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.

Derby FM20 – December 2021: Hammered

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.

West Ham are on our radar at the weekend, but before that we are wrapping up our Europa League group by taking on KAA Gent at home. Back in September we won 1-0 at the Ghelmaco Arena in Ghent, and it’s results like this one that have guaranteed we will finish as group winners. This is a considerable achievement. The board had no expectation on us beyond ‘being competitive’ and didn’t think we had the wherewithal to qualify, so what we have gone on to do must be seen as a big positive. The money doesn’t flow in Europe’s second competition quite like it does in the Champions League, but it’s better to be here than not. With my ambitions for improving the squad ever dictating all that we do, it helps.

Of course, no one wants to see a collapse like we produced against Mainz. By the end of this one, we will have had another Ram sent off when Alfonso Pedraza is dismissed for an ugly two-footed challenge – no need for it, and the action somewhat undoes the spectacular headed goal he’s scored from Stoger’s corner. This is added to Adam Hlozek‘s opener, produced straight from kickoff in the thirteenth second of the game, a lovely neat finish from Ozo’s assist. Before Pedraza’s red card we are the personification of good discipline, almost as though the players have learned from my bollockings, and it’s disappointing to finish the game with an incomplete team. Gent pull one back to make it 2-1, but we never really lose control and – that one black mark notwithstanding – it’s a good, professional result from us.

Here’s the final group table. Valencia look like they could be going out at one point, but pull off a 3-0 result against Mainz to see themselves over the line. Now there’s the small matter of finding out who we will be playing next. Winning Group F has given us a bye for the first knockout round. No more European action for us until March, whilst in the meantime the illustrious likes of Manchester City, Porto and Zebre have dropped down into the Europa League and will be among the contenders we could be facing.

Josh Maja agrees personal terms with FC Kobenhavn and will be playing in the Danish League from January. Wuhan are expressing an interest in Kevin Stoger and I make the decision to offer him to them. The Chinese outfit are willing to pay the player’s full value, a whopping £29 million windfall for us from a midfielder we signed for free. I’m counting the cash money, but Stoger isn’t interested in playing in the Far East and rejects their overtures. This puts me in the awkward position of having a player on the transfer list who’s still part of my first team plans. It isn’t one I like, but for now he’s prepared to live with it. Realistically, whilst I think we can sell him I don’t suppose most teams would be dumb enough to spend so much on his services.

It’s a trip to the Smoke and West Ham United on Sunday. Thanks to the fixture computer, we have two days between this and our Carabao Cup tie at Sheffield Wednesday, so logistically we are travelling to play the Hammers, then zooming back up to Derby for a day before setting off on our jollies once again. Not ideal, and much rotation will be required for the latter tie. On paper, West Ham should be fodder for us. They are persisting with David Moyes and are eighteenth in the table, and it’s a deflated East London outfit that lines up against us. The manager seems to want to put together an outfit of Premier League golden oldies. Chris Smalling is in the side. James Milner is enjoying a nice final payday in Stratford, now a sprightly 35, while the Hammers sold off one of their most potent attacking threats when they lost Jarrod Bowen to Everton in the summer.

The side we’re up against plays the now standard 4-2-3-1 formation. Pablo Fornais at the spearhead of their attacking midfield poses potential problems, while the central midfield of Milner and Declan Rice is a showcase of the past and present of the England national team. I name a strong side with the intention of resting most of the eleven selected here when we take on the Owls. Cris Pavon is in the starting line-up. The Argentinian is still essentially on trial as I wrestle with the decision whether to sign Patrick Roberts, who has agreed terms but is subject to a request for more time from me so that I can make my mind up. If I take Roberts then we will have three right wingers in the squad, which is one too many. One will have to go, Pav the obvious choice, but that will mean I have given him just half a season to deem that he isn’t good enough, which seems a bit unfair. Maybe a loan move…

Like Chelsea and Palace, West Ham are a decent side that’s playing with no confidence whatsoever. There’s usually a bloated feel to the Hammers, shouting their own credentials and playing in a cavernous ground while producing precious little where it matters, but now they’re operating like a team that’s there to be punished. Pedraza makes up for his red card against Gent by putting us ahead in the twenty-third minute. His throw-in deep in the Hammers’ half is collected by Vieira, who recycles the ball to him. Drifting pretty much unchallenged into the  area, he’s gifted with the space to make it within five yards of Zoet’s goal before lashing a shot past him.

A minute later, and Vieira is loping fifty yards before lofting a cross into the box. Sebastiano Esposito picks up the pass, curling around the attentions of both Mari and Taylor (both recent signings) to send one into the bottom corner. It’s an easy strike. The marking is horrible, the defenders static and Esposito riding high in terms of his own confidence, so it can only end one way. After the best part of an hour’s further pressure, Esposito scores a second when he rises above Kolasinac to head in Wilson’s dangerous corner kick. The Hammers then pull one back, Felipe Anderson scoring after we fail to clear our lines – the marking from Pedraza is actually pretty good, but the Brazilian is a tricky forward who can do this against anyone, and given the direction the game is taking it fortunately doesn’t matter too much. There’s still time for Esposito to claim his hat-trick. Another headed goal, this time converting Pedraza’s cross with Pablo Mari left aghast and watching our celebrations.

Winning 4-1 away is always good, though it does feel as if we took advantage of the malaise at London Stadium, kicking them while they’re down. Moyes’s job security is considered to be precarious, which doesn’t sound good at all, and I wonder who would possibly fancy the tricky task of turning things around at a side stuffed with ageing players who have little resale value where a full-scale overhaul is required. As for us, Esposito’s hat-trick puts him in the lead in the top scoring charts. He’s now valued at £48.5 million, making the amount we paid for him look like incredible value – the Italian is 19 and building a reputation as one of the continent’s most exciting attacking talents. I’m very pleased with Ronaldo Vieira, credited here with two assists, and smiley faces are also directed at Hughes and Pedraza, who both play a very positive game. The Pavon dilemma continues after another largely anonymous showing. Contrasting sharply with the general sense of attacking elan we show against West Ham, the Argentinian cuts a disconsolate and drifting figure. My inclination is to cut my losses and conspire to let him go.

