Glory Hunter – Napoli: February 2021

Lyon really want Elseid Hysaj and pepper us with transfer bids as the window draws to its close. The Albanian isn’t interested and, with fit and ready full-backs in short supply, neither am I, so I am happy to reject their last offer, which amounts to £13.25 million. Real Hispalis’s effort to pay good money for Andrea Petagna is a different matter. Our third-choice striker isn’t good enough, I feel, and their final offer of £6 million represents a chance to cash in on someone who last appeared against Milan in the league and did precisely nothing. The transfer money’s okay but the saving on his £59k weekly salary is like gold dust to us. I need to address our issue at the back, namely the loss of Grimaldo that will see him out throughout all of February and most of March. Davide Santon is on Roma’s transfer list. I have no interest in signing him outright, but getting him on loan for the season’s remainder is definitely of interest to me and that’s exactly what I arrange.

Elsewhere there are rumours, gossip, especially about the ‘Insigne to Liverpool’ non-story, but nothing solid, and by and large I escape the transfer window intact. Money’s tight at the San Paolo. This needs to be viewed in relative terms. There’s a plethora of sides in real financial danger, which we aren’t, but my hope would be to make large-scale upgrades to the squad in the summer and I’m not sure that I will get that opportunity, not without first selling one of our crown jewels, like Fabian de Bruyne or Lorenzo Insigne, and quite frankly I would rather not go down that particular road. I fully expect that we will be in the red by the end of the season, at which point prize money and sponsorship income will make all the difference. An effort by the supporters to haul their sorry arses into the ground on a consistent basis would amount to a very nice bonus. We’re all in this together.

Another packed month of football follows. We will be playing just four league games, but there’s also the two-legged Italian Cup semi-final, and the resumption of Europa League hostilities with Lille on the horizon.

We go into the Udinese cup game at home with Eljeif Elmas an injury doubt, courtesy of a pulled groin (don’t ask), and Riccardo Orsolini has been sent home with a cold. Juve and Inter come to an indecisive 0-0 draw in Turin, which sounds like fun. We’re hopeful of a big result here, and my fingers are crossed for Giovanni di Lorenzo, back in the starting line-up for the first time since early December.

I’ll confess that I didn’t think the semi would coax such a nervy performance out of us. In my head Udinese are here to be steamrolled, but it’s a tense and uncomfortable occasion. The one highlight is a lofted long pass from Fabian that finds Victor Osimhen in line with the opposition defence. The Nigerian’s sweet volley does the rest, however despite piling on the pressure we can’t produce anything further and it finishes 1-0. At least we don’t concede, I reason, but for me this ought to have been more emphatic.

I sometimes think we’re at our best in potentially tough encounters. Such is our away day at Fiorentina, which produces a 4-0 victory and an effervescent performance. It’s also a bit vexatious. In my mind constantly is the need to find alternatives for Dries Mertens. Now 33 and surely on the slide, my hope is to slowly ease Osimhen in at his expense, which seems like the obvious thing to do. However, when the Belgian produces an afternoon’s work like the one he conjures up here – two goals, one a brilliant dribble through the defence before slotting home, and two assists – it feels as though I’m back at the drawing board. Obviously, the problem of a brilliant aging forward isn’t really a problem at all, and I’m grateful to him for his brilliance. Lorenzo Insigne and Matteo Politano also make the scoresheet, while the Viola, including Ribery, are reduced to scraps.

For my part, I would happily take easing through the cup games for solid victories in Serie A. In midweek we’re off to the far north-east of Italy for the return Italian Cup leg against Udinese. The town of Udine is pretty indeed, particularly the medieval centre, but we aren’t here for fun and as it is the game is played in sub-freezing conditions. An eerie and still atmosphere of deep cold, which isn’t what we are used to as southern softies, used to working in balmy Mediterranean climes, but oh well.

We’re bad here. The home side go ahead through Rodrigo de Paul, to tie the contest, and then laugh at us as we fail to find a reply. Even when the goal-scorer tries to help by being sent off for two yellows we still can’t find a way through. This is the group of players that put four past Fiorentina, past Juventus for crying out loud, and we’re rendered weirdly toothless. I make my changes, still nothing. We go to extra time, no goals and indeed the best opportunity falls to Udinese’s Deulofeu who thankfully shoots straight at Ospina. Then penalties, and a saved effort from Elmas that sends us cascading out of the cup. Had we gone through via the lottery I still wouldn’t have been especially happy; as it is we have suffered a real blow.

Maybe playing in conditions that aren’t natural to us makes a difference. One thing for certain is that shouldn’t be a factor when we come to take on Bologna at the San Paolo, in the twenty-second match of our league campaign. There’s a need for us to stay on track, to not let the bad result at Udinese have an adverse effect on everything else, especially to not give time and space to Roberto Soriano, the Bolognese attacking midfielder who counts as their star man.

Bologna come to defend. They’re decent at it, holding on to the ball greedily when they have it, trying thoughtfully to bring Soriano and Viviano into the action to make something happen. But when Fabian crosses for Dries Mertens’s lashed in opener on thirteen minutes the evening is ours. Matteo Politano and Lorenzo Insigne pad out their accounts in the first half, and Riccardo Orsolini adds a fourth against his old team late on to seal a grand victory. The fans are loving life at the end of this one, just a shame that more of them don’t come to the stadium to express their pleasure.

Lille in the Europa League are next. We’re playing the away leg first, up near the Belgian border and nervous about taking on a good French outfit. They’re second in the evocatively named Ligue Un Uber Eats – no prizes for guessing who’s top – and in midfielder Renato Sanches sport a player who commands respect. We’re also concerned about the possible impact of Ikone, one of three Lille attacking midfielders named Jonathan, along with the raw potential of Timothy Weah, George’s boy. It turns out they aren’t nearly as good as those names suggest. What they are skilled at is dirty play, a flood of bookings and Orsolini going off with what emerges as a fractured toe and up to three weeks out. Victor Osimhen finds the single strike that decides the game. Some crisp passing moves between the Nigerian and Lozano ends with the striker having the simplest of finishes.

Two days later and we’re on our travels again, this time to Spezia in Liguria, the north-west of Italy, or the upper thigh if you will. Our destination is a pretty coastal city, which also serves as the country’s naval base, hence the number of macho types, chests puffed out as though Maradona is everywhere. Their team is in nineteenth place, seemingly destined for the drop though morale has been raised with a 2-1 victory over the even more hapless Crotone. Either way, there are no excuses for not doing well here.

Whenever we take on a side we’re expected to beat soundly a sort of malaise creeps into the players, as though they think they can go to a place, hold out their hands and declare ‘Points please.’ Sometimes it works because the gulf in quality is plain to see. Victor Osimhen heads us a goal in front late in the first half, and that’s how it remains, however without the cushion of a bigger lead the rest of the proceedings take on an edgy quality. It’s fortunate perhaps that the Aquilotti have very little in the tank and no presence on the flanks, so we can still claim a routine 1-0 result, and I suppose in the end that’s what matters, but I would like to see more joy in our play. As it is I’m made to praise our defence in the post-match conference, whereas in reality they have had little to do.

More nerves to be held in the Europa League home return leg against Lille. We’ve brought a 1-0 lead back and progression is completely in our hands; additionally I’m keen to grasp whatever monies we can reap from the continent’s lesser competition. A bumper crowd shows up for this one, which seems to have an energising effect as a largely second string eleven pulls the French team apart. We’re 4-0 up at the break, the pick a long range volley from Stanislav Lobotka that ripples the back of the net satisfyingly. Five minutes are on the clock when that happens.

Our 5-0 aggregate victory gives me hope that we’ll go far in the competition. The prize money of, er, £456,000, is quite nice, I guess. The downsides are the injury to Hysaj, the consequence of more physical play from Lille, which fortunately isn’t worth more than a day or two’s rest. Demme picks up his routine yellow card; his most recent misdemeanour suspends him from playing in our next Europa League adventure. This will be against PSV Eindhoven. We’ve avoided Arsenal (who have sacked Arteta recently); they get OGC Nice. Milan will face Marseille.

On the last day of February we’re entertaining Cagliari. They’re in mid-table, and once again we are firm favourites with the usual caveats and concerns about taking them seriously. I’m advised that the opposition play a Route One style, which seems to be the sort of throwback that the twenty-first century should more or less have abolished. The system works, though. They’re Serie A’s sixth highest goalscorers, albeit highly porous at the back. I’m starting to see why the attendances drop for games like this. It’s largely highlight-free, Hirving Lozano scoring the goal that splits the teams while Mertens and Politano are at their most diffident. The visitors don’t get a shot on target.

sa0221.png.e19f0228a225ab0a3e8f03e6f0a7db8f.png

As the old cliché goes, it’s the result that counts. This one helps to increase our lead in the division, with a twelve-point gap opening to Atalanta. It’s a long way from being over, particularly if Juve start hoovering up the wins, but that’s exactly what we’re doing and to me it doesn’t feel as though we will drop enough points to choke the league. Manolas and Koulibaly are named in the Serie A team of the month, and that shows precisely where the core of our strength lies. We’ve conceded four goals all season, an average of one for every six games, which by anyone’ standards is fairly awesome.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: January 2021

After an uneventful break, we’re back in early January with a home game to play against eleventh-placed Udinese. It’s nearly time for the January transfer window, and a number of my first team players are attracting admiring glances from elsewhere. Here’s a quick look at who’s wanted and what I think (very briefly) of the possibility of them leaving.

It should be a heresy to consider letting Mertens go, but on my mind are his high wages, the chance to make a quick buck, his age and the need to bring Osimhen more to the fore. Fabian’s new contract appears to have shooed away his many suitors, but as long as his good form continues I expect the vultures to start circling again before too long.

I name the strongest available eleven for the Friulians, which I shouldn’t require but to my mind they’re a stronger opponent than they probably are in reality. Their captain is Italian forward, Kevin Lasagna, one of a select group of footballers named after food (like former Boro striker Massimo Maccarone). He hasn’t scored once this season, a fact that always worries me. Gerard Deulofeu is also here, on loan from Watford, as is Rolando Mandragora, a much-loved midfielder from my FM20 playing days – seriously, I loved him, in fact I affectionately knew him as the Mandragorian, but there’s no love here. He’s on the opposition books. Death to him. A pox on his house. Along with Di Lorenzo, who’s still got up to three weeks of absence, I’ve lost Alex Meret for a week or so, courtesy of a gashed leg sustained. Ospina starts.

