Derby FM20 – This is the End

The adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you’re new to these pages then catch up via our index of story chapters – available here – or for the really time-pressed visitor there is a digested read that condenses thousands of words and various tangential asides into brief season summaries.

As you will have read in a previous post I debated whether to continue this story into a fifth season. It was originally intended to be an activity designed to keep myself sane during lockdown, which I’m no longer in (at least, not for the moment), and recently I had a job interview to think about. As it happened I turned down the interview. The job didn’t feel right and involved much greater travelling distances, but it seems to me that this account is heading towards its closing stages. After all, Derby ended 2022/23 as Premier League champions and Invincibles, and FA Cup winners. It isn’t going to get much better than that.

Against that is the simple reality that I’m loving this game. I’m even coming to love Derby County. Previously I thought of them as a set-up that was broadly equitable to my own (Middlesbrough) and therefore a natural enemy. Their achievements were long in the past, their present a rolling story of ‘nearly, not quite’ as they continue to challenge for promotion without ever getting over the line. As a Boro supporter I get that. Since managing them my affection for the Rams has grown. I’ve bought the mug, and I’ve even signed a Derby player for my Fantasy Football team, with Jayden Bogle making the cut following his move to Sheffield United (he was cheap, in fairness). On the down low I think I’m becoming a bit of a Derby fan.

For some while I was enjoying 2022/23 so much that I had pretty much committed to doing one more season. This would take me up to Christmas, by which time the bugs might have been squeezed out of Football Manager 2021 (I don’t know about you but I hate tackling a new edition on the day of its release; there are always issues). Unfortunately I think not. These things take time to cover, hours and hours of work that I’m happy to give but are increasingly difficult for me to put in. Real life is taking its toll, with a demanding job and commitments elsewhere. I have to stop this somewhere and here seems to be as good a place as any.

It’s been a real pleasure for me to spend lockdown (and a bit longer) doing this project. For years I have wanted to write about an FM game in great depth and to the extent that’s what is on these pages. I used to be a prominent part of what was once called the ‘scene’, the community of Football Manager gamers (going back to when it was still called Championship Manager, in fact) and so it’s been good to reconnect with my blogging past to write this account. I hope you have enjoyed it.

For the record I am making sweeping changes to the squad. Gone are Hlozek, Salcedo, Lookman, McKenna and Max Lowe. We have drafted in Reiss Nelson, Kieran Tierney, Fabio Silva (for a lot of money), Serge Gnabry, Riccardo Orsolini and a Brazilian regen defender called Glauber Moreira, who looks the real deal. It will be a somewhat different Rams team that takes on the world in 2023/24. The fans aren’t sure whether to be delighted by my purchases or outraged about my treatment of their heroes. What they don’t appreciate is that all those leavers have peaked – the likes of Ademola Lookman, a hero to many, will never be better than he is now, and we need better. Hopefully signing someone to replace him with the calibre of Bayern’s Gnabry will soften the blow.

Even worse for the supporters is that they will have to travel further distances to watch Derby over the next season. Playing in a new stadium is undoubtedly unsettling. It’s progress, but I’m reminded here of the length of time it took Spurs to get used to calling Wembley their home and wonder just how turning out at Villa Park will affect us. Hopefully no one will notice. Moving upwards and onwards can be a real bitch.

And this was part of the motivation for calling it a day. One of the best things about covering Derby was that it was the classic tale of David versus Goliath. We would take on great teams with sides containing the likes of Bielik, Bogle and cult Rams heroes like Harry Wilson, and hold our own. Now we are becoming just like any other big club. Income from doing so well in competitions has made us competitive. Our success has placed us in a more attractive position to a far higher calibre of playing talent. The summer transfer window has seen us spend £235 million (we have recouped £205 million) and the plucky underdogs you’ve been following all along are basically no more. I’ve just watched us go to West Ham and kill them 6-1. That’s where we are now, a giant in line with the other colossi. As much fun as it is to manage these matches the resulting write-up would be the classic yeah went there, won that and I don’t think that makes for good reading. Rest assured that your Rams are in safe hands.

It only truly remains for me to thank you for your time. I’ve had so much fun doing this, and you never know – lockdown may strike once again before too long. I’ll be leaving these pages online, only ever so slightly regretful that I have paid for the domain and server space, and I’m sure I will add to them in the future, though almost certainly never again to the extent that I have been covering the Rams’ adventures. I wish you the best of fortune with your own FM exploits. It truly is a brilliant game, speaking as someone who has lost many, many thousands of hours to its charms, discovering along the way that I am quite possibly the best manager of all time. Don’t be afraid to say hello. I don’t bite, not unless you’re an expensively signed striker who fails to make with the goals of course.

All the best

Uncle T, October 2020

Derby FM20 – That was 2022/23: The Squad

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.

I like to end every season with a glance over the level my players are currently working at, according to Derby’s coaches. Their estimation can be a decisive ruling on each squaddie’s future; also it’s a gauge on how they are progressing. Are some who were decent Premier League players now operating at a good standard, or vice versa…?

I’ve done it a little differently this time. The symbol + means the guy has improved his playing level since the end of last season. A <> symbol signifies he hasn’t moved, and – indicates a decline. There’s no symbol for a new player. We stack up like this:

The good news is that the vast majority of the squad now works at a good Premier League standard. The eight Championship players we had now stands at three. We have four decent players, one fewer than last season. It’s good news across the board, or at least it would be if not for the couple of players whose playing levels have taken a dip.

Here, in shirt number order, are some thoughts on each individual…

1. Jack Butland
Age – Nationality: 30 –  (9 caps)
Current Value: £16.75 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 42 (0) – 24
Average Rating: 6.90
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good at shot stopping
No doubt there are better keepers out there than Jackie, people who can dazzle me with their silky sweeping skills and distribution. But he’s our guy. A cracking shot-stopper and nerveless when facing penalty kicks, there’s a little voice in my head telling me to cash him in and go for a much higher standard player, Alex Meret or Unai Simon perhaps. But he likes it here and he likes playing for me, and these are good things. He’s improved as a player also, now operating at a good standard and continuing to be called up for his country, albeit to sit on a bench near Mr Southgate. A keeper, and also a keeper.

2. Jayden Bogle
Age – Nationality: 22 – (8 U21 caps)
Current Value: £14 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Right-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (0) – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 7.02
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Strength and stamina make him a very good athlete
After his recent adventures Jayden faced his biggest challenge to date, which was to hold on to his position in the face of stiff opposition represented by Jeremie Frimpong. He reacted by having his best showing to date. The homegrown right-back’s average rating went from 6.91 in his two previous Premier League seasons to a seven-plus showing, reflecting his developing confidence at this level. The downside is an increased amount of time out with injuries, including a month’s layoff back in September when he incurred a groin strain. It’s good to have a player like Frimpong to fill in for him, though we hope Jayden’s luck here will improve. In addition, it’s time for those Under-21 England caps to be elevated to appearances in the first team.

3. Max Lowe
Age – Nationality: 26 – (no caps)
Current Value: £20 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Left-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 20 (0) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.97
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Leading player for most Sky Bet Championship sides
Max is the consummate club servant – as his status within the squad has diminished and he has (unlike Jayden) not made the jump to a higher playing standard, he has uncomplainingly waited, taken his opportunities when they have arrived, and never embarrassed himself. Targeted by opposition attackers whenever he played, he dealt with most things that came his way more or less well and has developed a good reading of the game, which has compelled him to anticipate danger well enough. Clearly though, he’s a second tier player, and the thought of him playing an extended run because of something horrific happening to Luca Pellegrini leaves me uneasy. We have agreed a deal with Arsenal for Kieran Tierney, and if he agrees to sign then this will most likely call time on Max’s nine-year membership of the DCFC first team.

4. Pedro Chirivella
Age – Nationality: 26 – (no caps)
Current Value: £46 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (7) – 1 – 7
Average Rating: 7.39
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Composure aids his skilful approach to the game
Pedro has been with us for three and a half years now; by rights, we should have ended his importance to the cause by signing better players – Vieira – and existing Rams improving in his DM’s role – Bielik – and yet he’s had his best season to date. The Spaniard has claimed his second Player of the Year award at Pride Park and underlined the crucial nature of the defensive midfield position. He is the spearhead of our defending unit, a critical part, and he’s helped to turn us into the side conceding the fewest goals in the top flight, which is a superb feat. Smart, comfortable on the ball, undaunted whatever the stage and developing that almost legendary composure, he’s a star player and worth many points on his own merit.

5. Krystian Bielik
Age – Nationality: 25 – (24 caps, 3 goals)
Current Value: £34.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Ball Playing Defender/Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (4) – 1 – 1
Average Rating: 7.17
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Improved slightly on his technique and his anticipation over the last two months
Another good season from the big Pole, who is slowly transitioning into a defensive midfielder and seems to relish any challenge that is thrown his way. The fact he is still considered to be on an upward developmental curve after four years on the books speaks volumes for his professionalism and desire to remain relevant. He played in seven of our Champions League games, unfazed by the calibre of the opposition, and remains as important to the cause as ever. Krys is in demand, notably by moneybags clubs in China, and even with a bonus pay-out on the horizon he is loyal to us and doesn’t want to leave. This is very much to his credit.

6. Scott McKenna
Age – Nationality: 26 – (38 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £37.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 23 (1) – 1 – 0
Average Rating: 7.15
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Enjoys big matches
A key player when we were first promoted, Scott’s importance to the squad has steadily receded over his three seasons at Pride Park. He’s still listed as our vice-captain, an authoritative figure at the back who was leaned on a lot in the Champions League when his steady hand, experience and good decision making were key qualities. In his time, we have recruited Oxford, Tosin and Morawski; the first two are better than him, the latter will become so, and that is pretty much calling time on his career with Derby. To an extent that’s a shame. He’s a reliable and consistent figure, a victim of progress, and yet that’s surely just how things go. I am grateful for his contribution, his no-nonsense approach and his ability to come up with pricelessly timed goals, which to an extent deserted him this season. That’s football, folks.

7. Ilaix Moriba
Age – Nationality: 20 – (11 caps, 2 goals)
Current Value: £57 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club in one year’s time
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (7) – 2 – 5
Average Rating: 7.08
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Star player and could still improve
I remember the old story about when Manchester United signed Eric Cantona. Alex Ferguson contacted Leeds to enquire about Lee Chapman and was told the striker wasn’t for sale but he could have Eric for a million. Alex fell off his chair and couldn’t organise the money quickly enough. It was a bit like that for me where Ilaix was concerned – an 18 year old in the last year of his Barcelona contract who was put up for sale. His was an easy signing, one we had to make. Everyone could see his star power, the already burgeoning ability and almost limitless potential, and I thought he had the capacity to make a massive contribution to the cause. Sure enough, in his time we’ve won two cup competitions and the Premier League. The young Spaniard has been pivotal in all those moments, an endlessly tricky, technically fantastic and flair-fuelled midfielder who can produce gold every time he’s on the ball. There’s a danger we could become the Moriba Show, a side built around his talents, but the good thing is that he’s worth the focus.

8. Adam Hlozek
Age – Nationality: 20 – (33 caps, 16 goals)
Current Value: £34 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club this summer
Position: Winger/Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 26 (16) – 16 – 6
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Lack of a team ethic can play an extra burden on his teammates
Adam remains the enigma at the heart of Derby, a brilliant talent whose abilities have been unleashed since he’s started to be used more as a centre-forward. Once again he produced a good scoring rate, one goal per 2.5 appearances, some of these crucial as his determination to provide a breakthrough could make the difference. Then there’s the downside to his play, the utter unpredictability over whether he’s going to be magic or anonymous, the way he can be the worst player on the pitch and then suddenly pull something wonderful out of the bag… His importance to us is enhanced when he becomes homegrown in the summer, yet the caveats stack up. His poor working relationship with Jayden Bogle, meaning I have to think carefully about whether to play the two together, especially if Adam is picked for the wing. His unwillingness to contribute defensively comes across almost as an allergy. Lookman will always play his part if we’re under pressure and Adam won’t, and I have little room for someone who’s so inherently selfish. The jury’s out, which is what I’ve been saying about him for the three years that he’s been here.

