Derby FM20 – December 2022: Welcome to Part Two

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

By the time the World Cup draws to a close, I have my full squad back and everyone gets to celebrate Christmas by doing it a day early. We have our first match on Boxing Day so while you lot are over-stuffing yourselves on roast beef and York Fruits we’re training in preparation for the visit of Chelsea. Only two Rams are unavailable at this point. Adam Hlozek has been out for a few weeks with a back strain. He’s nearly recovered but we won’t risk him yet. Max Lowe has spent most of the break suffering from sprained knee ligaments, the consequence of a freak incident involving something that happened during an intense FIFA session. Don’t ask.

Before things resume, I’m dragged kicking and screaming before Mr Morris in the Pride Park Star Chamber. He has already authorised a rise in my wage budget, which wasn’t strictly necessary, and now he demands to know if I want to increase the team’s target for the season. At the moment all they’re asking for is a top-half finish, which seems unambitious for a team that is sitting in first place. I agree to upscale our outlook to qualifying for the Europa League, which comes with a less exciting increase in available monies than I’d hoped for. We now have a weekly wage budget of £2,126,980, which places us in a rather competitive position at this level. It also leaves nearly five hundred grand of wriggle room in the figures, so whilst I can’t go out and get Messi I could afford to offer some meaty salaries if I so choose. The transfer budget increases a little also, to just under nine million, though of course I have the capacity to juggle things around and increase it if the right transfer target comes along.

And he would have to very much be Mr Right. Though I have a few niggles over some players’ futures and can clearly see areas I’d like to strengthen, there’s less and less squad movement that I would wish to enact. A high quality right winger maybe. Perhaps look at the long-term futures of Scott McKenna and Patrick Roberts, two players who seem to be falling behind the general upswing of development within the group. But there’s nothing I need to do right here, right now…

Or is there? The Chelsea game hints at one massive gap in the side, one I have created myself, which is the absence of older, experienced players. We’ve got by with the league’s youngest squad so far, with Jack Butland and Will Hughes standing out as rare instances of Rams who are over 25 years old, but this one is a prime instance of when we could have used the steady hand of someone who’s seen it all before. I think back to Kevin Stoger, his exploits with Austria at the World Cup, how cheaply we let him leave to open up space for a much younger, English model, and I wonder if I made the right decision.

The Blues show up with their usual swagger. They showcase Lautaro Martinez, who’s developing into the division’s most potent marksman. Against them, we have a ground full of supporters, wintry temperatures and gale force winds, along with the BT Sport cameras, which are here to capture a top of the table confrontation. They get a spectacular.

The visitors are ahead after eight minutes. A sweeping move into our area, during which they pass our ranks like they aren’t there, ends with Pulisic sending in a cross that Martinez slips behind McKenna to tap into the net. I’m torn between blaming the Scot and feeling that it was just one of those fifty-fifty opportunities where the Argentinian got the better of his defender. Five minutes later and we’re level. This is good work from us, forcing our way back into the action when Rudiger concedes a free-kick just outside the area after bringing down Esposito. Harry Wilson steps up to take it, and curls his effort beyond Kepa. We then take control for the rest of the half. Not long before the half-time whistle, Pellegrini surges forward and hits a cross into the box. Esposito has Rudiger all over him and the ball is cleared, but only as far as Ademola Lookman, slicing his effort along the ground and beyond the keeper, who’s already fallen to the turf in what looks like confusion.

All we need to do now is hold on. We have the beating of Chelsea, so a balanced and disciplined approach is required to kill the game. Needless to say, we last two minutes into the second half before conceding. This time it’s Christian Pulisic, who has the beating of Pellegrini when he heads in from Theo Hernandez’s pinpoint cross. Poor from Luca, and we’re equally at fault in the sheer amount of space we hand over to the French wing-back. Back on to the attack we go then, which results in a comedy goal when Rudiger, under pressure from two forwards, passes back to Kepa. The keeper panics, hits his clearance almost instinctively and Lookman is about three yards in front of him, connecting with the ball to nod it home. The most expensive goalkeeper in the Premier League, ladies and gentlemen. We put up the barricades, trying to see out the remaining minutes with time wastage and keeping men behind the ball. It doesn’t work. In the eighty-ninth minute, another Theo cross is launched into the area. Despite supposed coverage from both Tosin and McKenna, Martinez is there to barrel in the equaliser from close range.

3-3 then, hardly a terrible result and certainly an entertaining one for the masses. All the same, I should be disappointed. United go to Newcastle and win 2-0. Liverpool down Arsenal, and as a consequence we have dropped to third place. That’s the standard at the top of the division. Give way at all and suddenly you’re off the pace. Try as I might, however, I can’t be hard on the boys. It was riveting to-and-fro stuff, a pulsating barnstormer of a welcome back to domestic football, and as far as I’m concerned a more experienced player or two might have been able to keep us ahead. But we don’t have such a guy, so being forced to a draw is on me ultimately.

Several days later and we’re entertaining Preston North End in the FA Cup Third Round. Memories of our defeat at this stage last season should be motivation enough for us to get the win, and in the rain of an end of December fixture we do what must be done. This one must go down as the Eddie Salcedo Show. He scores two, the first a tidy bit of individual skill as he works the ball around four comparatively static defenders before hitting the back of the net; the second comes from the penalty spot. The Italian spends the rest of the game trying everything he can to bag a hat-trick, but all he has to show for his efforts are two disallowed goals for offside. Scott McKenna volleys in a Patrick Roberts corner, and then the winger turns scorer when he collects Pelegrini’s cross and beats Earl to find the near corner.

The 4-0 win we produce is a clear sign of Derby’s superiority, our bullying of a League One team. We rack up twenty-nine shots in total, restricting PNE to scraps. Salcedo is an easy Man of the Match winner, while Roberts does very well from the right wing. This may very well be Demarai Gray’s last game for us. With Max Willian due to arrive within the next few days I have the option to extend his loan period and I pitch him in here to help make up my mind. As it is Demi does all he can to ensure that it won’t be an issue. He’s poor, wayward and wasteful, amidst a sea of Rams who really put on a show to exihibit their talents. Maybe he was never very interested in staying… Either way, his time here is at an end.

The Fourth Round draw sees our ball pulled out second. We’ll be playing this one away from home, a trip to the North-South divide to contemplate when we face Watford, who are still a Championship set-up. They were relegated just as we were going up, so I think this might be my first competitive meeting with the Hornets and that, as they say, makes it one to tick off the bucket list.

Derby FM20 – November/December 2022: Dispatches from Doha

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

We now enter a seven-week period when the regular calendar is put on hiatus and attention turns to the winter World Cup in Qatar. In all honesty, whilst I genuinely argue in favour of a break halfway through the season this massive lull isn’t what I had in mind. Nearly two months without action, our momentum halted, and it sits ill with me. All I have to do is tell the players who haven’t been called up to play under-23 games in sustaining their match fitness, and to watch the action from the Middle East.

During the break, I learn that we will have possibly the toughest of all possible opponents in the Champions League when we’re tied against Atletico Madrid. The Spanish capital’s ‘other’ team are as frightening as ever. While they haven’t been able to wrest the La Liga title away from Barcelona, who’ve won it every year since 2018, they’ve regularly finished second or third and they currently sit at the table’s top. Saul, Griezmann, Correa, Partey and Felix might have left, the latter to United this summer, but they are still hellishly strong. Donny van de Beek and Sander Berge have joined to support Koke in midfield, and Timothy Weah – son of George and an American international – is a player we really admire who plays on their left wing. They’re good, no doubt there, and the first task for me is to figure out a way to put one past Jan Oblak, who looks as world class between the sticks as ever.

The FA Cup hands us a kinder fixture when we’re matched against Preston North End at home. The Lancashire side are now in League One, and will no doubt view this tie as an opportunity for revenge after we beat them twice in the 2019/20 season, and then ducked them out of this very competition during the following year.

All this is for the future, one that looks like match after match after match, with twenty-five league games to take in alongside our continued participation in three separate cup contests. I’m fuming at Gareth Southgate, who is asked why he’s picked the players for England that he has. Old Big Nose says something that implies he’s after lads who play for the ‘right’ clubs, which clearly means the likes of Reece Oxford, Jayden Bogle and Ademola Lookman might need to earn transfers to a so-called big team before they can be considered eligible. In other words, and to be sang along to the tune of Fun Boy Three‘s seminal 1980s classic it ain’t what you do, it’s the team where you do it (and that’s what gets you picked).

Sure enough Ade is watching Sancho and Rashford and wondering if he has to be playing for a prestigious side in order to enter the manager’s reckoning. We were the third placed team in the Premier League. We’re currently – checks notes – top, in the Champions League, hungry and upwardly mobile. Sure, we can’t pay what City and United are able to, but in all other respects we’re right up there.