Derby FM20 – December 2021: Winning Ways

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.

Southampton and Leicester use this moment to separate themselves from their managers. Roberto Martinez and Neil Lennon join the dole queue and their old employers start seeking new head coaches. I’m not suggesting that I am in the reckoning for either role, neither would I be interested (well, maybe Leicester), but Mr Morris chooses now to haul me into his office and demand that I accept an enhanced wage budget. He tells me in no uncertain terms that the board is willing to do all it can to keep me sweet, and while it has the feel of a telling off I come out of it with a bit more cash money to deal with. Surely just a coincidence that they’ve made concessions to me at a time when there are a number of Premier League vacancies, and given what I’ve said about my plans to make new signings it’s welcome news.

We have eight matches to play in December. The first is a trip to Selhurst Park and Crystal Palace, rooted at the foot of the table on seven points. Eddie Howe has taken over following his dismissal from Bournemouth, and gives every impression of his good work there being a short-lived time of success. Where they’re going wrong isn’t very clear, but they’re pretty shabby in defence, conceding 2.5 goals per game, and from the looks of things if you keep Wilfried Zaha under wraps then you’ve pretty much solved the Eagles. Howe spent the best part of a hundred million in the summer. His main signing was Diogo Dalot, the Portuguese wing-back who cost £38 million and I’d have to argue is worth considerably less. Dario Maresic is still settling in after his £12 million move from Reims, and they’ve clearly considered Dalot not to be enough of a right sided answer by spending £18 million on Rangers’ James Tavernier. All in all a confused and flabby transfer window, which has added little to the cause. As things stand they’re going down. Fast.

Playing away has been the source of some discomfort for us, no matter who we’re up against. Clearly this is one we should be winning, and not doing so against a side that is to all intents and purposes there to be whipped wouldn’t be good. Our usual shtick, to play a balanced mentality, just invites red and blue shirted pressure, so we quickly become more positive and this at least puts us on a more level footing. As Palace collect bookings, and Augustin mucks up their one good scoring chance, forcing an overly elaborate catch from Butland, we produce a winner. In the twentieth minute, Moriba sends a raking pass to the left wing, where Ademola Lookman is advancing beyond Dalot and Woods. Controlling the ball at a narrow angle to the goal, the keeper advances to meet him while Lookman chooses his moment to send a skimming effort that crosses the line exquisitely, a really good precision shot.

Otherwise, this is a low key affair, one in which Esposito does little and Wilson has a very quiet game. Before the end Hlozek and Ojo have entered the fray, and Vieira has replaced the tiring Moriba to make us brittler in central midfield. We needn’t worry. There’s no such thing as an easy game, Bobby Robson once said, but it helps when your opposition is playing with low levels of confidence and a fading heart. I can’t see it ending well for the luckless Howe; as for the team, I am sending in the scouts to start picking over what looks like a doomed carcass.

We’re preparing for Brighton and Hove Albion, a team we crushed last season but are currently in eighth place, hovering with intent just outside the continental spots. I make a few changes for them, giving starting places to Oxford, Laird, Pedraza and Lopez, while Cris Pavon is back in the eleven. This is his chance to impress. I’ve sparked off a £4.5 million offer to Manchester City for Patrick Roberts, a player I’ve coveted for some time, but the winger wants a hefty pay rise and I’m not certain that his talents justify the layout we’d need to make. If the Pavster shows signs that he can work his way back into my affections then there may be no need to spunk Derby cash on someone else. Maybe I’m being unrealistic about not wishing to pay the players more, yet for me the wage budget constitutes a delicate balancing act. It wouldn’t take much for the amount we spend to spiral out of control, whilst at the same time I want good young players who will work for their monies.

With squad numbers in mind it might be time for a mini-cull. The first head on the block is Josh Maja‘s, a decent striker who barely plays for us and is becoming unhappier over his lack of opportunities. On the one hand I would rather have three strikers, but ahead of him are Esposito, near enough the league’s leading scorer, and Hlozek, who’s tearing a new strip into continental opposition. Maja’s own record in front of goal isn’t exactly sparkling. In thirteen Premier League appearances he’s yet to find the back of the net, and I’m not offering places to people on account of their pretty faces. Three offers fly in for him, all for £2.6 million, which is considerably below my price tag but is more than we paid for him and will ultimately produce a clean break.

Brighton are hosted on a rare Saturday 3.00 pm kickoff within a mild, early December Pride Park. There is some considerable history between us. Matt Clarke, who was part of our promotion side whilst on loan from the Seagulls, is still on their books though he will play no part. Two members of the previous season’s Rams, Ivan and Bakery Jatta, are also in their side. It’s my first opportunity to take on Jatta, a limited winger but in possession of the kind of killer pace that no defender wants to be coping with. Their main threat, as before, is Pascal Gross, a German attacking midfielder who is at the core of most of the good things they produce. Now 30 and in his fifth season with Brighton, Gross is a consistent and highly thought of technical player, not as good a Number Ten as Mesut Ozil but much, much lower in terms of maintenance. Speaking of Ozil, the ‘man you can’t get rid of’ is in his last season as a Gunner, the team looking forward to winding down his fabulous contract while he sits on his fat wages, a peripheral figure when it comes to first team action. He’s made one appearance. It isn’t a bad life.

We open the scoring in the fourteenth minute. Esposito is on the ball, on our left wing. Avoiding the attentions of Ostigard, he floats a ball into the packed penalty area, filled with green shirted Seagulls but also Cristian Pavon, who is lurking beyond Bernardo and volleys past Dahlberg. He’s chuffed, as he has every right to be. The real blitz starts ten minutes later. Having soaked up the minimal levels of pressure applied by our visitors, we strike through Ethan Laird when he picks up Vieira’s beautifully weighted assist, floats into the box unchallenged and nutmegs the keeper. It’s his first for us, an addition to my growing suspicion that he may just be a more valuable player than Jayden Bogle. Shortly after that, Lopez takes a shot on the right that cracks off the post and drops for Sebastiano Esposito, who has air between him and the back of the net. The striker then turns provider, sending in a free-kick that Krystian Bielik hammers home to produce a classic Derby finish.

