Derby FM20 – April 2023: A Nice Plate of Scouse

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

April opens with an A+ score from the Derby board. They’re thrilled with Derby’s progress, however despite the high rating and multiple thumbs aloft there are caveats and concerns. A couple of results have disturbed them, including our Carabao Cup final defeat to Liverpool (in which they overran us) and the 0-0 away draw at Brighton, where arguably we ought to have performed better. They aren’t happy about the wage we are paying to Dean Henderson – £27,500 per week, never a problem with them when Joel Pereira was earning exactly the same sum for doing less work. Another bugbear is the lack of high-profile signings. I will admit that I haven’t done well in this area. I’m far more comfortable when recruiting young players who can be moulded into big names, but they’re the ones putting the money onto the table so I guess I should do their bidding with it.

A heavy run of matches starts with our toughest domestic opposition – Liverpool. Fancied to win back the Premier League title and playing like it, Jurgen Klopp’s world eaters haven’t lose a single match since a 1-0 away defeat to United early in February. Their only recent draw came against us at Anfield. Otherwise it’s been win after win. They’re in terrific form and have that ‘Mike Tyson imperial phase’ sense of unstoppability indicating we’re in for a tough one.

It isn’t essential that we win this game. We’re three points behind with a match in hand and there will be plenty of opportunities to catch up before the campaign’s finished. But I don’t want us to lose either. I select an ambitious midfield pairing of Moriba and Bellingham, the idea being to balance the line-up perfectly between five defensive and five forward thinking players. In my bitter and at times terrifying memories of the Pool they’re at their most dangerous when we play cautiously. Where they’re concerned it’s like unfurling the red carpet. They’re so good at pouring forward and have multiple ways of finding paths through to goal, so it’s as well to try and put them under pressure, refuse to invite them to attack, because they will. Relentlessly.

After an opening spell during which we thrill the rain-soaked supporters, we go ahead in the fifth minute. Pellegrini advances and puts in a deep cross, which Barbosa connects with instantly. His effort rattles back off the crossbar, and Eddie Salcedo is the first to react, hitting a lovely strike across the face of the goal that sails into the bottom corner. The crowd erupts. Revenge for Wembley is on their minds, and I’ve made sure via my team talk that it’s on the players’ also. We can’t serve it cold, but this is Derby and we can serve it wet.

The visitors take little more than ten minutes before fashioning an equaliser. Dybala’s corner is cleared out to the edge of the area by someone in the goalmouth melee, but only to Sadio Mane, who unleashes a virtuous volley that can’t be stopped. The situation becomes bleaker shortly after half-time when Naby Keita makes it 2-1. Alexander-Arnold beats Pellegrini before sending in his cross, which is headed down by Mane into the midfielder’s path. There isn’t much that anyone can do about the power and accuracy of his shot, though an effort to put him under some pressure would be nice.

Salcedo scores shortly after, but it’s his regular offside goal that could become the subject of a drinking game or an office sweepstake. When will it happen? How many times will his goals be ruled out by VAR? To give him his due, Eddie is off by a matter of inches. It’s a tight shout that might have been allowed without the benefit of computer technology, and ultimately it doesn’t matter because he scores for real in the seventy-sixth minute. It’s a delicious one too. As a Derby set-piece is cleared away, Tosin finds himself in possession on the left wing. He puts in a cross, for which the Italian times his run perfectly to race ahead of Van Dijk and Gomez before netting at very close range. It’s a goal that’s worth waiting for, evidence that he can do it when he really wants to and of course it could hardly come at a better moment.

It’s been an even affair, a bit of an attacking classic with both sides abandoning their defensive responsibilities to clinch the winner. After much to and fro, scary and exhilarating passages of play, action at both ends of the pitch, Jayden Bogle plunges into the opposition half and crosses. It’s cleared outside the area, but who should advance to meet the ball but Pedro Chirivella, who slams in a venomous strike from around twenty yards out. If you’re going to fashion a deciding goal then why not make it the most spectacular one of the evening?

Still we aren’t done. Liverpool pour forwards to get back on terms. As Oxlade-Chamberlain causes problems on the right wing, a fresh pair of legs to rip into those of my tiring defenders, Luca Pellegrini puts in a late challenge that’s nasty looking enough to earn him a red card. At this stage we are a minute away from the end of stoppage time. I’ve no substitutions left. Bogle, Oxford and Tosin form a defensive three, with Pedro and Vieira sat in front of them. Our mentality becomes very defensive, a holding pattern, and with all those men behind the ball we are able to nullify the Scouse threat until the final whistle. Phew…

With this victory we have joined a three-way tie at the top. Today’s visitors, Manchester United and ourselves are all on 65 points. The kicker where we’re concerned is that we have matches in hand – we’ve played one fewer than Pool while United have three more fixtures in the bank over ourselves. They’re both involved in the Champions League in midweek. It’s a competition that’s dead to us and we are instead away to Leicester City.

This one must be serious because I’m asked to hold a team meeting beforehand. It seems premature to be doing so with eleven league matches remaining, and I recall how divisive these were during last season’s run-in. I used them to play down our chances, calling for a softly-softly approach, and even then some of the boys were flustered as a consequence of me asking them nicely to win, as though that isn’t what they are being paid to do. A lot of the less ambitious players have now gone, and so when I tell them in no uncertain terms that three points is expected I’m gratified to be confronted with a wall of nodding faces. They agree. Clearly the winning mentality I am trying to engender among them is spreading.

The Foxes are never an opponent I can discount. James Maddison is an excellent attacking midfielder leading a very good set of ballers, and they now have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading their forward line. Even at 33, with his contract winding down and having scored seven goals in 28 appearances, he’s a danger. The Gabonese striker must have seen just about every situation in the game that it’s possible to witness. His guile and finishing are a threat, even if his legendary pace is leaving him.

For all the hoopla they’re sitting in fourteenth place, still under threat of being sucked into the relegation battle and struggling to string together any sense of consistency. Jose Luis Mendilibar is the latest lamb to the slaughter, drafted in to replace Phillip Cocu and achieving a 34% win rate, which I’m sure has him under pressure. It’s set up for a Rams victory, but can we score goals? Even one might do.

The answer to that question is no, not for the longest time. Salcedo does what he normally does – everything right until the final product. God, I wish I could open him up and see what’s inside… He scores a brace against Liverpool so I think he’s turned a corner, only to watch him make a mess of the one genuine chance that he has created for himself. Other shots appear to be magnetically drawn to Kasper Schmeichel; he deals with everything, while the home side wilt as the match progresses. They start well and go close several times. Aubameyang has one great punt that thankfully clatters off the goalpost. But over the course of the proceedings their inspiration dries up.

It looks for all the world as though it’s going to be another goalless nothing as the minutes tick by. Salcedo goes off. Adam Hlozek comes on, darts on a solo run and shoots from twenty yards out, beating Schmeichel as though the keeper’s abilities mean nothing to him. Eighty-eight minutes are on the clock. Once again, we’ve the Czech forward to thank for sneaking victory from the jaws of a nil-nil draw.

And here’s the table, with Derby three points clear and bearing the capacity to pull even further away if those matches in hand are won. We’re approaching Easter weekend with two games in three days, both at home against Everton and Wolves. It feels as though we are approaching something close to good form again. In the wider world, we can no longer finish the season any lower than seventh, so our chances of meeting the board’s aim of finishing in the Europa League qualifying place should be in the bag before too long.

Derby FM20 – March 2023: Out of Europe

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

Two cup matches are taking place before we go off on the international break, which at this time of year comes as a huge reprieve. There are certain players whose stupid faces I’m sick of seeing, and some time away from them will be most welcome right now.

Things don’t improve as Darren Wassall brings me the details on this year’s crop of youngsters. They’re not good, not good at all, and considering how much has been invested in facilities and recruitment I did hope the quality would go up rather than take a nosedive. My pick from the group of teenagers who don’t look as though they can stand in a straight line is Mike Howe, a 16 year old from Stafford who appears like he might have the raw makings of a striker, but he’s a long, long way away right now. Where’s this year’s Josh Kirk, or even a John Vasey?

So we’re up against Marcello Gallardo’s Atletico Madrid side, at home in the Champions League. You will recall that they take a 2-1 advantage into our home leg, which means that everything is still to play for. Obviously I want to win here, but we still have at least one FA Cup fixture to honour and a mass of league games on the schedule, and in my current mood I would be just as happy if we withdraw at this stage. We’re the last of the round’s ties to be decided. Elsewhere there have been victories for Liverpool, Schalke 04, Internazionale, RB Leipzig (who do for Manchester City), and Napoli. Manchester United leather PSG at home to record a 7-2 aggregate victory. Barcelona emerge from their own confrontation with a 7-0 ducking of Zenit. There’s a sense of the chaff being separated from the competition’s wheat, but which of these are we?