This one’s played at half pace, as though everyone is still on holiday in their heads. Luckily for us Udinese aren’t very good. They might line up similarly to Inter, with banks of three centre-backs and midfielders, but the quality isn’t present and when Fabian volleys one in after fourteen minutes there’s the feeling that we can do this without shifting up the gears. Dries Mertens scores from the spot early in the second half when Kalidou Koulibaly is barrelled over during a free kick, before the latter makes it 3-0 with a headed goal, powering over his two markers to drive his shot home. The only real downside is a gashed leg sustained by Politano, which will keep him out for a week.

The transfer window opens. Given how stretched our budgets are my view is that if we get to the end of it with exactly the same players as we have now then I will consider it to have been a successful one.

In the meantime, we have two away games over a few days. The first is against Parma, anchored in the table’s lower half, and showcasing the talents of former Arsenal forward Gervinho. As if demonstrating the old cliché that you can’t win them all, we contrive to draw 0-0, a stilted performance in attack where we pepper Colombi’s goal with shots but never cross the line. Fabian comes closest, a lashed strike from outside the area that crashes off the post, but elsewhere nothing goes right for us. The best opportunity of all might fall to Gervinho. As Parma clear a corner, he’s left on the ball, haring towards our goal with defenders racing to catch up with him. Ospina, alert and advancing from his line to clear the African’s shot, saves our bacon.

Benevento are next. They’re based near to us, so this is a bit like a Neapolitan derby, except their history until very recently was in Italy’s lower reaches and all their rivals are from the country’s hinterland – Avellina, Nocerino, Salernitana, and the like. I like the witch logo on their badge, the fact they’re nicknamed the Sorcerers, the accompanying hope that they won’t conjure anything from this tie. Among their ranks is Roberto Insigne, the younger brother of our own Lorenzo and once upon a time on our books. We set out to attack from the start, to blow them away, make up for the Parma shortfall, and by half-time we’re 3-0 up. Riccardo Orsolini and a Mertens brace have caused the damage. The Sorcerers reply without magic but with plenty of violence, culminating in Bryan Dabo’s second half dismissal for one mucky challenge too many. Victor Osimhen caps off a fine afternoon’s work with a late strike and the emphatic qualities of a 4-0 away win.

Our attention turns now to the Italian Cup, the trophy of which Napoli are the proud custodians. We open with what should be a routine First Round match, against Cittadella, who are one of only two Serie B teams remaining. We’re expected to win with little fuss, though former Blue Gianfranco Zola pops up on the media to warn me about Frank Tsadjout, a Milan forward who’s on loan with the Citta. Di Lorenzo is still about a week away from being able to play in this one. Mario Rui is suspended. I see it as an opportunity to pitch in my Europa League side, the second stringers. Andrea Petagna gets his first start under me, playing as a target man.

It isn’t great. With the visitors happy to spoil and break things up in front of a cavernous, quarter-full stadium we finally score just before half-time, when Petagna’s defence splitter of a pass finds Hirving Lozano piling through on the left, the winger guiding his shot into the top corner. Petagna adds a second of his own after the break to secure the victory. Cittadella rack up one shot on goal, plus the causing of an injury when a clumsy challenge on Grimaldo robs us of his services for two months with a thigh muscle. Due to Mario Rui’s suspension we have to move Hysaj to the left and bring Koulibaly on, which at least makes us even more defensively tight. The Quarter Final produces an infinitely tougher fixture when we will go to the San Siro to take on AC Milan.

From the ridiculous to the sublime. We’re in Milan for the Super Cup Final, in which the cup winners (ourselves) take on serial league victors, Juventus. This time around they have Paulo Dybala back and playing in the striker role, ahead of Cristiano and Chiesa. That’s pretty frightening, however as in our league meeting they’re lumpier than I might have expected. A third minute Koulibaly header that hits the bar defines this one. We have a lot of shots, but Szczesny is at his shot-stopping finest and the woodwork is also on the opposition’s side. That is until about ten minutes before the break, when Riccardo Orsolini collects Zielinski’s assist and fires us into the lead. Juve’s second-half comeback surprisingly amounts to little. Our illustrious rivals seem content to foul and give away free-kicks, one of which nearly gifts us a second when the keeper parries Insigne’s late effort with his fingertips. We emerge with the win, my first trophy as Napoli manager, and a further £1.82 million banked.

Back to the meat and drink of the league, and a journey all the way up the leg of Italy to face Sampdoria. Until late December La Samp were managed by Claudio Ranieri, an appointment that has always struck me as the roll of a dice – will you get the wise old head who wins the Premier League with an unfancied team, or the other Ranieri, who stands on the touchline looking all at sea while his team flounders? Sacked with the side bottom, they’ve since thrown their lot in with Roberto D’Aversa, the man responsible for getting Parma promoted. Their leading light is Fabio Quagliarella, now a sprightly 38 and still entrusted with finding the goals. Unlike that other greybeard Zlatan, the aging Italian looks as though he is at last beginning to dry up, which in part explains their problems.

In any event, a decent (on paper) forward line of Quagliarella, Gabbiadini and Candreva is utterly neutralised by our defence as we walk home with a 2-0 win. Kalidou Koulibaly heads past Audero from a corner in the first half; Matteo Politano secures the points midway through the second. A sound, professional effort, only sullied by Bakayoko’s dismissal for a second yellow. It’s the Frenchman’s second sending off this season, two times too many as far as I am concerned.

One of the lovely contrivances of Football Manager scheduling is that it can frequently put together consecutive games against the same team. We now have two lovely away games against AC Milan, for me perhaps the toughest side we have faced this season. I’m at a loss to know exactly why this is. Maybe we’re just especially evenly matched, or possibly the presence of Zlatan as a Joker in the pack gives them a kind of psychological advantage. Certainly, there’s nothing fun about trying to cope with a 39 year old self-appointed king of the world, someone who in a league career spanning 612 games has scored 390 goals. Only Barcelona stands on his record as a failure, and even at the Camp Nou he achieved a better than one-in-two record. His bad times count as anyone else’s wild successes.

In the league match, the Swedish legend doesn’t score, thanks mainly to a man-marking job, yet in an even contest punctuated by good defending from both sides it’s centre-back Simon Kjaer who has the final word. His headed goal, barrelled in from a Hakan corner, makes the difference and hands me my first defeat of the campaign. We finish with the more impressive xG, but what does that matter when it isn’t accompanied with the points? Can we claim to have lost the game but won the argument?

What a joy it is to play them again in the Italian Cup, probably the more important of the two as we are charged with making the final. Once more I am faced to name a very strong line-up, and as before the confrontation is deadly and very, very even. Both sides produce the same number of shots, Mertens doing a better job of testing Donnarumma than Osimhen ever did in the league tie but with nothing to show for it. Regular time finishes 0-0, then there’s the slow burning torture of extra-time, the pleasure of seeing my players run themselves into the ground. Kjaer is excellent for them at the back, and Tonali and Kessie represent nothing less than a red wall ahead of their defence. Penalties ensue. Zlatan of course slots home, but Kessie and Hakan mess their efforts up and we score all four to claim the tie.

A two-legged affair against Udinese is our reward, because of course what we really need is more football amidst a packed schedule. If we get past them then the final will see us take on either Juve or Inter. There’s still time to squeeze out one more league match. A home fixture with Torino seems like a gentle finish to the month after the terrors of Zlatan, and if the action is laboured here then it’s probably a consequence of fatigue. Victor Osimhen makes up for his anonymity at the San Siro by scoring a peach here, and then we have the wherewithal to hold our Turinese visitors at arm’s length. 1-0 will do. The game is watched by 33,116 supporters, around three-fifths of the stadium’s capacity, and that seems like our average for fixtures where the opposition is not illustrious. Still, it’s a disappointment that this isn’t better, considering where we are in the table. If being top of the tree isn’t enough to drag Neapolitans out to support their local side then I don’t know what is. We need their patronage.

sa0121.png.1ec22e4d46dc5bdd1aac7377fa578f0f.png

At the end of it all, we have held on to our ten-point lead, opening the sort of buffer zone that will hopefully be enough ultimately to see us cross the line in first place.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: December 2020

Napoli made close to a £6 million financial loss in November. Wages are of course the big expense. What we pay is not nearly matched by ticket sales and playing in the Europa League doesn’t help very much either. The financial projection has it that we will end the season £19 million in the red overall, which could have an adverse yet logical effect on how much the club offers me for new players. I’m thinking about how we can improve the situation, perhaps starting with a review of the forty-three Blues who are currently out on loan. Some of these are kids. Others – Adam Ounas at Cagliari, Amin Younes who’s currently with Eintracht Frankfurt – have resale value and continue to drain on our resources. Making it into next year’s Champions League will help also.

Lorenzo Insigne is named Player of the Month. The board are happy with me, conferring an A grade for my work, and our winning ways are having a good effect on squad morale. Twenty of our twenty-four man squad are now on my side, including all the team leaders – Mertens, Koulibaly, Insigne – and that makes for a happy camp. All good. The fine times will hopefully make a positive effect during our testing December schedule.

Before the considerable challenge of Inter we’re at home to Viktoria Plzen. There’s no way we can finish anywhere but at the top of our group, so it’s a case of getting through the game and keeping the players fit. Neither participant seems especially interested in the proceedings, though we’re more than good enough to win without trying too hard. Eljif Elmas opens the scoring, and there’s an incisive brace from Victor Osimhen to produce a breeze of a 3-0 win. Diego Demme doesn’t get booked, which shows how much he cares. Most importantly, we emerge from it unscathed.

Onto Internazionale then, which the fixture kindly gives us a day to recover for. It should be a good time to face Antonio Conte’s title challengers. They’re in thirteenth place, indifferent in Serie A, with a squad of disparate talents that refuses to gel. All the same, a forward line starring Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku is no one’s idea of a joke. Koulibaly and Monalos will have to produce their A-game here.

