te Wierik for slack marking, but in fairness he’s coped with everything to this point and was focusing on someone elsewhere when the ball fell to City’s forward.

That ends our progress in the Carabao for this year. We went out, I think, with good grace, having giving it a decent stab and going out ultimately to superior opposition. There’s no dishonour in losing here. I tell the boys they did well and it wasn’t to be, which seems to capture the mood of the dressing room.

One of our training concerns is in the area of fitness. Given a typical gap of seven days between fixtures we are struggling to get our best players in a state of full fitness each time. Coaching was an area of strength for us in the Championship. At this level we are at best ordinary. I decide to mither Mr Morris for an extra allocation within the coaching team, and to my surprise he agrees. My pick for our new staff member is Antonio Dias, a Portuguese fitness coach who was released by Wolves in the wake of Nuno Espirito Santo’s sacking back in 2019. Dias is 38, has accumulated the best part of twenty years’ experience in his trade and is highly rated. In the wake of his appointment we are now apparently the fifth best team in the Premier League for fitness training, which I hope gets reflected in our performance.

We’re at the American Express Community Stadium at the weekend to take on Brighton and Hove Albion. Readers with good memories will recall that our FA Cup run ended last season when they beat us here 1-0 back in March. We are a much better side since then. The Seagulls are more or less in the same place as they were, in eighteenth place and suffering an injury crisis with danger man Pascal Gross out thanks to a gashed lower leg. They spent less money than us in the summer. Their big signing is Samuel Gigot, an Algerian centre-back signed from Spartak Moscow, but at the same time they lost Shane Duffy, who joined Southampton in an £11 million move.

This is the fashionable southern team’s fourth season in the top flight. By our standards that’s impressive progress. They’ve become rich as a consequence, and there are lessons for other promoted teams in emulating their exploits. In recent times they have hovered just above the drop zone. They finished seventeenth in 2019 and 2020. You’re left to wonder whether this is the limit of their ambition, to sell their best players and profit from them while just about keeping their hand in.

As a result we are favourites here. That makes sense if you’re casting a cursory glance over the fixture and seeing fifth playing eighteenth, but I think the bookmaker is flattering our chances here. Maybe I ought to be more optimistic, yet I feel if I was Graham Potter I would be looking at this as a potential home banker. Bogle, Pedraza, McKenna, Chirivella and Hughes all play here. Esposito is back in the forward’s role. Scott will be playing alongside te Wierik, who has become a useful rotational defender, able to deputise happily for Bieilik or McKenna as the situation and fitness allows. Lookman is recalled to the first eleven with Smith Rowe hitting the bench. Neither player is in anything like good form right now, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of dropping both and moving Pedraza forward, even though this is supposed to be a final solution.

I’m always nervous about any fixture where we are favourites, especially at this level, and perhaps it’s for that reason we produce another 0-0 draw. It’s an evenly matched affair. The Gulls have the better of us in the first half, but we regroup and become more positive after the break, via a dressing room bollocking, and by the end of play the figures underline just how even a tie it was.

Defensive props go to McKenna and Pedraza, the latter for keeping Alexis Mac Allister more quiet than he might have been, while the Scot does a good job against the enterprising Aaron Mooy. I’m impressed with the performance of Adam Hlozek, the young winger who keeps Brighton’s defence under constant pressure and forces Matthew Ryan into making a couple of good saves. On the downside, Esposito is anonymous and both Lookman and Smith Rowe feature little. Later, I haul Ademola into my office and deliver unto him a warning for his poor form – he promises to improve. We’ll see… Kevin Stoger doesn’t make the sort of impact we need from him. Lewis Baker is on before the end, but he’s half the player Stoger is and can’t produce a breakthrough.

It’s disappointing on the whole. I need to remember that last season we lost the same fixture, so getting a draw at the Amex represents progress; also by just about any argument we are over-achieving in the league right now. We shouldn’t be ashamed to tie this game, nor indeed any Premier League away fixture. The point in our account is welcome as always. And yet we’ve downed much bigger outfits than Brighton on our travels, not least Arsenal. If I was predicting the month I would have gone for wins over this lot, Sheffield United and Burnley, and losing to the Gunners, whereas quite the reverse happened. I’m at a loss to explain it.