Clearly this one will be hard. We have the bonus of Jan Oblak being missing. The legendary keeper is out with a broken finger, so instead they’re fielding Arijanet Muric, which isn’t a bad alternative to possess but he’s a bit more human than Oblak. We’ve got to take the game to them. Given our stuttering attacking form this will not be straightforward, however we have to believe that the Spanish league leaders are mortal, just like we are, and culpable to fast forwards.

Pellegrini and Oxford are suspended for this tie. Max Lowe and Scott McKenna start in defence, with the likes of Moriba and Lookman chosen to inspire our attacks. Nothing happens. Gallardo’s a bit like Theoden King, watching the Orcish hoards crashing against the walls of Helm’s Deep and saying ‘Is this all you’ve got?’ You all know what goes on next in the movie, right? Well, it doesn’t here. Wilson, Hughes and the undercooked Lookman all fail to inspire anything of any note against Gimenez and his buddies, and then things get worse in the seventy-fourth minute. By this stage, Max Willian is on. The young Brazilian goes in two-footed on Ivo and earns a red card for dangerous play. I have no argument against the dismissal. He deserves to go. What kills me is having to revert from positive play to becoming defensive, which we have to do as the cause is now pretty much lost. The Mattress Makers agree that Max’s sending off is the end of our fight and happily see out the rest of the time.

So our first foray into Champions League football ends 0-0, a 2-1 defeat overall, and this marks the end of our journey. I’m disappointed, of course I am. This was an adventure, an opportunity to test ourselves against the continent’s biggest guns and one in which I think we did the good name of Derby County proud. At the same time, there’s so much football to be played without the additional burden of these matches that exiting comes as a bit of a relief. It’s sad that we can’t reap the financial rewards of staying in the tournament, but for our efforts in getting to this stage we earn £8.18 million, and that isn’t a bad pay day.

All that remains is for us to get through the FA Cup Quarter-Final, a teasing home game in which we’re taking on Brighton and Hove Albion. The blizzard of games is so thick that I can’t recall who we played a fortnight ago, but I’m sure we were up against this lot quite recently. While we prepare, I learn that another member of our little family has been called up for England. Reece Oxford is chosen alongside Butland and Vieira to wear the three lions. We’re all very proud. It’s absolutely warranted.

It would be a nice early spring Sunday afternoon for the Brighton match if not for the scything rain. We’re used to all that by now, naturally, the reports of flooding within the county as Biblical levels of wrath are washing whole communities away… it’s not quite as bad as all that. It’s just raining a lot. The Gulls are 18th in the table, despite having what I think is a pretty decent team. Graham Potter is putting out his traditional central defence of White and Drunk, with Leo Ostigard parked on the right and perceived by many to be the ace up their sleeve. For our part, there are places for Frimpong, Lowe and Bellingham as we aim to end the pre-internationals spell on a high. Hell, if we can’t score past Angus Gunn at home, when we’re figuring at opposite ends of the Premier League, then there really is something wrong.

Max Willian makes up for his sending off in the last match by opening the scoring here, in the thirty-first minute. From a Frimpong throw-in, Salcedo eases himself down the right channel and crosses in. The Brazilian collects, weaves behind both Ostigard and White and slots past the keeper into his bottom corner. Brighton react with some weak attacks of their own, which we deal with, and it emerges that we aren’t the only side to be feeling a knock in our confidence right now. They really aren’t happy, their efforts non-committal and very much on the half-baked rather than full-blooded side.

Eddie Salcedo has another goal chalked off for offside, which seems to be his thing, and then Adam Hlozek puts a gloss on our victory. Bellingham embarks on a run from the halfway line. His somewhat aimless pass into the box is cleared away easily enough and rebounds back to Chirivella. He finds Hlozek on the edge of the box and a first-time volley, struck with venom and precision, does the rest. Splendid.

It isn’t the best or most comprehensive victory Pride Park have witnessed this season, but it marks out what we can do when we’re at home against a team that isn’t quite as good as we are, and it will do nicely. It’s certainly a welcome feeling to enter the international break on the back of a win – no rage to suppress while the players are away and you have to wait a fortnight before taking it out on someone. We get Bristol City in the Semi-Final. A Championship team that is currently seventh, and who I don’t believe we have faced since we were both at that level, it’s a kinder draw for us than we might have faced with any alternative permutation. The other semi, which is being billed in harsher quarters of the media as the one containing the future winners, features Arsenal taking on the might of Liverpool.

That completes our March run. It seemed to go by very quickly after the churn of action that was February, but April will be more like normal service with nine matches to play. There are twelve left overall to decide the Premier League, a possible 36 points in play, which could leave us with a grand total of 98. Clearly with the way things are going we now have to try and go on a winning run, which won’t be easy as we start the month with a home tie against Liverpool.

Hope arrives with the news that Sebastiano Esposito is entering the rehabilitation phase of his return from injury. The physios believe he is anything from two to five weeks away from achieving full fitness, but it now feels like a quantifiable length of time before he’s available again. He should be back by the start of May.

Derby FM20 – March 2023: On Continuing

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

I’m writing these words towards the back end of September – if memory serves, I think they will be due to appear on the site in mid-October. With the fourth Derby County season drawing towards its latter stages I am beginning to wonder whether to plough on into a fifth or stop the story at that point. Of course, we all know that Football Manager games never really end. There are greater heights to scale with the Rams, I’m sure, or the possibility that I’ll win the league with them and then potentially look at a new challenge within the save, but as regulars – are there any regular readers? – will be aware there’s a lot of work that goes into transferring my deeds into daily updates. Putting it together remains good fun, however the plan for it was (ill-)conceived to be little more than something to do while we were all in lockdown – and to give me a distraction whilst I worked towards stopping alcohol, a feat about which I’m pleased to say I am close to celebrating my nine month anniversary – and now I’m back in full-time work.

How long that will continue to be the case remains to be seen. The government rules about their tackling of Coronavirus change daily, almost as though they have no strategy at all (surely not). I work in a school, and clearly the idea is to keep places of education open for as long as humanly possible, however at the time of writing staff and students are falling ill, or shielding, within a pandemic environment that’s getting worse and not better. It feels like we are coming in on notice, ahead of what seems to be an inevitable second wave of shut-downs, and though I work from home well enough the lack of travelling time obviously gives me more free hours to continue this blog. It may very well be the case that soon enough I’m going back to the frankly blissful and trouble-free ‘falling out of bed and into the office’ state of affairs that punctuated spring and summer. For now, who can say? Maybe all that will be happening again once you read these words.

So to carry on, or not? I can’t decide at this stage. There’s an element of me that would like to blitz through the remainder of the season. I play and write about the game simultaneously, and I’m as keen to see how it works out as hopefully you are also. All the same, with things at Derby on their usual knife-edge and potential league and cup glory on the horizon there’s a lot to carry on for and the temptation is just to while away half a day playing it all out. Doing that would come at the expense of detail, outlining my feelings and strategies at each hurdle, the players who aren’t available, things that are happening in the stimulated world of football, and if I’m going to do justice to the written account then I just can’t work that way.

We’ll see, I guess. To continue or not to continue; that right now is the question.

My main issue at Pride Park currently is our goal-scoring potency, or rather our lack thereof. This side has never been a cavalier, all-out attacking operation. The effort relies first and foremost on stiff defending, which is a whole team concern and skews us towards being responsible when going forward and always looking out for breaks. Whilst our league positions have generally been very good we are the smallest outfit to be playing in the Premier League’s upper echelons. In terms of outlook and size we are probably on a par with the likes of Leicester City, Newcastle United and maybe Wolverhampton Wanderers. United and Liverpool, our main challengers for the top spot, can blow us away on sheer spending power. We have neither the reputation – yet! – or the financial muscle of the big London clubs, and so the attacking players we go for are generally based on good potential levels rather than existing star power. The likes of Esposito, Hlozek and Max Willian have been signed as teenagers primarily for what they might become, as opposed to off-the-shelf greats who bring massive swaggering reputations with them. I can only stretch the club finances so far, after all.

We are good against sides that try and play an expansive game. For me, we bested Everton at Goodison Park because they viewed us as being there for the taking. Committed to attacking us, they left gaps for us to flood into when we gained possession and that’s always going to lead to scoring opportunities. When playing teams that come to defend and launch counters, essentially taking on sides that do what we do, we struggle more. The draw at Brighton happened as a consequence of them setting up in a similar way to ourselves, relying on stiff defenders like Dunk and White to bat away our fast but lightweight forwards. It worked. Clearly we are going to have to look at other ways to overcome such obstacles.

