Arsenal FM21 – March 2021: Future Squad Thoughts

Arsenal are making a loss of close to £10 million each month. Entering March there’s £19 million left in the budget, which means we will almost certainly be in the red by the season’s end. Hopefully the club’s considerable pulling power will rake in a small fortune in sponsorship because I want my big transfer budget in the summer. Apparently this is a guaranteed £45 million, which doesn’t quite tickle my dreams – the Projections screen on the other hand suggests we’re in for a £70 million+ bonanza. We’ll see.

I’m also getting a good idea of who I would like to offload. Of the out on loan players, Elneny and Mari were dispatched with the intent of drumming up some interest in them. I don’t see any future in the side for Guendouzi. Ceballos is likely to be thanked for his contribution and not welcomed back – the costs to sign him would be prohibitive and I’m just not that into him. His Real Madrid stablemate Vinicius is here specifically to swap around with Saka on the left while Smith Rowe and Martinelli make themselves worthy of the first team during their loan spells. Other first team members I’m looking to replace are:

  • Runar Runarsson – nowhere near the first eleven, so it all depends on Leno remaining hale and hearty.
  • Sead Kolasinac – decent but wanted by other teams, presumably those who like a violent thug to play in their left wingback role.
  • Grant Xhaka – he does okay, but the aim is to gazump him in 2021/22 for Partey, and I’ve no place for someone earning £100,000 a week for sitting on the bench. We aren’t PSG!
  • Willian – another high earner, and not as good as Pepe nor with the prospect for improvement that Reiss Nelson is showing.

There are also moves afoot to bite into the front two, probably by aiming to replace Lacazette. He’s doing well enough but we have an aging pair of centre forwards and that makes me uncomfortable. Arsenal spend £430k per week on these two war horses, which seems like a criminal outlay to me.

Licking our wounds after the Liverpool defeat, we take on Leicester in the first leg of the Europa League endless round and come away with a 1-0 home win. It isn’t brilliant. We batter them and reduce Vardinho to scraps, but it takes us until the eighty-fifth minute for Auba to find a way past Schmeichel. Not one for the ages. We’re all feeling the fatigue right now.

The laboured performance continues as we play relegation threatened West Ham in the league. Aubameyang scores a penalty (which we probably shouldn’t have been awarded) in the first half and then adds a superb solo strike late in the second to seal a 2-0 win, but it’s a victory that’s been dragged out of the players rather than emphatically produced. Pepe has a quiet game by his standards, and it’s worrying the amount of reliance we are have in the possibility that he will turn up and perform.

Back to Leicester for the Europa League second leg. All I want here is to escape with the tie in the bag and no more injuries. The game is a dress rehearsal for the weekend, but with mainly second string players as we set out to contain and defend our opposition. It works. The Foxes have quality – Vardinho can score against anyone, Maddison and Tielemans are capable of unlocking most defences – yet so have we, and it finishes 0-0. We go into the draw for the quarter-final, where we’re drawn against Shakhtar. Prevail and we get Manchester United or Braga.

It’s Liverpool at Anfield next, a team we have lost to two times in as many attempts. I don’t want to go into it with a Kloppian moan, but the fixture computer makes us play this two days after Leicester in the Saturday lunchtime slot. The Pool haven’t been in action since the previous Saturday. This I think will make a difference in terms of freshness. Or perhaps they’re just better than we are. Salah has them ahead in the first twenty minutes, slotting the ball calmly beneath Leno after a goalmouth scramble. After that we’re chasing the game, trying to live with their relentless press, and we get a reward of sorts when Auba plants a cracking missile past Alisson late in the game. Sadly Origi has already made it 2-0 by this stage, so we come away with nothing.

This puts us six points behind Liverpool, albeit with a match in hand. It’s difficult to see us bridging the gap. In the meantime, Arsenal’s new youth intake is announced. I was advised previously not to expect too much from this lot, but there are one or two decent prospects. Michael Musah, a 15 year old winger hailing from Leigh, looks like he has no little potential.

Arsenal Under-23s win the Papa Johns Cup, the Joel Campbell Trophy as we know it, and the first team are taking on Aston Villa at the Emirates. The visitors come into this one in good form. Our former keeper Martinez is developing a reputation for keeping clean sheets, so we might be in for a test. In reality they aren’t as good as we are, and we work off the frustrations of Liverpool in the best way by wailing on them from the start. We’re fortunate to have Pepe putting on a show of his class here. Two goals, the second a beautiful, placed shot from a tight angle, and a free kick that Saka volleys home, are the best moments of our 4-0 win. It’s a really good team performance, especially considering the side is rotated for this one. I’m unimpressed with Xhaka, who gets booked in the first minute and hooked at half-time, and I think he should be concerned that Wilshere puts in the sort of full-blooded, committed performance that he fails to produce.

Sometimes it all goes right. As with Liverpool we are the more jaded side when we host Manchester United for our FA Cup tie. I select Pepe. He’s not fully fit, but we need his inspiration and Willian is out for a week with blisters. Despite us being the better side it’s 0-0 at full-time, and we face the additional thirty minutes with the likes of Cook, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Vinicius at crawling pace. But it’s the latter who gets the decisive goal, a well worked cross from Nelson that finds him in a position to slot home. Most of the bigger teams are now out of the competition. We will take on Southampton in the semi-final, with Leicester or Bristol City lying in wait for the winner.

The international break takes over to give us a break ahead of the final push. Holding and Saka are selected for the England squad. As for us, we’re tucked in neatly behind the front two, as always it seems, just about clinging on in the race for the title, while Chelsea are somewhat distant in fourth. Champions League qualification looks likely. According to my addled maths five league victories from the eleven remaining fixtures should be enough, but at this stage should we want more?

Arsenal FM21 – February 2021: Cups and Cock-Ups

The Sebastiano Esposito deal falls through because his work permit isn’t arranged by the time the transfer window closes. A strange one as I saw the teenager as a signing for the summer (his loan agreement would keep him at SPAL until then), but c’est la vie, as the French say. We lose no first team players, though Nicolas Pepe is on a number of radars and Sead Kolasinac – who I wouldn’t mind losing – is winning admiring glances from Chinese clubs. Bayern and Barca want Bellerin. They can carry on wanting.

We’re straight into the new month with a home tie against West Bromwich Albion. Never higher in the table than sixteenth, this one’s seen as a routine affair and to make it even easier Ivan Strinic gets himself sent off for a horror movie tackle on Pepe. Now on Easy Street and more than capable of dealing with Robson-Kanu, we stroll out 2-0 winners after goals from Demiral and a Cook screamer struck from outside the box. It could have been more emphatic, but the points are what count.

A few days later and we’re entertaining Chelsea. This lot beat us earlier in the campaign and we’re keen to get revenge. It looks like it’s all going to plan too, when Pepe gives us a first half lead. Auba has one disallowed, but that’s okay. We’ve spent the first half blowing the visitors away, the fact we’re only one to the good whilst our tails are up registering as a minor concern. Then it all goes wrong in a ten-minute blitz as Werner, Lozano and Ziyech all put shots beyond Leno. Each time we’re caught out on the flanks, Tierney and Maitland-Niles collapsing defensively against the attacking virtues of Ziyech, Pulisic and their mates. Shell-shocked after believing we had the match in the bag and I’d been busy resting tired legs for future challenges, we pull one back via Willian, but it’s done. We’ve lost at home. What a crushing feeling.

