Derby FM20 – October 2021: Europa Nights

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 dream of many football clubs must be to attain the experience of playing on the European stage. The glamour of nights away to those big, historical teams that ply their trade in some distant realm… Entertaining fans from other countries… Seeing just how far you can go… Derby County have a short but notable history of contesting the continental competitions. During their 1970s heyday, they played in two European Cups and two UEFA Cups. The best recalled was their 1972/73 run in the contest that would one day be rebranded as the Champions League. Battling through to the semi-final, they were knocked out by Juventus in a tie that had Brian Clough complaining about potential cheating. Against the Old Lady, sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? Several years later Real Madrid checked their progress, a confrontation that commanded the team’s highest ever attendance.

So there’s pedigree here, some ‘previous’. Certain clubs might take for granted that they will get to play in the Champs or Europa League on an annual basis, especially now these things have been bloated beyond the elite contested competitions that they used to be, but for us it’s a pretty big deal to be part of the story. Today’s opposition, Valencia, marks an opportunity to take on one of those much vaunted ‘glamour sides’, a storied team from the world’s best league and hovering perpetually beneath La Liga’s big three – you know who the trio are. The Bats have their own history of glory in Europe. They won this contest, back in 2004 when they were still managed by Rafa Benitez, with a couple of Champions League finals thrown into the mix also. They might not be maintaining the lofty standards they once held, but the allure of facing them is a mighty one. And it’s a pivotal tie… We’ve already won our first two group matches. Achieve victory here at Pride Park and we have almost guaranteed qualification to the knockout stage, which carries the added bonus of exceeding the board’s expectations. Valencia are the Europa League’s third highest seeds. Only Arsenal and Roma exist ahead of them, with Monaco, Athletic Bilbao and Sparta Prague more than making up the numbers. Who knows how far we can progress?

It’s a big deal then, and so’s the calibre of the Valencia team. Their captain, the 32 year old Dani Parejo is almost the perfect midfielder, a proper general at the heart of his side’s activities. Jose Gaya, a left-back valued at a staggering £51 million, is their one to watch. They’re a threat on the wings, where Carlos Soler and Portuguese star Goncalo Guedes provide width, while Rodrigo, a multi-capped Spanish striker, has the responsibility of producing their goals. Moussa Sissoko is on loan from Tottenham to provide midfield ballast. The big Frenchman is a shadow of the authority figure he once cut in older editions of Football Manager, his standards cut short thanks to those wasted years at Newcastle where he only played well according to the lustre of the opposition and the number of cameras that were they to pick up his moments on the ball, but he’s still in a stratosphere of talent that’s largely beyond us.

Time to dig in, entertain the Spaniards with good Midlands rain and a line-up built to contain. Our more exciting young midfield talents, Moriba and Lopez, are benched as we opt for steel with Hughes and Stoger operating ahead of the ever-reliable Chirivella. McKenna joins Vallejo in defence. Elsewhere the side picks itself. Esposito is chosen to lead our attack. He’s the Rams’ best player, and this is his stage, a chance to showcase his pace against a premium group of defenders led by Mouctar Diakhaby and Gabriel Paulista.

As spectacles go, it’s a largely attritional, tense affair cheered on by a capacity crowd. We both have our chances. Bogle and Pedraza struggle but refuse to bow against their virtuous wing play. Rodrigo has his chances, yet he’s covered well and Butland deals with all the tricks he can throw in the keeper’s direction. At the other end, Lookman and Esposito cause problems for the visitors, proving the eternal fact that defences can be terrified by players who are prepared and capable of running towards them at top speed.

Just before half-time, a meaty challenge from Sissoko forces Bogle off the field of play. What looks like a twisted ankle turns out to be exactly that, an injury that will remove him from selection for a month. We play the rest of the game with Bielik in central defence and Vallejo filling the right-back role. And then, towards the end of the affair, it happens. Moriba is on for the match’s latter stages, seeking a winner, and it’s the Spanish youngster who produces the nod-down for Kevin Stoger to fire in a shot from twenty-five yards out. Those with memories of last season will know that the Austrian has just this kind of rocket in his pocket, a special goal that is perhaps what we need to produce in order to get the better of our illustrious opposition.

Sure enough, after going close several times Valencia equalise almost immediately when Diakhaby steers in Gaya’s searching free-kick, but it’s a goal that looks close to offside and VAR proves this to be the case. It’s close, the red line less than half a yard beyond the yellow, but it’s unmistakably illegal and I’m grateful on this occasion for the influence of the computer referee.

The game ends with a famous 1-0 victory and the Rams in control of Group F. We’re described as being ‘in control’, though Valencia absolutely had chances of their own and I have to consider a number of ‘sweaty palm’ moments that could have resulted in it ending quite differently. Stoger claims the match ball, Chirivella also winning admirers for being commanding in defensive midfield, and Butland praised for his alertness when the Bats took their opportunities. It might be an altogether tougher affair when we go to Spain for the return game in early November, but for now we are able to celebrate this one, a fine and disciplined evening’s work.

Away from the match, I’m advised by my scouts that wonderkid Jude Bellingham has signed a new contract at Birmingham City. The deal carries a couple of interesting caveats – he can be signed for £29 million by domestic clubs that play in a higher division, a sum that drops to £22 million if the Blues fail to get promoted. We don’t possess that kind of money right now (we have £13 million available for transfers), but Bellingham is one to watch and I’m left to dream about having a central midfield pairing that can play together for over a decade if I am somehow able to place him alongside Moriba. No doubt other sides will be having exactly the same feelings as ourselves – Crystal Palace are already sniffing around. And yet you never know. Bellingham is still just 18. He fits every philosophy I’m working towards. By rights he should be a Ram in-waiting, but for now he’s something to think about as we look to progress.