Eddie Salcedo remains a massive problem. I signed him on the basis that he was better than his recent form at Inter suggested, and because of that poor scoring form got him on the cheap, but he’s jollily recreating those – whatever the opposite of ‘halcyon’ is – exploits here, and it’s a problem. There’s an extent to which we’re relying on him to produce the goods. Hlozek and Barbosa can both play as our forward, but he’s the only outright natural in the role, especially with Sebastiano Esposito unavailable, and as these things tend to go now his rival for the position is injured his early season goal streak has turned to effluence. I have concerns about my broken backed Italian as well. Will he return to the team and be as good as he was before he went off for surgery? It looks as though he’ll be back in time to play the final phase of our run-in, and he will be most welcome, but the injury has to have had an effect on his potency, right?

At the moment Gabriel Barbosa looks like he’ll play out his loan period and then be dispatched straight back to Tottenham. Though a good player on paper, he hasn’t been anything like as powerful as I hoped he would be, which suggests Spurs were quite right to put him up for sale. It’s back to the drawing board then. We seek a right winger still. The scouts’ choices are Riccardo Orsolini (almost certainly outside our price range), Steven Bergwijn (good but expensive) and Francisco Trincao (like Bergwijn, but without having blooded himself within the English game). My thoughts turn to Rhian Brewster, who’s equally comfortable in attack or on the right. The Liverpool player would cost around £20 million, and I wonder whether he might genuinely offer anything beyond what we already have. Joe McClaren would love us to sign Borussia’s Karim Adeyemi, a 21 year old forward who has by and large failed to make an impact since his move from RB Salzburg last summer. The German has everything in his locker and is available for £38.5 million, therefore a big expense, and again given his form it feels to me like we might end up with a costlier Salcedo.

There’s never a very good time to go to St James Park and play Newcastle United, well not since the dismissal of Steve Bruce anyway, but now – when we really need to get a result if at all possible – the timing couldn’t be much worse. They’re sixth in the table, led with staggering levels of competence by Lee Johnson, still with no fantastic alternatives to tricky winger Allan Saint-Maximin, and of course they beat us here at the start of 2021/22. I am hovering like an angry and persistent mosquito around their centre-back/defensive midfielder Nohan Kenneh, a young Englishman who is not up for sale at any price but who looks dead good. He’s anchoring an effort at the back that has proved to be stingy, and for much of this one he will keep us in check. Worse still, they go ahead after seventeen minutes courtesy of Jonny’s penalty kick. The culprit once again is Luca Pellegrini. Jonny cuts in from the right wing and is felled clumsily inside the area before he’s even become too dangerous. This looks like turning into a failing within the Italian’s game – it’s probably a good thing that he’s suspended for our next match.

After that, we spend the remainder of the proceedings trying to find a way through their massed ranks. It isn’t easy. Our forwards’ confidence is through the floor; their efforts are swatted aside. Once again, all the good stuff appears to be coming from our defenders, and from Pedro Chirivella. Salcedo is running around a lot, to little effect. Barbosa is unhurriedly hammering another nail into the coffin of his Derby future. A sixty-third minute free-kick by Patrick Roberts pulls us back on level terms. Swung into the penalty area, Tosin Adarabioyo is the tallest target by some distance and he heads from close range past Martin Dubravka.

1-1 isn’t a bad result here. Once again, it’s an improvement on what we achieved at this place last season and that matters, but from a position where we looked to pull away we are now being sucked back into the race. The table I’m showing is from a week later, thanks to incompetence in copying and pasting it at the wrong time, but it shows our predicament clearly enough. April will be our catch-up month. We’re going to have to hit some semblance of winning form, including on our travels.

Derby FM20 – February/March 2023: Goal Scoring Allergy

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

On the cusp of the Carabao Cup final I learn that Tottenham have appointed Luis Enrique as their new manager. The former Spain gaffer apparently hates me, a fractured relationship based on the times when I was asked whether Ilaix Moriba deserved an international call-up. I said he did. Enrique disagreed, and then he picked him anyway and the lad played throughout Spain’s World Cup finals. Some people are spiky, aren’t they?

The cup final pits us against Liverpool, who are just about the toughest opposition we could ever hope to face domestically. We were good value for our 0-0 result when we went to Anfield in the league recently, but the players are being asked to essentially repeat that trick at Wembley, preferably also putting one past Alisson along the way. Jurgen Klopp’s super-team are powered by Paulo Dybala, who is treating England like his own personal plaything. He will take some watching, as will Mane and the rest of them, quite frankly. If we thought United were a hard prospect when we met them in this august fixture last season, then it’s as though we have levelled up.

We can’t select Gabriel Barbosa, who’s up tied. Harry Wilson plays. I’m expecting a lot from Moriba, who is picked to play alongside Vieira in central midfield. If we are to get anything then his trickiness at the heart of things will be essential. The opposition have an entire line-up that’s the equal of our Spanish tyro, of course. They set to pummelling us from kick-off and are ahead after forty-eight seconds. Dybala wins a free-kick to the left of our penalty area. It’s floated in dangerously and nodded into a packed box by Van Dijk. The ball bounces off Wilson and into the path of Naby Keita, who is stood on the goal-line and can pretty much breathe it over for the opener.

They make it 2-0 ten minutes later but Origi is clearly offside and VAR saves us. Pellegrini then does his bit to advance the opposition’s cause when he trips Aarons over just inside the area. Penalty to Liverpool. Dybala takes it, a steady pair of feet against Butland, but inexplicably his heavy shot is off-target and sails harmlessly wide of the left post. At this point I think the gods of football are perhaps on our side. Plenty of time for us to get back into the game, but it doesn’t work out that way. A first half that no one would ask for befalls Wilson. He’s removed at the break for Salcedo and Hlozek pushes out to the right. It makes no difference. The two sides are defensively competent and we both get to deal with each other’s attacks, however the Scousers have their early goal and ultimately that’s what makes the difference.

And so after two seasons in which we’ve won every League Cup game we have finally met our match and go down fighting. It isn’t a bad performance really. We were always going to be up against it and Liverpool handed us a hell of a test. I can’t criticise the players, neither to their faces or in the press. It was a test too great, however privately my concerns over our goalscoring potential are growing. Eddie Salcedo hasn’t found the net in six hours of play, which is pressing on my mind. It’s a vexatious situation. He couldn’t stop scoring when he was alternating with Esposito, but now the latter’s out and we’re relying on him, and the well seems to have run dry. If only we could have Seba back in the side, but he’s still up to two months away from being ready.

The away game at Brighton and Hove Albion, played six days later, does nothing to allay my fears. I have been named Manager of the Month for February by this point, and the scouting team are advancing the mad skills of Sassulo’s midfielder Manuel Locatelli as a suggested top target. He’s affordable too. Increasingly though, my worries are in attack. Esposito you know all about, and after being in a rich scoring vein earlier in the season we need Salcedo to get his act together. Alternatives within the squad are Hlozek and Barbosa, either of whom can be played at centre-forward. I’m gearing up towards the summer transfer window, with a star right winger chief among my priorities, but do we need to look at the striker’s position also? Seb and Eddie, with Adam as the alternative choice, should be enough, yet there are issues.

Graham Potter’s team, in sixteenth place and there for the taking, should present little challenge, nor should the rainy conditions on the south coast as we’re entirely used to the incessant poor weather by this point. But we have forgotten how to score. For the full ninety minutes we put them under pressure. By the end we will have racked up twenty-two shots on goal. Pontus Dahlberg, a £28.5 million capture from Watford in 2021, plays In goal for them and has much work to do. For their part, they showcase Shaqiri and Gross in attacking midfield as their main points of concern. The former’s crosses are of a very high quality, but in attack they field Callum Mallett, a young striker signed in January from Norwich, and he does little to break his duck since Potter paid £31 million for his non-scoring services.

The Seagulls wield a formidable central defence featuring Lewis Dunk and Ben White. They happily keep us at arm’s length throughout, and there’s no way through them that we can find. I think we might just squeeze out a goal when Lookman’s put through in added time, but Dahlberg catches his weak shot with errant ease. We slink away, back up north, reduced to a goalless draw.

Liverpool beat Bournemouth 3-0 and are now two points behind. United could go ahead thanks to the additional league fixtures they’ve played, but they contrive to lose 3-0 at Southampton and remain in our wake. Determined to buy a win from somewhere, we’re off to Everton in midweek for our FA Cup Fifth Round tie. It isn’t an easy place to get it. The Toffees are ninth, some way off the pace, but they’re still a good side and have augmented their ranks with Hakan Calhanoglu, a handy Turkish winger brought in from Milan for £11.75 million. I’m warned by Derby icon Igor Stimac about Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who’s scored fifteen goals in thirty-three appearances across the term. What we wouldn’t do for a player like that right now…

We go to Goodison having dropped to second place because Liverpool have played a match extra and beaten hapless Fulham 4-1. There are opportunities to make up on lost ground later, though the league fixtures are beginning to bunch up. The end of the season now looks like a cavalcade of catch-up games, a blizzard of football, and if things are still tight then I suspect we will struggle to cope with the pace.