United and Liverpool both win and we’re back in our traditional berth of third. I’d have gleefully taken that position had I been offered it at the start of the campaign, but now I want more. Newcastle are next in the cup. No such mistakes this time, as we restrict the Geordies to one shot while Nelson and a Lacazette hat-trick put us out of sight. This is more like it, though in reality I appreciate we’ve simply bullied a weaker opponent and worked some frustration out of our system. In reaching the quarter-final I have met a club vision, and that’s good because the draw pits us against Manchester United. The fun could end here.

City lose the Manchester derby at home to United and Uncle Pep is sacked. We have Sheffield United, quite a different challenge to Chelsea as the Blades are rooted to the table’s foot, having accumulated sixteen measly points. By now we are in a two-games-per-week cycle. I’m rotating my players each time. At Bramall Lane Cook starts, after serving his FA Cup suspension. Partey drops to the bench – he more or less crawled off the pitch at the end of the last match. We struggle to cope with the pace of Lys Mousset. He gets two for the home team, both inspired by incisive breakaways. But we score six – Auba, the Ox, an own goal and a Pepe hat-trick. The latter’s list of suitors grows as Real Madrid joins the gaggle of top clubs fluttering their eyelashes at him. I can’t say I blame them. He’s playing out of his skin and he has eclipsed Willian as our preferred right sided attacking midfielder.

Back to the Europa League and a tie that propels us to Mother Russia and FC Krasnodar. Despite knowing little about the opposition there’s little I can do but rotate the personnel again. I’m a hostage to that stinking heart icon… In any event, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s little to fear. All the action happens in the first half. Saka and Lacazette score the goals in a 2-0 win. Two more strikes are disallowed due to narrow offside decisions. Resolute second stringers like Cook and Wilshere both feature here, and they play well. The former’s booking rules him out of the home leg and also lands him with the fine of a week’s wages. That’s forty-nine grand he won’t see again.

No sooner are we back in Blighty than we’re preparing for Burnley’s visit. The relegation contenders are under pressure and I’m forced to defend Sean Dyche when I’m asked if he should be sacked. Solidarity with a fellow manager, and all that. I might support him in public, but on the pitch we have to put his team to the sword and we do with a very fine 3-0 victory. Another Pepe double and a superb solo effort from Oxlade-Chamberlain cause the damage as the visitors barely feature in our half. The only downside is a calf injury to Chambers, which will rob us of his services for up to a month.

With Liverpool on the horizon, we first have to get our European League tie with Krasnodar out of the way. I’ll be happy if we get through this unscathed and safely through to the next round. The latter wish comes true. It takes us until the second half to turn our dominance into goals, however strikes from Xhaka and Lacazette see us over the line. Dani Ceballos is removed halfway through the first half with a knock, something relatively superficial that will make him unpickable for the Carabao Cup final but quickly recoverable. In the last sixteen we’ll be up against Leicester.

The key moment in the League Cup final comes when Fabinho is dismissed late in the first half for a second booking. It’s 0-0 at this stage, a bad-tempered and thrill-free occasion when the referee’s card waving hand has had a lot of work to do. I’m persuaded to switch from being cautious to positive, and that turns out to be a mistake. Mane nudges them ahead, then Salah adds a second, and there’s nothing I can do but make us more attacking still. Auba scores a penalty when Gomez is adjudged to have held Pepe back in the area, and that gives us some hope, but Liverpool can defend as well as produce one of the more emphatic pressing games out there, and the time peters out.

In fairness, there’s no shame in losing this one. It was close and for long swathes we were the better side, however the opposition turned out to be that bit more decisive when it mattered and kept us under pressure with our passing and movement throughout. Alisson claims the match ball, which speaks volumes about where the match was lost.

Arsenal FM21 – January 2021: Good Fortune at Goodison

We are playing nine matches in January, a torrent of fixtures, including home ties against United and Liverpool, which represents our chance to gain some traction on the leaders, or fall further behind. We make a signing. Rafa Marin is an 18 year old Spanish centre-back from Real Madrid B who costs £325,000. His arrival marks my attempt to placate the board, who have rumbled dissatisfiedly about the fact I haven’t brought in any players for the future. Basically he was cheap, and the hope is to get him out on loan.

Brendan Rodgers has done a remarkable job at Leicester City by turning an exciting squad of players into something rather predictable and boring. We have to respect them because any side containing Tielemans, Barnes and the evergreen Vardinho deserves it, but we’re tipped to win and we do, running out 3-0 victors. This comes at a price, however. Nicolas Pepe is removed with what turns out to be sprained ankle ligaments. It’s a blow as the winger is bang in form, both scoring here and firing in the free kick that Vinicius slots beneath Schmeichel. Kolasinac gets himself dismissed for a second yellow before the end, luckily at a point when the game is in its closing stages and going down to ten has little effect on the result.

Newcastle United are next in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup. With the games coming thick and fast I select a largely second eleven and then get angry when they go in at half-time a goal down. It’s a vexing one to concede. The Geordies have done nothing throughout the period, then Lascelles heads in a corner kick from their one significant attacking move of the entire half. In hindsight though, I’m wrong to throw the water bottle in the dressing room. Not only are those things expensive but I’ve picked this line-up, far from my best players, so how much do I really want to win it? Whether through fear or just simply being the better team, we roar back after the break. Lacazette, Willock and Chambers all find the back of the net to seal the turnaround victory. The only negative is a late knock to Reiss Nelson, which will remove him from the action for a fortnight. In the final, taking place at the end of February, we’ll be up against the considerable obstacle of Liverpool.

The Aston Villa FA Cup game produces another injury in Ainsley Maitland-Niles. After a rough challenge from Grealish, which results in a booking for the winger, Ainsley has to go off in what turns out to be a hamstring strain. That’s three to four weeks without his services, and my squad options are becoming thin. We win the tie 2-1. Aubameyang scores from a terrific solo effort, leaving traces of concern in my mind that we are relying on him more and more. Grealish equalises, a goal resulting from comically bad defending, but our lead is restored just after the break when Gabriel heads in a free kick. John McGinn is red carded for a frankly horror show tackle from behind on Auba, one that leaves me feeling grateful when the striker picks himself up, brushes himself down, and gets on with his work. We get Fulham in the fourth round.

A defeat has long since been coming, but it’s disappointing that we receive it at Brighton and Hove Albion. In fairness to the home team they work like Trojans and deserve their 1-0 win, but we look toothless and suddenly out of sorts. Okay, so Pepe and AMN are unavailable, and Nelson is close to being back, but these players aren’t our only difference-makers, surely. Of course, Liverpool bloody win again. The gap between them and us is now up to eight points.

Travelling to Everton is no one’s idea of the ideal remedy fixture. Despite being rooted in mid-table Uncle Carlo’s lot can give anyone a game when they want to, and there’s no doubt they want to. In the meantime, I’ve sent Saliba (Burnley), Rafa (Oxford), Martinelli (Genk) and Nketiah (Ajax) out on loan for the rest of the season. All are leaving on deals where they are to be treated as important players. They need the playing time, otherwise I might as well keep them around as our ranks get thinner. Over at Sp*rs they’ve finally sacked Uncle Jose, who has led his Champions League side to fourteenth.

Back to the Toffees. Out of form and treating the league table as though it’s coated in grease, it’s a good time to be going to Goodison Park. They should be doing a lot better than they are. Gomes, Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and Digne could do a job in my team, and then there’s former Gunner Iwobi and the curse of coming up against the ex-player… I set out to score and then defend our lead. If there’s a time to grit our teeth and put Brighton behind us, then this is it. The goal is one of our most prosaic, an Oxlade-Chamberlain corner that Gabriel heads past Olsen early in the second half. Luckily, the lack of morale among the home team is such that they don’t ever raise their heads to try and force an equaliser. If anything, we should have scored more goals, but we’ll take it.

