Derby FM20 – February 2023: Defeat!

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.

It’s an inhospitable Saturday afternoon at Pride Park when we play Aston Villa. The conditions aren’t Arctic, but the rain scythes down and my feeling is that we really ought to be indoors right now, curled up on the sofa with a brew and the matinee classic movie on BBC2. Instead nearly 33,000 hardy souls have made their way to the ground for the match, something of a grudge as our last two fixtures against the Villans have ended in draws. On both occasions we should have beaten them, but there’s an obstinate quality about them that makes finding the back of the net a nearly impossible prospect. I could understand us having those kinds of problems against our next opposition, where we somehow have to find a way past Jan Oblak, a knotty matter that could be one for Mulder and Scully. But Villa?

I’m being unkind, of course. The visitors are a good side, difficult to break down. They feature Engels and Mings in defence, and can pick from Grealish, McGinn, Kalvin Phillips and the on-loan Billy Gilmour to staff their midfield. The threat lessens as you move further up the field and into attack, but in their build-up they have a lot to offer. They’re in tenth place. Even with Manchester United and Liverpool behind us, I think we’re in for a tough time here.

And so it proves. A much changed Rams line-up takes to the field as I juggle things ahead of the Atletico Madrid game. Henderson’s playing in goal. Frimpong and Lowe are our full-backs. Bellingham’s in to play alongside Moriba and ahead of Vieira, as I believe they might have the passing guile to cause Villa problems. Pat Roberts is picked ahead of Barbosa and Wilson (who still isn’t fully fit) to do his thing from the right wing. By the end, we’ve carved out a hard-fought 1-0 win. Our goal comes from the penalty spot. Adam Hlozek wins the foul after he’s been put through by Roberts and lingers on the ball just inside the area until Mings wrestles him off it. It’s an easy shout, and a straightforward penalty. For some reason I think it isn’t going to go in. Perhaps it’s the fact Hlozek selects himself to take it, or his unconfident demeanour as he starts his run-up, yet the ball flies into the bottom corner with little fuss.

Despite a few scary moments, more based on the visitors’ approach play than their end product, we leave with a 1-0 victory. It isn’t the decisive statement we would hope to make, but all that truly matters right now are the points. We don’t come away from the game entirely unscathed. Max Lowe goes down from a heavy Leo Baptistao challenge. He finishes the match but is later diagnosed with a damaged foot and prescribed with up to three weeks’ absence from the side.

Liverpool and United both keep up the pressure, defeating Newcastle 2-0 and Swansea 3-1 respectively. It seems clear that the Premier League will end up going to one of those two, or maybe even ourselves. The challengers in fourth and fifth both pick up unwanted results. Chelsea are held 1-1 at home by Leicester, courtesy of James Maddison to whom the cheque is in the post. Everton pound Arsenal 3-1 to help maintain the Gunners’ bridesmaid status within these affairs.

I’ve been advised to offer Ilaix Moriba a new contract due to his enhanced importance within the squad. Aware that the Spaniard is an essential asset that I do not want to lose, I leave it to Director of Football David Moss to sort out the particulars. Several days later he returns with the announcement that Ilaix has put pen to paper on a five-year deal that is worth a whopping £35 million. The midfielder is now on £140,000 per week, which is about right for someone of his stature but a load for me to bear. The on-loan Barbosa aside, this is the first Ram I’ve paid a six-figure weekly salary to and I’m sure he won’t be the last.

Ilaix isn’t scheduled to start against Atletico Madrid in the first leg of our Champions League tie, to be played at the Wanda Metropolitano. For the away match I want deep lying midfielders who can produce defensively as well as in attack, so it’s the preferred trio of Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira for this one. The idea is to soak up their pressure on the road and try to win the round back at Pride Park. It won’t be easy. Over the last decade or so the Mattress Makers have really upped their game to become genuine challengers in Europe. They’re Spain’s third best team, but that still makes them bloody brilliant as their standards are being set against the likes of Real and Barca. Marcelo Gallardo is their third manager since I took charge at Derby. Diego Simeone and Ernesto Valverde have been spat out in the interim, and in their wake the Argentinian has done a manly job, guiding them to first place in La Liga (three points ahead of Barcelona) and reshaping their squad.