9. Eddie Salcedo
Age – Nationality: 21 – (no caps)
Current Value: £25 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 27 (18) – 23 – 4
Average Rating: 7.17
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Very agile
The pretty much season-ending injury to Esposito placed our attacking focus squarely on Eddie’s shoulders. Time to produce. And he did, emerging as the side’s leading scorer, putting away fifteen in the league to find the back of the net once for every two appearances, a statistic that would disappoint no one. But he was also a vexing player. Quick, agile and comfortable on the ball, his stock in trade is to try and beat the offside trap, something at which he hasn’t been entirely successful. My abiding memory of Eddie is of him collecting the ball, tearing off and producing a wonder-goal, only to have it called back because he was slightly behind the last defender. This happened a lot, occasionally more than once in a game. I get these are instances that involve split-second timing. It’s an art. But he should have had more, and if we do end up going for a centre-forward in the summer then he’s the one who will make way. The number of ruled out goals made me miss the crocked Esposito, a smarter striker who has the uncanny ability to remain onside.

10. Sebastiano Esposito
Age – Nationality: 20 – (12 caps, 6 goals)
Current Value: £58 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club this summer
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 16 (3) – 9 – 0
Average Rating: 7.00
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a smart player
A frustrating year for Seb, who began it as the team’s leading striker, his reputation built on a pair of campaigns in which he scored fifteen and twenty-one goals respectively. Everything was set up for him to challenge Lautaro Martinez for the golden boot, until a damaged spine incurred in January more or less ended his involvement in our challenge. He made it back before the end, but his lack of match fitness, his slow recuperation, made him a pale shadow of the predatory and incisive presence he normally presented. I can’t knock him for getting injured though. These things happen, and Seb will have the summer to drag himself back to his best. I’ve been warned that he will return from his holiday demanding a new contract. He’s already one of our best paid players, sitting pretty on £99k per week, so talks of an improved deal will be held off until he demonstrates that he’s still worth it. All the same, an important player and I’m pleased he’s back.

11. Max Willian
Age – Nationality: 18 – (5 U21 caps)
Current Value: £47.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club in June 2025
Position: Inverted Winger – Left
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 (12) – 4 – 1
Average Rating: 6.87
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Possesses great pace
At first glance Max’s figures may not look so very impressive. He was an expensive capture, costing £26 million, targeted specially as a future leading player for us, and there’s a definite sense that the best is yet to come. In his favour he’s a kid still, and he’s been tasked with leaving his home country for England and adapting his game to suit us, as well as fitting in within a squad that doesn’t have an existing Brazilian presence. Within that context he’s done well, and he remains a growing talent who has time to blossom into the superstar we think he will become. He’s shown glimpses of this. Max can score goals, is whippet-quick on the left wing, dribbles with the best of them, and all these assets are improving. He needs to develop technically, something I’m convinced will happen, and as mentioned the key word here is ‘time’. As long as we have a good enough senior to bear the load in his role he will get all he needs as that talent emerges ever stronger.

12. Connor Gallagher
Age – Nationality: 23 – (21 U21 caps)
Current Value: £22 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Box to Box Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 9 (4) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.82
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Finding it hard to adapt into the core group of the squad
Sometimes I have to hold my hand up and confess that bad transfer decisions can be on me. Connor isn’t a poor player, but I’m increasingly convinced that the sort of midfielder he is does not tally with what we need. Clearly we thrive on a mixture of deep lying and advanced playmakers. A Bryan Robson style force that Connor brings simply doesn’t fit in with our style, and it’s for this reason that he’s developed into an increasingly isolated presence who is likely to be sold in the summer. The former Chelsea man works like a Trojan and has great stamina levels. He’ll keep going long after everyone else is spent. He’s a Duracell bunny of a footballer, but he just isn’t what we need and that will do for him.

13. Reece Oxford
Age – Nationality: 24 – (7 U21 caps)
Current Value: £44.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 35 (2) – 2 – 1
Average Rating: 7.10
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays resolute characteristics
Reece’s year has finished with a place in the Premier League Team of the Season and a call-up to the England squad. One of our most consistent appearance makers, a leader on the pitch and technically excellent, Reece continues to improve from an already high base and is in line to be named vice-captain if McKenna ends up leaving the club. Dependable, fast, brave, stolid and consummately reliable, he’s important to our cause and will absolutely remain so. Along with the plaudits coming his way he’s just been awarded a new, £81,000 per week contract, which underlines his status.

14. Jeremie Frimpong
Age – Nationality: 22 – (10 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £33 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Right-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 26 (0) – 2 – 8
Average Rating: 7.50
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The player has been in a rich vein of form of late
With Jez added to the ranks we now have the ideal situation of two good players competing for one position. Jayden Bogle is the better defender, but the Dutchman is a brilliant attacking force, capable of producing magic from the right flank and possessing an unerring ability to play himself into great positions. Whenever he collects the ball I think he might do something special with it; often enough he does just that. His growing reputation within the side makes him a target for other teams. That’s fine, except for the clause in his contract that means Atletico Madrid can buy him back for £19.75 million any time in the next twelve months. This is a problem as he’s worth a lot more than that, and it’s to be hoped they will forget to activate it.

15. Ademola Lookman
Age – Nationality: 25 – (11 U21 caps)
Current Value: £48.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger – Left
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (17) – 11 – 9
Average Rating: 7.04
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly selfish player
Ade has just produced his best work for us since signing three years ago. His value has risen and other teams are perpetually interested in capturing his services. At his best he can do it all on his own. Ade’s signature move is to nick the ball from a defender who’s dwelling on it, before darting towards goal and sliding it past the keeper. All done at pace, cleanly, the sort of exploit that can win the love of the supporters. He can also be very lazy, unwilling to pick out a teammate in a dangerous position, and playing a different game to everyone else. I have no idea from match to match which version I’m going to get, and that’s a problem. My feeling is that Ade might have peaked, that this is the best of him we are ever going to get, and if there’s a time to move him on and bring someone in who’s better then it might be now, when his stock is high.

16. Dean Henderson
Age – Nationality: 26 – (11 U21 caps)
Current Value: £10 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 15 (0) – 10 clean sheets
Average Rating: 6.83
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered to have good distribution
It’s good to have a stable and working pair of keepers. Jack Butland might be our regular starter, leaving Dean to feed on scraps and a small collection of appearances, but the latter has emerged as a credible and capable alternative, doing little wrong even if he has featured largely in games that we are expected to win. Ten clean sheets, which account for two-thirds of his showings, speak for themselves I think, and he has emerged as a crowd favourite with his tendency to wind the spectators up and make them clap and shout for the boys. A winning presence.

17. Jude Bellingham
Age – Nationality: 19 – (13 U21 caps)
Current Value: £28 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Mezzala/Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 19 (12) – 4 – 1
Average Rating: 6.91
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Could improve significantly in the future
A fine first season in Derby whites for Jude, who made a step up to the Premier League and rarely looked out of place. There were instances when he could be overwhelmed with what he was up against, but these lessened as he established himself. A big unit who belies his physical presence with good pace and wonderful comfort levels on the ball, there’s something of Pogba about him, a willing and hard-working professional whose stock in trade is to run at defenders from central midfield. Caps for the senior England team are surely due, as are longing looks from opposition teams – promoted Sheffield United have him on their wanted list, and as far I’m concerned they can keep on wanting.

19. Will Hughes
Age – Nationality: 28 – (22 U21 caps)
Current Value: £30 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (5) – 4 – 3
Average Rating: 7.02
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans have a great affinity towards this player
Probably the best thing about Will is that we can now produce the goods while he’s sitting on the bench. This is no reflection on our blonde bombshell captain, a leader and inspiration who has always produced superb levels of composure, but we have other options besides him now and relying so heavily on one man is never going to do either him or us any favours. He remains the big guy for the big occasion, someone who relishes sharing in our successes and continuing to perform at the same high standard that he has produced in each of his three seasons back at Pride Park. A very fine footballer, wanted by Arsenal (and brilliantly having no desire to go) and in his prime years.

22. Gabriel Barbosa
Age – Nationality: 26 – (15 caps, 2 goals)
Current Value: £30 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger – Right
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 16 (14) – 5 – 1
Average Rating: 6.73
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Worsened slightly on his finishing and his long-shots over the last two months
Be careful what you wish for. The Derby board wants me to make more high-profile signings and Gabriel is that, drafted in from Spurs on loan to fill us out during Esposito’s injury and to supply an additional Brazilian for Max Willian… and he’s never been very good. His first season at the Totenham Hotspur Stadium produced spectacular moments, but his stock has dwindled to the extent they had placed him on their transfer list, and we got to see exactly why. A winger/striker with all the ability in the world, ticking the technical boxes, and yet possessing the determination of Mesut Ozil watching things sadly from the bench, and considered by the staff to be the third best choice for his position. When Harry Wilson is favoured over you then you aren’t hitting the heights of which you are capable. Needless to say we won’t be paying for his buy-out.

23. Patrick Roberts
Age – Nationality: 26 – (no caps)
Current Value: £19.25 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger – Right
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 9 (11)- 2 – 5
Average Rating: 6.99
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Poor heading ability means he is never likely to be useful in aerial situations
I have decided to call time on Pat’s Derby career. I signed him cheaply on the promise that his Championship level talents would develop into a top flight standard. He could have been a proper bargain; instead I got to see why Manchester City were only demanding £4.5 million for him. Unable or unwilling to improve, and fully adept at doing good things at times, Pat was more often a peripheral figure, now thought to be fifth choice for the right wing and that, for someone earing £78,000 per week, is far from good enough. I should never have agreed to that contract, and I will try to set the record straight over the summer.

24. Harry Wilson
Age – Nationality: 26 – (34 caps, 10 goals)
Current Value: £27.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger – Right
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 26 (13) – 2 – 7
Average Rating: 6.86
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Direct free kicks
It says a lot for Harry that he has seen off the challenges of Pavon, Roberts and Barbosa to remain the first choice for his position. In reality he’s a fairly average talent, unlikely to become any better than he is right now and a skilful ball player with little physical presence, but he can produce the unexpected. Corner kicks, free kicks, especially from direct scoring positions, are generally of an excellent standard, and whilst there are a thousand better right-wingers it isn’t easy to replace a fans’ favourite who is always willing to try his best. So I won’t try to.

25. Ronaldo Vieira
Age – Nationality: 24 – (7 caps)
Current Value: £42.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (15) – 4 – 3
Average Rating: 7.17
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Anticipates situations well
More good work from Ron, who followed his ‘Player of the Year’ award with a further season operating at dizzyingly high standards. In his first year he was used primarily as a defensive midfielder; this time he was pushed further forwards and remained happy enough. Physically capable, very good at passing and proving almost impossible to be bullied off the ball, he’s proved to be a valuable asset to us and he continues to improve. His burgeoning talent and stature within the team has made him a regular for his country, which is precisely what he deserves.

26. Tosin Adarabioyo
Age – Nationality: 25 – (no caps)
Current Value: £34 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Ball playing defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 29 (1) – 3 – 1
Average Rating: 7.20
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has an impressive jumping reach
Beanpole centre-back who, in his first full season with us, developed into an important player who is now easing himself into the England reckoning. We really like him, a towering player whose height advantage makes him great both in defensive and attacking set-piece situations, not to mention the surprising levels of pace hidden within. The only caveat is his horror of playing in big matches. I can work with that. We have enough good centre-backs to leave him out in these instances, though hopefully this adverse element of his game will be ironed out over time.

27. Luca Pellegrini
Age – Nationality: 24 – (10 caps)
Current Value: £36 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (0) – 0 – 7
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good stamina
An important signing for me, Luca is an ideal left-back who I didn’t think I would be able to attract to Pride Park, and yet we’ve got him and he’s turned out to be just about as good as I expected. He’s an attacking full-back and therefore it’s possible for him to be caught out on defensive duties. More than one penalty has been conceded by him, which I admit I put partly down to the lack of support from further up the field, but is something at which he could improve. He likes tight marking and it’s something he needs to develop as this can lead to fouls. Luca has made the Italy squad under my watch and is now coveted by Arsenal, Schalke and Milan. Happily he’s ignoring the interest that’s being shown in him.

Derby FM20 – That was 2022/23: The Opposition

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.