For long passages of play, this one is a complete snoozer. I would be happy with a draw, particularly if that comes with eleven fit bodies emerging from the field, and for much of it that seems to be exactly what I’m going to get. The Nerazurri turn out with a bank of three centre-backs and three central midfielders, and they’re hard to break down, however it’s equally tough for them to push forward to their two strikers, who too often cut distant, remote figures. In the second half, Di Lorenzo is removed with an injury. Scans will later show the right-back has broken his toe, which will keep him out until mid-January. On the plus side, we produce a winner very late in the game, a culmination of some very positive play when Victor Osimhen emerges from a goalmouth melee with a tap-in effort. Inter, defensively minded and unable to change their ways, produce no reaction.

Would I take the victory at the cost of an important first team player? I would not. Di Lorenzo has been excellent so far, and his is a big loss. All I can do is tell him that his place in the first eleven is assured once he’s returned, which seems to have a positive effect. In his place, the obvious choice is Elseid Hysaj, who’s done a good job for us in the Europa League. Andrea Izzo and Nikola Maksimovic can also play here.

One more group game in the Euros to come, in Denmark as we travel to entertain FC Midtjylland. On the way I am asked to bat away rumours that Stanislav Lobotka could be going to play for Guangzhou in China, which I am happy to do. The Slovak is back in the line-up for this one, and I’m pleased also to be able to place Lozano and Politano on the bench. We will need to give Insigne and Orsolini some relief on the left wing.

As tricky as our selection dilemma might be, Napoli have far too much for the Danes who suffer a 3-0 defeat before their home supporters. Lorenzo Insigne crosses for a Riccardo Orsolini volleyed strike before the break, ahead of the diminutive winger adding one of his own, and before the end Nikola Maksimovic scores from a set-piece. I have the luxury of bringing on Politano and Lozano for the entire second half, giving them some invaluable match practice ahead of the home game against Juventus.

ELGroup2021.png.2ed7acfb46a98c2704570244223add01.png

Along with Arsenal, we are the only Europa League entrants to have won all six matches, and we carry an identical record to the Gunners – nineteen goals scored, one conceded. I’m disappointed about the one, obviously. As a reward for achieving first place we are awarded £913,000. Not a bad bonus, though if we were in the Champions League the windfall would have been worth more than eight times that amount.

Ahead of Juventus, the news filters through that Inter have sacked Conte. I can’t help but feel like I’ve made a small contribution to his downfall. Madonna has been put in temporary charge, perhaps because the team like a prayer, but it turns out to be caretaker manager Armando Madonna. The one they really want to take over is Marcelo Bielsa, which has a worrying ring of common sense about it.

The Old Lady might be nine points behind us, but they’re still a formidable opponent. Any team that can wield Cristiano Ronaldo needs to be respected. They’re without Dybala and Ramsey, and that helps, however we won’t be taking our eyes off the other riches available to Andrea Pirlo. Juve have put Federico Bernardeschi up for sale, at the sort of price – £7.75 million – that we can just about to afford. It’s tempting to add another Italian to bolster our attacking ranks. As we plan for them, I catch the draw for the first knockout round of the Europa League. We’ll be playing Lille in February; they sold Osimhen to us in the summer.

Our black-shirted visitors turn up with an all-star eleven. Szczesny’s in goal, ahead of a back three featuring Chiellini, Bonucci and De Ligt. Alex Sandro and Cuadrado operate as wing-backs while Ronaldo and Chiesa play in the wide forward roles. Their central midfield of Rabiot and Arthur lie in support of striker Morata. They’re a jaw-dropping sight, guided by the coolest manager in world football, however they have made a middling start to the campaign and there has to be a reason for that. From the opening kickoff, we pile into them. That Old Lady defence may be illustrious but their two aging centre-backs make for a ponderous beast. Fabian De Bruyne opens for us in the eleventh minute, cutting through the entire Juve team before unleashing a shot into Szczesny’s far corner. Three minutes later and it’s 2-0. Orsolini’s long ball finds Dries Mertens breaking the offside trap. He does the rest. Piotr Zielinski finds the net just after the half-hour mark and Lorenzo Insigne adds a fourth early in the second period. Juve’s substitute striker finds a reply very late in the game, a consolation that spares none of their blushes. They’ve been shown up here, and for now Football Manager seems very easy.

Youth2021.png.253b4f13fb0a0a7f896d48c7bc5da6e1.png

A combination of squad registration rules and operating on slender means makes any potential move for Bernardeschi a non-starter. A pity, but maybe it just wasn’t to be. In the meantime, I receive the preview of this year’s youth intake. The signs are not promising. Then again, for such a big club Napoli’s junior coaching is considered to be adequate and our youth recruitment is rated average. Unless by sheer dumb luck a prodigy emerges we will never be growing our own future Maradona. Some work here is needed.

In midweek we’re away to Atalanta, who are currently second in the division. The self-titled Goddess might have crashed out of their Champions League group, but they continue to work as the little team that can, the Parma of their era. I do little to change the side that downed Juve. Politano comes in for Orsolini, whose fitness levels have not recovered fully. Ospina and Osimhen start, as we prepare for a difficult visit.

We needn’t have worried. Fabian puts a defence splitting pass through for Victor Osimhen in the eighteenth minute, the striker sliding the ball beyond Gollini to put us ahead. After the break, Lorenzo Insigne nets a hat-trick that pads out our lead even further and allows me to rotate the side based on fitness. 4-0 doesn’t even flatter us. The home team have their moments, the best a Muriel effort that Ospina parries for a corner, but Alejandro Gomez aside they are surprisingly brittle. It isn’t all good news. Late on Tiemoue Bakayoko is sent off for a second yellow, and before the end Alex Grimaldo picks up a pulled knee ligaments injury that will remove him until after the winter break. All the same, we’re now eight points clear.

Next up are Hellas Verona at home. I’ve earmarked this one for some heavy squad rotation as the same players have run themselves into the ground recently. Their big threat is Nikola Kalinic, the Incredible Hulk of a forward who I chiefly recall for doing very little with Blackburn Rovers. A striker who has the height advantage can cause problems for anyone, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on him. I’m also a bit of a fan of English midfielder Ronaldo Vieira, here on loan from Sampdoria and someone who grew into a figure of authority in my FM20 Derby game.

A messy goalmouth melee from Mario Rui’s corner results in Riccardo Orsolini’s opener. The full-back then enjoys the rarity of a goal direct from his beautifully struck free-kick. But in the second half Verona scare us. Gambian sub Embrina Colley scores for them and we spend the last ten minutes spooked, before a gorgeous chipped effort from Lorenzo Insigne deep into injury time calms our nerves.

Naturally the visitors score from their single on-target opportunity, part of which I put down to fatigue. One more to go, away to Crotone, and then we can enjoy a ten-day break that will carry us into the new year. They’re newly promoted to Serie A, in seventeenth, missing their leader and former Neapolitan Luca Cigarini because of injury. There’s a feeling of us going through the motions by this stage. Everyone seems ready for a break and the Crotonians look happy to defend against us, watched by 6,535 politely interested supporters. Despite maintaining pressure throughout, it appears that we will finish 0-0. Defensively we’re okay, but there’s a leggy predictability about our offensive areas, especially Elmas who is being given the stage to shine and instead vanishes from the action. Only a flurry of late substitutions and Lorenzo Insigne pulling off a wonder goal with about ten minutes remaining spares our blushes. Not a majestic way to finish the season’s first half.

sa1220.png.1d632f9635ec88c47b146f358bfa480e.png

Despite that, Napoli has opened up a ten-point lead in the table. We look good, a class apart really, with Fabian De Bruyne second in the Serie A form table (behind Roma’s Jordan Veretout) and having dropped two points within the league. As if this isn’t enough of a high point, the head coaches of Serie A are polled to vote for their Manager of the Year…

MOTY20.png.8082d0e5f26a917bc5c7bb8658ed568e.png

Glory Hunter – Napoli: November 2020

Things are going well, though I have this niggling feeling that we are acting as flat track bullies so far, reliably crushing underfoot the teams we should be beating but coming up a little short against reasonable opposition e.g., AC Milan. We will get another opportunity to see how we are progressing when we travel to Rome to face Lazio in November, otherwise it’s another raft of sides that we ought to overcome. When will complacency become an issue?

The board are happy with my work, conferring a B grade on me while expressing their dissatisfaction over some of the lower-than-expected fees I have accepted for transfer-listed players. That’s fair to an extent, though I am never prepared to have those I no longer want to be haunting the corridors of the stadium for very long, knowing they’re surplus to requirements and bringing down the morale. In addition is the impact of removing them from the payroll. Napoli have been generous with wages, and I don’t want anyone to be earning the big bucks without making a similar sized contribution.

We kick off November by unusually travelling to somewhere even further away from Italy’s heart than Naples, when we cross to Sardinia to play Cagliari. I remember going on holiday to Sardinia more than a decade ago; what a splendid place, endless beautiful beaches, the capital an unexpected delight as you climbed higher and higher and came across ever older parts of the city.

Most of Serie A’s sixth round has been played by the time we feature on Monday evening. Milan have travelled to Torino and lost 2-1, so the incentive is on us to pull clear with a victory here. I name my best eleven, including Fabian who has just been named the division’s Player of the Month. Our hosts feature Adam Ounas, an Algerian winger who is actually on loan from us; it will be interesting to see what he does, and hopefully he will remember the side on which his bread is buttered. They can also call on Brazilian striker Joao Pedro, who scored eighteen league goals last season, and legendary Uruguayan defender Diego Godin.

Their right-back is a thuggish hulk called Gabriel Zappa, who has the unfortunate job of trying to do a marking job on Lorenzo Insigne. Watching them work against each other is like witnessing a parent try to cope with a wilful toddler, only Insigne happens to be a bloody brilliant footballer, making a monkey of the defender when sending in a beautiful second minute cross for Matteo Politano, which couldn’t be more gift wrapped if the ball had a bow tied around it. Politano scores a second before the break, placed well to collect Zielinski’s pass to beat the offside trap to rocket into Cragno’s top corner.

And that’s about it, a professional and mature evening’s job of work in which only Mertens looks poor, as indeed many would when up against the waning yet formidable powers of Godin. He’ll have many better days, and it doesn’t matter anyway when Politano is in such rich form. The on-loan Inter man is now our leading scorer.

