Derby FM20 – August 2021: A Difficult Start

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

If I could choose a nice, gentle opening for the new season then I wouldn’t select to face Liverpool at home. Even a title winner that isn’t quite at full strength is still the most formidable of opponents. Since lifting the Premier League crown, Jurgen Klopp‘s side have sold £188 million of talent and signed precisely no one. The biggest outgoing is a certain Mohamed Salah, now a £123 million capture for Paris Saint-Germain, but there’s also Marko Grujic (£24.5m to Atletico Madrid), Bruno Petkovic (now with Norwich after a £17.5m move), and of course Harry Wilson and Sheyi Ojo to our good selves. Of these, only little Mo is a big miss and illustrates their awesome strength in depth. I’m hearing that they plan to compensate for their loss by going after Leon Bailey, but that’s a move for the future and I’m slightly grateful we don’t have to plan for the Jamaican winger on top of all their other talents.

It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon to be taking on the Pool. The TV cameras are here, and so’s a big crowd, Derbyistas filling the ground to catch a sight of their heroes. I pick Jack Butland to play in goal. Bogle, McKenna, Oxford and Lowe make up our defence. Ahead of Chirivella I opt for Hughes and Stoger, partly because they’re tried and tested and also as I don’t think this is the place to field flashy youngsters. It’s one for knuckling down and weathering storms. Lookman and Pavon play on the wings behind Esposito in attack. Liverpool are a familiar sight. Wijnaldum is now being used in attacking midfield because Jurgen has the riches to be able to call on Fabinho and Keita in a formidable midfield. Weaving through their ranks to cause any damage is going to be little more than a throw of the dice. And loaded dice at that.

It isn’t long before they’re are causing problem after problem in our defence. I might consider Scott McKenna to be a marvellous defender, probably our best one in fact, but even the indomitable man from Kirriemuir can withstand only so much pressure, and he’s culpable for their eighth minute penalty when he pushes Wijnaldum over in the area. Not the start we wanted. Fortunately for us Butland is alert for Fabinho’s spot-kick and palms it harmlessly into touch. It’s an early reprieve, though the visitors’ attitude, which is to roll up their sleeves and go again, and again, and again, makes for long passages where we need to carry on defending with everything we’ve got. We make it to the break with the score 0-0. Everything of any consequence has happened in our half. We’ve hardly had a single chance to break; more typical is the punted clearance from deep in our half, which is inevitably collected by Van Dijk or Gomez who patiently spark off yet another attacking foray. This is how it feels to be under siege.

There’s not much more for it than to start all over again. We’ve done well to keep them out so far, but there simply isn’t a game saving option on the bench. I could bring on Moriba to work his magic, yet unleashing his potential is an answer for a different stage, I feel. Ultimately the Spaniard will be brought on in the second half, when we’re a goal down and chasing the lost cause. Where we are really getting killed is in conceding fouls. The champions’ relentlessness forces my defenders to make mistakes. A Lowe challenge on Mane in the 62nd minute lands him with a yellow card and gifts them with a free kick twenty yards outside goal. Shaqiri floats one in and Joel Matip heads them into the lead. We could have defended it better, though in truth there were so many players to watch, their movement splendid and foxing, and I feel it was always going to come. There follows around thirty minutes of Liverpool happily sitting on the lead and inviting us to attack. We do. It isn’t a terrible effort from us. Lookman gets our best chance, weaving through a sea of red shirts to shoot at Alisson, yet the final effort is tame and all too easy for the Brazilian to scoop up. In the end, our attempts to find parity melt away, and all we can do is accept the 1-0 defeat. The epithet it could have been worse is made for this one. We were toyed with, and how many sides will they do this to over the course of the campaign?

At least we don’t have to go through that again. Wounds duly licked, we prepare to go north and taken on Newcastle United, a team that was altogether more generous to us in 2020/21. I’m still on the sniff for a new face to work alongside Chirivella in defensive midfield. The options are few. PSG have decided they no longer need Idrissa Gueye and list the Senegalese international for £16 million. He’s 31 and would instantly add a weight of classy experience to my ranks, but his £110,000 weekly wage is a hurdle we can’t in all good conscience leap over. Perhaps a loan deal…

Lee Johnson has made a positive impact since he took over the Geordie nation. Carefully guiding them out of the trouble they’d been in throughout the tenure of Steve Bruce, he has added sensibly to their roster, introducing Monaco defender Benoit Badiashile and Thiago, the Portuguese midfielder who was playing for Forest previously. These are support acts to Allan Saint-Maximin, the tricky winger who will be inflicting pressure on Bogle all afternoon. For us, Bielik replaces McKenna in the line, the consequence of a minor training ground injury rather than punishing the Scot for the time he conceded a penalty. Moriba gets his start, replacing Stoger and injecting, I hope, a new attacking element to our midfield.

Ademola Lookman has us in front within the first fifteen minutes. Weaving solo through their defence, evading a clumsy challenge from Doherty and mugging Badiashile before finally he slots the ball calmly beyond Dubravka. Phew, it’s a return to normal service, only it isn’t. The Magpies equalise on the half-hour mark. A Wissa cross should be dealt with easily enough. It’s a good one, aimed venomously into our box, but we have four players there against their single forward, Joelinton, and Oxford meets it, heading it away… But only to the feet of Newcastle’s striker, who is presented with the most gift-wrapped of opportunities to sink the ball into our net.

I would take a 1-1 back to Derby. The opposition are at least as good as we are, so there’s no dishonour in achieving a hard-fought stalemate here. And that’s exactly where the game looks as though it’s heading. Lookman and Pavon are both removed with very minor injuries, which hands introductions to Wilson and Ojo. Hlozek replaces the tiring Esposito up front, the Italian having spent his effort on keeping their defenders busy. So it really hurts when they produce a late winner. Thiago takes a corner kick. Lascelles is beyond the far side of goal, covered loosely by Chirivella, and he launches a rasping and unbeatable header into our goal.

This is slack from us, and while we aren’t at the point of crisis yet it’s hard to see a pointless opening to the season as anything other than difficult. Fair enough, getting anything from Liverpool is a big ask and Newcastle are a fine outfit now that they are being competently managed. But we were never out of the top six last season and expectations are high, and the opening salvoes have left us at the table’s wrong end. There’s a quick onus on us now to start turning things around before a bit of a worry begins to develop into a proper concern. It’s Arsenal next, out for revenge and one of the last sides we would hope to be facing at this time.

None of this is what we hoped for after a summer rebuild that I felt went rather well and has left us much stronger than we used to be. Of course, there’s the issue of settling in all those new faces, but by now we ought to be as much as the sum of our parts. We should be better than this.

Derby FM20 – Meet the Gang 2021/22

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

On the cusp of the season’s start, we’re facing the prospect of one of our toughest challenges with the visit of Liverpool. Jurgen’s men have already clinched their first honour of the campaign by winning the Community Shield 2-0 against Manchester City, though the Bitters have done us a favour by injuring Paulo Dybala.

Due to the transfer window falling in line with European standards there are three weeks and three days remaining in which to trade talents. It’s possible the squad could look a bit different by the end of the month, though on the whole I’m satisfied with the group I’ve assembled. I realise I’m writing these words before Liverpool perhaps take us apart – hopefully we’ll give a decent account of ourselves. Here’s the traditional review of the twenty-five men and boys who are charged with continuing Derby’s fine top flight traditions…

Goalkeepers 

A re-calibrated unit now depends on Jack Butland (28, £9.25m) to keep Premier League monsters at bay. With his nine England caps and a coloured career that has seen him playing as first choice for six clubs over a ten year period, Jack has experience at a variety of levels and will need to demonstrate his vaunted reputation at stopping shots. There’ll be plenty for him to do. The numbers all look really good, and he’s keen to get going, so everyone’s fingers are crossed that I won’t regret trading Montipo for someone with a journeyman’s reputation. If things don’t work out then we can turn to Joel Pereira (25, £9.25m). The two keepers’ playing times are equitable, so the number one spot is essentially up for grabs. Joel, signed for free from Manchester United, starts the campaign injured with a broken hand. He’ll be back when we enter September. Comparatively Jack is better at the typical goalkeeping strengths, but Joel is a more confident communicator and a faster operator. He also has high levels of potential. Thanks to various loan moves over the years we are his eighth club.

Right-Backs

The rise to prominence of Jayden Bogle (21, £13.75m (last season £13.5m)) pretty much mirrors that of his team. His monetary value might not have altered much, but his abilities and importance have. Perpetually seeking to improve, quick and physical, I would have it that international recognition can’t be very far away for him. The negative is that very physicality. Jayden was showered with yellow cards last season. While he isn’t an aggressive defender he is no stranger to ‘getting stuck in there’, which is often a red rag to disciplinarian referees. I would like to see this side of his game take an upturn. Last year’s back-up, Ivan, was called upon far too often, and I want someone better to represent our alternative choice to the celebrated Jayden. Say hello to Ethan Laird (20, £3.6m), on loan from Manchester United and perfectly placed as a slightly lesser version of our regular starter. Rightly, Jayden’s playing levels are better in every area apart from pure speed, but the Under-21 international has a lot going for him and he’s interested in joining us permanently, albeit at the reticence of his club. This is his first stint on loan. He has put in four largely positive league appearances for United, so his year with us represents his big break and a chance to shine.

Left-Backs

A rare position in that there’s no change from last season. A fine year of work from Alfonso Pedraza (25, £11.75m (£7m)) (and his very cheap asking price, I have to confess) made his permanent signing a no-brainer, indeed he was the first and clearest cut of my acquisitions. An attacking and sporting wing-back, the Spaniard’s main strength remains his flexibility, his ability to play anywhere on the left wing. His forward thinking instincts mean he can generate assists and even score goals, however in defensive aspects the picture is murkier, and we’re lucky to have a more traditional full-back alternative in Max Lowe (24, £9m (£12.5m)). Of the pair Max has gone from hankering after a move away last summer to accepting the lesser role in the partnership, yet this is in contrast to my feelings about him. A homegrown and therefore important player for the club, his numbers in 2020/21 weren’t up to the high standards he achieved in our promotion season, but that’s to be expected given he’s now operating in the Premier League. He’s an agile and technical defender, with good tackling abilities and the pace to keep up with speedy opposition wingers.

Centre-Backs

The unit continues to showcase the abilities of Scott McKenna (24, £18.25m (£12.5m)), by now an international regular after starring in our defence and achieving a 7.10 rating across the previous season. A new contract has been arranged to stop him from looking elsewhere, and his enjoyment of big matches has been crucial as we rely on his nerves of steel. Scott is great at tackling, marking and heading, and he also fills a leadership void within the side, which has elevated him to vice-captaincy status. His traditional partner in 2020/21 was Krystian Bielik (23, £16.75m (£14.5m)), still a key squad member who is increasingly making his £9.5 million transfer from Arsenal look like loose change. Derby has been good for Krys. He’s broken into the Polish national team, celebrating his twelfth cap in the summer, and like Scott he’s posted very high numbers in the league, scoring four goals to underline his abilities during attacking set-pieces. A brilliant marker and never one to be physically daunted, he’s an excellent asset, though his tendency to argue with officials is a habit he could stand to curb.

