FM2020 – Welcome to the Theatre

As much fun as the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge has been to play, and as short-lived (I did expect to keep it going over several seasons, at least until the team was fully Anglicised), there’s no denying we are in the age of Football Manager 2020 now. The beta version is currently the one I’m playing, with – at the time of writing – the full edition available in a week’s time and saved games being carried across, so it seems as though there’s no time like the present to start getting in there.

Traditionally my first game on a new FM will be with a big side, something easy to help me get to grips with it, though in truth that’s just an excuse and I find, the older I get, the less willing I am to put myself through the long-term tedium and penny pinching of managing in the lower leagues. This then, will be a save I run for as long as I don’t get bored with it. Hopefully it will involve some jumping around and international travel, with leagues from England, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Croatia and the Netherlands loaded. The set-up that’s lucky enough to be getting my services is none other than the former big dogs of the EPL – Manchester United.

So in previous years, that long period of time from the mid-1990s through to earlier this decade, United were serial winners and something of an easy touch for any manager. Guided often kicking and screaming by management model and red-faced bully boy Alex Ferguson, there was something of the steamroller about the Red Devils for what felt like an eternity. The secret to Fergie’s success was his willingness to adapt his tactical approach and the players who fit within it. The early league title wins quickly gave way to Fergie’s Fledglings, because the likes of Ince, Kanchelskis and Hughes were just not good enough, and irritatingly he was exactly right to change things like he did. Time after time the Glaswegian updated his squad in ways that seemed bizarre, but turned out to be prescient. Sell Beckham to Real Madrid – are you stark raving mad, sir? Apparently not, with Goldenballs making way for the profitable era of one Cristiano Ronaldo. Teams and managers that could challenge United came and went. Dalglish’s Blackburn. Newcastle under Keegan. The emergence of cosmopolitan Arsenal, led by Arsene Wenger, and Mourinho at Chelsea. The one constant was Manchester United, often in the mix, just as likely to be winning by a hefty points margin, never an irrelevance.

Fergie – Sralex by this point – finally retired, and in a turn of events so bizarre that you couldn’t have scripted it, they have been poor ever since. ‘Poor’ is a relative term, of course. United have always had a good team and will perpetually occupy the table’s higher reaches, but the relative lack of success, especially in the Premier League, has defined this as a fallow post-Sralex era. Their fall has been so pronounced that nobody seriously talks about them as title contenders anymore. In fairness the torch has been passed on to the new powerhouses at Liverpool and Manchester City, both coached by top drawer overseas managers who have introduced unprecedented technical levels and attacking dimensions to the English game. Chelsea are a threat and when it comes to Emery’s Arsenal you can never really tell, but at best United are talked about as a side that’s somewhat off the pace and constantly rebuilding.

The thing is that this isn’t anyone’s idea of a bad team. With some tweaks and squad padding I reckon it should be possible to get this lot back to the top, possibly in our first season but almost certainly before too long. United have an uneven squad, showcasing some great youngsters and a number of at best ordinary long-termers we should be looking to move on quickly. They have bags of cash, so this is pretty close to a sandbox of a game. Over a few years the squad can be entirely rebuilt, reflecting the footballing philosophy to which I aspire and not necessarily needing to scrimp and save on the players involved. If I can resolve the Paul Pogba issue – world class player, potentially disaffected, powerful enough for the entire team to be built around him – then I see no reason why this shouldn’t be a great success.

I should point out at this stage that I once had a fine three seasons with United back on Football Manager 2018. I even took the time to blog about my achievements (click here) and will state here and now that I fully intend to recycle old material from those former writings. The team hasn’t changed an awful lot since that time. They’re a couple of years older, obviously, and while there’s no longer a Fellaini to cope with the issues surrounding Alexis Sanchez have only been put off for a year while he’s at Inter Milan. I found Romelu Lukaku to be a frustrating striker, capable of utter brilliance on his day but a lumbering shambles way too often. What to do with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling was as much a question then as it is now, though I’m grateful that United have sorted out one defensive headache with the acquisition of Harry Maguire. The key players from that game – De Gea, Pogba and Martial – are still in residence, but so are Mata, Lingard and Matic, about whom I’m going to have to make some tough decisions.

Back in that 2018 save the first season was the revelation of Gelson Martins, at the time an expensively acquired but instantly brilliant right wing acquisition whose mazy dribbles made my team something to get excited about. I wouldn’t put it past myself to go for the Portuguese all over again. He’s at Atletico Madrid now, with a possible breakthrough on the cards though just as likely he’ll only make it on to their transfer list. I have £100 million to play with as a transfer budget, and I have identified the need for a natural attacking right winger, but whether he features or not is down to costs. As you will be aware from following football, there are a few gaps in United’s roster that are yet to be addressed. I don’t fancy navigating a full league calendar, plus cups and the Europa League, without having two players for each position, so there’s work to be done. We need a left back, a defensive midfielder, a deep lying playmaker for central midfield, a right winger and a striker to beef up the numbers. While a hundred million big green ones ((C) Steve Bruce) sounds like a lot, we are Manchester United and as such demand a certain calibre of footballer. Pedigree players cost a lot of money, so the budget might not stretch as far as I would like.

Thoughts on Football Manager 2020

Morning all (anyone?). Apologies for this site’s lack of activity over recent days. After being away, I did exactly what I said I wouldn’t do and started tinkering with the beta version of Football Manager 2020.

In my wiser moments I come to new editions of the game fairly slowly. This is done deliberately to give Sports Interactive time to resolve bugs and glitches, and so that I can get on with downloading facepacks and the like that other people spend an inordinate amount of time putting together. Beta editions are fine, but they aren’t the finished product and under normal circumstances I give them a wide berth and at least wait until the full game can be procured. On this occasion I pre-ordered it very early and, gee’d on by various people and especially YouTubers for whom I have a lot of time, have got in there with the early birds. Oh well.

My first impression is that FM 2020 looks and plays just like FM 2019, but with a few tweaks and modifications; in other words more in the shape of a data update than an entirely new game. I can use my old tactics with this one, which is great for a lazybones like me, and in a show of smashingly obvious rhetoric I’m comforted to find that the players who were good last time are just as good here.

Apparently there are improvements to the graphics, something I confess I am yet to spot. The settings on my PC are high, but for all the world it looks more or less identical and perhaps this is a feature that will be better realised when the full game is released. Similarly the official blurb has gushed that this edition will feature a raft of enhancements to the match engine. Again, and I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who’s very happy with how it played in FM 2019, I haven’t really noticed the difference. This could be me. It might be working on a level of subtlety that takes playing half a season to fully appreciate the work that’s gone into it, but for now I can’t.

A far more noticeable new element is the laying down of club visions. This is good. I like it. If you have seen the movie The Four Year Plan, about the aim by a new board at Queens Park Rangers to exact a long-term scheme for progressing the club from the brink of bankruptcy, then you’ll get this bit exactly. Now, managerial targets have been an essential facet of the Football Manager experience for longer than it’s been called Football Manager. They are the measure of your potential success in the job. Meet or exceed those agreed targets and you get to fight for another day. Fall short and you could be sacked. They’re the fundamental measure by which your success or failure as a manager can be assessed. And now they’ve been overhauled into a far more comprehensive outlook, a vision.

It makes sense for clubs to have a plan covering the next few years, and your brief is to make their annual signs of progress a reality. Aspects of the scheme are revealed to be essential (do it or else!) or desirable (we’d prefer it but can allow some latitude), governing expected league places through to the calibre of players they want you to bring in.  I’m sure the most winning part of this will be how the vision changes as the random factor of your management is added to the mix. If you surprise a club that expects a top-half finish with clinching the title, will they suddenly demand nothing less than glory, year after year, or will they treat your achievements with a little sobriety…?

Similarly, signing players comes with more scope for outlining what individuals can realistically expect to happen should they sign on the dotted line for you. As with club visions, this forms part of a longer term plan for how you are going to use your players. For instance, a plucky youngster you recruit with ‘the next few years in mind’ may feel the same as you, that his early experiences will involve football in the stiffs, mentoring programmes and loan moves, but ultimately he will want that work and development to be leading somewhere. You’d want the same thing, right?

There are other areas that I’m yet to get my head around. I’ve taken control of AC Milan, one of those teams I like to have a go at from the start, and I am spending my first few days setting what I’m prepared to do and the tasks I want to delegate to my staff. Training, for instance. I’ve never been able to get my head around training. I’m a little perturbed that the staff are looking to bring in youngsters of whom I have no knowledge. On the one hand I’m happy enough with this, but I thought player recruitment was my preserve! Looking through the Staff screens and checking through who has responsibility for what, I’m presented with a minefield of options, almost as though il Rossoneri are a massive set-up with multi-faced modus operandi. I’m sure this is part of my familiarisation with the game and that I’ll get there eventually.