Two home games follow. The first is a Europa League tie against AS Omonoia Nicosia of the Cypriot First Division. They’re managed by Henning Berg, a highly decorated former Premier League defender who won many trophies with Blackburn and Manchester United. It’s fair to say that these are different climes for him. The standard of the opposition is exemplified by team captain Jordi Gomez, a 35 year old Spanish journeyman who can count stays with Swansea, Wigan and Sunderland among his lengthy alma mater.

For much of the first half nothing really happens, then Orsolini’s wayward cross into the box draws a penalty when Ioannou barrels Victor Osimhen over. It isn’t easy to fell a Nigerian beefcake, so the penalty shout is a clear one and Osimhen dispatches his shot into the bottom corner with consummate coolness. He makes it 2-0 shortly before half-time, a better Orsolini cross that he converts efficiently. Omonoia have been racking up the fouls and card count, and when Jordi Gomez is dismissed for a second yellow early in the second half they allow us to wail upon them. There are strikes for Hirving LozanoEljif Elmas and Armando Izzo, and a very late reply from Eric Bautheac – the opposition’s one big threat, who we are supposed to be keeping an eye on – dents the margin of victory a little, but by then everyone is thinking about what to have with that night’s pasta dish. Mario Rui is named Man of the Match for his two assists. With three victories we have already qualified from the group.

There’s just two days’ break between this and our next home encounter, which is a date with Sassuolo. The Modena based team, with their black and green strips and lovely nickname of the Watermelon Peel, contain two players I have already considered adding to our ranks – wingers Domenico Berardi and Jeremie Boga – and a midfielder who left in the summer. We really fancied being able to call on the services of Manuel Locatelli, but so did some very big sides and the Italian has bogged off to join Real Madrid’s reserves for a fee of £21 million. Their ranks also boast Maxime Lopez, on loan from Marseille, who I rather enjoyed having in my FM20 Derby side for a little while.

I make the usual appreciative noises about them in my press conference, whether I mean them or not, and wonder what it will be like to come up against a side that arguably punches above their weight and sits neatly in tenth place. The rotation of players – an entirely different eleven has been representing us in Europe – means that we should at least be fresh, with no injuries at all to worry about for now.

With two weeks of international football following this one, 35,800 supporters turn out to witness a routine 2-0 victory. The away side get one shot, a Kaan Ayhan free kick that drifts harmlessly wide of Meret’s goal. We’re ahead after eleven minutes, a routine headed goal from Kostas Manolas from Politano’s corner kick. Early in the second half Di Lorenzo’s cross is bullet-headed beyond the keeper by Lorenzo Insigne, and that’s it. That’s the match. I have a slightly queasy feeling that we have rarely shifted out of second gear here. We haven’t really had to, and that’s fine, but I’d really like to fill the stadium, and this doesn’t seem like the way to do it.

While the boys are off doing what they do, I ponder the form of Dries Mertens. After a flashy start our cult legend of a striker hasn’t thrilled the fans, and I am beginning to wonder when it’s the right time to start fielding Victor Osimhen more often. The Nigerian is playing in the Europa League, enjoying a slow introduction to his new life as a Neapolitan, but he isn’t going to put up with playing second fiddle forever. His country has just put four past South Africa with Osimhen scoring a hat-trick, as though the player is reminding me of his availability and sheer potency.

We have a big test next with Lazio at the Olimpico. Simone Inzaghi leads an experienced group of players that constitute a serious Champions League challenge and that puts them in our sights. Striker Ciro Immobile can score against anyone and is in especially rich form for his country, whilst any manager worth his salt would find room in his side for Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The comparisons I have read in Corriere Dello Sport between the Serb and our own Fabian, as the decisive influence over our match, is a fascinating one.

Before the game Fabian has a moan about wanting a new contract. His concerns seem fair to me and more important is the need to keep him at the top of his game, so he’s quickly offered a deal that will land him an extra fifty grand per week. The match is defined by ill-discipline. We pick up five yellow cards, while the home team have four players booked and Correa dismissed for a vicious elbow in the face of Koulibaly. This happens towards the end of the first half, when we are already a goal to the good thanks to Dries Mertens’s placed shot. But there’s adversity also, with Radu’s rough tackle on Politano removing the winger for what will turn out to be up to a month. Fantastic, our most prolific forward… Down to ten men, there’s little for the self-styled Eagles to do but look for breaks, which they don’t get. By the end both sides are leggy and tired, not the most exciting spectacle for viewers but it does the job where we are concerned.

Alternatives to Politano begin with Riccardo Orsolini, who is now in a position to do exactly the job for which he was signed. Lozano can play on the right as naturally as on the opposite flank, which reduces options on the left and could see Mertens dropping back. At a pinch I could use Zielinski here also, though it isn’t in his comfort zone to operate as a winger. In short, we’re a lesser team for Matteo’s absence.

In midweek we’re off to Cyprus to take on Omonoia. It’s already the case that these fixtures are turning into obligations, but we’re good for a 2-0 win, both goals courtesy of Riccardo Orsolini, who gets to enjoy the start of his sustained spell as our main right winger. He is removed at half-time with a suspected injury, and then shortly into the second half his replacement, Hirving Lozano, also goes off. Fortunately, Orsolini’s troubles are negligible, but the Mexican has incurred a pulled hamstring and will be unavailable for a fortnight. Great.

A battered a bruised set of Blues returns to the San Paolo for the visit of Genoa at the weekend. Currently bottom of the table, with two draws and six defeats on their shabby record, this has the makings of a home banker. The Genoese are captained by Domenico Criscito, to me an Italian playing legend whose twenty-six international caps suggest that things haven’t quite worked out as well for him in real life. They can also call on the services of on-loan Juve winger Marko Pjaca, who has mainly been played up front and to date has done squat for them. This hopefully is not the stage where all that changes.

As it is, we get to see why the team known affectionately as the Old Fool are where they are. The game’s a debacle. The visitors are down to nine men early in the second period, thanks to red cards for Pellegrini and Behrami. There’s not much more we can do but put five past Alberto Paleari, by some distance their best player on the day as it could have been a lot worse. Fabian De Bruyne scores a hat-trick. Piotr Zielinski finds the net, and Lorenzo Insigne adds a goal to his two assists to be awarded a 10.00 personal rating and the match ball. As walkovers go, if these were medieval times and the opposing team was being burned at the stake for religious heresy then it could hardly have been more punishing.sa1120.png.30ec5616143fc594182136e8694dca6b.png

And that’s November, a month that ends with us opening a five-point lead in Serie A (click the graphic for a full-size version). How long this will last is anyone’s guess. December contains away fixtures at Inter and Atalanta, and Juventus at home, which should make for a more testing period. We are hopeful that the recovery time for Politano (up to two weeks) and Lozano (eight days maximum) continues apace.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: October 2020

The close of the transfer window is imminent. Before that happens we are entertaining Fiorentina at the San Paolo. This has the potential to be tough. In my mind il Viola traditionally sit in that gap between the front runners and mid-table, never quite threatening the top but always worthy of respect. There was a time when all this changed. In the early part of this century liquidation very nearly wiped them out of existence. They were reprieved by being allowed to claw their way back from the old Serie C2 level, which made for a fascinating experience with them on (what used to be) Championship Manager. Despite scrabbling the pennies together Firenze were nevertheless an obvious big fish in their small pond and even retained the likes of Italian international Angelo di Livio to help them climb their way back towards the top. If memory serves, they also showcased the talents of a young(er) Fabio Quagliarella.

That’s long in the past now and the team is back where it surely belongs, not winning very much (they made the Italian Cup final in 2014) and sporting perhaps my favourite of all club strips. Honestly, it isn’t easy to get away with violet. These days they can call on the aging services of Franck Ribery, now 37 and earning one last big pay day before moaning his way towards retirement. Midfielder Gaetano Castrovilli is on our shortlist, and former Milan star Giacomo Bonaventura is now here. Their biggest name is out on loan, Federico Chiesa with the Old Lady ahead of a permanent transfer in the summer.

For our part, David Ospina is the only casualty. He’s out with a thigh strain, which will probably take him off the radar for the month and gives Alex Meret an opportunity to shine. As you will be aware, Meret is my way for the future, a keeper with limitless potential.

We win 4-0. All our goals come in the first half, braces for Dries Mertens and Fabian (who I am beginning to think of as the De Bruyne of Serie A) as we simply overrun them. There’s an especially fine debut for Riccardo Orsolini, who comes on for the injured Politano (nothing serious) and makes two assists, but the match ball clearly belongs to Fabian. Everywhere at once, enterprising and capable of doing something exciting whenever he’s on the ball, the Spaniard must be the subject of Viola coach Prandelli’s nightmares. The virtuosity of our first half play is so emphatic that we can shift down a few gears after the break, happily holding the opposition at bay while keeping possession.

I’m nervous about the last passages of the transfer window. The orderly queue for Fabian’s signature grows, and while I figure we could get a big fee for him my sense is that he’s pretty much irreplaceable. Who can come in and do the kind of job that he does? Fortunately the midfielder isn’t in a rush to leave and the offers never arise, indeed it turns out to be the quietest of windows closing. That’s fine with me. Marseille make a £3.4 million offer for Elseid Hysaj, but I’m not inclined to let him go and the matter ends there. The Albanian is in the last year of his contract and a new deal flies in his direction.

After the clicky fun of the international break we are off to Renato Dall’Ara to face Bologna. Close to the foot of the division we come into this one as favourites, which we underline in the thirty-ninth minute when Mertens’s free kick is volleyed in by Piotr Zielinski. After the break De Silvestri concedes a penalty for the home team when he puts in an illegal challenge on pocket rocket Insigne. An opportunity to put the game out of sight, but Mertens shoots wide and 1-0 it remains. As the players wilt and I’m forced to order an increasingly cautious approach, Barrow scores for Bologna but it’s clearly offside, and we emerge with three points in the bag. Not the best or most memorable performance, indeed we look tired and disinterested for long swathes, but it’s a win.