We’ve made two additions, both of whom I believe improve our defensive capabilities. Reece Oxford (22, £20.5m) is someone we scouted and courted to death, eventually making him ours because his adeptness as a fast, ball playing defender was just so appetising. A big unit, contrasting his size with blistering pace, and possessing fantastic jumping reach, we expect big things. None of which is to undermine Jesus Vallejo (25, £16m), signed after being released by Real Madrid. Jeez‘s playing opportunities at the Bernabeu were slim. He did well in a loan season with Granada, but he rarely got to shine and he and I both see this as a fresh start. Comfortable on the ball, a great team player and close to supernatural in his ability to read the game, there’s no doubt in my mind that acquiring him represents a huge upturn in the defenders on who we can call.

Defensive Midfielders

Signed for a mere £750,000 after starring for the side on loan, Pedro Chirivella (24, £20.5m (£6.75m)) has become a key figure for Derby, symbolic that good players for the squad can be found if they’re scouted properly, work hard and show a willingness to develop their skills. Too often I see other teams sign ‘ready made’ ballers, existing talents who cost a lot of money and are already at the peak of their powers. We can’t afford to get into such a race for talent, preferring instead to build from the bottom up, and it’s working. Pedro is living proof of that. While he’s technically very good, it’s in his purity as a defensive midfielder that lies at the heart of Pedro’s success. Some are great leaders, others physically imposing, yet our man is simply a perfect fit. If we do make a further addition to the first team then it’s likely to be here. In the meantime I have promoted Jordan Rossiter (24, £8.25m), a former Rangers DM we picked up last summer after he’d been released. After a fine year back in Scotland with Hearts, Jordan strikes me as a reasonable alternative to most signings, though the coaches warn he is deep down still a Championship level footballer. If things go wrong with Pedro then Bielik and Stoger can both fill in, though the ideal solution will be to source an entirely new face. For now, Jordan has the opportunity and he certainly put in a promising contribution during pre-season.

Midfielders

Last season we depended highly on the abilities of Will Hughes (26, £19.5m (£17.5m)) and Kevin Stoger (27, £30m (£19m)), and much of the summer’s effort has been to negate this reliance. The former, newly confirmed as team captain and a Derby icon, is emotionally and practically essential to us, a midfield titan who likes to dictate the tempo and who we all hope is rewarded for his work with a place in the England team. Stoger, signed for gratis, proved to be highly effective in set piece situations, takes a mean free kick and can score. The Austrian was something of a revelation, forcing his way into the international picture and our hearts. He’s ambitious, which is reflected in his determination to produce for his team, and his value has risen sharply.

Two new bloods have arrived, both cherry-picked to give us more of an attacking thrust than the two deep lying playmakers could arguably provide. We knew from January that we were getting Maxime Lopez (23, £23m); given his abilities it seemed bizarre that Marseille were letting him go for nothing, and we’re all excited about what this advanced playmaker can do in Rams whites. His speed is a good physical asset, but it’s his technical abilities as a passer that make him really tantalising. Even greater levels of anticipation are loaded on to Ilaix Moriba (18, £10m), a young Barca prospect who has been drafted in on loan ahead of his £32 million transfer next summer. Actually from Guinea but having turned out for Spain’s younger teams, he grew up in the same side that produced Ansu Fati and is nearly as vaunted, offering great swathes of technique that suggest we are getting the next Fabregas at a relatively cheap price. He hopes to break into our first team this season. I can’t see that being a problem.

Finally, I have recalled Jason Knight (20, £13.25m) to the first team squad, after he played well in our promotion campaign and then spent a year on loan at West Brom, where he scored six goals and produced multiple assists. Operating at Championship level and looking realistically at cup appearances and the Stiffs, he increases our homegrown complement in the team’s Europa League numbers and he’s desperate to become relevant to the cause. Time is on his side.

Attacking Midfielders – Right

A heavily reworked unit, which I committed to after the promising yet ultimately dysfunctional pairing of Hlozek and Jatta left me with as many questions as answers last season. The German has left and Hlozek is being retrained as a centre forward, and the main stakeholder in this position is now Christian Pavon (25, £18.25m), an Argentinian international (11 caps!) from Boca Juniors. I’ve lusted after his services for some time, this diminutive winger who impressed on loan at LA Galaxy and may well be the fittest and most hard working player I’ve ever managed. We look forward to seeing his industry. His alternative is a club favourite, Harry Wilson (24, £14.75m), whose very availability pretty much settled the Hlozek dilemma in my mind. After a highly successful loan season with us back before my time, the effervescent Welshman has had good stints with Bournemouth and Norwich and has developed nicely in his technical abilities. His mastery over direct free kicks may be something we come to savour.

Attacking Midfielders – Left

In 2020/21 Ademola Lookman (23, £15.75m (£6.5m)) developed into something of a revelation, scoring crucial goals for us as a reward for my determination (lack of choices?) to make him feel valued at Pride Park. Enjoying his best season as a pro and adding to his raw pace with fine technical prowess, more of the same is required and my hope is that this propels him into the England picture. Middlesbrough covet this player, and they can carry on doing just that. The alternative to Ade last season was lacking, so I have tried to redress the situation by signing Sheyi Ojo (24, £12.5m), transfer-listed at Liverpool and yet highly covetable after loan spells with Rangers and Villa. A creative player and rivalling Ade for speed, just like the first choice Sheyi can be selfish and has been accused of not working very hard, so it’s a situation that will need some monitoring. I find it difficult to imagine him being worse than Smith Rowe. In addition we now have Morgan Whittaker (20, £4.1m) back after a very successful season with Milwall. The young winger has been produced in-house, and I hope reflects my commitment to develop players using the club’s youth system. Like Jason his first team playing opportunities won’t be endless, but he’s a choice for us, he’s physically imposing and he can play almost as well on the right wing if injuries really start to bite.

Strikers

It was with a need for fresh talent that I plucked the very young Sebastiano Esposito (19, £39.5m (£12m)) on loan from Inter last season. I don’t think I realised I was getting the Esposito, a vastly promising forward who wound up becoming a star man at Derby. His fifteen league goals put him up there with the division’s highest scorers, and it became something of a fait accompli that I would break the bank in order to acquire his services on a permanent basis. Thirty-five million big ones later and this is now sorted, my reputation staked on his ability to reprise the heroics, and he’s happy and determined to try. Seb considers me to be one of his favourite people in football. Little wonder as I am paying him far more than anyone else (even more than I get, in fact!) to produce the goods, so it’s the case that much is invested in his development.

Josh Maja (22,  £9.5m) emerged as the best second choice at centre-forward in 2020/21, and while question marks remain over someone brought in cheaply and expected to bulk up the numbers, I’m convinced he has what it takes and this season is his big chance to rise or fall. The enigma here is Adam Hlozek (19, £13m (£17.25m)), who absolutely has the talent yet his commitment and mental toughness left me in some doubt over his sustainability. Relying on him to consistently produce on the right wing last season yielded mixed results, notably his inability to work well with Jayden Bogle (who comes first where I’m concerned), but he is almost as natural in the attacking forward role so his future could very well be here. It’s a gamble. The alternative to retraining Adam is to look to sell him, and I’m not yet ready to let him go. Further incidents in which he loses his dummy may yet change the picture. We’ll see.

Derby FM20 – Summer 2021: Pre-Season Matters

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

The signing of Harry Wilson is to my mind the last big one before the reopening of league hostilities. After all those ins and outs, there’s still more than £80 million in the club coffers. The remaining transfer budget stands at nearly thirty million, with £86,000 wriggle room in the weekly wage spend. In other words, we’re in a healthy place. Any further additions should be to seek out plucky youngsters for the future. Derby has a relatively slim overall roster of 64 human beings. There are potential spaces to fill in the development squads, both considered by my staff to be strong yet always open for further injections of latent talent.

I pick up Stefano Turati, a 19 year old keeper released by Sassuolo in the summer. The scouts are enticed by the teenager’s distribution assets, though we all acknowledge we probably haven’t snatched the next Donnarumma from the hands of Italian clubs. He’s going to spend the season as Rotherham’s first choice goalie. They’re going to have a year of trouble while they try to stay in the Championship, so Stefano should have plenty to do. Two discarded PSG youngsters, Hussayn Touati and Alexandre Fressange, are offered trials and ultimately signed. The former is a left winger currently playing at Vanarama National League standard, but he’s 19 so there’s time for him to hone his skills. Fressange – sounds like a cheese – is 20, Cameroonian, and plays on the right wing. Both sign tiny salaried contracts and will be doled out to teams in the French league.

Elsewhere, the hinterland of transfer-listed players throw out a string of potential enticing delicacies. Man City choose the moment we complete our rebuild of the right wing to announce that Patrick Roberts is up for sale. We’d love to have him. There’s no room. The likes of Alexis Sanchez, Nabil Fekir, Dani Carvajal and, er, Phil Jones, are all possible future Rams, except that they aren’t. They all earn too much, or feel Derby to be beneath their playing level, or they’re Phil Jones, to be worthy of serious consideration.

Around us, vast amounts of money change hands as star performers are rotated around the talent factories. Mohamed Salah makes his much-anticipated £123 million move to Paris Saint-Germain. The French giants are so pleased with this bit of business, a deal they’ve spent most of the previous season working on, that they are able to stomach the sale of Kylian Mbappe, now representing Barcelona after the completion of his eye-watering £152 million transfer. Expensive incomings to the Premier League start with Lautaro Martinez, a £103 million capture by Chelsea. They add Milan’s Theo Hernandez for a more modest £72 million. United break the fifty million barrier on three new faces – Ousmane Dembele (£98m), Ferland Mendy (£61m) and Nelson Samedo (£55m). City are more concerned with shedding their squad for now. Bernardo Silva leaves the Premier League for Catalonia in a £99 million bonanza. I find it hard to believe that the Blues won’t really try to bring someone in, but for now they’re content to hold on to what they’ve got.

Derby have amassed an impressive £33.5 million net spend, but this is only good enough to be twelfth in the division. As we prepare for the start of the campaign, four sides – Southampton, Everton, City and Liverpool (our opening day opponents, thanks fixture computer) – have made more than they’ve spent. In the case of the latter they have signed no one and sold off fourteen players. A bid to redress matters by gunning for Leon Bailey suggests they are aware of the need to boost their numbers, but happily for us nothing will have happened by the time they take us on. Not that they will probably need him, but we’ll take it as a fillip all the same.

We have a pre-season schedule that takes in five matches. These are:

  1. New York City FC at Yankee Stadium. The first of our two ties that take place during training camp, a polite smattering of supporters watch a Derby side at the start of their journey to match fitness play out a 2-2 draw. Hlozek and Lookman shoot us into a quick lead, but as we tire in the Noo Yoik sun the home side whittle down our advantage steadily to clinch a tied affair.
  2. New York Cosmos at MCU Park. We win 2-1. Ojo fires us into the lead before a Pavon penalty just before half-time guarantees the win. The Cosmos – not to be confused with the celebrity club from the 1970s, which offered playing time to star names like Pele and Beckenbauer – don’t have enough in the tank to redress matters, and on the whole we’re allowed to pass them into submission.
  3. PSV Eindhoven at home. A 0-0 draw played before a two-thirds full Pride Park. Despite the presence of potential striker target Donyell Malen and wonder-kid Mohammed Ihattaren, the Dutch giants aren’t capable of punching a hole through Oxford and Vallejo in the Derby defence. We dominate the game and Will Hughes stars as his passes sizzle across the pitch, yet Esposito is toothless in attack and all our enterprising play counts for little. The positive spin is that it’s a promising display against prestigious opposition, a sign that our match fitness is close to being right.
  4. Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium. A mild late July evening produces a 3-0 win in our favour. Esposito overcomes his PSV wobble by scoring a hat-trick, in essence bullying our lower league opposition. Laird is especially good, credited with two assists, and we’re emphatic enough to not grow too concerned about Wilson’s scuffed penalty shot.
  5. Real Irun at Stadium Gal. A pleasant affair, played in warm conditions, and a nicely worked 4-0 victory. Wilson’s penalty taking comes up trumps this time, and we also score through Hlozek, Whittaker and an own goal from the luckless David Castro. The rout is indicative of the opposition’s overall weakness, but we do exactly as well as we should, with Rossiter in defensive midfield marked out for some impressive work in breaking up their attacks.