That wraps up October, a month in which we won only one of our four league fixtures and dropped out of the League Cup. On those numbers it looks like a poor return, however our league position remains healthy, and the club made nearly a £4 million profit over the period. November contains only three matches – Aston Villa at home, with a trip to Southampton and Newcastle at Pride Park taking place after the international break. They’re all winnable ties, especially with the latter two teams in the bottom three, so who knows what’s going to happen?

Derby FM20 – October 2020: Heroes and Villains

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Our results are weird. We seem to be at our best when we’re playing teams that should knock us into last week – Arsenal and Chelsea stand as unlikely victories, both sides most impressive and far superior to what we put out there and yet dispatched. Sheffield United meanwhile was appalling. The board criticised me after that one for our collapse at the back. There’s an expectation on me to play ‘defensively solid’ football, which we did not do on that occasion and they are quite right to exercise their disappointment.

What’s going on here then? How do I possibly explain these varied results and learn from them? Is there actually anything to learn? Clearly we are settling into top flight life well enough. We’re fifth in the table, already amassing 19 points after nine fixtures, so if things continue like this – or even half as good as this – then our pre-season aim of fighting bravely against relegation will come to look staggeringly modest.

I mention the specific results above because we are playing Burnley at home this weekend. Judging on our current form (we must be a nightmare for people placing accumulator bets, and manna for the bookies – and by the way, when the fun stops stop, kids, indeed I would humbly suggest not getting involved in the first place), we’re going to struggle, because that’s what we do against Premier League opposition that we can pencil in as possible sources for points. The Clarets are near the bottom of the table. They should be beatable. It’s exactly against these teams that we fail to produce the goods. Why?

Our heroes of the season so far are:

  • Kevin Stoger – technically mighty fine midfielder whose ability on set-pieces has provided a steady supply of goals. Currently he’s accumulated a 7.57 average rating, has five assists to his name and he’s scored a couple also. For these reasons the Austrian’s value has risen £8 million since we first signed him – he’s now worth a princely £27 million, and if we sold him for anything like that amount we’d be earning pure profit from someone we signed for nothing.
  • Pedro Chirivella – another incredibly cheap acquisition who has done very little wrong since his arrival. He’s only 23 so his route to improvement continues, as it has consistently since he was here on loan in the second half of our promotion campaign, and it’s in his positioning where his value really shows. He’s utterly eclipsed Lord Rooney as a starting choice in defensive midfield, and his price tag is rising quickly as a result.
  • Sebastiano Esposito – if only we could afford to sign him outright. Since breaking into the side the Italian teenager has scored five goals in six appearances, which is outstanding. Mickey from the Rocky series has described the source of his powers as greasy fast speed, and he’s getting better and better on this front, producing a 7.26 rating overall. Inter have named their price, but it’s increasing as he improves…

It would only be fair to nominate three points of concern in contrast…

  • Ademola Lookman – while Hlozek grows and impresses on the right wing Ade has struggled for form on the opposite flank. He was man of the match against West Ham, which suggests to me that he does have ‘it’, but too often he’s been a meandering presence, apparently playing an entirely different game to everyone else on the pitch. Good for a 6.86 rating so far, which isn’t bad but it could be better. Perhaps I’m starting to see why we got him so cheaply.
  • Emile Smith Rowe – the one good thing here is that we can give him back at the end. In fairness to Emile he’s played second fiddle to Lookman so far and perhaps it’s time to give him an extended starting run. The thing is that he hasn’t caught the eye in any of his appearances, while at the same time the coaches can’t say enough good things about him and he is absolutely improving in training. An enigma.
  • Max Lowe – whisper it, but I’m starting to prefer using Pedraza at left-back. I need to recall that Max is still a young ‘un, and at 23 his entire playing history has been within the more forgiving climate of the Championship. This is a big step-up for him and he’s struggling to rise to the challenge, whilst at right-back Bogle looks more comfortable. None of this amounts to an excuse to sell him, but I was hoping for more.

After a horrific September that featured four straight defeats Burnley are returning to form. They’ve beaten Everton and Bournemouth this month. The left wing is their most prolific attacking channel, and no surprise. Dwight McNeil is their one to watch. Jay Rodriguez can also fill in here. In the summer we were scouting Jeff Hendrick with a view to bringing one of Derby’s favourite sons back home. Unlike with Will Hughes it didn’t work out. The reports on Jeff were underwhelming. They saw him essentially as a Championship footballer, but one earning Premier League wages, and he wound up going to Ludogorets on loan for the year. We got Kevin Stoger instead, which makes every kind of sense, yet I continue to watch this space. Will’s worked out so well as a signing that I would love to add to the ranks of prodigal sons by bringing Jeff back, but the asking price for him would need to drop first. Signing a 28 year old doesn’t really fit my remit of drafting young footballers. I will make an exception for the right person, however. Maybe he’s it.