In any event Gareth pays lip service to us by selecting Ronaldo Vieira and Jack Butland for England. The latter doesn’t play at all as Jordan Pickford is preferred, but Ron is used a few times. He takes a starring role when the Three Lions hammer South Korea 6-1 in Msiemeer, and is also handy in their 3-0 win over Mali that ensures their qualification from Group G. Unfortunately they also lose 1-0 to Mexico, which has them finishing second and hands them a nightmare of a route to the final. Somehow, they overcome Brazil 3-2 in the second round, a real classic in which Everton and Firmino are utterly neutralised and Sterling scores a double to see them through. France are next, an irresistible and talent-heavy opponent, and in a contest where England find themselves defending furiously they’re finally put out of their misery by a late Moussa Diaby winner.

Italy have two of our players – Luca Pellegrini and Sebastiano Esposito – in their team. It’s gratifying to note that they have earned their first call-ups while playing here – obviously Gasperini knows talent when he sees it. The Azzurri have a banana skin of a group to navigate, paired as they are with the Ivory Coast, Uruguay and Costa Rica. They win all three games. Any hope they have of progressing to the latter stages ends, however, when they meet Russia in the second round. Despite dominating throughout, they fail to score and the tie ends up going to penalties, which the Russians power through when Chiesa and Jorginho fail with their shots. Esposito scores his, the only time in the tournament when he finds the back of the net.

It wasn’t long ago that Spain coach Luis Enrique was declaring Ilaix Moriba to be not good enough for the standards of his squad. His attitude changed on the route to Qatar, and by the time La Roja make it here Ilaix’s a regular in their starting line-up. He’s part of the side that scores three late goals to dispatch Peru in their group opener. Next up are Japan, who are dismissed 5-0 in a thumping that sees our man score his first international goal. Taking on Portugal, the Spanish produce a 1-1 result to top Group C. As youngster Ilaix plays for us, he’s up against Cristiano Ronaldo, very much coming towards the end of his glittering career and earning his 193rd cap. Greece are beaten on penalties in the next round, but there’s a sense of fatigue creeping in by this stage. Spain have peaked, and it’s perhaps right and proper that they lose 1-0 to Germany in the quarters to exit the competition. Moriba is one of the players to earn real credit in that game, a midfield dynamo who never stops trying to take the game to the opposition.

We have a few ex-players involved in the tournament. Lewis Baker and Andre Wisdom turn out for makeweights Jamaica, and Kevin Stoger is a constant presence for Austria. Der Nationalmannschaft are Qatar’s surprise package, making it all the way to the Semi-Final before going out to Croatia via the narrowest of extra-time deciders. In the Third Place Playoff, Stoger wins the match ball when he’s pivotal in helping his team triumph 2-0.

The final is a repeat of the previous World Cup in Russia. Croatia meet France again, lose again, and like last time have four goals scored against them. Petkovic scores first, but his side are powerless to resist that relentless French attack. A brace from Mbappe and goals scored by Griezmann and Lemar make it something of a romp, and France become the first nation since Brazil in 1958 and 1962 to retain the trophy.

Thorgan Hazard and Ciro Immobile share the Golden Boot, with five strikes apiece. Jeremie Boga, a player I much admire and who’s made the move from Sassuolo to Schalke  earns the highest average rating, in helping the Ivory Coast make it to the second round. It’s another Croatian who wins the Best Player award though, as Ivan Rakitic walks home with the award.

And that’s the World Cup, one played in dry heat that thanks to the time of the year never becomes too wearing for the players. It’s been fun, because these things always are, aren’t they, but there’s still two-thirds of a season left to play and in the waning days of 2022 hostilities are about to resume in earnest. A relentless schedule, taking in a solitary break in March for internationals, and with everything still to play for.

Derby FM20 – November 2022: End of Part One

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

Norwich City decide that sixteenth place isn’t good enough for them and sack Daniel Farke. I can’t blame them, in truth. The Canaries haven’t won a game since late August and are nursing a six-match losing streak. Stale Solbakken of Bournemouth is the favourite to take over, with Patrick Vieira as ever leading the list of unemployed managers seeking a fresh start. I would see them as a decent project for the right man. Norwich have money and some fine players, and I’d expect them to provide rich rewards if they are handled properly.

Scout David Albert Moss emails me to suggest that I make Riccardo Orsolini my main transfer target. The 25 year old right winger, still at Bologna and yet to make an international appearance for Italy, happens to be the subject of more of my thoughts than I care to admit. Despite having three players able to play his position none of them convince me as a final answer. Each one has issues, so if there was an area I’d look to improve then it would probably be the right wing. To throw in some caveats, Bologna have absolutely no interest in selling their player, and even though Orsolini is rumoured to be unsettled at Renato Dall’Ara he’s shown no sign of being remotely interested in a move to the English Midlands. His wage demands would therefore be excessive, all of which hints at an overall transfer of incredible expense. Emanuel Vignato, who plays for the same team, looks like a more realistic prospect, though all this talk is academic with little more than £10 million for buying players remaining and the rest of the season to work out whether Wilson, Hlozek and Roberts can turn out to be worth my faith in them.

Eddie Salcedo wins his second Young Player of the Month award. I’m third in the managerial stakes. Jurgen Klopp finishes ahead of me because of who he is, yet neither of us have produced the one hundred percent winning record of Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, who takes the plaudits for October. More encouraging is the news that Josh Kirk is performing splendidly on loan at League One’s Oxford City. You’ll recall that Everton wanted to spend heavily on taking him off our hands last season. We resisted their overtures, and the 18 year old right-back is responding with the sort of campaign that has me pencilling him in as a future first team regular. As his current side uses wing-backs rather than full-backs, he’s added to his lustre with four goals, which is a very pleasing bonus to discover within his arsenal of powers.

The club balance stands at just under £80 million. We’ve made a small profit in October, clearly a consequence of playing Champions League football. Speaking of which, we’re away to Lazio, playing in the cavernous Olimpico with its 68,530 capacity and the strong drive to produce a result. The Romans can still qualify. They need to win and hope that Porto do anything but, and I name the sort of eleven that suggests we don’t care very much what happens. Roberts starts. Morawski is in the line-up. Dean Henderson is in for a rare first team appearance.

Every indication points to a blitz of attacks from the home team, but as things go we’re ahead in the first minute. An opportunistic long ball is hoofed into the area by Chirivella, and Demarai Gray hammers in his shot from the left to put us in front. Lazio never find an answer. Their best effort comes shortly after when Henderson claws away Sorloth’s punt, and otherwise they are unable to produce any kind of breakthrough. Even the presence of stars like Riqui Puig and Marco Asensio don’t change anything. That said, I’ve used both before. Puig looks promising enough, but the Spaniard – once considered to be a major star in the making – has all the technical qualities in the world but little sense of drive or will to win. The only downside after a cheaply earned 1-0 win is the pulled calf muscle Chirivella earns after coming off worse in a collision with Zaracho. He’ll be out for three weeks, and normally that would be a huge blow, however with one game to play before the lengthy World Cup break we can soak it up.

Paris-Saint Germain leave it very late, but prevail 3-2 against Porto in a real thriller within the other group game. Raphina’s late winner puts them on seven points and lets them leapfrog their group rivals to finish second. I had a nagging feeling that they, much like life itself, would find a way. The draw for the first knockout round takes place in mid-December. As far as my understanding of the rules works, we could be up against any of Napoli, RB Leipzig, Milan, Atletico Madrid, Schalke (who are sniffing around Reece Oxford and can nick off), Inter and Zenit. Which of those would you prefer?

Back home, we’re up against newly promoted Swansea City. Jose Mourinho was recently asked his opinion on how he thought the Welsh team would do, and suggested they would perform very well to stop up. Those words are rich. The Swans are ninth. Man City, managed by none other than Jose, are dead bottom in the table. We learn that he might lose his job if they fail to win their next game, which by lucky chance is a homer against Middlesbrough. They get the points via a shaky 2-0 victory, and presumably the Special One gets to fight for another day.

Swansea went up via the playoffs, following a four-year stay in the Championship. Going up has handed manager Marco Silva a transfer treasury, and he’s invested it in a decent keeper (Emiliano Martinez), a top flight left-back in Everton’s Ben Davies and Bryan Mbuemo, a £17 million right winger drafted in from Brentford. Someone we spent a while looking at, Joseph Tanganga, was also snapped up by Swansea, the Spurs defender setting them back £4.3 million.

Their good start to the campaign has ensured we can’t treat them lightly, yet even by our standards this one must be viewed as a home banker. Decent and game opposition, yet as limited as a typical promoted team is, we should bag the points and hopefully do so in some style, and we start well when Will Hughes lashes in a rocket early doors from Lookman’s cross. Sebastiano Esposito has chance after chance in this one. Most are fluffed, or he’s too well attended to make an impression because even Swansea now know who he is and endeavour to take care of him. The Italian has a thirty-sixth minute goal ruled out when he’s clearly revealed to be offside, but two minutes later he adds to his account when another nicely aimed assist by Lookman is sliced in at the near post. A great goal considering Esposito has Rodon and Grimes all over him, showcasing the forward’s intelligence and shooting range.