So that’s what I’ve been up to recently. On the whole FM 2020 reminds me a lot of those old editions of Championship Manager 3, in which it was clear the SI team was more or less happy with their package and offered little more than enhancements and data updates with each new game, and that’s fine with me. I don’t think there’s very much wrong with the current product and I’m used to it. Too many changes and I would almost certainly be put off, so it gets a cautious thumbs up from these quarters.

ANC October 2019 – We’re Human After All

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

Perhaps it’s over-confidence. We come into our Champions League home game against RB Leipzig thinking that we’re more or less invincible, and as always it’s at moments like these when football bites you on the arse. The visitors are a good team. They have Timo Werner and Emil Forsberg, who can undermine anyone. And we let them do just that, falling to an enterprising attack that ends in Forsberg drilling home from a Yedlin cross defying everyone in the box. Suddenly we look very ordinary. Grealish, Lacazette, Maitland-Niles and Gray have poor games. Kolasinac plays like someone who knows he’s on Barcelona’s wanted list and carries on as though his head’s already at the Nou Camp and not on the job in hand. It’s poor stuff, and I let them know it.

For the visit to promoted Birmingham City I ring the changes. Grealish is dropped to the bench, the best thing for him after his wretched display in the Leipzig game. Chambers, Holding, Chilly, Rice, Guendouzi, Nelson and Smith Rowe are all picked to start. Suddenly we seem to be much less certain of ourselves. The swagger that was in our game in September has gone as everyone is conscious of making errors, even against an opponent we should by rights be sweeping aside. Fortunately the Brummies are even less confident than we are, let alone talented. They’re capable of making mistakes, ignoring certain players during attacking moves, which makes them culpable as we turn the screw. For our first, Nelson puts in a cross that connects with Guendouzi who’s just outside the box. Unmarked, he’s able to sweep forward and fire past Wildsmith, as the defenders try and pick up our lads who have been busy drawing them away. The second is even more training ground, Lacazette sweeping across the area to head in Nelson’s searching cross from the left wing as Dean fails to keep pace with him. Luiz gets our third after the break from a set-piece, and it’s over by that stage. Birmingham do what teams that have run out of ideas tend to and start committing fouls, but we emerge unscathed and ready for an international break.

While our luck with injuries isn’t as good as it was last season, we don’t get the slap in the face of our players getting crocked on duty for their countries. We return to action on 19 October with a Premier League commitment at Molineux to take on Wolverhampton Wanderers. Nuno has rung the changes for this season. Fish-out-of-water Cutrone is back in Italy, playing for Roma. Jimenez has moved to Newcastle; Neto is now at Leicester City. Wolves have most pointedly augmented their attacking ranks, paying a grand total of £67 million to recruit Deeney, Lingard and Januzaj. None of these ought to be threatening to us, but it turns out to be one of those vexing days when we never really get going. Plenty of possession and shots, but nothing we do gives us the advantage, while the gold shirted players do even less and only keeper Rui Patricio comes out with any kind of credit. 0-0 is satisfying to nobody.

Back at home in the Champions League, we’re up against AS Roma with a sudden need to bag some points after the Leipzig debacle. The ‘She-Wolf’ represents formidable opposition with Edin Dzeko taking a starring role, along with the likes of Justin Kluivert, Diego Perrotti and especially Enzo Pellegrini supporting their attack. In a previous save I had a lot of fun managing Pellegrini, so I know how good he is as he scores from a free kick, his speciality. Fortunately we score four of our own to put the tie beyond doubt. Lacazette, Guendouzi and a brace from Pepe cause the damage. I’m particularly pleased with the latter, seeing this as evidence that the right winger is back to his best. Of course that’s totally the wrong thing to think, as a clumsy Fazio challenge leaves the Ivorian writhing on the ground, what emerges as a four-week layoff with our injury of choice, the classic twisted ankle.

Not the very best thing that could happen in the build-up to a crunch home match against Manchester United. Ole is banging on about the return of former Gunner Alexis Sanchez after his season out on loan, and the Chilean starts in attack for them. Carlos Soler is another threat on the right wing. But we’re good enough to go ahead in the first half, Ross Barkley volleying in from outside the area to give us a lead that until the 93rd minute. Deep in injury time, with the black-shirted opposition pressing for an equaliser but on the whole passing between themselves aimlessly in our half, Lewis Cook is reprimanded for an off the ball incident and United win a free kick 25 yards out. Mata takes it and his effort sails beyond our wall and into Leno’s net, the perfect effort. Mata’s a nice guy, ask anyone, but at that moment I think he’s a complete c***… Or maybe the fault’s ours. we didn’t press our advantage when we had it, maintaining a fragile one-goal lead and focusing on defence. Rice has had a good game, but we didn’t push for more and United are capable of punishing anyone in that situation.

Drawing two games in October isn’t the end of the world, but I don’t like how human we look all of a sudden. Perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are, but equally it could be down to injuries.

There’s still a Carabao Cup commitment to complete before the month ends. At the Emirates, we’re entertaining West Bromwich Albion who are riding high in the Championship. Managed by Slaven Bilic and featuring one-time future stars like Livermore, Austin and ex-Gunner Kieran Gibbs, they’re decent but do-able, I reckon. The first half however is frustrating and goalless. The usual problems – loads of pressure, plenty of opportunities, chances for the opposition restricted, and sweet FA to show for our efforts. I shuffle the deck. Maddison, still short of fitness, comes on for Barkley. Gray replaces Nelson and Wilson makes way for Eddie Nketiah. These changes do the job, Nketiah and Maddison scoring to put us through, and even the injury to Emile Smith Rowe is revealed to be negligible.

Bilic is his usual grace-free self, asserting that Arsenal aren’t as good as they think they are. He has a point though. By our standards October has been at best mixed. Nelson wins the award for Young Player of the Month, which I think is generous and probably reflects on the lack of choices elsewhere. We don’t feature in any other monthly honours, understandably enough, and we’re all demanding better in November. The League Cup quarter final draw chucks in a home tie against Tottenham, which I’m grateful won’t take place until early in December.

Memories of Football Manager 2010

If you listen very carefully you can hear the drumming of thousands of fingers against hard surfaces as the entire Football Manager community waits for the 2020 edition of the game. It’s as though everyone has done everything that it’s possible to do on FM 2019, which I can kind of understand. Sure, each game you load is an entirely new adventure, a world of possibilities in which nothing will be exactly the same as in the past saves, but all the same you can argue the main beats have been discovered and played to death by now.

While our watch continues, the scene has been thinking of ways to fill the gap and I’ve been enjoyed the series by Work the Space looking back at previous iterations of Football Manager. The nostalgia fest began with FM 2009, something so old and antiquated that WtS was seriously struggling to get to grips with it. But the real fun came with the 2010 video, partly because he liked it but also, from a personal perspective, it’s a game I particularly loved.

As an older gamer my relationship with the series goes back decades, certainly enough years in fact to be seriously embarrassed about it. I have wasted my life on this stupid thing, but there are worse things to do and as I’ve always argued playing FM increases my knowledge of and abilities in economics, geography and memory retention. That’s my excuse anyway. For me, FM has to strike a delicate balance between playability and depth. Too easy and it’s boring. Overly detailed and I fail to get into it, bouncing off the outer shell before moving on to other things, which in this instance means earlier and more comfortable versions. I realise that this isn’t really the game’s fault. It’s mine. I’m not known for my patience, and with new releases that take on a raft of fresh features and try to push the envelope I tend to get appalled and shy away. It happened with Championship Manager 4. And it occurred again when FM 2011 came out. Gah! It’s all so new, and I packed away my belongings and returned to 2010, where I remained until tentatively reaching for the new once again, years later, with the 2017 edition.

In fairness to me FM 2010 was a smashing game, on which I ran two lengthy saves that I played for many seasons. There was the traditional starter with Arsenal, who still featured the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie and Arshavin, before I went for a really ambitious odyssey in charge of Manchester City. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Too easy, right? And yes you’re correct, but in the summer of 2009 the Blues were in the first wave of their oil money backed revolution. Awash in cash but the squad was still made up of the rump of their pre-gajillions players with a few additional stars grafted on to the exoskeleton. You had Tevez, Adebayor, Barry and Lescott, but you also got to handle the likes of Stephen Ireland, Michael Johnson, Martin Petrov and Nedum Onuoha. Micah Richards was still in the frame; he might still become a ‘thing’. Wright-Phillips patrolled the right wing. Joe Hart was playing his formative loan season at Birmingham City. Robinho was with Santos for a year, but you’d get him back and then you could either try and integrate him or sell the entitled son of a gun. More importantly, you started with wads of transfer funds, and a season objective of qualifying for Europe. Not even the Champions League. Just Europe.