Derby go into the season with the Premier League’s youngest squad. The typical age in the division is 26. At an average of 22.96 we look like kids, but this is intentional. I will always opt for a more youthful group of players, though I hope this isn’t becoming an obsession as Jack Butland at 28 is now the side’s elder statesman. Only the keeper, Hughes and Stoger are over the age of 25, which I feel is healthy and not a sign that we are essentially shorn of experience and guile. In Moriba, Esposito and Hlozek we feature three teenagers; all are important players who it’s envisaged will be here for years to come.

The team report paints a picture of a Rams set-up that is steadily easing its way into top flight parity. There are certain areas where we are very strong. Derby’s overall agility is to be admired. We’re a quick team. There’s plenty of flair in the side to wow our fans, and we might very well be the division’s best at taking corners. Purely on a technical level we can match just about anyone. On the downside, we are considered the poorest team in the noble art of heading the ball, playing to the Brian Clough mantra that football should not be played in the sky because there’s no grass up there, but it’s an area for development all the same. We aren’t thought to be very brave and determination levels remain worryingly low, though this latter element – crucial in my eyes – is very slowly improving. We can pass. Our tackling could use some work.

Chris van der Weerden’s summary contains more negatives than points to be pleased about, however this is a work in progress. This time last year, it felt as though we were up against it and we finished in fifth place. The predictions had us slated to go straight back down; now the forecast is far kinder, putting us in tenth place. Ironically that kind of finish would be a disappointment given what we achieved in 2020/21, and yet if we achieve it then I will have met the board’s requirements. For the record, City are narrow favourites to reclaim their crown. Of the promoted sides, Wolves’ strength is enough to put them in ninth place. Palace should avoid the drop, while Fulham are tipped to join Boro and Newcastle in struggling to avoid their ignominious fate.

Derby FM20 – Summer 2021: Rebuilding Part 3

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

Midfielders

Lord Rooney’s retirement leaves us short of cover in defensive midfield. There is the in-house option of filling the vacuum behind Pedro Chirivella by playing Krystien Bielik on demand as his back-up.  The big Pole is described as a DM and is training as a deep lying playmaker in the role, yet his natural position remains as a centre-back. The suggestion is that he will develop into it eventually, and his figures imply he could be an even better long-term fit than the sainted Pedro.

I scout for alternatives. Because our main starter has played so well there’s no need to seek a replacement for him, and for some time I’ve been wooing Sam Field to join Derby. The West Brom man is valued at £2.5 million, however there’s no persuading his team to name their price. Even though they’re consigned to another year of Championship football the Baggies aren’t interested, and while the 22 year old is flattered by our interest that isn’t to the extent of him mithering to the board about letting him go.

I’m not about to offer a king’s ransom for Field. I’d like to have him in the side but he isn’t that good, and in the event a solution from our own reserves presents itself. Jordan Rossiter is a young midfielder we signed on a free in the summer of 2020 when he was released by Rangers. Scouted via the Youth Invitational match, he looked as though he had some potential and he spent the season on loan with Hearts, where he played really well. Jordan is promoted to the first team, a slimly paid 24 year old with ‘fringe player’ status who will no doubt get a premium of opportunities, barring the unthinkable possibility of an injury to Chirivella. But he’s earned this chance. What he does with it is up to him.

The central midfield unit comprises two big players – Will Hughes, now team captain, and Kevin Stoger – and three others. Christian D’Urso and Marc Stendera were unfortunate victims of our success, acquired to be part of Derby’s Championship promotion effort whereas in reality we went up earlier than expected. At sea in the Premier League, both players have been out on loan and are now up for whoever makes us a reasonable offer. The Italian D’Urso goes to Cardiff for £2.5 million. Try as we might there’s no buyer for Stendera. He’s in the last year of his Rams contract and will spend it on loan with the brilliantly named Wurzburger Kickers in the third tier of the German league.

Lewis Baker was a pivotal member of the promotion side, peripheral since then. He’s never made the leap to top flight football, and with Maxime Lopez joining on a Bosman is slipping further behind the standard. AZ Alkmaar provide an honourable exit, paying a princely £8.75 million to take him off our hands. That’s more than five million English pounds of profit made on a player who more than justified his time with us. Best of luck to him.

The question of who will be our fourth midfield man presents itself via the transfer list. Barcelona have made Ilaix Moriba available for £35 million. The 18 year old is an incredibly exciting prospect, raised in-house at the Nou Camp and now seeking more playing time as an advanced playmaker. We can’t really afford to meet his fee, so a solution is devised where Moriba will spend the season on loan to us before the move is made permanent with a £32 million fee at the end of it. He offers us a fresh dimension. Creative, physically strong, good on the ball and with no little finishing ability, we’re very excited about him, this young Spanish prodigy who to my mind has the world at his feet and almost limitless levels of potential.

Attackers

Derby didn’t score masses of goals last season. That was okay because we were defensively sound, however the situation could be better. There are several questions within this unit to answer. Starting with the right wing, where Adam Hlozek had a highly promising first season in England tempered with a combustible personality and his ill fit within the formation alongside Jayden Bogle. As far as I am concerned the defender will always come first in my reckoning, however I don’t especially want to lose Hlozek, who has talent. The coaches feel he can just as easily play as a centre-forward, so maybe this is his future. In the meantime we also have the Bakery Jatta issue to consider. The German had a good season, but he’s mainly been used as an impact substitute and is earning a fee far in excess of his actual worth. Time for a change; Jatta is transfer-listed, eventually going to Brighton for a fine fee of £11.75 million. It’s a great result. We get back four times what we paid for him, and the player has another chance to impress within the Premier League.

The player I identify to start on the right wing is Cristian Pavon, an Argentinian international who has spent most of his time in the game at Boca and was most impressive in his two years with LA Galaxy. The £7.5 million they’re demanding for him seems insanely cheap, a cut-price fee for this 25 year old who could make a big impact in England. It’s hoped that he brings some of his Football Manager 2018 form with him.

After a string of loan moves that have worked out extremely well and made him a regular for the Wales national side, Harry Wilson has been transfer-listed by Liverpool. It’s his availability that makes the future of Hlozek within the team a viable solution. I am well aware this guy is a Derby favourite, having spent a successful season on loan here that happened before my time. £9.5 million is enough to capture him permanently. I’m very happy with this one. Wilson was deadly at Norwich; now he gets to strut his stuff for us and we have the two good right wingers I dreamed of us being able to call upon.

On the left Ademola Lookman has improved enough to be considered one of the team’s most important players. His thirteen league goals last season were crucial, and I feel our faith in him was repaid with a growing confidence and desire to do well. My worry about him is that his form should put him in the reckoning for the England team, and it hasn’t. Is this because he’s playing for Derby and not one of the more traditional big shot teams? If that’s true, then there’s the possibility of ‘Ade’ having his head turned if the ‘right club’ shows an interest in him, and fortunately that hasn’t happened yet.

We need a back-up for him, hopefully someone better than Emile Smith Rowe, who was poor all told in 2020/21. Liverpool once again provide a solution. They’ve placed Sheyi Ojo on their unwanted list. He’s a 24 year old Nigerian from, erm, Hemel Hempstead, who’d been on the Anfield books since 2012. Available for £6.75 million, it could be something of a steal for a pacey winger who has a reputation for creativity. And he can’t be any worse than Smith Rowe, can he?

I’ve brought in a lot of players, and spent as cheaply as I can on their acquisition with good reason. The bulk of my transfer budget is earmarked for a new striker, with Sebastiano Esposito the obvious target. After his stellar year on loan with us, Seb is back with Inter and sitting on a fat new contract, however there’s a part of him that longs to return to his spiritual home in the Midlands, it says here. He isn’t the only striking solution we consider, ahead of picking him up for a club record £35 million. Various players are on the radar, including the possibility of a loan offer for Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster, but on the whole I feel that the young Italian has more than justified our punt and he wants to be here. And so the majority of our spend goes on him, while he signs a deal that will pay him £99,000 per week. That’s a mouthwatering amount of money. Esposito earns more than I do as manager, a lot more in fact, and I hope he’ll be worth it. If the risk is minimised by the fact he’s already shown us what he can do it’s still a gamble, an expensive one, and yet fortune favours the bold. As it is, apart from the small amount we might have paid for Brewster as his alternative all the possibilities we looked at would have commanded similar high levels of investment. Esposito has just turned 19 and could very well be at the start of a brilliant career. I hope it’s with us.

Derby FM20 – Summer 2021: Rebuilding Part 2

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

Given the sweeping player movements that take place over the summer I think the best way forward will be to work through the positions and outline what happens. Hopefully you will agree with the changes I make; as always I have the club’s best wishes in mind. They define everything. Now that we are better established in the division, with scope to improve our outlook, I have something like carte blanche to knit together a squad capable of meeting the challenges that lie in our future. It’s my hope that this summer will be the last time when we have to make sweeping adjustments to the playing personnel. If things go to plan then this will be it, the big one, and future transfer windows will be much quieter and more targeted.

Goalkeepers

Work required. Scott Carson has retired and left the club. Luca Lezzerini is the main back-up option, but he was never seen as anything more than that. I have concerns that a player with his limited prospects isn’t homegrown, meaning he just sits there, rarely getting to kick a ball in anger. Even our starter for the last two seasons, Lorenzo Montipo, is developing into a bang average keeper. In fairness, his brief was always to help to get us promoted. By Championship standards he was identified as a good signing. The aim was for him to improve as we did, however our upward trajectory is on a sharper scale than his progress. His aerial reach has always been a big plus point, and his reflexes have improved, and yet his handling skills – the core asset of any good number one – give me cause for concern. In this he’s hardly developed at all.

Joel Perreira is a credible alternative option. He’s been with Manchester United since he was a Portuguese bairn, and while he has rarely turned out in his home team’s colours he has enjoyed a string of loan spells elsewhere, specifically a term with Hearts that served him very well. Shunted out to Bournemouth most recently, where the management refused to advance him ahead of the usual starter of Aaron Ramsdale as they headed for the drop, Joel is now reaching the end of his contract. In him I see an ideal back-up keeper. He’s a very good shot stopper, and his fine positioning will serve him well if he’s ever called upon.

The Portuguese agrees a £21.5k contract, which leaves Lezzerini surplus to requirements. Benevento, newly promoted to Serie A and seeking talent to improve their chances of survival (where have we heard this before…?) identify him as a target and pay £525,000 to make him theirs. That’s a loss of nearly three hundred grand overall, but at this level such a difference is small beer.