That’s about it until late in the second half. By this point I’m happy with our lead but am not feeling secure with even a two goal cushion. We should have racked up a rugby score here, and then we concede to a Matt Grimes header, for which I blame Oxford who is gasping to get back into position. Not good, not good at all, and we respond by going on the attack once again. The last thing we want to do is draw from a position of clear superiority. Thankfully we do it. Moriba puts in a cross that has Swans defenders falling over each other to clear the ball. Esposito is eased off it, but it ends up drifting out to the advancing Hughes, who scores his second from about six yards out, Martinez adrift as it sails into the opposite corner to where he is.

It’s all we deserve, after a tie in which we’ve amassed 33 shots, 16 on target, against the single effort from the visitors that has obviously hit the mark. 3-1 isn’t as emphatic as I’d like, but it’s good enough. Swansea did themselves credit, especially Martinez who it turns out is playing on painkillers due to sprained knee ligaments. Our undefeated run is sustained going into the break, while three traditional big shots line up to take over from us at the first sign of weakness.

That’s about it until the back end of December, when we resume with a home game against Chelsea that has the look of a real six-pointer about it. Until then everything stops for the World Cup, played in a Qatari winter, with reports to come on the action, especially the progress of the five Rams – Butland, Vieira, Pellegrini, Esposito and Moriba – who will be representing their countries in the desert.

Derby FM20 – October 2022: Points Please!

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

Strong winds howl around Pride Park on the Wednesday evening when we entertain Paris-Saint Germain. It’s like facing a Celebrity Eleven, so I’m hoping that the conditions act as a kind of equaliser. Can they produce much in the way of silky football when the likes of Azpilicueta, Grimaldo, Salah, Sandro and Milinkovic-Savic are playing through a gale force? We bask in the impossible luxury of having already qualified, so there’s an extent to which the game doesn’t matter. That said, we would like to top the group, and knocking PSG out brings the bonus of not having to face them again later in the competition. With all their experience of playing in the Champions League, I imagine they will rediscover their mojo further down the line, when all that quality can be brought to bear. To date, they have drawn three and lost to Porto. I don’t think I’m lapsing into hyperbole when I suggest they have a bit of work still to do, and if I was Thomas Tuchel I’d be looking to take apart the team that stands in their way tonight.

Their manager can’t select Neymar, who’s out with broken ribs, and as he’s the highest rated player in Ligue 1 that must come as a bonus for us. I could insert some old joke about him thrashing about on the field after incurring the injury for several minutes, everyone thinking oh come on you big fanny, just get up, before they realise something might actually be wrong with him, but I like to believe I’m better than that… In his absence they are forced to field Alex Sandro on the left wing, a heartbreaking change, I’m sure you’ll agree. Salah and Icardi are operating as their strike partnership, which is a little bit terrifying, and Saul joins Milinkovic-Savic as the string pullers in midfield.

From the videos of their previous European antics this season, and the experience of having already faced them in Paris, they give the impression of being the sort of team that turns up to grounds, holds out their hand and declares Points please!, in the voice of Queenie from Blackadder II. That’s fair to an extent. They are very, very good, and having that attitude has worked for them in the domestic league, where they have claimed honour after honour. But perhaps it’s this same level of entitlement that puts them behind here. Adam Hlozek comes away with the ball after a routine clearance in our half, runs the entire length of the pitch and puts in a cross, where Ademola Lookman is pretty much wide open to place his headed shot beyond Pickford. Where was the marking from Azpilicueta? Being PSG it takes them around three minutes to equalise, Mo Salah scoring the most prosaic of goals after claiming Sandro’s cross. They can do this any time they like, only they don’t, reverting to playing within themselves and allowing us to force them to a draw.

Elsewhere, Lazio go to Portugal and win 1-0, which makes the last round of matches kind of fascinating in determining who will make it through. Despite not winning a game, it could still be the French royalty who prevail. The chances are we will use a lesser eleven when we go to Rome in our final group game as we are now confirmed as winners and it’s an irrelevance.

That match will come in a week’s time. Before that we have to travel to Merseyside and face Everton, who are currently anchored in tenth, surely that most ‘Everton’ of positions for them. Our opposition finished thirteenth in 2021/22, disappointing after scoring a succession of top tens, and they will be hoping for better with a serious number of squad changes. Whipping boy Luca Zidane is out, having been transferred to Ajax, and goalkeeping duties have reverted to Zan-Luk Leban, a 19 year old Slovenian who can’t possibly represent an improvement unless he’s imbued with the same qualities and spirit as Donnarumma. Dominic Solanke and Nabil Fekir have been added to generate some additional firepower, but the one I’m really envious of is Declan Rice, signed for £36 million in the wake of West Ham’s relegation. The defensive midfielder might be labouring under the traditional tag of English Hammers youngsters that he’s going to be the answer to all questions (see Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, etc), but still he’s a hell of a player and there’s part of me that would love to have him strutting his stuff for us.

We have a good record against the Toffees, and we come into this one as favourites. This tag always raises my hackles. Despite everything they’re a pretty good set-up. Andre Gomes is capable of machinating victory for them, and though the odds are on our side I would view escaping from Goodison with a draw as a perfectly respectable outcome. I do get it though. Everton remain this monolithic team, always present in the top flight, far too talented to be sucked into the relegation battle and yet never capable of challenging for honours. When you come into a season basically knowing in advance how it’s going to work out for you then where’s the fun in that?

Thomas Frank’s side are clearly up for the fight. They come out all guns blazing, attempting to overwhelm us, and they get their reward in the fifth minute when Richarlison heads in from close range. This is annoying. We know we have to mark the Brazilian closely, and yet when he’s at his most threatening our defence simply melts away.

At this point I think we may just crumble. Despite fielding a strong side we aren’t getting much in terms of traction. The home side are pressing well, never allowing us to get comfortable on the ball. Their fatal flaw is in thinking with eighty-five minutes left that it’s okay to sit back and defend their lead. That allows us to push forward more, and eventually we force an equaliser in the twenty-ninth minute of play. This is one of our less artful goals. Lookman attempts a cross from the left, under pressure from the enterprising Guga. His effort finds Gomes only. All the Portuguese has to do is get rid of the ball; instead he opts to try and play it out of defence, which allows Lookman to steal in and battle with him for possession. Guga gets involved in the melee. So does Mina, and finally Sebastiano Esposito, who in predatory fashion pokes the loose ball over Leban’s line. If a goal can ever claim to have been bullied into creation then this is just that moment. It’s not pretty, but who cares?

As contests go this is a pretty even affair. We’re well matched, both able to put out strong defences that can deal with ninety percent of what’s thrown at them. Everton’s job is to protect their keeper, a clear weak link in the chain, and in Mina, Holgate, Digne and man of the match Guga they have defenders who work hard and stay alert. The latter does a good job of preventing the opportunistic Lookman from causing any further damage against his old team. On the other flank, Digne plays well to stop either Wilson or Hlozek having anything better than ‘well, they were there’ type games. The match eventually cancels itself out into a middling 1-1 draw, satisfying perhaps for neither side but overall probably the correct and fairest result.

Liverpool go to Swansea and unleash clobbering time to produce a crisp 4-0 victory. There are wins also for Chelsea and United, so our lead in the division is cut to a single point. Pity Manchester City, if you will. Their 2-0 downing at the hands of Leicester has them in nineteenth place, and surely places Jose on notice.

Esposito’s goal against Everton triggers another clause in his transfer from Inter and squeezes an extra three million out of us. The value of his transfer now stands at £41 million overall, and it could rise further still if he puts in another three appearances for the Azzuri.

Two more matches remain before we break up for the World Cup. Lazio will host our final Champions League group match before we in turn welcome Swansea City to Pride Park. We haven’t played the latter since both sides were in the Championship, and we produced a pair of 1-0 victories to aid the Rams’ promotion cause.

Derby FM20 – October 2022: Attritional Warfare

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

We’re off to northern Portugal for our Champions League tie against Porto. On the line is the possibility of qualification from Group D, something none of us saw as a serious possibility and yet now is in our hands. Hand on heart, had we finished the group in third place then I would be happy enough with that; I hoped to avoid ending up last and would like to have given the Europa League another go. At this point, such a fate would have to be viewed as a failure. PSG are turning out to be surprisingly leaden, snatching draws, and it’s Lazio that have developed into the whipping boys.

The city of Porto is one of those hidden delights, a very modern place with the old town at its core, and after the game we’ll be taking in dinner on the Riviera, enjoying the nightlife on the Douro, before returning to reality. It’s warm, 24 degrees in mid-October, and even the bit of rain offered up can’t dampen our spirits as we take on this grand club, with its 49,000 fans, in the Estadio do Dragao.

