Derby FM20 – January 2022: Everton Two Times

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.

A lot to get through in this post. I have sinned a bit by playing more of the game than I should have, so this update will be a bumper effort that takes in three matches and much of the January transfer window. Incidentally, as I am updating at a feverish pace right now, basically because I want to see how it all turns out, I am adding posts well in advance of when they are scheduled to appear. I’m writing this on 4 August, and it’s booked in to be posted towards the end of the month. As a consequence I will be updating on a daily basis until the season is complete. It’s what we all want, isn’t it?

We now have two games against Everton to get out of the way. The first is the slightly important fixture of hosting them in the Premier League, before what I hope will be the formality of the second Carabao Cup leg at Goodison Park. As you know, we lead the tie 4-0, so the game will be a case of holding our nerves and not becoming unstuck (sorry) to the Toffees.

It’s the middle of January, so naturally it’s wet and cold when the visitors arrive in Derby for our Tuesday evening league game. Let’s face it, January’s rotten, isn’t it, especially in the You Kay? They really ought to find a way of suspending us all in hibernation until things get good again. With a full schedule of league fixtures taking place today, there’s no let-up and we can’t allow ourselves to fall behind, not with some gruelling games coming up where we probably will leak valuable points. Everton’s challenge is ebbing by the match. After threatening to enter the race for Europe, they’re now slipping into the bottom half and both scoring and conceding at the rate of about one per game. In short, they’re the same mid-table fodder that they’ve been for some years.

There are no excuses for letting things slip, and we pull through 1-0 in a tense, end-to-end encounter where we just about turn out to have the cutting edge. Wilson wins a first-half penalty when he’s impeded by Bakayoko as he diddles around harmlessly on the ball in their box. It’s a cheap and needless foul to make, and Sebastiano Esposito puts away the spot-kick confidently. After that it’s a case of holding the opposition at arm’s length, most pertinently keeping Andre Gomes under wraps. The Toffees midfielder remains their main creative force, like a crappier Pirlo spraying passes around to the likes of Macias, Calvert-Lewin and Kean, all of whom find fun and interesting ways of turning promising moves into nothing. In fairness we’re solid at the back, while Vieira and Hughes play a good game in midfield, but Gomes probably deserves the match ball for playing so positively, even if the same can’t be said for his teammates.

The weekend is given over to fourth round FA Cup matches. We get to sit it out, and with all the games we’re playing it feels a bit like a reprieve. Our conquerors West Ham are beaten 2-0 at home by Brighton, which feels like an extra slap in the face. The Seagulls will enjoy a south coast Derby when they play Bournemouth in the next round. Currently seventh in the league table, this is turning into a banner season for Brighton, while their opposition are strolling through the challenges presented by the Championship, sitting six points clear of Stoke at the top.

And so we have a week in which to fiddle with our thumbs before we take on Everton again, this time in Liverpool and with a place in the League Cup final at stake. The Toffees are still in that other cup competition, the one we no longer care about and is dead to us, drawing 1-1 against Preston, so they are leggier than we are because Thomas Frank believes not in squad rotation. This doesn’t stop them from taking a first half lead, Bakayoko making up for his error when last we met by heading in a goal from a free kick that we fail to clear well enough. Reece Oxford will have to think about his weak header for some time.

It’s not a disaster to go in at half-time losing. Everton would have to destroy us to overcome the lead we’ve built, and they have reckoned without Adam Hlozek, who leads a second period charge. His first comes from a simple Vieira through-ball, which he guides past Mina before slotting neatly home. Not long later he does it again, Ronaldo supplying a second killer pass and the Czech pretty much ignores Mina in sliding his shot past Zidane. By now the aggregate scoreline is 6-1, and it’s great to have won both legs. The home side are too much on their knees to do a thing to stop us, and a second half’s power play kills off their effort.