Derby FM20 – October 2021: Very Bad, Very Good

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.

October opens with a visit to Molineux and Wolverhampton Wanderers. It’s somewhat bizarre to note that Marcelo Bielsa‘s team are newly promoted. They just had no business being relegated in the first place. Well financed, stacked with top flight talent and in my opinion stronger than we are, I see the Black Country contenders as a very tough opponent. They naturally destroyed the Championship in sailing straight back up and, crucially for them, retained the majority of their squad. To celebrate their top flight return they have spent a small fortune, recruiting Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook (£44.5 milion), Bruma from PSV (£19.25 million) and Idrissa Gueye, briefly a target of ours, from PSG for a fee that could rise to £20 million. The message should be clear. Going down was an aberration; in reality they are gunning for the table’s upper echelons, which puts them into a direct confrontation with our good selves.

It’s a mild, early autumn Sunday afternoon. The cameras are following the action, and normally we relish getting to play under the Sky Sports lights. This lot are good though, and it’s all we can do to remain in any sort of contention. I’ve picked pretty much my best available line-up, yet Wolves pitch in with very much an international eleven. There are no English players in their starting side. Cook’s on the bench, while we face a group that contains Rugani, Sakho and of course the super-fast Adama Traore, who sets out to give Alfonso Pedraza the contest of his life. On the wings they’re highly potent, tricksy and sizzling with invention, but it’s in the middle where their real strength lies. Moutinho continues to lend his veteran guile alongside Ruben Neves, a mercurial playmaker who’s routinely on the radars of various big clubs – scouts from Barcelona and Liverpool are in attendance for this one, and it quickly becomes clear they are here to track the Portuguese.

Getting past Neves proves to be hard, verging on impossible. He’s in a partnership with Moutinho ahead of Gueye, making them incredibly strong in midfield. Chirivella, Hughes and Moriba have a hell of a time trying to gain any kind of foothold here. For all Wolves’ guile, it takes them until close to half-time to beat Butland. It’s a good move, expansive and making full use of the pitch’s width. Gueye picks out Bruma on the left wing, who skins Bogle before delivering a cross that scythes our central defence of Bielik and Oxford to find Raul Jimenez. In an uncomfortable amount of space, the striker volleys first time into the bottom corner. Simple.

It’s to our credit that we reply instantly. We win a free-kick midway into their half, which Chirivella takes, launching an effort into the box. Sebastiano Esposito beats everyone to head beyond Olsen and make it 1-1. We’ve equalised against the odds, defying the match’s script, but it’s about the last significant threat we are able to mount. Once we’re back out after the break, the game takes on the elements of a siege. Wolves press, heavily, all the time, and we are made to defend, barely unable to break and instead being made to scrap furiously. Again, a sign of our hard-to-beat potency that it takes the home side until the 72nd minute to conjure their decisive goal. Neves sends a diagonal ball to Traore, who’s Billy Whizzing into our area and even before the defenders can reach him he’s lashing a shot past Butland.

Our reply never comes. It isn’t a bad effort from the boys, but it will take something special to get anything from the game and we just don’t have it in the tank. So we lose, 2-1, and we get to lick our wounds throughout the international break. The usual suspects go off to represent their countries, and by the end of it Esposito, Butland and Bogle go down with the minor injuries and will play no part when we come to take on Southampton at Pride Park. This should be a more straightforward tie. Despite being guided by Roberto Martinez and benefiting from their great escape in 2020/21, they’re once again rooted in the table’s lower reaches and come into this one in eighteenth place. No doubt they see us as a potential smash and grab. Nobody – and that includes me – yet knows how good we are going to be, so ties like this are an acid test. If we truly are to match last season’s achievements then we should win here, hopefully in a straightforward manner. Lose or draw, and we face a new slew of questions to answer.

Added to the mix is the fact we clobbered them in the Carabao Cup back in September.  There’s vengeance on their minds; on ours is the need to ignore complacency and put in a professional effort. Hlozek comes in for Esposito,  Pereira is in goal, and Laird makes his first league start for us as we entertain the Saints at a blustery Pride Park. The latter is instrumental in our opening strike. Marauding into their penalty area, he hits a cross that Lookman drives against the goalkeeper. The ball bobbles around the box, Saints defenders massed together as our forwards try to find a way through. In the end it’s Christian Pavon who finds the breakthrough, seeing a small gap and slotting his shot into it.

Nerves are settled, but not for long. As long as Southampton have Ward-Prowse, Ings and Redmond in their line-up they’re a threat, and it’s the latter who produces a reminder of their potency. Breaking up a Derby attack, Ings finds Redmond deep in their half. The winger has loads of room to move forward and darts a full sixty years forward. Vieira is the only challenger, but his attentions are dismissed and the Saint lashes a volley that beats Pereira to make it 1-1.

Time to go again, and we spend the rest of the game trying to find a winner. We think Hlozek has done it in the seventieth minute when he heads in Pavon’s cross, but the goal is ruled out for offside, in my opinion wrongly. Maybe it’s just going to be one of those days… Or perhaps not. Ten minutes later, our attacks becoming more frequent and the visitors defending manfully, they eventually go down to a wonder-strike from Maxime Lopez. This is what it takes, a rasping effort from twenty two metres out after all the patient build-up play in the world has crashed against their stout efforts to keep us at bay.

I’m really pleased with this one. You might argue that it’s only Southampton; of course we should be winning here, it ought to be by a more comfortable margin… For me, they’re a better side than their position suggests, whilst arguably we are not as good as ours, and it’s taken character and resolve to carve out the result.