As our new starting goalkeeper we go for a choice that might seem controversial, but he’s someone we’ve had our eye on for some time. Jack Butland has just helped Stoke to win promotion back to the Championship, finishing the season as League One champions. Named as captain for the season, Jackie was pivotal in making them the hardest side at their level to score against, as they conceded 32 throughout the entire campaign. He claimed 31 clean sheets. Clearly too high quality a keeper to be at that level, I would argue the same is true in the second tier and resolve to have him. The 28 year old doesn’t come especially cheap, costing an initial £5 million with the same amount again coming out in instalments and bonus clauses, but we have someone who can start in our net for the next half-decade and possibly even reclaim his spot in the England team at the same time. At the very least, Derby fans should see more of him than the month’s work he put in for us six years ago when he joined in an emergency loan deal.

His arrival paves the way for Montipo to leave by the same door. Astonishingly, he’s targeted by no less a team than Arsenal, who pay £5.5 million for him. The Italian is now part of an immeasurably bigger set-up than ours, and only has to outdo Bernd Leno, Jordan Pickford and Matt Macey to get his game. It’s a slightly emotional farewell to the 25 year old, who played relatively well for us and accumulated sixteen Premier League clean sheets, yet too often looked distinctly average at this level. My hope is that Butland hits an extra gear now that he really has to work for a top flight team.

Defenders

Ivan leaves as Brighton somehow remove their collective brains and find £12 million for him. We’ll take his full value as an asking price any day, though in fairness he had a pretty decent season in his relatively few appearances. All that money for someone we acquired on a free transfer is incredible business, a real stroke of luck, and you might think we will go out and sign someone splendid to keep Jayden Bogle on his toes at right-back. Not so. Knowing we have to bring in a number of new players I seek a temporary solution and sign Ethan Laird on loan from Manchester United. Turning 20 in August, the Basingstoke defender is already playing at close to Premier League level, and we only need to pay him £9,750 per week, with no additional monthly fee to worry about. Like a slightly younger Bogle, Ethan is lighting quick and very comfortable on the ball. If things work out then we might look into signing him outright in the future, that is if United ever becoming interested in selling. Having two young, ambitious English right-backs to choose from is an ideal situation, I feel. If I play my cards right then we may not have to worry about this position for many years to come.

At left-back, I make a predictable decision when it comes to Alfonso Pedraza and pay the £2.5 million that Villarreal will accept to make him our man on a permanent basis. The player agrees terms on a contract that will net him £42,000 per week, which pleases me after his good work last season. Worryingly, the coaches feel that he doesn’t like big matches very much, and it’s likely his playing time will dovetail with that of Max Lowe, depending on who we are up against. The latter, happy to play on a reduced status of squad rotation, is showing a newfound humility that he doesn’t need to be feeling. My plan is to share their playing time roughly equally.

My aim with the centre-backs is to keep Krystian Bielik and Scott McKenna, who both sign new contracts. I’m ambivalent about Mike te Wierik, and Bruno can go. And go he does, now 31 and having played for us sparingly following his free transfer. Sporting Gijon is his new home at a cost of £400,000. He was a nice squad player, hopelessly short of the talent necessary to thrive in the Premier League. To replace him I snap up Real Madrid’s Jesus Vallejo, available for free having reached the end of his contract. Aged 24, expecting fringe playing time and taking a weekly wage of £27,000, the Spaniard is a nice fit for us, I feel, being intelligent and in training committed to improving himself.

I would really like one of the English centre-backs I mentioned in a prior post to sign for us. The obvious one is Rob Holding, still surplus to requirements at Arsenal despite a good loan year at Vigo. The £20 million they’re asking for him is a drawback, however, not to mention the very high wage he is likely to demand. Our second pick is Reece Oxford, the onetime Hammer who has been impressing with FC Augsburg. They require £13.25 million, and he’s willing to sign for a £47,500 weekly salary. That’s around what we’re prepared to pay, and so the deal is done. We now have a 22 year old who must be on the fringes of the England squad, a quick and smart ball playing defender with years of playing time in the tank.

This means we can let te Wierik go. He’s been hankering after a new contract, feeling that the ten grand we’re paying him amounts to Championship wages, and he’s right. AZ Alkmaar pay £4 million for him, with an extra million to follow once he’s played 50 league games. It’s an honourable exit for someone who participated in close to half our league matches, but never came close to challenging Krys or Scott, which is something Reece will absolutely do.

Derby FM20 – Summer 2021: Rebuilding Part 1

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

Just like last summer, the Rams have a lot to do in the transfer market. A year ago, we’d just been promoted and needed to make a mainly Championship squad ready for the trials of a season in the top flight. That meant taking some hard decisions, letting go of players who had contributed to promotion and sadly were no longer going to cut it, trying to make us Premier-ready. And it worked. Now we are charged with doing it all over again as Derby enter the European arena. More changes are required. Ideally a number of our new faces should be homegrown, either English or having played in this country long enough to qualify, like Bielik and Chirivella. And they will have to be better than what we have currently, at least strong enough to ensure that we now possess two good players in each position. No more room for players who are here to bulk out the numbers. Quality is the name of the game.

Several new contracts are handed out. The big advantage of being handed an improved wage budget is that we have some flexibility in agreeing a string of new deals, to improve our average salary to £37,444 per week. This is still almost half the Premier League standard. We will have no one who comes close to matching the best paid player in the division – Arsenals’s Mesut Ozil, earning a staggering weekly £375,000 in payment for ambling around a pitch near you – but by our previous standards it’s a big deal. Max Lowe is entering the last year of his contract and agrees a new one, settling back into squad rotation status with his £24,500 payment intact. Jayden Bogle, considered an important player, is now on £33,500. Scott McKenna, Krystian Bielik and Pedro Chirivella all enter the £40k+ club by signing new agreements with the club. The former’s contract ends the hope Newcastle might have had of stealing him away. With Jason Knight and Morgan Whittaker returning to Pride Park after successful seasons on loan, both are offered new deals and promoted to the first team.

As those of you who play at this level will be completely aware, the rules for homegrown players have changed from the Premier League stipulation of naming a 25-man squad that contains at least eight members who trained in England for three years between the ages of 15 and 21. To participate in European competitions we are now required to have at least four players who have specifically been with us during those formative years. Knight and Whittaker bring our complement up to five. Bogle, Lowe and Will Hughes are all classed as having ‘trained at the club’. Adam Hlozek will enter this exclusive unit in a couple of years’ time, which stands in this favour when I contemplate the turbulent Czech’s future as a Ram. To meet continental rules I have to make sure three more squad members have ‘trained in the nation’, a fact that will underwrite my summer transfer dealings.

The truth is that beyond meeting registration stipulations I like my sides to contain a strong homegrown element. My personal feeling is that this makes a difference. Who wouldn’t like to command a side like the great Inter Milan teams of the 1960s, which were predominantly made up of Italian talent and had the feel of representing their country when they played abroad? I appreciate football has moved on since then and multi-national rosters, dressing rooms that represent smorgasbords of cultural diversity, are perfectly normal. To my mind, we’re an English side. We should contain a strong English element. Hell, wouldn’t it be nice to have players who go on to represent their country? Currently the roster contains no England internationals, at least no one who has played for the Three Lions on the back of great seasons for us. My hope is to propel Bogle, Lookman and Hughes into the national picture, and sign some players who could perhaps turn out for their nation one day. That’s the dream. If for no other reason then it will do wonders for their value.

In the meantime, we have the less happy job of releasing players who are now at the end of their contracts and will no longer be playing for the club. They are:

  • Lord Wayne Rooney – announces his retirement and leaves. I’m not especially enamoured with his development as a coach and see no need to keep him on in that capacity. Now cast adrift in the footballing ether and hawking his coaching services, he’s looking for a new team.
  • Scott Carson – another retiree, seeking gainful employment in his capacity as a goalkeeping coach. The numbers don’t look very good and so it’s with regret that I demand he turn in his locker key. I can’t disrupt the two incumbent coaches – Jim Stewart and Shay Given – with what amounts to his talents. Harsh, but – as we can say when things aren’t very fair to individuals – that’s football.
  • Jack Marriott – slid down the Rams rankings and spent the year at Legia Warsaw, where he was rather good. It was either offer him a new contract with the express objective of getting a fee for him, or just letting him go, and I chose the latter option. He’s now being courted by Luton Town.
  • Duane Holmes – no longer in the picture as a possible first team player; unfortunately I was unable to sell him last summer, so he played for Preston for a season before being released. He’s since been signed by Reading in the Championship, which is a nice development for a player considered to be of League One standard.
  • Callum Minkley – never considered to be good enough for the first team, especially not now. He’s agreed a deal with Hull City, essentially swapping life in our Under-23s team for one on the east coast.
  • Bradley Foster-Thesinger – young goalkeeper now hoping for a fresh start elsewhere. Fulham are sniffing around.
  • Jaden Charles – had promise, never nearly enough of it at a club that churns out left-backs of some quality. He’s agreed a contract with Dover of the Vanarama National League, which is probably a fair reflection of his standard.
  • Kornell McDonald – crackingly named right-back who failed to show appropriate development levels after his season with Hereford. He’s joined Fleetwood Town of League Two.
  • Josh Shonibare – 23 year old winger who at his age ought to be challenging for a first team place and isn’t even close. Now swimming in the ocean of players without a contract, but he has Scunthorpe, Aldershot and Exeter battling for his footballing charms.

The club vision defines how I should be working as a manager. I’m pleased that my efforts to make use of Derby’s youth system is being recognised by our old farts. They want our Academy to be among the country’s finest, and as it happens so do I, with work beginning on improving youth facilities as part of an over-arching plan to continue the club’s proud tradition of producing good players from within.

These are the aims for the season. They aren’t expecting a lot from us in the Europa League. ‘Be competitive’ means they think we won’t make it beyond the group stage, the round into which we will enter the contest. I want better than that, obviously I do, even though the continent’s second and lesser arena has just been won by Borussia Dortmund, so ultimately that’s the standard we’re aiming for. It’s a lofty one. The vision for the league and FA Cup are achievable, especially if we base them on what we did in 2020/21.

The pre-season programme kicks off with a training camp in New York, where we will take on NYCFC and then the Cosmos. After that there’s a showpiece home game against PSV Eindhoven, before we take to the road for ties with Derby affiliates, Burton and Real Irun. By the time the players return from their well-deserved holiday in Dubai, some of them will no longer be Rams while others will be sweating on their futures with us.

Derby FM20 – That was 2020/21: The Squad

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.

This time last year I posted a table showing the level to which our coaches reckoned the players to be operating at. Here’s the end of this season’s version:

Individuals are split neatly across three categories. ‘Good Premier’ covers those who really belong at this level, having either raised their game accordingly or been signed for their ability to do it. I’m sure you will share in my pride at seeing the name of Jayden Bogle in this column. Emile Smith Rowe‘s presence suggests that being in this category is not a sure sign of the player’s worth to us. He was my biggest disappointment… ‘Decent Premier’ indicates the people who could go either way, while the ‘Championship’ eight covers those we are most likely to replace. Scott Carson and Lord Rooney are considered to be lower still, and it’s little surprise to find that both are approaching the end of their contracts with the team.