The match – played on Friday evening, so imagine the viewers who get to tune in to this at the end of a busy working work – is a non-event. Little of any note happens. It turns out the two teams are just about perfectly balanced and as a consequence produce an incident-free affair that confers the easiest of single points earned on both teams. As expected McNeil is a problem for Burnley. He’s very busy and full of tricks, but Lowe matches him well enough and reduces his expected threat levels. We have the better of the match statistics, yet rarely look like we’re going to overcome the opposition. Ultimately the beneficiaries are defenders. Mike te Wierik wins the match ball for his display of sheer competence at the back. I’m pleased that we don’t produce too many fouls, as opposed to the casual violence occasionally instigated by Burnley. We incur no yellow cards, so our good discipline is very promising. On the downside, Smith Rowe starts and does very little. This was his chance to shine. He failed to take it, though Joel Veltman in the Clarets defence had a very good game in dealing with him.

0-0 then, a solid and safe result, disappointing in comparison with some of the victories we have earned so far and yet probably a fair outcome. A two points per match record is excellent, probably unsustainable but good while at lasts. We have two away days before we see the month out. First, the Carabao Cup in midweek where we will travel to Manchester City, and then at the weekend we’ll be taking on struggling Brighton. Given our recent form I am unable to predict either game, though the league fixture is the one we will need to take more seriously.

Derby FM20 – October 2020: The Great Arsenal Stadium Mystery

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

I can think of easier comeback fixtures to face after a home beating than Arsenal at the Emirates. They’re top of the table, having won seven out of their eight fixtures so far. Their goal difference of +17 is already outstanding. Pepe and Lacazette are both among the Premier League’s leading goalscorers. Maitland-Niles and Tierney are posting extremely high ratings on a regular basis, and Bernd Leno leads the way in the clean sheets column. Mikel Arteta has got them functioning like the high speed, classy win-machine that you always feel they’re capable of being with the right touch from a good manager. Selling off or loaning out their entire starting central defence to me looks like good medicine. Now they have Carlos Salcedo marshalling the line. Further up the pitch the rapidly emerging Pepe is balanced with Jadon Sancho on the left wing. Arteta has even found a way to make Mesut Ozil work, while Arteta has gone to Argentina to find his Aubameyang replacement in attack. Thiago Almada is a new arrival from Velez, the 19 year old signalling a return to the Gunners’ traditional virtue of sourcing good young footballers and developing them into stars on the world stage. Bastards.

Since I bought my first edition of Championship Manager (CM3 around twenty years ago, and believe me I was addicted), Arsenal have always been my default starting team for each new edition. Especially in recent times, they strike me as the classic ‘big club’ that’s lying just outside the field of likely title winners but with the potential to make the leap into that bracket. Ever tantalising is their bedrock of plucky youngsters. They always seem to have some really exciting prospects bubbling just beneath the surface – in this game Nelson, Martinelli, Saka, Saliba and our own Smith Rowe can all become top class performers. An enterprising new manager can have a field day with this lot. During the later Wenger years I felt all they needed to turn the corner was a replacement at the top, and while they might have turned left for a while in appointing Unai Emery they do appear to be going in completely the right direction now with Arteta.

So, they’re tough. When I pore through the comparative merits of both teams it’s with a rising sense of envy. There aren’t many categories in which we figure highly, which is what you’d expect from a brand new top flight outfit like ourselves. We’re considered the Premier League’s best at taking corners, something that I think has been borne out with how we’ve scored many of our goals, but in other areas we’re dead last or near the bottom. For instance, we are lowest rated in heading. Our stamina levels are woeful. Apparently we are awful at passing; this hasn’t shown in our play on the pitch, a game that relies on frequent short passes at which we’ve been surprisingly okay, but a pitched ball forwards more often than not ends up with the opposition, so perhaps our inability to hit anything more ambitious than a quick one-two is understandable.

In contrast, the Gunners are close to the top in most areas. Their pace is a particular concern. Bellerin, Pepe, Sancho, Tierney… All have blistering speed, whilst in the middle Ozil gets the luxury of spraying pinpoint-accurate passes around like the bug-eyed Pirlo he is. We’ll need to be at our best, and most likely it’s the case that even ‘our best’ won’t be good enough.