For now there’s much to prove against my old friend in management, Thomas Frank. Part of me hopes we lose. Though the prize on offer – a home-based Quarter-Final tie with Brighton – is tempting, it’s yet another match to play and we are lacking in confidence right now. After this, we have Newcastle in the league and the Champs return leg against Atletico Madrid, and by this stage we’re just looking forward to the mini-break that comes with the international fortnight.

Fortunately the forwards turn up for this one. Though the numbers hint at it being an even contest, in reality we dominate the home team from the start. Max Willian has us ahead after eleven minutes when Salcedo feeds the ball back to Vieira just outside the area. He spots the young Brazilian, wide open on the left and plays him in; Max slots the ball beyond Steer in the Everton goal with economical ease, and just like that all the tension that has been building among the players seems to ebb away. Nothing to worry about here, gaffer. Eddie Salcedo then does what he has failed to in recent weeks and scores one of his own. It’s a straightforward strike, a headed goal from Pellegrini’s cross, the full-back riding a challenge from Tanase before sending in his deadly pass, but Eddie has been missing these chances of late and in finding the net generates his own moment of catharsis. The Italian is so happy with his work that it doesn’t even matter when a later goal he scores is ruled out for offside. Eddie likes being offside. He’s the Bernie Slaven of our team. But when you’re winning, who cares?

The Derby board targeted the FA Cup Quarter-Final as their expectation so they’re happy. We’ve started scoring goals again so I’m happy. Manchester City supporters are delighted also, as their beleaguered club finally loses patience with Jose Mourinho and shows a red card to the Special One. Gasperini is an early favourite to take over and add some stimulus to their limp cause.

Derby FM20 – February 2023: Defeat!

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

It’s an inhospitable Saturday afternoon at Pride Park when we play Aston Villa. The conditions aren’t Arctic, but the rain scythes down and my feeling is that we really ought to be indoors right now, curled up on the sofa with a brew and the matinee classic movie on BBC2. Instead nearly 33,000 hardy souls have made their way to the ground for the match, something of a grudge as our last two fixtures against the Villans have ended in draws. On both occasions we should have beaten them, but there’s an obstinate quality about them that makes finding the back of the net a nearly impossible prospect. I could understand us having those kinds of problems against our next opposition, where we somehow have to find a way past Jan Oblak, a knotty matter that could be one for Mulder and Scully. But Villa?

I’m being unkind, of course. The visitors are a good side, difficult to break down. They feature Engels and Mings in defence, and can pick from Grealish, McGinn, Kalvin Phillips and the on-loan Billy Gilmour to staff their midfield. The threat lessens as you move further up the field and into attack, but in their build-up they have a lot to offer. They’re in tenth place. Even with Manchester United and Liverpool behind us, I think we’re in for a tough time here.

And so it proves. A much changed Rams line-up takes to the field as I juggle things ahead of the Atletico Madrid game. Henderson’s playing in goal. Frimpong and Lowe are our full-backs. Bellingham’s in to play alongside Moriba and ahead of Vieira, as I believe they might have the passing guile to cause Villa problems. Pat Roberts is picked ahead of Barbosa and Wilson (who still isn’t fully fit) to do his thing from the right wing. By the end, we’ve carved out a hard-fought 1-0 win. Our goal comes from the penalty spot. Adam Hlozek wins the foul after he’s been put through by Roberts and lingers on the ball just inside the area until Mings wrestles him off it. It’s an easy shout, and a straightforward penalty. For some reason I think it isn’t going to go in. Perhaps it’s the fact Hlozek selects himself to take it, or his unconfident demeanour as he starts his run-up, yet the ball flies into the bottom corner with little fuss.

Despite a few scary moments, more based on the visitors’ approach play than their end product, we leave with a 1-0 victory. It isn’t the decisive statement we would hope to make, but all that truly matters right now are the points. We don’t come away from the game entirely unscathed. Max Lowe goes down from a heavy Leo Baptistao challenge. He finishes the match but is later diagnosed with a damaged foot and prescribed with up to three weeks’ absence from the side.

Liverpool and United both keep up the pressure, defeating Newcastle 2-0 and Swansea 3-1 respectively. It seems clear that the Premier League will end up going to one of those two, or maybe even ourselves. The challengers in fourth and fifth both pick up unwanted results. Chelsea are held 1-1 at home by Leicester, courtesy of James Maddison to whom the cheque is in the post. Everton pound Arsenal 3-1 to help maintain the Gunners’ bridesmaid status within these affairs.

I’ve been advised to offer Ilaix Moriba a new contract due to his enhanced importance within the squad. Aware that the Spaniard is an essential asset that I do not want to lose, I leave it to Director of Football David Moss to sort out the particulars. Several days later he returns with the announcement that Ilaix has put pen to paper on a five-year deal that is worth a whopping £35 million. The midfielder is now on £140,000 per week, which is about right for someone of his stature but a load for me to bear. The on-loan Barbosa aside, this is the first Ram I’ve paid a six-figure weekly salary to and I’m sure he won’t be the last.

Ilaix isn’t scheduled to start against Atletico Madrid in the first leg of our Champions League tie, to be played at the Wanda Metropolitano. For the away match I want deep lying midfielders who can produce defensively as well as in attack, so it’s the preferred trio of Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira for this one. The idea is to soak up their pressure on the road and try to win the round back at Pride Park. It won’t be easy. Over the last decade or so the Mattress Makers have really upped their game to become genuine challengers in Europe. They’re Spain’s third best team, but that still makes them bloody brilliant as their standards are being set against the likes of Real and Barca. Marcelo Gallardo is their third manager since I took charge at Derby. Diego Simeone and Ernesto Valverde have been spat out in the interim, and in their wake the Argentinian has done a manly job, guiding them to first place in La Liga (three points ahead of Barcelona) and reshaping their squad.

Joao Felix has gone – he’s now a £100 million United footballer. Sandro Tonali was the summer’s other big sale, a crushing £96 million transfer to Hertha Berlin. In their wake Gallardo has assembled almost an entirely new side. Notable incoming talent includes Timothy Weah, Sander Berge, Odsonne Edouard, Donny van de Beek, and a sizaeable £48.5 million lavished on Gedson Fernandes, who’s injured for this encounter. The biggest obstacle remains Oblak, rated in many quarters as being the world’s best keeper and someone against whom we will need to be at our trickiest. Oh, for the availability of Sebastiano Esposito, but our forward is nowhere fast in recovering from his knackered spine. There appears to be no set date for his return and I am increasingly resigned to potentially not having the use of him again this season.

The match is, as you might expect, a stiff test of our defensive capabilities. Sander Berge has them ahead in the ninth minute, a volley from outside the area via Pedrosa’s assist, and at that moment I think it’s all going to collapse. There’s nothing wrong with the goal, a sweetly struck effort that flies in from distance, but that seems to be the level we’re playing here, the very highest, a game in which we can’t give them a second’s comfort on the ball because they can pull off things like this. I’m gutted that Berge has scored. He’s a player I really admired when he was with Sheffield United, and I have a lot of respect for the things he can do when our full attention isn’t ranged on him. We end up going in at half-time still a goal behind and beginning to creep back into the action a little more. More than any other side we’ve faced this season the skill levels are at their optimal here. The home side are really great at finding space; their movement, especially when off the ball, is like watching a genius tactical philosophy translated fluently into what’s happening on the pitch. If it was against any other side I would be delighted to see it in action, but they’re doing this to us and I don’t like it much.

Another factor that’s doing us few favours is the card-happy referee. Both sides take bookings, and worrying for me are the yellows shown to Oxford and Pellegrini that will prevent them from taking part in the home leg. The former isn’t good, but Luca’s suspension is a real blow. The race will now be on the get Lowe back to fitness in time for the date with destiny in three weeks’ time back in England.

By the end of the game Bogle and Bielik will also have been booked to complete a defensive line in which each player has seen yellow. Jayden’s card is especially costly, as it is shown whilst awarding a penalty to Atletico, following an incident in which he holds back Morata while both are in the penalty area. The kick is taken by midfielder Viktor Tsygankov, and unlike Paul Pogba he makes no mistake with his shot.

The only saving grace is that they’re already down to ten men by this point. Pedrosa has been dismissed for a second yellow, mainly for fouling Barbosa, and in that sense it’s a bit needless because the winger hasn’t been very effective. Harry Wilson comes on for the last twenty minutes and with his ability with set pieces we at last get a break. An eighty-fourth minute free-kick taken by the substitute is hit straight into the crowded penalty area. Salcedo gets the first touch, a header that he knocks right across the goal-line and into the path of Will Hughes, who only needs to tap in his shot to make it 2-1.