It’s good that we’ve arrested our malaise because next up are Manchester United at home. Win here and we put ourselves among the title chasers. Lose and the top two float ever more towards the sunset. In an evenly matched contest, Martial fires them into a first half lead, a moment of cutting edge brilliance. But Aubameyang equalises shortly before the break, and several minutes into the second period Saka gives us the lead. We don’t ever give it up again. Credit goes to Bellerin who ploughs forward to generate the assists for both goals.

We travel to Fulham in the fourth round of the FA Cup, a fixture that has wrestled the league tie against Liverpool into February. With big challenges on the horizon to round off January I put out a largely second eleven. They get the job done, Nelson’s superb volley giving us a lead that we are able to retain. The Cottagers defend well, especially my transfer target Adarabioyo, but we shackle Mitrovic well enough to leave them toothless in attack. Newcastle await in the fifth round.

The only downside of this one is that Saka picks up a pulled knee ligaments injury and we’re without his services for at least two weeks. The youngster has used his appearance time really well and he’ll be missed. A couple of tough games to finish the month starts with an away day at Tottenham Hotspur, currently managed by caretaker Chris Powell. They’ve been poor so far and an extra bonus comes with the news that Harrington Kane is out with an injury, but there’s still Son, Debbie Alli, Bale and Lo Celso to contain. Our outlook is improving again. Auba puts us in front after five minutes, as we attempt to blitz Sp*rs out of the game. But that’s all we produce, and when Son equalises after the break I’m regretting those missed chances. Back on the attack and looking down the barrel of a tied contest, Reiss Nelson pops up to conjure a winner in injury time. We’ve been the better side but it still has the feel of daylight robbery.

Finally there’s Manchester City at the Etihad. In fourth place but currently the division’s in-form team, Uncle Pep’s lot look fearsome. There’s no Sterling or Mahrez, but with KDB present and correct they’re always a problem. We can welcome Pepe back to the subs bench. Behind the scenes the board have agreed to make an offer for young Inter striker Sebastiano Esposito, who is currently scoring goals and winning admirers on loan at SPAL. He was terrific for me in FM20, and the £15 million fee we’re putting up seems fair for someone who will charged with eventually gazumping Lacazette.

I set the side out to play cautiously, containing De Bruyne and Bernardo, and they do just that. We don’t register a shot in the first half, which must be a thrill-fest for the fans, while City do little with their few efforts. After the break I bring on Ceballos and Lacazette and the pair combine for the latter’s volley. For ten minutes I get the little ecstasy of thinking we will grab the points and go top, but then the home team conjure a reply from Foden and moments later Bernardo scores, only for the Portuguese’s apparent winner to be ruled offside. The honours are shared and I’m happy with that.

A good month’s work then, with the Gunners positioned nicely in second having slowly eaten into the leaders’ points cushion. A titanic February awaits. Four league fixtures, the FA Cup and Europa League adventures continuing, and it all culminates in a visit to Wembley for the Carabao Cup final.

Arsenal FM21 – December 2020: Up for all Cups

A busy month is in store. Five league games jostle for space with Huddersfield in the Carabao Cup and the remaining two Europa League fixtures. I’m beginning to get a much better grip on Arsenal’s big hitters and who might be heading for the exit. Demiral is emerging as a great signing and leads a very good defensive unit. Auba can’t stop scoring goals, which is good. There’s been a definite impact made by the Ox, and the flexibility of Calum Chambers – able to play at centre-back, right-back and defensive midfielder – means I can put Saliba out for loan. Adversely, Willian has done little to break my impression that Pepe and Nelson should be representing our right wing. Vinicius hasn’t been as effervescent on the left as Saka, though I need to bear in mind that the latter is enjoying softer Europa League nights rather than the challenge of the Prem. Longer term, I see the position as being a three-way challenge between Saka, Smith-Rowe – impressing on loan – and Martinelli, who will probably get a loan move in January to aid his recovery from a nasty knee injury. I’m increasingly unconvinced by Lacazette, and Nketiah looks frankly distant from being good enough. I will need to think about the future of our attacking options. They’re either getting on a bit or fall short of the standard.

There’s no league fixture at the weekend, so we have a week to recover before taking on Sivasspor in what looks more and more like superfluous Europa League commitments. The Turks scored twice against us at their place and need to be respected. At the Emirates it’s a more subdued contest. We have many shots and two disallowed goals from Lacazette, but ultimately we have to accept the single strike from Lewis Cook as the decider. Another fine defensive effort, with further plaudits heading in the direction of Willock and Saka, but the striker pulls a dud, and Nelson fails to make an impact. Close to 60,000 souls have turned up for this one. They wouldn’t be criticised for feeling that our win ought to be far more emphatic than it is.

We will be playing Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round, and in rehearsal for that tie we’re off to Villa Park in the league. You know their qualities just as well as I do. Grealish needs to be monitored, and they have a particularly good central midfield pairing in McGinn and Barkley. Their effort is based around showcasing Mr Grealish, who has a free hand to work his magic. Fortunately, when we man-mark someone they tend to stay man-marked. The home cause is neutralised, and a hat-trick by Vinicius, who for some reason comes to this one determined to prove his worth, gifts us the points. Villa are quiet. So are we for the most part. Ceballos and Wilshere cancel out the home midfield but are themselves made less impactful in return, and it’s left to the on-loan Brazilian to produce the goods.

The last and utterly redundant Europa League commitment, against Zorya, produces a 2-0 victory. As I recall it, when the group was announced this lot were considered our main challengers. They’re rubbish. Perhaps that’s the point. A second string eleven makes it a clean sweep of continental wins as Chambers and Lacazette find the net. On the whole it’s like watching a Mike Tyson fight when the heavyweight was at his most dangerous – nothing more than a matter of time before we deliver the decisive blow, neither do we need to be at our best in delivering it. The first knockout round, which is scheduled for February, will see us take on Kradsnodar.

At the weekend we entertain Leeds United, who are riding high in the table. We are handed a pre-match uppercut when Willian is ruled out for a month, following a training ground incident that results in a hernia. This should give Pepe and Nelson more chances to show their quality. The former especially deserves his opportunity, and he’s a significant factor in our 2-0 home win. The visitors are restricted to scraps. They manage one off-target shot throughout the entire ninety, whilst Aubameyang pads out his account with a brace to deliver a sound thrashing. Bielsa’s entertainers play very much like we do, except they aren’t as good at it, only Klich emerging with any credit as elsewhere they’re subdued. This is a great result for us. We dominate in every department, and – while being conscious of typing such banana skin words – it seems the side is really starting to get to grips with how they’re being asked to play.

A few days’ rest and then it’s across London to play Fulham. Currently eighth and defying the pre-season predictions, this has all the makings of a proper test. Most of the attention goes on striker Mitrovic, however we’re scouting the on-loan Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield, and beanpole centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo. Both could make for fine additions as we continue to rebuild with a more homegrown squad. Another alumnus of my FM20 Derby County outfit, Ademola Lookman, is starting for the home side on their left wing, but the reports on him are less positive. Fulham are decent, and there’s a danger that we will drop cheap points, but first half strikes from Vinicius and Aubameyang secure the victory. Bellerin is terrific in his forays down the right wing, rather more reliable than Pepe who does the time-honoured thing of being ordinary when injuries elsewhere have given him a chance to shine. One gaffe, a lazy pass deep in the opposition half that’s picked up by Lookman and sparks a Fulham attack, lingers in the memory. Cook has one of his poorer games, but Demiral is commanding at the back and Leno deals with everything that’s sent his way.