Your mission, therefore, was to build a super team of your own, handed more or less a blank (i) slate (ii) cheque book to assemble Man City as you saw fit. It was a super sandpit of a game. Armed with the Etihad treasury and FM Genie Scout, I set about trading until, as the season began, I had a 4-3-3 formation that featured Hugo Lloris in goal, Philippe Mexes and Gio Chiellini in central defence flanked by Richards and Domenico Criscito. My midfield three had Gareth Barry in the middle, alongside Moussa Sissoko and Claudio Marchisio. On the wings were Youann Gourcuff and an 18 year old Eden Hazard, already good enough to star for this team. For that first season Tevez and Adebayor (who was a machine) could stay, but Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz were sold as I prepared for an end of season big money offer for future real-life City god, Sergio Aguero.

That first campaign was a dream. City slowly grew in confidence and togetherness and claimed the Premier League. It helped that we had no European competition to take its toll on my players’ health. From there we embarked on a quest to dominate all life in football. The likes of Neymar, Fabregas and Wilshere all became leading lights. I remember winning the Champions League for the first time at the end of season three and squandering more than a hundred million on Cristiano Ronaldo, learning in the process that the preening player we all love to hate develops an aching love affair with whomever he’s playing for at the time, just a big kid who wants to be the best he possibly can be rather than the self-obsessed rapscallion he tends to be portrayed as. We honed Jonjo Shelvey, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Rodwell into world class stars. Aguero broke all the club’s scoring records. Hazard stayed for long enough to become the side’s talismanic force, a new Giggs who won just about every club and individual honour it was possible to claim during a storied career.

Buoyed by my success, I really went for it and started a new save as Middlesbrough manager. Boro had just been relegated at the time and were facing a new life in the Championship. By this point I knew the game pretty well, had figured out my preferred tactics and the players who worked best within it. The first challenge was to get the team promoted again. Much chopping and changing took place, as I pulled apart the soft underbelly of a roster that had been knitted together by Gareth Southgate (whatever became of him, I wonder) and started again. Searching the globe for decent, cheap players and loan signings, I drafted in Arsenal’s Carlos Vela and Aaron Ramsey for the season. Bargain basement players and freebies signed up, the likes of South African Peter Masilela, who cost us something like £30,000 from Maccabi Haifa and was a fine left-back. Vincent Enyeama was a brilliant cheap keeper. Boro had clung on to some old stars, like David Wheater and Gary O’Neil, but it didn’t hurt to draft in Moroccan international midfielder Ait Ben Idir for £40,000 knowing he could do a job for us. At the time, Adam Johnson was just a rapidly improving young winger, with little idea of what the future would hold in reality.

We won the Championship and in our first Premier League season finished fifth. More cheapies again made the decisive difference. Boro didn’t have much of a transfer budget but there were normally decent players out there just waiting to be shown a little faith. Nigerian striker Victor Obinna, transfer listed by Internazionale and available for £1.2 million, turned in such a good body of work that he was named Player of the Year. We claimed the title the following season and then never let it go for the following five, enhancing the squad and finally winning the Champions League in our second visit to the final. Man City were the main threat and always sharked around our stars. Mark Hughes’s services were retained as they continually breathed down our necks, but they could never quite overcome us.

As Boro were sold to a more generous Board, who opted to build a new stadium and name it after yours truly, I made a difficult decision of my own and jumped ship to AC Milan. I’d always wanted to manage in Italy, and the Rossoneri had slipped to mid-table, despite having the basis of a good team with players like Bruno Zucilini, Pato and Etienne Capoue gracing the ranks. More success followed. For the following five years I won everything, year after year. Serie A. Coppa Italia. And then the Champions League, where we put in such a show of overpowering whoever was unfortunate enough to oppose us that the game seemed easy and yet comforting. The only time we choked in the latter was when we eventually met none other than my alma mater, Middlesbrough, at the final stage. Now managed by a former coach of mine, Michael Owen, and still featuring in goal the services of a keeper a few of you may have heard of named Manuel Neuer (who we got on a free when his Schalke contract ran out), Boro overcame us 2-1 to end our run of four consecutive European Cups. Ah well, if you’re going to lose then it may as well be to someone you love, right? Wrong! We met them again the following year in the semi-final and overwhelmed them. No one gets between me and my shiny prize!

So there you have it, a mazy dribble through some FM 2010 memories, and I’m shamefaced enough to add I’ve recalled everything I’ve written above purely through what I recall. The game has that power, the capacity for its best saves to linger in your mind, don’t you think? Watching the WtS video I see now that there was much about it that just lacked compared to what we have now. The 3D matches were positively primitive, those tiny stick figures and lack of perspective, even if for a long running gamer like me it was a long leap from the ancient days of information scrolling across the screen, let alone the ‘marbles’ we got as an interim. At least one PC upgrade since then, I haven’t even downloaded 2010 to my current machine and I probably never will. Things move on, but the reminiscences of those golden times remain.

ANC September 2019 – All-English XI

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

I am committed to not only transforming the squad to an all-English group of players, but I want to do the same with my staff also. Nevertheless in a fit of irrational sentimentality I agree a new contract for first team coach Freddie Ljungberg after it’s announced he has completed his coaching qualifications. Anyone who watched him play will understand why. The guy was fantastic, and he bleeds Arsenal. If I’m very lucky some desperado will trigger the waiver that allows him to manage elsewhere before his new deal expires in 2023.

The international break comes and goes without event. We return to action with a routine home game against Southampton. By anyone’s measure this should be a walkover, and as I’m learning the players think so too. Even giving starts to some of the team’s lesser lights makes this a somewhat jaded performance from the boys. Gray scores after 21 minutes and then that’s it. Your entertainment for the afternoon is complete. Nothing left to see here. A win’s a win, of course, and we go through the motions of creating lots of chances while giving the Saints little to do in return, but it isn’t vintage work. I put some of the blame for this on Nicolas Pepe’s shoulders. The Ivorian was injured throughout pre-season and is clawing his way back to full fitness; when Nelson’s been in the team we’ve looked so much sharper.

There isn’t much time for us to sit on the ground and tell sad stories, and indeed there’s nothing much to say when the team has played five in the league and won five. Besides, it’s only a day or two before we’re off to the Netherlands to face Ajax in Champions League Group A. You’ll recall we played this lot in the semi-final of the Europa League and prevailed. The ‘Sons of the Gods’, as I’ve heard no one call them, have enjoyed their usual summer by letting other teams pick over their riches. Pieire, Onana, Promes and Neres have all gone. Huntelaar has switched to PSV in the twilight of his career. They’ve gone for Bjorn Johnsen of AZ as their new striker, and can showcase an Arsenal connection with Theo Walcott joining on loan. We had the opportunity to (re)sign Walcott. We didn’t take it up. Some old dude called Arsene Wenger tells me to make sure we mark Ziyech. Thanks fella, this is why we pay scouts, no? We win 2-0 through Nelson and Grealish, but the game’s more notable for Ajax’s physicality. As they go behind their frustration grows. I replace Lacazette with Wilson, who lasts a few minutes before going down to a clumsy challenge, leaving him with a twisted ankle and up to a month out. A similar injury to Ross Barkley, which will remove him from contention for a comparable length of time, ensures we finish with ten men.

Now that we are no longer in the Europa League we can play Saturday matches again, or how about the Friday Night Lights, which is what we get when we travel to the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City. The Potters have invested nearly £50 million in their return to the top flight, on nobody we should really concern ourselves with, though Aleksander Mitrovic is a potential problem for any defence. The first half ends goalless. Stoke have an unwillingness to gift us victory, pressing hard and causing disruption, and they even have a couple of chances that with better forwards might have done some real damage. I’m worried, but I needn’t have been. After the break we switch up to a higher gear that the home team can’t match. In the 51st minute, Pepe announces himself by firing in a shot that sails over the entire massed defence and straight into Hansen’s net. Soon after he slips his marker and heads in Chilly’s corner from point-blank range. A David Luiz special makes it 3-0, a beautiful free kick that’s so accurately placed it looks like we’re cheating. There’s still time for Pepe to clinch his hat-trick when he’s on hand to benefit as Stoke’s defenders get the ball away from Nketiah. Wonderful stuff from the Ivorian, who for the first time looks like the marauding presence he was throughout all of last season.

