Arsenal FM21 – March 2021: Future Squad Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – January 2021: Good Fortune at Goodison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – December 2020: Up for all Cups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 – January 2023: In with the New…

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.

Happy New Year, readers! January opens with one in and one out as pre-arranged transfers kick in. Demarai Gray’s loan spell ends. I could have extended it, indeed my initial plan was to perhaps keep him on based around my past experiences of managing him, however he never really showed me that we were gaining anything via his presence. Over his five league games Demarai achieved a 6.76 average. Some of these appearances were as a substitute, but still all he really did was make me miss the effervescence (albeit in a limited way) of Sheyi Ojo.

The doors open to welcome Max Willian to Derby County. An 18 year old Brazilian prodigy, honed and sharpened with Atletico Mineiro, he’s the first player from his country that I’ve signed and of course carries that lustre of Samba glamour with him. The coaches instantly have him rated as our best left winger, even ahead of Lookman, with particular attention drawn to his pace, technique and raw determination. My only concern, because I think he will be as important a capture for us as Moriba, is that he has no fellow countrymen in the squad. There isn’t even a Portuguese player to at least share the language with him, so for now it’s with fingers crossed that I hope he can acclimatise to England quickly.

While all that’s going on, a midweek schedule elsewhere sees the Manchester giants battle to a 2-2 draw. Chelsea beat Everton by a single Matheus Henrique strike to go top. I believe we were due to face Liverpool but their fixture commitments have handed us a seven-day period without a game. Keep postponing, people; I’ve no desire to take on the Pool right now.

We’ve a week to wait until heading to the Midlands, where we will be facing off against ninth placed Wolverhampton Wanderers. By the standards of early January it’s a really mild afternoon, global warming and all that. I fear the Wolves. Marcelo Bielsa’s team are quick and talented, and they’ve added to their ranks with Norwich’s Todd Cantwell, a £27.5 million answer to their attacking cohorts that never posed an obvious question. Juan Musso, drafted in from Dynamo Kyiv, plays between their sticks. They’ve only just picked up Nathaniel Chalobah, the former Watford midfielder who made for a very cheap £3 million purchase from Ulsan in the South Korean league. We’re without Ronaldo Vieira, who’s at home with a virus, while Jeremie Frimpong has picked up a twisted ankle and will be lost for a fortnight.

Halfway through the first half we also have to find alternatives for Harry Wilson, who is taken off with what looks like a really bad foot injury. It turns out to be a fractured toe, which necessitates a three week break – not as bad as I thought, but not great all the same. By then we’ve taken the lead. Wilson has burst into the area and taken his shot from an acute angle, which Musso parries. Sebastiano Esposito is there to collect the rebound, and produces something incredibly elaborate from what is pretty much a tapping-in position.

Ademola Lookman, no doubt putting on a show with his new rival watching from the bench, makes it 2-0 shortly after half-time. Picking up a Bielik pass in the area, he beats Otto before sending in a low shot that completely defies the keeper. Not long after that and the home team have pulled one back via Raul Jimenez. A good goal this one; Butland parries his first effort towards the goal-line, but before it can go out for the corner the striker latches back on and shoots from an impossible angle. Or so it seems… I’ve felt that we have been in control of this one from the start. It would be shame to let the points slip away now, and we manage to secure them when Ilaix Moriba scores from a directly taken free-kick with around ten minutes remaining.

A fine win against decent opposition, and it’s nice to see our middling away form of earlier in the season show an improvement. There was a time when we might have lost this one… Elsewhere, Liverpool retain the top spot courtesy of a 7-1 drubbing of Norwich. Chelsea contrive to lose at home to Swansea, while Man You go down 3-0 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Debbie Allie’s brace doing the damage.

Jack Butland is wanted by Arsenal, and he wants to go. The Gunners ask me to name my price and I quote £30 million, thinking they will either sod off or that the money would cover the minimum fee release clause for Bilbao’s Unai Simon. So they offer half that amount, which I am forced to turn down. To keep Jackie in check I’m taken to the negotiating table, all of which results in a new £54,000 weekly deal for him. To be fair, it isn’t a bad amount for a Premier League goalkeeper who gets selected for his country. He doesn’t play for England, but he’s there. Pedro Chirivella and Krystian Bielik are also offered new deals, which will pay each player £60,000 on a weekly basis. The overall outlay for salaries is creeping up, though we are still well within our budget and I suppose it’s right and proper to pay players healthy amounts for keeping us near the top of the table.

The Carabao Cup Quarter-Final is a home tie against Aston Villa, played in winter drizzle before an admirably nearly full stadium. Morawski, Hlozek, Gallacher, Vieira, Salcedo are all chosen for this one. Max Willian makes his full debut. By this point, we are beginning to throw ourselves around with the swagger of a side that expects to beat mid-table opposition and this one results in a routine 2-0 victory. After a first half during which we pummel them without a breakthrough, batting aside the forays of Grealish and McGinn, we finally nudge ahead thanks to Eddie Salcedo. Hlozek drives into the area and picks out the Italian from the right wing. For once loosely marked, Eddie hits a low drive that beats the keeper. Several minutes later, Adam Hlozek snatches the ball from Engels in his own half. He then takes off, dribbling sixty yards up the pitch, before forcing Pacheco into committing himself, rounding the keeper and ostentatiously walking the ball into the net. It’s a swaggering goal, a timely reminder of his worth (which I wish he would display more often) and seals the victory. As for Max, he has a promising start. His best move comes when he intercepts a cross-field pass aimed at the Villa right, hurtles up-field and drags his pass to Salcedo before the move is finally broken up. I like what I’ve seen.

