Derby FM20 – December 2021: Manchester United are 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.

The fun in December keeps on coming, with Sheffield Wednesday first before we face Manchester United at the weekend. The latter is billed as something of a title bout, and I would ask you to pause and think about that phrase for a moment before we continue.

I make a decision about Cristian Pavon and put him up for sale. By anyone’s standards it’s a hasty verdict on him, but there’s much resting on our ability to attack well and the prize at the end is to have Patrick Roberts, a talent I’ve coveted almost since walking through the doors at Pride Park. On such moments is football history made. Pav has been largely poor, indeed he’s ranked as the most lowly rated player in my team this season, but this doesn’t stop the offers from flowing through our fax machine. Eintracht Frankfurt, Fulham, Southampton and West Ham all make bids around the £10.5 million mark, which would weirdly enough generate a profit of a few mill for us, while Palace are also hovering because a misfiring Argentinian is the answer to saving their season, apparently.

Meanwhile, we have a trip to Hillsborough to get through. Playing Wednesday has handed us arguably the easiest Carabao Cup tie of the round. Liverpool, Everton and Man You are also in action, and it seems like we will inevitably face one of them before the end. A place in the semi-final is the prize for us. Managers of ‘more impressive’ teams might wring their hands over the unnecessary additional fixtures this would involve; for us, the prospect of winning some silverware trumps all other considerations. In their past, Derby have claimed the FA Cup and the league title, but we’ve never done anything in the League Cup. To add our name to the roll call of winners would be thrilling.

Mark Hughes is still in charge at Wednesday and is as bullish as ever, claiming because he’s identified Sebastiano Esposito as our main threat that he’s somehow solved us. Some fine scoutmanship there, Sherlock. We’ve played them three times under my watch. In our promotion campaign, we downed them at home and lost 1-0 away. Last year, we took them on in the FA Cup, producing a 2-0 victory at Pride Park, so confidence levels are high, though fatigue is equally an issue. It’s two days since we faced West Ham, and while I’m not the sort of pedantic, whiny manager who bleats on about fixture overload it has to stand as a concern.

Hillsborough produces a good crowd for this one, nearly 35,000 souls braving the rain to watch the action. Wednesday feature two on-loan players to watch, Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn in attack and Claudio Gomes from City operating in defensive midfield. Elsewhere, it’s a resolutely second tier group of players, while we line up with a large-scale changed eleven. Scott McKenna wears the armband, partnering Bielik in defence while Lowe and Laird play the flanks. Chirivella is a reliable presence in midfield, lurking behind Stoger and Lopez. Ojo and Wilson are on the wings and Adam Hlozek is up-front.

Despite the overhaul in personnel, the match goes as you might expect. We play with the swagger and confidence of the bigger team, dominating possession at a ratio of nearly 2:1 and producing the majority of the game’s sweet attacking moves. Kevin Stoger gives us the lead after ten minutes when he fires one in from outside the area, an irresistible pile-driver that defies Dawson in the home team’s goal. It isn’t long before we’ve made it 2-0, McKenna rising above a sea of blue and white shirted defenders to head in Wilson’s free-kick.

And that’s about it. We have more chances, hold Wednesday at arm’s length, and perhaps most importantly suffer no injuries beyond the groin problem that removes Ojo from the action, fortunately for a few days only. The semi-final will place us against Everton, over a two-legged affair scheduled for January. Norwich pulled off a shock 1-0 over Liverpool and will take on United.

It’s Manchester United at the weekend in the battle for third place. Ahead of us, Liverpool are taking on City and win 2-0 with goals from Firmino and Wijnaldum. Spurs can reclaim top spot, but they have a visit to Wolves to fulfil and this is a tricky prospect for anyone to negotiate. As for our opposition, they come into the game with Mason Greenwood in sparkling form, having netted seven from his ten appearances. He’s the kind of jet-heeled, sharp shooting forward we really fear, and we will need to be at our very best to contain him. In the summer, United spent more than £200 million on just three players. Their biggest signing was Ousmane Dembele, a £98 million capture from Barcelona. You can argue that he’s never really produced anything like the play to justify the massive fees lavished on him, though he’s started well at Old Trafford, weighing in with goals and assists aplenty, and the amount he cost puts my hand-wringing over the parlous sums involved in wrapping up the futures of Roberts and Pavon into the shade.

Heading into the game, I assume that the latter will accept at least one of the offers that are in for him, hopefully Frankfurt to minimise the risk of him coming back to haunt us. For this reason I confirm the signing of Patrick Roberts, who can’t move to Pride Park until January. If I can seal a deal for City’s other listed youngster, Tosin Adarabioyo, then I will consider that to be business well concluded.

I look at the side put out by Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer and wonder how on earth we can hope to stop them. Even the players on their bench – Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Cavani – are better than anyone we can call upon, while their first eleven is an international who’s who. De Gea. Semedo. Maguire. Lenglet. Mendy. Bentancur. Pogba. Greenwood. Fernandes. Dembele. Martial. Against them, our predominantly homegrown line-up – six Englishmen plus Welsh Wilson – looks somewhat agrarian. Sure enough, for most of the game I think we are going to lose. Bruno Fernandes floats in a thirty-fifth minute free-kick that Dembele heads beneath the diving frame of Butland to put them ahead, which could represent the opening of our defensive floodgate. They’re a slick set-up, passing smoothly and finding space, making the pitch somehow look very empty as their off the ball work is so difficult to keep up with.

As we start to pull back into it more during the second half, and with United beginning to show signs of fatigue as they too have been involved in the Carabao Cup, I start making changes. Pavon comes on for the worryingly anonymous Wilson and for once begins to make his presence felt. Willing to run at Ferland Mendy, try some tricks, essentially treating his time on the pitch as a shop window, his dribbling virtues worry the Red Devils and force them to play conservatively. In added time, as the seconds are bleeding away, Hughes finds him in a bit of space on the right. Shrugging away the attentions of Bentancur, Pavon tries a difficult volley at the near post that David de Gea somehow fumbles through his fingers and into the net. It’s an own goal.

We’ll take a 1-1 result against this lot any day. I’m asked afterwards whether equalising so late constitutes a smash and grab against a better team, but I don’t think it does. Yes, they are without a doubt a superior set of players, yet we battled for that point and took our chance to get something. Predictably, Pavon uses the opportunity to make a statement about his worth. He has another shot that fizzes across the goalline, and we are definitely more adventurous when he features. Fernandes claims the match ball. No one in our side is singled out for praise, though I think Butland does quite well to limit United’s damage, and as an overall defensive effort we can be pleased to have dealt with most of their trickery.

Spurs go on to beat Wolves at Molineux and take their (unlikely) place back at the apex of the Premier League. With little more than half a season remaining it appears the title could be down to either themselves or Liverpool, though I would expect City to come roaring back into contention at some point, and a side as talented as United can’t be happy with being placed behind ourselves. Where we’re concerned, Everton is our next destination. They’re loitering just below the top seven and hold the promise of a tough game, before December closes with a hopefully more straightforward tie against Fulham.

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