Viktoria Plzen of the Czech First Division are seen as the second strongest members of our Europa League group. It might be a good thing, to get the draw at Stadion Mesta Pizne out of the way early. A sunny evening, watched by around 12,000, sees us put out a massively changed eleven. Osimhen and Izzo get their full debuts for the side. Only Meret and Koulibaly of the regular line-up live to fight this one. We rush out to a quick 3-0 lead, a hat-trick for Hirving Lozano who pulls every trick out of what emerges as a thick book to put us in complete control. On the opposite flank Orsolini tries to emulate the Mexican’s brilliance with some showboating, but desperate long shots are often exposed as, well, as desperate long shots and there’s no need for him to try and earn his money in this way. Though Lozano will no doubt capture the headlines it’s a terrific team performance, as we see that 3-0 cushion through to the end of the game.

Back in Italy, where we are hosting Spezia Calcio on Sunday. The opposition are not only newly promoted from Serie B, but I also believe this is their first ever stay in the top flight. Digging a little deeper into their history and it seems their supporters are lucky to have a club at all. After declaring bankruptcy in 2008, they were refounded as a Serie D team and have been climbing steadily up the ranks ever since. They are currently ninth after victories over Crotone and Udinese, however my expectation is that we will win here rather soundly. It isn’t as though I am devoid of romantic sentiments for a little team that’s living the dream, however the hard reality is that we aren’t here to do them any favours.

Attendances at the San Paolo are rarely great. It’s a big and impressive edifice, iconic really, but like much of this city it could use some tender loving care. We rarely come close to hitting the ground’s 55,000 capacity, and perhaps it’s with this in mind that the board uses this occasion to organise a Fan Day. More than 41,000 Neapolitans show up, a good day, and they’re treated to a 3-0 romp. A first half during which we dominate without ever capitalising finally culminates in Kostas Manolas’s headed goal shortly before the whistle. After the break Tiemoue Bakayoko and Matteo Politano add strikes of their own, the latter named Man of the Match after being endlessly creative on the right wing. Only Mertens ends with a rating below 7.0, which shows the focus of the visitors’ attentions. As for Spezia’s efforts, they’re restricted to three off-target shots, which I think is broadly reflective of the difference in quality between the teams.

sa1020.png.0f6421cd1e5add75cbb5385eedb84200.png

A winning October leaves us at the top of Serie A (click the graphic for a magically bigger version) by the month’s end. Only Milan, who robbed us of those two points in the season’s first game and have produced an identical record, are keeping pace with us. Things are going well, and I can tell that they are because in press conferences the media types aren’t treating everything I say like verbal poison and are now politely indifferent. That’s progress.

One more tie to complete before we enter November, and that’s a home game against Football Club Midtjylland of the Danish Superliga. Their big danger is considered to be Pione Sisto, a 25 year old left winger who has claimed twenty-two caps for the Red and White, but as against Plzen I’m seeing this as an opportunity to field some of the side’s squad players. David Ospina is back in the eleven for this one, and with something to prove, Meret’s presence coinciding with the Blues becoming almost impervious at the back.

As early as the fourth minute Sisto shows his quality when he makes a surging run from the Midtjylland half, only restricted to hitting a weak shot that goes nowhere when he’s surrounded by three defenders. Ten minutes later and we’re ahead. Orsolini cracks off a long effort that thwacks off the post. Lozano is there to collect the loose ball and picks out Victor Osimhen at point blank range, leaving the Nigerian with a simple tap-in to make it 1-0. Lorenzo Insigne, who’s on for the injury doubt Lozano, adds a second before half-time when he volleys in from Hysaj’s cross. Armando Izzo scores his first goal for us in the seventy-second minute when he heads home from a corner, and the deconstruction of our Danish opposition is complete.

Again, we have managed to attract a good crowd. 43,189 Neapolitans brave the rain to cheer us on, anticipating a sound victory, which is exactly what they get. The only sour note is the visitors’ propensity for violence. Mario Rui comes away with a bruised ankle. It’s a bruised groin for Hirving Lozano. Neither injury is worth more than a day or two of rest, but the well of players to pick from isn’t endless and I could do without facing the likes of Steffen Moller, Midtjylland’s uncompromising full-back who is clearly on first name terms with each of his boot’s studs.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: September 2020

The campaign opens with the visit of AC Milan, one of my personal favourite Serie A teams and that most sleeping of giants. They have started to revive out of their slumber recently, and in Stefano Pioli have stumbled across a manager who’s got them ticking. The Milanese signing policy is impressive, envious even. While Zlatan dominates the headlines, because of course he does, the vast majority of Rossoneri acquisitions have been young guns. They’re a youthful team, the likes of Leao, Saelemaekers and Tonali providing the promise of a fruitful future. As ever, the effort is anchored by Gianluigi Donnarumma, their first choice keeper for five years and somehow only 21. I’m envious.

This is a great gauge of where we are as a team. Meret starts in goal, behind a back four of Di Lorenzo, Manolas, Koulibaly and Grimaldo. Bakayoko is suspended so Demme starts. Zielinski and Fabian are our central midfield, behind a front three of Lozano, Politano and Mertens. Insigne is short of match fitness and makes the bench.

Everything seems to be going brilliantly when Matteo Politano puts us in front after just 34 seconds. A quite lovely passing move sees the winger latch on to a ranged pass from Fabian and putting in a tidy finish. Easy, right? Wrong! Milan go on the attack and quickly put us to the sword in their search for an equaliser. On the half hour mark, the obvious Zlatan nods them back into parity when he heads in a free kick. We go into half-time ever so slightly shell-shocked, threatening to be overrun and struggling to find any fluency.

I’m not happy and I let them know it. We switch to a positive mentality, which reaps rewards straight after the break but not in the right way. Diego Demme slides in to a challenge on Kessie, which earns him a second yellow and reduces us to ten men. There’s nothing else to do but revert to a defensive set-up, switching out Zielinski, Lozano and Grimaldo for Lobotka, Insigne and Rui. They’ve all been rubbish, and with the changes we slowly drag ourselves back into the game. Very late on, Mertens has a golden opportunity that Donnarumma manages to palm away for a corner, which sums up the match. It finishes 1-1, which is possibly the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances.

In the press conference I stand up for Demme, but I’m really disappointed with how things have gone. Anyone can get themselves sent off, but what niggles is that we let Milan gain command of the match too often and too easily. Politano and Fabian did well and the centre-backs were commanding under pressure, but elsewhere it was spectacularly poor. We especially allowed Hakan Calhanoglu to run things in the AMC role, which stands to me as an aberration. In our defence, Milan are a good side. It’s early doors and everyone is having to adjust to a new manager, a new way of playing and several new faces, but we need to improve quickly.

During the week I agree a new contract with Nikola Maksimovic. I’m not especially a fan of his yet would prefer not to lose him on a free at the end of the season. David Ospina is pitched in to start the following weekend, when we travel the length of the country to face Torino. This has all the makings of a banana skin. While there is on paper a quality imbalance between our two sides, Marco Giampaolo can always call on Andrea Belotti, one of Italy’s more consistent forwards in recent seasons. Bakayoko starts in defensive midfield, thanks mainly to Demme’s suspension. Insigne gets the nod on the left wing, earning his first competitive start. Otherwise we are unchanged from the line-up that unimpressed me against Milan.

What a contrast this one becomes. We tear into the Bull from the start and nudge ahead in the first ten minutes when Fabian latches on to Di Lorenzo’s pass, runs beyond the defence and slots beyond Sirigu. The build-up to this one is rather delightful. We aren’t playing with fluidity yet, but the players know to look for a man rather than rifle off a hopeful shot, which leads to lots of passes deep in the opposition half and putting maroon shirted defenders at sixes and sevens. Di Lorenzo is involved again for our second, a cross that Dries Mertens nets into the top corner from close range. It’s a cracking strike. The Belgian has the keeper right in front of him and is closely marked by Bremer, but still once he collects the ball there’s only one outcome.

We continue to punish them in the second half while Torino’s attacking effort never gets started. Bakayoko is doing his job splendidly, marshalling Zaza and Verdi, while Politano gets our third from a Mertens cross. Credit this one to the striker, who makes a solo run deep into the penalty area and has the wherewithal and calmness on the ball to hold it up as his teammates catch up. The victory is capped off by an unlikely goal from Giovanni Di Lorenzo, our hero of the hour. Having created from deep he now advances to pick up Fabian’s pass and launches an unstoppable strike to cap off a great personal effort.

A 4-0 win on the road, granted against lesser opposition but important for building team morale. After Milan I wasn’t sure what to expect from the boys. Could they adapt to how I wanted them to play? Was this going to amount to the briefest of challenges? One big victory does not a season make, obviously, and yet it’s moments like these that make the hard work, the hopes and dreams, looks as though they might pay off. Di Lorenzo is rated as the star man of all Saturday’s fixtures. I take the opportunity to let him know how pleased I am with his performance. He’s delighted.

We’re in the last week of the transfer window. A number of my players are on the radars of other clubs. Barca wants Manolas and Fabian. The latter’s future continues to be a matter of fevered speculation. For my part the Spanish midfielder already looks like an essential member of the group, so if we do sell him then it will need to be for big bucks. That said, the opportunity to recycle any monies generated into an exciting new recruit – Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini heads the list – is on my mind. We may have to move quickly…

sa0920.png.2fbe1cef3f16230b9fbe440be876637a.png

Here’s the league table (click for a larger version) at the end of September. The goals bonanza at Torino has elevated us into third place, a finishing position I’d probably settle for if it was offered to me. I’ll finish this update with the Europa League draw. We are seeded first, alongside the likes of Arsenal, Roma and Spurs, the three sides that have a better coefficient than ourselves. We end up heading Group I, rubbing shoulders with what I would consider to be beatable opposition. The Czech Republic’s Viktoria Plzen are drawn next, then Midtyylland and Cyprus’s Omonoia follow. If we can’t navigate through this lot then I probably have no right to call myself a glory hunter.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Meet the Boys 2020/21

A traditional round-up of the squad as it stands entering the new season…

Goalkeepers

This boils down to a straight choice between Alex Meret ( 23 years old, 1 cap) and David Ospina ( 32, 106 caps). While the latter is considered to be our first choice, my temptation is to go with Meret as our default starter, as the onetime Arsenal man is steadily pushed towards the exit. In reality there’s little between them, Meret getting the nod because he’s homegrown and younger, and clearly the better longer term prospect.