Liverpool are finally beaten. At Elland Road they collapse 3-0 against Leeds in a shocker of a reverse. Both leaders are ahead of us in the table but suddenly look that little bit less invulnerable. Mustafi goes to Monterrey. Bye then. Four and a half years in England that produced only disappointment and diminishing returns. We made a £27.5 million loss on him overall, which makes his time at Arsenal one of the more abject late-Wenger transfers.

Chris Wilder is handed his cards as we head to west Yorkshire to play Huddersfield Town in our Carabao Cup quarter-final. The opposition are fifteenth in the Championship and are steadily settling into post-Premier League life. We’re expected to have far too much for them, even fielding a weakened eleven, and that’s exactly what happens. The 3-0 win we achieve at the John Smiths is underlined by solid attacking pressure and superior finishing. Saka and a Ceballos rocket carve out an early two goal lead, and Nketiah’s late clincher is a reward for the smart positioning he’s produced since coming on for Lacazette. In the semi-final we are drawn at home to face Newcastle. The other half pits Liverpool against Chelsea.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Boxing Day sees us go to Crystal Palace, an in-form side that can present a banana skin for anyone. Uncle Roy fields an old-fashioned 4-4-2, featuring a who’s who of ‘whatever happened to’ players – Benteke, Schlupp, Sakho, knackered Nathaniel Clyne. My worries over Ebere Eze’s potential impact are calmed as the winger does nothing, and even Zaha looks reined in. What they can do is defend, hard and often, and I think we do well to get out of there with a 1-0 win, Auba doing the honours.

For Southampton two days later, I make a few changes to the line-up without resting players for the sake of it. The Saints don’t care about this. They haven’t got the squad depth we can command, and even though they can wield the likes of Ings and Romeu their cause begins to suffer from fatigue as time wears on. Shane Long opens the scoring for the visitors, which is kind of embarrassing for us, especially as we seem intent at the time to win nothing but the fouls count. But then Auba racks up a brace before the break, completes his hat-trick ahead of the hour mark, and there are further strikes from Pepe and Holding to complete a 5-1 rout. It hasn’t been our prettiest performance. I’d argue that we have never moved out of second gear in this one, but our shooting has been crisp and accurate, and the Saints faded long before the end.

As a consequence, we end 2020 five points behind the two leaders but with a match in hand, and we’re ten ahead of fourth-placed Man City. Keep plugging away and we will get to form a mini-league with the Pool and United, though clearly in their case there is little room for error, a fact that makes me grateful for removing David Luiz from the roster. Aubameyang is named World Footballer of the Year, along with a haul of awards in the African categories. He deserves it. The Gabonese has scored sixteen league goals, seven ahead of Mane and Rodrigo. And to think I was going to start the season playing him on the left wing! I might as well have gone the whole hog and neutered the guy.

Arsenal FM21 – November 2020: Red Star Revolt

A month of Europa League fixtures, three domestic ties and another international break lies ahead. While the title isn’t part of our vision, we watch the top of the table already turning into a two-way tussle between Liverpool and Manchester United. Is this how it’s going to be? The Red Devils are powered by the virtues of Bruno Fernandes. Liverpool’s charge is led at the back by Van Dijk, who’s incredible, and the noted brilliance of Mane (who scores the goals) and Salah (provides the assists) in attack. Against such wonders the rest of us appear to be on a lower level, consigned to looking up with envy. Of the other contenders, Manchester City have already lost a few – even a single dropped point is putting them at a considerable disadvantage – and Spurs have made a shabby start. Third place is up for grabs and we are sitting in that spot. All we can do right now is try to carry on winning games and solidify our grip as the ‘best of the rest’.

We begin with the hosting of Newcastle United at the Emirates. I’m glad this one is taking place at home. Uncle Steve has guided his unlikely high-fliers to sixth. They aren’t an especially exciting team but they are grinding out the results, helped along by Wilson’s goals, the battling qualities of Sean Longstaff in midfield and the presence of Allan Saint-Maximin, a young French winger who is attracting admiring glances from all comers. He’s had an 80% recommendation from my scouts, gushing notes about his pace and dribbling qualities, his love of a big match and the rather meaty caveat that he’s likely to cost a minimum of £47.5 million. They line up with an orthodox back three, which means they have come to defend and catch us on the break. Our job seems simple – keep the ball in their half, and monitor ASM like there’s no tomorrow. Keep him and Almiron quiet and we ought to have neutralised the Mags’ attacking threat. Demiral’s headed goal and an Aubameyang penalty have us two goals to the good after twelve minutes. The Gabonese striker adds a second midway through the second half as our tactics pay off. A very late response from Almiron produces a 3-1 final score, and that’s fine with me. We’ve mounted thirty shots in this one to generate an xG of 3.73, and that’s good, though I think we might have scored more.

Red Star Belgrade at home are next. I see the Serbian giants as the toughest draw in our Europa League group, a pale shadow of the early nineties vintage that once claimed a European Cup (one of the more boring finals I’ve seen, if I’m honest, but you can imagine for yourself how good they were when they represented Yugoslavia back then and could call on all that Croatian talent) but then, you could say the same about us. As always I use this tie to put out something close to a second eleven. Lacazette starts. Wilshere, Ceballos, Holding and Saka are on from kick-off, and so’s Nicolas Pepe who scores all four of our goals. A sizzling performance from the winger, whose season is a little undermined by playing second fiddle to Willian and as a consequence he plays like he’s waving his arms at me, demanding attention, and this competitive quality makes him try to be a bit special. The visitors don’t rack up a single shot. Our 4-0 win makes us feel temporarily like a superpower.

A trip across the city follows as we go to face West Ham at their very quiet and looming London Stadium. Uncle David has made a torrid start to the campaign. They’re in second-last place, and if their horrid form continues and they end up going down then I expect to lead the queue of teams waiting to pluck Declan Rice from their sweaty grasp. The reason for their malaise becomes clear as they set up to defend, at home, with a back three of Rice, Ogbonna and Dawson, and hoping that Petkovic can nick the odd goal. They don’t. After the goalfests we’ve enjoyed recently this is a somewhat prosaic 1-0 victory, courtesy of the inevitable Aubameyang. For long swathes nothing much happens. The foul count is high. Eight yellow cards are shared out, three for us, while Bellerin is forced off with a tight groin that happily turns out to be a minor injury. It’s a ground out and attritional victory, yet I’m happy with it. Too often we have been exposed as lightweight on these occasions. Not now. For the home side, who will sack Moyes before much longer, they have the added ignominy of a dubiously awarded penalty that Noble fires straight at Leno.

The Interlull ends happily with no further injuries to worry about. I can name my strongest eleven for our journey into the Black Country for the game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. They’re opposition that I fear. Quick, dangerous and very Portuguese, they’re like taking on the best qualities of that country with the added Spanish spice of Adama Traore’s sheer bulk and pace to cause us problems. Kieran Tierney is given the happy task of keeping him quiet. As against the Hammers it isn’t the prettiest of occasions. We know that we’re in for a tough time and this is exactly what we get. The home side work the ball around crisply and delightfully. There’s no question of being anything but at our most alert, and as a consequence we dominate easily in the number of fouls committed. Another three bookings for us, one of which turns into a second yellow for Xhaka after one industrial challenge too many. Not for the first time I’m questioning the Swiss hard man’s long-term presence in my squad. Fortunately we can break at times, and it’s two rapid moves, both prominently involving Oxlade-Chamberlain, which give us the two goals we need. Once again it’s Auba supplying the finishes as we leave at the end of a 2-0 smash and grab.