That’s the final score. It contains something for both sides, I’d argue. Atletico are good value for their victory, while we have just suffered our first defeat of the season here. It came against one of the best teams we will ever play so I can’t really be too upset with it, yet no one likes losing and I have to take the away goal as a promise that this tie isn’t dead. At 2-0 it would have been very hard to affect the final outcome. 2-1 is something we can work with.

In any event, there’s plenty of football to be played before we welcome them to Derby. We’ve no time for recriminations or blame, and I’m not even very disappointed with how we played. They were just a great side and we’ve got to to suck it up. Speaking of which, we’re going to Wembley at the weekend. The occasion is the Carabao Cup final, our opponents Liverpool.

Derby FM20 – February 2023: (Young Guns) Go For It

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

Aside from the cheer of seeing ourselves in first place, the table appears to have formed a five-team mini-league at the very top. This comprises of ourselves, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Even though there’s a very long way to go in this slog of a campaign, the feeling is that one of these five will go on and win the thing. Newcastle are some way off in sixth.

For our part, we are celebrating the fact we haven’t yet lost a league game, in fact I don’t believe we have come off second best in any match at all during the term. As you might expect, our statistics are also very high. We’re second behind Liverpool on goals conceded, and in third place at the other end. Our scoring rate has witnessed a sharp rise, though the effect of losing Esposito for much of the season is yet to be felt, I feel. We have the fourth best record in the division for keeping clean sheets, with ten. Nearly as important for me is our disciplinary record. This was a real problem when we were first promoted and racking up the sort of card counts that would make no manager this side of Joe Kinnear’s Crazy Gang smile, but things here are much improved. We’re well off the top eight in fouls committed, sit twelfth in terms of yellow cards collected and haven’t been shown a single red.

All this good work could come a cropper if we don’t maintain our high standards in one of the more difficult periods we face. At the weekend it’s Manchester United at home, played in near-freezing temperatures and the singular joy of sleet. The visitors are four points behind us and still smarting from our victory at the Theatre. Surprisingly by their standards no new faces were added in January despite the loss of Bruno Fernandes, though a quick glance at their midfield – they can chose from Pogba, Bentancur, Felix, Tielemans and Neves – suggests recruitment isn’t at the forefront of their needs. Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer of course looks to retain his league crown, and we aim to snatch it from them. There’s no point in denying it anymore – we’re gunning for the title, and why not? We might not possess their all-star profile but we have good players and we’re doing well. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be us, and this game will go some way towards determining our fate.

Despite the lousy conditions the action is full on, two committed teams that give everything and work their charms to try and outfox each other’s defences. The standard of passing is very high. United have brilliant distributors and the sort of off-the-ball movement that means we have to stay sharp throughout, but we can’t do a lot about their opening goal. On their right wing is Magomed-Shapi Suleimanov, a tricky ball player who can dribble comfortably until the end of time. In the twenty-fifth minute, he’s racing into our half. Vieira makes a good challenge that parts him from the football, but it only drifts as far as Rashford who in turn feeds Shapi, still running towards goal. The little Russian does the rest, evading defenders and slotting his effort beneath Butland to open the scoring. It’s a goal that doesn’t fully reflect the tide of the game. We equalise within minutes, Frimpong putting in a cross that Ademola Lookman connects with from the left of goal. It’s 1-1 at the break.

Clearly this is anyone’s game, and we make a bid to claim it near the hour mark when Adam Hlozek collects from Moriba’s cut back pass on the edge of the area and lets slip a volley that De Gea can’t do a thing to stop. That’s the signal for the side to become more cautious. The visitors are outdoing us in terms of possession, if not in the shot count, and we now need to slow things down and leave with the points. It works, right up until the seventy-second minute when McKenna is clearly showed to have pushed Greenwood over in the area, gifting them an easy penalty shout. Paul Pogba takes it, a good shot that Butland reacts to superbly, falling to his right to parry it for the corner. Sometimes it feels like your moment, and this is ours. The fight goes out of United at that point and we get to see out the rest of the time, finishing with an important 2-1 victory.

Liverpool are now our nearest challengers, keeping up with our winning run in an irritating way because we can’t shake off their shadows. They have beaten Spurs at Anfield, not just winning but performing a demolition job when Bailey scores a hat-trick as part of a 4-0 show of strength. Mr Levy and the Tottenham board think they have seen enough and sack Manuel Pellegrini. It’s been coming for some time apparently, and in fairness it probably has after the north Londoners have faded horribly following their period atop the table for lengthy swathes of the previous season. Spurs are sniffing around Lookman and Hlozek, and the latter is having further coquettish fans fluttered in his direction by Arsenal. I’ve no intention to sell, though the prices being talked about are dizzyingly high, temptingly high.

Several days later and we get to play our catch-up match, which happens to be an away day at Anfield. Destiny catches up with you sooner or later. This fixture has been postponed several times already; part of me was hoping that it might be called off again and end up falling off the end of the schedule so that we wouldn’t have to play it, as if that has ever happened. On paper, it’s a good time to be playing Jurgen Klopp’s imperial empire of a team. They’re without Roberto Firmino, who’s out with a slipped disc for several weeks, while Fabinho is unavailable for a fortnight thanks to a hernia. This makes them only slightly less terrifying. To compensate for the absence of Firmino and for Salah, who’s now at PSG, Klopp fields Paulo Dybala in attack and places Jason Sancho on his right flank, Mane as always taking the other, so there’s no need to feel sorry for them.

The Pool are four points behind so even a defeat here can’t remove us from our fucking perch, but there’s the psychological dimension to consider also. We’ve been to Anfield and won, but there are times when we’ve tasted the inevitability of defeat also. Gifting the points to them feels as though it could precipitate another Scouse procession to the title, hell that might happen regardless of what goes on here. We’re determined to fight for our position though, and I name what I think is my strongest line-up. Bogle is asked to cope with Mane once again, while Bielik and Oxford have the happy task of keeping the ever-predatory Dybala under wraps. Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira make up a gritty midfield that’s built to soak up Liverpool attacks and pass them to death in sparking our own.

And we defend. A lot. All the time. In a first half that features little action in the opposition half, we are made to deal with Liverpool pressure. Butland makes point-blank saves from Mane and Dybala. Our central defence holds firm. Pedro is a titan in the defensive midfield hole, playing everywhere at once to sweep up any player who deigns to enter his space. They’re slick and quick, transferring smoothly to their flanks when the middle is congested but Bogle and Pellegrini are there to address the threat. In the second half the game opens up more. The home side are getting more desperate, leaving gaps, which we are reticent to break into because that will mean opening ourselves up, however late on there’s a move that ends with Butland saving from Mane. He feeds the ball forward and it winds up drifting to Patrick Roberts, who bursts into the opposition half, tricks Robertson into committing himself and then cuts inside, darting through on goal, launching a rocket that Alisson… saves! It’s a save and a reaction catch, the Brazilian keeper collapsing to the turf as though he’s holding the entire season in his hands.

There’s little dividing the two teams. Sure they dominate the attacking statistics, however our defending is leonine and we deserve to leave with the 0-0 result that surely stands as a point gained for us and two dropped where they are concerned. The very top of the table is as it was, and we are now eight points clear of Arsenal who have risen to third. Next up is what should be a more prosaic home game against Aston Villa, before we travel to the Spanish capital for our Champions League knockout tie, in a meeting with Atletico Madrid.

Derby FM20 – February 2023: Getting the Job Done

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

This update takes in two league games that should be winnable. On the immediate horizon are fixtures against Manchester United and Liverpool, so these are ties where we need to pick up available points and put ourselves in the best possible position before we enter the lottery of getting scraps from the division’s most illustrious challengers, the two previous Premier League winners.

First up is a home match against Norwich City. You’ll recall that we downed them at Carrow Road back in October, when they were in the midst of a horrible run during which they couldn’t buy a victory. This eventually did for Daniel Farke. Further heavy defeats to Arsenal and Swansea followed until the board decided they’d had enough. The man they selected to replace him might be perceived on his own merits to be a bit of a concern. They’ve handed the stadium keys to Frank de Boer, the Dutch playing legend who’s best remembered as a manager for his shocking and mercifully brief time in charge of Crystal Palace, though he’s worked to rehabilitate his reputation in the years since by doing well at Atlanta United in the MLS. To an extent Frank has improved the Canaries’ fortunes. They’ve won a few, and they’re now at least outside the relegation places, but before meeting ourselves they lost to Chelsea at home. Their future is precarious, but it isn’t for the lack of signings or having a decent group of players. Portuguese winger Nuno Santos has been brought in from Benfica on loan, and they’ve also borrowed from Barcelona, for centre-back Jorge Cuenca.