For this season it’s good to have the luxury of two very good keepers from whom to choose. Nikita Contini ( 24, 0 caps) is a distant third choice, but he’s risen through the ranks. The goal as I see it is for Ospina to leave at the end of the year (when he’s entering the last year of his contract), while Meret and Contini form our starter and back-up unit.

Right-Backs

Serbian centre-back Maksimovic can play here, but in reality there are two possible choices. The main man is probably Giovanni Di Lorenzo ( 27, 4 caps), a 2019 signing who has slowly developed to playing at Serie A standard following spells with Lucchese, Reggfina, Matera and Empoli. The coaches have nothing bad to say about him, a defensive wing-back who’s resolute, enjoys a big match and brings technical acumen to his role. Backing him up is Elseid Hysaj ( 26, 53 caps), now entering his sixth year as a Blue. A fine squad player who can operate in either full-back position and is as fit as they come. Hysaj is wanted by a string of teams. Valued at £5.75 million and in the last year of his contract, my aim is to tie him down to a new deal without offering him anything greater than his existing squad rotation status. Hopefully his love for the team (he’s an Inter supporter – ulp!) will tell.

Left-Backs

This position now belongs to Alex Grimaldo ( 24, 0 caps), a complete wing-back who I hope will develop into our first choice for years to come. Skilful, technically adroit and almost impossible to be parted from the ball, the only potential black mark is that he is considered to be a high injury risk. Whether this is due to a heavy pre-season run for Benfica or a long-term issue remains to be seen. If it’s the latter then we may come to rely increasingly on Mario Rui ( 29, 10 caps), with his Musketeers moustache and a playing style that can appropriately be described as swashbuckling. Like a lower rent Guerreiro, he’s had a good pre-season and he’s very fast. How long he will remain with us is an issue that will be addressed before too long. Real San Sebastian want him, and if they offer a good amount then he’ll be playing on borrowed time.

Centre-Backs

Newly promoted to first team captain, Kalidou Koulibaly ( 29, 43 caps) is a star player and a rock at the back. Imposing, authoritative and brave, the coaches raise a concern that he doesn’t enjoy big matches, which hopefully won’t develop into a crisis as any team worth its salt would see in him one of the best defenders out there. His regular partner at the back will be Kostas Manolas ( 29, 44 caps), a seasoned international with physical numbers that are excellent. Kostas does everything we could realistically expect from a top ranking central defender, and he’s quick too. Barcelona are sniffing around, and they would need to offer a lot for a player valued at £23 million.

The main back-up is Armando Izzo ( 28, 3 caps), newly reintroduced to the San Paolo after leaving in 2011 and spending his time with Avellino, Genoa and Torino. Rated as an elite centre-back, and thought of as a smart player who displays good reading of the game, I’m really happy to be able to call on him. He’s probably the least flashy acquisition I have made in the summer, but I suspect he will be important. Somewhat further down the ranks, Nikola Maksimovic ( 28, 26 caps) can operate at right-back as well as in the middle. Physical and tall at 6’ 4”, there’s potentially a lot to like about this tough tackling, no nonsense Serb, however his contract lapses in 2021 and I’m torn about what to do with him. Most likely I’ll offer him a new deal, basically because I wouldn’t want to lose on a free someone I’d far prefer to get money for, but this will depend on the squad status that he requires. A regular starter he is not.

Defensive Midfielders

Two players can operate here; both are rated as regulars, which might present problems. Slightly ahead on the numbers is Tiemoue Bakayoko ( 26, 1 cap), who’s here on loan from Chelsea. At one point a criminally expensive signing for the Londoners, he played one season before going out on loan hell year after year, and we are his most recent stop. I quite like him, a strong and smart tackler who is interested in signing for us permanently. There’s no optional fee in his contact, and Chelsea are likely to ask for up to £28 million, which is probably about right for his level. Or, if it works out, we could just bring him in on loan again until his contract expires. Alternatively, we can throw our lot in with Diego Demme ( 28, 1 cap), a leader in the defensive midfield hole who plays with authority and will keep on working forever, much like the Duracell bunny. At 5’ 7” there’s something of the ‘Lucas Torreira’ about him, however his lack of presence in the air is contrasted with bravery and a consummate team playing ethic.

Central Midfielders

I’m still in two minds whether to add to this group of players, particularly with Inter’s Roberto Gagliardini on the transfer list. What’s staying my hand is a lack of remaining funds and questions over whether we really need him. This is a good unit, spearheaded by Piotr Zielkinski ( 26, 53 caps), an attacking playmaker who has been part of the set-up since 2016. He’s very good, especially in the pass and the killer ball, and there’s potentially an eye for goal here also. An absolute regular in the side since signing from Empoli, his normal partner should be Fabian ( 24, 6 caps). The perfect complement to Zielinski in his deep lying role, Fabian has scored eight goals in his two years with us and like the Pole has an excellent passing range. A string of suitors is forming an orderly queue for his services, with Manchester United and Barca heading the queue, so I think we will need to be successful if we want to keep him. He’s definitely among the jewels in Napoli’s crown.

Stanislav Lobotka ( 25, 24 caps) is another deep lying playmaker who, like Fabian, is entering his third year as a Blue. An experienced international and skilful on the ball, there’s yet potential for him to grow. I especially like his tendency to recycle the ball rather than try and score – he’s poor at finishing but great at passing, so it sounds as though Stan essentially plays to his strengths.  Our young gun is Eljif Elmas ( 20, 20 caps), signed for £14.5 million from Fenerbahce back in 2019. Still growing as a player, he’s another great passer and technically highly capable. If we revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation then he is the obvious choice for the central attacking midfielder role. In the middle of the park, he’s best used as a Mezzala. His future prospects suggest that if he works hard and plays his cards right then Eljif may become world class.

Attacking Right Wingers

Our first choice is Matteo Politano ( 27, 5 caps), on loan from Inter with a £17.5 million transfer arranged for next summer. A winger from the Sassuolo production line who impressed on loan both with ourselves and Inter before the latter shelled out £18 million for him, Matteo failed to make an impression for Conte and has been shuffled back to the San Paolo. We hope to offer him permanence and security, this classy and technically gifted inverted winger who is a current member of the Azzurri. He can’t rest on his laurels however. Added to the ranks is Riccardo Orsolini ( 23, 1 cap), who is presently on the fringes of the national team. Back in 2016 Juventus signed him, then loaned him out for three years before finally selling him to Bologna. One year on, after a very fruitful year for the Greyhounds and he’s here, hitting the heights and expected to bear fruits via his pace, determination and ability to dribble past the best of them. I expect him to challenge Matteo and steadily assert his presence within the first team.

Attacking Left Wingers

This is the domain of Lorenzo Insigne ( 29, 34 caps), pretty much Mr Napoli and now celebrating his fifteenth year as a Blue. Blessed with flair and the kind of first touch that can make grown men weep, he’s an important player who has a fantastic affinity with the fans. I suspect I may have made a mistake in stripping him of the captaincy. Normally I don’t like giving the armband to a forward, but he wasn’t happy with my decision and I hope this doesn’t develop into a bigger issue. Another potential concern is his sharing of the role with Hirving Lozano ( 25, 39 caps). A costly £34 million acquisition from PSV back in 2019, it’s his flexibility that stands out as a real asset alongside his superb agility levels. He can play just as happily out on the right wing, which may be crucial if and when injuries start to bite. The worry is that he expects to play a lot of games, and while we hope to have a big season, remaining in all competitions and offering many appearances, this has the makings of a stroppy maelstrom. Chelsea want him.

Forwards

Traditionally our main man is Dries Mertens ( 33, 92 caps), now entering the waning years of his career and with two years remaining on his contract. A Neapolitan since 2013, scoring 93 goals in 236 appearances, Dries was a thrilling mainstay during the years when we offered a stiff league challenge to Juventus, and for now his physical levels remain staggeringly high. He also has great technique and, at a pinch, can fill in at left wing or as a shadow striker. The Belgian’s advancing years probably provoked the team’s £64 million splurge on Victor Osimhen ( 21, 8 caps). Tearing up the league at Charleroi and Lille, he’s a cracking pressing forward, great at playing himself into prime positions and whippet quick. The coaches are really excited about him, and the expectation is placed on Victor to wrest the starter’s role from Dries eventually.

Of the five strikers we started with I sold Milik and Llorente while retaining Andrea Petagna ( 25, 1 cap). Once upon a time he was a prospect at Milan, before signing for us via spells with Atalanta and a particularly fruitful loan period at SPAL. Some bright spark paid £10.5 million for Andrea and then placed him on the transfer list. He’s better than that, though realistically his status as a fringe player sounds about right. I don’t love target men, basically for their single usage, but he’s a tall unit, can head with the best of them and provides a strong presence up front.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Pre-Season 2020

The first thing to do is some work on improving Napoli’s coaching team. We have a very good goalkeeping trainer in Alessandro Nista, but Valerio Fiori brings the side down and I agree mutual release terms with him. He’s replaced with Des McAleenan, an Irishman who currently works with the Colombian national team. To make up the shortfall of coaches, I sign Mainz 05’s Benjamin Hoffmann because of his attacking prowess, Ivan Carminati from Zenit (fitness and tactical) and Ricky Sbragia (defending) on a free. There’s still no training area where we are Serie A’s best, but we are now near the top at least. It irritates me that Juve have replaced a number of their coaches, leaving several very good personnel available for gratis, yet because of the rivalry between the clubs they have no interest of working in the San Paolo.

Elsewhere, French physio Jean-Georges Cellier replaces Vincenzo Longobardi, and we steadily fill out the open positions with recommended personnel.

Fernando Llorente is the first player to leave on my watch. The former Tottenham second stringer is sitting here on fat wages and little chance of playing, so a deal is quickly worked out for him to play his twilight years at Wolverhampton. £425k sounds like a negligible fee, but the guy’s 35 and removing him from the club’s groaning salary bill is a major plus. Arkadiusz Milik is next. Unwilling to sign a new contract and not in my good books because I’m not into poachers, he agrees an £8.5 million deal to join Spurs. The board aren’t happy with this. His value jumps due to the fact he’s agreed a five year contract, but we weren’t ever going to get much more than ten million for him and again, wiping his wages from the budget matters.