In squad number order, here are my thoughts on each of Derby’s heroes…

1. Lorenzo Montipo
Age – Nationality: 25 – (2 U21 caps)
Current Value: £5.75 million (start of season – £8.75 million)
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 45 (0) – 19
Average Rating: 6.86
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Decent player for most Premier Division sides
Enzo played every minute of the league campaign and once again put in a steady shift. His distribution improved and now that his command of the English language is good he is considered to be a fine communicator. On the negative side, he’s probably as good as he is ever going to be now, which means he is at best average. I remember bringing him in to help get us promoted; now I see that he is considering moving to a bigger club, and my temptation is to undercut his dream by replacing him now. It depends on the state of the market – who’s available, preferably for less than a king’s ransom fee.

2. Ivan
Age – Nationality: 27 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £12 million (start of season – £9.75 million)
Position: Right Full-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 15 (0) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 7.03
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player in his prime years
For a free signing brought in initially to replace the lesser Andre Wisdom and not expected to make much of anything in the Premier League, Ivan put his time in the spotlight to good use. Deployed mainly when Bogle was suspended or to give the young Englishman a rest, he turned out to be an adept defensive full-back, though less effective as part of an attacking routine. He’s decent in every facet that’s relevant to his role, and yet that’s all he is. Ultimately Ivan is a back-up, a squaddie, who’s far enough behind the preferred choice to make him expendable. Recouping anything like his £12 million value will represent an enormous profit on someone we snapped up for gratis.

3. Max Lowe
Age – Nationality: 24 –  (0 caps)
Current Value: £7.5 million (start of season – £3.5 million)
Position: Left Full-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 24 (2) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 6.85
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly consistent performer
Max’s place in the squad is gold-plated thanks to being homegrown. Apart from a couple of loan stints he’s played all his football for Derby, and in 2020/21 he racked up his 115th league appearance. The eye for goal he had in the Championship did not come up with him, but that’s fine – space for shooting was more at a premium, and Max’s poor finishing levels ensured there were fewer opportunities to crack off a shot. Instead, he developed into the more defensive alternative to Pedraza’s forward-thinking game. If we were up against a really good side, a scenario where we needed to batten down those hatches and weather the storm then Max was chosen, and on the whole he put in a pretty solid season’s work. The challenge of playing at a higher level didn’t daunt him, unless he was unlucky enough to be trying to stop the likes of Mo Salah, which can test the very highest rated full-backs. His desire to move to ‘a bigger club’ is no longer an issue, which is a good thing.

4. Pedro Chirivella
Age – Nationality: 24 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £19.5 million (start of season – £6.75 million)
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 40 (0) – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 7.35
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans really like this player
Nothing less than a revelation. Praise was heaped on Pedro after he played in all but one of our Premier League games, developed into a star and was ultimately awarded with the Players’ Young Player of the Year award, joining a roll call that contains Gazza, Giggs and Ronaldo. Most impressive was his range of passing, his great first touch, and best of all his emerging composure levels. In pressure situations Pedro just didn’t panic, drawing strength from Derby’s good start to become critical in helping us to be established. He’s just signed a fat new contract, putting him in the £40,000+ per week bracket, which is the least he deserves. A fans’ favourite and essential to the cause to such an extent that we might struggle if any ill befell him.

5. Krystian Bielik
Age – Nationality: 23 – (11 caps)
Current Value: £16.25 million (start of season – £14.5 million)
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 38 (1) – 5 – 0
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Really good in the air
The big Pole had a good year, trained at Arsenal to eventually become a Premier League player and now hitting those heights at Pride Park. Of our centre-backs he played the most games, improved in relevant areas and weighed in with five goals from set-piece situations, a happy outcome of his aerial abilities. His standing is such that he’s now a regular for Poland, and while his ‘slow off the mark’ deficiency makes him culpable to quick balls through to attackers he can often enough anticipate those moments and get himself into position accordingly. We’re training him to be a defensive midfielder, meaning his long-term future might be to provide cover for Chirivella as well as stick with his defensive duties. A fine and very solid member of the squad.

6. Scott McKenna
Age – Nationality: 24 – (23 caps)
Current Value: £17.75 million (start of season – £12.5 million)
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (2) – 2 – 2
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Improved on his marking and tackling
Scott the Scot was drafted in to add top flight quality to our defensive effort and fit that bill entirely, providing composed and intelligent cover at the back on a consistent basis. Considered to be an aggressive player, he channelled his energy into committed play, picking up only three bookings all season. He’s also a leader, a sure thing for the vice captaincy in 2021/22. All in all a great player for us, providing a sound aerial presence and doing all the things he should do at a high level. Newcastle want him. It isn’t going to happen.

7. Bakery Jatta
Age – Nationality: 22 –  (0 caps)
Current Value: £11.75 million (start of season – £10.75 million)
Position: Right Winger (Support)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 11 (21) – 11 – 3
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good player for most Championship sides
Bakery bucked the odds in 2020/21. Expected to fade while playing at a higher level, pushed onto him a year before I felt he was ready for it, the German turned into a decent option, especially as a substitute when Hlozek was under-performing, which is suggested by the sheer number of appearances he made from the bench. He weighed in with eleven goals, seven of them in the league, and his effort against Chelsea when he scored a late brace was solid gold work and reflective of his blistering pace, which could cause problems for anyone. Bakery is fit, works hard and is getting on for Adama Traore levels of acceleration. He’s a dangerous player, sometimes to adverse effect as he earned a string of bookings and a red card. Ultimately the Championship is his natural standard, and when preferred in the starting line-up ahead of Hlozek was unable to wrest his place more fervently. My inclination is to cash in now while his stock is elevated. Bakery is a high earner and I feel the money might be better invested elsewhere, however he has played his part in establishing his side in the division and for that I am grateful.

8. Adam Hlozek
Age – Nationality: 18 – (15 caps)
Current Value: £12.5 million (start of season – £17.25 million)
Position: Right Winger (Attack)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 35 (6) – 7 – 5
Average Rating: 6.89
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Could improve a lot in the future
Adam produced moments of joy and exasperation in equal measure across the season. A teenager who will become homegrown and possessing everything in his locker to be established as a star winger, there were also many moments of brattish petulance to cope with, while his unwillingness/complete inability to provide much defensive cover put pressure on his teammates. His playing relationship with Bogle is fitful at best, which is a problem, and at one stage in the campaign it looked as though I might have to put him up for sale after a spat when he was substituted for an anonymous performance. At his very best he can carry the ball deep into dangerous positions, evade tackles and take a shot; on the flipside he had the capacity to vanish from games entirely. The coaches consider him to be a selfish player. He’s far too promising to be rejected entirely, and yet I spent more than enough time trying to accommodate a young player who sees himself as the Big I Am. Perhaps I need to bear in mind that he’s a kid, barely an adult, playing in a new country and without any other Czechs to provide some natural company. If it comes down to it though, Bogle will come out on top of any discussion (both are the best picks for their positions); perhaps the long-term answer will be to re-train Adam to play as a striker.

9. Josh Maja
Age – Nationality: 22 –  (0 caps)
Current Value: £8 million
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 6 (11) – 3 – 0
Average Rating: 6.89
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Possesses a fair amount of pace
Signed for a mere £2.3 million as a better third choice striker than Jack Marriott, Josh improved his form to play second fiddle to Esposito and was deadly in the early FA Cup rounds. He failed to produce a single Premier League goal however, despite his finishing abilities. Josh came close several times, and overall he did enough to earn another opportunity. He’s quick, strong and relatively determined, and I hope the goals will follow. The Premier League represents a considerable step up for Josh, one he met with varying results, and while there’s no talk of selling him yet, the forthcoming season will increase expectations on him.

10. Emile Smith Rowe
Age – Nationality: 20 – (U20 caps)
Current Value: £13.25 million (start of season – £14.75 million)
Position: Left Inverted Winger (Support)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 7 (25) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 6.63
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Arsenal are unlikely to want to sell this player
Replaced Tom Lawrence as back-up to Lookman, and for the most part disappointed. Despite being used in his natural position, given numerous opportunities to shine and oscillating with Ade when both players were struggling to settle in to the side, the other winger grew into an essential player and Emile went in the opposite direction. I’m at a loss to explain where it went wrong. He should have everything, being agile and quick, good on and off the ball, and yet he did very little with his time in the side. At one point I was seriously considering recalling Morgan Whittaker from Millwall to provide some competition. Arsenal don’t want to sell Emile, which is fortunate as I have no interest in signing him.

12. Scott Carson
Age – Nationality: 35 – (4 caps)
Current Value: £8,500 (start of season – £1.4 million)
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances: 0
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good player for most League Two sides
Far from good enough to be anything more than an emergency back-up, Scott is on the cusp of retirement. He was transfer listed throughout the season, with no takers emerging largely because his Derby contract paid him too much money for him to drop to his natural current level. All in all an ignominious way to call time on his sound football career, one in which he might be best remembered for being out of his depth with the England team, but he gave us six years’ solid service and we wish him well.

13. Luca Lezzerini
Age – Nationality: 26 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £575,000 (start of season – £4.8 million)
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 1 (0) – 1
Average Rating: 6.80
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player and could still improve
I snapped up Luca to offer better cover for Montipo than Carson could provide, and that’s what he gave me. A cheaply acquired, Serie B level keeper, with a very good aerial reach and a fine throwing ability, he made one Carabao Cup appearance and was never required again. He did well enough for the reserves, producing 22 clean sheets in 44 non-competitive games, and in terms of ‘being here’ he filled the brief. For me, back-up players should be homegrown to ensure we have the requisite numbers, and with Manchester United’s Joel Pereira set to be released the most likely outcome is that this will wind up being Luca’s single and mostly incognito stint in a Derby shirt.

15. Ademola Lookman
Age – Nationality: 23 – (11 U21 caps)
Current Value: £14 million (start of season – £6.5 million)
Position: Left Inside Forward (Attack)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 39 (6) – 13 – 1
Average Rating: 6.92
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly selfish player
Ade started his Derby career slowly, and for a while I thought the incredible asking price of £1.3 million to sign him was a trap, that he would ultimately amount to nothing. The truth turned out to be that he just needed time, to feel like he was valued, and once these elements were in place he turned on the style, weighing in with crucial goals to keep us in the table’s higher reaches. He’s quick and he loves to dribble, and watching him tear through opposition defences can be a joy. There’s a selfish aspect to his game also; for a winger that single assist credited to him stands as a blight. We would expect better. That aside, his form and sheer effervescence placed him in the Premier League Team of the Year, which makes for a fairytale ending to his season.

16. Kevin Stoger
Age – Nationality: 27 – (17 U21 caps)
Current Value: £30.5 million (start of season – £19 million)
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 37 (4) – 4 – 11
Average Rating: 7.30
Key Coaching Comment: ‘In a rich vein of form of late
A star in central midfield, Kevin’s free signing must be one of the best bits of business I will ever make for Derby. He’s a smashing passer who isn’t afraid to try hitting killer balls, whilst as our corner taker he racked up the assists with some beautifully teasing balls into the box. Establishing a great partnership with Will Hughes, and played very often due to the lack of options elsewhere, Kevin belied his lowly reputation with a fantastic campaign and ends it on the brink of being picked for the Austrian national side. One of Derby’s undoubtedly big winners from the season.

17. Mike te Wierik
Age – Nationality: 28 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £9.5 million (start of season – £10.75 million)
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 (4) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.97
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Poor first touch can lead him into trouble at times
Mike enjoyed a perfectly sound season in Derby whites, expected to be joining a Championship outfit when he agreed his transfer but ending up playing in the Premier League instead. Just about able to cope at the higher level, the Dutchman’s physical presence and height made him a reliable option, and he could mark players. Rotated with Krys and Scott as the main pair were allowed breaks from the line-up, he didn’t let me down, however top tier football is a stretch for his talents. He wants a new contract, which is fair for someone earning £10,000 per week, but we may end up doling him out instead if we can find suitable replacements.

