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.

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