Their departures open the possibility that I can make a couple of signings. A back-up player for the right wing is the one significant gap within the squad. Right-back Kevin Malcuit can play there, but surely we can do better than that. Given that I really want to boost the team’s Italian presence it boils down to two choices – Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi, or Riccardo Orsolini from Bologna. I go for the latter. He’s younger, at 23, and I had a good time with him in an FM 2020 save. He joins for £18.5 million.

I identify a good alternative centre-back as a priority. In one of our pre-season matches we lose 3-2 to Sampdoria, featuring a second-half collapse, and a defining factor has to be replacing Manolas and Koulibaly with Maksimovic and Rrahmani. Not good enough, indeed a little bit scary. Armando Izzo is the player I want. Currently with Torino, he’s a cut above our existing choices and as a former Neapolitan he will add to the slim ranks of ‘trained at the club’ homegrown players. It’s a relatively cheap deal. £11 million is enough, not bad for a 28 year old ball playing defender who has three Italian caps to his name.

Izzo’s arrival means there is no longer any need to retain Amir Rrahmani, a Kosovan-Albanian who looks to me like the definition of bang average. He leaves for Lyon in an £8.25 million deal. Kevin Malcuit is the next to go. The Blues are well stocked for right-sided full-backs so the Frenchman is surplus to requirements. Ajax produce the £7 million needed to end our association with him.

With some money left in the bank I look next at left-back. Mario Rui and Faouzi Ghoulam are the existing choices. Neither inspire awe and both players are earning fat wads of cash that far outstrip their abilities. Algerian Ghoulam, taking home £78,000 per week as a fringe player, is the identified one to lose. At the time of writing, just ahead of the season opener, he’s agreeing terms with Ajax and should be leaving shortly. It won’t produce a windfall, £3.3 million with several clauses thrown in, but as always I need to think about how much we are lavishing on wages.

The player I want to bring in is Alex Grimaldo. There are no Italians who (i) are good enough (ii) are affordable. Luca Pellegrini is probably the best of the choices out there, a young Juventus player who’s out on loan, and at this stage I have no idea whether the trade of players between us is an anathema, in the way that Manchester United and Liverpool refuse to deal with each other. So Grimaldo then, a former Barcelona youth player whose reputation at Benfica has steadily grown. 24 years old and installed as the first choice left-back, Grimaldo costs us £23.5 million and will hopefully seal his place in the side for some years to come.

If no further transfer action takes places then I’ll be happy enough. Gaps have been identified and filled, and with the new recruits installed we’re looking in a pretty healthy place, I feel. Here in a simple table format is how the squad stacks up:

522242964_Napolisquad2020.jpg.22eb4c5320d8b311a87d52edc7ffb801.jpg

In a neutral Milanese stadium picked as our base for pre-season we dispatch Chievo Verona 3-0. The game features a fantastic incisive strike from Victor Osimhen, who looks confident and deadly when presented with chances, a really promising acquisition. The only downside of this one is a hamstring strain incurred by Insigne that will remove him for much of the run of friendlies. This game is followed by the Sampdoria debacle. We go 2-0 up and everything’s looking good, only for a combination of clumsiness and defensive mix-ups to gift three easy goals to the opposition. I think the players are a bit unsettled over how angry losing this one makes me. It shouldn’t be happening. Sure it’s a friendly, but the collapse is such a disconcerting thing to witness. We really ought to be keeping the limited Genoese opposition at bay.

At the end of August, we produce a 1-0 victory over VFL Wolfsburg. This is more like it. Osimhen puts us ahead on the cusp of half-time and I use the second period to flex our muscles at the back. The Germans can’t find a way through so I am much more sanguine by the final whistle. We dominate in terms of shots, xG and possession, and the home team predictably air their frustrations by boosting the fouls count.

Another humbling of sorts follow when some sadist includes a visit to Anfield as part of our schedule. Thankfully, there’s little chance that we will face Liverpool again this season. They’re better than us, even as both sides are picking at their rumps with the international break taking place. Unless the opposition foul up their Champions League group and end up dropping into the Europa League this should be our only meeting, and I am tempted to slot them in again for a friendly next summer when hopefully we are an improved team. They beat us 1-0, on paper not a terrible result but there are moments when we are doing all we can to stem the red tide. Scary stuff.

A week before Serie A hostilities begin, we host Benfica, complete with soon-to-be-Blue Grimaldo slotted in at left-back for them. I see the Portuguese giants as roughly at the same level as we are, and it’s vastly encouraging to produce a 2-0 victory. The opposition are reduced to scraps while Politano and Bakayoko produce the goods. A fine performance, with Lozano taking the match ball for being an ever-dangerous threat on our left wing. Orsolini spends the second half on our right and looks really good, comfortable in Napoli blue and scoring, only for the goal to be ruled out for a dubious offside i.e. he was definitely off.

The season will open with the visit of AC Milan, a tough start against a side I have a lot of affection for and who of course can call on the godlike presence of Zlatan. How we perform against them will say a lot about our prospects for the campaign, so I’m hopeful for a good showing.

Introducing the Glory Hunter Challenge

I was thinking of running a lower league management exercise as my big FM 2021 game, however my comfort zone is to try my hand at bigger clubs, specifically restoring some semblance of glory to former giants. The Glory Hunter challenge, set up and devised by Doctor Benjy FM on YouTube, was one of my great delights on FM20. It favours the kind of game that I really like to play, and it’s harder than it looks.

Here are the rules:

  • I am given twenty years to complete the challenge.
  • I have to win the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga and French Ligue Un. For good measure I am also tasked with winning the main cup competition in each of these countries.
  • The challenge also demands that I claim at least one Champions League and Europa League during my adventures.
  • Don’t forget the international scene. I have to grab a World Cup and European Championship along the way.

Who to start with? I don’t want to open with a Champions League team, rather opting for a place that offers good prospects and room for improvement. A small transfer budget and a very decent squad would also be nice, thank you. My choice as the opening team is Italy’s Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli, or simply Napoli.

Why them? Well, whilst I enjoy playing in Serie A very much I have never taken on the southern Italian big guns. My favoured picks are the two Milan giants, but been there and done that, and maybe it’s time to have a go at restoring glory to the team that plays in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. As I write these words Etna is erupting on Sicily, and wouldn’t it be nice for the old Pompeii smiter to blow its top at the same time? Er no, I guess it would not, thinking about it.

Another reason for picking them is that for some years they were Juventus’s closest challengers in Serie A. While other teams struggled to get their act together on anything like a consistent basis, the Blues – managed by chain-smokin’ Maurizio Sarri – kept the Old Lady on her toes and at certain moments looked like putting a serious dent in that record of exciting consecutive league titles being amassed in Turin. They didn’t quite manage it, and as the likes of Milan, Inter and Lazio have rejoined the race there’s a perception that Napoli are entering a gentle period of falling off the pace. They finished in seventh place in 2019/20, winning the Coppa Italia to add some gloss to a disappointing league campaign and qualifying for this year’s Europa League.

I would have sacked Gennaro Gattuso off the back of that, and sure enough that’s exactly what they’ve done, replacing Mr ‘Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe shit’ with a plucky English manager who’s on a personal crusade to win everything that European football has to offer.

What have I got myself into? The first obvious issue is that Napoli may have fallen out of the Champions League and yet they are financed to belong at that level. Only Juve and Inter have a larger wage budget than ourselves, with Roma broadly on the same footing as we are and Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina run along more modest means. For the record, we have a budget of £2,274,899 to squander on a weekly basis, and our committed spending is precisely at that level. The board has made a limited transfer budget of £15,900,720 available to me, about half of what remains in the bank, but obviously it’s meaningless if I don’t open some wriggle room by selling players.

The good news is that the Blues start the game with a pretty good squad. I’ll go into the players in more detail below, but the situation is highly promising albeit with a premium on homegrown talent. The only two squad members who are homegrown within the club are talismanic forward Lorenzo Insigne, and Nikita Contini, our back-up keeper and the subject of an old Elton John ballad. We do meet the Serie A requirement of having eight first team players who were trained in Italy between the ages of 18 – 21 – they are Contini, Alex Meret, Giovanni di Lorenzo, Elseid Hysaj, Insigne, Matteo Politano, Piotr Zielkinski and Andrea Petagna. All the same, the board preference that I sign players from my domestic rivals is a key one, I feel. A stronger Italian presence within the ranks would be good. More former Neapolitans is an ideal. That means scouting the likes of Amadou Diawara, Armando Izzo and Camilo Ciano, otherwise we will be stuck on registering no more than twenty-three players for the first team, and that isn’t ideal.

I start with a staff base that is pretty small. We have six coaches out of a possible nine, so there’s scope to recruit some people here; no Technical Director, Loan Manager, and space to find more scouts. For me, good staff levels – both in terms of numbers and quality – is of paramount importance. There’s work to be done here.

Napoli expect a Champions League qualification place as a bare minimum, which clearly illustrates the club’s outlook. Based on how much we are spaffing on wages I agree that this is a requirement. In the cup competitions they want us to reach the finals of both the Coppa and the Europa League, though these are preferences so a good league finish will probably keep me in the fight.

In terms of tactics I like to play a 4-1-2-3 formation, balancing defence and attack by fielding a dedicated defensive midfielder. In instances where we have to try and overwhelm the opposition we can switch to a 4-2-3-1, sacrificing the DM for a central attacking midfielder. There’s scope within the squad to operate either system. We have Tiemoue Bakayoko, his most recent loan destination after Chelsea squandered nearly £40 million on him back in 2018, who can operate at DM. Fabian and Lobotka are natural fits here also. If we choose to go with an AMC then Mertens – normally an attacking forward – is a happy shadow striker; Macedonian midfielder Eljif Elmas is a perfectly fine alternative choice.

We have some stars. Though I was a big fan of Mohican wearing midfielder Marek Hamsik, who now plies his trade in China, there are some Neapolitans about whom it’s worth being excited. The cause is anchored by elite, hulking centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, a Senegalese international who you know must be all right thanks to his perpetual link with Manchester United. The side’s vice-captain and a team leader, ‘Kouli’ is good enough to be picked without any reservation. During their ‘challenging’ years Napoli’s excitement levels were piqued by forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, still here and as potent as ever. Before my arrival the club lavished £64 million on Lille’s Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen, who will expect plenty of playing time. Polish advanced playmaker Piotr Zielinski is an excellent central midfielder, possessing the kind of silky passing talent that should make him essential within a set-up that requires us to move the ball quickly and with fluidity.

