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.

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