Our prize for winning is a trip to Old Trafford in a week’s time, when we’ll take on Manchester City in the Semi-Final. The Blues, who are finding their feet after a rather terrible start to the season, have seen off Blackburn, and I think it will be a good occasion. Beating Villa has established a record of nine straight wins in the League Cup. Let’s see if we can make it ten.

In between Carabao clashes we have a home game against Newcastle in the league, as the schedule deals out twice-weekly fixtures as routine. Taking on City pushes what should have been a date with Brighton further down the calendar, a list of playing commitments that is starting to bunch up.

All the while, I’m keeping a close eye on players who might be available to sign. There’s no burning need to add a fresh pair of legs; it’s more a case of window-shopping than actually targeting anyone. In other places January explodes into life. Odsonne Edouard joins Atletico Madrid from Juventus in a £43.5 million deal. We’ll be playing them next month and the Frenchman’s presence will doubtless add to the fun. Emamuel Vignato, a winger we quite fancied, has gone to Lazio for £49 million. Milan have been taken over by a dolce papa consortium and flex their muscles by taking Everton for £45 million. This is just a warm-up, though, as on consecutive days United’s Bruno Fernandes goes for £103 million, and then Lorenzo Pellegrini is snatched from Roma at the price of a very cool £121 million. It’s deals like this that really tend to turn a transfer window white hot. In the meantime, Bournemouth finally announce their new manager – they’ve handed the reins to none other than Frank Lampard, which should help to quell suggestions that football is at heart just a bit of fun.

Derby FM20 – August 2022: The Lookman Dilemma

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 have to admit that I think I preferred it when the transfer window closed before the start of the season. There’s too much uncertainty with the current arrangement, the opportunity to lose players I’d planned to have available. That said, there are openings for us also. With Luca Pellegrini signed I have transfer-listed Alfonso Pedraza. Boro and Everton are chancing their arms with a pair of £13 million offers, around two-thirds of the player’s actual value, but that’s fine. We paid two and half mill for the guy and there’s no need to be greedy. Rams I’m less inclined to sell are also in demand. Wolves are eyeing Pedro Chirivella, whilst Arsenal and Milan both make lustful gestures towards Sebastiano Esposito. Heaven knows what the ceiling is for our striker, currently valued at £59 million and presumably worth even more than that. The Gunners have sold Lacazette and are in the market for a forward. Rafael Leao looks like he is on his way to the Premier League, probably to Chelsea, so that explains the Rossoneri‘s interest.

We’re facing an Aston Villa team that has just come from shipping eight to Everton. To Everton, who have discovered a new source of goals in hat-trick hero Bakayoko. Possibly it was just one of those days – Villa don’t look in that bad shape, and have managed to hold on to Mings, Grealish and MGinn, their three biggest stars. In the transfer market Dean Smith has worked his charms. He’s coughed up more than twenty million for Kalvin Phillips, the Leeds midfielder who was high quality enough to have no business plying his trade in the second tier. A further £32.5 million is shipped to the Netherlands, Villa getting Slovakian striker Robert Bozenik from Feyenoord in return. Joe McClaren’s scouting report is less than impressed, though he does make note of the 6′ 2″ forward’s abilities in the air. The lad can head a mean ball.

It’s impossible to believe that we can’t get a good result here. Villa looked nothing other than soft against the Toffees, and as long as we keep an eye on the right players then there’s no reason to believe we can’t win. Pellegrini incurred a stubbed toe against Leicester and so I opt not to risk him for this one. Lowe is back in training, but is so far short of the requisite levels of fitness that there’s no real chance of making use of him, so I am forced into pitching the listed and bid for Pedraza into the fray because he is at least match-ready. Otherwise we’re unchanged from the Foxes tie, and we set about pressing the home team hard…

…With no outcome. The first half remains goalless, a combination of weak forward play, missed chances to score and Engels playing like Laurent Blanc in the Villa defence to keep us at bay. They then have the cheek to go ahead on the hour mark when John McGinn toe-pokes one past the keeper from Sigurdsson’s free-kick. This isn’t on the cards, indeed it would count as a legitimate FM’ing against us as we’ve made all the play so far. Fortunately before the end we conjure an equaliser. Ojo’s cross is cleared but only to Moriba outside the box. His shot – because shooting on sight is a thing that he does – thwacks back off the crossbar, but Adam Hlozek is on hand to pick up the loose ball and steer it home. With minutes remaining and grateful to have our blushes spared we play out the remaining minutes, accepting that on this occasion the spoils will be shared.

All the same, it’s a bit of a knock against a team we should have bested, indeed we did just that apart from where it counted the most. You can see why Villa prevail. They aren’t very good really, but they know how to squeeze out results. A point here will no doubt be valuable to them.

Next up are Arsenal at home. In the intervening week Esposito has gone down in training, sprained ankle ligaments ruling him out of this game and denying the Gunners the chance to review a target of theirs from up close. Alfonso Pedraza rejects both offers for him, and then Sevilla enter the race, offering even more money with a £15 million bid. This he accepts, which makes sense as the Spaniards are playing continental football but only at Euro II level; this ought to calm his fears of playing in big matches. And so it’s goodbye to a left-back who put in nearly fifty league games for us, posting good numbers and keeping referees busy thanks to his hate-fuelled tackling. Sevilla’s fee means that we have recouped six times more than our initial investment in him.