Victory leaves us in sixth place, which is acceptable, though these are the league’s early blows and with three defeats already against our name we are going to have to be better. It’s a relief we aren’t going to need to travel to Liverpool in the league again.

In the meantime, I’m having to talk down the possibility of a transfer away for Ademola Lookman. Sheffield United are interested, and as far as I’m concerned they can take their sweaty overtures elsewhere. It’s a concern, though. The Blades can be batted away, ‘bigger’ sides less so, and as long as Ade remains outside the international picture I can see him becoming increasingly restless. Now valued at £16.5 million, I’ll be looking at around twice that amount before I will even consider losing him.

Valencia in the Europa League are next, the first of our two ties against the Spanish giant that will almost certainly decide our group. Following that we have a double header, taking on Fulham in both the league and then the Carabao Cup. With Leicester in the near-distance to wrap up October,  we’re looking at four ties in eleven days as the fixture list begins to compress. That’s the price of success.

[Writer’s Note – apologies for the lack of updates in the last couple of weeks. Before the hiatus updates were coming thick and fast, and I guess I just needed a bit of a break. Back to normal service now, with a regular churn of three posts per week as we see if this team can repeat their over-achievements of the previous seasons. With tension like this, it’s little wonder that I’m the grey haired gamer.]

Derby FM20 – September 2021: Buffalo Wings

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.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Tottenham Hotspur. They’re sitting at the top of the table, so they are clearly at least all right, and yet their manager is the F.O.C. himself, Manuel Pellegrini, from whom the lustre has rubbed away a long time ago. They are still in their post-Kane funk. Harrington hasn’t been fully replaced. Instead they’re relying on Duvan Zapata to find their goals, and the Colombian has enjoyed a fine start to the campaign, but still he’s no big-chinned England striker. As we take to the field against them, I reflect on a very good Spurs line-up. Lo Celso, Debbie, Bergwijn, Moura and the wonderkid Eduardo Camavinga are on the pitch. The latter, Tottenham’s £54 million summer signing, looks duly terrifying. He’s an 18 year old French defensive midfielder, already in possession of an international cap, and the footage I’ve seen of him suggests the guy has everything. It’s like watching the reincarnation of Paddy Vieira, genuinely, so talented that I wonder how he’s landed here and for just how long Spurs will be able to hold on to him. The scouting report advises that I sign him at any price, but that must be some sort of joke. Eduardo is valued at £67 million and his team don’t want to sell him; you’d need to have the spending power of PSG or Real Madrid to even have him on your radar.

So they’re good. No doubt there. Their bench, containing the likes of Winks, Ndombele and Barbosa continues their run of quality, and yet the mantra remains – no Kane, no sign of an alternative to him either. And it’s in this vein that we approach the game with a positive spirit. Hell, we’re the home team and we’re playing well. They might have Camavinga but we can pitch in a skilled teenager of our own in Moriba, two if you count Sebastiano Esposito, which we absolutely should especially when the Italian scores after twenty-eight minutes. After an opening passage during which the visitors try to swamp us, retaining possession and threatening, we steadily wrest back control and then Moriba pings a ball forward to where Esposito is haring into a gap between Rose and Dias, having the terrifying pace that gives him an edge. He nets from a placed shot that slides tantalisingly to Lloris’s left, to put us in front.

Tottenham’s response isn’t as irresistible as we all think it might be. Where we expect heavy pressing and a hard afternoon for Butland they turn out to be on the sluggish side, a surrendering of possession and lacking bite in attack. We all get to enjoy Camavinga at his best. The boy is tasked with keeping us quiet in attack, and he prevents us from inflicting any further damage but we do enough to keep him from relaxing into his game. As for us, Max Lowe plays well to nullify Lucas Moura, and later Gabriel Barbosa, as two potent Brazilians fade against English steel, while centrally Bielik has a very solid game in dealing with Zapata, Oxford’s pace doing enough to blunt their attacking spark. During a largely highlight-free second period in which the closest anyone gets to scoring is Harry Wilson’s effort struck straight into a grateful goalkeeper’s arms, it’s the most pedestrian of 1-0 victories.

The old guy laments his side’s poor work rate, whereas I get to talk about our ability to frustrate opponents. We drew this fixture last season, our first Premier League match in fact, so to grab the win this time around and to do it without having to dig especially deeply represents a sure sign of progress. The post-match analysis we work through the following day shows no weak performances from the boys, which is smashing, and an especially high work ethic in central midfield where Pedro, Hughes and Moriba are developing a lovely telepathic relationship. Elsewhere, Liverpool beat United 1-0 to put themselves in pole position, a place from which I think they will be tricky to dislodge.

Our thoughts now turn to the Europa League, in which we are travelling to Belgium to take on KAA Gent. Part of the pleasure of playing these games is to learn about different opposition teams, travel to different places and make new friends. I don’t care about the latter element, obviously, however I’m advised to keep an eye on Laurent Depoitre, their ageing international striker who doesn’t carry a massive amount of pace but will work hard all day and has the bulk to make him a sizeable target, a bit like a Belgian Heskey perhaps. The team plays in Ghent, one of those gorgeous European cities that retains much of its Olde Worlde charm after escaping too much damage during the World Wars, and they’re known as the Buffalos following a long ago visit from Buffalo Bill. It’s for this reason their logo is otherwise incongruously styled on that of a Native American chieftain. In terms of honours, they’re much like Derby with their past glories, though theirs are more recent than our own.