I take the opportunity against Huddersfield Town to do something that until recently was most unusual, and name an entirely English starting eleven. Butland, Chambers, Chilly, Holding, Fry, Cook, Willock, Nelson, Maddison, Smith Rowe and Nketiah take the field of our Carabao Cup clash. The experiment ends with a 3-0 win, but Maddison lasts 13 minutes before going off. A twisted ankle deprives us of his services for a month. By the end Dael Fry has been ruled out for a week also, this time suffering a bruised thigh. It’s a bad tempered outing for the Terriers, who are left to chase shadows and finally get reduced to ten men when Jonathan Hogg is sent off for a second yellow. They fail principally to deal with Eddie Nketiah, who scores a delightful brace and could have had more. The third is an own goal, courtesy of a Nelson free kick that rebounds off an unlucky defender and into his own net.

We’re preparing for the visit of Watford when we learn we will get West Brom at home in the next round of the Carabao Cup. Another Championship side, some big banana skins missed, in a competition we wouldn’t mind winning this time. It’s a further newsworthy item that Britain will be leaving the European Union at the end of the season, something we shouldn’t have too many issues with given the way we are moving as a squad, though it may affect the price of English players. I don’t think we’ll get much trouble out of the Hornets, nor do we. Danny Welbeck gets one gilt-edged opportunity but shoots wide, which reminds me why he was let go in the first place. We show little reticence when we attack. Lacazette sets one up for Pepe before scoring himself, nodding in Trips’s free kick. In the second half, Chilly hits a long ball deep from his own path into Lacazette’s path, who beats the entire defence and volleys beyond Dahlberg to make it 3-0 and the game.

So, few surprises from the September schedule, which sees us unbeaten, clear in first place and showing that we can exist with injuries in the squad. Six fixtures in October will take in Leipzig and Roma in the Champions League, and a certain Manchester United – with our eyes on the developing spat between Ole and Luke Shaw – coming to town.

ANC August 2019 – The Salah Factor II

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

The period between seasons, that of buying and selling players and rebuilding your team into a so-called crack unit, is my favourite in the game. The pressure of overseeing matches is off, and it becomes all about the planning, those hopes and dreams piled into new signings who may just about be the missing pieces that prove you are indeed the football genius you always thought you were and now the world needs to recognise it.

But ultimately there’s only one way to show if that’s the case – start the new campaign and prove your quality. Things kick off with the Community Shield, a competition known to an old skooler like me as the Charity Shield, or the one that had Manchester United against whoever finished second. We’re facing Liverpool, who have augmented their ranks with Paulo Dybala, Quincy Promes, Theo Hernandez and Lorenzo Insigne. Terrifying I’m sure, but they’ve lost Mo Salah and that makes them seem a bit less human. We line up in our classic 4-1-2-2-1. Leno’s in goal. Sokratis and Luiz play in central defence, with Chilwell and Trippier the full-backs. Rice is DM, with Cook and Barkley the engine room in midfield, Nelson and Gray on the flanks and Wilson up-front. Eight English players starting, on our way to the Nationalist utopia dreamed up by the boardroom.

What none of us bank on is how unprepared the Pool are for this one, or maybe it’s the case that the Salah factor is everything. The match statistics will show that the action’s fairly even, but we have four clear-cut chances and win 4-0. Everything we do goes right. In the 21st minute, a David Luiz free kick taken just outside the D floats beyond the wall and defies Becker. Liverpool try to redress the balance, but without their Egyptian they’re just not as forensic in their attacks and we deal with everything until both sides have shuffled their packs deep into the second half. The opposition’s forays by now are more desperate and leaves gaps for counter attacking. With 76 minutes on the clock, Gray fires a cross in, where Jack Grealish is bombing beyond the defence to beat the offside trap and poke it home. Then Lacazette is allowed to make his way through a line guarded by Lovren and Gomez to volley into Alisson’s net. In time added on, Declan Rice comes out with the ball after a melee deep in our half. He fires a long pass to Lacazette, who again finds himself onside and one on one with the keeper. There’s only one winner. A superb victory against dangerous opposition, which gives me real hope that everything will turn out all right.

The league calendar opens with an away trip to Newcastle United. The Barcodes retained Steve Bruce after he guided them to giddy heights of 13th, and he’s augmented his ranks with Rangers’ Jon Flanagan and Raul Jimenez, the tricky striker from Wolves. All the same this should be as soft an away day as we could hope for, and in classic style we make hard work of it. We’re ahead as early as the third minute. Wilson and Dubravka are involved in a tit-for-tat exchange near their goal line. Schar ploughs in to help his keeper and only succeeds in nudging the ball over the boundary to put us 1-0 up. Great. Open the floodgates! Except that doesn’t happen. Brucie Baby makes the decision to go for damage limitation and we fail to score again, while barely being threatened by the ‘weight’ of their attack, indeed the only occurrence of note is an injury to Almiron, which given the way he’s playing is quite possibly the best contribution he could have made.

We’re off the Istanbul next for the European Super Cup, which will be played against Manchester City. Good idea right, two English clubs in the match so let’s host it at the opposite end of the continent. Amid sweltering conditions, we go ahead in the first half when Wilson breaks through City’s defence to latch on to Ross Barkley’s long ball and volley past Ederson. We’re on top at this stage and ought to put it beyond reach, but we don’t do that and the Blues grow in strength after the break. Two prosaic goals from Aguero and Sterling, scored via a combination of pressure, virtuosity and rare defensive napping, hand the trophy to the opposition. It’s a game of two halves. We could have won, and that’s encouraging, but we’re discomforted at handing victory to a league rival.

No sooner are we back in Blighty than we are prepping for the visit of Bournemouth. Shorn of Cook and Wilson, Eddie Howe has replaced the latter with Fabio Borini, the crappy Italian who is best known for failing to score goals while at Sunderland. He does the same here, very busy but not so effective, the definition of a headless chicken. In the meantime we score three to put the match beyond reach. Nelson, Barkley and Grealish have all found the net by the half hour mark and we spend the rest of the time holding the Cherries at easy arm’s length.

The following weekend sees us at home again for the visit of Leicester City. Eagle-eyed readers will be aware that our revolution has been built in part of the recruitment of young Foxes, Gray, Maddison and Chilwell, the former someone who made an excellent contribution to our title winning exploits; the latter two players we are excited about getting to know. Rodgers has recycled little of the cash we donated to him, though he has added Benjamin Mendy to his ranks, the £10 million signing something of a coup to my mind. Last year we won this one 8-1, and while we don’t repeat that scoreline we still produce the goods in a fine, commanding 3-0 result. Maddison puts us in front after two minutes, and after battering their defence it’s two substitutes – Lacazette and a late one from Smith Rowe – who pad out the scoreline. Where Leicester are concerned, conceding five fewer goals this time must be seen as an improvement, but it’s worrying for them that Vardinho does next to nothing in attack and they have no alternatives to use.

August ends with the international break on the horizon and Gareth plucking from our ranks for his England team. Butland, Chambers, Holding, Chilwell, Rice, Barkley, Wilson and Cook are picked for the senior squad. The Under-21s are graced with Willock, Nketiah, Nelson and Smith Rowe, and Arsenal players augment the younger sides also. My hope is that he sees sense and starts picking Gray, Maddison and Grealish before too long, even if the latter deserves a slap from time to time – it’s his face; you know what I mean, I’m sure.

Before that happens, we have to cross to the cosmopolitan west of the capital to take on Chelsea. Fat Frank is still in charge, and at the end of his team’s transfer ban can start moulding it in his own image. Or, as is his way, he can promote more members of the Academy, those players who are used to shooting off on loan year after year. They have added Wilfried Zaha, a £50 million capture from Palace, and bizarrely enough view Celtic’s Olivier Ntcham as the answer to their post-Barkley midfield problems. All the same it’s a tough away day. We go in front early; a lovely move featuring cross field passes galore ends when Gray’s shot is parried, but only into the path of Reiss Nelson who makes no mistake. Chelsea flex their collective shoulders, march straight up the pitch and equalise. Zaha takes advantage of a lapse in concentration between Trippier and Leno, snaking in to pinch the ball and poke it into the net. We bash each other about for a while after that, both highly capable defensively and nullifying the attacking forays. In the 51st minute, Barkley wins a free kick deep in their half. His effort beats the wall and is saved by Kepa, but Sokratis is on hand to prod the rebound home and by some miracle is ruled onside. I shuffle the ranks a bit at that point, giving Dael Fry his first taste of first team football when he replaces David Luiz, who’s having an unusual off day. We hold out. Nelson wins the attacking plaudits but I would give the match ball to Declan Rice, who has controlled his big area of the pitch like a dervish, popping up everywhere and continually causing problems for our blue opponents.