The injection of cash means that I am able to address another area of the squad that concerns me, which is the left wing. Lookman’s good display against Leicester was followed by nothingness in the Villa game, which is vexing. I don’t really understand how he can go from being everywhere to nowhere at all, and yet he’s still more than good enough to be earning his keep. The deeper issue is that our only natural alternative is Sheyi Ojo, a Championship level winger who is all right as a back-up, however there will be times when we clearly need him to be more than that. Figuring this one out produces an even more convoluted bit of business from me, more on which in the next post; suffice it to say here that my attention is fixed on the situation.

Arsenal then, who over the summer have spent £177 million and recouped nearly as much in sales. Arteta has clearly been busy. Lacazette is now a Shakhtar player after agreeing a £24 million transfer. Pickford has gone to PSG for £28 million, however their big influx has arisen from the £99 million sale of Jadon Sancho to Liverpool. In return they have acquired Diogo Jota, the ex-Wolf who spent last season with Schalke before being the subject of a £74 million bid from the Emirates. They’ve also addressed their goalkeeping gap in the most emphatic way, spending big on Andre Onana from Ajax, someone so gifted in his arts that he can catch a football between his teeth, as pictured above. Bernd Leno goes to Mainz quite cheaply and Enzo Montipo now serves as their first back-up choice.

Andreas Skov Olsen has arrived from Bologna to feature on their right wing, but Arsenal’s main threat is, as before, Thiago Almada, the attacking midfielder who gave me sleepless nights during our three-game run against them in 2021/22. As opposition they’re more than good enough, though it speaks volumes for the rise of the Rams that we are rated as favourites for this match.

It’s a Saturday afternoon kickoff, again drenched in sunshine, and this one is being played on my birthday so I am expecting a gift in the shape of my boys doing the business at home. Will Hughes is back in the side, having completed his suspension, and Adam Hlozek plays for the injured Esposito. I give Frimpong his debut, and then I watch sceptically as Lookman puts in another anonymous turn on the left wing. In fairness, he’s up against Hector Bellerin and that ain’t easy, yet I demand better (birthday, remember) and before the end Ojo is on just to provide a more enthusiastic showing.

At least it doesn’t matter. Frimpong and Moriba are both involved in the move that ends in Hughes’s pass into the box. It’s between Adam Hlozek and Kimpembe to reach the loose ball first. The defender thinks he’s done enough by driving Hlozek out to a wide angle, but the Czech sends in a low shot at a near impossible angle to put us in front. Before the end of the first period, a Harry Wilson free-kick is floated decisively around the wall and beyond Onana, making it 2-0. Nicolas Pepe scores early in the second half to keep us on our toes, the clear result of a dressing room dressing down from Arteta, but we are able to hold on and claim all three points. There’s something lovely about making a routine victory from facing someone as traditionally good as Arsenal.

It’s also enough to place us first in the early passages of the Premier League, and that’s the best present of all. We face Fulham at Pride Park in our next game, ordinarily a straightforward source of victory, and then the defence of our Carabao Cup begins with a trip to South Yorkshire, where we will take on Championship side Rotherham United, with all the bits of squad rotation and opportunities for lesser lights that such a fixture implies. The big question for us is over who we will face in the Champions League group stage. We’ll know after Rotherham, with names like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and PSG all possibilities as the most challenging of opponents. Amongst all the group sides we are the lowest seeded, so no favours are expected when we check out the dropping of UEFA’s balls.

Derby FM20 – April 2022: Shut Out

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Reaching the Europa League semi-final is worth £1.29 million. Every little helps, and coupled with TV revenues the competition is keeping us financially healthy. A report on profits made in the Premier League ranks us in fourteenth place, having raked in a small gain of £1.1 million. That’s a considerable drop from what we turned over last season, when our wage bill was much smaller than it is now, and it illustrates the juggling act that getting all this right represents.

There’s still a healthy £41 million in the DCFC bank balance. Things are looking good, though it wouldn’t take much for us to be spending enough to cut very seriously into the club’s finances. Ah for the might of Manchester United, a club built to print its own money and producing the Premier League’s most profitable output. Clearly, if we were contesting the Champions League then the cash would flood in. We’re working very hard to achieve this end. Newcastle produce an England World Cup winning scoreline against Arsenal to ensure the Gunners cannot mathematically catch us up, meaning the lowest position we can now finish in is fifth. Man City are six points behind us and have the capacity to rack up a total of 84. We have to remain above them, hopefully not relying on the tie between us that will take place at Pride Park in order to prevail. Overall we have done enough to achieve a top four place, and there’s always the possibility of winning the Europa League itself if that plan goes awry. It’s in our hands. Five league matches. Five opportunities to produce the goods.

While some of our rivals are involved in the FA Cup we have Sheffield United to face at Pride Park. The Blades are still rooted in the league’s lower reaches. They’re eighteenth, on 24 points and involved in what looks like becoming a four-way contest to find out who survives. Danny Cowley has been in charge since late January, leaving Hull to take this post, and while he’s managed enough to lift his team away from dead bottom there’s much still to do. Given his appointment towards the end of the transfer window, Cowley has not had time to add to their ranks, meaning he’s using the group of players that got Chris Wilder sacked. They’re a team surviving on relatively slender means, their squad made up of the rump of the side that was promoted three years ago, with a few select additions and loanees.