In the second half Neil Maupay pulls one back, but even with the appearance of Jatta from the sub’s bench (pitched, weirdly enough, in central midfield) there isn’t enough fight in them to really cut into our lead. 4-1 is a great result, albeit one that proves nothing new about our home form versus our relative troubles on the road.

Liverpool beats Spurs 1-0, finally putting an end to the latter’s extended winning run and losing them the division’s top spot. We’re now five points behind first place, but we have climbed to third and seem to be in a breakaway group that is steadily putting daylight between ourselves and sixth. Esposito is in a five-man group of players leading the scoring charts with ten goals (Kane, Jimenez, Mane and Martinez, since you ask), and while Derby aren’t the most prolific attacking force, amassing 25 goals (Spurs are leading with 43), we are the division’s third best when it comes to conceding.

Derby FM20 – November 2021: More Questions than Answers

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.

We’ve played so well right up until the Mainz 05 defeat that its circumstances cast a pall over my confidence in the side. Now sure, everyone can have an off-day, but to experience such a shambolic debacle after the disciplined, professional way we saw off Chelsea is a real kick in the teeth. Our Europa League campaign kicked off with a 5-1 win over the Germans at Pride Park, so to go from that to being squarely beaten in Mainz illustrates to me that we are far from the finished article. The team’s better than it was, no doubt there, but they aren’t where they are because it’s their right to be there. There’s no such thing as privilege for us – everything that we have has been earned; we aren’t suddenly a superb set-up and we can’t for a moment just turn up and expect victories to fall in our lap.

The month’s last fixture is a trip to the north-east where we will play Middlesbrough. The team I support has turned into a constant shadow. They got promoted with us and stayed up after a battling first term in the Premier League. Most of their players are people I wouldn’t look twice at, quite frankly, but somehow they keep pulling out the results, doing just enough to keep their heads above water. Their wage budget is by some distance the division’s lowest. Jonathan Woodgate has one of the Premier League’s smallest transfer war chests. The old Boro, the one that lavished cash with some abandon in pursuit of an ever-distant sporting glory, is gone; the new philosophy is a stripped back and careful building project, and it’s working.

In the summer Boro picked up a player we’d been scouting for some time when they signed Ebere Eze from QPR. The 23 year old left winger cost them £12.75 million, and he’s someone we wanted though they got in there first and they pay him £77,000 per week, the sort of star player wages I would normally baulk at. We ended up getting Sheyi Ojo instead, and it’s an acquisition I don’t regret, but Eze shows that they can be competitive when they want to be. Their other star turn is Dael Fry, a homegrown centre-back from the same Riverside production line that previously turned out the likes of Colin Cooper, Gary Pallister, Tony Mowbray, David Wheater, Rhys Williams and Ben Gibson, amongst others. We covet young Dael, a 24 year old who wears the armband for Boro and represents their cause on the pitch.

Elsewhere, there’s not a lot to them. Woodgate spent nearly £40 million on new recruits over the summer, along with Eze adding Japanese winger Shoya Nakajima, Strasbourg defender Alexander Djiku, and Miguel Trauco a left-back from darkest Peru. The Boro old guard, the side that got them up, is slowly being whittled away. Gorge Friend was more or less given away in the summer, and the likes of Assombalonga and Fletcher are still on the books though experiencing the hell of being transfer-listed and waiting for some friendly passing team to show an interest in their services.

All this could very easily be us. I hate having listed players in my first team. My preference is to get them off the payroll as quickly as possible, accepting a lesser fee if I have to, because there’s nothing more depressing than having these unwanted men haunting the stadium corridors, their careers in limbo as there’s nothing for them here and no one else desires their talents. Who’d have that?

The form table should produce an emphatic away victory, however our upturn in home form this season has translated into a less confident performance on the road. Our only defeat at Pride Park was against Liverpool. Trips to Newcastle and Wolves have ended with no gain, and of course we have just returned to these shores from our humbling in the OPEL Arena. Our record against Boro is equally mixed. In both previous seasons we have won one and lost one, so somehow they kind of have our number. I think I know what this is all about. They set out to be hard to break down, defending busily and exploring potential openings, and we are much better against sides that actually want to play football.

And so it proves here, a hard fought encounter in which our good work is mostly consigned to positions up to central midfield. In the forward roles we produce precious little. Our attacks are like waves coming up against the hardiest of sea walls. Successful forays into their half are few. We produce a minimum of scoring opportunities, even as the time progresses and I’m ordering us to attack more frequently. Fry has this habit of being everywhere, while Djiku and Maripan in Boro’s three-man defence are well marshalled. They can deal with Wilson, Esposito and Lookman, it turns out. Our clever passes to prise them open are anticipated by the sheer number of bodies they throw into the press.

Boro can break. In the 69th minute, as we are becoming more open in our efforts to produce a goal, Dragomir finds Djed Spence bombing down their right wing, Pedraza struggling to get back to him in time. He picks out Lewis Wing, who is outside the area and loosely marked, and from nothing he whacks off a rocket of a shot that defies Butland at his far post. It’s a good goal, very well struck from a player we quite like, and the kind of gut punch that makes me order us to push against them ever more fervently.

We leave it until added time to find an equaliser. Bogle, who’s having one of his better games at right back, fires a cross in that Maripan fails to deal with quickly enough and Sheyi Ojo is on hand to rob him and find the sweet spot. So it’s a 1-1 finish, decent enough under the circumstances, but it’s points dropped like these that show why we aren’t doing much better. Ojo’s goal is a rare instance of virtue from our attacking cohorts. Overall we’ve produced a leaden effort. Moriba has shown glimpses of the exciting player he’s developing into, but like the rest of our forward thinking types he’s been well covered and chances have come at a premium. All the same, his best moment – a shot that whistled to the right side of Lecomte’s right post – suggests that he’s coming on nicely.

Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Villa positions them ahead of us in the table, but Spurs pull off a shock 1-0 result at the Etihad and this keeps us in fourth place for now, albeit falling a further couple of points off the pace. Bottom placed Crystal Palace are next in midweek, before we entertain Brighton, and these are two straightforward looking fixtures that should pad out our account. Note the use of the word should – right now, nothing feels as though it’s guaranteed.

Cris Pavon is serving the last of his suspensions when we go to Londinium, before we again get to experience his at best middling delights. I’m losing patience in him. He was part of the side that lost to Mainz and he produced little to nothing, and I’m wondering when I start to write off someone who has generated a 6.65 overall rating over his sixteen appearances. Harry Wilson (6.88) is by all accounts the lesser player but is doing considerably more, credited with four assists, and we can also call on Adam Hlozek if we need to. Converting the Czech to a centre-forward has on the whole worked out. He’s scored seven goals this season, though naturally he’s still a right winger with all the haunting memories of his fitful personality and inability to work alongside Jayden Bogle to bear in mind.

The transfer market might provide some answers. A few players we’ve been looking at have been listed, and while we are close to our salary limit some financial juggling could land us with a couple of new faces. Manchester City reserves are about as good as our best eleven, and Patrick Roberts has been made available for £4.6 million. The English winger has great pace and can dribble, and he’s made a monkey out of us in the past. For the price we would be fools not to at least consider his talents. Even more tantalising, though costlier, is Tosin Adarabioyo, their 24 year old defender with a price tag of £11 million. Both players have several clubs making kissy-kissy faces at them, but they apparently have a preference to play for Derby, and that’s nice.

I’m thinking about what I can do to make them mine. We could get Roberts easily enough, but we’d need to make a space available for him and that would mean selling someone. Should we cut Pavon’s time with us short, something I’m a little loathe to do because I want to give him the chance to settle in? In that case Hlozek could be the one to lose, with a number of sides having fancied him previously. Tosin’s arrival would mean we need to think about losing a defender, or possibly a midfielder as Bielik could play in defensive midfield (he’s training for it), with Vieira pushing forward, and that might spell the end of the line for Kevin Stoger, the first of our cohort I’d ask to make way.

Questions, questions. Both players would improve us, no doubt there, as would United’s Daniel James, who could be ours for £15 million and is the preferred choice should the Lookman rumours turn into concrete offers…

Derby FM20 – November 2021: Frank’s Nadir

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 main talking point ahead of our home game against Chelsea is the news of Frank Lampard‘s falling out with N’Golo Kante. By all accounts, the French midfielder and Blues star has completely lost faith in Fat Frank and is demanding a move away, and worse still is that the dressing room at Stamford Bridge is split on their reactions to this. It’s a headache the manager doesn’t need, indeed the potential for this drama to turn into a crisis is the sort of nightmare scenario that can have us all pussy-footing around the players to keep our pampered princelings happy. No doubt much of it is down to Chelsea’s poor start to the season, the sort of combustible nonsense that can uniquely derail this team (remember when it went downhill under Mourinho?), and I have a horrible feeling that it will only end with Lamps being asked to leave. Looking at the job security of Premier League managers (a pleasure as I am rated as Untouchable), Frankie boy joins David Moyes and Chris Wilder as being in an insecure position. Only Roberto Martinez, struggling at Southampton, is considered to be more precariously placed.

This adds spice to an enterprising summer of activity at the Bridge, where Chelsea secured the fourth biggest transfer of the window when they acquired Lautaro Martinez for £103 million. That this titanic bit of business ranks only fourth shows just how crazy the world of player trafficking has become. Mbappe’s move to Barcelona was the largest, setting them back £157 million. Second was Mo Salah’s £123 million switch to PSG, and then there was Manchester City’s capture of Harrington Kane, which set them back one hundred and seven million big ones. Chelsea whacked a further £72 million in Milan’s direction and came back with Theo Hernandez, while also recruiting Florian Thauvin and Dwight McNeil for the more conservative fees of £58 million and £24.5 million respectively. A stunning summer’s work, enhancing a squad that was already world class with a cool quarter of a billion’s worth of spending. Some funds were recouped with the sales of Kurt Zouma (PSG, £33.5m), Jorginho (Inter, £30m) and Azpilicueta (PSG again, £28m).

The result is a squad that should have the muscle to compete with anyone. A hard working line-up, with goalscoring potency ribboning throughout their ranks, and working out who to cover is a Sudoku-like conundrum. Obviously Martinez, but their attacking midfield three of Thauvin, Van de Beek and Hudson-Odoi is about as good as it gets, and behind them lie Milinkovic-Savic and Kante. According to the scouting report they aren’t good at marking, and they don’t like through balls, so they are open to being scored against and the possibility is that this fixture could feature a lot of goals.

More bizarre still is the news that we are strong 4-7 favourites for this one. Our good league form, coupled with Chelsea in disarray, puts us in the driving seat. Naturally enough all I can see is a banana skin in the waiting. At least the international break has produced no additional injuries, meaning that we are missing only Pereira (broken arm, out for up to three weeks) and Pavon (suspended for three English matches), and these are surmountable losses. We’re playing on Sunday, entertaining the TV masses, so we get to watch much of the rest of the division play their games, no scorelines as dumb as the 10-1 shellacking that Manchester United produced against Southampton recently. Indeed, Brighton beat them 2-1 in one of the weekend’s more surprising scorelines. The Seagulls take their chances and Rashford misses a penalty, which means a win over Chelsea will leapfrog us above United in the table.

We set up principally to keep the Blues’ attacking potency under wraps. Our midfield three features Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira, as I want us to build an unsurpassable wall in the centre of the field, and by and large this is what I get. We score early, when a spell of attacking pressure finds Hudson-Odoi faffing around on the ball by their goal; Sebastiano Esposito pinches it and just has to poke it over the line to claim the strike. It’s the definition of a poacher’s goal, and it’s undone entirely minutes later when Laird pushes Van de Beek in our box for a softly conceded penalty. Martinez takes it, about as sure a choice as they could get, but his shot hits the post and we get to breathe again, and this amounts to the sum total of their scoring chances.