Joao Felix has gone – he’s now a £100 million United footballer. Sandro Tonali was the summer’s other big sale, a crushing £96 million transfer to Hertha Berlin. In their wake Gallardo has assembled almost an entirely new side. Notable incoming talent includes Timothy Weah, Sander Berge, Odsonne Edouard, Donny van de Beek, and a sizaeable £48.5 million lavished on Gedson Fernandes, who’s injured for this encounter. The biggest obstacle remains Oblak, rated in many quarters as being the world’s best keeper and someone against whom we will need to be at our trickiest. Oh, for the availability of Sebastiano Esposito, but our forward is nowhere fast in recovering from his knackered spine. There appears to be no set date for his return and I am increasingly resigned to potentially not having the use of him again this season.

The match is, as you might expect, a stiff test of our defensive capabilities. Sander Berge has them ahead in the ninth minute, a volley from outside the area via Pedrosa’s assist, and at that moment I think it’s all going to collapse. There’s nothing wrong with the goal, a sweetly struck effort that flies in from distance, but that seems to be the level we’re playing here, the very highest, a game in which we can’t give them a second’s comfort on the ball because they can pull off things like this. I’m gutted that Berge has scored. He’s a player I really admired when he was with Sheffield United, and I have a lot of respect for the things he can do when our full attention isn’t ranged on him. We end up going in at half-time still a goal behind and beginning to creep back into the action a little more. More than any other side we’ve faced this season the skill levels are at their optimal here. The home side are really great at finding space; their movement, especially when off the ball, is like watching a genius tactical philosophy translated fluently into what’s happening on the pitch. If it was against any other side I would be delighted to see it in action, but they’re doing this to us and I don’t like it much.

Another factor that’s doing us few favours is the card-happy referee. Both sides take bookings, and worrying for me are the yellows shown to Oxford and Pellegrini that will prevent them from taking part in the home leg. The former isn’t good, but Luca’s suspension is a real blow. The race will now be on the get Lowe back to fitness in time for the date with destiny in three weeks’ time back in England.

By the end of the game Bogle and Bielik will also have been booked to complete a defensive line in which each player has seen yellow. Jayden’s card is especially costly, as it is shown whilst awarding a penalty to Atletico, following an incident in which he holds back Morata while both are in the penalty area. The kick is taken by midfielder Viktor Tsygankov, and unlike Paul Pogba he makes no mistake with his shot.

The only saving grace is that they’re already down to ten men by this point. Pedrosa has been dismissed for a second yellow, mainly for fouling Barbosa, and in that sense it’s a bit needless because the winger hasn’t been very effective. Harry Wilson comes on for the last twenty minutes and with his ability with set pieces we at last get a break. An eighty-fourth minute free-kick taken by the substitute is hit straight into the crowded penalty area. Salcedo gets the first touch, a header that he knocks right across the goal-line and into the path of Will Hughes, who only needs to tap in his shot to make it 2-1.

That’s the final score. It contains something for both sides, I’d argue. Atletico are good value for their victory, while we have just suffered our first defeat of the season here. It came against one of the best teams we will ever play so I can’t really be too upset with it, yet no one likes losing and I have to take the away goal as a promise that this tie isn’t dead. At 2-0 it would have been very hard to affect the final outcome. 2-1 is something we can work with.

In any event, there’s plenty of football to be played before we welcome them to Derby. We’ve no time for recriminations or blame, and I’m not even very disappointed with how we played. They were just a great side and we’ve got to to suck it up. Speaking of which, we’re going to Wembley at the weekend. The occasion is the Carabao Cup final, our opponents Liverpool.

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