Nick Pope is a very good goalkeeper. While we were agreeing the deal for Jack Butland Burnley’s Number One swapped the red rose for the white one in signing for United. He joins on-loan stars Thomas Meunier, Joao Mario and Bernard, while Willian adds years of experience as a free signing and Norwegian right winger Hakon Evjen is their bank breaker, a £36 million capture from AZ who perhaps hasn’t developed into the star they were hoping to acquire. As always, the one to watch here is Sander Berge, by some distance their most accomplished player and a tricky midfielder who we have to look out for. Maximilian Meyer is played as their outright striker, something of a slap in the face to Lys Mousset, who’s done rather well as a Blade and has previously been getting our scouts hot and sweaty.

The Blades come to defend. Clearly Cowley’s feeling is that the relegation dogfight is one that will be won attritionally, grinding out the matches, stealing points here and there, slowly amassing the total they need. I guess I can’t blame him. We are second and come into this one as heavy favourites, but it just doesn’t happen for us in the first half. We’re squeezed by the opposition, defenders in their Brazilian yellow shirts crowding out our forwards and reducing us to potshots that fail to hit the target or even unduly trouble Pope. It’s frustrating to watch, as we work with our usual patience into good positions again and again, only to finish with a speculative effort that sails harmlessly wide. Moriba is especially culpable, sensing he is on orders to shoot from anywhere (he isn’t), whilst Esposito is having one of those games where everything he tries comes to nothing. He doesn’t survive into the second half.

In the end, it takes a goal from an unlikely source to finish the job. Salcedo is deep in their half and tries a volley from the left hand side of goal. His effort bounces off the legs of Meunier and lands kindly for Alfonso Pedraza, who finally eases the tension by placing his shot low and beneath Pope’s body. Phew!

The Sheffield team fail to rally, even though we do our best to make things easy for them. Pedraza earns a second yellow to be dismissed with around seven minutes of the game remaining. It’s his third sending off of the season, three too many in my opinion and an utterly needless action as he’s caught out challenging Mousset in a rare Blades attack and goes in too hard. Wilson then gets involved in a meaty tackle, courtesy of Bernard, which is bad enough to remove him from their field. He’ll be missing for up to two weeks with a gashed thigh. So we finish the game with nine men as all our substitutions have been made. Ojo is playing left-back at this point and Salcedo casts a lonely figure as our sole forward. Even now though, the away team produces nothing and we prevail to clinch an important 1-0 victory.

Pedraza is fined half a week’s wages for being sent off. It’s a sad way to treat someone who carved out our victory, but it’s justified. The Spaniard has effortlessly snatched away the record set by Jayden Bogle as our most ill-disciplined player, having earned ten yellow cards and three reds. It’s a side of his game that I really don’t want to see. He is aggressive, yet this normally channels itself into a fierce competitiveness and will to win. The tendency towards violence he has exhibited this season is not something I want to see, as we will now lose his services for two games.

The FA Cup final will be contested between Liverpool and Manchester United. In the Merseyside derby, Everton are handed their most recent trouncing, a 4-0 defeat, while United come from behind to prevail 3-2 against Spurs. It’s disappointing for the latter, a team effort that has seen them at or near the top of the division throughout the campaign and only now are they running out of puff. Clearly Giovani Lo Celso is a key member of the squad. He’s out right now with ankle problems, and it seems in his absence they are without teeth.

There’s a week between this match and another that will decide our destiny, at home to tenth placed Aston Villa. Other sides that now have catch-up fixtures are getting them out of the way in midweek. Tottenham are at home to Man City and, from our perspective, generate the best of results in stuttering to a 0-0 draw. It’s a low key affair, in which Spurs have the best chances, especially after Zaniolo has seen red for an industrial tackle that is bad enough to remove Mykolenko from the field. No such worries for Liverpool, who are up against West Ham and win 2-0 to smoothly ease back into the top position that we were keeping warm for them. United produce a 4-1 victory over Brighton to rise to third place. They’re four behind us now, with a match in hand. Anthony Martial, who’s playing better for Ole than he ever did for me when I operated as United gaffer, bags all four of their goals.

Didier Deschamps lasts a grand total of 34 days at Juventus. In his brief time he oversaw their exit from the Europa League and has just completed three league games without a victory, effectively ensuring that his team can play no part in the destination of the league title. My feeling is that the problems there are bigger than the manager, but it’s easy to blame him when the malaise isn’t arrested, don’t you think?

Along with Wilson, we find we are also going to be without Tosin Adarabioyo when we face the Villans. The big defender is out for a week after incurring a pulled groin during a training ‘incident’, and I’m not going to begin to explain how that one happened.

Chelsea beat Spurs to pile on their misery and just about end their chances of winning the title this season. Fulham pull off a surprise, beating Manchester City 1-0 at the Cottage, while Liverpool unleash a can of whup-ass on Newcastle, Origi bagging a brace as part of a 6-0 romp, to advance their Premier League crown ambitions. United win too, 1-0 over Everton, which keeps up the pressure. We’re playing on Saturday night. You lot are all settling in to your cans of Foster and cheap curry takeaways while we’re walking out at Pride Park.