I don’t know about you, but as I play through an FM save I find what other teams do to be absolutely fascinating. Are our opponents reflective of their real-life counterparts? Were there are any surprise packages, and conversely any teams that had shockers? Find out here; presented for you in league position order from second – heh heh – to twentieth…

Liverpool (2nd, 85 points)
Manager: Jurgen Klopp
Head-to-head: we drew 0-0 at Anfield and won the home game 3-2; they put us to the sword in the Carabao Cup final, only winning 1-0 but demonstrating their clear superiority
Goals scored and league ranking: 80, 1st=
Goals conceded and league ranking: 21, 2nd
Star player: Paulo Dybala (53 appearances, 23 goals, 27 assists, 7.64 rating)
Flop player:  Divock Origi (37 appearances, 5 goals, 0 assists, 6.78 rating)
Biggest transfer: Jadon Sancho, £99 million from Arsenal
Biggest sale: Taiwo Awoniyi, £5.5 million to SC Paderborn
Top Scorers: Sadio Mane (25), Dybala (23), Sancho (15)
A relentless and fierce attacking force, Jurgen’s juggernaut of a team performed to a high standard throughout and I always felt that we needed to at least match them in terms of results. They lost five league games and we took four points from them, which ultimately put us in front, but they haunted our dreams until the very latter stages of the season and they showed us just what they could do when they essentially bitch-slapped us out of the League Cup final at Wembley. Paulo Dybala has emerged as a perfect replacement for Mo Salah, an easy choice for Player of the Year, and with a perfect sense of continuity and consistency I’m sure they will be up there again in 2023/24. April was the decisive month. We beat them in the league, and further defeats to Norwich and Wolves were incurred as they also went out of the FA Cup and Champions League at the semi-final stage. Is there a sense of choking at the final hurdle about them, I wonder.

Manchester United (3rd, 82 points)
Manager: Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer
Head-to-head: we won 2-1 in both home and away matches
Goals scored and league ranking: 80, 1st=
Goals conceded and league ranking: 32, 4th
Star player: Marcus Rashford (45 appearances, 29 goals, 4 assists, 7.28 rating)
Flop player:  Joao Felix (50 appearances, 4 goals, 7 assists, 6.92 rating)
Biggest transfer: Joao Felix, £100 million from Atletico Madrid
Biggest sale: Bruno Fernandes, £103 million to AC Milan
Top Scorers: Rashford (29), Anthony Martial (15), Mason Greenwood (12)
A spending bonanza in the transfer market did not have the intended effect for United. Felix was a major disappointment, while Patrick Schick (£54 million from Roma) was only used sparingly. Tielemans and Neves were fine additions to a packed midfield, but at the same time they lost Bruno Fernandes and felt it. Overall the Red Devils were good value and put up a decent challenge in defending their title, but they could be overcome defensively. A complement of good centre-backs – Lenglet, Lindelof, Tuanzebe, Maguire – were technically up there yet could be beaten for pace, while De Gea’s campaign was further evidence that the great Spaniard is in a slow period of decline. They at least ended the year in the best possible way, beating Barcelona in the Champions League final to remove any potential job concerns for the manager.

Manchester City (4th, 71 points)
Manager: Jose Mourinho until March, then Diego Simeone
Head-to-head: a pair of 1-1 draws in the league, however we hit them when they were at their lowest in the Carabao Cup, winning 2-0 at the semi-final stage
Goals scored and league ranking: 64, 5th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 30, 3rd
Star player: Kevin De Bruyne (34 appearances, 3 goals, 11 assists, 7.35 rating)
Flop player:  Gabriel Jesus (40 appearances, 5 goals, 4 assists, 6.76 rating)
Biggest transfer: Jean-Clair Todibo, £63 million from Schalke 04
Biggest sale: Everton, £45.5 million to AC Milan
Top Scorers: Harrington Kane (27), Leroy Sane (8), Various (5)
A job I was initially tipped to get – I’m not bitter – went instead to Jose Mourinho, who with some degree of inevitability turned out to be entirely the wrong fit for the Bitter Blues. After starting the campaign in the relegation zone, the Special One hit mid-table before City’s paymasters felt they’d had enough and handed the reins to Diego Simeone instead. I feel that the Argentinian is likely to be an excellent appointment. His team roared into the Champions League places over the final stretch to flex their considerable muscles and give scary hints of what they can do. More and more, however, everything depends on KDB’s brilliance and the goalscoring potency of Harrington. Stop them, which isn’t a given, and you’ve kind of halted City. Simeone will no doubt spend the summer adding further terrifying options to place his team back in the title race.

Chelsea (5th, 71 points)
Manager: Unai Emery, sacked at the end of the season
Head-to-head: we drew 3-3 at home and won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge
Goals scored and league ranking: 60, 7th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 35, 5th
Star player: Matheus Henrique (38 appearances, 2 goals, 6 assists, 7.29 rating)
Flop player:  Kepa Arrizabalaga (40 appearances, 16 clean sheets, 6.85 rating)
Biggest transfer: Kingsley Coman, £89 million from Bayern Munich
Biggest sale: Mateo Kovacic, £58 million to Manchester City
Top Scorers: Lautaro Martinez (27), Callum Hudson-Odoi (10), Reece James (5)
So it turns out Unai Emery is not the answer for Chelsea. Who could have guessed? The Blues have developed into a costlier version of Arsenal, generally up there with the best of them without ever truly threatening the top places. It’s difficult to appreciate the point of them. They can showcase some incredibly good players, notably the goals of Martinez, but on the whole they come across as an expensive assemblage of misfits. Good players to a man, with little sense of how they all fit together and even what their philosophy is. Lautaro aside they were worryingly easy to halt in attack, and they were also prickable at the back. Emery’s gone and a number of stars have been put up for sale (Pulisic, Kante, Ikone), as they appear to be in the throes of a further pointless reshuffle. Someone could really take them to task as they certainly have the capacity for greatness, but hopefully this won’t happen.

Arsenal (6th, 69 points)
Manager: Mikel Arteta
Head-to-head: we won 2-1 at home and drew 1-1 at the Emirates; we beat them in the FA Cup final by the Arsenalesque scoreline of 1-0
Goals scored and league ranking: 72, 3rd
Goals conceded and league ranking: 38, 7th
Star player: Lucas Torreira (48 appearances, 2 goals, 11 assists, 7.34 rating)
Flop player:  Gabriel Martinelli (40 appearances, 5 goals, 3 assists, 6.79 rating)
Biggest transfer: Diogo Jota, £74 million from Schalke 04
Biggest sale: Jadon Sancho, £99 million to Liverpool
Top Scorers: Nicolas Pepe (16), Bukayo Saka (13), Jota (10)
Arsenal finished in sixth place for the fourth consecutive season. Once again, Arteta is left to reshuffle the pack and find the answers in order to progress them (we have already agreed deals for Nelson and Tierney, both transfer-listed), and I find it hard to believe that anyone at the Emirates is truly happy with this. They were fine in attack but porous in defence, where this year’s crop of centre-backs – Kimpembe and Ake, mostly – failed to deal with opposition strikers. Andre Onana, acquired at some cost to provide the answers in goal, could only deal with so much. There’s potential here. Saka leads a group of plucky youngsters and William Saliba looks like he’s developing into something special at the back, but overall they seem short of inspiration. Thiago Almada, previously the Gunners’ star player and only their third best this time around, seems odds-on to be the next big name to move on to more ambitious climes, which kind of says it all.

Newcastle United (7th, 59 points)
Manager: Lee Johnson
Head-to-head: we won 2-0 at home and were forced to a 1-1 draw at St James
Goals scored and league ranking: 54, 8th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 46, 8th
Star player: Seko Fofana (36 appearances, 8 goals, 3 assists, 7.24 rating)
Flop player:  Joelinton (26 appearances, 2 goals, 1 assist, 6.78 rating)
Biggest transfer: Marc Cucurella, £15.75 million from Getafe
Biggest sale: Jonjo Shelvey, £5.5 million to West Ham
Top Scorers: Ante Rebic (10), Fofana, Guy Tinkler (8)
The Magpies ended up heading ‘the rest’ and finished in the final European qualifying place, a long way short of the title-chasing pack yet the pick of the mid-table crew. This marks steady progress for Lee Johnson, who is doing a very good job with his limited assets, spending little more than £50 million on players and making good use of assets such as Nohan Kenneh, Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maxmin. The latter is the one we have identified as their biggest threat, and it’s perhaps a consequence of this that his effect was lessened, but at least he can be comforted with the fact Newcastle have more than him in their attacking locker these days. I would love to add young DC/DM Kenneh to my squad, yet Johnson rejects my overtures fiercely, and it’s this protectiveness and determination to hold on to his crown jewels that should sustain the team’s slow upward direction.

Tottenham Hotspur (8th, 57 points)
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini until February, then Luis Enrique
Head-to-head: we won home (3-0) and away (1-0)
Goals scored and league ranking: 43, 12th=
Goals conceded and league ranking: 37, 6th
Star player: Debbie Alli (44 appearances, 22 goals, 4 assists, 7.24 rating)
Flop player:  Steven Bergwijn (45 appearances, 6 goals, 1 assist, 6.85 rating)
Biggest transfer: Wilfried Zaha, £36.5 million from Crystal Palace
Biggest sale: Lucas Moura, £13.5 million to Fiorentina
Top Scorers: Alli (22), Duvan Zapata (20), Bergwijn, Angel Correa(6)
By Spurs’ standards a poor year, in which they dropped from the pace to finish eighth and missed out on the European qualifying places. The F.O.C. reverted to type after a promising start and was finally replaced late in the season with former Spain manager Enrique, having failed to answer the yawning gap in his team’s ranks since the departure of Harrington Kane, whose services they have now been without for three years. Debbie and Zapata did well enough, but neither plugged the hole adequately, and Spurs remain short of a specialist centre-forward. The team’s other gems, Lo Celso and Camavinga, enjoyed poorer campaigns, while star centre-back Dias has been put up for sale. Winks, Bergwijn, Mykolenko and Dier are other listed players as the white half of north London goes for yet another reshuffle.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (9th, 56 points)
Manager: Marcelo Bielsa until April, then Gian Piero Gasperini
Head-to-head: we won 3-1 at Molyneux and 1-0 at home
Goals scored and league ranking: 46, 9th=
Goals conceded and league ranking: 48, 9th
Star player: Willy Boly (36 appearances, 2 goals, 1 assist, 7.10 rating)
Flop player:  Olexandr Zinchenko (9 appearances, 1 goal, 6 assists, 6.84 rating)
Biggest transfer: Todd Cantwell, £27.5 million from Norwich
Biggest sale: Ruben Neves, £44 million to Manchester United
Top Scorers: Raul Jimenez (12), Leonardo Campana (11), Bruma (6)
Wolves finished ninth, scored the ninth highest number of goals and were ninth in goals conceded, therefore a mid-table finish however you choose to look at it. They clearly like their legendary managers. Bielsa stayed until April when he left to take up the post at Borussia Dortmund, and it’s hello to Gasperini, another sixty-something who before this was in charge of the Azzurri. My sense of them is that they ought to be building towards something special. The players they sign all seem like good ones. Their sales always generate fine levels of money to be recycled back into squad building. And yet they never quite hit those heights, content with ninth. Will things ever change, or is this the limit of their ambition?