18. Bruno
Age – Nationality: 31 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £1 million (start of season – £9.25 million)
Position: Central defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 3 – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.90
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Poor technique
For a freebie brought in to play Championship football, Bruno provided back-up throughout the campaign and rarely troubled the more highly rated defenders who were ahead of him in the rankings. Potential injuries to other players, which never became a reality, ended his chances of staking a bigger claim within the side, and this is almost certainly going to end up being his one and only season as a Ram. When he was used he did well enough, especially as a physical and imposing centre-back, but we didn’t have to call on him in the league and my feeling is he would struggle if ever he had to replace either Krys or Scott.

19. Will Hughes
Age – Nationality: 26 – (22 U21 caps)
Current Value: £19.25 million (start of season – £17.5 million)
Position: Advanced Playmaker (Support)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 38 (6) – 1 – 7
Average Rating: 7.00
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans have a great affinity towards this player
A bona fide club icon who was re-signed to establish his credentials with his boyhood team, Will was committed and outstanding. He played in all but one of our league matches, nearly always as captain because Lord Rooney was unused, and put in an authoritative showing. A resolute and composed midfielder, clearly as proud as punch over what Derby have become on his watch, and doing the unsexy yet essential jobs on the pitch really well, he’s an essential asset. The call to Gareth Southgate starts here – Will must play for England!

22. Alfonso Pedraza
Age – Nationality: 25 – (14 U21 caps)
Current Value: £11.5 million (start of season – £7 million)
Position: Wing-Back (Attack)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (5) – 3 – 2
Average Rating: 7.05
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is a natural in several positions
On loan from Villarreal for the season and with a £2.5 million optional buy-out clause in his contract, it’s almost certain that I will resolve a potential gap at left-back by making Alfonso ours on a permanent basis. He wants to sign for us, to end the uncertainty that a string of loan moves has failed to provide for him, and he’s done well, especially as an attacking wing-back. Less defensively reliable than Max Lowe, he’s great in those instances when we can take the game to the opposition. Alfonso scored a peach of a goal in our finale against Leicester, which almost stands as a plea from the player to keep him, and I am certainly of a mind to do exactly that. He’s someone who can play naturally in any position on the left flank, which is a most useful asset.

23. Marco Benassi
Age – Nationality: 26 – (27 U21 caps)
Current Value: £9.5 million
Position: Box to Box Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 6 (8) – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 6.69
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A peripheral figure in the squad
Marco was signed quite specifically to meet the need for quality cover in midfield during the January transfer window. Marc Stendera and Christian D’Urso had both left on loan after failing to make an impact, leaving us short on numbers and looking for someone to come in and provide a presence on the bench. This he did. The Italian from Fiorentina never really produced enough to make me consider paying the £8.75 million to buy out his contract, and his season ended with an ignominious injury that underlined my doubtful feelings about him. That said, when he did get on the pitch he made for an enthusiastic and energetic presence, and his ability to intercept passes and break up opposition play was very useful at times.

31. Sebastiano Esposito
Age – Nationality: 18 – (7 U21 caps)
Current Value: £29 million (start of season – £12 million)
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (2) – 17 – 3
Average Rating: 7.15
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Wonderkid. At the start of the season I worried that Seb would develop into this year’s Troy Parrott. Both were 17 when they signed, each had unlimited potential, yet the Irishman was a pale shadow in our line-up while Seb went on to have a terrific season. Fifteen league goals left him in joint third place with Lacazette, Firmino and Mousset, and he impressed us all with his pace and agility. His composure in front of goal was uncanny for someone his age. He can finish too, as comfortable in poaching situations as he is scoring at the end of a mazy dribble into the opposition box. My mission is to sign him permanently, though his success has increased his price tag. When he arrived I thought we might have been able to get him for around £8 million; five or six times that amount is now more likely.

32. Lord Wayne Rooney
Age – Nationality: 35 – (120 caps)
Current Value: £55,000 (start of season – £1.3 million)
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 6 (1) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 7.32
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Emergency backup who may be past his best
Sometimes I just love the understated way the coaches have of advising me that someone is completely over the hill. May be past his best? May? I can’t knock Lord Rooney. His contribution in the months after I started work at Derby was estimable, and it’s probably right and proper that in the intervening time his influence has waned. His physical attributes are now crashing through the floor, only that innate class and pedigree keeping him on his feet and commanding some authority, while niggling injuries have taken him off the bench as often as he’s on it. He’s now considered the sixth best choice for defensive midfield, even behind Jordan Rossiter, a youngster we picked up last summer after he was released by Rangers. In truth I don’t rate his Lordship that highly as a coach either, so his future within any capacity at the club is in some doubt. That might sound cruel, but there’s little room for sentiment and the brave and commanding England legend will be writing his next chapter elsewhere.

33. Juan Hernandez
Age – Nationality: 22 – (9 U20 caps)
Current Value: £12.5 million (start of season – £11.5 million)
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 5 (8) – 3 – 1
Average Rating: 6.92
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Doesn’t enjoy big matches
Drafted in on loan at the same time as Esposito, the idea being to sign the one who played the better at the end of the season, the Italian grabbed the ball and ran off with it until he became a speck on the horizon, while Juan got left behind. A fair striker, to whom we paid £13,000 per week to meet his Watford contract, Chuco started the season well enough before Seb flicked through the gears and had the Colombian in his wake. Things got worse as Josh Maja improved to the extent he wrested second place, consigning Juan to substitute and cup appearances, and the sixteen goals he scored in the non-competitive hinterland. A physically capable forward who didn’t cause a fuss despite his dwindling opportunities for us, Juan has since agreed terms with Crystal Palace to be an Eagle in the new season.

34. Lewis Baker
Age – Nationality: 26 – (17 U21 caps)
Current Value: £10 million (start of season – £11.5 million)
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 7 (14) – 0 – 6
Average Rating: 7.34
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Never likely to be useful in aerial situations
Lewis was sidelined as Stoger and Hughes took over midfield duties, and that was a sadness. A cracking presence in our promotion season, he didn’t ever look like raising his game to Premier League standards, which probably explains why Chelsea were prepared to let him go in the first place. Still a great corner taker and a natural with free kicks, Lewis has his selling points and, with Maxime Lopez coming in the summer, it’s these we will be promoting to find a new home for him. His efforts, especially those in 2019/20, are appreciated.

37. Jayden Bogle
Age – Nationality: 20 – (U20 caps)
Current Value: £13.75 million (start of season – £13.5 million)
Position: Right Wing-Back (Defend)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (0) – 0 – 3
Average Rating: 6.91
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has improved as a footballer
Not an easy season for Jayden. Unlike at left-back the alternative on the right to him wasn’t playing at his level, so there was an onus for him to play a lot and improve rapidly. He ended up as the team’s most frequently disciplined player, picking up fourteen yellow cards and getting sent off on one occasion. Finally, his playing relationship on the right with Hlozek was an uneasy one. Lookman and Lowe/Pedraza worked well because the winger was willing to do his defensive duties when either full-back surged forward, but this just didn’t happen on Jayden’s side, where the Czech had no interest in tracking back, which left him with masses of space on the pitch to cover. Fortunately he responded to all this with aplomb. He developed his game, notably its more defensive aspects, coped better with opposition attackers as the campaign progressed, and he’s only 20 so we can expect the improvements to continue. I absolutely want to keep him around. A new contract has been agreed, and we look forward to further progress from Jayden, possibly even breaking into the international picture for England.

Derby FM20 – That was 2020/21: The Opposition

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 thought it might be useful to say some words about the sides we faced in the Premier League, their biggest heroes and villains, how they fared against Derby and any other bits of trivia. In league table order:

Liverpool (1st, 88 points)
Manager: Jurgen Klopp
Head-to-head: we won 1-0 at Anfield, lost 2-0 at home; they also kicked us out of the FA Cup with a 2-0 defeat in the semi-final
Star player: Mohamed Salah (45 appearances, 15 goals, 17 assists, 7.38 rating)
Flop player:  Adam Lallana (14 (12) appearances, 2 goals, 0 assists, 6.71 rating)
Biggest transfer: Paulo Dybala, £83 million from Zebre
After being there or thereabouts for several years Liverpool finally achieved the dream of clinching the Premier League crown, sealing the title on the final day. They also won the FA Cup, downing Chelsea 2-0. Quality runs through the side liberally; at their best they were simply too powerful to hold back and they underpinned a highly fit group of players with endless tight pressing and darting attacks. A wonderful and quite terrifying set-up.

Manchester City (2nd, 85 points)
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Head-to-head: we drew 0-0 at the Ethihad, lost 3-0 at home; they did for us in the Carabao Cup Fourth Round with a 1-0 victory
Star player: Kevin De Bruyne (57 appearances, 12 goals, 22 assists (best in the league), 7.73 rating)
Flop player:  Ilkay Gundogan (8 (28) appearances, 1 goal, 3 assists, 6.95 rating)
Biggest transfer: Harrington Kane, £107 million from Tottenham
Awesome. Pep’s serial winners blew us away at Pride Park by virtue of sheer attacking intent, one of those line-ups where working out who to mark was an exercise in the impossible. They finished a season in which they lost the league title for the first time in four years by retaining the Champions League, beating Bayern Munich 1-0 in the final. Squad age and the lack of homegrown players are issues for them, but the Academy is churning out excellent prospects and they have endless transfer riches to play with.

Chelsea (3rd, 78 points)
Manager: Frank Lampard
Head-to-head: we stunned them 4-2 at home, lost 3-0 at Stamford Bridge
Star player: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (47 (1) appearances, 9 goals, 7 assists, 7.30 rating)
Flop player:  Donny van de Beek (22 (1) appearances, 4 goals, 2 assists, 6.87 rating)
Biggest transfer: Milinkovic-Savic, £89 million from Lazio
The end of Chelsea’s transfer ban was celebrated with heavy spending on Milinkovic-Savic, Van de Beek and Ziyech to strengthen an already muscular squad. They didn’t score the most nor concede the least, but there was a grinding inevitability about their methods and if they hadn’t had two sides above them that played at a different level to everyone else then they would be genuine contenders. Frankie looks like a safe pair of hands, making the correct moves generally and actually using their vast array of homegrown talent, which makes a pleasant change.

Manchester United (4th, 77 points)
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Head-to-head: we drew 2-2 at Old Trafford, won 2-0 at home
Star player: Paul Pogba (51 (1) appearances, 13 goals, 8 assists, 7.30 rating)
Flop player:  Alexis Sanchez (1 (8) appearances, 1 goal, 0 assists, 6.71 rating)
Biggest transfer: Clement Lenglet, £62 million from Barcelona
United leapfrogged us into the final Champions League place, winning their last three games of the league calendar. They lost only five matches all season, but drew eleven, and arguably suffered from the absence of a cutting edge in attack, there they failed consistently to deliver a finishing blow. As always the country’s best Academy turns out future stars, and it needs to as Ole wrestles with a first team that contains too many hangers on.