There’s no question of the two leaders dropping a single point between them. They will face each other in early December, which will inevitably end in someone giving way, but the Pool and United have maintained their five points gap for now. Where we’re concerned our third place looks increasingly secure. There’s now open space between ourselves and Chelsea in fourth. Spurs’ lower mid-table placing is a lot of fun, while Leicester’s relegation position stands as an outright aberration.

November finishes with a flight to Serbia as we face Red Star in the return fixture. Winning here will guarantee our qualification from the group, indeed a draw ought to be enough, especially as the last two ties are being played at home. The opposition are decent. Gabonese midfielder Guelor Kanga is very small and a tricky prospect to contain, as is (Gentle) Ben, a winger from Comoros who is singled out for a man marking job, however they don’t possess our quality. Saka gives us a first half lead. Vinicius seals the deal towards the end, and there’s even a disallowed effort from Lacazette to underline our 2-0 victory. It’s another goalless outing for the Frenchman, who to me plays decently otherwise, even though his record pales in comparison with Aubameyang’s. For their part Red Star have Sanogo – not that one! – sent off shortly after the break, which sums up a frustrating afternoon of few scoring opportunities but many instances of dirty football.

Arsenal FM21 – October 2020: Return of the Ox

With the transfer window about to close, we travel across the smoke to take on Chelsea. The Blues have of course dipped into their considerable bank balance for this term, adding the likes of Chilwell, Ziyech, Havertz and Werner to counter the year when they couldn’t sign anyone. They’re the favourites, especially at their home, but for the first half we give as good as we get, playing cautiously, breaking frequently and having clearly the higher shot count. But no goal. Aubameyang is especially wasteful, Vinicius out of sorts and Ceballos makes little impression as we fail to press our advantage. Midway through the second half Giroud returns to haunt us by coming off the bench and handsome-ing the ball into the net from close range. It’s a bullied goal, the Frenchman making full use of his height to shrug off his marker and head in Werner’s cross. Despite the better xG, we slink back to our corner of the city after suffering our first league defeat of the season.

Losing to Chelsea leads to an inquest. We look like flat track bullies – capable of winning at home and against weaker sides, but once we come across a defensively capable outfit it all goes west. Little wonder that Tomori is named Man of the Match; they’re solid and can’t be ruffled at the back, indeed we appear lightweight in comparison.

Of most concern to me is our weak midfield showing. Partey was fine but Ceballos struggled and Xhaka looks like someone whose impact depends on the roll of a dice. Behind them sit three English players – Cook, Willock and Wilshere – who just aren’t as good, meaning we have scant options. Quality is required, and Liverpool might provide it by placing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the transfer list. He isn’t cheap at £35 million, and even with the Mustafi money made available to me I don’t have anything like those kinds of funds. But I can ask the board for help. Sir Chips agrees that we could use the Ox and arranges the deal on my behalf. Just like that, one phone call to the Ivory Tower, and we have welcomed back a player I see as a prodigal son. With any luck his injury troubles are behind him, though perhaps not as he joins us while recovering from damaged knee cartilage. He might be back in time for Burnley in a fortnight’s time.

Mari goes on loan to Basel, which is our last bit of business for the window, and two weeks of international football takes over. Fortunately, we only pick up one additional injury when Kieran Tierney suffers a gashed lower league during Scotland’s 4-0 win over Israel. He’ll be missing for two weeks.

Our trip to Burnley seems like a tonic after the perils of Stamford Bridge. We can’t underestimate the Lancashire opposition, but we should be okay and finally we achieve a first half breakthrough when Vinicius scores at the end of a sustained spell of attacking pressure. It’s felt like a matter of when, not if, and the home team look so distant from threatening Leno’s goal that one score might be enough. Winning 1-0 doesn’t sound especially sexy, but we’ve had to field Holding and Wilshere because Demiral and Xhaka have returned from duty for their countries at considerably less than full fitness and as a consequence they’re rested for this one. During the second half, Uncle Sean’s screaming fits and threats of violence towards his own players terrifies them into performing. They start to attack, more frequently, and steadily we’re pushed back until the inevitable happens and Wood scores a late equaliser. By this stage the Clarets are on top, and we’re grateful to leave with a point.

The good times are tested further still when we travel to Sivas in Turkey for our Europa League opener against Sivasspor. Despite the presence of Ivorian winger Max Gradel they don’t look particularly nasty, indeed we have one of our own in Nicolas Pepe, and he’s £72 million worth of talent. Wait, what? The first half goes to plan. Pepe hits a penalty shot wide and Willock has a goal disallowed, but Holding and Nketiah have put us 2-0 up, and when Nelson makes it three with eighty-five minutes on the clock we’re all looking forward to a celebratory kebab before catching the plane back to Blighty. Perhaps too much though. Xhaka’s mishit pass becomes a dangerous Turkish counterattack, from which Cofie scores. Yatabare has the ball in the back of our net again as we enter injury time, and it’s only the lack of minutes remaining that spare our blushes. Another worrying result. We start well and then we either tire, or lose interest, and we simply must maintain our tempo and vigilance until the final whistle.

Back in the league we’re taking on relegation threatened Sheffield United, who are fielding a FM2020 favourite of mine in former Derby full-back Jayden Bogle. Sutalo scores for them but we add three of our own, courtesy of Xhaka (making up for his Sivasspor error), Aubameyang and a rare Bellerin strike. It’s good stuff on the whole, an instance of us outplaying the opposition, though the rough play on both sides is not for the faint hearted. The visitors slightly edge us on fouls committed, though we earn three bookings to their two as the hard tackles and aggression at times takes over. There’s a part of me that’s happy enough with this. We do need to stop being a soft touch, beatable via sheer bullying, and here’s evidence of an occasionally harder edge that can enter our game.

Our European odyssey continues with a trip to Luhansk in Ukraine to face Zorya. We should win and we do, claiming a comfortable 2-0 win with goals from Pepe and Cook, while Chambers – making his first start on my watch at centre-back – has one ruled offside. Fair enough. He is, moving fractionally too quick to volley in Pepe’s free-kick. It’s a good performance otherwise. We restrict the home team to scraps while hitting them with fifteen shots. They’re a reasonable side, decent at putting bodies behind the ball and breaking up our play, yet we go there as the big-shot glamour side and the tie goes to form.

October therefore ends with us looking a bit more human than we did previously. That’s fine. Effecting the Gunners’ transition towards being a Champions League team again isn’t easy. We have to reverse our league position of the last four years, which has headed gradually downwards, but we appear to be doing it, and for my efforts the board give me a ‘B’ grade. They’re happy with how things are going, though the Chelsea defeat and Mari’s loan deal count as black marks on my record. Liverpool and Manchester United haven’t dropped a single point yet, which shows the scale of the challenge. A defeat and a draw and we look completely off the title chasing pace, but perhaps that is exactly the standard we have to aim for.

Arsenal FM21 – September 2020: Making Mourinho Mad

The Liverpool defeat spooks me. We’ve done all right elsewhere, well enough to suggest that I can at least meet the board’s requirements, but despite losing 1-0 we were steamrollered at Wembley and I don’t know what that means. Are the Pool just bloody brilliant, or are we that bad, or indeed are we quite good and it’s my tactics that are terrible?

I prefer a 4-1-4-1 formation, opting for a DM over an AM in an effort to seek the perfect balance between players committed to defensive and attacking roles. I like short passes, working the ball into the box and playing it out of defence. We’re a fast team and passing is something we’re good at, so we should be playing to our strengths; similarly, with our energy levels we ought to be capable of applying the press consistently.