For us, and with Wolves to come at the weekend there are changes to be made in the line-up. I’m forced to drop Chirivella to the bench when he contracts a nasty but short-lived bout of food poisoning, and that after I warned him to avoid the fish. He’s one in a number of line-up adjustments. Hlozek’s back to pad out his goals account, as Esposito – recommended by me to make it into the Italian squad; he ends up being selected for the Under-21s – hits the bench, while we get another chance to check out the talents of midfielder Maxime Lopez.

The tie is no one’s idea of a classic, a low-key affair in which we attack a lot but fail to score more than one goal. The fault here is arguably Sheyi Ojo’s – the winger enjoys a wealth of shooting opportunities but largely wastes them and is ultimately removed for his own good. But one is enough. Ethan Laird (who will win the match ball) has an enterprising showing on the right flank. It’s his twenty-second minute cross that picks out Adam Hlozek for a messy winner that’s barrelled over the line. Any reply from De Buffalo is muted, whilst our forward play produces a string of shots, the pleasure of Lopez developing into an attacking central midfielder of some promise and Wilson’s growing confidence on the wing, but nothing more in terms of goals.

Two games and two wins in Europe then, which puts us on top of the group, however Valencia have six points also and our double-header against them will almost certainly determine the winner within our little corner of the League.

After visiting Wolves on Sunday, not a tie to suggest we have an easy afternoon in order, there’s the international break. As a young side we have various players joining their nations’ Under-21s teams, while McKenna (Scotland), Wilson (Wales), Hlozek (Czechia), Pereira (from our reserves to Portugal), Stoger (Austria), Bielik (Poland) and Knight (Ireland) will be in the squads for their countries. Jayden Bogle’s call-up for the England Under-21s is a hopeful suggestion that he’s due a promotion to the ‘grown-up’ side; still, what do I know?

Derby FM20 – September 2021: Bitter Blues

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.

I think I have confessed previously on these pages that facing Manchester City is not one of my favourite aspects of the job. The blue half of that metropolis to the north of us is a terrifying prospect as always, even if their summer transfer window was a surprise of signing almost no one while divesting themselves of nearly £250 million worth of talent. For most teams that would represent an enormous problem, but this is City, who can afford to sell Bernardo Silva, Olexandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo, and not lose too much sleep. They’re still awesome.

Taking them on is a slightly different prospect to trying to cope with that other Premier League juggernaut, Liverpool. The Scousers are masters of the pressing game, something we all try to emulate but without ever reaching their terrifying levels of forcing teams off the ball. What City have is attacking effervescence. Each time they are in possession you’re facing an uphill task in trying to get the ball back before they’ve had another chance on goal. Working out who to mark is ridiculous. The exercise begins with De Bruyne, obviously, but who do you look out for after that? Harrington Kane is a superb attacking presence. Kai Havertz can spark any move, and then there’s Jesus, Sane, Everton, and all their funky buddies.

It’s hard, and our only real chance is to get the odd breakthrough because defensively they’re ever so slightly suspect. Note the use of the word ‘slightly’. They’re hardly Arsenal, who we all know have more than a note of dodginess at the back, but unlike Liverpool, with Van Dijk controlling everything like an imperious pitch commander, there’s more of a possibility that we can put one past them. First though, we need to get hold of the ball, find a way through those ranks of world class ballers and use our raw pace to cause them problems. Easy, huh?

The Etihad welcomes us with a full stadium and ‘welcome to Manchester’ rain. Sebastiano Esposito has an early chance when his cross ends up becoming a looping shot that Ederson has the wherewithal to bat away. It’s promising. Fourteen minutes are on the clock when Hughes picks out Bogle on the right wing. The full-back is in space and darts forward, launching his cross before Rodrigo can force him off the ball. It’s a good one; Esposito gets to the ball before Stones to head in at the near corner, and we’re in front.

That means sticking to our cautious mentality and being ready for a siege, which is exactly what we have to endure for the remaining seventy-something minutes. Kane equalises shortly after when McKenna’s header rebounds to him, but VAR rules the goal out because he’s slightly offside. Jack Butland selects this occasion to channel the spirit of Lev Yashin, keeping each and every shot at bay as City’s work gets increasingly frenetic and they try to dazzle us with all the thrills and spills in their massive repertoire. De Bruyne is key to everything, spraying passes with Pirlo levels of sheer virtuosity, but we’re equal to it all. He’s watched by Chirivella, charged with minimising his effect, and he does his best in the role, but the real credit goes to Oxford and McKenna in defence, who deal with everything.

In the second half, Pavon is sent off for a second yellow when he ‘deals with’ Leroy Sane. We are forced to play the game’s last third with ten men, which ends Esposito’s contribution as I go for damage limitation and pack our defensive ranks. Guardiola brings on Everton and Aguero, which isn’t a bad couple of substitutes to revert to… And somehow we hang on. As much as De Bruyne tries to force matters, City can’t find a way past us. We get a priceless three points, at a place I never expected to grab them. All our experience and guile at over-achieving against the division’s best has been on display here. No doubt back at Pride Park they will seek bloody vengeance, but that’s a story for another day. For now we have a moment to celebrate.

Victory here puts us up into fifth place, broadly on the points total I would hope for at this stage – considering we have now done both City and Liverpool on the road it’s a staggering achievement. The pundits point out our excellent defensive record. We now haven’t let in a single goal in four league games, not since losing to Newcastle in fact, and like last season it’s this quality that will ultimately decide whether we get to stay so far up the table.

In midweek we are up against Southampton in the Carabao Cup, before entertaining Tottenham. The latter are currently first in the league, while the Saints are already occupying their traditional place within lower mid-table. In the meantime we receive the news about a horrific injury to Marc Stendera, whose currently on loan with Wurzburger Kickers. A routine challenge during a training session has left him with a damaged spine, which will put him out of action for up to a year. It doesn’t matter right now that Stendera will never play for us again, being as he is in the last year of his contract. Nobody deserves this sort of awful luck, certainly not after he had made such a good start to his campaign.