To our surprise Porto show little attacking intent. They’re second in the group, clear of PSG and Lazio, and look happy enough to work through the fixture before going back to defending their domestic crown. There isn’t a single shot from them during the first half, and while they raise their game a little later on when they realise they are contesting a thing and need to show a bit of spirit, for the most part they let us take the match to them. We take the lead early on when Wilson’s free kick is headed in by Eddie Salcedo, and that emerges as enough to give us the points. Defensively we are as tough to break as ever, Frimpong, Pellegrini, Bielik and McKenna doing their jobs professionally, and it’s Will Hughes who is named Man of the Match for his usual all-action work, winning his personal midfield battle with Meite and battling hard to protect our lead.

Lazio manage a creditable 2-2 draw at home against the Parisian giants. They score two early goals but are unable to halt a late surge, which results in Icardi’s penalty forcing the draw. It keeps both sides just about still in the race for qualification, but more importantly in tying they hand progress to the knockout stages to us. We’re through. Porto are still in a position to leapfrog us and win the group, depending on results, but there’s no way that we can’t qualify, which is an excellent achievement for our first Champions League adventure.

Money talks at this level. Each group victory is worth £2.32 million, and making it to the first knockout stage will cascade a further £8.18 million into the coffers. The money rises with each stage we successfully negotiate, but what matters is our participation in this competition will pay for the Pride Park expansion, which should be underway at the end of the season. The cash for that work has to come from somewhere, and Derby are sitting on a healthy balance of more than eighty million, which makes playing in the Champions League such a financial boost. I am aware that the sporting glory mixed up in this game is about more than the bottom line, but it’s still an issue. Those players, their fees and wages, have to be accounted for from somewhere, and we’re making it work.

The little obstacle of Paris-Saint Germain will be here next week. We have the chance of winning our group and knocking them out of progressing further, so I expect them to rough us up to the best of their abilities. Their ‘best’ is no doubt a fearsome thing to witness, and planning for them makes the match in between, an away tie at Middlesbrough, seem like the one for which to make squad sacrifices. An added fillip is Chelsea collapsing at home to Liverpool, meaning that anything better than a defeat at the Riverside and we will be clear at the top of the table. It’s bunching up though. Before the game we find ourselves on the same number of points – 24 – as the Londoners, Liverpool and Manchester United. It’s some elite company with which we are rubbing shoulders, and it pleases me that we don’t feel daunted alongside them.

As for Boro, we can’t take them lightly. Though I’d have to argue we’re the better side we have never done the double over Jonny Woodgate‘s Reds. They have an irritating habit of prevailing against us, despite being in possession of a group of players that, Ebere Eze and Dael Fry aside, we have little interest in picking from. Woody has spent more than £60 million in strengthening his ranks over the summer. Mauro Arambarri has been brought in from Getafe to shore things up in defensive midfield. Sheffield Wednesday’s left winger, Matt Penney, is a £12.75 million capture, while Boro will be hoping that Jonathan Calleri – signed for £11.75 million from Lyon – can score the goals that guarantee their safety. I remember the Argentinian being a transfer target of ours when we were first promoted. At the time he was a free agent, demanding prohibitive wage levels, so we gave up and now it’s the Teessiders who are handing the 29 year old a king’s ransom.

The most emotionally linked player we’re facing is Perr Schuurs, brought in for £8 million and of course lingering in the mind as a part of our side that won the Championship. While the young Dutchman has never since quite figured as an obvious pick for us, he has done well enough for Ajax and is now back in the Premier League. Apparently he considers me to be among his favourite personnel, which is lovely to know. I like the kid very much. Apart from today, obviously. I want us to stuff him.

Boro start with a back three, clearly lined up for containment and attacking us on the break. This they do in the game’s early stages. A flurry of forward play brings the best from Butland, who palms away a Calleri strike from close range, while the home team get a lot of value from Shoya Nakajima, their Japanese winger who seems to be the most effervescent attacking force for them on the pitch. After soaking up their pressure we score in the twenty-ninth minute. A classic Rams goal, Wilson’s corner being headed in by Ademola Lookman, who has an open net to aim for when Lecomte makes the unfathomable decision to come out for it.

It strikes me that things will go our way if we take the lead. The home side are at their best when they can keep their defensive structure and don’t need to open up in finding a goal, and once we’re ahead the gaps start to appear. Boro need to be taken more seriously then their reputation suggests. The likes of Dragomir and Wing can find that killer pass as well as anyone, and Calleri is at heart one of those headless chicken forwards who can pull defenders with him if we fail to maintain our discipline. Fortunately, in seeking an equaliser they become more vulnerable at the back. We don’t score any more, mainly because Salcedo is having an off day and Hlozek’s best effort flies narrowly wide of goal, but we have enough in the tank to hold them at bay. They think they have carved out that critical strike very late when Nakajima puts away a long ball assist from Le Fee, yet he’s a few yards offside and VAR isn’t even needed to rule it out.

And so 1-0 is the final result, a game short on entertainment but one in which I brought in some of the side’s lesser lights and got the scoreline that we required. In the social media some supporters complain about the attritional way we go about our business, but it takes two to produce the good stuff and Boro just aren’t that kind of opposition. They try to spoil things, rack up the fouls count, sacrifice possession, spend so much time recycling the ball in midfield, and it’s a tie that depends on us holding our nerve. I’m pleased to see that we do exactly that, a result that will be tomorrow’s sports headline, then the next day’s fish and chips wrapping, and then forgotten as we move on. We’ve choked on his fixture in the past, and the fact we haven’t points to a level of steel and desire to succeed within the team that hasn’t always been present.

Barcelona FM20 – Bad As All That? Part 2

Continuing my secondary game, in which I work out whether FC Barcelona are really a club in crisis. For the introductory post click here.

Signing Strategies

At the same time as I started playing this game, one of my favourite YouTubers was rebuilding Barca:

As you know, I have tinkered with the squad hardly at all, taking the lack of funds as a sign that I should pretty much work with what I’ve got. But you don’t need to go that way. Bood FM embarked on a strategy of steadily overhauling his ranks from the start, using the incoming transfer fees and wage savings to make changes. Who’s right? You decide. My view is that despite some ageing legs on the roster it’s still about as good an ‘out of the box’ side as these things tend to ever get. That’s unusual from me. I like to make initial adjustments, remould sets of players into the teams I want them to be, but that doesn’t mean I have the correct idea.

Imperious in La Liga

I’ve played up until the 2019/20 winter break. Much of this was done while we took a ‘staycation’ up in Northumberland at the end of the summer holidays. I’m a poor sleeper at the best of times, so as mine family slumbered I took early morning strolls around the delightful walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed and worked through a few weeks of the campaign on my painfully slow laptop. Here’s how La Liga looks as the players go off on their Christmas holidays…

So it turns out that Spanish football is really easy when you’re managing one of the country’s biggest clubs. The brief right now is to stay ahead of Real Madrid, and the best way to do that is to win matches. Preferably all of them.

The last round of matches has seen us beat Zidane’s lot 1-0 at the Camp Nou, or Camp Impregnable as it perhaps ought to be named. The secret behind my success is that there’s really no secret. Barca happens to have a terrific set of players, about as good as any squad can be, though there’s a complete reliance on certain players and my fingers are perpetually crossed that we won’t endure a spate of injuries. There have been some very fine results along the way. Atletico Madrid were dispatched 4-1 at a point when we couldn’t stop scoring goals, coming as it did after a 4-0 away victory over hapless Valladolid. We went to Atletico Pamplona and strode away with a 7-0 ass-whupping, which featured six separate goalscorers.

The little God leads the way with fourteen goals, perhaps inevitably, and Suarez and Griezmann are sitting pretty on nine apiece. But this side has scorers across the entire squad. De Jong and Arthur are potent figures in midfield, given room in which to work as opposition defenders are kept so busy looking after the front three, indeed the Dutch playmaker is looking like he’ll develop into a figure of some importance for us. Rakitic deserves a mention, sitting pretty on eight assists, and I can’t not mention Ansu Fati, who’s recently turned seventeen and is growing nicely into a homegrown superstar. The future of the club rests on the emerging talents of players like him.

Having mentioned in my last post that separating the little God from the captaincy is broadly equitable with lunacy, I can advise that this is exactly what I’ve done. My feeling is that the armband should be worn by a central defender ideally, certainly someone who has a better view of the action taking place ahead of him, and Barca have a ready-made leader in Gerard Pique, so he’s my man. The little God isn’t happy about having his authority diminished, but he accepts my decision for the greater good and for me this makes him a more exciting presence on the field. He can now concentrate wholly on what he does best, which is torturing defences, and though he can never quite match the real life exploits he produces there’s the promise of something innately special in the air whenever he’s on the ball.

Years ago, in an FM 2009 game when I was doing the sandbox thing with Manchester City, the little God still had a realistic release clause of around £35 million and at one point I added him to my ranks. The result wasn’t good. Perhaps the little God and Barca are just a thing, one of those rich associations betwixt a star player and his club that simply can’t be replicated whenever he plays for anyone else. I’ve been suspicious about him ever since then, however I’m pleased to report that with his home team he retains those extreme levels of terrific that are expected of him. As mentioned, it’s impossible for him to be as ridiculous as he is in reality, but he’s still a significant cut above just about anyone else and we’ll miss him when those prodigious legs dash into their waning years.