The league campaign opens in tricky fashion with a north London derby against Sp*rs at home. Leno’s in goal. Maitland-Niles and Tierney are our full-backs, with Gabriel and Demiral at centre-half. The critical defensive midfield task is handed to Partey, along with the captain’s armband. Xhaka and Ceballos play in central midfield. Ahead of them, Vinicius and Willian start on the flanks, with Aubameyang asked to do Auba things up front.

And… it’s wonderful, a Christmas miracle, if it wasn’t a breezy afternoon in mid-September. Uncle Jose tasks his players with parking the bus and they let us tear into them from kickoff. Demiral heads in from a corner in the seventh minute, and shortly after Xhaka’s long shot makes it 2-0. The torture continues following the break as Sp*rs refuse to find any answers and we add two more to our account via Auba’s penalty and another set piece effort from Gabriel. Overall we’ve taken twenty-eight shots to the visitors’ seven, been on target with thirteen of them and produced an excellent xG of 3.51. It finishes 4-0. All Tottenham have to show for their efforts is a couple of bookings. We’ve debagged and tea-bagged them in a morale-boosting opener, and hell we know it won’t usually be as good as this but there’s nothing quite so good as entering a happy dressing room after the final whistle.

We’re off to West Brom the following weekend. A likely relegation candidate, but they have the better of us in the first half, only some Billy the Fish acrobatics from Leno stopping Pereira from giving them the lead. All that spirit built in the opener seems to have melted away, and I make an instant change at the break when I bring on Lacazette for Aubameyang, who has done little. This turns out to be a tactical masterstroke for which I claim full credit. Despite being not as good as the Gabonese striker, Laca plays like he’s got something to prove and has bagged a hat-trick within ten minutes of blistering second half virtuosity. Demiral adds a fourth to bring about a second 4-0 victory. What looked like a poor result, the sort for which I was mentally working out my ‘still early days’ comments to the press, has turned into an emphatic victory.

The changes are wrung for our Carabao Cup clash with Crystal Palace. Traditionally Arsenal have used this competition to blood their youngsters, their second stringers, and I see no reason to change that. Only Leno and Gabriel remain from the side that beat West Brom as the likes of Holding, Wilshere, Willock and Saka start. I’m pleased to see us line up with five English players in our eleven. Uncle Roy of course chooses to field his best spread, which turns out to be a mistake as we look much the fresher from kick-off and take a quick lead through Lacazette. Before the break Saka makes it 2-0, and second-half strikes from Laca, Saka and Pepe turn victory into a rout. For their part, the Eagles respond to being five goals behind by having Zaha sent off for a vicious sliding tackle into Willock’s calves. It seems an unnecessary challenge that’s born of frustration. We get to face Peterborough in the following midweek’s Fourth Round clash.

Manchester City are next, at the Emirates and bringing their high-rolling swagger with Bernardo Silva in sizzling form and attention as ever focused on the unpredictable brilliance of De Bruyne. Some of the gloss has rubbed off Uncle Pep’s shine in recent months. After two seasons where his City slickers redefined English football, they looked all too vulnerable in 2019/20 and it’s perhaps this quality that raises our heads as we run out 2-0 victors. Both goals come from Aubameyang, Willian and Xhaka both turning out to be good at finding passes that split the blue defence. Everyone comes out of it looking good, perhaps only Vinicius looking a little short of the pace though perhaps that’s to be expected as he acclimatises to London life. The board sniffily retorts that we might have won but it wasn’t very exciting. I don’t know what they expect… Auba to score after swinging into the stadium via a high-wire cable like a swashbuckler, perhaps.

The month closes with that Posh clash. Win this and we will make the Carabao Quarter-Final. In the meantime, I fail completely to find a new home for Pablo Mari. Teams are interested in him, but not to the extent of putting their hands in their pockets, and with the Spaniard sitting on a four-year contract that’s a lot of time for him to be floating around the corridors. Shkodran Mustafi is a different matter. There’s a part of me that’s stunned he’s still here, after he’s worked so hard to demonstrate why he shouldn’t be. For reasons that could well be down to long distance, he’s become a figure of attraction to sides based in Mexico. Tigres make an offer, but it’s Monterrey that captures both his heart and his wallet, nailing their man for a knockdown price of £5.75 million. I don’t think that’s bad business for an unwanted player seeing out the last year of his contract. The only downside is that he can’t move until January – enjoy your gardening leave, Shkodran.

I play Peterborough twice. In the first effort, we are 5-1 up at Weston Homes Stadium before the game crashes. The second time, our side of reserves prevails in a 2-0 decider. Eddie Nketiah starts and bags both our goals. Most of the time is spent holding off a game but limited Posh team, testing keeper Pym who naturally plays like Lev Yashin (ask your dad) and dominating without humiliating them. Darren Ferguson emulates his equally lovely father by claiming we aren’t as good as we think we are, a reality we will go on to prove against Chelsea at the weekend. We will take on Huddersfield in December.

There’s just time to cover the draw for the Europa League, which pits us in Group C with a former European Cup winner, Red Star Belgrade, along with Zorya and Sivasspor. We have the competition’s highest coefficient (all those Champs League years) and in truth I see little to fear among our group rivals here.

It’s been a good month, a really promising start, but our visit to Stamford Bridge before the international break ought to put us back in our place. Burnley and Sheffield United lie in wait among October’s fixtures, as does the close of the transfer window. We will end it having landed another former Gunner – can you guess which one? Here’s a clue – he gets injured a lot and he isn’t French, for those of you who are wondering what possessed me to recall Abou Diaby to the colours.

Arsenal FM21 – Pre-Season Summer 2020

Arsenal’s staffing situation is an area for concern. The big worry is our medical unit, the two physios we have on our books that make us the lowest rated Premier League club in this area. We have several first teamers who are injured – how can we expect to get them back on the road to fitness? I agree mutual terms of dismissal with the pair of them and put the feelers out. No way should we be so lacking in this area, especially not given the Gunners’ withering, unwanted ability to lose players to a variety of knocks.

The standard of coaching is fair but not eye-watering. I like my Assistant Manager, Steve Round, but for me the rest are eminently replaceable, and I’m tempted to do exactly that. The way I see it is that we have a lot of fine youngsters, but they may never become stars if they aren’t coached properly so it’s time to hunt for a bunch of highly qualified and reputable new faces. I have little interest in the training aspects of Football Manager, and it follows that I need to find people who I can trust to take on this crucial area.

Where the squad is concerned the choices to me are either to stick with what I’ve got or be prepared to sell in order to buy. The first team does need to be trimmed, I think – I want the young Gunners to get game time, and to give them it I will be looking to move on some of the veteran players. Arsenal have a massive imbalance here. A lot of ageing pros, brought in cheaply and offered big contracts based on their past glories. I want to reduce the average age considerably, and over time increase the homegrown elements within our group. In past games this has involved returning former players to the squad – I’ve re-signed Coquelin, the Ox and Gnabry before now, and all those (especially the latter; who wouldn’t want that?) are under consideration – but a stronger English presence will do for now.

Napoli rush in with a £12 million offer for Ozil. It can’t be this easy to get rid of him, surely. If agreed, we will have to pay £165k of his weekly salary for another year, close to half of what he’s earning currently, but that would mean we save an enormous wedge, and best of all is that he wants to go. I don’t think I’ve ever loved Gennaro Gattuso quite so much as I do now. Burnley and Brighton place bids for Sokratis, and I urge him to accept one of them. Cedric is transfer listed and offers from Newcastle, Ajax and Palace come flooding in.

We play an early friendly, a warm-up to build some match fitness, against Carno in Wales. It finishes 6-0 and it could and should have been more emphatic than that. Even with a group of players who are working within a new system, for a new manager and often new to each other, they have far too much quality for the opposition and it shows in the difference in movement, vision and overall quality. Lacazette’s propensity for firing shots wide – is this going to be an issue? He bags a double and that’s good, but this was a turkey shot for long passages and I might have expected more from him.