On to the Saints then, in the least of the four contests for which we are entered. As against Mainz, I make liberal changes to the line-up. Vallejo is having his first start. Lopez is in the eleven, partnering Stoger ahead of Vieira, and Hlozek gets another opportunity to show what he can do. More of what he produced at this time last week will be very welcome. It’s good to be able to put out a strong side. The leisure to chop and change is something I need to be able to do, with the likes of Hughes, Oxford, Bogle and Esposito given the day off and Pavon banned.

Southampton aren’t a side to be taken lightly. We’re up against highly respected players like Ings and Ward-Prowse, and they’ve also made a very promising signing in Gonzalo Montiel, a £9.25 million acquisition from Torino who is playing at right wing-back. What the team doesn’t do is change much from the weekend’s action, and it becomes clear that the signs of fatigue are showing in their ranks as we romp to a 5-0 victory. The fun starts early when Scott McKenna heads in a Stoger corner, a well worked two-fingered salute to the board who have been moaning about the lack of set-piece success from us recently.

In the second half, we run riot. This shouldn’t be as easy as it is, but the opposition looks tired, leggy and frankly disinterested. No such absence of resolve from ourselves, as provider Kevin Stoger becomes a scorer when he rifles one in from outside the area after latching on to Vieira’s assist. In the sixty-fifth minute, Lopez’s nicely weighted through ball finds Josh Maja, who scores from the right of goal. It’s a lovely bit of work from both players. The French midfielder is enjoying his start in English football, while Maja clearly can do this sort of thing against anyone and especially relishes using his speed to overcome knackered defenders. McKenna then heads in a second from Maja’s free-kick, before we make it five late in the game when Adam Hlozek, who’s been running the Saints ragged throughout and by now is operating from the right wing, bags another to add to his personal account.

A good, open game and a sensational result, the only shame being that it’s played before a half-empty stadium. Such a pity – our best attacking display of the campaign and only the die-hards have come to see it happen. I can’t really blame the supporters. They have Europa League football to pay for as well as our league exploits, so something has to give. The next round, which has whittled the number of contenders down to sixteen, again places us as the home team, and this time we’ll be up against newly promoted Fulham.

Derby FM20 – September 2021: Hlozek as Nemesis

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.

Two home games feature in this update, beginning with a league tie against Norwich City, before we embark on our Europa League odyssey – as we all hope it will turn into – by entertaining German entrants Mainz 05.

Last season we beat the Canaries home and away, winning 1-0 on both occasions. This makes us confident for the upcoming encounter. Derby are better this time around, though wary scouting emphasises how much stronger the opposition are likely to be following their takeover by a consortium, which has plunged extra millions into their coffers. Potential buyers show an intermittent interest in running things at Pride Park. This happens so often that I’m frankly bored by it all and have stopped reporting on those moments of uncertainty when the club’s future is in question. The pattern is for several weeks of rumour and speculation, before Mr Morris publicly squashes suggestions that he’s about to be bought out and things settle down again. Maybe one day it will happen, and then we’ll need to see what changes at my level.

It looks to have been a success at Carrow Road, with the new owners finding a recipe for ousting Delia Smith (do you see?) and letting Daniel Farke invest more than £110 million on squad rebuilding. To be clear, a portion of this has come from the sale of Max Aarons, who has finally landed his dream move, sealing a deadline day £65 million transfer to Liverpool. How Jurgen plans to use Aarons and Alexander-Arnold is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime Norwich have added talent in a similar, cross-team way to us. Aarons has been replaced with Monaco’s Djibril Sidibe. Matias Vecino and Anthony Knockaert‘s stays on loan are now permanent. They’ve paid £22.5 million for Antoine Bernede, a Salzburg midfielder, and found a new striker, the Liverpool busted flush Bruno Petkovic. More important is the people they have managed to keep. Centre-back Ben Godfrey must be very close to making the England team now. And then there’s Emi Buendia, their Argentinian attacking midfielder who has put his desire to move on firmly in the past and is settling down to help the cause. Lucrative new contracts generally help to smooth these matters over, don’t they?

The confrontation at Pride Park ends in a 0-0 stalemate, not one without incident but in truth an appropriate sharing of the points between two very evenly matched equals. When the best rated players are all defenders, Norwich’s Jamal Lewis narrowly beating McKenna to the match ball, you know the kind of game it’s been. As the home side we create more chances and have the match’s one clear cut opportunity, a rare wasted shot by Lookman, and I’m a bit disappointed that we are unable to get over the line but overall it’s encouraging. Far from playing in a way to minimise their scoring chances, we run a positive front, becoming actively attacking in the second half. My hope that Esposito can repeat the heroics he produced against Villa come to nothing, and we’re probably weakest in midfield where Hughes and Moriba’s fluid passing game hits a brick wall against stolid, clever defending.

For the time being I can make note of this and assume things will improve. The issue of fielding an 18 year old in central midfield is basically that he’s an 18 year old in central midfield. His early showings have been highly promising, his confidence and effervescence flowing into offering us the extra attacking dimension that he’s been drafted in to provide. But it will take time. It’s not like pushing a button and switching on the goodness. You might get this if you have the financial might and gravitas to sign a ready-made playmaker like Bruno Fernandes, say, but we need to be more imaginative and patient. It’ll come.