Everton (10th, 49 points)
Manager: Thomas Frank
Head-to-head: we drew 1-1 at Goodison Park and won 2-0 at home; we also ended their FA Cup run with a 2-1 away victory
Goals scored and league ranking: 61, 6th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 64, 14th=
Star player: Declan Rice (43 appearances, 5 goals, 7 assists, 7.41 rating)
Flop player:  Tom Davies (39 appearances, 2 goals, 3 assists, 6.83 rating)
Biggest transfer: Rice, £39.5 million from West Ham
Biggest sale: Otavio, £28 million to Roma
Top Scorers: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (20), Richarlison (13), Jose Juan Macias (9)
An improved league position for the Toffees, who now seem resigned to bobbling around mid-table in perpetuity, and the numbers say it all. They were good in attack, where Calvert-Lewin’s goals put him on Spurs’ radar and into the England squad. At the back they were porous. Despite the shielding presence of new signing Declan Rice it was easy enough to break through, where their keepers Jed Steer and Zan-Luk Leban turned out to be eminently beatable. Oh, but for the days when it was Jordan Pickford… They should be doing better really. Our win over them in the FA Cup, where we frankly blew them away, ought not to have been as simple. The Toffees were busy substituting good pros like Fekir and Bowen for Gomes and Calvert-Lewin, so they have the depth and the ability. Perhaps a change in manager is in order…

Norwich City (11th, 49 points)
Manager: Daniel Farke until October, then Frank de Boer
Head-to-head: we won 1-0 at Carrow Road and 2-0 at home
Goals scored and league ranking: 46, 9th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 64, 14th=
Star player: Emi Buendia (36 appearances, 6 goals, 8 assists, 7.18 rating)
Flop player:  Kasper Dolberg (35 appearances, 5 goals, 5 assists, 6.79 rating)
Biggest transfer: Dolberg, £14.5 million from OGC Nice
Biggest sale: Callum Mallett, £31 million to Brighton
Top Scorers: Bruno Petkovic, Michael John Lema (11), Buendia (6)
Not so long ago the Canaries seemed to be upwardly mobile and building towards offering a genuine challenge to the status quo. That time has passed. Maybe it went with Daniel Farke, sacked early in the campaign after overseeing a truly horrific run, or perhaps it started when Norwich went into selling off some of their brightest assets. Todd Cantwell went to Wolves. Callum Mallett, a teenage wonderkid who was developing into their striker off the future, was sold to Brighton.  Emi Buendia is still here and while he is the team will always carry a sense of threat, but the future doesn’t look so bright. Defensively they were poor, and Kasper Dolberg’s first season as centre-forward ended disappointingly.

Aston Villa (12th, 43 points)
Manager: Dean Smith
Head-to-head: we drew 1-1 at Villa Park and beat them 1-0 at home; in the Carabao Cup Quarter-Final we won 2-0
Goals scored and league ranking: 43, 12th=
Goals conceded and league ranking: 67, 18th=
Star player: John McGinn (38 appearances, 2 goals, 2 assists, 7.08 rating)
Flop player:  Galeno (36 appearances, 2 goals, 3 assists, 6.74 rating)
Biggest transfer: Robert Bozenik, £32.5 million from Feyenoord
Biggest sale: Douglas Luiz, £12.25 million to Leon
Top Scorers: Leo Baptistao (12), Bozenik (9), Jack Grealish (6)
More of the same for Villa, our future ground sharers, who do enough year after year to stay safe. They’ve become the new Newcastle, haven’t they? Despite Fernando Pacheco in goal and the presence of Engels and Mings in defence, they were far too easy to score against, with recent signing Josh Tymon especially poor. Grealish and McGinn continue to do what they do in midfield, and Leo Baptistao is their most potent attacking force, however there’s no cutting edge to them. Bozenik, their Slovakian main striker, scored nine from forty appearances, and behind him there’s a vacuum. This, I guess, is what happens when you change next to nothing. You get to stay afloat, but that’s about it. All the same they were brittle enough to force a draw from us at Villa Park, so you can see how they accumulate the points.

Bournemouth (13th, 41 points)
Manager: Stale Solbakken until December, then Frank Lampard
Head-to-head: we won 3-0 at home and did for them by the score of 2-1 at their place, which for the present is the Madkeski Stadium in Reading
Goals scored and league ranking: 42, 14th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 61, 11th=
Star player: Issa Diop (24 appearances, 0 goals, 2 assists, 7.09 rating)
Flop player:  Kelechi Iheanacho (18 appearances, 1 goal, 2 assists, 6.74 rating)
Biggest transfer: Diop, £44 million from West Ham
Biggest sale: Dominic Solanke, £20.5 million to Everton
Top Scorers: Callum Wilson (17), Ryan Fraser, Ollie Watkins (6)
A promotion season that appeared to be heading straight for the trapdoor changed with the dismissal of Solbakken. Fat Frank was brought in, and with the natural verve of a winning manager he started spending the club’s cash and engineering their move to safety. Diop and Watkins were expensive January signings, and they produced six league victories in April and May to soar into lower-mid-table. Good job. The Cherries relied mainly on players who guided them down, notably Wilson’s goals and the good work of Fraser and Brooks on the wings, though Watkins was an enterprising acquisition and Diop was added to a defence that stopped leaking easy goals. Iheanacho was brought in and did nothing; for someone earning £62,000 per week that’s a wretched return.

Southampton (14th, 40 points)
Manager: Paco Jemez
Head-to-head: two draws; 1-1 at St Marys and a goalless dirge at home
Goals scored and league ranking: 46, 9th=
Goals conceded and league ranking: 65, 16th=
Star player: James Ward-Prowse (43 appearances, 5 goals, 3 assists, 7.16 rating)
Flop player:  Callum Slattery (40 appearances, 2 goals, 2 assists, 6.64 rating)
Biggest transfer: Bosko Sutalo, £17.5 million from Atalanta
Biggest sale: Thierry Correia, £6 million to Sevilla
Top Scorers: Danny Ings (18), Moussa Djenepo (7), Various (5)
An improved effort from the Saints, who had finished just above the drop zone for some years and pulled themselves to safety much earlier this time. The perceived wisdom is that everything depends on Ings’s goalscoring nous, Ward-Prowse marshalling things from midfield and Nathan Redmond’s acceleration on the wing, but Jemez is holding on to his stars and augmenting them with a fine supporting cast. Daniel James looks like a canny player for Southampton, and a gritty defence led by veteran Alexander Scholz doesn’t give goals away easily. We struggled to get anything from them, and in a title winning season failed to achieve victory against the Saints on both occasions.

Middlesbrough (15th, 37 points)
Manager: Jonathan Woodgate
Head-to-head: a 1-0 win at the Riverside followed by turning them over 4-0 at home
Goals scored and league ranking: 35, 16th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 62, 13th=
Star player: Lewis Wing (31 appearances, 4 goals, 3 assists, 7.15 rating)
Flop player:  Enzo Le Fee (21 appearances, 1 goal, 0 assists, 6.61 rating)
Biggest transfer: Mauro Arambarri, £17 million from Getafe
Biggest sale: Alexander Djiku, £10.5 million to Torino
Top Scorers: Shoya Nakajima (8), Jonathan Calleri (6), Ebere Eze (5)
Boro replicated last season’s finish and accumulated three fewer points on 2021/22’s tally. In doing so they produced a continuation of their previous achievements, scoring at a rate of less than a goal per game and defending stiffly enough to prevail. In the summer the misfit striker pairing of Assombalonga and Fletcher reach the end of their contracts. Neither forward kicked a ball in anger across the entire season, and considering they earn a combined £65,000 per week that’s an expensive amount of talent to sideline. Hopefully Woodgate will get to reinvest the funds on someone he actually does like and who can improve their goals tally. Midfield is where Boro are at their strongest. Wing, paired with Vladimir Dragomir and Nakajima patrolling the left wing, can offer a decent pressing challenge, and it’s from this quality where they must build.

Brighton and Hove Albion (16th, 37 points)
Manager: Graham Potter
Head-to-head: we drew 0-0 at the Amex and won 2-0 at home; we also saw off their challenge in the FA Cup with a 2-0 scoreline
Goals scored and league ranking: 34, 17th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 61, 11th=
Star player: Pontus Dahlberg (39 appearances, 12 clean sheets, 6.98 rating)
Flop player:  Aaron Connolly (24 appearances, 2 goals, 0 assists, 6.66 rating)
Biggest transfer: Callum Mallett, £31 million from Norwich
Biggest sale: Viktor Gyokeres, £11.75 million to Watford
Top Scorers: Neal Maupay (8), Mallett (6), Pascal Gross (5)
A poor season considering the tenth placed finish they achieved in 2021/22. While never falling into the bottom three they spent the campaign skating just above it, routinely hovering between twelfth and seventeenth. Any success hinged on the difficulty opposition sides found in breaking them down. We struggled here, meandering to a goalless draw at the Amex with keeper Dahlberg in Yashin’s clothing, while at the other end the Gulls rarely troubled our defence. Sure enough, most of the plaudits go to a fine effort at the back. Dahlberg was protected by a formidable line featuring Ben White and Lewis Dunk, with Leo Ostigard protecting their right flank ably. Further forward they had Shaqiri and Gross to spearhead their thrust, yet little finishing product as Maupay and record signing Mallett struggled to make an impression. Safety means Graham Potter lives to fight another day, but they require inspiration and in finding it they will need to do better than rely on Championship standard former Rams like Jatta and Ivan.

Leicester City (17th, 33 points)
Manager: Phillip Cocu until October; Jose Luis Mendilibar until April, then Viktor Pereira
Head-to-head: a 3-0 home win followed by a 1-0 victory at the Crisps Stadium
Goals scored and league ranking: 28, 20th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 51, 10th=
Star player: Hamza Choudhury (33 appearances, 2 goals, 3 assists, 7.27 rating)
Flop player:  Deyovaisio Zeefuik (26 appearances, 1 goal, 0 assists, 6.78 rating)
Biggest transfer: Francis Coquelin, £12 million from Manchester City
Biggest sale: Youri Tielemans, £44 million to Manchester United
Top Scorers: Arkadiusz Milik (10), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (7), James Maddison, Harvey Barnes (4)
The Premier League’s most desperate team is now on their sixth manager during the time I’ve been with Derby, which is four years. This seems to be the root of their problem, as the finances have drained away and a set-up that looked destined at one point to hand it to the big boys has in turn had it dealt to them. In the meantime managers pay the price for their failures, given inadequate lengths of time to sort things out or being poor appointments ahead of the board handing the poisoned chalice to some new fool. In the meantime, the rump of a very good squad hangs on. Maddison, Barnes, Soyuncu, Gray, Chilwell, Choudhury and the ever-present Schmeichel remain, failing to score anything like enough goals while relying on goalkeeping heroics and stiff defending. For worrying lengths of the season they were fixed in the drop zone, sure fire relegation fodder, until a very late spurt of form dragged them out at the moment of truth. Congratulations Foxes – you’re the new Southampton.

West Bromwich Albion (18th, 32 points)
Manager: Kurban Berdyev
Head-to-head: two victories, 1-0 at home and a 4-1 cruise at the Hawthorns
Goals scored and league ranking: 31, 18th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 68, 20th
Star player: Matheus Pereira (27 appearances, 6 goals, 4 assists, 6.96 rating)
Flop player:  Cristian Benavente (30 appearances, 2 goals, 2 assists, 6.64 rating)
Biggest transfer: Panagiotis Retsos, £26 million from Sheffield United
Biggest sale: Semi Ajayi, £14.25 million to Watford
Top Scorers: Jonathan Leko (9), Bradley Dack (7), Pereira (6)
I remember playing against this lot in the Championship, when they were really difficult to handle and looked far more the promotion package than we did for some months. In the interim the Baggies have stood still while we have boldly gone where we’ve gone, went up eventually because someone had to and failed to make much of an impression. Last placed in the division defensively, no doubt a consequence of trying to handle the top flight with a second tier group of players, and no great shakes in attack either. There was a time when we feared the likes of Leko and Dack. No longer. They will have to do a lot better if they make it back here, perhaps building the team around Sam Field, a fine defensive midfielder who is wanted by Bournemouth but who they could do with retaining.

Swansea City (19th, 30 points)
Manager: Marco Silva
Head-to-head: a 3-1 win at home and 1-0 to us at the Liberty
Goals scored and league ranking: 38, 15th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 65, 16th=
Star player: Billel Omrani (41 appearances, 13 goals, 2 assists, 6.96 rating)
Flop player:  Zsolt Kalmar (27 appearances, 1 goal, 0 assists, 6.71 rating)
Biggest transfer: Bryan Mbuemo, £17.25 million from Brentford
Biggest sale: Ales Mateju, £4.6 million to Fenerbahce
Top Scorers: Omrani (13), Bersant Celina (9), Mbuemo (5)
A reasonable effort from the promoted Swans, who went up via the playoffs, having finished sixth in the Championship, and proved to be just a bit too short of possessing the quality required. Until the last few weeks of the season they were outside the drop zone, but a string of defeats when it mattered did for them and killed off their challenge. Marco Silva spent a fair amount, £51 million in total, introducing the likes of Ben Davies, Emiliano Martinez, Marc Albrighton and Japhet Tanganga, all bringing top flight experience to south Wales. Grafted on to a stubbornly second tier exoskeleton, they couldn’t do enough to save their new side and in the end Swansea went down rather meekly. We didn’t find them to be the easiest team to turn over, because they could pile bodies behind the ball and were able to counter-attack, but it never felt like they had enough. So it proved.