As suggested by their in-fighting and league position, Chelsea’s morale is through the floor. There can be no other explanation for the ease of our victory, an incident-free second half in which we play with a balanced mentality and prevent them from doing anything further. As it is the opportunities for us to add to our account are there, but Esposito heads an easy chance over the bar and Wilson shoots wide.

For us, it’s a fifth straight win in the league, putting us in fourth place and opening a five-point gap to Everton, who lost 2-0 to Newcastle on Saturday. As far as Chelsea are concerned, the consequences are severe as Frank Lampard is dismissed. Clearly, beating us was an ‘or else’ situation for him, and he’s gone. Whilst I have no wish to manage Chelsea (some of those star players, on the other hand…) it would be nice to be in the conversation as someone they’d consider. I might not have Frank’s Blues background, but I’ve done better with the team he used to manage and I am currently guiding them to far higher in the table than the one from which he’s just been relieved. But no, the usual names are in the mix – Deschamps, Spalletti, Amorim – and I suspect most of them are busy putting as much distance between themselves and the poisoned chalice of the Chelsea job as quickly as possible.

In midweek we are away to Mainz 05. They say pride comes before a fall, and this fixture represents an abject lesson for us in taking our opposition seriously and maintaining discipline. We lose 2-1, get two men sent off, concede a penalty, incur six bookings and the scoreline is only as tight as it looks because VAR rules out two German goals. We’re crap, completely lacking in control and ever off the pace, which is surprising when we consider Mainz are decent but far from the most sparkling opposition we’ll face. As it is, Hlozek’s early goal is soon nullified by a penalty from Kownacki when he’s brought down in the box by Chirivella. Oztunali makes it 2-1 when he scores from a Bogle error, and just to compound on a wretched comeback game Jayden is dismissed in the second half when he goes in two-footed on Churlinov. Lowe goes soon after, sent off after picking up a second yellow, and any chance of a comeback is wiped away as we can only play a defensive game from then on and hope Mainz don’t overrun us.

One from which to move on. I give the lads a dressing down, and later in the week I praise them for their contribution overall. At this stage I can let the bad result go, consider it to be a blip, but the number of bookings and sendings off we’re receiving is an issue. As a tackling side we are average within the Premier League, hardly among the best but not shocking either, and it isn’t as though we are wanting for pace (we’re rated fifth), so there should be no excuses. Luckily, the other Group F match sees Gent pull off an unlikely 3-0 win over Valencia, so we have guaranteed first place. A good thing – this match was a horror show, the sort of unbelievable viewing that had me barking at the team and wondering just what had happened to my top five side. It’s fortunate that it doesn’t matter, that we’ve been let off.

Derby FM20 – November 2021: Thinking About the Future

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 international break approaches, and there’s one game left to play beforehand, which takes in a visit to Bramall Lane. Sheffield United have scored two eleventh placed finishes in their two years of top flight football, but they look in trouble this time, sitting in the relegation zone to encapsulate the myth of that difficult third season. Chris Wilder remains ‘the man’. I’d argue their transfer window activity was largely positive – Thomas Meunier (on loan), Thomas Sabitzer (£6.5 million), and most enviably Nick Pope (£8.5 million) have been added. Their most ambitious acquisition is Hakon Evjen, a Norse international winger brought in from AZ for £36 million, someone we scouted and overlooked, and he’s very much in his ‘settling in’ period at the club.

Despite a highly impressive 2-0 home win over Liverpool, the Blades have disappointed so far and we are strongly backed to end the pre-break window with a victory. We beat them twice at Bramall Lane in the previous season, so all the omens are with us, and it’s in these moments that feel we are most likely to suffer a fall. It’s what follows pride, after all, in that recurring Law of Sod that plays such a mischievous part in footballing fortunes. The Yorkshire outfit still command the talents of Sander Berge, the sort of player we circle, vulture-like, if his team ends up being relegated, while for us Cristian Pavon is serving the first of his suspended matches. We now know that his ban will extend to four fixtures. This is unfortunate. The positive spin is that Harry Wilson now has a opportunity to shine, and there’s the flexibility for us to use Adam Hlozek in this position if all else fails.

Pav’s slow start already has me looking at alternatives to play on the right wing. I don’t want to sound as though I’ve given up on him. I haven’t, however the reality is that I signed him based on how good he was in Football Manager 2018 and there’s a possibility that the 2020 vintage just isn’t as potent. There’s a bit of transfer money left in the kitty and a laughably outside chance that the board will make more available before the January window. David Brooks, still at a Bournemouth team that’s been relegated, is a strong and tantalising possibility. We could entertain the idea of drafting Reiss Nelson in from Arsenal on a loan deal, and a string of players who aren’t homegrown – Orsolini, Weah, PSV’s highly rated Ritsu Doan – are all on the radar. The most highly rated right-sided attacking winger we’ve scouted is Allan Saint-Maximin, who tortured us in the season’s early passes in a hiding from Newcastle. ‘A superb signing‘ is the summary of Antonio Dias’s scouting report, for a player who could cost us as much as £48 million, so unless things change dramatically he will remain a remote outlier.

Those are all thoughts for the future, one in which the financial projections suggest we are in for a bonanza windfall of transfer money. The graphs tease me with the possibility of a budget of anything up to £90 million in the summer of 2022, an outrageous level of largesse that even a generous boardroom like ours isn’t renowned for, and with the wage allowance not seeing great change such figures need to be tempered to allow for pay rises and the like. Besides which, I need to bear in mind that whatever spends I’m given £32.45 million is already squirreled in Barcelona’s direction to make Ilaix Moriba‘s transfer permanent. I will also have to consider what we are going to do to resolve the situation at right-back, which will have a vacancy when Ethan Laird’s loan season is up, and then there’s the very real prospect that we will make a move for Birmingham’s Jude Bellingham. The young English midfielder looks like such a Derby County player that it would seem rude not to try my best to make this future a reality, and yet that’s another likely £29 million siphoned off. The reality then, is one where we may indeed have a lot to spend yet much of it is already assigned to existing commitments and playing targets.