The end of an era is reached as Ozil sods off to Italy. I can’t believe he’s going. He’s the longest serving first team member and a leader, but here’s the thing – I’m trying to build a side with a determined mentality and he’s just the wrong sort of inspiration. There are moments when Ozil has shown glimpses of being the global strider who has won World Cups, a ton of international caps, friends and admirers, yet all that’s in the past. We need the money and letting Mesut go is an important step towards generating some much desired transfer funds.

Sokratis and Cedric earn their moves, the former to Brighton while our right-back is off to Ajax. Our transfer budget is boosted to nearly £27 million, while there is around £650,000 available in salary spends. Wriggle room, in other words. I identify centre-back as a position that requires an injection of quality, and the scouts propose Merih Demiral as the ideal, long-term replacement for David Luiz. At 22, the Turk is just the right age for us, and I fire off an offer that amounts to a £15.5 million initial fee with a further £5 million in instalments. To boost numbers in midfield, I take a deep breath and offer a contract to Jack Wilshere. A long, long way from the potential England star that he once was, Jackie is 28 and on the list of free agents. He’s not brilliant, but we can have him on a very cheap wage and he also contributes to our complement of homegrown players, and that helps to make my mind up.

Matt Macey, Folarin Balogun and Emile Smith Rowe leave on loan. With Demiral installed, forming a starting central defensive partnership with Gabriel and slashing the average age in this position as both players are a tender 22, it’s time to move David Luiz on. There are good reasons for keeping the Brazilian here for the last year of his contract, but more for letting him go. I think of all those unforced errors, hand in mouth moments, and I shudder… Dynamo Kyiv won’t buy him outright, but they will take him on loan. We still have to pay the majority of his wages, however there’s a monthly fee that amounts to £3.4 million over the course of the year, compensation I guess for slicing off one of the more mistake-riddled top flight stars I’ve seen in a number of years.

I expect the squad to mount a revolt over the sale of Ozil. His team leader status leaves a vacuum, yet they aren’t bothered in the slightest. What does concern them is my decision to part ways with David Luiz. Why they would choose Mr Hair Bear Bunch as the hill to die on is anyone’s guess, but many of them are unhappy that he’s gone. Their mood worsens when I dismiss their complaints. As someone who likes to think I have a decent handle on team dynamics it’s a worrying moment. Hopefully some decent results will bring them back onside.

My long-term hope for defensive midfield is to make do and mend before Lucas Torreira returns from loan. For now, Thomas Partey looks like exactly the kind of tank I would hope to occupy this role, however he could use a plucky young back-up to share the load and the man I identify is Lewis Cook, admittedly someone I like because of my experiences with playing him in previous editions. The 23 year old from Bournemouth doesn’t come cheap. With instalments he will set us back £30 million, but he could be part of the set-up for a decade. Lewis accepts squad rotation status happily, can operate either in defensive midfield or centrally as a deep lying playmaker, and can expect to start in lesser games and Europa League fixtures.

As we now have Cook I see no reason to continue our association with Mohamed Elneny, an Egyptian international who has always screamed ‘squad rotation’ at me with no obvious benefits. Keeping the squad numbers to a happy amount isn’t easy and Elneny becomes a casualty. Getting him off the books is another matter. The things I could do with his £24.5 million value, but all I can find for him is a loan season at Zenit. The Russians at least pay most of his salary and the fee for his services amounts to £1.8 million for the duration. A problem set aside for another year then.

After a promising run of friendlies we’re up against Liverpool in the Charity Shield. This is a proper test, and so it proves as I’m left to patrol the technical area helplessly, watching the Scousers run riot. It isn’t pretty. They go ahead through Thiago, have a Salah penalty saved and for long nightmarish passages put us to the sword. Hell, maybe this is just what it’s like to face off against England’s best team, but they’re the standard we are aiming for and we fall well short. Arsenal clock up six shots, not one of them on target. We lose out in terms of possession statistics. Lacazette is wretched as a striker. On the left Aubameyang looks shorn of many of his natural powers and I make a resolution to use him as he ought to be fielded, which is as a pressing forward. Partey works hard at DM, but Xhaka is cut through as though he doesn’t even exist, which hopefully is nothing more than a one-off aberration.

Much food for thought. I learn that Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior is available on loan and, in panic-buy mode, fire off an offer. The Spaniards want me to pay his wages – £195,000 per week – in full and I comply, even though this will put our salary budget in the red. Matters are made slightly worse here when Ainsley Maitland-Niles has a successful international debut and I’m compelled to agree a better contract for him. Things should level out here if we can find new homes for Mustafi and Mari before the transfer window closes.

Going into our opener, on 12 September against Sp*rs, the Gunners roster looks like this (in order of ability), with homegrown players in bold:

Arsenal FM21 – The New Game

Dear all, I hope you have invested in Football Manager 2021 and that you are enjoying it. I did my usual thing of refusing to download it until the full version was released and the bugs crushed, and then ignored all that advice and started playing it since the Beta was available. I’m a shill, I know.

The plan is to try out a proper lower league adventure for the first time in years, and I will post my rambles here so that we can all share in the triumphs and tragedies, the bumps in the road, the highs and lows, the tiny crowds, and so on. But first, I like to road-test each new edition with the same team, a ritual that goes back years, and over the next two weeks the site will concentrate on a season with that side.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present for your reading pleasure the Premier League’s most underwhelming club side, the Woolwich Arsenal

It’s my tradition to start a new edition of Football Manager with an Arsenal save, indeed I’ve done this since purchasing my first ever game in the series (Championship Manager 3). My reasons are that opening with a good team gives me a chance to familiarise myself with the new features; also, the Gunners are a fine and well-known side. I think it helps to take on a familiar set-up. I’m not an Arsenal fan, but they are my favourite of the ‘big’ clubs, perhaps I think because they always have a capacity to cock things up. I am uncomfortable with teams that win, win and win again. If I supported Liverpool then I’d be far more at home with the early 2010s version that was lovably rubbish as opposed to the world eating juggernaut that they’ve become.

To my mind it’s a good time to take on the Arse. The long, slowly dwindling Wenger era is increasingly in the past. They haven’t found an answer in the years since (Arteta might yet turn out to be it, but the jury’s out). As ever they have some very nice players, but more important is the bedrock of young guns who could be developed into a golden future for them. Saka, Nelson, Nketiah, Martinelli, Willock… All have the potential and suggest if you use them right that the Gunners can be sharpened towards fine weaponry.

Unlike in some previous games, Arsenal start with a tiny transfer budget. I have an (un)mighty £4.5 million to play around with and a modest bit of wriggle room in the wage budget. Changing the vision for the season isn’t an option either. This is it. Clearly, I either need to sell existing players to generate funds, or live with what I’ve been given.

The squad I inherit contains twenty-eight faces, varying wildly in age and ability. There’s riches here. There’s also jetsam, and one of my first tasks will be to whittle the personnel down to a group of twenty-five. The first thing to do is assess who has no business being in my group – looking at you, Matt Macey. Arsenal have two players who are transfer-listed, and several entering the last year of their contract.

Made available for moves elsewhere are Mesut Ozil and Sokratis, and I have no argument about them being on the list. Both can be released in summer 2021; also in this group are David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi. I have no great desire to retain any of them. The Brazilian’s capacity to mess things up is legendary. I don’t fancy being the latest Arsenal manager to look at Mustafi and see the shadow of better German centre-backs in him. As soon as he approaches fitness I intend to make him available for sale. Sokratis is just old and in his waning years – need his £100,000 weekly salary on the books we do not.