Champions League Navigation

The Barca board expect us to land the big European trophy as well as retaining La Liga. Just for fun, the UEFA draw places us in a group with Borussia Dortmund, Lyon and Inter Milan, guaranteeing a complete lack of softer games as we have a set of pedigree names with which to contend. My aim is to win our home ties and draw away, which is just what we do with the added bonus of doing the double over Conte’s Italians, leaving Group D looking like this:

Our great goal difference results from being outstanding in Catalonia. Borussia are smote 6-0 at the Camp Nou, though in general they offer our stiffest test when they refuse to lie down back in Germany and fight to a 2-2 stalemate that produces the standout tie of the group phase.

At least the first knockout round looks a bit kinder. We avoid the potential difficulties of Juventus and Chelsea, and are landed with a tie against Glasgow Celtic, which ought to be surmountable.

Squad Matters

By now I have a pretty good fix on the players at my disposal. The league table suggests that we ought to walk it, and that’s just what I hope will happen, though the second half of the calendar includes fixtures away from home to some difficult clubs and this should do for our one hundred per cent record. An eleven-point gap between ourselves and Real Madrid ought to be enough though; I can’t see us realistically dropping that many points before the end of the campaign as a total of one hundred looks like an achievable possibility.

Barca have a fantastic spine of the team. Pique, Busquets and little God are the absolutely essential components. While the latter has Ousmane Dembele as a highly skilled alternative the drop-off from the other two is considerable. Kehrer – my one signing of any significance – is no replacement for Pique, and FCB simply have no natural and available DM beyond Busquets. My best avenue is to play Vidal there, mainly because the Chilean is so flexible he can be deployed almost anywhere below attack, though he’s best used a a box-to-box midfielder. There’s a point where he’s tasked with being our right-back, when injuries rob us of both Sergi and Semedo, though it isn’t ideal and beyond that is the fact that Vidal, like so many of our players, is in his thirties.

Age and depth are our enemies. Emblematic of this is the little God, now 32 and still at the height of his powers though surely it won’t remain this way for very much longer. Pique and Busquets are other leftovers from the Guardiola era, and there’s also Vidal, Rakitic, Suarez and Alba who are thirty or above. Replacing them won’t be easy. Each one is a star for us, legends to a man, and we will need to find high quality alternatives to adequately usurp them all. There are some good players out on loan, which will paper over a few cracks. For instance, Todibo will be our long-term choice to take over from Pique. Cucurella could challenge Alba, and the likes of Moriba, Alena and Puig (the latter is here, albeit used sparingly) could address our issues in central midfield. However, the Barca Academy isn’t the production line of legendary talent that it once was. We need a crop of good players, and currently many of them are going to have to come from elsewhere.

We only have 22 guys registered for the first team. To an extent that’s fine because most of them are really good. Only Neto (not as good as Ter Stegen), Kehrer (emergency stand-in for Pique) and Braithwaite (just not good enough) have featured scarcely. If anything goes wrong with injuries though, we’re stuffed. The likes of little God, Pique and Busquets are being patched together by witch doctors because we are screwed if they go down for a significant length of time. I’m rotating carefully, and often. Even little God isn’t starting match after match, because I can risk no harm to him. I don’t like being in this situation. It’s way, way better for me to have many options at my disposal, to have a full complement of 25 to use, especially now that cup matches are coming in to play along with the grind of the league and our (hopefully!) continued participation on the continental front.

The other concern is money. I have spent £3.9 million on transfers, but the massive wage bill is having a haemorrhaging effect on the club’s finances. In the middle of December Barca are more than £4 million in the red, so clearly addressing what we spend on salaries is something we will need to think about seriously. FCB think we will end the year having made a profit. Sponsorship and the vast earning potential of the stadium must be enormous draws, however I foresee some heavy spending in the transfer market in the summer of 2020 and this can only happen if the fiscal picture grows rosier.

Next Time

I will try and make it to the end of the season, or close to it. Who will stay? Who’s going? Can I meet Barca’s massive ambitions both domestically – likely – and in Europe, which is always subject to so many variable?

Derby FM20 – October 2022: Danny Farke-o

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

This truncated season takes its toll. With the domestic calendar coming to an abrupt end after the first week in November for the winter World Cup, they are cramming the fixtures in during international breaks. Several players are still representing their countries when we come to take on Hull City in our Carabao Cup match. Wilson, Hlozek and Moriba are away. Demarai Gray’s cup-tied. I’m advised that Luca Pellegrini isn’t match fit, even though this hasn’t stopped him from taking part in two games for the Italy team – his first two caps for them, I note. Also making his international debut is Ilaix Moriba, Spain manager Luis Enrique swallowing his bile provoked by selecting a Derby County player by using him… and liking what he sees. Both countries are going to Qatar, and I have my fingers crossed that the Rams will be represented by several players.

The Tigers are fifteenth in the Championship, ensconced in the ‘making up the numbers’ mini-league and now managed by Romanian rent-a-coach Marius Sumudica. Staggeringly, this is his twentieth head coaching job. He’s spread his muck in Romania, the United Arab Emirates, Greece and Turkey, never holding down a job for longer than two years, which is something of an achievement for a 51 year old. A clue to his nomadic existence can be gleaned from his pre-match comments, during which he charmingly opines that he wishes he was up against a bigger club than Derby. We’re top of the Premier League, mate. I think we can give you a game…

I have little choice but to name a ragtag eleven. Bogle’s still injured and Frimpong is considered to be short of match fitness, so Tosin fills in at right-back. Morawski gets the start, as does Henderson in goal. Patrick Roberts is the only one of our three right wingers who’s available. Gallagher and Bellingham are selected to play in central midfield.

It all goes horribly wrong in the fourth minute when Hull take a shock lead. Sraha hits a free-kick from central midfield that picks out Keane Lewis-Potter, who beats the loose coverage from Morawski and produces a sweet volley to put the visitors ahead. It’s a horrific goal to concede, the young Argentinian at fault as part of a torrid first half that indicates to me he isn’t ready to be figuring in the first team at this stage. It also turns out to be their one serious attacking move of the game. After this they’re happy enough to defend, and it takes us a lot of huffing and puffing to pull ourselves back into it. Ingram’s goal is leading a charged life. We’re wasteful, to my horror making heavy weather of it as it seems the players simply refuse to believe they can be losing to such an outfit. Eventually in the thirty-fifth minute we’re awarded a penalty, something of an inevitability as we are basically camped in their area and it will have to happen at some point. Sebastiano Esposito hasn’t played brilliantly for us this season, but he’s capable of putting these gifts away and shoots to the keeper’s left.

After a break in which various items of club crockery are smote we really go to town on our visitors. Roberts goes off, with the parlous options forcing me to shove Lookman out to the right and give the left wing to Salcedo. The Englishman has a new lease of life in his unfamiliar role, creating two late goals to seal the tie in our favour. His first is a centred ball from the right that an unmarked Eddie Salcedo heads into the net. Deep into injury time, a free kick he takes is nodded beyond Ingram by Reece Oxford, a good way for the centre-back to finish his game.

Sumudica accepts defeat graciously, telling us we are arrogant, that he’d love to have another crack at us and that I personally am the subject of all manner of family curses. We have Aston Villa to look forward to in the quarter final, a tie that won’t be played until late January.

Leicester City’s latest saviour is Jose Luis Mendilibar, who leaves Almeria for the joys of Midlands football after guiding his charges to ninth in La Liga. It’s a good record, no doubt attractive to the Foxes, and I hope he gets what he really needs, which is time.

We’re away to Norwich City at the weekend. The Canaries have achieved a couple of top ten finishes in recent seasons, which would be highly laudable if not for certain other teams’ more spectacular milestones. They’re good, absolutely no doubt there, and our end of year defeat to them in 2021/22 stands as a point that needs to be redressed. Their attack is now led by Kasper Dolberg, a £14.5 million summer capture from Nice, and the Dane, the ‘new Bendtner’, has responded with zero goals in his eight appearances. According to the Law of Sod he should certainly break his duck against us, and he has plenty of good support, with Said Benrahma, Felix Correia and the interminable Emi Buendia all capable of cutting our defence apart.

I am experiencing the inevitable downside of players returning from their international duty. Fitness is at a premium. Despite earning his first two caps for Spain I opt to use Moriba at Carrow Road. With Porto looming in midweek I’m more likely to field a ball-winning pair for that one so the youngster plays here. Frimpong is back but doesn’t look at his absolute best. Roberts gets his second straight start. Hlozek isn’t picked at all as he’s knackered, and Wilson is only up to hitting the bench.

