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.

Arsenal FM21 – Post-Season 2021: The Players

The aim is to end my account of a rather astonishing first season with Arsenal here. Whether the game is easier this time, or I’m a tactical genius, or Nicolas Pepe is Messi in hiding, it’s gone really well and I have to feel that after making further changes over the summer we are going to be stronger still.

I’m going to finish with a couple of posts to cover the progress of my players, and the transfer movements that have been made ahead of 2021/22. Hopefully, as this is a thread primarily devoted to covering tips for managing the Gunners these details will be useful to somebody…

I’ve split the first team into separate categories.

Our Heroes

Bernd Leno (65 apps, 43 clean sheets, 6.91 rating) – played every minute of the campaign, kept a stack of clean sheets and was named the best in the division by the close of play. In truth his services were called upon infrequently, but when we really needed the big German to deliver he did just that, as in the manly performance he put in to stop Manchester United at Old Trafford when we were defending a 1-0 lead with ten Gunners left on the pitch.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles (30 apps, 1 goal, 4 assists, 7.23 rating) – I remember when he used to be a central midfielder. Now primarily a right-back, Ainsley was consistent and very good especially at supporting the attack. Perpetually under-rated, but not by me.

Rob Holding (35 apps, 2 goals, 3 assists, 7.34 rating) – survived the cull of centre-backs and became a valuable defender who increasingly fought for his place, proved his quality, and ultimately earned a fat new contract.

Merih Demiral (45 apps, 5 goals, 3 assists, 7.30 rating) – new signing, brought in relatively inexpensively, and growing into a titanic presence at the back. A no-nonsense centre-back from the old school of physical play and tough tackling (though I believe this to be an art in itself), the 22 year old Turk earned a rash of bookings and was dismissed on one occasion, but he was otherwise a rock, ever-present and committed.

Gabriel (47 apps, 3 goals, 0 assists, 7.21 rating) – Merih’s regular defensive partner, in his first season as a Premier League player and the Turk’s perfect complement, the ball player to Demiral’s blunt instrument. He never let me down.

Kieran Tierney (34 apps, 0 goals, 4 assists, 7.26 rating) – started the year as the junior partner to Kolasinac at left-back; ended it as by far the better choice and rewarded with a new contract and enhanced playing time. Fewer bookings than Sead and capable of exhibiting the responsibility of knowing when to stay back and defend, and when he could become part of the attacking thrust.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (36 apps, 3 goals 9 assists, 7.19 rating) – I felt it was a risk bringing him back to the Emirates, especially considering his track record with injuries. But he was great from his central midfield role, and I played my part in wrapping him in cotton wool and using him carefully.

Nicolas Pepe (46 apps, 23 goals, 10 assists, 7.46 rating) – attained boss level over the course of the campaign, eclipsing Willian to establish a devastating partnership with Aubameyang and achieving the team’s highest individual rating. Also named Fans’ Player of the Season.

Bukayo Saka (50 apps, 10 goals, 8 assists, 7.23 rating) – a banner year, now with three England caps and still only 19. Fought Vinicius Junior for the left wing and by the end had won the role, which is all I could expect of him.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (44 apps, 35 goals, 5 assists, 7.27 rating) – Mr Reliable in front of goal, did exactly what was asked of him as he was moved from the left wing position that he was increasingly filling under Arteta to go back up-front. Greedy for chances to prove his quality, which is something every manager wants to see.

The Did Wells

Hector Bellerin (35 apps, 2 goals, 10 assists, 7.15 rating) – the only downside is his fragility, the over-use that can lead quickly to injuries. Otherwise Hector was a delight who had a good cross in his locker.

Calum Chambers (15 apps, 3 goals, 0 assists, 7.18 rating) – used sparingly but just fine at either right-back or in the centre. The competition for places could play hell with his long-term prospects as a Gunner, but he didn’t let me down when he played.