Onto Mainz 05, the opening shots of our continental adventure. The German club finished fifth in the Bundesliga and are sixth this time around. They’re a good side, albeit like ourselves short of the standard that would put them in the title picture. The star man in their ranks is Robin Quaison, a fast Swedish international striker who belies his relatively slim scoring rate by causing all manner of problems in the box. Also worth keeping an eye on is Swiss midfielder Edmilson Fernandes, with his endless work rate that transfers onto the overall busy and non-stop ethic of the side. They’ll give us a game, no doubts there, but we are named as favourites and the feeling is that we should open our Europa League account with a victory.

The whole point of making so many signings over the summer is to rotate the squad for games like this. Ethan Laird is in for his first appearance at right-back. Adam Hlozek plays as our advanced forward. In defensive midfield Ronaldo Vieira replaces Chirivella for his debut. Stoger partners Moriba, and we start with Ojo and Wilson on the wings. Let’s see what these boys – who’ve been signed on the trust they are about as good as our regular starters and that they can make an impact – can do.

Hlozek’s inclusion is a calculated gamble. He’s been training in his new position and displaying a fresh and welcome intensity in doing so, as urgent as we are to make a success of the direction in which he’s now heading. It is a risk though. There’s the chance that everything will come to nought, that all we will end up finding out is the Czech is one of those misfits whose time at Derby amounts to lots of promise and little delivery. But if this display is anything to go by then there’s nothing to worry about.

His first goal is scored in the 21st minute. St Juste is dallying on the ball in Mainz’s half and Hlozek simply robs him, going on a dribble up the pitch before dummying Muller in goal and slotting home. Simple as that. His second is even better, and also showcases the skills that Vieira brings to the cause. The debutante holds the ball up as two opposition players close in. He waits. Happy to shield the ball for the longest time, he suddenly lofts a pass forward in the direction of Hlozek, who has timed his run perfectly to beat the offside trap and slam his shot beyond Muller.

Goal three is another long pass from Vieira to Hlozek that results in the Czech striker volleying home. This one starts with a Mainz move, a careful passing shift that is broken up by Wilson, who’s tracked all the way back into our half and demonstrates a pleasing willingness to do his defensive duty. Just before the break, Kownacki pulls one back for the visitors, a training ground move that sees him collect the crossed ball ahead of Oxford and head beyond Butland. We’ve had all the highlights up to this point, and the goal is a reminder that we need to be on our guard at all times.

In the 53rd minute, Laird shows his lip-smacking potential when he picks up the ball on the right flank. Boxed in by two red-shirted Mainz players, he overcomes the first’s tackle and simply uses his pace to beat the other one, going on a dribble that takes him all the way into the box. It’s only here where he’s finally wrested off the ball courtesy of a fine Churlinov challenge, but Hlozek’s there to pick up possession and rifle a quick shot past Muller to claim his sensational fourth of the game. The Czech teenager even has time to provide our fifth and final goal. After an excellent passing sequence, he finds himself on the goal line, unable to conjure a shot that’s likely to beat the keeper from such a tight angle. So he pulls back instead, finding Sheyi Ojo who is dashing into the box and the winger does the rest. It’s his first for the club. He’s delighted.

And so the journey through Europe starts in the best possible way, with an emphatic and thrilling 5-1 victory played before a bumper crowd, indeed this match sets a new gate receipts record as a locale drunk on the glamour of the competition rakes in £1.2 million. I’m chuffed both with Hlozek and Vieira, the latter giving me a serious future headache over who to select between him and Chirivella. That said, it’s a welcome one. Ronaldo has offered us a dimension we didn’t previously have. Maybe it’s a one-off, but he shows such attacking vision in a way that Pedro rarely has and he may very well represent money that’s been well spent.

Promising stuff then, but with Manchester City to come at the weekend there’s no chance that we can rest on our laurels. Here’s a side that simply swept us to one side last season. It’s another opportunity for us to test our defensive mettle against De Bruyne, or to collapse against the majesty of his attacking play…

Derby FM20 – August 2021: Funky Villans

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.

Our last fixture before the international break takes over is away to Aston Villa. They represent the kind of mid-table opposition we could swat aside on our day, but with the new season having started so fitfully there’s a fresh requirement to get a result here. I’m reminded, given our recent results, that Derby’s place in the Premier League’s higher echelons is not a right. We worked hard to get where we did last season, and nothing less than blood, sweat and tears will get us back up there again.

Of course, this mentality is only part of the jigsaw. We represented the surprise package of 2020/21. That element will not work in our favour this time around. Other teams know who we are and what we can do. As I see it there are three ways this can go. In the first scenario, we settle back into the sort of league position we should probably achieve given the side’s quality, which is mid-table. Second, we get to repeat the heroics we produced in our promotion campaign and do it all over again, possibly even better if things go our way. And finally, the unthinkable option in a traditionally difficult third season, which sees my signings crash and burn, and the Rams slide down the league ladder… I like my job here, so I don’t want to lose it by going down that last path.

As for the Villans, they get to breathe again as the interest mounting in Jack Grealish didn’t end up resulting in his departure from the club. Whatever your thoughts about the slappable attacking force, he’s a beating heart within the set-up, though he masks perhaps an even better player, the Scottish Mezzala John McGinn. Committed, hard working and prepared to lay his life on the line for his side’s cause, McGinn has a similar affect on Villa as Will Hughes delivers for us. I wondered if he might go, but he hasn’t, indeed their biggest departure turns out to have been Wesley, the disappointing striker who’s gone back to Brazil. Overall they’ve spent £61 million on an intriguing suite of fresh faces. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the best known, cast aside by Everton and now a 31 year old playing in the Midlands. Jan Bednarek has been claimed from Southampton to shore up Villa’s defensive effort, while Soares and Leo Baptistao uphold their complement of Brazilian ex-pats.