In our favour is some disastrous recent form for our opposition. They haven’t won a game since late August, and since then they’ve gone down to City, Chelsea, Wolves and Newcastle. The first three are fair enough, but the Geordies? That hints at something going seriously wrong for Daniel Farke. At the back of my mind is the sobering thought that they have to end their bad run somewhere, just as Dolberg must rediscover his scoring boots at some point… Then again, perhaps we can pile on the misery.

I tell the players to go out and get revenge (for adding the cherry to our poor run at the close of our previous campaign), but in reality what we are doing is kicking a poor guy while he’s down. Just as were short of confidence when they beat us, so this turns out to be the perfect time to get one over on a side that is probably about as good as we are. It isn’t a pretty game. We dominate, rack up the shots count and we become very good at pinching the ball from Canaries who are doing nothing with it, but while their jaws might be on the floor they’re still a professional outfit and difficult to break down. The man who’s mining a rich goal scoring vein, Eddie Salcedo, does it again for us, lashing in a powerful first half shot from twenty-five yards out after he’s collected an incisive Frimpong interception that’s punted in his direction.

If I’m expecting a second half comeback from the home team then I don’t get it. I recognise well enough when a side is short on confidence. They’re vulnerable to our pressing, cough up possession far too easily, and are going through the motions. We fail to add to our account, but the victory is what matters and I have the luxury of subbing players due to waning fitness rather than concerns over their performances, which is always welcome.

Chelsea win again, 1-0 at West Brom, to remain level on points with us, however Liverpool can only draw at Brighton and life gets worse and worse for Jose, whose City team collapses in a 2-1 home defeat to Wolves. They’re eighteenth, living in an unfolding nightmare that can’t be allowed to last for much longer. As for ourselves, we remain in first place, shored up be a defensive effort that has let in only four goals so far. There are two more away fixtures coming up, the might of Porto followed by a trip to thfar corner in order to take on Middlesbrough. The only negative to consider is a late injury Demarai Gray incurred against Norwich, a gashed upper leg that should keep him out for more than a week. Given his wayward form, it isn’t much more than a mild concern. 

Derby FM20 – October 2022: Being Tottenham’s Bogey Team

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

Phillip Cocu is the latest in a depressingly growing list of Leicester managers to lose his job. The reasons for his demise can be gleaned from a quick glance at the league table, which is anchored by his team. Personally, I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be in a top ten position, so the dismissal has a ring of sense to me, even though I would always argue for giving the manager more time. Patrick Vieira leads the call sheet of likely replacements. Elsewhere, the standards at Manchester City are high enough to have Jose Mourinho sweating, or at least finding the latest person to blame for his side’s failings. They’re eighteenth, not nearly good enough, and their supporters have just had the pleasure of watching them lose 2-1 to Chelsea at home. Not a happy state of affairs. Who could have predicted that handing a Guardiolan squad to Maureen would lead to failure…

October opens with a trip to the Smoke, where Tottenham Hotspur loiter with intent, awaiting our arrival. To date I haven’t lost to them, and I still recall my first Premier League game, a 0-0 at Pride Park against the North London giants that hinted we had a chance of prevailing at these playing heights. After being at or near the top of the division for much of last season, Spurs are settling back into their more natural mid-table climes, which won’t delight their supporters but might be about right. Manuel Pellegrini hasn’t spent a fortune on strengthening his ranks, which I guess is the Tottenham Way, and none of their arrivals is someone who can lead the attack. This for me is a little strange, given they have never looked quite so potent since losing Harrington Kane. Most notably, Thomas Strakosha is the man playing in their nets since his £14 million move from Real Madrid. The Albanian international keeper replaces Hugo Lloris, one of those seemingly permanent fixtures before his contract wound down and he left on a free to Inter Milan. Rumour has it that the cost-cutting overlords at Spurs have let this happen on purpose. Lloris had just completed his tenth year at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, meaning they would have been obliged to hold a Testimonial for him, and now they don’t have to.

The sense of working to their bottom line continues with the departures of a raft of old guard mainstays. Danny Rose has gone to Sheffield United for £5 million, ending an association that stretches back fifteen years to 2007. Lucas Moura is now at Fiorentina. Rennes have taken Moussa Sissoko, which will delight fans of the ultimate inconsistent performers, and Japhet Tanganga is with Swansea. The latter, a young English centre-back, is the sort of player who automatically makes my to-watch list, and indeed that’s exactly what I was doing before watching videos of the player and realising that we should stick rather than twist.

Naturally they’re a much bigger side than we are, but who knows from game to game which Spurs we will face? Even without some of their former stars they’re a match for the best teams. Debbie Alli, who for a frankly surreal time was considered one of the most exciting players in the world, is playing as their striker. Bergwijn, Barbosa and Zapata are still here, and as ever the one to keep a proper eye on is Giovani Lo Celso, the Argentinian who may in truth be a low rent KDB but it’s such a high bar to attain that we simply have to man-mark him. Lurking behind their midfield is Eduardo Camavinga, the jewel in their crown, a potent young defensive midfielder with the clout to slap away most of our attacking forays. Spurs have added to their defensive ranks, notably at full-back with the signings of Tiago Casasola and Mykola Matvienko, but Eddy is their big hitter.

They won’t be easy to beat, and they aren’t as the home team put us under pressure straight from kick-off. Bergwijn rattles the crossbar with their best effort. It comes during a spell of intense attacking, the sort that has me running along my technical area demanding concentration with the manic demeanour of someone who doesn’t care where he is or how many cameras are honed in on his antics.

In the second half, our cautious mentality begins to reap dividends. It’s been a difficult first. We have barely been able to leave our own half, defending like dogs, replacing Chirivella with Tosin when the Spaniard needs to be removed with what turns out to be a negligible injury. Max Lowe seems to be put through the wringer by Correa and Barbosa. Clearly they have identified him as our weakest link, which is fair enough, however the full-back is now in his third year as a top flight defender and is here on merit. He has a torrid time, but he never stops working, like the honest pro that he is, and each time an opposition player has the ball in his zone he’s on them like the proverbial flies swarming around dog dirt. Bielik is titanic in defensive midfield, while Hughes and Vieira in central midfield can offer a stiff challenge to any attacking player and keep Spurs on their toes here. The former will take on a minor foot injury, leaving him on the field for more than twenty minutes at less than his optimal fitness and me having run out of substitutions. But he’s a good one, our Will. His tackling, which is always fierce, needs to be reined in, yet his command and sense of vision always enhances our cause, and he goes on to create our eventual winner.

By the seventy-fifth minute, I’ve replaced Esposito with Salcedo, and Lookman is on for Gray, who has absolutely not made a good case for his permanent signing with a quiet afternoon. Yet another Spurs foray has been broken up. Bielik, Vieira and Hughes perform a passing triangle in holding off the advancing Lo Celso and Dier, and then the latter launches a long ball up to Eddie Salcedo, who has drifted beyond Davinson Sanchez. There’s daylight between the Italian and goal, and he takes all the time he likes in forcing Strakosha to commit himself before neatly slotting home.

This calls for a defensive outlook, with heavy amounts of time wasting as we face a late Tottenham effort to regain command. They nearly do it too. A Butland goal kick, which our keeper takes a small eternity to take, is hit straight at Steven Bergwijn on the left wing. I think we’ve been undermined by our own error, he has to score, but Jackie makes up for his own gaff by tipping the shot away with his fingertips and Oxford is there to clear the ball into touch. Phew!

1-0 it remains, a valuable away win against a good team, and we have managed to hang on to our place at the table’s summit. These are good times for us. We get to remain in first place heading in to the small international break, with trips to Hull in the Carabao Cup, and then Norwich coming up. Hughes’s injury is nothing worse than a bruised ankle, which is worth a couple of days’ treatment, and we now have a few days off.

Ilaix Moriba is called up for the Spanish seniors, the youngest member within a seasoned squad of very high quality, and this coming after manager Luis Enrique has gone on record to announce that he and I have very different ideas of how good the midfielder is. The other Ram in line for his first international cap is Luca Pellegrini, who accompanies Esposito in playing for Gasperini’s Italian side.

Barcelona FM20 – Bad As All That? Part 1

At the time of writing you are reading Derby County updates from January 2022. I’m up to October of the same year, some thirty-plus updates queued up and ready to be published, so it seems like a good time to take some time away from Pride Park and engage with a different team. I am a sucker for managing a big club and attempting to revive their fortunes. Particularly in the instance of sides that are under-achieving in real life, or entering a time of crisis, as someone who feels Football Manager does a decent job of mirroring what’s going on I find it tempting to discover if it’s possible to put them back on track.

Right now, FC Barcelona are reeling from their 8-2 dumping out of the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich. Real Madrid have claimed La Liga. Yet another manager has been sacked. It’s a genuine period of uncertainty for the Catalan giants. Journalists are picking over what are perceived to be the team’s bones, seeing only poor decisions and doom, but are things really that bad? Well, let’s find out, shall we? Take my hand, dear reader, as I lead you through the minutiae of one of the planet’s most glamorous football clubs. Is it possible to save them, or have years of bad planning turned Barca into something of an impossible job?