Thomas Partey (49 apps, 2 goals, 3 assists, 7.02 rating) – played out of position in defensive midfield and did well enough, pretty much operating as the tank that he gives every impression of being. 2021/22 should see him moved back into the middle, and how he performs will define his future prospects.

Lewis Cook (39 apps, 4 goals, 4 assists, 6.89 rating) – named the worst signing of the season, which is utterly unfair. He’s a young guy taking his first step with a big new team, and I found him to be reliable and unawed by the standard at which he was working.

Joe Willock (24 apps, 2 goals, 3 assists, 7.05 rating) – new David Platt (it says here) who is improving exponentially, and by the end of the season was wresting his place from Ceballos, which speaks volumes for his attacking instinct and willingness to go on unpredictable mazy dribbles into dangerous areas.

Reiss Nelson (33 apps, 4 goals, 3 assists, 7.04 rating) – used primarily as a right winger, Reiss continues to improve and was close to ousting Willian by the closing stages of the campaign. Absolutely one to watch.

The Could Stay, Could Goes

Sead Kolasinac (33 apps, 0 goals, 4 assists, 7.13 rating) – overtaken by Tierney as our first choice left-back, and while the numbers look well enough there are his eleven yellow cards and one dismissal to take into account. Sead has a penchant for thuggery and will need to curb this if he’s to stay in my plans.

Jack Wilshere (28 apps, 0 goals, 4 assists, 6.89 rating) – for a free signing on a low paying contract Jack did pretty much everything that was expected of him. A season-ending injury always looks just around the corner, but his homegrown status and small toll on the wage bill should protect his place.

Dani Ceballos (54 apps, 2 goals, 8 assists, 6.90 rating) – Dani was gazumped by the Ox and didn’t really do enough to make signing him permanently a viable option. He would cost £39-53 million, and my sense is that we could use the money more wisely.

Willian (38 apps, 5 goals, 8 assists, 6.90) – paled against the vast steps made by Pepe and fitful when he played. We could get great games; equally he had the capacity to vanish, and for someone earning £100,000 per week that isn’t really good enough. Now 32, and that’s another worrying sign.

Vinicius Junior (54 apps, 11 goals, 6 assists, 6.95 rating) – signed on loan to keep us ticking while Martinelli recovered and Smith Rowe improved on loan, and did quite well. Real Madrid don’t want to sell him, so bringing him back permanently would involve a massive outlay that I don’t believe can quite be justified. Good player though; at times, the ball looked like it was stuck to his feet when he was dribbling with it.

Alexandre Lacazette (36 apps, 17 goals, 4 assists, 7.01 rating) – a good goals haul should be tempered with the fact that he was often used against ‘softer’ opposition. A fine, inconsistent forward, occasionally disappearing from the action, and on vast spends while 29 years old. If I can find a better back-up for Auba then that’s likely to mark the end of his Gunners tenure.

The Zeroes

Runar Alex Runarsson (0 apps) – I didn’t rate him. There, I’ve said it. For me, a back-up goalie should be homegrown, so this single, anonymous season should be Runar’s first and last in an Arsenal shirt.

Granit Xhaka (43 apps, 3 goals, 9 assists, 6.78 rating) – there’s surely a good player lurking in there, but there’s also a tendency towards violence and a sense that he’s off the pace. He’s asked to be sold in the summer, and I’m only too happy to grant his wish.

Arsenal FM21 – May 2021: A Tale of Three Trophies

Here’s the deal. We have already qualified for the Champions League and thereby met the Arsenal board’s vision for the season. Sir Chips and his buddies are happy. Now though, we are in the driving seat for the title with none of the big teams left to face. That’s the good part. The issue is the sheer number of fixtures remaining. Seven league games, an FA Cup final against Leicester City, also the second leg of our Europa League tie with United and then a possible final in which to complete the campaign. A total of ten playing occasions between now and the end. A two-day gap between matches on some occasions. Everything is there to play for, but with so much football still to play might we burn out before the end?