We’ve had some rumbles against Norwich in the past. Traditionally they’re a difficult nut to crack. Last year they claimed four points from us, however they look altogether more porous these days and we should win here, despite the presence of must-watch attacking midfielder Emi Buendia. Pride Park is as full as ever on a mild February afternoon. Lowe retains his place as Pellegrini has played so many games recently and I want him fully rested for the challenges to come. Hlozek plays up-front, and Gallagher gets a start in central midfield as I think his endless work rate will play well against a beleaguered Canaries defence.

And of course, nothing happens for ages. Norwich attack rarely. They come to defend, and for long passages of the game show us up as struggling to break down teams that are determined to mass up against us rather than leave big fat gaps for our players to break through. The first half sees a string of Derby attacks with no result. Godfrey and Cuenca in the visitors’ defence play like a sea wall ahead of Karius. In midfield, Adshead and Bernede are nothing special but they work hard. They’re a good match for Gallagher, who struggles to make any impact in his box to box role, though alongside him Moriba gains more traction, capable ever of finding that killer pass.

Finally, in the seventy-fifth minute and after making our changes we get something. Jude Bellingham has been brought on for Gallagher by this point, and he’s on hand to put his shot away after Karius has made a perceptive double-save from Adam Hlozek. By now, I am cursing the Czech forward. He’s been wasteful with his shooting, and when he’s moved out to the right to accommodate Salcedo and replace Barbosa the half-assed approach continues. But he’s one of those players who can always draw something special from the bag. He is able to have the most meandering, aimless game possible, the sort where I hope Arsenal simply put in an offer to end my misery of working out whether he’s up to anything or not, and then suddenly he scores to go from zero to man of the match. It’s what he does here, when he is found by Salcedo to score from point-blank range. Terrible, ragged Norwich defending for this goal. Four yellow shirts are ranged around our two forwards, and in a moment of schoolboy levels of error they’re drawn to Salcedo, who’s on the ball, ignoring Hlozek entirely and leaving him wide open. All he has to do is remain onside and the golden opportunity is laid out to him on the plate.

2-0 it finishes, not the emphatic result I’m looking for but the three points is good enough. Chelsea draw 0-0 in an even limper display against West Brom, and the gap has opened to four points.

There’s just a few days of preparation before we travel to the south coast for our meeting with Bournemouth. Like Norwich, the Cherries are under new management with Frank Lampard installed, a recent appointment who has been tasked with the unenviable job of hauling them out of the relegation zone. Currently they’re second bottom in the division, tucked in between Boro and Fulham. Frank has added Issa Diop and Ollie Watkins to his ranks. The pair have cost a combined £50 million, so there seems to be no little effort in saving their Premier League status. All the same, if we have anything about us at all then we should be going to the Madejski and winning… Wait, what? The Madejski’s in Reading! Some mistake, surely. Except it isn’t. Bournemouth are ground sharing at a stadium that is between ninety minutes and two hours’ drive away while they build the Steve Fletcher Arena, a new, 20,000 capacity ground, which will be opened in 2024. For reference, Fletch is a Hartlepool born forward who played 580 games for the Cherries between 1992 and 2007. He didn’t score a formidable number of goals, but he remains one of those lower league stalwarts – as the team was back then – who was an ever-present in the day.

Harry Wilson lasts around five minutes of this one before being removed. He’s incurred a pulled groin, which will keep him out for a week, and I worry that we will miss his ability on set pieces. Gabriel Barbosa replaces him, and he scores his first goal for us during a first half when we put them to the sword. A nice bit of opportunism from the Brazilian, who works himself into space when Lookman’s initial shot is saved by Ramsdale. Gabby slips his marker Masina and places his chance from a tight angle with the keeper still on the deck and adrift. Early in the second period Ademola Lookman has made it 2-0, a beautiful curled effort that swings around Diop and Smith and flies in at the far corner.

By this stage it feels as though the game’s in the bag. The home team disagree. A through ball from Smith finds Adrian Ademi in a defence splitting position. With Oxford and Pellegrini struggling to catch up, he takes a shot that beats Butland, a really well placed strike, and suddenly the jitters kick in. The Cherries have started to take the game to us, applying pressure at the behest of Fat Frank, who’s taken to bellowing at them from his technical area. We revert to a cautious mentality, soaking up their pressure and bringing on fresh legs. Tricky as the home team are we are able to see the game out, relying on our superior fitness and bringing on the likes of Max Willian on late to at least go on mazy dribbles and keep them on their toes. By the final whistle I’m knackered. A comfortable winning position is made fretful as Bournemouth simply refuse to lie down and die. Maybe, just maybe titles are won in scenarios like this one, where we have to rough out the remaining time and go toe to toe with the opposition. It would have been easy for us to concede a cheap second and lose ground, and we haven’t.

As it is we claim our seventh straight league victory. Liverpool win also, courtesy of a single Oxlade-Chamberlain strike at the Etihad, whilst United beat Leicester 2-0. The first in a possible spate of managerial sackings occurs when Scott Parker is relieved of his Fulham duties. They’ve gone down 2-0 to Southampton in a relegation six-pointer, which cuts them adrift in bottom place. I have pity for the fool who ends up winning that job.

Derby FM20 – February 2023: The Missing Piece?

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

The transfer window closes with projected moves for Hlozek and Lookman coming to nothing. Arsenal were the main interested party. I checked them out, and quite honestly they didn’t look as though they could afford it. Mikel Arteta might look very smart, and a bit like an alien with that emotionless stare and iron hairstyle, but he isn’t fooling anyone.

As discussed in previous posts the injury to Sebastiano Esposito has left us in a bind. It looks as though he will be out until late April or early May, and as a key member of the squad his lack of availability leaves a yawning gap in our ranks. I can cover his striker’s position with Eddie Salcedo, and Adam Hlozek can play equally well in attack, but that has a knock-on to my choices on the right wing, where I’m relying on Harry Wilson and Pat Roberts. Both choices are all right enough, but compared with the riches on the left the quality simply isn’t there. But neither are any players who I can afford to plug the gap.

My concern is the remainder of the season. It’s increasingly the case that we don’t have to make sweeping changes to our roster, so I can focus on the right wing and the situation at left-back in the summer. In the short-term a loan move will probably paper over the cracks, and I’ve identified my man in the shape of Spurs’ Gabriel Barbosa. Transfer listed and paid a handy £120,000 per week, his team want us to meet his wages in full but they don’t require a monthly fee. Often enough a mandatory future transfer wedge is slipped into the small print, yet Spurs are happy enough to make it optional. If we like him we can pay £35.75 million to make it permanent.

So what have we ended up with? Gabriel Barbosa Almeida is a 26 year old Brazilian international, who moved to London after a particularly fruitful period with Flamengo. He’s fast, agile, comfortable on the ball and he can shoot really, really well. While the right wing is his natural home he’s just about as potent when played as a striker. At 5′ 10″ he’s not the best in the air, and there are negative aspects to his teamwork that won’t be improved within a squad where that quality is at a premium. All the same, I’ve been criticised by the board for not signing high-reputation players, and he fits that bill. Just as important for me is his nationality. Though not a problem as yet, I worry about Max Willian’s ability to fit in here, and Gabriel as a fellow Brazilian should help to smooth his transition. Max hasn’t gelled at all with the core group; hopefully the newcomer’s presence will help to change that.

Speaking of social groupings, in terms of finding players who can be inserted smoothly into the existing personnel I have been pointed in the direction of the following:

  • Maarten Vandervoordt – 20 year old Belgian goalkeeper, who’s just moved to Manchester City in a £24.5 million deal. He’s valued at a cool twenty mill, and the Blues have him earmarked as their cup keeper.
  • Eduardo Camavinga – I’d dearly love to have this Spurs midfielder in my side and agree he would be a perfect fit for us. Against that is his value, which has risen to a jaw-dropping £67 million.
  • Erling Haaland – now you’re taking the piss, right? Of course we could make use of Haaland, who this season is scoring at a rate of a goal per game for Dortmund and is priced beyond pretty much any metric. I’m not even going to name his value. It’s a lot.
  • Fabio Silva – another one we’d love to have, the 20 year old Porto forward with an 80% scouting rating and a price tag that ranges between £54 million and £110 million. Real Madrid looks a more likely destination.
  • Hamed Junior Traore – Ivorian attacking midfielder who struts his stuff at Sassuolo. We don’t use an AMC, but he’s as happy playing as a Mezzala. We’re looking at around £50 million for this 22 year old, who’s attracting the attention of Manchester United.

Oh well, back to the drawing board. To rebalance the squad, I need to lose someone in meeting registration rules for forthcoming Champions League commitments. The obvious choice is Leonardo Morawski, who’s done well enough for us in the cups and might have been in line to play against West Bromwich Albion in midweek. The Argentinian centre-back has a definite future at this club, but we can afford to send him somewhere to get game time, and the team he opts for – over a number of decent choices in England – is the Seattle Sounders.