Fulham (20th, 21 points)
Manager: Scott Parker until February, then Jess Thorup
Head-to-head: easy street after winning 5-0 at home and securing a 3-0 triumph at Craven Cottage
Goals scored and league ranking: 29, 19th
Goals conceded and league ranking: 67, 18th=
Star player: Sylvester Jasper (33 appearances, 7 goals, 7 assists, 7.12 rating)
Flop player:  Matt O’Riley (28 appearances, 2 goals, 0 assists, 6.65 rating)
Biggest transfer: Che Nunnely, £18.75 million from Burnley
Biggest sale: Jason, £10 million to Newcastle
Top Scorers: Jasper, Aleksandar Mitrovic (8), Sofiane Boufal (6)
Awful. We continued our perfect record against the Cottagers, but elsewhere any residual fight left in them drained away as they posted the worst Premier League campaign we’ve seen in recent memory. It wasn’t quite as bad as our own past sorry achievements in this area, yet it was turgid stuff as the softness we experienced against them was offered out to just about everyone. Fulham won five league games all season. Scott Parker was put out of his misery and his replacement posted one further victory in the division, admittedly a fine 4-0 triumph over Aston Villa but a horror show everywhere else. Nothing was good. They didn’t score a lot of goals, with each opposition coach knowing they had to halt Mitrovic and if that was achieved then the Cottaging machine ground to a halt. A lot went in at the other end. Ben Gibson and David Costas formed a reasonable defensive line, but you could cut through their midfield with terrible ease and Marek Rodak in goal wasn’t anything special. We’ll miss their charitable attitude towards our forwards, but playing them was like bullying a cute little puppy.

Derby FM20 – That was 2022/23: Derby County

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.

Phew! We were put through the wringer back there, and came out smiling. The only downside of having the kind of season we’ve just completed is the prospect of having to do it all over again. There’s part of me that thinks our rise to the title is only a natural progression after finishing fifth, then third, but we also took advantage of a considerable malaise that had settled in at Manchester City and to a lesser extent Chelsea. Both clubs are expected to roar back into contention next term, and I also suspect Wolves will be a trickier hurdle now that they’re managed by Gian Piero Gasperini. A serious Head Coach for a spiky team.

All that’s for the future however. My reputation has bloomed to three and a half stars. I’m not Klopp yet, but the club considers me to be untouchable and success is always good for the personal record. Before the summer’s out I have signed a new deal with the Derby board. My contract extends for five years and will pay me £130,000 per week. I can now afford to rattle around in a five-bedroom pile in Littleover, a pretty village that’s both handy for work and retains a sense of the semi-rural. One day, I will have to find other people to help me fill it, but for now I have an extended family of pampered, league winning footballers who are hammering on my door for new contracts and assurances that their futures will be secure.

Elsewhere, Chelsea have sacked Unai Emery and are on the sniff for his replacement. Unlike at City my name isn’t even linked with the post, which is fine with me as I see the Blues as evil, quite frankly. Pep Guardiola is on one of his Sabbaticals, off finding himself or some such nonsense, and is the favourite to take over. Diniz and Spalletti are among the other leading candidates. I’m at a point when I can begin to consider my post-Rams future, but not yet.

Best Victory

Some great results to look back on this season, and it’s difficult to think of a single game that encapsulates the spirit we have shown. I guess I will go with the 3-2 victory over Liverpool on April Fools Day. Not only was winning here a really significant step, a cracker of a confrontation that contained a bit of everything, it was one in which we showed huge amounts of character. We refused to lie down, which isn’t the way we have always acted against the Pool, and it emerged as an important waymark on our road to Premier League glory.

Worst Defeat

For once there is very little to choose from. We only lost two matches during the entire season, going down to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League and falling short at Wembley against Liverpool. Neither game showed us at our very worst. The squad vexed me most when it refused to score goals. Despite the firepower at my disposal we could be very shy when it came to finding the back of the net, and I’m choosing our 0-0 draw against Southampton at home for this category. It was a frustrating occasion, one in which we dominated the visitors and absolutely should have put a few past them, only for goalkeeping heroics and forwards without a finishing product meandering towards a tedious and indecisive stalemate. If we are to go forward then resolving this is a priority.

Club Awards

I’ve been thinking for a while about parting ways with Pedro Chirivella, a £750,000 signing who’s been with us for three and a half years and now seems to be a relic of leaner times. The Spaniard has responded by having his best season yet, taking part in thirty-seven games and producing a 7.39 overall rating to capture 37% of the vote. He is duly named the fans’ Player of the Season. I can’t sell that, can I? Ped is a model of consistency in defensive midfield. At 26, he continues to improve his work in training and is now worth £46 million. I don’t recall the last time he put in anything less than a good performance. So he stays. Eddie Salcedo comes second with 26%; in third place with 23% is Krystian Bielik.

I don’t have too many arguments with Ped claiming his second POTY plaudit. In many ways he is absolutely representative of what Derby County is all about. Once again, I think of Will Hughes as an essentially underrated player for us and might like to have seen him figure higher in the rankings. Otherwise it would have to be a defender, as reducing opposition sides to scraps has become our stock in trade. Reece Oxford was probably the best of the bunch, and I should also mention Jeremie Frimpong, who generated a fantastic 7.50 rating, though the fact it’s based on twenty-six appearances might disqualify him. ‘Jez’ will have to be satisfied with winning the Signing of the Season award and also being named our best young player. The right-back was a £9 million acquisition last summer and worth every penny of it. I discover that there’s a buy-out clause in his contract, which means his former club Atletico Madrid can re-sign him at any point in the next year for £19.75 million. That’s something of a Sword of Damocles, no?

I am named Premier League Manager of the Year, somewhat predictably, and Derby are well represented in the Team of the Season, which is a straight mixture of Rams and Pool players. Oxford, Tosin, Moriba, Lookman, Salcedo and Hlozek all feature. That seems fair to me.

BBC Radio Derby says ‘It was a memorable season for Derby as they tasted success in the Premier League and the FA Cup. Few will have predicted Derby to achieve more than continental qualification at best heading into the season, but the Rams confounded every expectation by finishing top of the pile as unlikely champions. It was a season to remember for the Rams, who surpassed expectations and enjoyed a strong spell of form around January that would ultimately carry them to the title.’

Here’s the best eleven based on my four seasons in charge. It’s interesting to see that Bakery Jatta remains – I might have expected to see Hlozek or Wilson take over the right wing by this stage, and the fact they haven’t might be instructive. Inductees are Jack Butland, whose two years mark an improvement on what Montipo contributed, Max Lowe for sheer longevity, while Moriba and Vieira replace Baker and Hughes as our best central midfielders.

Again, it’s been the kind of campaign so successful that I’m not sure how it’s possible to improve things. Sure we can do more in the Champions League, but I tend to think there’s always a bit of luck to this one once you get out of the group stage so it’s folly to expect too much from it. Retaining the EPL would be a considerable achievement, and I think I would be happy enough if we remained in the top four, hopefully after mounting a concerted challenge for the title. It’ll be hard. The club expects me to qualify for Euro Cup II via the league, which seems straightforward enough to manage and for me would be a bit of a disappointment after our progress in recent seasons. I’m supposed to effect this while:

  • Playing defensively solid football (I agree we should do this)
  • Playing possession football (no arguments from me)
  • Playing high-tempo pressing football (music to my ears)
  • Signing high-reputation players (could be a sticking point)
  • Making the most of set-pieces (agreed)
  • Not signing players over the age of 30 (we’re on the same page here)

The wish to sign high-profile ballers arises from DCFC’s efforts to improve the club’s financial outlook. Star power equals shirt sales after all, and it’s no surprise that Ilaix Moriba emerges as the name stamped on the back of the most replica tops. We sell 385,287 in total, three-quarters of them in the UK and almost certainly most of those within our catchment area. For the financial geeks out there, our annual revenue comes from:

  • £26.42 million from sponsorship, an improvement on the £20.82 we made in 2021/22
  • £94.67 from TV revenue, a reduction after we raked in £111 million last year
  • £4.29 million from corporate and hospitality, a slight rise
  • £81.8 million from prize money, a £30 million increase
  • £1.84 million from match day commercial and retail, about the same

Sponsorship is where it’s at. Manchester United rake in a small fortune here, and while it will take an impossible effort to match their levels of income they remain the financial standard for which to aim.

The biggest news of all is that Pride Park is undergoing a year of tender loving care. The board is plunging the best part of £60 million into expanding the stadium, agreed after we entirely sold out our season ticket allocation and the supporter base has grown to the point where we can justify the work. When we return, in thirteen months’ time, we will have the capacity to play before 50,000 fans, which puts us in a higher echelon than we’ve enjoyed previously. Until then, we will be playing in Birmingham. 2023/24 will find Derby’s home moved temporarily to Villa Park, about which I am less than delighted but hopefully it will be worth it when we return.

Derby FM20 – May 2023: Broken Records

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.

More good news arrives with the revelation that Derby are among the best Premier League clubs when it comes to the turnover-wages ratio. Salaries eat up 34% of our revenue, which is low enough to place us eighteenth in the table. Brighton are in the most parlous position, which given their little ground seems fair enough to me. You can probably imagine for yourself who’s in the rudest health. Honestly, when your reach is global the resources dwarf everyone else’s.

The league calendar finishes with the visit of Manchester City to Pride Park. They’re looking to consolidate their recent grip on Champions League qualification, having risen from nowhere under new manager Diego Simeone. As I think I’ve said previously, this looks like a match made in heaven. Simeone may be no Guardiola, ruling with fear and an iron grip, but if his approach coaxes results out of City via sheer terror of failure then maybe a kick up the arse is exactly what they need. They’re going to be a team to watch in 2023/24, I’m sure of it. United and Liverpool should both still be up there, and now you can add the blue half of Manchester as they roar back into contention and make life just that little bit tougher for the rest of us.

Over time successive City managers have remodelled the team’s attacking ranks. The likes of Aguero, Sterling and Jesus have gone. Sir Harrington Kane is the head of their arrow, playing in front of an attacking midfield three comprising Zaniolo, Havertz and Tiba. The latter is a recent acquisition, a 20 year old Brazilian left-winger snapped up from Sao Paulo for £22 million. You can think of him as a rival for Max Willian within the future of the national team.

Having sealed the league title a couple of weeks ago we are now playing for the possibility of an unbeaten season. Nobody has taken us down in the contest yet, indeed the only defeats at all that we’ve suffered were at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the Champs, and our Carabao Cup final loss to Liverpool. Hardly a bad record to carry into the last regular fixture and now it’s something I would like to preserve. If we can avoid defeat today, which is a reasonable ask, then we will have equalled the 2003/04 Arsenal side for invincibility, and that’s something we can all look back on fondly.

It looks as though that proud record will be undone just before half-time when Sir Harrington heads in from a De Bruyne free-kick. Ordinarily we are terrific at defending set-pieces, but there’s something otherworldly about the Belgian’s kicking and of course Kane is as potent a centre-forward as you will ever find. I could blame Pellegrini for conceding the goal as it’s his marking job; in truth though, it’s just a great goal. Up until this point we’ve participated in a very even game. Hlozek has missed a few chances and we have never looked second best in going toe to toe with the blue-shirted giants.

With nothing left to lose we spend the second half attacking in greater numbers. City feel the pressure and begin to withdraw, and has been the case since time immemorial their defence remains the weaker link for them. It’s still good, obviously, but the players are flappable and when you showcase John Stones you are always going to present chances to the opposition. Eventually we get our reward for pushing forward. Frimpong does a terrific job on the right wing of dummying Tiba, forcing the Brazilian to commit himself to going to ground and evading the challenge, then crossing for Eddie Salcedo, who treats Stones like a minor obstacle in ignoring him and slicing his shot into the bottom corner.