2 May – we’re off to Elland Road to take on Leeds United, possibly the trickiest of the remaining league games. On paper, at least. Under Bielsa, the Whites looked as though they were heading towards good things again, but he’s left for Manchester City and they now have Mircea Lucescu in charge. The former Dynamo Kyiv manager favours a defensive approach, which plays into our favour as we’re invited to attack them again and again. Partey puts us ahead early, and we add two more through Vinicius and Aubameyang in the second half when the game becomes more open. The home side are restricted to a single off-target shot. It’s almost the perfect game from us.

4 May – Fulham at home. A heavily rotated line-up is named for what ought to be a more straightforward challenge, and another 3-0 victory. Strikes from Demiral and Lacazette bisect Willian’s penalty, as the Cottagers set up to put men behind the ball and limit the damage, and they happily concede possession also. Their attacking pair of Lookman and Mitrovic are made to look remote and cut off as our defenders keep them entirely under wraps. Jack Wilshere has a great game for us in midfield, teasing Fulham endlessly with his passing, which maybe says as much about the opposition as it does Jackie.

6 May – at the Emirates again, and this time we’re entertaining Manchester United in what should be a Europa League tie where the hard work has already been done. We are three ahead at the break thanks to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Pepe and Aubameyang. In the second half, United suddenly remember what’s on the line and take the game to us. Diallo scores a couple of quick goals as the visitors pile on the pressure, and we spend the closing stages defending our lead. It’s far too late for them, as we win 5-2 on aggregate and look forward to the final at the Energa Gdansk in Poland. Our opponents will be yet another Premier League side, the so far disappointing Manchester City. We have a great record against them this season.

8 May – a trip to the resolutely mid-table Southampton. This ought to be a comfortable game, but as it is the home side defend like dogs to keep us out. Jan Bednarek plays the game of his life at the back and Fraser Forster deals with everything we throw at him. On their wing Theo Walcott has that whiff of ‘old player scoring’ as he forces Kolasinac to defend hard and often. Somehow the Serb fails to get a booking in this one, which normally suggests he hasn’t done a lot. An otherwise bad-tempered game threatens to dribble out towards a 0-0 draw, but in injury time the Ox gets a break, sails past Walker-Peters and crosses unselfishly for Auba, who only has to slot the ball home and never cocks up chances of this sort. Phew.

11 May – we’re hosting Brighton and Hove Albion. This lot beat us earlier in the season and we owe them. Bellerin scores early and late strikes from Aubameyang (from the penalty spot) and Willian seal the deal, but this isn’t straightforward. Brighton produce more work for our defence to do than some of the more illustrious units we’ve played, and Lacazette does precisely nothing before Auba comes on to at least give us a spark in attack. Saka and Willock are the Gunner heroes who spark our 3-0 victory here; great to see homegrown players being invested in our fortunes.

13 May – at home again; this time it’s Everton. I name a strong line-up against a good team and one that sets out to keep us at bay. For a long time it works, but two second half goals from Pepe hand us a 2-0 victory. Otherwise, we’re wasteful in attack. We have twenty-five shots against a Toffees side that frankly looks as though they are already on their holidays. Pickford does his acrobatic thing however, and the win becomes harder fought than it really needs to be.

15 May – one more win will hand the league title to us, but before that there’s the little matter of the FA Cup final. We’re taking on Leicester City, a good opponent but it could have been a lot harder and they do us a favour in the twelfth minute when Ndidi is red carded for the sort of challenge on Pepe that wouldn’t look out of place in a Sam Peckinpah Western. His dismissal defines the match. Pepe and Aubameyang score to win the contest 2-0. Willock has one ruled out for an arguable offside, and Partey plays a titanic game in defensive midfield. The Foxes offer little. By the end it’s Ndidi – the one player who looked committed and up for a fight, albeit exhibiting it in a dangerous way – who comes out of it with any credit.