In the meantime, we’re in a cold and wet Sheffield (is there any other kind?), the home of the Human League and Sean Bean, and today’s opposition. Joel Pereira has suffered a fractured lower arm in training and is removed for a month, which just puts a seal on Jack Butland’s status as starting goalkeeper. The good news for Jackie continues with his recall to the England national team, where he’s fighting with Pickford and Pope for the number one jersey. Laird is at right-back for his last guaranteed start before Jayden Bogle recovers from injury. The central midfield showcases Hughes and Moriba ahead of Chirivella, with Stoger, Lopez and Vieira on the bench. Esposito is in our line-up. Bielik and McKenna make up our starting central defence as my regular rotation of centre-backs kicks in.

Anyone who reads my team selections with interest may be questioning the ever-changing identities of the people I choose in defence. I rotate here continually to minimise injuries, keep things fresh and favour no one among four players who are roughly as good as each other. Until someone pipes up with a moan about the amount of playing time they get, the rotation works as follows:

  • Game One – Bielik and McKenna start, Oxford on the bench, Vallejo rested
  • Game Two – Bielik and Oxford start, Vallejo on the bench, McKenna rested
  • Game Three – Vallejo and Oxford start, McKenna on the bench, Bielik rested
  • Game Four – Vallejo and McKenna start, Bielik on the bench, Oxford rested

The idea is to ensure everyone gets a good level of time in the team and none of them lose out, and in my experience working to this plan cuts down the number of injuries suffered by this unit, particularly as my aim to progress as far as possible on all fronts stacks up our number of fixtures to play.

The Blades line up against us with a three-man defence, and no place in their starting formation for Evjen because they’re using wing-backs rather than outright wingers. Maximilian Meyer is the main threat. They’ve built the side around him, the German who’s playing a number ten role like a lesser Ozil, though I’d argue their real strength is in central midfield, occupied today by Berge and Fleck. Stevens and Meunier are their wing-backs, and they’re worth keeping an eye on, with McBurnie and the on-loan Bernard figuring as targets for their offensive activities.

The difference here is confidence. We have it, they don’t, and we get to play like the home team throughout the match, dominating possession and attacking statistics, while there’s a welcome level of discipline to our play. Fouls happen at a premium. We incur no unnecessary yellow cards, and this can’t only be a consequence of Pavon watching the action from the stands.

After some indifferent opening phases we take control of the game and begin to press the Blades heavily. This earns its reward in the thirty-sixth minute when Pedraza wins a free-kick deep in their half. Wilson takes it, lofting a searching ball towards the far post that Will Hughes heads in to continue his rich goal-scoring vein. With half-time looming, United redress the balance from a very similar move, McBurnie scoring from a pinpoint header to convert Fleck’s free-kick. As headed goals go you would struggle to see better, though it helps when the marking on him is almost non-existent. But we aren’t done. With the referee placing the whistle between his lips, there’s time for Laird to hold the ball up on the right wing before finding Hughes. He sends his pass across the goalmouth and Ademola Lookman evades Meunier to slice a shot past Pope.

The second half sees no further goal action. We have the best of it, whereas United get little more than an injury to Meunier to reflect upon. For reasons that perhaps best belong in the Twilight Zone, Bramall Lane once again becomes a rich hunting ground for us. We’ve controlled the game and played like a team that belongs in the division’s upper reaches; better still, we are able to make substitutions based on keeping players fresh rather than due to anyone playing horribly. Esposito hasn’t enjoyed one of his more notable outings, but that’s perhaps to be expected when the Italian is facing a wall of three central defenders.

This leaves us five points distant of the table’s summit, a position occupied by Tottenham for the time being. The usual crowd are hovering, lining up to take over when normal service resumes, while you might be wondering where Chelsea sit in the ranking. They are currently twelfth, without the excuse of injuries taking a part in the difficult start to their campaign. We are their next opponents, once the international break is over, so it’s to be hoped that their revival doesn’t start with a victory over ourselves.

Derby FM20 – October/November 2021: Down and Dirty in Valencia

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 month finishes with the visit of Leicester City. Sitting in fifteenth and now managed by Neil Lennon, I think it would be fair to suggest these are fallow times for them after the successes of the past, while the enterprising young squad they were busy assembling has not equalled the sum of its parts (I would add a ‘yet’ to that sentence, without wishing to tempt fate as I write these words before taking them on). I see how we compare with them as a measure of our success. Currently Derby are the best Midlands club, which doesn’t mean as much as it should when you consider the presence of Wolves and Villa, and the Foxes’ title win several years ago looks like an increasingly distant aberration. For all their mixed fortunes, our visitors feature players I admire. I like the look of Gray, Maddison, Chilwell and Choudhury, of their English contingent, and Harvey Barnes most of all. The latter is the one I am earmarking should we end up losing Ademola Lookman. Apparently, Lennon doesn’t value him so very highly and we join Palace in eyeing him as a potential future signing. It’s an encouraging sign that Harvey would prefer Derby out of his two suitors.

There was a time when we would approach home games with a balanced mentality, but in most instances we are now positive, which I view as a sign of our improving quality and confidence. On paper, Leicester should be much more than fodder. Along with the players mentioned above they line up with Tielemans, Deulofeu, Milik and Ndidi. They’re good. But they are playing within themselves; the sense of élan just isn’t there, while we can set out with an intent to punish. By the break we are 3-0 up. It’s been a very good first half, with the caveats that we are down to ten men thanks to Cris Pavon‘s needless horror show of a two-footed tackle on Choudhury, and forced to make another change when Esposito is removed with a suspected ankle injury.

A wet Sunday afternoon goes our way entirely. Will Hughes gets booked early, but then he shows what he can do – and contradicts my comments made previously that he doesn’t score very often – by rifling in a shot from just outside the area. It’s a facet of his game that I wasn’t especially aware of, but when his marker (Tielemans) drifts away then the invitation to shoot is presented, I guess. Ilaix Moriba makes it 2-0 when he heads home following a crisp passing move that results in him converting Lookman’s curling cross from the left wing. Slack marking from the visitors again, with everyone’s attentions on Esposito and Pavon while the teenager has all the time in the world to put himself in the best position. It’s also his first Derby goal, hopefully the first of many. In the thirty-ninth minute, Hughes produces an identikit goal to his opener, a lashed strike that results from lovely work between Pedraza and Lookman on the left. Again, Esposito is keeping Foxes defenders busy, while their full-back Zeefuk seems to be looking at something else entirely, as though he’s playing a different match to everyone else.