Background

For some great contextual reading and for those who love their football history, might I recommend Barca: A People’s Passion, by Jimmy Burns? It’s not entirely up to date, having been published in 2000 and thereby missing out the supreme years under Pep Guardiola, but it does a great job of telling the story about Barca’s creation, what the club means to their fans and of course the enduring rivalry with Real Madrid, the underlying sense beneath every match between the pair that what’s at stake is heavier weighted than mere sporting hegemony. A thrilling read, which demonstrates that FCB is far more than a sporting institution.

In the years since it’s publication, Barca have of course added extra layers of history. Everything they do now, for instance, is juxtaposed against the four year zenith when Guardiola took them to incredible new heights. Like Manchester United in the 1990s, especially the Treble winning season, or Arsenal’s Invincibles, standards were set that are pretty much impossible to replicate. For the record, there were moments when that Barca team appeared to have solved football, to establish a winning tradition and do it in the right way, via sizzling and exciting play, so any new manager’s record is inevitably judged against the massive levels of praise they attracted at the time.

The eight years since Pep resigned have seen the club’s fortunes ebb and flow. Five league titles and a further Champions League crown have been added, yet it’s felt they are entering a period of slow decline. Notably, the principles that underpinned Guardiola’s FCB, a squad packed with homegrown players who came good more or less at the same time, have been worn away as the club embarked on a string of marquee signings. Some have worked – Luis Suarez has been an unmitigated success in attack. However, the rot appears to have set in ever since they lost Neymar to PSG. Meeting the Brazilian’s enormous release fee, Paris broke up the attacking trio of Neymar, Suarez and Messi, a triumvirate capable of outfoxing and unlocking any defence, at will, and things have never been as good since then.

Barca replaced Neymar with Ousmane Dembele, the Dortmund forward with a £97 million price tag. Far from justifying his fee, the answer to such largesse nevertheless seemed to be to do it all over again. Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho joined a year later, costing £105 million and performing so well that he has been shuttled out to Bayern for the season on loan. At the start of the game, they’ve lavished a further nine figure sum to add Antoine Griezmann to their ranks. The £65 million spent on Frenkie de Jong looks conservative in comparison.

Lashing out vast sums of cash money on star signings doesn’t work very often, does it, unless there’s a single and consistent philosophy that’s making everything click into place. Such thinking does not tally with the present Barca, seemingly determined to put together a new generation of Galacticos when the Real Madrid side of the 2000s and even the present Paris-Saint Germain are living proof that endless, muscle-flexing spending on its own will not lead to instant success. While this has been going on a succession of managers has come and gone. In real life the latest patsy is Quique Setien, patently out of his depth at this level and unable to match his best players’ status with that of stars, leading to some of their biggest hitters feeling alienated and out of sorts as other teams have taken the honours they feel are theirs.

In the meantime, as fun as it is to bring in the best players in the world, these expensive n00bs have been grafted on to a rapidly ageing exoskeleton. Lingering members of Guardiola’s team remain in the shape of Busquets, Pique and of course the little God. All three are in their thirties, their waning years, as are Suarez, Rakitic, Alba and Vidal. Because de Jong and Griezmann have already been recruited at the game’s start, there’s next to nothing left to bring in any additional players, which is arguably what Barca need. The squad I build, with one player coming in, another going out and a couple leaving on loan, contains 22 ballers. Most are at least good. A few are outstanding, and there are a few hangers on (Braithwaite basically), and the level of depth varies widely across the positions. For instance, there are no shortage of people able to play in attack, from the little God downwards, but you start with only three centre-backs, with precious little in the coffers to allow you to add more. And they can expect to play a lot of games. Always, Barca demands. The league title is a mandatory requirement, I expect the one that will determine my ultimate fate, and they also see winning the Champions League as essential. No pressure then.

Barca’s Squad Assessed

Concerns about a relatively small first team aside, I’m lucky enough to be in charge of a squad packed with stars. Having this comes with a relentless thirst for success. After a 2-1 defeat at home to Osasuna, the little God outlined the basic expectations on them – ‘we are Barcelona and we have to win every game‘. The good news is that I have the players capable of doing just that. The bad is that there’s little margin for error. However it’s done, but preferably with attacking and possession-based football, honours are required. Finishing second is not an option.

In other words, whilst any good work I do at Derby is met with rapture, the lovely sense of perpetually over-achieving, Barca expects to win things. There are no excuses.

The one player I’m happy to see the back of is Arda Turan, a £26 million signing in 2015 who has never fit in well enough with his teammates. After two seasons packed away from Catalan minds with Basaksehir, the Turk attracts only £2.1 million as he’s packed off to Qatar, and everyone appears to be quite happy with that. In his place, I spend £3.9 million on PSG’s transfer listed centre-back, Thilo Kehrer, for no better reason than to have a fourth defender in the squad. Thilo is 22 and has the capacity to become a fringe player with us, but given that signing him pretty much wipes out the tiny transfer budget I start with he’ll have to do. At least I won’t need to fret overly if anything happens to the other three centre halves Barca possesses.

With Kehrer installed, I just about have adequate cover for each position. This is how the first team stacks up. Natural fits are shaded green.

It isn’t the perfection that I would like to see – certainly, having one natural right-back, a single defensive midfielder, and the 16 year old Ansu Fati being Barca’s one ideally placed left winger, means there is room for development. If anything happens to Nelson Semedo or Segio Busquets then I’ll be sweating, neither do I have the wherewithal to bring in anyone else.

But it’s good, right? Quality is marked by its abundance, beginning with the sheer pleasure of having the best player in the world to place under my command. In real life, the little God’s dominance over Barca is exponential, through to rumours that he, at a whim, can decide whether or not the club should sack or keep the manager. Football Manager can never quite reflect that hyper level of influence, but it does reasonably well in making it clear that only a fool would wrest the captaincy away from him, or indeed piss him off in any way, shape or form. Quite simply, he is FC Barcelona. As much as I loathe having any single player who holds the club in such thrall, if it is going to happen then I guess the little God is as good a nominee as anyone.

Barca start the game with nine homegrown players, of whom seven – Alba, Busquets, Fati, little God, Pique, Puig, Sergi – were trained at the club. That’s a healthy enough start. Clearly, they’re a far cry from the Guardiolan heights, when trafficking talent from the Academy to the first team underwrote everything, but it’s good enough. Another right winger, Francisco Trincao, is joining from Braga in January at a price of £26.5 million. At the moment I’m not sure where exactly he will fit.

They also have some high quality players who are doing their thing elsewhere this season, and if I can get through 2019/20 then I ought to have my pick of who takes the team forward. Highlights include:

  • Philippe Coutinho – should be our left wing answer, but he’s spending the year with Bayern who are meeting his £375,000 weekly wages. He’s technically gifted, and alongside the little God and Griezmann he ought to be strutting his stuff at the Nou Camp.
  • Moussa Wague – good enough to fill the gap behind Semedo at right-back, instead at OGC Nice.
  • Marc Cucurella – not a world beater, but a homegrown left-back who should be able to challenge Alba over time. He’s at Getafe.
  • Jean-Clair Todibo – young French defender who is with Schalke, but should be pushing for his first team place here.

Then there are the likes of Pedri and Ilaix Moriba. Like Fati the pair are 16 year olds and represent FCB’s future, however I would broadly agree that they aren’t the finished article yet and could use first team football elsewhere.

Transfer Thinking

Thinking is all we can do right now as there’s simply no money left for signings. 2019/20 is going to be a case of getting through the campaign with what we have, and while the situation isn’t so very terrible there are issues within Barca that can’t be allowed to persist. As I see it, the concerns are a lack of depth and an ageing squad, so those are the areas to tackle. The four on-loan players mentioned above should come straight back into our first team next season, and I’m waiting to see how Pedri and Moriba develop during their terms with Las Palmas and Murcia respectively. As regular readers of the site will know, I’ve a soft spot for the latter after he’s taken the road from the Nou Camp to Pride Park. The kid can hit any height he likes, as far as I’m concerned, and he absolutely has a future with us.

I always have a bias towards homegrown players, and these will be my initial focus when looking at potential future signings. Barca have let a number of good ballers exit their halls in recent years, and so the following are in my mind as I consider the team’s potential people of interest:

  • Gerard Deulofeu – 25 year old winger who’s currently with Watford. I don’t suppose anyone thinks of Gerard as the long-term answer to any question with a club of our calibre, but he carries the traditional FCB traits of possessing flair and dribbling, real comfort on the ball, and I can’t think of a situation where he wouldn’t be a decent squad member. Against that is the fact we already have little God and Dembele able to play his role, with Trincao on the horizon.
  • Hector Bellerin – right-back of nebulous potential with a background, like Fabregas, of being snatched away by Arsene Wenger, who for us looms as a sort of footballing Child Catcher. Now 24, Hector is an important Arsenal player, but for us would at least be in a position to rival Semedo at right-back, and returning a prodigal son to his proper home would be a boon for the supporters.
  • Adama Traore – speed merchant who is plying his trade for Wolves via stints at Villa and Boro, but before then he was of course a Barca youngster. The same issues at Deulofeu are at play here – would he be capable of breaking through? We’ll see.
  • Alex Grimaldo – sold to Benfica in 2015 and in the interim has developed into one of the world’s most coveted left-back talents. Of all the players listed here he’s the most obvious target. He would without a doubt grace our ranks, represents an ideal replacement for Jordi Alba and carries a release clause of £52 million.