Meanwhile, the club’s witch doctors make offerings to Pazuzu in an effort to keep the squad fully fit, in particular our smattering of internationals. In the various youth teams, Jayden Bogle, Sebastiano Esposito, Dirk Proper and Vladimir Kelemen all feature. Krystian Bielik’s fledgling Polish adventure is now worth seven caps. Scott McKenna – the next Colin Hendry, it says here – is rubbing shoulders with Robertson and Tierney for the Scots. And then there’s Adam Hlozek, at 18 already in possession of twelve caps for Czechia and considered increasingly to be among their most important players. So far Adam has been a bit hot and cold for us, but he’s clearly someone we’re hoping to gain much mileage from working with. At his best he’s almost unstoppable. For now the big clubs have their radars trained elsewhere, but it might only take a consistent run of form for him to fall under their wishful gaze. It’s at moments like these that I’m pleased his release clause is for £87 million…

This match will take place under the steely gaze of the Sky cameras. Messrs Neville and Carragher use words like ‘plucky’ and ‘intrepid’ a lot when they’re describing us, yet it’s clear everyone’s expecting a straightforward home win. I already feel as though we are in one of those latter stage Mortal Kombat bouts, when my character is on the ropes and the disembodied voice declares ‘Finish him!’ Obviously I name my best line-up. For Arsenal, Bellerin is injured and Salcedo’s suspended. Lacazette is a serious doubt with sprained ankle ligaments, though Gary and Jamie think they will be just fine without him. Our pre-match analysis suggests the formation we use is precisely the one they struggle with the most; essentially they don’t like taking on a packed midfield. It’s also indicated that Carlos Salcedo is the key to their defence. Without him, relying instead on Pablo Mari, the centre backs are their soft underbelly.

The first half starts predictably enough. We don’t manage a shot on their goal until half an hour has lapsed as they block our routes forward and recycle the ball efficiently. They probe and tease, and Martinelli has several shots that keep Montipo on his toes, but they don’t achieve a breakthrough. We do. From a throw-in deep in their half, Bogle picks out Hlozek, who’s being marshalled by Tierney. The winger lays off to Hughes, who finds Esposito just inside the area, and rather than shoot he spots Stoger racing into the middle. Only loosely marked by Elneny, the Austrian is able to volley one in to the bottom corner. Shortly before half-time, we break up an Arsenal attack. I get nervy as we pass the ball around in our half. But Chirivella gets possession and he floats a ball forward to Esposito, who is breaking beyond their defensive line. Surrounded and faced with an advancing Leno, our man drills in his shot to make it 2-0.

We are to an extent robbing Arsenal here, but I don’t mind. We’ve taken advantage of every lapse, the Gunners clearly expecting a quiet afternoon where the lowly opposition will lie down for them to beat. Early in the second half, Almada scores directly from a free-kick.  It’s a lovely curling effort, and it makes me spend the rest of the period steadily ordering us back. Time wasting and cautiousness become the order of the day as we attempt to soak up their onslaught. Arsenal get a lot of set pieces in our half. Luckily they aren’t as good as we are of making use of their opportunities. Mari and Saka miss from close range. Montipo makes himself big and gets in the way of everything. Bogle puts in a terrific defensive display.

A collision between Sancho and Bielik is cataclysmic enough to remove both players from the field. The Pole is ruled out for a couple of days with bruised ribs, but Sancho will be lost to the Gunners for several weeks. This challenge will become an issue of contention as Arteta tries to deflect from his own side’s failings; I think it was a hard but fair tackle from Bielik and hey, if you want to get in there and put your body on the line, then you take your chance, don’t you? Esposito gets a break and shoots wide to keep Leno busy, and the home side is unable to find an equaliser, even during a nervy five added minutes. We leave with a gloriously worked and defensively sound 2-1 victory. My players are heroes.

The consequence is that Arsenal lose their top spot to Man City, who downed Everton. We’re back up to fifth as Liverpool lost to Manchester United on Friday. As far as we are concerned the title race is of little interest. We know we aren’t going to figure in it and all that really matters are the points on the board. At broadly a quarter of the way through the campaign we’ve already hit nearly half the 40 points target I set for us, and I’m sure I will need to revise it upwards. Next up is a Friday match, taking on Burnley at home. The disc-bearded one is guiding his team towards the table’s lower reaches, so based on our current form I can only see us losing this one.