The early table looks like this, with Arsenal occupying one of three unbeaten positions at the top. Chelsea are rock bottom, having claimed one point for their troubles so far, which is a situation I’m sure won’t last though it may do for Frankie. A truncated September schedule sees the start of our Champions League campaign. We’re in a group with Roma, RB Leipzig and Ajax, which I would rate as tricky but not insurmountable. The Carabao Cup has put us on the road to deepest, darkest Huddersfield, with league ties against Southampton, Watford and promoted Stoke also on the horizon.

Book Review – 89: Inside Arsenal’s 1988/89 Season

Occasionally I will break away from the site’s latest challenge to cover some media that touches on football management – a book, film, TV show, even the odd focus on Football Manager itself.

Arsenal have become my second team over the years, especially as the top places in England’s highest reaches have become the preserve of a few select clubs. It’s easy on the surface to see why I should choose the Gunners. As a Middlesbrough fan, I am suspicious of really good sides that win lots of matches and hoover up titles, and there’s something essentially fragile about Arsenal that makes them the ideal pick. Few teams have such a talent at wresting defeat from the jaws of victory, of letting their supporters down, and it’s a quality with which I can empathise wholeheartedly.

The love goes back years. I remember the pre-Wenger era, when Arsenal were a relatively mechanical, careful and prosaic set-up, built on a formidable defence and working on a safety first mentality that never made them much fun to watch. All the same when they happened to play both English cup finals against the same team, Sheffield Wednesday, in 1993, I was firmly in the Londoners’ camp. This was swimming against the tide. Ron Atkinson’s side was a wonderful, cavalier outfit, entertainers, showcasing the silky skills of England winger Chris Waddle whose career was undergoing a renaissance following his adventures at Italia 90 and with a European Cup clinching Marseilles team. Arsenal won the two games, for good measure controlling both so that Wednesday descended into the ugly plod that played to their opponent’s strengths. No one watching these games in the University Common Room was satisfied with what happened. I was delighted.

I think the origins for this strange relationship lie in the events of 1988/89, the season Arsenal first won the League title after years in the wilderness. They had been a top flight staple for what felt like forever, but there was nothing special about them and manager George Graham was constructing a squad based on no-name players. Liverpool represented the real elite. Everton were a top side; Tottenham were spectacular under Terry Venables and there was always Manchester United, very slowly clawing their way back to respectability with new manager, Alex Ferguson, spending a lot of money on big names. The campaign was a muddy slog, as I recall. Liverpool were the team to beat and Arsenal were just about keeping pace with them, just as at the other end of the table Boro’s rebirth following their dalliance with bankruptcy was finishing with relegation. It culminated in the rarity of a season finale to end them all, a final fixture played between the title contenders at Anfield in which the Gunners had to win by two clear goals in order to claim Division One.

As was the case in those days, ITV held the rights to televise live matches, and this one, played on a Friday night, feels to my mind to have been watched by everyone. Nobody gave Arsenal much of a chance. The Pool were in amazing form, resurging after the recent tragedy of Hillsborough as though every goal and each victory was a tribute to the 96 lost lives. It felt poetic that they should stroll their way to the title, like it was right, and so it was possible to simply discount the opposition. Teams simply didn’t go to Anfield and win matches. It never happened, let alone the scale of the task facing Arsenal that evening. No one told them that, of course, and what seems clear is that, unlike Liverpool, they approached the fixture knowing they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. They had a plan.

I was nearly 17 at the time. A sixth former, the era for me was punctuated with discovering the delights of my home town’s night life, something I was denied on my first visit to a nightclub when I was cautioned by the police for the crime of underage drinking. There wasn’t a lot to really enjoy at the time. The late eighties weren’t an especially happy place for a Teesside teenager, nor was going to the match recommended with hooliganism still a thing and the government seemingly working to destroy it, so watching Arsenal produce their moment of high drama represented a genuine highlight.

Obviously all this happened a long time ago. I’m in my late forties now. Football in England is in thrall to the Premier League and while there’s never been more of it on television the paywalls make seeing it a limited experience. I guess there’s a case to be made for the 88/89 season finish being the best of all time – in my time I would suggest that it is. The only possible comparison is the climax of the 2011/12 campaign, the Agueroooooooooo! moment, but Manchester City were supposed to win that game. Arsenal’s task was immeasurably tougher, and they did it and in the process captured (some of) my heart.

This book is a companion piece to the 89 documentary, and much like that recommended film is a compilation of peoples’ voices – the Arsenal players, George Graham, supporters, staff, Liverpool fans, and so on. Capturing all those memories is a very special thing. For anyone who remembers it the individual passages are a treasure trove, and there are some special sections on the Hillsbrough tragedy, from April of that year, and about David Rocastle, the midfielder who retired from football too early and died much too young.

I listened to the audiobook version, read by actor and Arsenal fan Alan Davies. The whole thing was entirely absorbing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

ANC Summer 2019 – Ringing the Changes

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

With a good transfer budget and the potential to rake in more from player sales, this is a pivotal off-season for us. I have two members of the squad I want to hawk as soon as possible – Martinez and Mustafi – and three on loan who need to come off the wage bill. ‘Bigger’ clubs want Aubameyang, Bellerin and Tierney, and while these three are stars the possibility to sell them for good fees and source replacements is pretty much irresistible.

Arsenal have a pre-season tour of the USA, enjoying sweet victory over LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City and Sacramento Republic, and a crappy draw with our affiliate, Colorado. We finish the string of friendlies with a 2-0 victory over Lazio at the Emirates, which takes in goals from Smith Rowe and Gray, and restricts the Roman team to next to nothing at our end. By this time the make-up of the squad has changed heavily from the group of players who landed us an extraordinary double in 2019.

With Jack Butland signed, there’s absolutely no need to keep Emiliano Martinez any longer. The Argentinian, who spent last season wearing his own personalised groove on the bench, is valued at £7.5 million, and that’s exactly what we get as AS Saint-Etienne win the bidding war to sign him. I didn’t expect him to fetch so much, so everyone’s happy with this one. In Butland I feel we have someone to actually challenge Bernd Leno and might even take over as the regular starter at some point.

Paris Saint-Germain are waving wads of cash at Hector Bellerin. As reticent as I am to lose the services of a homegrown star, I’m equally minded of his unenviable history record, also the availability of Kieran Trippier, who Atletico Madrid have transfer listed. I offer the Spaniard and PSG produce a casual £51 million stake to make him their man. So it’s goodbye to Hector, a cracking player and a victim of the team’s decision to produce an all-English side. Trips can be signed for £12 million, which makes acquiring him a formality. Statistically we are now worse off in this position, but Bellerin was always going to be difficult to replace and Trips is a sound replacement.

Manchester City produce a non-negotiable bid of £46.5 million for Kieran Tierney. Another player I am not keen on losing – would they take Kolasinac instead? Oh well, thought not – but naturally the player’s love for the club badge suddenly drops when he realises there’s a big money deal in it for him. The Scot goes, now considerably wealthier as part of Moneybags FC, who for good measure blow further huge amounts on Milan Skriniar and Federico Chiesa.

Two names crop up instantly as starting left-backs – Leicester’s Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw of Manchester United. They’re similarly aged and about as good as each other. Ole wants nothing to with any offer we can make, but as the asking price for Chilly goes up it becomes possible to conceive of making him ours. Ultimately we get him for £44 million, with various bonuses and add-ons that will raise the total figure to nearly sixty. He had better be worth it.

Shkodran Mustafi is a target for Wolves, but refuses to agree terms with them – the Black Country lot find satisfaction with Jack O’Connell instead. As for our player, he turns out to be willing to go to France and play for Patrick Vieira at OGC Nice. £15 million is the final figure, a sum that suits everyone. we replace him fairly cheaply, picking up Middlesbrough’s Dael Fry at a price of £11 million. Boro have had a bobbins time in the Championship. Even under Guus Hiddink they have finished lower mid-table and gained an unwanted record for the number of drawn games they’ve achieved. Fry at 21 years old joins Holding as the back-up defenders to Mustafi and Luiz. Earmarked to ultimately replace the latter, Fry has bags of potential and I hope to see him develop this season before the Brazilian’s age becomes too much of a pressing concern.