We’re favourites to win, which is always something that causes me concern. I’m far happier when we’re battling the odds, when there are no expectations on us, but a victory is expected and we anticipate a big crowd to watch us do it. Added to the mix is Villa’s dreadful form. They haven’t won a game since February. Even the dogged efforts of gentleman Jack Grealish (not a gent) haven’t been enough, as a possible European spot is being denied them and they seem to be settling for their traditional mid-table finish. There’s a lot about this team that’s good. Sigurdsson is injured, but they can call on John McGinn in midfield and their centre-back pairing of Bednarek and Engels is tough to break down.

On paper this is the simplest of games. We’re playing someone who has little left to fight for, while we are going for the largest of honours. This too is probably the most straightforward fixture of the run-in. So when we emerge at the end, having fought to a 0-0 draw, it’s disappointing, indeed ‘devastating’ wouldn’t be too far from explaining my feelings. There isn’t much that we do wrong. Especially pleasing is our shackling of Grealish, who gets little time to work his particular brand of magic. The Villans get a handful of chances, mainly snatched at and with just one on target. At the other end we put Pacheco under siege. The entire Villa defence wins plaudits for limiting the damage, as we rain shots in. Only nothing comes of it, apart from an Esposito goal that is clearly ruled out for offside. Will Hughes puts in one of most commanding midfield performances, a true general, but this doesn’t lead to goals on its own and I’m angry with Lookman, Esposito, Hlozek, Roberts and Ojo, who should have produced something between them and don’t. This is a unit of players that has contributed 56 goals over the course of the season, reduced to being shut out.

The reason for my ire should be obvious enough. Liverpool are now three points clear and completely in control of their destiny. United can leapfrog us into second place if they win all their remaining games, and there isn’t a darn thing we can do about it. Given their recent form, you’d have to fancy them to pull it out when it counts. With a win here we could have guaranteed a place in next year’s Champions League. As it is, Spurs and City can still mathematically gazump our position, which means we continue to lie two points shy of that target, with Arsenal, City and Norwich on the near-horizon.

Derby FM20 – August 2021: Funky Villans

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

Our last fixture before the international break takes over is away to Aston Villa. They represent the kind of mid-table opposition we could swat aside on our day, but with the new season having started so fitfully there’s a fresh requirement to get a result here. I’m reminded, given our recent results, that Derby’s place in the Premier League’s higher echelons is not a right. We worked hard to get where we did last season, and nothing less than blood, sweat and tears will get us back up there again.

Of course, this mentality is only part of the jigsaw. We represented the surprise package of 2020/21. That element will not work in our favour this time around. Other teams know who we are and what we can do. As I see it there are three ways this can go. In the first scenario, we settle back into the sort of league position we should probably achieve given the side’s quality, which is mid-table. Second, we get to repeat the heroics we produced in our promotion campaign and do it all over again, possibly even better if things go our way. And finally, the unthinkable option in a traditionally difficult third season, which sees my signings crash and burn, and the Rams slide down the league ladder… I like my job here, so I don’t want to lose it by going down that last path.

As for the Villans, they get to breathe again as the interest mounting in Jack Grealish didn’t end up resulting in his departure from the club. Whatever your thoughts about the slappable attacking force, he’s a beating heart within the set-up, though he masks perhaps an even better player, the Scottish Mezzala John McGinn. Committed, hard working and prepared to lay his life on the line for his side’s cause, McGinn has a similar affect on Villa as Will Hughes delivers for us. I wondered if he might go, but he hasn’t, indeed their biggest departure turns out to have been Wesley, the disappointing striker who’s gone back to Brazil. Overall they’ve spent £61 million on an intriguing suite of fresh faces. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the best known, cast aside by Everton and now a 31 year old playing in the Midlands. Jan Bednarek has been claimed from Southampton to shore up Villa’s defensive effort, while Soares and Leo Baptistao uphold their complement of Brazilian ex-pats.

The business Villa did is viewed as a positive by manager Dean Smith, though their work in the transfer market is markedly different in philosophy from our own. I prefer to bring in youngsters who can be moulded to Derby’s shape and ethos. Our new arrivals might not be the finished product, but watching them develop and grow as human beings is fascinating. Smith has gone for experience, known quantities, and there’s nothing wrong with that, however for me it’s left them with an imbalance in terms of overall quality. Some of their players are very good, sure thing starters, while others are very much on the fringes and borderline unusable. Broadly, our boys are at a similar level. While the effort to achieve parity among the first team is next to impossible – every roster has an in-built hierarchy, after all – that attitude has underpinned the transfer work we do. More on this below.

With the closure of the window coming up in midweek, we’re off to Villa Park on a glorious late summer’s Saturday afternoon kickoff. I dabble little with the line-up that bested Arsenal, though I give a start to Alfonso Pedraza, his first since signing permanently. The full-back plays a decisive role in our thirteenth minute opener. Pedraza has developed a really good working relationship with Ademola Lookman over the course of their time here. The pair combine nicely on the left flank, making it to just outside the box as they patiently find each other, shrugging off the attentions of McGinn and Baptistao, before the Spaniard fires a cross into the area. Sebastiano Esposito‘s there, marked by Konsa and Mings and yet rising above both to head past Pacheco.

Eight minutes later and the striker is facing Pacheco via the penalty spot. He’s been hauled down by Konsa as the pair try to react to a Lookman cross. Seb shows the nervelessness of plucky youth by hitting his shot to the far left corner, the same direction to which the keeper dives but aiming the effort out of the reach of anyone who isn’t shaped like Peter Crouch. We win a second penalty shortly before the break, an equally clear-cut decision for Mr Probert to make when Targett handballs Pavon’s crossed effort. Esposito for his hat-trick, and he makes no mistake with a perfectly targeted effort, this time sending the keeper in completely the wrong direction.