The business Villa did is viewed as a positive by manager Dean Smith, though their work in the transfer market is markedly different in philosophy from our own. I prefer to bring in youngsters who can be moulded to Derby’s shape and ethos. Our new arrivals might not be the finished product, but watching them develop and grow as human beings is fascinating. Smith has gone for experience, known quantities, and there’s nothing wrong with that, however for me it’s left them with an imbalance in terms of overall quality. Some of their players are very good, sure thing starters, while others are very much on the fringes and borderline unusable. Broadly, our boys are at a similar level. While the effort to achieve parity among the first team is next to impossible – every roster has an in-built hierarchy, after all – that attitude has underpinned the transfer work we do. More on this below.

With the closure of the window coming up in midweek, we’re off to Villa Park on a glorious late summer’s Saturday afternoon kickoff. I dabble little with the line-up that bested Arsenal, though I give a start to Alfonso Pedraza, his first since signing permanently. The full-back plays a decisive role in our thirteenth minute opener. Pedraza has developed a really good working relationship with Ademola Lookman over the course of their time here. The pair combine nicely on the left flank, making it to just outside the box as they patiently find each other, shrugging off the attentions of McGinn and Baptistao, before the Spaniard fires a cross into the area. Sebastiano Esposito‘s there, marked by Konsa and Mings and yet rising above both to head past Pacheco.

Eight minutes later and the striker is facing Pacheco via the penalty spot. He’s been hauled down by Konsa as the pair try to react to a Lookman cross. Seb shows the nervelessness of plucky youth by hitting his shot to the far left corner, the same direction to which the keeper dives but aiming the effort out of the reach of anyone who isn’t shaped like Peter Crouch. We win a second penalty shortly before the break, an equally clear-cut decision for Mr Probert to make when Targett handballs Pavon’s crossed effort. Esposito for his hat-trick, and he makes no mistake with a perfectly targeted effort, this time sending the keeper in completely the wrong direction.

A lovely half of football, which allows me to steadily shut the door as the home side fail to raise their game enough in the second period. They have their chances and slightly edge it in terms of possession, yet we’re resolute at the back. McKenna and Oxford close off most routes to goal. Bogle has his best outing of the season, and that when he’s directly up against Grealish, though it’s Pedraza who really makes the difference. He’s an impish presence on the left, causing endless problems and ensuring a live-wire winger like Leo Baptistao is never able to lose sight of his defensive duties. A frustrated tackle from the Brazilian leaves Pedraza with a damaged foot. He finishes the match but then is ruled out for several weeks. It’s fortunate that we get two weeks off after this, a fortnight to get him close to fitness again.

Two wins in a row put us close to where we want to be. That’s encouraging. Like any half-decent manager, I tried not to let that pair of defeats get to me, but the Gollum aspect of my personality was only predicting disaster. All my transfers are doomed to failure. I’ll be out of a job by Christmas, and so on. You’ve all had those internal arguments, I’m sure. Or perhaps not. Maybe everyone reading this is a bedroom Alan Pardew, putting on a smug wee dance after witnessing all their plans come to juicy fruition…

I have few concerns about any of my players departing via the last desperate throws of the dice during the transfer window’s closing hours. Lookman is on Norwich’s shopping list, but I don’t see them as a serious threat. We confirm the acquisition of Ronaldo Vieira, which lets me end my formal interest in Idrissa Gueye (informally it had ebbed away some days ago). The latter gets snapped up by Wolves, who can easily afford his salary demands. Jordan Rossiter leaves Derby when he goes on loan to Albacete in Spain’s La Liga for the season. The day’s biggest bit of business sees West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen leave for Everton in a £33 million punt.

As a final shot, and just because we have money left in the bank (I start to feel very itchy when there’s cash to spend and it’s just sitting there), I add a player to the development centre. This is Leonardo Morawski, an 18 year old centre-back signed from Boca in a deal that could rise to £5 million. The scouting reports are clear that he is already playing at Championship standards and could very well develop into a top Premier League star. The Argentinian signs on the basis that we will loan him out for playing time. There isn’t the interest at this point, but a few months in the Under-23s should serve as a suitable advertisement of his services. The scouts continue to hunt for young prospects. I’m happy to allocate funds to support this, to invest in our future.

And that’s it, a busy window that sees us lash out a total of £106 million, and recoup £55 million. Those are daunting figures by most teams’ standards, though in reality while we have added the most new players in the division, in terms of spending we are by some distance off the pace. All those changes, and we have climbed to only seventeenth position in terms of our wage expenditure. Our £1.2 million weekly outlay puts us level with Villa. At the top end, Manchester United spend three million more each week than we do. Newly promoted Fulham are the only top flight team that coughs up less than a seven figure sum on salaries.

For the record, this table shows where all that money goes. The boys are separated into the categories of their playing status, and then ranked by salary:

I think the breakdown shows we are more or less right in terms of paying more money to our most important assets. True, Wilson and Ojo are perhaps overpaid by the standard of squad rotation players, but their earnings are equitable with what they were getting at Liverpool. Bogle has maybe undersold himself when agreeing a new contract; possibly I overestimate him. Esposito is handsomely rewarded for coming back to us, but his display against Villa illustrates perfectly why he earns the big bucks. The deal to sign Vieira has landed us with our second highest salaried player. I hope he turns out to be worth the investment. As for both our keepers being given backup status, this will surely change over time but it’s what they agreed upon signing for us.

Derby FM20 – August 2021: Cojones

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.