Beyond that, I would like to end the days of gambling the club’s entire budget on big name players. I have a healthy fear of spending big on individuals, partly because I’m unable to do that at Derby but also as it loads so much pressure on the guy. Now sure, someone like Ronaldo would react to such a move with the characteristic determination to prove himself, but there aren’t many players like that who are out there. More likely, it will be a case of moving for good pros who are reasonably priced and available as replacements for my ageing stars. I am already formulating potential names e.g. Leon Goretzka as a possible incoming for Rakitic, Lautaro Martinez for Suarez, etc. The standards here are the highest on the planet, so I will need to get this right, however the talent is undoubtedly out there…

Next Time

This post is already running to 2,500 words, so I’m leaving it here, with Barca on the cusp of the new season. Unlike the ill-fated Real Madrid game that didn’t last very long, and which I didn’t enjoy one bit, for reasons I’ll probably elaborate upon (but had much to do with playing it whilst a sick bag was placed handily by my side), I’m quite enjoying this one. There will be more, and thank you for joining me on this brief detour from Pride Park.

Derby FM20 – September 2022: Quick Silva

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

Having already lost Luca Pellegrini to injury, we balance things out when a messy training ground incident leads to Jayden Bogle being ruled out for up to a month with a groin strain. The timing of this isn’t disastrous, however it means an uninterrupted run in the side for Jeremie Frimpong, who is training well and has put in some positive performances.

We’re entertaining Bournemouth, freshly promoted and having just reeled from a 6-2 nuclear strike courtesy of Arsenal. The last time we took on the Cherries was when we put the icing on their Premier League relegation, forcing a draw at their place to make staying up mathematically impossible. Somewhat impressively, and despite selling several of their finest assets, they responded by storming the Championship, never looking like finishing anywhere other than first in achieving an instant promotion at the first time of asking. They’ve retained the services of Stale Solbakken, and held on to top flight talents like Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and David Brooks. Kelechi Iheanacho is their big summer signing, a £16 million capture from Rangers, and they’ve shipped out a further eight for Marko Pjaca, the nomadic Croatian winger who’s put in time with Newcastle, Anderlecht and Nice in recent years.

They’re a physical team, but according to my scouts the way to beat them is on the wings, where we can exploit the two Adams – Smith and Masina – who are viewed as weak links. Having fielded very similar sides in recent games, I make a number of changes to the line-up. Gallagher and Bellingham play in central midfield as Moriba is rested entirely and Hughes and Vieira make the bench. Gray is on for Lookman. Salcedo starts in attack, which makes sense as he’s looked so much brighter than Esposito since the start of the campaign.

It’s a bright Saturday afternoon in Derby, the temperatures clinging to late summer or switching on to early autumn and in their mid-teens. A nice occasion for some football, with the supporters out in force as they anticipate a win. They get one too. The visitors dominate possession, but in the harmless, stroking the ball around in their own half way that never comes close to troubling us. Our opener comes in the nineteenth minute. Bielik hits a long ball to Hlozek, who has it kicked away from him by captain Cook. As the white orb drifts out wide Masina is further up the field, leaving space, and the Czech has time to race after it. Putting in an instant cross as soon as he’s reclaimed it, Eddie Salcedo is there at the near post, reacting quicker than Delaney, to nod home in the classic poacher’s style. Early in the second period, Demarai Gray scores his first and our second when he scores from a direct free kick, and we make it 3-0 when Bournemouth have opted to go on the attack, bringing on the likes of Iheanacho and Balotelli to try and force a goal. What they do of course is create enormous gaps for us to exploit. A Gray corner is headed in by Reece Oxford, and we’re done.

Give us teams like this each time, please. A straightforward home win with Porto on the horizon is precisely what the doctor ordered, and we perform in a way that’s really pleasing. Gallagher has a good game in his first league start, a midfield battler who refuses to give up, ideal for facing a side that’s strong through the middle. Bellingham is rather less successful, shooting well over the bar when presented with his one gift-wrapped opportunity. An injury to Frimpong that is as obviously going to happen as the lead suspect in a cheap murder mystery being the next to get offed is leavened when the hamstring concern that’s brought him off the field turns out to be worth a day’s rest only.

Results elsewhere go our way, or at least Chelsea’s does as they can only grab a point from their home tie with Spurs, which ends 1-1. Arsenal put five past the Baggies to move up to third. United beat Leicester away from home and Liverpool produce a priceless 1-0 result against City to maintain the pressure both on the table’s upper echelons and on Mourinho. That doesn’t matter to us. We’re top, albeit on goal difference, and if we can only resolve our away form there’ll be no one in the ‘verse to stop us.

Back to Europe, and on to Porto, one of those sides you underrate at your peril. They have a reputation for just keeping it up, producing great players at the sort of rate that stands as a model to everyone else of how these things ought to be done. They are missing Andy Walters for this one. Despite the English sounding name he’s a young Portuguese right-back, one of the highest rated defensive prospects in the game, but he’s out for ten months with damaged cruciate ligaments. No matter. They can depend on the talents of Fabio Silva, an advanced forward who’s so potent in front of goal that the traditional big clubs have been forming an orderly queue for some time. Fernando Gomes’s scouting report reads like an awkward teenage love letter. It couldn’t be more gushing if he had written S.W.A.L.K. on the back of the envelope. Overall they’re considered to be a smart side, their decision making imperious, which makes concentration throughout the game a mandatory requirement. If anyone can find a way past the Premier League’s highest rated defence then it’s them. They’re top of our Champions League group, sitting pretty with their two straight victories. We’re anticipating a tough workout here.

As we prepare for the match, I pore through scouting reports of the latest recommended players. Some are unrealistic – we aren’t going to get Calvin Stengs, not after his enormously moneyed transfer to Bayern Munich – yet others intrigue. The big tick is against KRC Genk’s 20 year old goalkeeper, Maarten Vandevoordt, who can be signed by clubs playing in the Champions League for £24.5 million. Joe McClaren confers on him a 90% rating, which is always worth some further research. The Belgian Under-21 representative, tipped for much higher levels of play, is determined, agile and aggressive, and pleasingly short on eccentricities. I’m not in the market for a new keeper, nor do I have that kind of cash burning a hole in my pocket, but I take such glowing reports seriously. Maart is going to be one to watch.

Gareth Southgate decides to patronise us for this one. We put on a show for him, the damage done in a few breathless first half minutes as we score two quick goals. Our opener comes from a corner, taken by Chirivella, which loops over Porto’s keeper Muhammed and plops to the feet of Sebastiano Esposito, who can’t mess up the sort of chance that has a lovely bow presented atop it. Increasingly rare it is to see such goalkeeping mistakes these days – Muhammed looks a bit soft to me. There’s not much he can do about our second however, the result of some lovely approach play, the ball distributed quickly and with menace, before Frimpong’s lobbed ball from the right is stroked home by Ademola Lookman, who’s pretty much able to ignore the slack marking from Lopez. The winger wheels away, delighted, in a fairly naked show of Coo-ee Mr Southgate! Over here! Look at what I can do, etc.

That seems to be more or less that. We control possession and enjoy a slew of further chances, until Porto introduce some late tension when Silva scores from an incisive breakaway. It’s a poor one to concede, an instance of attacking play being broken up and the visitors countering at pace, but I guess there are reasons why I’ve been warned about the striker. Clearly, he can do this to anyone, at any time he likes. When we take this lot on back in Portugal we need to be readier.

Silva’s bit of brilliance emerges as a cameo rather than the start of a late comeback, as we claim a 2-1 victory to go top of our group. PSG are still clearly playing within themselves, being forced to a 1-1 draw in Paris by Lazio, which suggests they are either far less than the sum of their parts or that they will be deadly in the later passes of the group stage. At least they don’t have to face Barca, who gleefully put twelve past RB Salzburg in one of the more emphatic victories to which I’ve paid witness. The Austrians helped by having two men sent off as part of a bad tempered display, but it’s an awesome show of power all the same.

September finishes with the news that we have made close to a £3 million profit over the course of the month; this produces a tremendous financial picture when you consider our rising wage bill. TV revenue is far outstripping our outlay on salaries, which explains the rude health. There’s about £80 million in the bank, which if I’m lucky intimates a transfer budget boost could be applied before the January window, though in truth I don’t know where I would spend it right now.