A lovely half of football, which allows me to steadily shut the door as the home side fail to raise their game enough in the second period. They have their chances and slightly edge it in terms of possession, yet we’re resolute at the back. McKenna and Oxford close off most routes to goal. Bogle has his best outing of the season, and that when he’s directly up against Grealish, though it’s Pedraza who really makes the difference. He’s an impish presence on the left, causing endless problems and ensuring a live-wire winger like Leo Baptistao is never able to lose sight of his defensive duties. A frustrated tackle from the Brazilian leaves Pedraza with a damaged foot. He finishes the match but then is ruled out for several weeks. It’s fortunate that we get two weeks off after this, a fortnight to get him close to fitness again.

Two wins in a row put us close to where we want to be. That’s encouraging. Like any half-decent manager, I tried not to let that pair of defeats get to me, but the Gollum aspect of my personality was only predicting disaster. All my transfers are doomed to failure. I’ll be out of a job by Christmas, and so on. You’ve all had those internal arguments, I’m sure. Or perhaps not. Maybe everyone reading this is a bedroom Alan Pardew, putting on a smug wee dance after witnessing all their plans come to juicy fruition…

I have few concerns about any of my players departing via the last desperate throws of the dice during the transfer window’s closing hours. Lookman is on Norwich’s shopping list, but I don’t see them as a serious threat. We confirm the acquisition of Ronaldo Vieira, which lets me end my formal interest in Idrissa Gueye (informally it had ebbed away some days ago). The latter gets snapped up by Wolves, who can easily afford his salary demands. Jordan Rossiter leaves Derby when he goes on loan to Albacete in Spain’s La Liga for the season. The day’s biggest bit of business sees West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen leave for Everton in a £33 million punt.

As a final shot, and just because we have money left in the bank (I start to feel very itchy when there’s cash to spend and it’s just sitting there), I add a player to the development centre. This is Leonardo Morawski, an 18 year old centre-back signed from Boca in a deal that could rise to £5 million. The scouting reports are clear that he is already playing at Championship standards and could very well develop into a top Premier League star. The Argentinian signs on the basis that we will loan him out for playing time. There isn’t the interest at this point, but a few months in the Under-23s should serve as a suitable advertisement of his services. The scouts continue to hunt for young prospects. I’m happy to allocate funds to support this, to invest in our future.

And that’s it, a busy window that sees us lash out a total of £106 million, and recoup £55 million. Those are daunting figures by most teams’ standards, though in reality while we have added the most new players in the division, in terms of spending we are by some distance off the pace. All those changes, and we have climbed to only seventeenth position in terms of our wage expenditure. Our £1.2 million weekly outlay puts us level with Villa. At the top end, Manchester United spend three million more each week than we do. Newly promoted Fulham are the only top flight team that coughs up less than a seven figure sum on salaries.

For the record, this table shows where all that money goes. The boys are separated into the categories of their playing status, and then ranked by salary:

I think the breakdown shows we are more or less right in terms of paying more money to our most important assets. True, Wilson and Ojo are perhaps overpaid by the standard of squad rotation players, but their earnings are equitable with what they were getting at Liverpool. Bogle has maybe undersold himself when agreeing a new contract; possibly I overestimate him. Esposito is handsomely rewarded for coming back to us, but his display against Villa illustrates perfectly why he earns the big bucks. The deal to sign Vieira has landed us with our second highest salaried player. I hope he turns out to be worth the investment. As for both our keepers being given backup status, this will surely change over time but it’s what they agreed upon signing for us.

Derby FM20 – April 2021: Stop Grealish

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

The penultimate month of the league campaign has arrived. We are in good shape, having overcome our difficulties at home and putting in some fine work to ease Derby into fourth place. Finishing in the European positions remains a distinct possibility. Manchester United and Arsenal are close behind, which is fair enough, but we have opened a seven point gap to Everton, and this we need to maintain. Beyond the Toffees the picture becomes more indifferent. Norwich’s results are middling. Spurs look as though they have lost interest in challenging for anything, and Leicester’s effort has absolutely fizzled out. The message should be clear – stay on target, keep getting results, and a banner season is ours to win.

Jurgen Klopp gets the Manager of the Month award, despite our identical records in March, because he is who he is and no one can speak his name without breaking out in a big, shit eating grin. We face an April schedule that contains six fixtures, including a climactic tie with his rampaging Liverpool side in the FA Cup, and the month finishes with a difficult trip to Chelsea. A further £4 million has been added to the coffers in terms of profits, and hopefully the money will continue to roll in with the Rams featuring on your screens three times across April. The board’s delight with my work continues. Elsewhere, Norwich City have been taken over by a rich consortium. They underline their newfound wealth by putting in a £58 million offer for Ruben Neves, the sort of midfield giant who could enhance any team.

In my press conference ahead of the Aston Villa game I’m asked to talk lovingly about Ademola Lookman. The left winger has grown into his role after a forgettable start, and has now scored nine goals. His technique is improving, and a commitment to training has been reflected in the sustained pace that can make him explosive on the pitch. The other choice for his position, the on-loan Emile Smith Rowe, has been pretty terrible on the whole. I pride myself on making good decisions in the transfer market, yet this stands as a black mark on my record and the only consolation is that we can give him back to Arsenal when it’s all over. Worse still, he is interested in signing a permanent deal with us. The Gunners don’t want to sell him though, so it’s with a nonchalant shrug that we will end terms with him.

