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.]

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