Dani Ceballos’s loan term with us comes to an end. Even if I could his very Spanishness means I have no chance to making his stay permanent, and luckily I’m not too arsed. Ceballos was good enough without ever being terrific, let alone essential. Chelsea have transfer listed Ross Barkley, who absolutely is at the level to play in our central midfield, or even in a more advanced role. £35 million does the trick. It’s a lot to pay but he’s a good player who did little wrong at Stamford Bridge last season. Thinking about the future, we snap up two 16 year olds from Brighton. Greg Hackett is an advanced playmaker who operates from central midfield, while Oliver Doyle plays more in the number ten position. The pair cost more than £20 million, a big outlay for two prospects who are consigned to the Under 18s and ordered to work hard. I shouldn’t have any problems with Alan ‘Curbs’ Curbishley looking after their development.

Galatasary finds £9 million for Mohamed Elneny. He won’t be missed. Granit Xhaka joins Norwich for what I consider to be a cut-price £11.25 million, but what can you do? Our fouls count breathed a sigh of life without the combative Swiss midfielder being a factor, and to be frank I was happy to find a buyer at all. Selling Henrikh Mkhitaryan becomes a bit of a battle. Forced to drop the price again and again, I am eventually able to remove the Armenian from our roster when Galatasaray produce £20 million. The after-effects of the vastly inflated salary we were paying him haunt us still, as the deal involves us honouring £84,000 of his weekly wage for a further four years, which is shocking yet better than the two hundred grand he was drawing for kicking around in the reserve team.

A transfer ding-dong threatens to break out over Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson. The usual big clubs in England want him, and we’re no different, making an offer that will amount to £44 million overall. The 27 year old, who scored 20 league goals for the Cherries in 2018/19, opts for us in the end, turning down the chance to play second fiddle to Harrington at Tottenham. This acquisition eases my conscience about seeing the back of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Real Madrid produce a titanic £73 million to make him theirs, a huge amount for someone entering his fourth decade and who I remember principally for producing howling misses, watched through gaps between my disbelieving fingers. With Eddie Nketiah promoted to the first team after a good season on loan at Leeds, I now have three fine strikers from whom to choose; hopefully they will make me not regret my decision here.

Aston Villa are relegated and this makes Jack Grealish look for a move elsewhere. We don’t need him, but the opportunity to sign a young English attacking midfielder who can play in just about every position across the front really appeals to me, and he’s available for £20 million. It’s a bargain, and I’m optimistic that having the kid in my side will lessen my inclination to smash his smug face in whenever our paths cross.

Lucas Torreira wants an improved contract. I respond by offering him to other teams. He’s a hell of a footballer, but unfortunately he’s Uruguayan and I really want Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook, a 22 year old who can play either centrally or in defensive midfield. The latter doesn’t come cheap. Eddie Howe drives a hard bargain for someone legitimately viewed as a crown jewel in the making, and the deal we eventually strike amounts to a potential £72 million. As for Torreira, a slew of chancers try their arm but he can’t resist the pull of Barcelona when they come knocking. £39.5 million for the diminutive star, joining a squad that’s still dominated by a world class short-arse.

Callum Gribbin signs for the Under 23s after being released by Manchester United, and we pay a grand £51,000 for another prospect, Jamie Soule, who’s been placed on the West Brom list and, duly acquired, promptly heads out to Oxford United on loan. With a few scouts retiring, we appoint Robbie Cooke from Leicester. He arrives raving about James Maddison, the Foxes’ attacking midfielder who we could get for around £45 million. It’s highly tempting, and I mean highly, but drafting in Maddison would leave Mesut Ozil surplus to requirements. Still, fortune favours the brave and perhaps it’s time to part ways with the German, who is considered by the coaching staff to be entering his waning years as a player. Maddo on the other hand is exactly the type I want for my set-up – young, English, talented and fiercely determined.

Selling Ozil becomes a drama in its own right. His valuation is £60 million but we’re never going to get that sort of money. So I drop it to 50 – nope. 40? Nada. 30? Keep going… In the end I am forced to let him go to AC Milan on loan for the season. The Rossoneri pay nothing towards this, which means I’m saddled with meeting his enormous salary while he does a job for someone else. And yet it’s almost worth it. Losing Ozil, even temporarily, means I no longer have to address the problem of an entitled superstar who is used to getting pampered treatment from whichever club is lucky enough to have him while being choosy about the level of service he is prepared to offer in return. I have to remember that I am not responsible for signing him, nor paying him the luxurious wages he is due to draw from us for another two years. Honestly, there are times when I have considered arranging for a ‘little accident’ to befall him, but perhaps loaning him out and hoping he has a great year that prompts Milan to take him on permanently will suffice.

It’s a blizzard of a transfer window, one in which I have reshaped the squad entirely. From eight English players in the first team we now have 18, and this should ensure I can recruit more carefully in the future with greats like Sokratis and Luiz difficult to replace and almost certainly costly to do so. I’m happy with the squad. We have more options now, can rotate more consistently and with any luck we’re capable of coping better with the higher demands that come with Champions League football and defending our title. We’ve been listed as fifth favourites for the Premier League – City, United, Liverpool and Tottenham, since you ask – but our aim is of course to repeat our achievement in 2018/19.

For the record, Liverpool sign Dybala and Insigne, but lose Salah to Real Madrid in a £103 million transfer, the highest of the window. Spurs have genuinely augmented their defence with the terrifying Koulibaly, and picked up Bruno Fernandes to replace the PSG-bound Eriksen. Big money sums have been spunked on Carlos Soler, Florentino Luis, Gedson Fernandes and Shoya Nakajima at Old Trafford, and they’ve permitted potential transfer target Jesse Lingard to move to Wolves. We’ve got Liverpool in the Community Shield and in the European Super Cup we’ll face Champions League winners Man City at Besiktas’s stadium in Turkey. But all that’s a story for another day.

ANC Summer 2018/19 – The Year That Was

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

Time to review the squad and what they achieved as individuals. Overall I could hardly be happier with them. 2018/19 was supposed to be a transitional season in which we were considered sixth favourites for the Premier League title, and yet we grew in strength as time progressed, with the defence particularly stout and some fine attacking play rewarded. I remember the great Arsenal sides put together by George Graham, based on defensive responsibility, and then the more cavalier Arsene Wenger years, and I like to hope we have achieved the best qualities of both era.

We will have to decide who to keep and who to lose, and this assessment of the players ought to offer some clues as to what will happen next. As an early spoiler, I can report that we have agreed a £10.5 million fee for Stoke’s Jack Butland already. I’d wanted Butland all along but ran out of money last summer. Armed with a fresh kitty of nearly ninety million at the end of April, I bid for the keeper early as Stoke looked like good candidates for promotion and wanted to get in there before they went up and the price escalated.

There’ll be more business over the course of the summer, but in the meantime here are my thought on the boys who were made to entertain you…

Goalkeepers

Bernd Leno (German, 27, 60 Appearances, 41 Clean sheets, 6.95 Rating)
Bernd played every minute of the season for us, an ever-present who started a colossal 60 games and was rather impressive throughout, ultimately winning the Premier League’s Goalkeeper of the Season award. While you can attribute a very good overall defensive effort to our conceding of 12 (twelve) goals throughout the league calendar, it remains a staggering achievement and will no doubt help his cause to become the German national team’s third choice keeper.

Emiliano Martinez (Argentinian, 26, 0 Apps)
Emiliano who? The Argentinian signed for us way back in 2011, is homegrown and not even vaguely good enough to be in the side. There’s got to be a reason why he’s made 14 (fourteen) appearances in all competitions over that lengthy period, right? Emiliano played mainly reserve team football all year, didn’t disappoint and never excelled, and I will be looking to cash in on him with Jack Butland about to join and hopefully producing some real competition for Leno’s starting jersey. Just think of all the keepers who have been and gone since Emiliano joined – Almunia, Fabianski, Mannone, Szczesny, Ospina, Cech, Leno – and you start to get a general idea of his real worth.

Right-Backs

Hector Bellerin (Spaniard, 24, 23 Apps, 0 Goals, 5 Assists, 7.35)
Urbane and metrosexual Spaniard who remains a bright prospect on the pitch, albeit with genuine injury concerns that will almost certainly spell his doom (as an Arsenal player, that is). The main impression he left across 2018/19 was of someone who struggled with fitness. When he played, great. But then he was out for a month and then, while building his match fitness with the Under-23s, suffered an injury relapse that removed his services for a further four weeks before embarking on his long convalescence back to the starting line-up. He did go on to figure in the latter stages of our Europa League campaign, and there’s little doubt that on his day he’s far superior to anyone else at right-back, but man, those setbacks…

Calum Chambers (English, 24, 36(1) Apps, 1 Goal, 7 Assists, 7.48)
In reality Calum isn’t even a proper right-back. He’s a centre-half who has ‘filled in’ as required, only he turned out to be so good at it that he more or less made the role his own over the course of the campaign, and his lengthy spell in the first eleven while Bellerin was injured was immensely productive. I have concerns that he doesn’t seem to have developed much during the season, almost as though he should be training in a different position to the one he’s been playing, but he has proved to be at least a very useful squad player.