We continue to press, but everyone’s happy enough to share the spoils from this one. City have met their objective of Champions League qualification. We get to finish without giving away a first Premier League defeat, and we all have smiles on our faces. Simeone’s post-game handshake is like iron. Clearly when we meet again it’ll be a much fuller blooded affair.

Here’s the final league table. We end the campaign seven points clear of Liverpool in second, which is terrific. After this I’m not sure where we can go next – having an unbeaten season is a rare thing indeed, not to mention a bit of a bonus as it wasn’t something that concerned any of us until the title was clinched and we were looking at secondary targets. West Brom and Swansea join Fulham in going down after managerless Leicester save their campaign at the very last gasp. It’s quite beyond me how they can be as bad as they have, and maybe there’s a warning for us there. One tip from me – try sticking with your manager, unless it’s clear that they’re going to be a disaster a la Frank de Boer. All that chopping and changing can’t help.

Our domination in the league has been underpinned by tight and solid defending. Everyone knows it, and it’s why Oxford and Tosin are included in the team of the season. In a line-up containing only Rams and Liverpool players, we can look smilingly on at Moriba, Lookman, Hlozek and Salcedo who are also included from our ranks. I am named as the best manager of the season. Paulo Dybala is Footballer of the Year both in the supporters’ vote and the separate one conducted among his fellow players. Jack Butland comes third in the Golden Glove award, behind Alisson and De Gea. Unlike his rivals, Jackie didn’t play every minute of the campaign for us. Dean Henderson got a relatively high amount of time in goal, including those instances when I plain forgot to switch my starting keepers, and it’s this that has probably done for his chances within a campaign during which we conceded a measly nineteen goals. For the mathematicians among you, that’s zero point five goals conceded per game.

On to the FA Cup final, on a pleasant late May afternoon at Wembley. We haven’t contested this since it was known as the Empire Stadium, whereas our opposition are regulars and still carry the best overall record in the competition. They have finished the season in sixth place, on 69 points, with Mikel Arteta promising to do better by apparently transfer-listing half his squad and seeking replacements. They line up with Jota playing up-front, Pepe, Almada and Saka operating behind him. As far as we’re concerned Thiago Almada is as ever the one to watch, a dynamic game-changer in the Eden Hazard mould, however as it is he does next to nothing. Rumours that he’s off to Real Madrid persist. Clearly those stories have legs, and unless the Gunners get an unlikely reputation boost that somehow propels them into the highest echelon I’m quite sure that he’ll be off before too long.

Harry Wilson misses a penalty in the first half, a weak effort that Onana palms away gratefully. His game never recovers and at half-time I have little choice but to replace him with Adam Hlozek. Though he’s better when playing as an attacking forward, the Czech still has the ability to make a difference, which is exactly what he does in the forty-seventh minute when his header collides with Pellegrini’s cross and sails into the net. Ake’s defending is at best loose on this one.

It feels as though we can really punish the Gunners at this point. They’re tired and they don’t appear to be working very hard for their manager, who never moves from his spot in the technical area, staring stony-eyed into the middle distance as though he wishes he was anywhere but here. We don’t need to do very much more, just maintain the pressure, press their players off the ball when we have to, and ease towards victory. I remember Arsenal beating us in the league last season, when they gave us a hard time and worked with enterprise and purpose. They’re a pale shadow of that side. I don’t know why exactly but I’ll take it, even if we could have entertained the spectators a little better on what turns out to be a damp squib of an occasion.

The season therefore ends with us claiming the precious double of winning both the league and the FA Cup. We’re the talk of the town, the fans and board delirious with happiness, and me feeling as though the Derby job to a significant extent has been done. Sure, we can try and retain the league, which will be no laughing matter with City almost certainly emerging refreshed as contenders. We can give Europe a better go, move the Rams closer to – or even achieve – glory in the Champions League. That would confer on us the title of being the best team on the continent, not to mention righting some wrongs from the 1970s, and wouldn’t that be nice?

All the same, bit by bit and especially as players come and go, this is feeling less like the Derby County Football Club that I took over all those years ago. Only Bielik, Lowe and Bogle remain from the original first team squad I was placed in charge of, and it’s likely that I will replace Max this summer so the side once again moves away from what it was. That’s progress I guess, though it seems to me that we are increasingly just another good team rather than identifiably being a set of Rams. Hopefully that’s okay with readers and fans of the club who can’t understand why I haven’t made more of the elusive gifts that Graeme Shinnie brings to the cause. To my mind I might have done fine things with the team, but so many changes have been made along the way, and in the 2023/24 season we will take a further heretical step when we call Villa Park our home while the stadium is expanded. Strange times.

Derby FM20 – May 2023: Excelsior

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.

The situation going into our away day at Arsenal couldn’t be simpler – draw or win and we claim the league title. Lose and we have two more attempts at it; alternatively we can rely on slip-ups from United and Liverpool. But it’s in our hands, and this is a hell of a place to try and get it. We have a good record against Mikel Arteta‘s Gunners, yet despite the usual caveats about their frailties they remain a Premier League big boy. They aren’t an easy team to beat.

In the afternoon kick-off United go to Chelsea and win 3-2. They’re intent on making the job as difficult as possible, playing like they want to defend their crown, but if we’re lucky it will be too little, too late from them. We’re in London on a sunny evening, playing in an Emirates Stadium that is some ten thousand short of capacity, which hints at things within Arsenal not being entirely happy. They’re fifth, which is about normal for them however the arrival of Arteta was meant to coincide with a return to their former position as Champions League perennials. Clearly we’ve had a say in them missing out, but it must be disappointing that they have not even started to reverse the slow decline that punctuated the later Wenger years.

The big news for the home side is that Thiago Almada is not in the squad. The Gunners’ Argentinian attacking midfielder can be the difference maker in these fixtures, and it’s the suggestion that he’s going to Real Madrid that appears to be the decisive factor here. Famously Arteta refuses to field players who are not fully committed. You might like to consider it the Ozil Clause. Without Almada, they play Martinelli up front, supported by an attacking midfield trio of Pepe, Diogo Jota and Smith Rowe, the latter a onetime Derby loanee about whom I have very little good to say. We go with our holding midfield partnership of Hughes and Vieira supported by Bielik. Hlozek is once again playing at centre-forward. Wilson and Max Willian are on the wings.

At the end of the first half we’re looking at a snoozer of a contest. The sides are evenly matched and no one has produced anything of note. My Assistant Manager Chris van der Weerden thinks I should express my disappointment in our performance, and in truth it hasn’t been very good, but I couldn’t be more sanguine. Arsenal have done little, apparently content to hand the title over to us and help us to equal their record of going through a whole season unbeaten, and surely you’d imagine they would have a personal stake in preventing that from happening. I am happy to tell them to keep plugging away, though after anonymous showings Wilson and Max Willian are soon pulled off. As decent as Dubois and Tierney have been for the Gunners there’s no excuse for not trying.

Arsenal gain the advantage after an hour’s play. Saka has just come on, and he takes a free kick deep inside our half. The ball is eventually cleared after much huffing and puffing, but only as far as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, one of those midfielders who always quietly puts in a shift. He volleys through the Downfall game of legs and beats Butland at his near post. Damn. Or not. Several minutes later, a DCFC break sparked by Hughes finds Pellegrini haring down the left wing. He puts in his cross towards Adam Hlozek, whose coverage by Ake can be charitably described as loose. The Czech slots in to equalise.

We’re back in deadlock territory, and like many situations when finding a way through isn’t easy neither side is willing to go that extra mile. We don’t need to of course, and as the clock dribbles away we feel we’ve done enough. Sure enough, by the final whistle a little podium is erected in this hostile north London environment and we are given the stage to celebrate our triumph.

It’s the club’s first league title since 1975, our third in total. Even by the standards of a side that has finished fifth and third in recent seasons it’s a great achievement, the one that matters really, and whilst I have been reticent about declaring it our aim of the campaign there was always a part of me that felt we were going to be in the picture. The squad has improved, and having been in this position last year it seemed to me we could use that experience to apply ourselves better this time around.

It isn’t over for us yet. We will meet Arsenal again in the FA Cup final, and until then there are a couple of remaining league ties to get out of the way. My intention is to use some of the side’s lesser lights in these games and have my best eleven ready, fit and willing to battle the Gunners at Wembley.

Next up are Fulham at Craven Cottage. Our hosts are the only guaranteed relegated side, though Swansea and West Brom are both teetering. The ripple effect from our title win puts Jurgen Klopp‘s status as Liverpool manager in a bit of jeopardy, but he responds with winning his catch-up matches to make the board rapidly rethink their plans. For Unai Emery at Chelsea and Spurs’ Luis Enrique, however, it seems like a matter of time.

Going into this one, I make the decision to transfer-list Patrick Roberts. The English winger has never managed to graduate from being the good Championship winger we originally signed, and it seems best to me to put him out of his misery. The big contract Roberts weaselled out of me stands as one of my true aberrations in charge at Derby. I think we probably will be able to find a new home for him, but my chances of getting someone to take on his expected wages in full is somewhat more distant. All the same, Girona join Palace and Watford in forming an orderly queue for what amounts to his services.

If ever a game has looked like it’s stacked in our favour then surely this is it. The Cottagers are in woeful form, and we take a wonderful record against them to their home. Only the fact we have nothing left to play for stands against us, I feel, though by this stage you can say the same for Fulham.

Nobody really likes kicking someone when they’re down. That aptly describes the home team, a disparate set of players going through the motions but whose morale is currently several storeys below the ground floor. Fortunately for them the result doesn’t matter very much to us either, but goals from Tosin Adarabioyo, Jude Bellingham and a late volley by Jeremie Frimpong seal the deal. I would say more, but winning here feels like coming out of a contest that was unevenly matched before a ball was kicked. Too easy. A more welcome note is that we bring Eddie Salcedo back into the side. He’s recovered from his hammy and plays the whole second half, mainly to develop his match fitness. There’s no goal from him, indeed it’s a quiet performance on the whole, but for once it doesn’t really matter.

The penultimate table of the campaign shows that we have crossed the ninety points barrier and remain undefeated, albeit with a stiff challenge to complete the season when we entertain Manchester City, who latterly are the Premier League’s in-form outfit. Can we get through it without losing? On the one hand no one is too concerned, but it would be a nice additional honour to aim for. More importantly, a week later we will be visiting Wembley for the third time this year to meet our date with FA Cup destiny, where Arsenal awaits. Derby have tasted glory in this competition previously, back in the black and white, post-war year of our lord 1946, so I think it’s fair to suggest that it’s been a while.

Derby FM20 – April/May 2023: Close, So Close

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.

Southampton are starting their bid for Premier League safety early this year. For the past two seasons they’ve pulled off a great escape, often enough leaving it until the last weekend to haul themselves over the line into seventeenth. Not long before we take them on, the Saints’ manager Paco Jemez is under pressure. It’s the normal lot of gaffers at St Marys as panic sets in, the desperate need to cling on. But the Spaniard made of sterner stuff than his predecessors. He’s saved their bacon in 2021/22, and this time he’s guided them to fifteenth. They aren’t safe yet, but the small gap between themselves and the relegation places might be just enough.

None of this is our concern of course. We have our own thing to fight for, and it isn’t an insignificant matter to go for the league title. I’m happy to see Southampton come close to another top flight campaign, but not today. Today we win… hopefully.

This one takes place at Pride Park, in the unfamiliar surroundings of a mild and sunny afternoon. Dad, what’s that big yellow thing up there? Why’s the sky… blue? I name an attacking line-up. The in-form Bellingham joins Moriba in central midfield. Hlozek plays on the right wing because we can at last name Sebastiano Esposito in our match day squad again. The Italian’s back problems have been overcome, but he’s considerably short of match fitness and I am recommended to give him substitute’s appearances to build it back up. He’ll do well to get any time with Eddie Salcedo in such stonking form, but he ends up having more than I planned for when the striker goes off in the twenty-first minute with what is later diagnosed as a tight hamstring. Typical, right? Salcedo’s played himself back into our hearts, only to be lost for a week.

Almost as though Eddie is the only man who can make a difference here, the game dribbles out to a 0-0 draw. We pull out every trick we have, restricting the visitors to scraps while we surge forward again and again, yet to no avail. It’s a classic stuttering job of work by my attacking cohorts. Hlozek is almost anonymous on the right before he gets pulled for Wilson, to little effect. Worse still is Esposito’s work. He’s a pale shadow of the predatory striker we are used to watching. An understandably weak showing produced from someone who hasn’t touched a competitive ball in months, and not the heroic comeback we are all hoping to see.