Arsenal (6th, 72 points)
Manager: Mikel Arteta
Head-to-head: we won 2-1 at the Emirates before beating them 2-1 at home
Star player: Hector Bellerin (34 appearances, 0 goals, 8 assists, 7.32 rating)
Flop player:  Mesut Ozil (16 (15) appearances, 1 goal, 3 assists, 6.89 rating)
Biggest transfer: Jadon Sancho, £97 million from Borussia Dortmund
Same old Arsenal, starting like they were on fire with five straight wins before their traditional collapse during the winter grind. There’s a lot to like about them in attack, but defence was their Achilles heel and Carlos Salcedo became the league winner for collecting bookings. You get the impression this will be their main area to address in the summer. Thankfully Mesut Ozil is transfer listed by request; need that millstone around their neck they do not.

Everton (7th, 60 points)
Manager: Thomas Frank
Head-to-head: we won 2-0 at Goodison, lost 2-0 at home
Star player: Andre Gomes (41 (2) appearances, 8 goals, 3 assists, 7.27 rating)
Flop player:  Moise Kean (7 (15) appearances, 4 goals, 0 assists, 6.85 rating)
Biggest transfer: Jose Juan Macias, £27 million from Chivas
On the whole Frank did well in his first year in charge, cutting much of the fat from an imbalanced squad and making good use of the Academy players. Having sold Iwobi to Bayern however, they were a bit too one-dimensional, relying heavily on Andre Gomes and failing to source a consistent goalscorer. Macias was their best, producing eleven strikes, while Calvert-Lewin disappointed on the whole.

Norwich (8th, 59 points)
Manager: Daniel Farke
Head-to-head: we won both games 1-0
Star player: Stanislav Lobotka (35 appearances, 1 goal, 1 assist, 7.27 rating)
Flop player:  Teemu Pukki (40 (3) appearances, 13 goals, 3 assists, 6.98 rating)
Biggest transfer: Conor Coady, £21.5 million from Wolves
The year’s winner of the ‘Bournemouth Trophy’ for prevailing against the odds, an effort that relied on loan talent (Lobotka, Vecino, Wilson, Knockaert) but could also call on some fine young Canaries. Emi Buendia’s desire to leave for better things ended, as did Max Aaron’s, while Godfrey and Lewis are homegrown defenders who have risen to the challenge. Doing it on an admirable shoestring.

Tottenham Hotspur (9th, 52 points)
Manager: Jose Mourinho until December, then Manuel Pellegrini
Head-to-head: we drew 0-0 at home, won 1-0 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Star player: Serge Aurier (28 (3) appearances, 0 goals, 8 assists, 7.08 rating)
Flop player:  Steven Bergwijn (23 (18) appearances, 3 goals, 3 assists, 6.79 rating)
Biggest transfer: Ruben Dias, £50 million from Benfica
Spurs never really overcame the departure of Kane. They didn’t manage to find an alternative striker to score their goals consistently, and they paid for it with an inconsistent campaign. A horrible winter period, during which they failed to win a string of six matches, heralded the arrival of Pellegrini, who continued to underwhelm as his team gave the impression of easing back into mid-table after several years flirting with the upper reaches.

Aston Villa (10th, 50 points)
Manager: Dean Smith
Head-to-head: we won 2-1 at home and 2-0 at Villa Park
Star player: John McGinn (34 appearances, 2 goals, 4 assists, 7.14 rating)
Flop player:  Matthew Targett (21 (4) appearances, 0 goals, 1 assist, 6.83 rating)
Biggest transfer: Casper de Norre, £11.5 million from KR Genk
Settling back into mid-table tedium, Villa would argue they are where they belong, able to give anyone a bloody nose on their day while being this big, mainly useless edifice that no one really talks about much. The whole effort depends overly on Jack Grealish’s efforts in attacking midfield; he could be going to Manchester United in the summer, and if this happens it will be interesting to see where they turn to for future inspiration.

Sheffield United (11th, 48 points)
Manager: Chris Wilder
Head-to-head: we lost 3-1 at home, won 3-0 at Bramall Lane (we also knocked them out of the Carabao Cup)
Star player: Sander Berge (37 appearances, 1 goal, 2 assists, 7.19 rating)
Flop player:  Roberto Gagliardini (31 (1) appearances, 2 goals, 1 assist, 6.73 rating)
Biggest transfer: Maximilian Meyer, £23.5 million from Crystal Palace
Over-achieving is the name of the game. The Blades have rocked budget levels on a par with the promoted teams and make good use of their assets, prevailing with a cheaply assembled side that rarely knows when it’s been beaten. Lys Mousset’s 17 goals made him dangerous, while Berge remains a very clever player in midfield and would grace just about any team.

Leicester City (12th, 47 points)
Manager: Marcelino until March, then Neil Lennon
Head-to-head: we lost 2-1 at Crisps Stadium, won 3-1 at home
Star player: James Maddison (33 appearances, 4 goals, 10 assists, 7.18 rating)
Flop player:  Wilfred Ndidi (23 (7) appearances, 0 goals, 0 assists, 6.73 rating)
Biggest transfer: Gerard Deulofeu, £36 million from Watford
You’d have to consider this a disappointment. Despite the mixed results the Foxes ought to be a top ten team, with the likes of Maddison, Tielemans, Gray, Choudhury and Barnes all young, talented and enterprising assets. Yet it never amounted to very much. Goals were a problem. Star signing Milik weighed in with six all season, leaving them reliant on the mercurial skills of Vardinho, now 34 and still contributing with twelve strikes despite beginning to slow down.

West Ham United (13th, 40 points)
Manager: David Moyes
Head-to-head: we won 3-0 at London Stadium, won 1-0 at home
Star player: Declan Rice (36 appearances, 4 goals, 2 assists, 7.01 rating)
Flop player:  Ryan Fredericks (21 (13) appearances, 0 goals, 2 assists, 6.60 rating)
Biggest transfer: Sead Kolasinac, £21.5 million from Arsenal
Low scoring, ill disciplined, replying on long in the tooth veterans, wildly inconsistent and carrying a fatally imbalanced squad, the Hammers are some way off becoming the next big thing. London Stadium is an unhappy venue, cavernous and bad tempered, and while the likes of Rice and Bowen tease at a credible future their inclination to find a home for fading talents (Wilshere, Zabaleta) remains an issue.

Middlesbrough (14th, 38 points)
Manager: Jonathan Woodgate
Head-to-head: we won 1-0 at the Riverside, lost by the same scoreline at home
Star player: Dael Fry (37 appearances, 2 goals, 1 assist, 6.91 rating)
Flop player:  Izzy Brown (26 (13) appearances, 4 goals, 2 assists, 6.74 rating)
Biggest transfer: Vlad Dragomir, £5 million from Perugia
When you’re trying to stay up the more aesthetic elements of the game are off-limits. Boro gritted their way through the campaign, methodically collecting precious points while garnering the division’s highest card count, defending like lions and producing goals sparingly (Icelandic midfielder Traustason was their top scorer with five). It wasn’t a pretty effort but it didn’t have to be. They did enough with a line-up held together with bootlaces, and they get to go again.

Newcastle United (15th, 36 points)
Manager: Steve Bruce until November, then Lee Johnson
Head-to-head: we won 1-0 at home and 2-1 at St James Park
Star player: Allan Saint-Maximin (40 appearances, 13 goals, 8 assists, 7.11 rating)
Flop player:  Ayoze Perez (25 (6) appearances, 4 goals, 1 assist, 6.68 rating)
Biggest transfer: Caleb Ekuban, £10.25 million from Trabzonspor
A season of two halves, utterly wretched until Lee Johnson took over and carefully guided them away from trouble. A new board installed in 2019 hints at a more promising future, but the cost-cutting, profit siphoning regime of yore will take time to be left in the past as the cycle of investment in youth categories, the dilapidated ground and fixing the under-invested squad become long-term objectives.

Brighton and Hove Albion (16th, 36 points)
Manager: Graham Potter
Head-to-head: we drew 0-0 at the Amex, won 5-1 at home
Star player: Pascal Gross (31 appearances, 3 goals, 8 assists, 7.05 rating)
Flop player:  Jordan Lukaku (32 (1) appearances, 0 goals, 0 assists, 6.79 rating)
Biggest transfer: Samuel Gigot, £13.25 million from Spartak Moscow
For a team that finished seventeenth in their previous two seasons the name of the game was simply to survive, and Brighton did their job well enough that they only needed to win one more match from mid-February onwards, dropping from a relative height of thirteenth. They didn’t score many goals and conceded a lot, and yet they did what they had to do, achieving exactly the final position that was predicted for them, which is to their credit.

Southampton (17th, 31 points)
Manager: Ralph Hasenhuttl until November, then Roberto Martinez
Head-to-head: we won 2-1 at St Mary’s, and drew 2-2 at home
Star player: James Ward-Prose (40 appearances, 6 goals, 7 assists, 7.25 rating)
Flop player:  Moussa Djenepo (23 (11) appearances, 3 goals, 3 assists, 6.73 rating)
Biggest transfer: Joris Gnagnon, £13.5 million from Sevilla
Spending all but three weeks of the campaign in the relegation zone until mounting a decisive push on the final day, the Saints will reflect on a season to forget, great escapes notwithstanding. Their reliance on three players (Ward-Prowse, Redmond, Ings and his twelve goals) was a constant. If these could be stopped then Southampton folded, making them fairly one-dimensional. Losing any of them in the summer may prove to be the death stroke.

Brentford (18th, 31 points)
Manager: Steven Gerrard
Head-to-head: we lost 2-1 at the Community Stadium, we won 2-1 at home
Star player: Mathias Jensen (36 appearances, 6 goals, 3 assists, 7.16 rating)
Flop player:  Ollie Watkins (37 (1) appearances, 2 goals, 2 assists, 6.57 rating)
Biggest transfer: Alexander Scholz, £9.75 million from Wolves
Poor Brentford. They thought they had done enough until the very end of the season, when a late surge from Southampton cast them into the relegation places. It wasn’t an especially good inaugural Premier League effort. They were reasonably sound in defence, but scored the second lowest number of goals (30). The seeds for recovery are there, though. Jensen and Baptiste ensured a consistently solid midfield presence, and Stevie G should improve as a young manager.

Burnley (19th, 28 points)
Manager: Sean Dyche until March, then Ralph Hasenhuttl
Head-to-head: we drew 0-0 at home and won 3-1 at Turf Moor
Star player: Luca Sangalli (25 (8) appearances, 2 goals, 1 assist, 7.02 rating)
Flop player:  Ashley Barnes (28 (7) appearances, 1 goal, 0 assists, 6.71 rating)
Biggest transfer: Steven Sessegnon, £11.75 million from Fulham
The Lancashire Clarets threw the dice when they sacked Dyche in the spring as he guided them into the bottom three. It didn’t work. His successor Hasenhuttl had already struggled with Southampton, so the omens for him weren’t good and things went true to form. A largely rueful campaign. They scored 28 goals all season, conceded 71, allowed six teams to put four past them and, Chris Wood aside, had little presence in attack. With Dyche gone there’s a worrying sense of him having taken the club’s soul on his way out.