Left-Backs

Sead Kolasinac (Bosnian, 25, 25 Apps, 0 Goals, 6 Assists, 7.31)
Bosnian international left wing-back who’s had a good year, albeit one in which he has fallen behind Kieran Tierney in terms of his overall importance to the cause. The truth is that Sead is being played out of his natural position – he isn’t really a full-back – and this no doubt has a knock-on effect where his effort is concerned; still he rarely let me down. He also has an aggressive streak that made him more card-liable, and he needs to bear in mind the fine line between competitiveness and outright thuggery.

Kieran Tierney (Scottish, 21, 35 Apps, 0 Goals, 7 Assists, 7.54)
A shining light in the Scottish ‘production line’ of talent and someone who emerged as our default best left-back during the season. Kieran has English as his dual nationality and I wish this meant we could keep him, however he’s as Scottish as deep-fried Mars bars and a queue of teams is developing for his signature. This could prompt a big money move for him, one that’s well deserved I feel, but we will miss him when/if he goes. His thrilling work on the left flank ultimately ended with him being named the Player of the Tournament in the Europa League.

Centre Backs

Rob Holding (English, 24, 22(2) Apps, 2 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.44)
Flexible and developing English centre-back who is definitely improving, though he has struggled to break into the starting line-up with Sokratis and Luiz so eminent. Nevertheless Rob gave a good account of himself, was especially prominent in our continental campaign, effortlessly nudged ahead of Mustafi as our first reserve and showed that he had an eye for goal. He’s going precisely nowhere.

David Luiz (Brazilian, 32, 40(1) Apps, 3 Goals, 0 Assists, 7.30)
Hands up who doubted the crazy-haired Brazilian’s ability to be a good Arsenal defender? Yeah me too; someone who always looked like he had a mistake in him at Chelsea (and who can forget his sterling effort in opening the gate for the German attack during that game in Brazil?), he instead produced a stunning season’s work. If I could choose a player of the year then I think it would be him, a graceful and brilliantly organised defender with real footballing intelligence, whose contribution in replacing Laurent Koscielny, taking over the captaincy and lending the side a tightness at the back upon which all our success rested. Just superb; such a shame he’s (i) Brazilian (ii) in his thirties.

Shkodran Mustafi (German, 27, 17 Apps, 1 Goal, 2 Assists, 7.55)
When I started here the much criticised German defender looked fine. His squad status had been reduced to that of a rotation player, which seemed about right; on the whole a good guy to have around. But then it started going wrong. Mustafi was quick to complain about his lack of playing time despite being rotated regularly with the other defenders. When he was on the pitch we conceded more goals. His individual stats seemed okay but we were just more porous and that did for his chances of starting. A peripheral player who’s unhappy with his lot, has pretty much unified the rest of the squad against him, and will be sold as soon as possible in the summer. A shame, but absolutely for the best.

Sokratis (Greek, 30, 41(1) Apps, 0 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.21)
Tough as old boots Greek international centre-back, and by happy coincidence a perfect complement for David Luiz. The more physical, aggressive and granite hard alternative to David’s cultured performer, it’s possible to view Sokratis as an old school thug, but he’s effective with it and ended up with a paltry six yellow cards and zero dismissals, an excellent return when you consider the range of forwards that he was asked to deal with. He made a decisive difference to our overall defensive effort, and quite frankly I love him, though I wouldn’t want to come across him in a dark alley.

Midfielders

Dani Ceballos (Spanish, 22, 33(11) Apps, 2 Goals, 9 Assists, 6.88)
Our loanee from Real Madrid was pretty good in the Mezzala role, occasionally used in attacking midfield, without ever making me wish we could sign him permanently. A regular starter by default, mainly because he was ahead of Maitland-Niles and Willock in terms of development, there were too many moments when he could simply vanish from the field of play to make him invaluable to the cause. We wish him well and look forward to bringing someone in who’s basically better.

Matteo Guendouzi (French, 20, 23(15) Apps, 2 Goals, 4 Assists, 6.95)
As a rule I’m not a fan of box to box midfielders. I like to use someone in the deep lying role and another to support the attack, whereas the game Matteo brings is a bit of one and some of the other, specialising in neither. To his credit, the French youngster with the David Luiz haircut never embarrassed himself, worked like a Trojan, scored some critical goals and was generally an effervescent presence in matches and training. The danger is that he will steadily become increasingly peripheral as the side changes around him, and I may be tempted to sell if someone asks after him.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles (English, 21, 16(35) Apps, 6 Goals, 1 Assist, 6.87)
Every side should have an Ainsley, I feel, an Academy product who is too reliable to sell, too flexible to not have some use, too promising to even consider selling. Past managers have used him as a full-back, but Ainsley is clearly a central midfielder by trade, able to operate as a Mezzala or playmaker, He’s improved during the season, putting himself on a par with Ceballos as the number one choice for his position, and I expect to see more of the same next season.

Mesut Ozil (German, 30, 34(2) Apps, 9 Goals, 8 Assists, 7.33)
A pleasant surprise. I’ll confess to getting a touch of the Unai Emerys when it came to Mesut, not sure if I could trust him until he called my bluff at a difficult point in the season, demanding to either get picked or be sold. I took the chance, gave him a consistent run in the starting line-up and he rewarded me with some terrific form that was the catalyst for our long unbeaten run, effectively leading to the title. All the same, doubts remain. As he always could, Mesut has the capacity to play anonymously, just as much as he can be in the thick of the action, orchestrating all our best work. Who knows from game to game which Ozil you’re going to get, or why…? Then there’s the matter of his wages, those bank-groaning £350,000 weekly pay-outs that we could invest in three major players if we were only able to get rid of him. Despite his heroics and generally good play this season the German is failing to attract alternative suitors, making ours a marriage of messy inconvenience. One thing for certain is that as long as he’s on the books we will ever find that salary to be a millstone.

Declan Rice  (English, 20, 26(24) Apps, 0 Goals, 0 Assists, 6.89)
Poor Declan. Statistically one of the side’s more average performers, the contribution he made was vital. Played most often away from home, or brought on to shore up the defence as we guarded a 1-0 lead, which happened often, he made a huge difference. Deployed in the anchor role betwixt defence and midfield, he broke up attacks, made himself available for passes and in turn had the side’s highest average for passes completed, impressive in a team that ranked among the league’s best in this area. Most of his distribution was of the short and easy nature, finding someone nearby and then instantly finding space for the return, yet this so often ensured we could recycle the ball smoothly and retain possession. All this from a lad who’s only 20 and has more than a decade of this service to provide. Quietly and without fuss, Declan has become one of the Gunners’ most important players.

Lucas Torreira (Uruguayan, 23, 40(12) Apps, 3 Goals, 4 Assists, 7.03)
Uruguayan deep-lying playmaker who has answered the requirement for someone to terrorise central midfield, cause problems for the opposition, retain possession and help to spark attacks. More importantly he hasn’t made me regret my decision to send Granit Xhaka out on loan for the season, effectively ending his time at the club, in favour of Lucas who’as a real pocket rocket, a 5′ 6″ ball of energy who can do the job and do it cleanly, and it’s the latter element that compares him most favourably to Xhaka. Like Declan Rice, he doesn’t win too many plaudits for the job he does, but I think he’s great.

Joe Willock (English, 19, 11(5) Apps, 5 Goals, 3 Assists, 7.49)
Plucky youngster (he was 18 when I took over) who represents a great future for the Arsenal. Joe was used mainly in the Europa League, specifically in the group matches, where even as a teenager he ran riot against pretty much every challenger. I played him more sparingly in the league as there were better options and I preferred to focus on his development, but going forward things look bright for him. Think of a younger Jack Wilshere, only consistent and much, much less injury prone.