19 May – with the league crown on the line we’re off on our longest journey within England to face Newcastle United at the Sports Direct Arena. Potentially facing relegation, the Barcodes have to see themselves over the line but this isn’t the time to do it. They fail to register a shot on target as we run out 2-0 winners. Partey scores early. Lacazette adds a second late and otherwise we stop the opposition from causing any problems for Leno in goal. Xhaka plays, safely anonymously, while Pepe and Vinicius earn the plaudits for keeping the Geordies busy in defence. We’ve won the Premier League!

23 May – suddenly there’s nothing left to play for in the league finale at Leicester City. I resolve to save my stars for the Europa League final and field a second eleven, and it’s perhaps the irrelevance of this one coupled with sheer fatigue that allows the Foxes to rack up a 3-2 win. The side we beat at Wembley puts in the sort of performance that reminds us they should be taken seriously. Cengiz Under and a wonderful Tielemans shot put them 2-0 up. Maitland-Niles finds a response, but Vardinho’s effort places them back into a commanding lead. Chambers heads in a Nelson corner late in the game, and we think we’ve equalised deep in injury time via Vinicius, only for the goal to be ruled out for what is revealed to be a clear offside. Ah well. I can’t be too upset after the heroics we have produced recently.

26 May – I’ve saved the stars for this, the Europa League final against Bielsa’s Manchester City in Poland. It’s a frustrating occasion. We tally an xG of 1.26 against the opposition’s 0.29, but they find the breakthrough when Fernandinho nods them in front, and it’s a lead they never give up. For our part, the silky football gives way to niggly fouls and bookings. Pepe tries to produce the spark for us, but Xhaka is predictably awful and at least on this occasion he isn’t the only one as Tierney is given the run-around ceaselessly by Raheem Sterling. It’s an underwhelming end to the campaign, but I am able to put it down to tiredness. The boys have spilled their life blood for the cause in May, raised their game again and again, and there’s always a price to pay. Perhaps the leggy performance here, when there’s so little left in the tank, is a simple reflection of our fatigue levels.

All the same, if I was offered the league and FA Cup at the start of the year then I would absolutely have taken them. Arsenal are a work in progress. We’re a mixture of good players, plucky youngsters and some who are ripe for the culling – looking at you, Granit Xhaka – and to finish with these honours, not to mention two additional cup final appearances, represents a fantastic season. Bernd Leno has played in each game. That’s a total of sixty-five appearances, crammed in between mid-September and now. There’s been a lot to do, and as the players slink off to play in a European international tournament or off to Dubai, they are left with my order that they will have to do it all over again in the new campaign.

Arsenal FM21 – April 2021: Mounting Fixtures

I’m asked to decide what to do with the players who will be out of contract at the end of the season. Apart from Kido Taylor-Hart, who deserves a new deal, I resolve to release them all, which wipes nearly half a million pounds from the wage budget in the summer. This includes the weekly £150,000 we will no longer have to pay David Luiz for his clownmanship, the small contribution we make to Sokratis’s salary and the rather more substantial one we are putting towards Mesut Ozil’s spends.

April contains league fixtures against Manchester United and Liverpool; both are super significant given the race for the title. Get the results where it counts and we might be right in the mix. Fail and it’s probably over. Before any of that we are facing Wolverhampton Wanderers at home. Recognising their strengths we field a strong side and quickly carve out a 2-0 lead through the twin towers of Aubameyang and Pepe. At the break we’re completely on top. The visitors have done so little. They score via Fabio Silva in the fifty-fifth minute and suddenly things become interesting. The punted balls forward that have represented their first half attacks had an air of desperation about them. We can deal with these blunt strikes. But now they’re working the ball forward carefully and artfully, relying on their great dribbling and an imperious central midfield featuring Neves and Moutinho. Time for beautiful football to go out of the window as we aim to protect our advantage, and we do it. Just.