There’s talent available at the San Paolo, no doubt there, but questions also. The main one is what to do with the large group of strikers, which is trimmable and probably my best opportunity to cut into the heavy salary spend. Both Fernando Llorente (35 years old, earning £67,000 per week as an impact sub) and Andrea Petagna (25, £59k per week, only signed this year for £10.5 million) are transfer listed. I’m tempted to keep the latter if I can find a new home for Llorente, but the really interesting one is Arkadiusz Milik. The Pole earns £81k and is in the last year of his contract. According to Cristiano Giuntoli, he has absolutely no interest in signing a new deal with us, so it might be in our interests to cut our losses while he has some resale value. Sevilla want him. Added to the mix is the fact that I have never personally managed Milik in previous games, but when I’ve seen him move to a rival the poacher has done precious little, like a less handsome and non-scoring Giroud, and though he has a decent goals haul in his time with us perhaps we ought to part ways now.

Other potential targets for the transfer list are:

  • Kevin Malcuit – 29 year old French right-back who is currently the third choice for his position. Though he can play further forward on his flank, he isn’t a natural and behind Politano we could use the money to snap up an attacking right winger.
  • Amir Rrahmani – behind the two first choices at centre back (Koulibaly and Manolas) the quality dips sharply. This fellow is a Kosovan international, 26, who looks decent enough but potentially sellable if I can find an Italian alternative. He’s one of the Blues’ foreign contingent, which is larger than I’m ideally comfortable with.
  • Mario Rui or Faouzi Ghoulam – our two picks at left-back aren’t especially awe-inspiring, and again there’s the scope to bring in a homegrown player if I can get rid of one of these. Both earn big bucks with little justification, from what I can see.

Arsenal FM21 – Post-Season 2021: The Transfer Window

Goalkeepers

I’m really happy with Bernd Leno, but I think the back-up should make up the homegrown numbers, just liked Martinez used to, and that marks the end of the road for Runar Runarsson. He goes to Fenerbahce for a cut-price £1.4 million. As the new bench-warmer we end up plumping for Angus Gunn of Southampton. He costs a fee that will amount to £7.75 million ultimately. It’s more than I really want to pay, but those homegrown places count.

Right-Backs

No intention to switch from the Bellerin-Maitland axis, and while the former is coveted by a number of teams this never results in an offer. Calum Chambers is increasingly surplus to requirements while still being pretty good. Valencia provide the solution, taking him on loan and paying his wages while giving him the playing time that we are unable to.

Left-Backs

Kieran Tierney earns a dazzling new contract that puts him in the £100,000+ club. Now an important player, I’m not interested in sparking a battle betwixt him and Sead Kolasinac and transfer-list the latter. He goes to China, to Guangzhou, for £29 million. As the squad rotation back-up to Tierney, we land Junior Firpo, the Barca prospect who could develop into a good Premier League player. He’s cheap at £7.5 million.

Centre-Backs

The cull continues as David Luiz leaves at the end of his contract and Pablo Mari goes to newly promoted Bournemouth for £15 million. William Saliba is sent on loan again, this time to Cittadella who are now operating in Serie A. Chelsea have transfer listed Andreas Christensen. He counts as a ‘trained in England’ homegrown player; £21.5 million and he’s ours. The Danish international will be rotated regularly with Demiral, Gabriel and Holding, making for four good options in central defence.

Defensive Midfielders

The plan was to re-insert Lucas Torreira back into the side once his loan at Atletico finished. In the meantime West Ham got relegated, which made Declan Rice open to offers. The £55 million we pay is hefty, but Rice is a 22 year old England regular and comes at a premium. He’s also an ideal candidate for the captaincy. Torreira is sold to Milan for £17.5 million.

Central Midfielders

Granit Xhaka’s wish comes true when he swaps London for the red half of Milan. £28 million is the price, so everyone’s happy, apart from the Arsenal board who feel I’ve let him go on the cheap (I haven’t). Matteo Guendouzi returns from loan and goes to Ajax for £18.25 million. Mohamed Elneny joins Valencia in exchange for £15 million. Chelsea have pretty much made Ruben Loftus-Cheek surplus to requirements – £26 million makes him ours. Ever concerned about the Ox’s injury proneness, I draft in Aaron Ramsey on loan to lessen our dependency on him. Ramsey costs £180,000 per week in wages, but I’m loathe to pay the £20 million Zebre want to make his signing permanent, and in reality I’ve put the problem off for another year. We can now choose from RLC, the Ox, Ramsey, Partey, Wilshere and Willock, which looks healthy if slightly over-stacked.

Right Wingers

Nicolas Pepe’s rise to Godlike status means we no longer have to keep Willian around. The Brazilian is on big wages and expects to play a lot, neither of which pleases me. Norwich are back up and produce a staggering £29 million fee to capture his signature. Great. The position is now Pepe’s, with Reiss Nelson in the ‘young gun’ role.

Left Wingers

Vinicius’s loan deal ends and Smith Rowe goes back out, this time to relegated West Ham. Gabriel Martinelli is back in the side as the fringe player, capable of playing on the left or up front. Bukayo Saka is now first choice. I pay a princely £54 million to Burnley to acquire Dwight McNeil, a 21 year old who has no business playing in the Championship.

Strikers

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the star and expects to remain so, which is fine with me. Both him and Alexandre Lacazette are getting on and earning fabulous wages, and it’s my intention to ease them out over time. The latter is the first to go. Valencia find a stunning £56 million to seal the deal and his heart. As the new back-up, I draft in PSV’s Donyell Malen, a onetime Arsenal youngster who built a 7.61 average rating last season while scoring 16 goals in his 23 appearances. £44 million seems like a good price to pay for a 22 year old who can be eased into first team action. Eddie Nketiah joins Porto on loan for the season.

At the end of all this we have spent £201 million on talent and recouped £199 million. There’s still £95 million remaining in the transfer budget and £612,000 available to spend on wages. It leaves me wondering if my transfer activities could have been more ambitious, but the money’s there and things look very healthy at the Emirates. The first team now looks like this, with ‘trained at the club’ homegrown players shaded in green, and ‘trained in England’ players in yellow. It was always my ambition to increase the English presence, so I’m sanguine with the number of Three Lions lads now representing the Gunners.

A Helping Hand…

I’ll finish with some tips for new starters with Arsenal. These things have worked for me and ultimately it’s up to you how far you want to go with these pointers, but I’ll leave them here for your reading pleasure.

Either build the side around Mesut Ozil or sell him quickly. I know what I would rather do with Ozil, but there is doubtlessly talent still in those ageing legs and an argument to be made for accommodating him within the Arsenal set-up, if only for one final season of ‘last hurrah’ football before his ruinously large contract winds up. If you do decide to keep him around then be prepared to construct your line-up to showcase him, not only positionally but to compensate for some of the Mentality drawbacks he brings to the table; for instance everyone wants a squad that’s high in Determination, but Ozil won’t provide it so you need to find it from elsewhere.

Reduce the wage bill fast. The Gunners have a Champions League team’s salary commitment while playing Europa League football. In the long term, this isn’t sustainable and it’s why you are charged with making it back into the continent’s big competition. Meanwhile, you have a set of players where the range of wages paid is enormous. Aubameyang, Ozil, Lacazette and David Luiz lead the group in terms of eye-watering contracts, while the likes of Tierney, Saka and numerous others who will still be around for a number of years are paid rather more modestly and sensibly. Again, not a situation you want, but with several players who are close to retirement yet drawing vast wages you should be able to whittle the bill down fairly easily. That means losing a few hefty earners who you might think earn the big bucks because they deserve to, but they do not represent the team’s future. In getting rid of David Luiz, Willian, Lacazette and Ozil by the end of 2020/21 I created the best part of a million pounds’ weekly wriggle room in the budget, while losing comparatively little in the side’s playing quality.

You have great kids – use them. The big attraction in managing Arsenal is not so much the self-appointed legends but the talented group of young Gunners at your disposal – Saliba, Willock, Saka, Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Nelson are all already at or close to first team level, with several further treats waiting in the wings. These represent nothing less than Arsenal’s future, and they need to be either quickly worked into the side or developed to get them to that stage as soon as possible. Apart from the enigmatic Emile Smith Rowe, I’ve found them all to be very useful pretty much from the start.

You have a large number of centre-backs, but few good ones. Of the seven defenders I started the game under my command, just two are still first team members (after a year) with a third out on loan to aid his development. The remaining four – David Luiz, Pablo Mari, Sokratis Papajohns, Shkodran Mustafi – have all been sold, for the simple reason that they plain ain’t good enough. William Saliba has the chance to get there, but he’s very young and can use the development time elsewhere. That leaves Rob Holding and Gabriel as legitimate first team picks, with Calum Chambers – nominally a right-back but just as happy in the middle – also loitering with intent. The good thing is that if you do manage to offload your unwanted defenders you have the opportunity to rake quite a lot back in, in terms of the wage savings. A priority in the first summer should be to bring in a good centre-back – I went for Juventus’s Merih Demiral – because a bit of judicious juggling of personnel ought to transform a leaky group of largely average defenders into a sharp, stingy ‘none shall pass’ unit. With Demiral and Gabriel as my first choices I never really looked back.

Priority Two is Central Midfield. Arsenal start with Partey, Ceballos, Elneny, Willock and Xhaka as the central midfield choices. That isn’t really good enough. For me, this group is little better than average. Thomas Partey is the best and he isn’t amazing. Willock is your way for the future, to be eased in and used primarily for Europa League playing time. I have little time for Mohamed Elneny, who screams of better choices being available elsewhere, while Granit Xhaka is a long-time club associate that is best off being cut short. Personally, I begged the board to fund a package for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was transfer-listed by Liverpool and added the midfield flair that the Gunners lack (it wasn’t provided so well by Ceballos), and snapped up Jack Wilshere on a free and paying him comparatively tiny wages. Both signings are former Gunners so their arrival improves the ratio of homegrown players, and while each one has had more than his fair share of injury issues the talent is there if it’s used sparingly. The sunny upland is that Willock will develop well, while Xhaka – who really ought to be on borrowed time at the Emirates – can fetch the big bucks, which should be plunged recycled new recruits.