It’s my intent to bring Morgan Whittaker back into the first team over the summer. He’s having a great time at Milwall, probably because League One is the sort of arena in which he can excel, and now it’s time to see what he can do on the more elevated stage. When we were in the process of bringing in Smith Rowe last year the real target was Barcelona’s Ansu Fati, who was perfectly sanguine about spending a year in the English Midlands, however the deal broke down because we were disallowed from signing someone on loan who was under 18. He remains on the shortlist. The one we have been tracking for some time is Ebere Eze, still at QPR and continuing to impress. The Hoops are going nowhere, which surely suggests a move for the ambitious youngster is on the cards. The price will be around £15 million. We very much like the look of Sheyi Ojo, on loan to Villa from Liverpool, albeit only available for a prohibitive amount. At Brentford, Ollie Watkins could be a cheap selection. He’s 25, wants to leave the Bees, is listed for a fee of £6.5 million, and is considered to be a quick and unpredictable player. An Englishman plying his trade across the border is Ryan Kent at Rangers. Yet another Liverpool graduate, the 24 year old matches raw pace with a gorgeous dribbling ability. Who doesn’t like to have a player who can run with the ball very quickly towards opposition defences?

We have a couple of minor injury concerns ahead of our visit to Villa Park. The most serious is Jayden Bogle‘s tight hamstring, which should be cleared up for Southampton in midweek but it’s safer to rule him out of this one. I’m informed that his partnership on the right wing with Hlozek is really doing either player no favours, and that’s a concern as they are both the best picks for their positions. Ivan comes into the side for this one. Max Lowe returns to left-back, because after thirty matches I have at last realised that he is better for away games. Pedraza is the more optimal selection at home where he can attack more freely. Marco Benassi started against Wolves. He retains his place alongside Hughes here, as the coaches feel he can exploit Villa’s difficulties in retaining possession.

The secret to overcoming Villa isn’t hard to find. Stop Jack Grealish. Apart from the enterprising Ojo he’s their key to success, and everyone is aware of the fact, which is why they’re stuck in the lower reaches of the table. We’re up against Derby old boy Perr Schuurs, who’s playing in defence for them, and we need to be mindful of Brazilian forward Wesley, who produced one of his few successful strikes on goal in our home game against them earlier in the season. Overall though, it’s the pugnacious Grealish who commands our attentions. This is a job for Chirivella, who is tasked with sticking to him like commitments to austerity from ivory tower Conservative thinkers.

A plodding first half from us is emphasised by Hlozek’s work. He gets booked for a frustrated booking earned from a rough challenge on Matthew Targett. The Villa full-back sees yellow also for a similar bit of petulance on Hlozek, which results in the Czech going off injured. The groin clutched in pain looks nasty, but fortunately turns out to be mainly superficial. Even better, Bakery Jatta puts in an appearance in his place and scores our opening goal. Hughes hits a really good pass to him on the right, where he zips beyond Targett and unleashes an unstoppable shot to beat the keeper.

The Villans try to regroup, but their second half comeback is slight. Everything goes through Grealish, but he’s singled out for attention. There’s nothing we can do to harm him when he’s taking free kicks, however the defence holds firm in the area and each effort is dealt with. And that’s about all Villa have in their arsenal to threaten us with. It’s an easy day for the midfield players, who get to dominate possession with little trouble. Krystian Bielik scores a second for us from a corner with the minutes draining away. Stoger’s kick is dealt with messily by home team defenders, who fail to clear the ball, and Smith Rowe puts it on a plate for the Pole to poke it over the line.

With the sides around us all overcoming their opponents, victory here matters in maintaining the status quo. Derby have put together a mini winning streak that stretches back to late February, and I hope we can keep it going when we play bottom of the table Southampton at Pride Park in several days’ time.

Derby FM20 – November 2020: Trouble at Mill

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

Three months into the season and the inevitable starts to happen. I signed a number of players back in January who were to join us on free transfers in the summer. These were all Championship standard ballers, and had we remained at that level they would have figured much more prominently in this campaign, however we endured the bad luck of being promoted instead. So now we’re stuck with these guys, or more precisely they’re stuck with us, not really good enough to play for the team yet here all the same. They aren’t featuring much, and they’re unhappy.

The first to approach me is Christian D’Urso, the 23 year old Italian playmaker. I snapped him up from Cittadella in Serie B, impressed with both his potential to improve and the meagre ten grand salary he was demanding. Until a few years ago, D’Urso was a prospect at AS Roma, but they finally ran out of patience with him after a string of indifferent loan moves before cutting him altogether. In the second tier I feel he could have made a significant contribution. We could have done with a Mezzala, which is his primary role, and he has qualities that are open to enhancement, however now we’re rubbing shoulders with the big boys he’d just as likely be a liability. Chris wants a loan move to give him some much-needed playing time. Turning out regularly for the Under-23s is clearly not pushing the buttons for him, and I accept his request to be available. Teams are interested, all as expected playing in the second tier, and it looks as though his future will be there. Whether he grasps the reins and improves himself to the right level, or his experience with us comes to mirror his time at Roma, only time will tell.