So everything’s going our way, that is until Pavon’s sending off leaves us playing with a defensive mentality for the entire second half. Esposito has time to crack an effort off the post before he needs to be removed in a collision with Chilwell that crocks both players. It’s fortunate that his injury turns out to be nothing worse than a bruise, meaning he will be recovered within a few days. More luck comes with Leicester’s complete disinterest in trying to press their advantage. We play defensively, push Hlozek out to the right wing and operate without a centre-forward, and it turns out this is more than enough to hold the visitors at bay. The final result shows that they amassed a grand total of three shots on goal, their one clear-cut chance a Milik effort that was parried by Butland.

Pavon is fined half a week’s wages for his red card, already the second of the campaign and one that provokes a fatherly chat from me. He’s now banned for two matches, mostly likely more once the incident has come under review. It’s a wholly unacceptable way to handle himself. There are shades of life with Bakery Jatta here, worse because the German made himself much more useful than Cris has to date. There’s little point in appealing against the ban. Instead all we can do is wait for the verdict, and hope that Harry Wilson is up for some enhanced game time.

Before travelling to Spain for the return leg of our Europa League tie with Valencia, there are a couple of coaching issues of which to take note. Ageing goalkeeping coach Jim Stewart has decided to retire at the end of the season. He’s been an outstanding club servant during my time, working hard to transform Enzo Montipo into a keeper capable of handling the Premier League and now working on the development of Butland and Periera. He’ll be missed, but he’s 67 years old so his decision is understandable. The board reminds me that we actually have a coaching vacancy to fill. They must have allocated more funds to my staff, and like a professional I completely forgot about it. The area where we are weakest is in tactical and defensive coaching. Unemployed Italian trainer, Mario Cecchi, fits the bill. With four years at Lazio behind him, he’s a good catch for us, and it’s no doubt a sign of our enhanced status that has made us a prospective new home for the 52 year old from Empoli.

The days when we made a profit each month are over – this is the price of spending more on salaries, which in turn is the consequence of success. It’s worth pointing out that our wage bill is still among the lowest in the Premier League. Our £65 million annual payout looks surreally high, and of course it is, but comparatively this only puts us eighteenth in the division. Manchester City, at the top end, shell out more than £250 million per year. Even so, we have recorded a slight deficit across October, meaning that if we want to progress then we will need to get better at selling DCFC to prospective sponsors. After all, Manchester United will happily hawk their brand name to anyone with cash to blow, and in the same way we will have to start selling our soul if we are to push ahead.

Igor Stimac advises me to keep an eye on Rodrigo when we play Valencia, which is a bit like him pointing out dog poo to me while we are out walking together. As far our side is concerned, I set up for containment. The Bats are a good team, and if we get a draw here then we will almost certainly have qualified for the knockout stage, so the incentive is clear. Lowe comes in for Pedraza. McKenna joins Vallejo in central defence. Chirivella operates behind a midfield pairing of Hughes and Vieira. Ojo plays on the opposite wing to Pavon, the latter surely focused on the task in hand this evening. Esposito is considered to be not fully recovered from his ankle problem, so Hlozek starts and Maja sits on the bench.

The outcome, at a tense and ferrous Mestalla, is what you would expect – a gritty 0-0 draw in which the home side has the better chances but never manages to beat us. We do what visitors playing for a tied game have to, which is defend often, hold on to the ball and try to look for gaps. The latter is something we fail to exploit. Ojo has the majority of our chances and makes a hash of them, so he’s replaced at half-time. Pavon follows shortly after, the consequence of another low-key outing. Maja comes on for Hlozek, who doesn’t get much space because Diakhaby covers him so well, and offers little with the few opportunities he gets. In defensive areas we’re much better, and we need to be as Valencia put themselves into numerous good shooting positions and need to be guarded continually. I see the point of Rodrigo, a smart and tricky striker who’s very, very good at finding space for himself. Our zonal marking has to be at its best, especially because the number of routes to goal for them make it impossible for me to have him man-marked. At right-back, Laird has a torrid yet successful time working against Guedes, whereas Lowe does better against Soler and Sissoko on the opposite flank.

By the final whistle, all that matters is that we have successfully qualified from the group. The European odyssey continues, and if we win one more game then we go through as group leaders thanks to our superior record against Valencia.

Derby FM20 – October 2021: Fulham 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.

It’s more than a year since we last took on Fulham. Since then, we’ve been promoted while the more fancied Cottagers have taken a further year to drag their carcasses up to our level, though it was a good season that saw them over the line. They amassed 90 points in the Championship to finish as runners-up to Wolves, almost as though they would have done it sooner but for the presence of a group of ovis-nicknamed rivals that held them off…

You’ll recall our two Championship battles against them as epic affairs. Fulham were promotion favourites, so to do the double over them – 1-0 at their place, 3-1 back at Pride Park – was a real boost to our efforts. You could argue that those points made all the difference – had they won instead our positions in the final table would be reversed; in that respect we’ve a lot to thank them for. As it is, I recall them being tough yet brittle opposition, not easy to break down and yet offering surprisingly little in attack. Perhaps they have learned a lesson or two in the intervening months. For added value their success has ensured Leeds are kept in their second tier box for at least another season, so there’s another reason to be grateful to them.