Bournemouth (20th, 27 points)
Manager: Eddie Howe until December, then Stale Solbakken
Head-to-head: we won 3-1 at home, drew 1-1 at Dean Court
Star player: Lewis Cook (47 (2) appearances, 2 goals, 6 assists, 7.19 rating)
Flop player:  Aaron Ramsdale (51 appearances, 6.81 rating)
Biggest transfer: Robert Pereyra, £33 million from Watford
In March Cherries manager Solbakken secured a couple of consecutive league victories and at that point it looked as though a miracle might occur. The dawn was false. Following that brief respite they settled back down to losing fixtures, and drawing a few, crucially tying against us in the game that finally confirmed their relegation. Sorry work from a side that should have been too good to be bottom. Poor defending, a shocker from their goalkeeper, and ignoring past lessons from other sides in pinning their hopes on Balotelli, all contributed to their downfall.

Derby FM20 – That was 2020/21: Derby County

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.

An obligatory – and a bit self-congratulatory – wrapping up of the exciting season that’s just finished. In summary, it all went a million times better than I could ever have dreamed. I remember at this time last year sweating heavily over our prospects. My plan was never to be promoted at the first time of asking; it just felt like too big a leap with the players we had, and yet the first few months turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Once we became established the lads grew in self-belief and reckoned they could stand firmly against most opponents. To go into fixtures against sides that on paper were much stronger than us and be named as favourites was thrilling. We bucked the odds too, doing the double over Arsenal and only ever looking like a poor-relation, newly promoted outfit that was in over our heads on several occasions.

Best Victory

Going to Anfield and winning 1-0 was a smash and grab effort, an FM’ing of the eventual champions, but to be fair to ourselves it was no less than we deserved as we coped well with Liverpool’s attacking intent and caught them on the break. All fair and square. For me though, we were never better than when we triumphed 3-0 over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. The Blades had done for us at home; in the return we never looked like losing, running out as confident winners to produce a result that at no point looked in any doubt. A brilliant display, crowned off with a Sebastiano Esposito hat-trick as the young Italian striker announced himself as one to be feared.

Worst Defeat

Several contenders here, but the nadir was our 3-0 loss to Chelsea. What really hurt about this one wasn’t so much that we’d beaten them earlier in the season, rather the manner of our collapse. The Blues put three past us in a first half blitz, completely overwhelming us, and we only spared ourselves from making the situation worse by becoming defensive and limiting the damage. There’s no fun in being made to look poor, and we really did ourselves no favours on that occasion. It was all the worse because a win might have seen us leapfrogging above them in the table, yet as it was we were slammed firmly back into our place. Boo.

Club Awards

Last year the individual honour was claimed emphatically by Lewis Baker, who was relegated to a bit-part role this time around. ‘The Bake’ made good use of his time on the pitch, yet never showed signs that he had developed very much from being a good Championship midfielder.

A much closer vote for Fans’ Player of the Year ends up favouring Pedro Chirivella, who wins with 39% of the vote. Kevin Stoger (33%) and Bakery Jatta (18%) are also up there, the latter presumably for some thrilling work contributed from substitute appearances. Throwing on someone with high levels of pace to terrify opposition defences is clearly a winner… But Pedro is a fair shout for the overall award. Solid as a rock in defensive midfield and only very occasionally being anything less than titanic, the Spaniard typified our gritty, uncompromising approach to the Premier League. He established a ‘none shall pass’ mentality and helped to foster a defensive effort that made us difficult to score against.

My own pick, for what it’s worth, is Will Hughes, doing the unsexy but necessary things really well in central midfield, and pretty much becoming the outright team captain as Lord Rooney faded into bench warming anonymity.

Pedro also claims the Signing of the Season award, which is justified as he cost £750,000 and ended up being valued at £19.25 million. Guess who’ll be winning a fat new contract in the summer… He goes on to claim the Players’ Young Player honour within the Premier League, beating Trent Alexander-Arnold, which stands as a major recognition from his peers of what he contributed.

Football 365 says ‘Scarce few pundits will have been brave enough to pluck Derby from mid-table obscurity in pre-season and mark them out for bigger and better things, but the Rams did exactly that, surprising everyone as they broke free from the pack and secured continental qualification. They were one of the competition’s surprise packages, consistently defying expectations.’

Perhaps surprisingly, Chirivella doesn’t make it into the Premier League Team of the Season. Ademola Lookman does however, a reward for rising to the challenge and repaying the faith I had in him. He appears amid a sea of Liverpool – and occasionally City – players.

The onus on me for 2021/22 is to establish the Rams within mid-table. That seems fair, liberal even, whilst I would plug for a top half finish as a bare minimum. Holding on to the continental qualifying places and perhaps throwing in a cup for good measure should represent a mark of real ambition, but for now I’ll go with the flow. Their faith in me is underwritten with a transfer budget of £50.2 million, while the weekly wage allowance is increased to £1.2 million. This certainly leaves some scope for improvement, although given Derby ended the season with a balance of more than fifty million, with an additional thirty handed to us as a finishing bonus and further riches from sponsorship it might have been better still. I chance my arm and ask Mr Morris if the club will fund an improvement to our Youth Academy. He agrees, making it a reward for our good league finish.

Derby are named as the Premier League’s over-achievers, with poor Bournemouth cited at the sorrier end of that particular scale. Our players are now off for a well-earned rest. We return at the back end of June, ahead of a pre-season training camp in the United States. For the time being I wave my stars off, knowing better than they do that their futures are uncertain and that while they’re away I will be actively seeking to replace them…

Derby FM20 – May 2021: So This Is It

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.

Manchester United win 3-1 against West Ham to put themselves a point ahead of us going into the final day. To be even talking about our hopes of contesting a massive outfit like the one that plays at the cavernous Old Trafford seems a bit surreal, quite frankly. I can remember very well concerning myself with matters in the Championship, but all that feels like old news now. They were a different and humbler Derby County. We are where we are on merit, and long may we continue to fight near the summit of the top flight.

As predicted, Wolves will be back with us next season. They won the division with 96 points, one more than we achieved in 2020, and with a squad like theirs it really should have been just the foregone an outcome it turned out to be. Fulham finish second. Leeds, Palace, the Baggies and Watford are the playoff contenders. At the time of writing Quique Sanchez Flores has guided the Eagles to a semi-final victory over West Brom. At Wembley he’ll be up against his alma mater, Watford, who are now managed by a certain Sam Allardyce, one of those constant names that refuses to be forgotten entirely. The latter have seen off Leeds, another satisfying end to the conflict for west Yorkshire’s finest, who once again have failed to meet their massive promise and lofty ambitions. What a shame that they now have to do it all over again.

An interesting graphic that’s released ahead of the final day reveals the net transfer spend of each Premier League club. We stand fifth, having lashed out £17.3 million more than we recouped overall. Manchester City are right at the other end, in the middle of a huge overhaul as they try to replace their squad’s elder statesmen. Oh, and blowing an enormous packet on Harrington Kane. Their net is minus £135 million, putting them ahead of United and Chelsea, who have also frittered like there’s no tomorrow. Overall it doesn’t really matter. Those clubs have the sort of commercial turnover that the likes of ourselves can only imagine. The financial picture at Pride Park is promising. We’ve profited from playing at this level, and that’s before you add our revenue from prize money, season ticket sales and sponsorship deals, and yet what we rake in represents a drop in the ocean compared to some of the financial juggernauts with whom we rub shoulders.

Our season finale, at home to Leicester City, also happens to be my one-hundredth game in charge. My career statistics to date are:

I don’t think anyone can consider that to be a poor record. My dream is to increase the win percentage towards seventy per cent over the coming years, that is if the Derby board want to retain my so-called services. The goals-against figure is something I’m proud of, revealing that we might not score with endless aplomb but we have developed a sound defensive record to match anyone.

Certainly, any expected troubles we might have expected from contesting the Premier League have just not arisen. I will never get tired of saying it, the need for new faces over the summer will be paramount. It’s one thing to win games when we don’t have the mix of continental competitions to worry about, quite another when that added weight of fixtures begins gnawing into the squad’s fitness levels. The lesson of Bournemouth is something we must keep in mind. Their participation in the Europa League played hell with the medical staff, who constantly worked on tired players, delivered injections and kept them ticking. We cannot go down the same road. European football should be a well deserved treat, something to savour and enjoy, not an inconvenience that hobbles our domestic progress.

It’s raining at Pride Park as we turn out against the Foxes. They now have Neil Lennon in charge; he’s held them in a similar mid-table position to the one they’ve finished in for the last couple of years. Any element of kicking on from their incredible title winning campaign has long since rubbed off. They remain a solid contender, capable of beating anyone while never establishing a competitive run that could put them back into the race for the top. Jamie Vardinho is still around, though these days the English striker plays back-up to Arkadiusz Milik, a Pole who they will be signing for £30 million after spending the year on loan from Napoli. Milik is no Lewandowski, scoring a mere six league goals, but his threat level can’t be under-estimated, and he spearheads an attacking front that contains good pros like Albrighton, Barnes, Tielemans and Deulofeu. We’re grateful that we don’t have James Maddison to grapple with; he’s out courtesy of a calf strain.

The tone of this one is set early when Hamza Choudhury is dismissed after eight minutes. You might argue the red card is harsh. The ref sees it differently, showing no hesitation after Choudhury piles into Hlozek with both feet from behind. It’s only the first episode in a bad tempered showing from the visitors, who make a rare achievement of outdoing us in the fouls count, and it will cost them ultimately. That said, they finish the first half in front. Chilwell’s through ball to Albrighton produces a shot from the winger that Montipo manages to parry, however the ball trickles out to the advancing Deulofeu who hits the back of our goalmouth from a tight angle. Poor marking from Pedraza, who should be covering him and is instead watching the action.

The players are quite rightly told off for an indifferent first half display. After the break, the number difference starts to have an impact, as Leicester grow leggier and fatigued. We equalise in the 56th minute, Krystian Bielik launching a powerful header from Stoger’s corner to beat Schmeichel. Five minutes on and it’s 2-1. Hlozek finds Bogle just inside the area. The latter sends one in for Sebastiano Esposito, who has Ndidi climbing all over him but is still able to slice an incisive shot into the net.

As Leicester try to rally, Smith Rowe has a goal disallowed for the narrowest of offside decisions, about which I’m a little saddened as it would have given the winger his first of the season, indeed almost his first significant contribution of a disappointing season spent with us. At least he plays a part in our third goal, producing a delicious long ball up to Alfonso Pedraza, who’s charging along the left channel. As though putting on a show to sell his own prospects as a permanent signing, the full-back sheds Albrighton for pace, hares into the box and sends a narrowly angled shot past the keeper. It’s a brilliant piece of showboating for the goal, a sign of our blooming confidence with which to sign off a successful campaign. 

In the end it isn’t enough to clinch fourth place for us. A 3-0 win at Old Trafford cements United’s finish ahead of ourselves. The single point margin between them and us isn’t anything to be ashamed or saddened about. The board temper their congratulations over our lofty finish by reminding me that we missed out on a Champions League position. I decline to remind them politely that we have done considerably better than their original aim of fighting bravely against relegation.

Liverpool are only able to secure a 0-0 draw against Burnley. The point turns out to be enough for them. City lose to Norwich, which hands the league title over to Anfield for the first time in more than thirty years. With that squad I suspect it won’t take so long for them to do it again. Brentford collapse 2-1 away to Middlesbrough. They get to experience all the horror of hearing that Southampton have saved their status by securing a 3-1 win over West Ham. Of the promoted clubs, only the Bees have fallen at the first hurdle. Boro get to fight another day, and for good measure claim bragging rights over the north-east by virtue of finishing just ahead of Newcastle. But who cares? Derby are the cream of the Midlands, claiming fifth place and with football as part of the Europa League lying in wait.