For their part, the Saints do well enough and demonstrate to everyone watching that there’s steel in their ranks. Bosko Sutalo, a Croatian centre-back signed from Atalanta in the summer, is their main man, dealing with everything sent his way, as though fuelled with the spirit of former Saint Virgil Van Dijk. Fraser Forster does what he has to do in goal, and ultimately I can only chalk this up to nerves on our part coupled with the away side’s gritty defending that it ends goalless.

The good news comes from elsewhere, as we learn that Wolves have downed Liverpool 1-0 in the Saturday evening game. United do for Bournemouth, but it was always the Pool with their matches in hand that I perceived to be the danger team, and the Wanderers have done us an enormous favour by prevailing against them.

After a fantastic April run of results that has seen Derby win all but one of our matches I am named Manager of the Month. Salcedo is selected as its best player, which seems fair and only exacerbates the effects of his loss to the cause. The board are still very happy with my work, and why shouldn’t they be? We have exceeded each and every expectation, and I am as pleased as Mr Morris and his cronies with the harmonious changing room spirit. There are no unhappy players here, and they all – with the exception of Gabriel Barbosa, who’s only on the books temporarily – support me entirely. Here’s a tip for you, readers – get this bit right. Make sure you treat the players properly, get them on your side, and you can produce gold dust from ballers who are normally in the bronze category. You might remember my abortive save with Real Madrid – I gave up when it became increasingly clear that no matter what I did, how I handled the players, they really didn’t care for me and their playing performances were indifferent at best.

May opens with another highly winnable home tie, this time against Brighton and Hove Albion. They’re safely ensconced in lower mid-table, accruing 36 points that ought to be enough to see them preserve their status. Graham Potter has done a fine job here. He’s performed the single task I would expect of anyone with an intent to succeed, which is to invest in a good goalkeeper. Pontus Dahlberg is a 24 year old Swede, a highly competent signing from Watford who ends up conceding a lot because of the side he plays for but personally carries fantastic attributes for his job. He isn’t eccentric, he has catlike reflexes and at 6′ 4″ possesses the natural height to deal with most things. Ahead of him is a very decent pair of English defenders in Dunk and White, while the likes of Gross, Shaqiri and Trossard lend them the sort of brittle quality in attack that means we can never switch off against them. Apparently Shaqiri, a recent acquisition from Liverpool, is unhappy with his manager due to a broken promise. As always I’m intrigued to know what this might be – he’s played a lot of matches so what exactly was offered to him and then denied?

This one takes place on a Tuesday evening. It’s cold and wet in Derby, which makes it feel like home. Hlozek starts in attack for us. Esposito is on the bench again. Wilson is picked for the right wing because I would rather rely on a proven and dedicated club servant over the more talented yet largely indifferent Barbosa, an enigma who isn’t going to be our problem for very much longer. You want high-profile signings, Derby board? Be very careful what you wish for.

A first half that’s blissfully highlight-free leads to angry scenes in the dressing room. How can they not be ahead, I demand, not appreciating until later that we’ve been given plastic cups in order to spare the DCFC crockery? We haven’t played badly, but it seems that without the scoring exploits of Salcedo we’re toothless, and nobody wants to be in a position where they’re relying on the inconsistent Italian. The visitors have come to hold the line, and just like we do sometimes are capable of producing a strong display. They’ve lined up with four defenders and two defensive midfielders, building a wall that we are failing to overcome. Better is expected. Attack!

It’s at moments like these that I’m grateful for Adam Hlozek. One of the match’s most individually gifted participants, the Czech can be utterly vexatious by doing nothing for eighty-five minutes only to be immense during the other five. He has us ahead shortly after the action resumes. Settling back into arraying ourselves just outside the Seagulls’ penalty area, the move starts with our midfielders passing between themselves. They’re looking for gaps and eventually Moriba finds one as Hlozek is pushing against Dunk, who is on a booking. The Spaniard finds him, and easing away from his marker Hlozek plants a low shot into the far corner that for once defies Dahlberg, the keeper left on his knees. Shortly before the end, Chirivella picks him out when he’s close to goal, just behind White. Hlozek lines up to volley from point-blank range, a spectacular strike from a tapping-in position, and we couldn’t be happier.

That does for Brighton’s  challenge, one in which they defended with aplomb yet came across a forward who was determined to play his part for the cause. 2-0 is a great result at a time when we just need the points, and it leaves us on the cusp of glory.

Liverpool and United are both involved in the Champions League while we carve out a hard-fought victory here. The latter do enough against Leipzig, winning 1-0 at home to finish on a 2-1 aggregate. They will face Barcelona, who frankly look terrifying. The Pool record a 2-1 win at Anfield, but overcoming the four unanswered goals Barca put past them back in Catalonia was always going to be a tall order, even taking into account Messi and Co’s now traditional troubles on the road, and they don’t achieve it.

We have three games remaining – Arsenal and Fulham away, Manchester City at home. Our requirement is a point, a single point. I’m asked about the possibility that Derby will emulate the great Arsenal Invincibles team and go through the entire league campaign without losing, and I don’t care. As long as we get the one point then any and all other feats can be damned.

Derby FM20 – April 2023: Eddie’s Back

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.

You know how I have spent many recent posts expressing my frustrations about Eddie Salcedo? Just as I’m thinking of replacing him in the side at the end of the season he scores four goals during a single match. The victims are Middlesbrough, visitors to Pride Park at the weekend as Liverpool are beating Chelsea elsewhere. Seeing them overcome the considerable challenge of Unai Emery’s Londoners it’s clear we need to sustain the margin we’ve built up in the Premier League, especially as we’re off the Stamford Bridge in midweek.

Boro are the perfect opposition for us. Fourteenth in the table, five points clear of the drop zone but with more hopeless cases between themselves and the bottom three, they aren’t in truth very good and we should have enough in the tank to overcome their challenge. We welcome them to an inevitably soaking Pride Park and go ahead in the seventh minute when a Wilson corner is headed in by Salcedo at the near post. Poor defending by Dael Fry, Boro’s best centre-back, who is absolutely defied by Eddie for movement and in jumping for the ball. Salcedo’s twenty-first minute goal is even more spectacular. It’s another Wilson corner. This one is aimed deeper, the Italian dashing into a wall of three Boro players and rising above them all to once again head beyond Lecomte.

Eddie gets his third shortly before the break. A shot at goal by Max Willian hits the post and the ball stops dead on the wet turf. Former Derby defender Perr Schuurs is nearest and has the task of clearing it as far as humanly possible, but he’s slow to react and Salcedo sneaks in again, slotting his shot across the goalmouth and in at the far corner. The striker’s fourth is claimed straight after the whistle blows for the second half. Frimpong sends in a cross and he’s there to fire home, Schuurs on coverage and looking entirely lost. Just as I’m thinking that all the ill-will and curses I have sent in Salcedo’s direction have been misplaced, he has to go off with what turns out to be a tight Achilles. Fortunately the layoff is considered to be worth a day or two’s worth of treatment only, but it would be typical of him to have his best match in a Rams shirt and then get himself injured.

4-0 is an emphatic scoreline, and obviously everyone’s delighted. Chelsea‘s defeat means that they now can’t catch us in the league. Carrying eighty points in the bank, we are unable to finish any lower than third and that brings with it a guarantee of Champions League qualification. As a consequence the Derby board hangs me upside down in leg irons for a meeting in which they outline my budgets for the new season. We now have £2.2 million per week to splash out on wages, along with a transfer budget of £78.8 million. That’s a serious amount of money, and I look forward to working out where to spend it. A right winger and left-back are the priority positions. Eddie’s exploits and the recovery of Esposito might have stayed my hand where drafting in a centre-forward is concerned, but there may be a consideration towards finding a new left-footed centre-back to alternate with Reece Oxford. As ever, matching my requirements with who’s available will present the usual quandary.

Burnley and West Ham both guarantee promotion from the Championship as they have only one match left to play. The playoffs will be a mash-up betwixt Sheffield United, Watford, Leeds and Crystal Palace. Aside from the Peacocks all these sides are recently relegated outfits, so for once I’m hoping that they do it, even though it’s been fun to watch Sean Dyche‘s boys fail to meet their potential.

The night before the Chelsea game I watch Liverpool take on Barca in the Champions League. It isn’t pretty. Played in Catalonia, the first leg sees a 4-0 wipe-out for the Catalans. Two goals apiece for Mbappe and Griezmann and the usual defensive solidity of Van Dijk brought low as he’s named as the centre-back most culpable for their poor showing.

This also means that Pool are stacking up the fixtures. They have to play away again two evenings later when they go to Norwich. How they can be anything other than fatigued for that one is anybody’s guess, but who cares, right? We’re at Stamford Bridge. I’ll take a draw here very happily. We won this fixture last season at a time when we were building towards an unlikely title tilt that went away just as quickly as it arrived. This time we’d love to win again, and on this occasion to continue our march to the top.

Unai Emery is under pressure to get results at the Bridge. His Blues are in a Champions League place, but their own title challenge has vanished and their place in the top four is under threat. It isn’t what old Moneybags would be hoping for, I’m sure, especially after another season of heavy spending (£230 million). Worse still is the persistent rumour that Lautaro Martinez could be spirited away to Old Trafford. As the league’s leading scorer both for this campaign and the last, the Argentinian is a totemic influence and it looks bad when it appears he might be hoping to go elsewhere.

It’s raining – again! – in London. We take the lead in the first minute when Ihattaren is robbed of possession. The ball is threaded back to Hughes, who hits it long to the penalty area where Eddie Salcedo is in line with the Chelsea defenders and weaves himself clear. As Colwill and Ampadu try to surround him the Italian places an accurate shot that crosses Kepa’s body and flies into the bottom corner.

This is good, but now we have to prepare for the best part of an entire match where we will weather the blue-shirted storm. And that is exactly what we get. Our outlook becomes increasingly defensive as the home team do everything they can to beat us. We rack up fouls, take on three yellow cards, attack sparingly, look for gaps, hold on to the ball even if there’s little we can do with it but retain possession and catch our breath… It is anything but beautiful football as we see out the time, frustrating the Blues, throwing bodies in their way and very occasionally relying on Jack Butland to pull off another worldie, as he has to when Martinez pinches the ball from Oxford and finds himself with only the keeper to beat. Jackie steels himself, gets a fingertip to the shot and tips it over the bar. A corner, but that’s okay. Not conceding is the only thing that matters.

We know we’ve got away with it when Chelsea leave gaps wide enough for us to get in some late shots. Moriba hits one that goes so narrowly close. It’s fine. As long as the ball is at the opposite end of the pitch to our goal I am happy.

The whistle for full-time blows, and we’ve beaten the Blues. Eddie wins the match ball for generating its solitary goal, while Hughes and Butland come in for justified praise after producing two battling performances, but in reality this is a victory for our defending. Derby have set a new team record of not conceding a goal in seven straight games. Since beating Liverpool 3-2 at the beginning of April, nothing has got through while we have won seven straight, five of those by a single goal. That’s absolutely cool with me.

The table above includes the situation after Norwich have pulled off a shock 1-0 victory over Liverpool the following evening. When I look at the exhausted Pool players struggling off the pitch at the end I can see that simple tiredness has killed off their challenge. Had we stayed in the Champions League then this might have been us. Two home games follow. The opposition are Southampton and then Brighton, and if we have anything about ourselves then we’ll beat them both, indeed we will need to with May containing an away day at Arsenal and taking on a rejuvenated Manchester City at home. The magic number now is 91. That’s the number of points we need to accumulate in order to clinch the league, regardless of what anyone else does. It feels as though we are very nearly there.

Derby FM20 – April 2023: Squeezing Them Out

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.

Marcelo Bielsa parts ways with Wolves in the wake of our victory. I wonder if the 67 year old legend has been dismissed, but in reality he’s taken the job at Borussia Dortmund and is leaving England altogether. The favourite to take his role in the Black Country is Gian Piero Gasperini, with Maurizio Sarri also interested and Ronald Koeman keeping quiet about his links with the role. One manager who won’t be going there is Diego Simeone. He’s been installed at Manchester City, which to my eyes looks like an almost perfect appointment as the Blues aim to put their disappointing campaign behind them.