Scott Parker is still in charge, overseeing a squad that has been inexpensively constructed, as though everyone connected with the club is keen to learn from the lessons of the past and not splash the cash just because it’s there. You can suggest that Fulham were pretty much a Premier League side all along; they just needed to rubber-stamp their status by making it back to that level, and so this term and what they do during it marks a moment of truth for them. Certainly, unlike where we were concerned the squad adjustments look perfunctory rather than wholesale. Saints winger Sofiane Boufal has been added to lend a degree of flair to their previously leaden attacking front, but on the whole they are as they were. Aleksander Mitrovic remains the one to keep an eye on. The Serbian international striker is their one clear and present danger, a reliable drip-feed of goals to make him something of a modern day Hasselbaink. Fulham are also very excited about their Cameroonian Segundo Volante, the exotically named Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa, a tough cookie who brings steel and industry to the Fulham midfield.

Our Data Analyst, Sam Thacker, goes to watch them produce a creditable away draw at Anfield. Despite being put under siege most of the time, predictably, they did the basics correctly, holding on to the ball as often as they could essentially to stop Liverpool from doing scary things with it, and producing an equaliser to Mane’s early strike from Mitro. Thacker argues that defensively they’re very sound. Alfie Mawson and David Costas form a strong centre-back partnership that might take something special to beat. They don’t deal especially well with crosses into the box, so there’s a start. We should be quite good at that.

The schedule has us travelling down to London for a league tie before we haul them back up to Derby for our Carabao Cup game. Apart from anything else it will be a very useful barometer of how far we have progressed. We should be the better team now – a side heavily invested in, bringing a year’s additional experience of Premier League football to bear – but no one is treating the challenge frivolously. Fulham have beef against us. They’ll set out to make life difficult.

For us Ethan Laird appears at the expense of the injured Bogle. Bielik and McKenna form our central defence, Vieira’s in defensive midfield and Ilaix Moriba is back alongside Will Hughes. It’s a good line-up, and it produces precisely squat during a drab first half. The Cottagers have a strong spine and weaving a way through them is challenging, not helped by Pavon and Lookman having their most anonymous of showings on the wings. Ade is probably due the occasional ‘off day’; we known he’ll turn it on when it matters, though Pav is more of a concern. Perhaps there’s a need to make reasonable adjustments for someone who is having his first season in England, his first outside America in fact, but his progress to date has been torturous. The Argentinian cost us £7.5 million; maybe there’s a reason why the fee wasn’t higher, indeed why we were able to get him at all…

At the break I swap him out for Harry Wilson, hoping that the presence of a Rams favourite will turn things around. The Welsh winger hasn’t relit anyone’s fire so far, but he makes the difference here. As the sides continue to cancel each other out centrally, Wilson inspires our opener. Breaking up a Fulham attack, he emerges with the ball and carries it the full length of the pitch. Drameh and Rodrigues try to keep up with him; otherwise there are very few white shirts on defensive duties and Sebastiano Esposito‘s presence in the centre leads to the simplest of cross-and-score moves to put us in front. Shortly after, he takes the corner kick that sails into the area and serenely connects with the head of Krystian Bielik to make it 2-0. Lookman also makes his contribution, being felled in the area by Seri to gift us a penalty. Esposito makes no mistake from the spot.

Bielik and McKenna defend stiffly at the other end to keep Mitrovic and his mates from adding anything to the home team’s account, and it ends 3-0. A more even affair than the scoreline suggests, with Fulham dominating possession and nearly equalling us for scoring chances, though where it mattered they weren’t incisive. This could mark the difference between Mitro and Esposito, an exciting teenager in top form who’s valued at close to £50 million versus a Serbian giant who can no longer bully Championship defences, but it seems to me we have the attacking options our opposition simply don’t possess. Unlike Fulham, we can change our personnel and add a fresh dimension to our play.

Several days later and it’s the same teams playing at Pride Park, this time for the League Cup. In both my previous campaigns we have made it to the fourth round and no further; now that we’re in Europe the Carabao is the least of the competitions we’re participating in, but it’s the chance to win something, probably our best chance, and around us the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City are all bowing out. The side is rotated, Wilson and Ojo on from the start while Maxi Lopez gets another opportunity to strut his funky stuff alongside Stoger in midfield. The Frenchman, signed for free from Marseille, looks like such an exciting prospect, fast and technically gifted, and alongside the more vaunted Moriba he has all the makings of becoming an under the radar gem.

You can imagine our joy when we have conceded a penalty after six minutes. Laird brings down Jason clumsily in the box, a foul made all the worse because the winger wasn’t in an especially threatening position at the time. Mitrovic isn’t one to squander these opportunities, sending Butland the wrong way to put the visitors ahead.

Fortunately, this represents the high watermark for Fulham. We embark on an attacking display of no small intent and by the break we’re 3-1 in front. For our first, Laird fires a cross into the box, which Hlozek nods down for Harry Wilson to lash beyond Ashby-Hammond. Wilson and Laird then combine on the right wing, patiently looking for space before the latter evades Jason’s attentions to produce a cross towards the far corner, where Sheyi Ojo waits like a predator, loosely marked and able to head into the net. Shortly before the break, Lopez runs most of the pitch’s length before passing to Ojo, who’s tearing inside from the left wing. The marking from Drameh is slim to non-existent, and Ojo is able to produce a lovely volley to beat Ashby-Hammond at his near post.

Fulham’s changes aren’t enough to produce a fight-back. Instead we make it 4-1, when Hlozek tests the keeper from a narrow angle. It’s an ambitious effort and Ashby-Hammond is able to parry it, but the ball falls to the advancing Will Hughes who has little to do but slot into the gaping net. It’s the captain’s first of the season, a rare goal from a player who doesn’t put himself into scoring positions very often, and for this reason it’s something to celebrate.

A good all-round performance from us. Ojo is an easy pick for the match’s best player, though credit also goes to Lopez for making himself eternally difficult to cover, Laird for getting over his early error, and Adam Hlozek, who put in a (unlikely) selfless showing throughout, keeping defenders busy and finishing with an assist. The quarter-final will see us go on the road and take us across the Peaks to take on Sheffield Wednesday. Tantalisingly, the Carabao Cup is looking like an increasing possibility for claiming some silverware. Manchester United are entertaining Bournemouth while Liverpool take on Norwich. The last tie pits Everton against Sheffield United. These are all good teams, yet it strikes me that without some of the scene’s bigger guns a route to the final is being charted for us. Dare to dream…?