Right Wingers

Reiss Nelson (English, 19, 26(16) Apps, 7 Goals, 14 Assists, 7.09)
For me Reiss is the team’s best emerging talent, a right winger who improved significantly as part of the first team set-up and threatened the place of Nicolas Pepe towards the end of the season. His pace was terrifying and technique levels excellent, but what really impressed me about him was that, like many of his fellow youngsters, he seems determined to develop and to produce for the team. I can’t ask for any more from this native Londoner who is now catching the eye of Gareth Southgate, even as a callow 19 year old.

Nicolas Pepe (Ivorian, 24, 34(11) Apps, 23 Goals, 6 Assists, 7.43)
Expensively acquired in the weeks before I took over, Ivorian international Nicolas has had an explosive campaign, justifying his high transfer fee by ending as our top scorer, which is really impressive when you consider the calibre of our strikers. Nicolas scored some really crucial goals along the way, though fans’ signature memories of him will no doubt centre around one of those mazy, dribbling escapades in the opposition half, the ball glued to his feet and defenders failing to rob him as he bears down on goal. A valuable member of the side.

Left Wingers

Demarai Gray (English, 22, 44(3) Apps, 20 Goals, 5 Assists, 7.26)
We spent a lot of money on Demarai after our initial target – Jaden Sancho, no less – wanted nothing to do with us. That’s changed apparently. Jaden is now ‘extremely interested’ in a move to Arsenal, and I bet he is too, but Demarai has been such a revelation that I’m not sure we will even bother. A handy goalscorer and blessed with natural pace, many of his goals have come at critical moments – that brace at the Etihad in April, which handed us the league title – and overall he’s made an important contribution to the cause. He’s worth more than the large amount we paid for him, which is impressive work.

Emile Smith-Rowe (English, 18, 13(16) Apps, 7 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.17)
Young English winger who spent three years before this one in the Academy and has never been out on loan, so he’s a real unknown quantity. My plan was to use him sparingly this season and then try to draft in someone like Sancho, but Emile has confounded me by getting better and better. Performing well in the Europa League group stage and in one tie scoring a hat-trick, he has broken into the Premiership side as a genuine alternative to Gray and potential challenger to his place in the starting eleven. We’re all very excited about him, this kid who refuses to be left out of the reckoning and shows a real determination to succeed.

Forwards

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabonese, 29, 29(14) Apps, 20 Goals, 8 Assists, 7.10)
Widely considered to be the jewel in Arsenal’s crown, despite his fine goals haul and generally positive play I’ve been a little bit disappointed with Pierre-Emerick. Too often he’s appeared listless and anonymous on the pitch; so many half-time substitutions and ultimately I will confess to preferring Lacazette overall. Still, his are the highest standards, so anything less than sparkling goalscoring feats of strength are going to leave his supporters feeling blue. One lesser known fact about him is his flexibility, the willingness he showed to fill in on the left wing and do so with confidence and verve. Now approaching 30, time isn’t on his side and Real Madrid want to sign him, so I might take this opportunity to cash in while his stock is high.

Alexandre Lacazette (French, 28, 35(12) Apps, 18 Goals, 9 Assists, 7.06)
Since the arrival of Aubameyang there’s been a sense of Alex being the junior partner in a stellar strike partnership. The Gabonese is the perfect forward, they say; quick and deadly, whereas Lacazette is slightly the lesser in every category. Well, allow me to retort. I’ve just found the Frenchman to be the better all-rounder, more like a complete forward. We all see Firmino as the ideal to aim for – Alex is much closer in his technique and approach, less the clinical marksman and more capable of drawing in his fellow forwards and dragging away defenders. That’s how I see it anyway. The numbers favour Auba; I prefer Laca overall, the man who forced his way into the reckoning at his illustrious teammate’s expense.

ANC May 2019 – The Road to Baku

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

We might have clinched the Premier League, but the season isn’t over. No Sir, not by a long shot. For the record, we win our last commitment in England, a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at the Emirates in which Maitland-Niles and Smith Rowe score the goals and Kolasinac rules the left wing. It’s a very fine performance by the second eleven, the number of youngsters on the field suggesting that the future looks bright. I’m especially impressed with Emile Smith Rowe, still only 18 but showing little fear of whatever challenge I put him up against.

So the final table looks like this – the division was won with a 12 point margin, which makes it look as though it was very easy. Absolutely not the case. Many of our victories were tight 1-0 affairs, though we turned out to have a rock solid defence and a level of consistency our rivals simply couldn’t match. We finished third in the goalscoring charts with 73, but it was at the back that the source of our success could be found. Overall we conceded a staggering 12 goals, keeping 29 clean sheets, and this by some distance was the Premier League’s best defensive performance. It’s probably for this reason that David Luiz was our top rated league player (and second in the entire division to Man City’s Laporte). We also got Pepe, Tierney in the top ten individual performers. Pepe was our highest EPL scorer on 15 goals – Marcus Rashford and Callum Wilson led with 20 apiece. we missed out on the Footballer of the Year award, which went to Laporte, but Bernd Leno was a clear Golden Glove winner, and the keeper joined Luiz, Pepe, Torreira, Gray and Aubameyang in the Team of the Year. Yours truly was of course named as the best manager.

In the Europa League, we travel to Amsterdam to take on mighty Ajax in the Johan Cruijff Arena. Nobody is expecting an easy time of it, not when the opposition contains Champions League heroes like Van de Beek, Ziyech and Tadic, though it’s nice to see they have emerged as a home for Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, perhaps my favourite footballer name of all time. Van the Man will come on in the second half and demonstrate exactly why he never made it as a striker in the English top flight, but never mind because we fail to score either. For once, we are dominated broadly by the Dutch side, Veltman and Blind especially impressive in a tough defence that keeps us quiet and builds their attacks, yet there’s little of any huge note from them and taking a 0-0 scoreline back to Blighty seems like a reasonable outcome.

At the Emirates, we play a more open, attacking game and sweep to a quick 2-0 lead. In the second minute, Aubameyang profits when an unseemly tussle in the Ajax area trickles out to him and his predatory instincts take over. Shortly after, the black shirted defenders allow Bellerin to lope up the entire length of the pitch. His cross picks out Gray for the most prosaic of strikes into the net, and at this point it all looks very simple. But nothing more happens until midway through the second period. Tadic finds Van Wolfswinkel with a raking, cross-field pass, the sort of gorgeous bit of play that would prompt Max Von Sydow in Escape to Victory to stand up and applaud. Luiz, in a super rare lapse fails to cover the striker, instead letting him soar beyond the line to push his shot beyond Leno. And now we’re worried. If Ajax score again they’re through. In desperation I try and shore things up by swapping Ozil out for Rice. I needn’t have been concerned. It isn’t long before Nelson is firing in a cross, which Gray reaches to make it 3-1. Another vital Demarai Gray effort, scorer of perfectly timed and very important goals.

It turns out that we will be playing Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final. The Midlands team beats Napoli 1-0 at Molyneux and then holds out for the draw in Italy, finding an opponent whose best player – Mertens, obviously – is suspended makes the attempt much more straightforward. Wolves last reached the final in 1972, when they lost to Spurs 3-2 back when these things were decided over home and away legs. I think they will make for decent competition, but on the whole I’m far happier playing them than I would be if it was the Neapolitans.

After the short hop to Azerbaijan (the poor supporters), we take a 19th minute lead when Ozil’s shot rebounds off Patricio and into his own net. The Portuguese keeper’s method is unique – he doesn’t even raise his hands to save the effort, just stands there and hopes his body will do the rest. Then the Pepe Show takes over. His hat-trick starts in the 38th minute, when he rifles his shot through a sea of defenders into Patricio’s far corner. After the break he scores once again from outside the area, taking advantage of the goalie’s clear lack of vision. His third comes from a corner, Torreira’s header (and what can you say about a defence that allows a short Uruguayan to have a free header?) diverts off the Ivory Coast winger’s noggin and into the net. We run out 4-0 winners, and we deserve to do so. Wolves have come to defend. They place five players at the back and leave Diego Jota on his own, isolated up front, and they hope they can counter-attack their way through to victory. Big mistake. All we need to do is make sure we press Traore and on-loan Gnabry responsibly and the rest sorts itself out.

A competition in which the board has expected us to achieve the final ends in victory. Arsenal have scored 45 goals, by far the best total. Lacazette is the Europa League’s leading scorer with ten individual goals, though they’re shared out elsewhere. With an astonishing average rating of 8.00, Kieran Tierney is named Player of the Tournament. In fairness, we often felt we were superior to our opposition. The group stage was a joke round, a case of blooding youngsters and building confidence, but we stuck to the task and did what we needed to do, and we might as well enjoy it while we can because it’s the Champions League for us next season and my feeling is that the easy matches of the Europa will soon fade into a distant, dreamy memory.