So we enter the second half of the season with an extra attacking midfielder and one less defender. We’re nicely proportioned though, with the option to shift Bielik back into central defence should the need be there. At the end of a window that promised fireworks but ends up delivering a soggy pack of sparklers, Hakim Ziyech leaves Chelsea for Juventus, Norwich’s 18 year old striker Callum Mallett moves to Brighton for £31 million, and the Hammers’ Issa Diop becomes a £44 million acquisition for Bournemouth. They could use the help. They’re nineteenth, trapped on seventeen points at the foot of the table alongside Boro, Fulham and the somewhat obligatory Southampton. Leicester and Brighton are a point ahead of them.

We’re taking on the Baggies, or the Throstles if you prefer, who are currently tenth. Their arses have been kicked already when we won 1-0 at home, and now we need a similar scoreline if we are to remain in first place. Kurban Berdyev has added conservatively to his ranks. His only January signing is the splendidly named Joris van Hoogdalem, an attacking midfielder who has been drafted in from FC Utrecht for the remainder of the campaign. The 20 year old looks nothing special, however if that was a reason for taking them lightly then it would explain just how we have gained so many good results during our Premier League stay. Their main strength is in central midfield, where they wield former transfer target and team captain Sam Field, alongside onetime Ram Marco Benassi. We’ve seen enough of the latter to not fret over him too much, indeed our main concern is in shackling Matheus Pereira, their Brazilian winger who has turned into their primary forward thrust. He’s coming into this one carrying a twisted knee, which is a turn of phrase rather than a thing he will literally be doing, like in a shopping bag or something.

Will Hughes is absent for our trip to the Hawthorns. Where he is happens to be back home, suffering from a bout of the flu and armed to the teeth with Ibuprofen and a Netflix account to keep him happy. Esposito is still in America being touched up by spine surgeons, while Roberts and Wilson are both given reserve football to help get them back to full fitness.

I field Max Lowe for this game, mainly to give Luca a break, while Henderson gets a start in goal as we can afford to rotate our keepers a bit more often than in the past. It takes thirty-one seconds for me to regret that decision. A WBA move straight from kickoff puts Jonathan Leko through on goal. Lowe is on hand to clear up; great, I think, only for his back pass to the keeper to be under strength and Leko snakes in to nick the goal.

Not the sort of start anyone would want, especially given my lingering concerns about Max. Everyone’s got a mistake in them, we all know that, but we have a reputation for basic defensive competence to maintain and we aren’t offering a good example of it here. Time to go on the attack. The Baggies’ lead lasts twenty-two minutes, when they fall to a classic set-piece goal. Hlozek’s corner is nodded down in the area by Salcedo and hammered in with some force by Tosin Adarabioyo, an unusual one for the lanky defender in that he scores with his feet. Keeping up the pressure, we get our second via a rare Jeremie Frimpong strike. He’s found by Pedro Chirivella, who’s ranging just outside the box. WBA defenders are everywhere, doing their jobs by sticking to our boys well, but the full-back is moving up from deep and is wide open. Pedro picks him out with a great cross-field pass. Frimpong launches his shot, which beats Johnstone at his near post.

There are no further errors from our players in the second period. The home team work hard but are beatable, and we add a further two to our account. Ronaldo Vieira fires one in from another corner kick, the ball bobbling about the area before arriving at the midfielder’s feet, and he lashes it through a sea of legs and defies the keeper. Max Willian makes it 4-1 very late. He tortures Manquillo in darting past him on the left wing, cuts inside and picks out the sweet spot between Johnstone and the net to cap off a good afternoon’s work. All West Brom have to show for their efforts is an injury to Leko. He’ll be out for a few weeks with what looks like a nasty groin strain.

A vintage performance – if you erase the first minute – and a very fine result. We turned up, bullied the smaller team and pummelled them into submission, which is just what a side that’s aiming for the top ought to be doing. The big match of the weekend sees United beat Liverpool 1-0, which puts four points between ourselves and the Scouse challengers. Norwich are bested 2-0 at Carrow Road by Chelsea, with strikes from Martinez and Coman, so for now they are our closest concern.

Derby FM20 – January 2023: Messing with the Big Boys

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

I carefully unpack my players from their cotton wool wrappings before our visit to Old Trafford to take on league champions Manchester United. The fixture computer has seen fit to spit out both our games against them close together – we’ll entertain the Devils in just a couple of week’s time. Clearly, being the wielders of the Premier League crown makes them dangerous opposition. Though fifth in the table as it stands, the situation is so bunched up that a few wins will put them back on top and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer has spent heavily to advance their ambitions. Ruben Neves is now a United midfielder, joining Tielemans, Felix and Schick on their list of prestigious purchases, though the big news is Bruno Fernandes, who’s left them to play for AC Milan in a £103 million deal. Ole has also done what his predecessors could not in parting ways with Phil Jones. The defender, who it says here has won twenty-seven England caps during what must have been fallow times, is now a PSV player after completing a £6.5 million transfer. Phil Jones, huh? How many times have we all watched United and thought ‘It’s one on one, everything depends on who the forward has to beat… it’s Jones! And he’s panicking!

Naturally it’s chucking down in Salford. The stadium’s packed to the rafters, the fans expecting much from a side that puts out Semedo, Bentancur, Lenglet, Pogba, Martial and Rashford. We play with a cautious mentality because it’s the obvious thing to do, hoping to soak up their pressure with our midfield trio of Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira. And it works. After a sluggish opening, we test De Gea with a Lookman effort that soars narrowly wide of the net, and then a scrambled melee right in front of goal ends when the keeper emerges with a hard-won ball. We finally go ahead in the fortieth minute. Lookman plays an impish backheeled pass across the box that appears to have every United defender stop what they’re doing and appreciate it, which lets Adam Hlozek attempt a crack from just to the right of De Gea. Mendy isn’t really watching, and the keeper can’t reach the ball as it sails past him.

Within minutes, it’s 1-1. A really smooth move straight from kickoff puts the home team back on level terms, implying they can produce a slick passing display any time they like to produce their equaliser from Marcus Rashford. There’s nothing very wrong with what we do, but Rashers is a great player and on this occasion has the beating of Bogle to race past him and place his shot beyond Butland, whose fingertipped save can only help it into the net. And still the first half drama isn’t over. A Chirivella free-kick into the box hands us a penalty shout when Semedo is judged to have tackled Salcedo unfairly. De Gea isn’t the best keeper when facing penalties, and he barely moves when Hlozek places the shot to his right.

We’re prepared for the usual second half onslaught, but instead Tuanzebe is dismissed shortly after kickoff for taking on a second yellow, which he deserves after rather harshly taking Lookman down. From here we can play sensible football, not giving the home side one sniff of an open opportunity, and we walk away with a priceless three points.

This is a really great win for us. The Theatre has been pretty much impregnable, so to produce the goods counts heavily in our favour. We do it with Salcedo having another middling performance; he’ll need to do better as it’s all on his shoulders now. The alternative of course is to use Hlozek as our striker. It’s a role from which he’s had more success, and it’s my thinking that when both Wilson and Roberts are fit again this is exactly what we’ll do. The Czech’s importance is therefore enhanced, and it’s at this moment that Arsenal start to show an interest in signing him. They’re also sniffing around Lookman, whose form is showing a definite improvement; however they might be up against Tottenham Hotspur in bidding for his services, and by chance the latter are who we’re playing next to finish off January’s schedule.

Results elsewhere go our way and for now we are top of the table. Spurs are persisting with the F.O.C. Manuel Pellegrini, but you feel that it’s on a ‘for now’ basis. They’re sixth, which isn’t bad, but the impression is that the board had a taste of Big Time Charlie-ism when they spent much of last season in first place, and since then they have gently receded to their natural place in the race for Europa League positions. The manager has staked his future on the January signing of Wilfried Zaha, at a cost of £36.5 million from Crystal Palace. To me it’s an odd one. Zaha is now 30, and while he’s been pretty good in the second tier for the Eagles there’s a sense that his ability to influence attacking efforts has waned over the years. There was a time when he could carry his side forward, but those days are largely gone.

All the same they have a good squad, albeit one riddled with little conflicts and troubles. Eric Dier has put in a transfer request. Also listed is winger Gabriel Barbosa, a Brazilian I like the look of though he’s one who has struggled a little to come to terms with life in England. Spurs want £36.5 million, which we flat out can’t afford to pay, but perhaps if they would be prepared to accept a loan bid… Otherwise, they are carefully tearing apart the old Pochettino over-achievers. Toby Alderweireld is the latest to be taking his marching orders; he’ll spend his dotage over in Fiorentina when his contract runs out in the summer.