This is no time to be facing Arsenal. We did the double over them last season and finished fifth to their sixth place, yet there’s little doubting their quality. Mikel Arteta‘s summer effort has been in shoring up a defence that was far too porous. Martinez, Mari, Chambers and Sokratis have all gone. Rob Holding, a defender we coveted, will be playing for Atletico Pamplona this term. In goal, they have complemented Leno with Jordan Pickford. A certain Lorenzo Monitpo is also a Gunner now. Defensively they have taken advantage of Bournemouth’s relegation by nicking Nathan Ake, or at least paying £39 million for his services. Diogo Queiros is another addition, signed for £18 million from Porto.

How much better this will leave them is anyone’s guess. Arteta still hasn’t found a dedicated defensive midfielder for his squad, though he can pick from a number of loose fits. Perhaps this makes sense. Arsenal use a 4-2-3-1 formation, traditionally lining up to accommodate Mesut Ozil, though the German’s star is in decline and Almada or Mkhitaryan are preferred just as often these days. It’s lucky the former is injured for their visit to Pride Park. The young Argentinian is a hell of a gifted player, while Arsenal’s Armenian international is decent enough but not very strong and quite open to being bullied.

In the week leading up to this one, I contemplate our options to play in defensive midfield. Idrissa Gueye is still being talked over. PSG want us to pay the full whack of his wages and agree to a mandatory joining fee at the end of the season. I can’t afford to shell out that sort of money, and I would prefer not to be forced to pick up his tab when it’s all over, so I negotiate on lesser terms. The French giants go away and think about it, and in the meantime I look for alternatives. There are several. Udinese’s Rolando Mandragora is exotically named and he loves big matches. I once had him in a Milan game and he was consistently good. Oliver Skipp is a younger option, playing for Spurs reserves and valued at £8 million, though naturally enough they don’t want to sell someone they see as a future asset. Blackburn’s Lewis Travis has been in my thoughts since I started at Derby. He’s injured, which would be a problem when it comes to getting him through his medical, and in truth I’m not sure he would be any better than our own Jordan Rossiter.

In the end one name stands above the others. We were coveting Ronaldo Vieira all last term, the physical midfielder with the name of not one but two legends and these days plying his trade with Sampdoria. He could become one of the English ex-pats playing abroad, like Lookman and Oxford, who we excel in returning to the motherland. La Samp don’t really want to let him go, but money talks loudest and we display some typical, classless Premier League swagger when we slap £16.25 million on the table and say what do you think about that then? Reluctantly they accept, and we are busy negotiating personal terms when the Gunners come knocking.

The need to win here is paramount. No excuses. We simply have to get off the ground, and we could hardly pick a worse opposition to take advantage of… Or could we? Where Arsenal are concerned, there’s still something about them that is essentially soft. It’s what Troy Deeney once referred to us having cojones, or lacking them. For all their technical merits and the appointment of a supposed genius-in-waiting in Arteta, they have never resolved the lack of mental strength that punctuated them during the latter Wenger period. It’s an element that continually leaves them outside the Champions League places. Sancho, Lacazette, Pepe and Torreira are players we can all admire, but they’re like lovely baubles. They can do things with a football to take your breath away, but can you count on them to grit out a ferocious ninety minutes of must-win play?

We’re counting on a big no to that one. Again it’s a capacity crowd at Pride Park, the sort of bulging at the seams attendance that I hope will one day lead to plans for a stadium expansion. McKenna is back in the side to partner Oxford. Ojo replaces Lookman as the winger isn’t as far restored from his minor injury incurred against Newcastle as I’d hoped. The whole point of signing some like Sheyi is to use him, so here he is. From kickoff we lay into the opposition, almost confounding the sense of who the superior side is supposed to be. The players are fired up and I like that. They should be working with an intent to win. The time when we were overawed by sides like this, even someone as good as Arsenal, ought to be a thing of the past.

The pressure finally tells in the 37th minute. A Pavon corner is flicked on in the area by Esposito and Scott McKenna drills it in. It’s a lead we hold on to fiercely and we never look like we’re going to give it up. For the remainder of the half Hughes and Moriba play clever passes to the forwards. They don’t lead to anything more yet neither do we concede, and I opt at half-time to play more cautiously. We don’t need to be wide open. It’s time to shut the door, claim those points so that we have something in the bank after our pointless start. As I predicted and certainly crossed all my fingers for, the Gunners don’t have the character to make an issue of it. We claim a much prized 1-0 triumph and Derby are off the mark.

The board members are happy to see the team win, particularly after they questioned our character following defeat at Newcastle, and that’s fair enough. We didn’t play especially well, but victory was all that mattered and it’s a barrier we have crossed now.

Aston Villa are coming up before the first international break takes precedence. Prior to that are the small matters of discovering who we will take on in the Carabao Cup, and the make-up of our Europa League group. The former will pit us at home against Southampton, a fellow participant in the Premier League. The League Cup takes on a dwindling importance now that we’re playing in a continental competition, yet it remains our best chance of winning something and we all want that.

The group stage of what used to be called the UEFA Cup puts us in the fourth pot. It’s ranked on coefficient points, of which we have precisely none, the complete absence of a continental presence, and this is something that will need to change. Our biggest rivals are made up of the likes of Arsenal, Roma, Monaco and PSV Eindoven, and we end up being drawn in Group F, which is headed by Valencia. We will also play Mainz 05, Jurgen Klopp’s old club, and Belgian outfit AA Gent.

There’s no pressure on us to progress beyond this stage. Mr Morris and his cronies will be satisfied with a competitive effort, everything playing second fiddle to achieving mid-table in the Premier League. For my part, it’s very exciting. We’ll be up against the likes of Dani Parejo, Jose Gaya, Robin Quaison and Elisha Owusu, all new star names to plan for and hopefully overcome. And then there’s the prestige of representing this grand old club on the European stage. It isn’t an opportunity I would choose to waste.