A report is issued that outlines profits made in the Premier League. The collective profit is £316 million, of which we are slightly below average in clinching a £10.75 million upturn. That puts us in ninth place. Things are heavily skewed at the top of the table, where Manchester United have blown everyone else away as always. Champions League participation makes all the difference, and has no doubt had an effect on our ability to spend no little amount of money while making a small profit overall. United and Liverpool are of course operating on a different tier to the pack, and they’re both still playing in Europe’s big competition. At the Semi-Final stage, Solskjaer’s men are taking on RB Leipzig while Liverpool get Barcelona, who have blitzed each opponent in reaching this point. Messi’s still at the Camp Nou, a 35 year old impact sub, but if you’re going to remove him from your regular starting line-up then Kylian Mbappe is probably one of the few players out there who can usurp his place. I can’t see it being an easy hurdle for Klopp and his boys.

United beat Newcastle 2-1 in the league at the weekend, but these are matters that are beyond our ken as we’re participating in the FA Cup Semi-Final. In the other draw, Liverpool are taking on Arsenal and go down 2-1 after falling to late goals from Kimpembe and Almada (a target for Real Madrid, and we do hope it becomes a reality). We’re facing Bristol City, the last Championship team remaining in the competition. They’re in seventh place, six points beyond making the playoffs and qualification unlikely with only three fixtures left to play.

If we hold our nerve then we should make it to the Final, and whilst Arsenal are more than capable of besting us it’s a relief to find that we don’t have to play Liverpool again. That isn’t to dismiss our present opposition. They’re a side we enjoyed mixed fortunes against when we were both playing second division football. A 3-1 victory at home was complemented with being hammered 3-0 at Ashton Gate, not one of our better days as errors contributed to our fall. Much has changed for both sides since then. Now they’re managed by Peter Krawietz, the latest in a churn of sexy German managers coming over here as teams try to unearth the new Klopp. After serving under the great man at Anfield, Krawietz is experiencing his first head coaching role in Brizzle and in leading his men to the latter stages of the FA Cup is clearly doing a good job.

I’m advised to keep an eye on Antoine Semenyo, their homegrown right winger who has the finishing ability and pace to make me reminisce about Bakery Jatta. Joe Lolley on the opposite flank has just as much of an eye for goal, and the same’s true for their striker, Nabil Touaizi, on loan from Manchester City and close to hitting twenty for the season. There are goals in this side, that’s for certain. They’re second in the division for their scoring rate, behind Sheffield United, but they can concede a fair few also. They might just be made for us to overcome.

At a wet – would we ever have it otherwise? – Wembley Stadium, watched by 90,000 supporters and with further millions watching at home, we produce no classic. Thinking of future challenges I keep Lowe in at left-back, and use a midfield of Gallagher and Bellingham. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, who’s developing well, but the former Chelsea midfielder hasn’t done a lot for us and is close to being chalked up as a transfer failure on my behalf. He makes it to half-time before being removed for his own sake. More concerning is the gashed lower leg incurred by Ademola Lookman. Taylor Moore earns a yellow card for his rough challenge; the winger is ruled out for a week.

Despite consistent pressure we produce a single goal, and that’s enough to kill off the Robins. Wilson’s cross is headed towards goal by Eddie Salcedo. It’s straight at the keeper, but the ball’s slippery and wet, and Kobel can only parry it to the floor, more importantly right in front of the Italian, who just needs to sneak it in at the near post. Remarkably this is Eddie’s seventeenth goal of the season. You might think that’s a fine record. You may even be wondering what on earth I’m complaining about. Basically, he should have scored many more than he has. He reminds me of Andrew Cole, the onetime Newcastle and Man You striker who has a great goals record over the course of his career, however the Fantasy Football show used to revel in showing the sheer number of chances that went awry. You could do the same where Eddie’s concerned, with bonus content to cover the number of incidents when goals have been ruled out for offside.

Still we’re through, despite having produced nothing like a vintage display. City are decent opposition but we make hard work of them, and the one note of real pleasure is how far forward we have shifted over the years while they have more or less stayed the same.

In midweek a full Premier League programme showcases Liverpool going to Arsenal after being dumped out of the FA Cup by them. If we’re expecting the Gunners to do us any favours then it doesn’t happen here as the Pool achieve a narrow 3-2 victory. United win by the same scoreline at home to Norwich. We’re off to the Liberty Stadium to take on Swansea City. They’re seventeenth, and as we have difficult away days at Stamford Bridge and the Emirates before the end of the campaign we’re hopeful of grabbing a win from them. I say some nice things about Marco Silva to the press, which he graciously takes as Ferguson-esque kidology and launches into an angry tirade. Psychological mischief managed. Swansea sit just outside the relegation places. Leicester, Southampton and Fulham are below them and just about anything can happen in the pressure pot they’re occupying.

Again, it isn’t a great display from us. That we squeeze out a victory is to our credit. Adam Hlozek beats Ben Davies in the Swans defence and scores from a low shot in the twenty-fourth minute, and at that moment it feels as though the floodgates might open. They do not. Instead we look as though we’re going to cough up our precious and slim lead in the second half when Jayden Bogle concedes a penalty to Matt Grimes. The midfielder opts to take the kick himself, a powerful effort but one sent straight down the middle and right into Jack Butland’s grateful arms.

In our favour, we dominate and largely control the action beyond this moment. Ilaix Moriba is especially good in midfield, orchestrating everything, but he has a stuttering attack to work alongside and while we could have produced more we resolutely fail to add to our account. Still a win’s a win, and we’re three points closer to clinching the title.

At the weekend we’re entertaining Middlesbrough, who are once again defying the odds to achieve safety in lower mid-table. After that we’re going to Chelsea, one of those fault-line fixtures that could define our final place. Our record against them is mixed. We’ve won before now at Stamford Bridge but we have also been made to look like proper turkeys there; however we have the prospect of ending their slim title dream in our hands, and that should be incentive enough. Meanwhile, and in a wearingly predictable turn of events, Leicester City are looking for a new manager after dismissing Mendilibar….

Derby FM20 – April 2023: Another Serving of Scouse

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.

To date we have enjoyed taking on Everton very much. Unlike their illustrious neighbours the blue half of Liverpool have been very obliging to our cause, rolling over helpfully on request. They’re in eighth place, as capable of dealing out judgement as they are of being dealt in turn, and for the life of me I can’t see what the issue is considering their squad is perfectly fine. If they do have a weakness then it’s one that we are very familiar with, which is their low goalscoring rate. Dominic Calvert-Lewin has put away eleven strikes in the league, but beyond him the pickings are slim. Jose Juan Macias – who they start with against us – has never risen beyond single figures since his £27 million signing, and Dominic Solanke is up for sale, unwanted and available at the knockdown price of £6 million. The 25 year old is on our longlist of transfer targets, present despite the heavy caveat that he’s just as goal-shy as anyone we possess – I’m not sure that he’s the answer. To any question.

Behind their forwards Thomas Frank can call on a great set of players. Jarrod Bowen, Hakan Calhanoglu and Richarlison could all walk into this side and enhance us. Andre Gomes and Nabil Fekir are cracking attacking midfielders, nor are they short of talent in defence where the likes of Mason Holgate and Lucas Digne represent a considerable wall. There’s potency, no doubt there, but they lack any level of consistency. We’re expecting to win against them.

On the day before we play Manchester United and Liverpool both draw. The former’s 0-0 at Wolves isn’t necessarily anything to be ashamed about, but it’s Swansea who go to Anfield and hold mighty Liverpool 1-1, featuring a goalkeeping masterclass from Emiliano Martinez. Even after Ashley Westwood has been dismissed early in the second half there’s no breakthrough, which suggests Klopp’s globetrotters can have a real problem when they’re taking on sides that they’re heavily tipped to beat. We are able to go five points clear if we beat the Toffees, and that should be more than enough incentive for us to perform.

It is obviously wet in Derby on Sunday afternoon. We’re playing on this day because the opposition is still contesting the Europa League. They’ve put four past Real San Sebastian in the first leg of the Quarter-Final, which is good for them but also for us as they are showing signs of match fatigue when they take the field here. Max Lowe continues to feature in our defence as Luca Pellegrini is handed a further two-match ban after his sending off in the Pool game. Will Hughes is back in the line-up, alongside Bellingham, whilst Eddie Salcedo is persevered with. I have to believe that he’ll come good eventually, though this run of games is essentially him on trial. If he picks up his form then he can stay; otherwise he’ll be gone at the end of the campaign.

Confident of victory we tear into the visitors from the start. They’re a good side but beatable, and our pressure results in a penalty on the half-hour mark when Mola shoves Hughes over in the area during a free-kick routine. A cheap one to give away. Gabriel Barbosa steps up to take it, and though he does little else in the game he’s competent enough to send the otherwise solid Jed Steer the wrong way before finding the net. Just before the break a Chirivella corner is headed out by Richarlison but then gets headed back towards goal by Will Hughes. It isn’t an especially strong effort, however its bounce somehow defies Steer and goes in.

Everton show more life after a Frank rollicking in the dressing room. To no avail, it turns out, as the only incident of note is the lower leg injury to Macias that simultaneously puts him out for a week and introduces Calvert-Lewin, who we have to marshal more earnestly. We have a known problem when it comes to scoring goals, but so do the opposition who struggle to make much of an impression. 2-0 is the final score, which is just fine. Salcedo has a quiet game, not even an offside goal on this occasion, and where I’m concerned this moves him a step closer to the exit.

There’s a two-day break before we open the gates again to welcome Wolverhampton Wanderers. Our main rivals are involved in the Champions League so it’s an opportunity to move further out of sight at the top of the table. Though we should prevail at home, Marcelo Bielsa brings a quick and dangerous squad that I think is better than its mid-table berth. There are some players in this side who I would love to have command over. My desire to sign Adama Traore has abated somewhat, however I’d reshuffle my midfield to accommodate Lewis Cook, who’s not available and therefore a remote prospect, while Todd Cantwell has been put up for sale and might become a bigger target if Ademola Lookman ends up going.

Due to the lack of time we are much changed for their visit. Tosin and Bogle are back in the eleven, two players who are on other teams’ wanted lists – Spurs are eyeing the tall centre-back, while Jayden is an object of unrequited lust for Wolves and Boro. We aren’t selling him, and that’s all there is to it. Well, maybe if you offer a ridiculous sum of money…

The game is a low-key affair, almost certainly because you can’t play two matches so close together and retain a full-blooded pace. The visitors force a couple of quick reactions out of Butland, and Hlozek makes a nuisance of himself in the Wolves area, producing good saves from Juan Musso, who will end up being named Man of the Match mainly due to the absence of obvious nominees elsewhere.

I believe that this one will peter out to a 0-0 draw. We’ve broadly cancelled each other out and are playing a fractious, bad-tempered game in the traditional rain. Wolves target Lowe as the main focus of their attacking pressure. This makes sense. He’s the weak link in our defence; as always though Max is at least competent and deals with Rui Peixoto on their right wing well enough. We’re focusing on the same flank. Max Willian versus Jonny carries far more potential for us than the pitched battle between Barbosa and Vinagre, pitting our diffident winger against one of the better left-backs out there. Our goal comes from the left, a comedy of errors when Max Willian’s cross is turned beyond his own  keeper by hulking German defender Christoph Zimmermann. As soon as it’s scored, we spend the remaining twenty-five minutes reducing our attacking focus, dealing with everything they throw at us. Tosin is forced off with a minor knee injury, but Bielik is a capable alternative, and Moriba is sacrificed for Chirivella as we see the time out in solid fashion.

Not one for the highlights reel then, but we had a job to do and we’ve done it. The eight points margin we hoped to carve out has been achieved as requested, though Liverpool now have a catch-up game so in reality the cushion isn’t quite as plump as it appears. Still, good times. We are well on course to beat our Premier League points record of 79, and we cannot now finish any lower than fifth. One more victory will place us beyond Arsenal’s reach, guaranteeing Champions League football in 2023/24, and the golden points total is 94. If we hit that amount then it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.