It becomes clear fairly early in this one that Spurs are soft at the back. At a wet and well-attended Pride Park they turn out minus the injured Camavinga and Ruben Dias, which is a bonus, and instead play the disaffected Dier in defence. Sanchez alongside him is fine, but he’s just one fella and the others look a bit soulless in coping with our attacking raids. In attack, they start with Debbie Alli, who seems easy enough for us to handle, though a crunching tackle from the England man on Krystian Bielik is vicious enough to end the Pole’s game, which what emerges as a thankfully short-term hamstring setback. The visitors can attack. Any side that features Correa, Lo Celso and even Zaha is capable of producing good things, but fortunately we’re able to defend with competence and a height advantage, and we put in forays of our own.

The deadlock is broken in the twelfth minute. Hughes picks out Max Willian in the area, who drags Alderweireld to the touchline before putting in his cross, in meeting which Adam Hlozek rises above Matvienko to head it past Strakosha. It’s 2-0 a minute later. This is the first – hopefully of many – for Max Willian. Salcedo races with the ball along the right flank. Evading Dier’s desperate challenge, he sends in his cross, which loops over the keeper and meets the young Brazlian, who’s hared into the box virtually unmarked and has only to produce a tap-in. Lovely.

Spurs raise their game manfully to try and find ways back into it. They know we are threatening to overwhelm them, and only producing a string of attacks will keep us from testing Strakosha again and again. We deal with it all, Oxford and Tosin doing especially well at dismissing balls into the box, while Bogle is engaged in a personal battle with Zaha that he’s winning. Even when the away team try to freshen things up by introducing Barbosa and Zapata we keep them at bay, and there’s time for Eddie Salcedo to seal the win. The striker darts ahead of Dier to connect with Hlozek’s cross and rifle his shot hard and true into the net. It’s a great time to score, both for us in calming any potential nerves and for him in showing he has what it takes to lead this team forward. Our good run against Tottenham continues.

Winning here makes it thirty games unbeaten, and that’s a new team record. Some supporters are publicly speculating when we’ll lose again – don’t do that, just don’t. More important is our recapture of first place. Chelsea lose at home to Man City, which will no doubt do much to ease the pressure on Uncle Jose, and it’s Arsenal who now press as the most in-form challengers beyond the usual threat of Liverpool. The Gunners are stepping up their efforts to sign Hlozek. According to sources they’re preparing a bid that could be worth as much as £101 million, and that would be hard indeed to reject.

Derby FM20 – January 2023: Cups and Crocks

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

I like this format of the Carabao Cup Semi-Final, played at a neutral venue and decided over one match, rather than the usual home and away two-legged affair. I get that it’s been done to cut down the number of fixtures amidst a packed post-World Cup schedule, and for this I’m grateful. While the glut of football sounds like a plus, there’s such a thing as too much, and trying to fit in all those extra matches already looks like a herculean task.

We’re facing Manchester City at Old Trafford, whilst at Wembley Liverpool will take on United. How come those two get Wembley? Oh well, who cares? The self-appointed Theatre of Dreams is a perfectly good venue. Thousands of people are going, and there’s the opportunity here for us to pile the pressure onto Jose Mourinho by beating his troubled Blues.

It’s been a trying time for our opposition, in twelfth place right now, which by their current standards this season represents staggeringly good form. They were in the bottom three until early November, and that ought to be an impossibility given their talents. Of course, everything points to the appointment of the Special One. You can question or praise his hiring, but whatever your views handing him the keys represents nothing less for City than a total reboot. If you’re going to replace Guardiola, then why not go all in and appoint his complete opposite, right?

Jose’s struggled, from what I can see for no really good reason. To add to their considerable arsenal they have recruited Jean-Clair Todibo, an excellent centre-back who has continually rated well for Schalke 04 and is a World Cup winner. I’m quite sure they will be as keen to progress to the final as we are. Anything to add some solace to what’s shaping into a difficult season, anything at all.

I want to strike a balance between respecting their obvious abilities – keeping an eye on Harrington Kane, man-marking Kevin De Bruyne – and aiming for the victory. Our line-up is about the best we can put out there, Hughes playing alongside Moriba with Vieira sitting behind them. Theirs is the usual Celebrity XI, indeed their bench features considerable riches with Jesus, Zaniolo and Rodri all available in case things go awry. We make our plans, weather their early storm, retain possession where possible. There’s a moment where a Ferro shot looks to me as though it’s gone in at Butland’s near corner, indeed I go all the way to half-time before realising it went wide and the score is still 0-0. The most notable moment for us is when Sebastiano Esposito needs to be removed after a horror show tackle from Florentino Luis. The striker doesn’t get up. He normally does, but not this time. He’s stretchered off, Salcedo comes on, and it’s later we learn he’s suffered a damaged spine and will be unavailable for three months. Wow…

We’ve faced the best of City and it hasn’t amounted to very much. Then again, we haven’t produced a great deal more. Hlozek is hooked off shortly after the break. Roberts comes on, and lasts around ten minutes before he too needs to go, taking on a pulled calf muscle that will remove him for a few weeks. We end up with Jude Bellingham serving as right winger.

Eddie Salcedo makes good use of his time on the field, which he’ll need to given Esposito’s injury. Collecting a Pellegrini cross on his head, he produces an expert deflection in handling his effort across the goalmouth and into the far corner. Steffen in the City goal barely reacts. Laporte is utterly beaten by the Italian, a rare lapse in concentration. The opposition could ease themselves back into it, but it’s a sign of their ebbing confidence that the blue-shirted heads go down and they seem resigned to defeat. We sign, seal and deliver the win with Ademola Lookman‘s late drive, which is gift-wrapped to him when he’s on hand to collect Rodri’s messy clearance.

A fine win then, even if it’s a costly one with Esposito out for the foreseeable future. Jayden Bogle is picked as the best player, which he deserves after neutralising two threatening attackers in Sane and Jesus. Even KDB isn’t his usual virtuous self. Something is definitely missing from this team. There’s no spark.

We’ll face Liverpool in the final. They see off United after outlasting them by a scoreline of 3-2 at the end of a committed and artful 3-2 classic that does honour to the game.

Suddenly, we’re facing a minor injury crisis with the Watford FA Cup tie approaching. Frimpong isn’t quite there yet, and while Wilson is rated as being good enough to make the subs bench he’s still returning from injury. Roberts is unavailable until February. Esposito has gone to see the specialist for the purpose of getting his spine fixed. That last part sounds a lot more terrifying than it is. Bielik is carrying a minor knock, which means he ought to sit this one out, and while not injured Pellegrini has run himself into the ground. The biggest issues are in attack, where we have to go with Hlozek on the wing and Salcedo up-front. Lowe comes in for his first start at left-back since before the World Cup. I’m scouring the market for potential solutions to the right wing dilemma. What was something that I could have put off until summer now seems more urgent, however the players I would hope to recruit are either unaffordable, nothing better than what we already have or assets their current teams don’t wish to part with, such as Ferran Torres at Leeds. This may be a case of toughing it out, pinning my hopes on what we’ve got and hoping we don’t miss Esposito too much.

The Fourth Round tie we play at the Vicarage puts me back into panic mode. Watford are third in the Championship and in white hot form. They’ve been in the promotion picture ever since going down but have never quite got themselves over the line; nevertheless they look like a Premier League team in waiting, and despite pummelling them with shots the scoreline remains a stubborn 0-0. Defensively we’re fine. It’s more in attack where the problems lie. Salcedo is the sort of greedy forward who wants to score a hat-trick each time, but nothing goes right for him. Gazzaniga in the Hornets goal leads a charmed life, dealing with each shot that doesn’t go wide, or over, or clatters against the woodwork.

By the time we’re entering extra time Ade Lookman is playing as striker and Harry Wilson has been asked to defy his unfit status by putting in a fine cameo on the right wing. Needs must… And still it drags on, offering a terrifying preview of what life might be like without the skills and verve of Esposito. In the end there’s nothing for it other than to resolve the tie on penalties. Stuparevic and Dawson score for them. Wilson and Moriba do the same in our cause. Dean Henderson then transforms into Billy the Fish, parrying Jordao’s effort and outright catching the weak kick from Bacuna. Hughes scores for us, and then Lookman, with the decisive shot puts it away with aplomb. We’re through, but not without heavy caveats and concerns.

The fifth round spits out an unfriendly trip to Everton, in a match scheduled for the beginning of March. Before that happens we will have played eight Premier League games, including home and away against Manchester United, a visit to Anfield and taking on the Pool again in the Carabao Cup final. Oh yes, and the matter of Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. This is exactly what we want, testing ourselves against the best teams out there, but suddenly the schedule looks unfriendly and not a little daunting.