As for Ozil, I could write an entire chapter on the folly involved in paying a king’s ransom to someone with all the technical talent in the world but the determination of a puppy sat next to a pile of his own droppings. Imagine having Lionel Messi, but remove the mental will to win, the relentlessly high fitness levels and any degree of care he has for his team’s success, and you still end up with someone who’s far more valuable than Mesut. The German playmaker earns £350,000 per week, monies we could instantly use elsewhere in the side, but that salary will make it very difficult to find a new home for him. He’s the equivalent of a Boris Johnson bridge scheme, an expensive folly. We don’t need him, and I will accept just about any offer that reduces the lag he has on our resources.

Often enough, I’ll use someone else’s tactic rather than devise one of my own – I’ve gone for this. I prefer to play with a DM rather than an AMC, mainly because I’ve rarely been able to turn the latter position into a critical one within the line-up, and honestly I prefer the natural balance that a defensive midfielder gives me. With this fellow in place, we have five players whose roles are defensive and five attackers, ergo balance. That’s the plan, and here are the boys who Arsenal have given me to put it into practice:

Goalkeepers

Now in his third year in north London, Bernd Leno has seen off the challenge of Petr Cech and Emiliano Martinez to become our de factor number one. A German international and an excellent handler, the chances are that he will play every minute of the season if injuries allow. Somewhat distant of his abilities is Runar Alex Runarsson, signed to be a back-up and that’s all he will ever be. His presence makes me miss Martinez, who I didn’t rate highly either. As for Macey, he’s in his last twelve months and there’s nothing he can do to change that reality. Consider your bags packed, Matthew.

Right-Backs

Considered to be the domain of Hector Bellerin and rightly so, the Spaniard is like gold dust in that he’s been around forever and is only 25, and he’s a homegrown player. PSG want him apparently, but I’d expect an offer that’s something in the region of double his £27 million value before I would consider selling him. He’s well ahead of Calum Chambers and Ainsley-Maitland Niles, two English options who I can find a role for, and then there’s Cedric, an on-loan Portuguese full-back from Southampton who completed his year with us and then Arteta somewhat unfeasibly offered him a permanent deal. I see the 28 year old as surplus to requirements, and if I can sell him then I will.

Left-Backs

The options here are Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac. I rate the former, consider the latter to be all right and so it’s with a small sense of shock that I see which of these two is viewed as the regular starter. Not on my watch. Ideally, I will keep the Scot, sell Kolasinac, though for now I will accept a scenario in which they are prepared to swap roles. The one downside to Tierney is his capacity to take on long-term injuries, and it may be the case that Sead is a regular starter simply by default; after all, someone has to do the job.

Centre-Backs

Arsenal have a number of central defenders on the books. Some weeding required because we need four, possibly with an additional emergency option, and we begin with six. The best is Gabriel, a newly acquired young Brazilian recruited from Lille who in better sides would be rotated towards reaching his capacity but here is good enough to be a regular. The coaches tell me I should look to partner him with David Luiz, his countryman and senior by eleven years. Looking at the numbers and it’s tempting to agree, but I see the words ‘Gets forward whenever possible’ as a warning. The fantastically coiffured David is never far away from his next gaff, and that’s a concern.

The future may be Rob Holding, still only 25 but emerging from a string of injuries, indeed he starts with a rare clean bill of health. He has the talent, but can he manage more than twenty games without clutching his hamstring in agony? I’ve covered Sokratis and Mustafi already, and then there’s Pablo Mari, an Arteta favourite but to my eyes little better than okay. He’s out for up to four months, so if I choose to let him go then it will probably be a January move. William Saliba is our young gun, presently operating at Championship level but much currently rests on his capacity to improve in order to meet out requirements.

Defensive and Central Midfielders

Arsenal have several players who can play in defensive midfield without being considered as absolute naturals for the role. It’s a pivotal position for me, so can I trust it someone who prefers to be used more centrally? The obvious one here is Thomas Partey, expensively drafted in (which probably explains my low transfer fund) and the living embodiment of a Sherman Tank. The Ghanaian looks so obviously great in his defensive duties that I’m tempted to use him here because I think he will be great at it. The alternative – again not a natural – is Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian is a hangover from the Wenger years, that endless search for a DM resulting in no one who fits the brief. He’s okay though. Unlike many Gunners he isn’t paid the earth for the middling results he produces, and for the moment that’s well enough.

Both players can be placed in central midfield, where the other options are Dani Ceballos, Granit Xhaka and Joe Willock. The former is here on loan and remains a highly capable technical Mezzala, though it says more for Arsenal’s absence of central midfield riches than his talent that he’s seen as important to the cause. Xhaka is one of many players who has always promised more than he’s delivered with us. Now entering his fifth year, there’s much to like about him, but his reputation for dirtiness precedes him and if Chelsea’s apparent interest becomes a concrete bid then I’d be tempted to set up the deals table. 20 year old Willock is still a bit too raw to be thought of as a regular- think a poor man’s Pogba – but the ability is there. An attacker from his central berth, Joe can be exciting and yet I’m reticent about becoming dependent on someone who is playing at Championship standard.

Out on loan are Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira. I’m not desperate to see the latter’s return, but I like Torreira – an actual DM – and I think we will miss him. Saying that, I lament the absence of three former Gunners who remind me of better times. Jack Wilshere is available for free – should I…? Francis Coquelin is at Villarreal and I would welcome him back, and if Aaron Ramsey’s Zebre wages weren’t so prohibitive then I should absolutely consider him to be a possibility.

Right Wingers

It probably says a lot for the club’s disappointment in Nicolas Pepe’s first Emirates season that they brought Chelsea winger Willian in for free. Arsenal’s record signing, Ivorian Pepe has all the pace, agility and flair that he needs to be a considerable success, yet he hasn’t quite clicked yet. It’s to be hoped that with the pressure of that £72 million price-tag behind him he can begin to shine. Willian has been a Premier League mainstay since 2013/14. A bit underrated because he isn’t Hazard and now 31, he’s won just about everything there is to win and we hope to gain from his spirit. His age ensures that he’s a placeholder, perhaps giving Pepe the room to grow into his role, maybe even for Reiss Nelson, a fledgling Gunner who could become a star and is able to fill a gap on either wing.

Left Wingers

The primary pick for this position is someone I don’t consider to be a winger at all. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is Arsenal’s closest thing to a world class player, belying his thirty-one years on this good earth with the physical assets of a much younger man. Maybe he’ll be a success here or possibly it’s just a matter of time before he shuttles back to the striker’s position. Either way, the options behind him are a clutch of budding young Guns. There’s Nelson, but the next option is Bukayo Sako, who has emerged as a highly capable winger who at 18 can only improve. Gabriel Martinelli is out for up to seven months but when fit can operate either here or upfront, and I can’t forget Emile Smith Rowe, still only 19 and most likely to spend the year on loan elsewhere.

Strikers

The best is Aubameyang, operating on the wing currently and no doubt shuffled out there to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette, at one point a £46.5 million signing and in the three years since he’s scored at a rate of broadly one in three. That’s not bad, nor is it terrific, and the coaches don’t have a bad word to say about this 29 year old Frenchman. He works hard and can cause endless problems for defenders, putting me in mind of a more talented and better thought of modern equivalent to Paul Dickov i.e. a headless chicken. The homegrown alternative is Eddie Nketiah, now a bona fide first teamer though in reality more of a breakthrough prospect whose abilities are somewhat short of the two players mentioned above. Still, he has great pace and that’s a great natural asset for any forward to possess.