The Europa League has us travelling to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk. Against Leicester in the previous round we sneaked through via home goals and defending at their place. We opt for the same approach here, on the basis that the home side are about as good as we are, and we want to stop them from establishing a rhythm. It works until early in the second half when Taison nudges them ahead. I order the lads to play a more open game and bring on Ceballos for Xhaka (who’s done nothing). The Spaniard it is who equalises before the final whistle, a lovely effort as he cuts inside the D, spots a gap in the defence and places his shot. It’s nothing less than we deserve, and better still we’ve done it while resting some key players…

…Which is fortunate because we’re away to Manchester United next. There’s no need to big this one up. The Devils are leading the league and could go pretty much out of reach with a ninth straight win. Just to make things that bit harder Demiral earns a straight red card seventeen minutes in when he scythes into Cavani from behind. It’s a bad one; the Turk has no excuses, and we have little option but to set up defensively for the long seventy-something minutes that remain. United pour forward. They sense blood, and yet the defence stands firm and Leno enjoys the game of his life, the epitome of ‘none shall pass’. Shortly before half-time Auba volleys from close range at the end of a classic combination with Pepe, and we set about defending our unlikely lead. Late in the game and United win a penalty. Hmmm, thanks ref, and at Old Trafford as well. Daniel James steps up, but Leno keeps everything out and that includes the palming aside of his spot-kick. Somehow, despite facing eighteen shots (against three of our own), we’ve pulled off an incredible rear-guard victory. Talk about parking the bus.

Back in Europa Land and we put on a disciplined and clinical show in dispatching Shakhtar 2-0. After absorbing some early pressure from the visitors Saka shoots us in front, and then Willian finds the net after a desperate penalty area scramble late on to seal the victory. Demiral makes up for his dismissal against United by ending it named as Man of the Match, which underlines how solid we are at the back. The semi-final will give us the chance to extend our good run over the red half of Manchester. Playing them five times sounds like at least two head-to-heads too many.

We’re off to Wembley at the weekend for our FA Cup semi-final date with destiny, and Southampton. Of some concern is the fact that some teams are playing in the league, a few now three fixtures further along than we are. The games are stacking up. The Saints are in lower mid-table but they’ll be a tough nut to crack. With Liverpool next I can’t even put out my best eleven. Ward-Prowse causes us some problems and we need to keep a careful eye on Ings’s forays, yet it’s a straightforward 2-0 victory as Lacazette and Cook do the honours. Things turn in our favour at some point in the second half when we introduce the Ox for Xhaka (again, not good) and the midfielder turns on the style against his old team. The Ox has been a hero for us; money well spent. With each passing match and another bang average showing, Xhaka on the other hand is falling out of favour very quickly.

Little time to pause for breath because we’re hosting Liverpool in midweek. The press pack make a big deal of the fact that we have lost to the Pool on each of the three occasions we have played them, and I’m haunted by it also. Okay, they probably are the best side in the division, hell maybe even the world, but have we been paying them too much respect? Now that we are drawn into the title race this has become a must-win affair. So we take off the brakes, play positively rather than cautiously and win 3-0. Pepe is the orchestrator. He scores two and causes problems for Robertson throughout, forcing the full-back to pay attention to his defensive duties rather than support the attack. Auba gets our third and otherwise it’s a good all-round performance from the boys. I’m impressed with our defenders. They blunt the visitor’s forward-thinking spark and stop them from finding any foothold in the game. By the time the mist has cleared we are top of the table, with a match in hand on our rivals.

Our good form complements Manchester United’s downturn perfectly when we travel to Old Trafford in the semi-final of the Europa League. Our 2-0 victory shouldn’t really be allowed to happen, but the home team do themselves no favours when Greenwood gets himself sent off. We’re a goal up via Vinicius at that point. Aubameyang adds a second, and our man advantage gives us the licence to shut the door after the break and see out the win.

Things look good, but it ain’t over. There are still seven league games to complete in May, involving a couple of weeks where we will need to work through six fixtures. Expect heavy rotation, wrapping players in cotton wool, calling on all my resources, and hoping to god that we don’t blow it now.

Arsenal FM21 – March 2021: Future Squad Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – February 2021: Cups and Cock-Ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – January 2021: Good Fortune at Goodison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – December 2020: Up for all Cups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – November 2020: Red Star Revolt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – October 2020: Return of the Ox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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