A fantastic job well executed. We will take on Manchester United in the Wembley final, after they dispatch Norwich 5-0 to romp through. This is going to take place at the end of February, neatly happening before our journey through the Europa League resumes, and frighteningly marking our second meeting with the red half of Manchester during the month. Because they aren’t quite terrifying enough, Ole adds some extra firepower to his ranks, paying £25 million for PSG’s right-sided midfielder and Russian international Magomed-Shapi Suleimanov, and strengthening his attacking cohorts with Giorgian de Arrascaeta, who was tearing Brazilian football a new hole for Fluminense prior to his £19 million move. They’ve offloaded Daniel James to Southampton in order to free up some space, but the £16 million they rake in via his sale is a speck next to the near £300 million outlay they have impressively lavished on personnel this season.

There’s no arguing with that kind of spending power, the sort that is designed to propel United towards where they want to be and should spin them way beyond our lowly means. I’m after a striker, with Maja gone and Hlozek earmarked for a return to the right wing if Roberts and Wilson don’t work out as the incumbent choices. The initial choice is Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster, who has been made available on loan. Jurgen resists my effort to sneak in a cheeky optional buyout clause and will only consider letting his man go to a team that will treasure him as their first choice forward, which is not in line with my thinking. I go foreign instead, thinking about Esposito and the team that sold him to us, Internazionale. They also have Eddie Salcedo, a 20 year old Italian who can be signed for anything between seven and fourteen million. We bid somewhere in the middle, offering £11.75 million, and then we wait. The Genoese forward looks terrific, not so good as an aerial threat, which is fine, but he’s quick, agile and full of running. We’ve been scouting him for some time, indeed it was tempting when we first signed Esposito to double-dip with Eddie and go in for an Inter job-lot, and if he can be anything like as good as his former Nerazzurri teammate then we will have done well here.

Before the transfer window closes we have another league fixture to fulfil, this time at home to Newcastle United. The Geordies beat us very early in the season, back when we were arguably easy to overcome, yet they are now back in their traditional lower mid-table berth, even under new ownership. Resolving them isn’t difficult – stop Allan Saint-Maximin – but actually effecting it is another thing entirely. The French winger presents a fine attacking force, their one genuine spark, and he’s enjoying his third good year in the north-east. They also face us with Olivier Giroud, on loan from Leicester, in their line-up. Now 35 and bereft of any physical spark, yet still a big unit with great finishing, we will absolutely need to keep an eye on him.

The first half is an absolute snorer. While I order us to attack frequently and get revenge for that beating, the Magpies are smothering our efforts and our front three of Roberts, Lookman and Esposito is doing precisely squat. The only upside is that Newcastle remain happy to bat aside our pushes and do little of their own, content to contain us and return to Newcastle with a shiny new point in their pockets.

After the break, and a half-time telling off, I start switching things around. Ojo and Wilson are introduced, and Adam Hlozek is brought on to continue his rich vein of form. For the away team’s part, Saint-Maximin makes his impact in the best possible way by being sent off after collecting two yellows, a sign of frustration after Bogle has shackled him so well to this point. Hlozek’s first is a simple cross and dispatch that co-stars Ojo, an easy goal that hints at the true calibre of Newcastle. He then nets from Wilson’s nod-down after the winger has picked up Pedraza’s cross, an effort that’s watched appreciatively by four orange shirted defenders. The third comes from the penalty spot, when a free kick is handballed by the luckless Giroud.

Liverpool travel to Chelsea and win 2-0 to declare their title-retaining credentials, but the Manchester derby ends in an indecisive 1-1 result that doesn’t do either party much good, and Spurs can only draw against Leicester. The upshot is that we have advanced to second place, indeed we’re top before the Scousers achieve victory in the later kickoff. We had better enjoy the good times while they last. February sees us go to Anfield for a date with destiny, and there’s also United at the Theatre of Screams to come. All the same, it’s a great record to carry into the remainder of the campaign. The gap to sixth now stands at a yawning nineteen points, and I’m even being asked by the media to comment on Pep Guardiola’s job security at the Etihad, opting for the classic u ok hun? retort as it seems bizarre to me that such a titan of the game could be in any kind of peril.

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