I’m also moaned at by Bruno. The back-up centre-back, a 30 year old we snapped up from Levante as a cut-price replacement for Perr Schuurs, has appeared in a couple of Carabao Cup matches but never in the league. Way back when I agreed a contract with him I said he’d be an important player, and indeed he would have been regularly rotated in and out had we remained in the Championship. Here, he’s by some distance our fourth choice, well behind McKenna, Bielik and te Wierik in the ranking. Bruno demands more playing time. I tell him we’ll sell him instead, and he backs off begging for patience. As a consequence his promised playing time is decreased and I have no doubt that this will end at some point in the future with the player making an anonymous exit.

Believe me, I don’t feel good about any of this. I made plans for the squad based on where I thought we’d be playing, and now we aren’t those schemes have been amended. Neither do I think the above complaints will be the end of the issue. Baker, Jatta and most of all Lord Rooney have lost out this season, and I suspect it will be a matter of time before I’m having difficult conversations with them also.

And still the matches come. We are entertaining Aston Villa at the weekend before the latest international break kicks in. Most important for me is to try and maintain a level of harmony among the players. There’s little worse than a sense of disgruntlement spreading, and while managing a squad of 25 when only 11 can play a game means that people will always miss out, if I can keep things more or less onside then I will have done a worthwhile job here.

The Villans currently sit two places behind us in the table, representing a very solid start to the campaign for them. Their ranks feature a Derby old boy, Perr Schuurs, the young Ajax defender who’s spending a year on loan in Birmingham. Fortunately for us though not for him, Perr is out for a couple of months due to a hip injury, so we don’t need to face him on this occasion. I still entertain notions of making him a Ram in the future. Perr never disgraced himself with us last season, and only his potential stopped him from becoming a permanent member of the side. Thinking back, it was probably a mistake not to find a way to bring him in. Unlike Bruno, Perr could have looked forward to semi-regular football with us. It’s a loss to both the boy and ourselves. He even counts me among his favoured personnel, which is heartening and a little bit tragic.

Villa finished 15th last season, which has kept Dean Smith in his job and allowed them to strengthen as they attempt to cement their place. To my mind, they’re a consummate top flight club, a perennial within the Premier League until their relegation in 2016, which led to a three year spell in the second flight. I recall them being especially potent in the 1990s, when a strong defence anchored by Gareth Southgate and the late Ugo Ehiogu was part of a thrusting young side that ever threatened to break into the elite. Since then their story has been one of making up the numbers, posting middling finishes, fostering the unfeasibly long career of goal-shy striker Gabriel Agbonlahor and being far poorer than this old, grand outfit deserves.

Now they’re back, their ranks added to with Blackburn midfielder Bradley Dack and the exotically named Michael Vlap from Anderlecht. Their key man remains, as always, Jack Grealish, one of those players you look at and wonder how he doesn’t get slapped more often. Now their captain, their most valuable player and saleable asset, it seems clear that we need to stop him. If we can make him have a quiet day then perhaps we will get a chance here. I say this with the usual caveats in place, but I don’t see anything else to worry about too much. Tanzanian striker Mbwana Samatta looks explosive but hasn’t met his enormous potential in terms of goals scored. Tyrone Mings seems little more than a decent Premier League defender. Wesley, the Brazilian striker signed at some expense, hasn’t scored at all this season and I hope we aren’t the side to confer upon him his first goal.

I name my best side, with no surprises apart from dropping Smith Rowe entirely and placing Pedraza on the bench as cover for either Lowe or Lookman. For me, we need a win here. Despite their current position, taking on Villa at home is a great chance for us to snatch the points. Ordering a positive mentality, we play on the front foot and go ahead in the first half via Ademola Lookman, who repays my faith – *ahem* absence of choice – in bagging the opener. We play a neat passing move outside their penalty area before Hughes spots the winger advancing beyond McGinn and picks him out. His volley beats Pacheco for a very personally satisfying opener. We’re able to keep the visitors under pressure for the rest of the half, but as ever 1-0 makes for a slender lead and I implore the boys to not be complacent after the break. Max Lowe looks stressed. He needs to grow a pair.

Villa roar back, no doubt suffering a rocket from their manager. Their equaliser comes from a comedy of errors that has no one on the Derby bench laughing. Scott McKenna takes a free kick almost from our goal-line. Aiming for Lowe, the ball is instead picked off by Strefezza who plays it forward for none other than Wesley. The Brazilian has the errant cheek to nutmeg Montipo in hitting the net. Of course, we concede to a player who was produced precisely nothing so far this year. Of course we do.

But things aren’t over yet. In the 82nd minute, by which point we are far more attacking in hunting down the win, Hughes hits a speculative ball in the general direction of Sebastiano Esposito. Engels gets there first, but the Italian steals the ball from him and sets off, with daylight between himself and the goal. Confident and in form, he slots the ball in at Pacheco’s near post. Even then it isn’t done. Deep into added time, by which point my fingernails are down to nubs and the nerves are heightened on the pitch, Strefezza heads in, only for the goal to be ruled out, VAR indicating that he was indeed offside by maybe half a foot. We hold on, opting for a safety first approach in the dying seconds, and come away with the 2-1 result.

Due to all the teams above us winning their matches the victory here has only served to consolidate our sixth place. There is however a four-point gap between ourselves and Sheffield United in the position below, so whatever happens in our next league encounter we will get to hold on to a Europa League berth for at least a bit longer. It’s probably little surprise, though, to see the big hitters begin to show their superiority and pull away from the pack. Liverpool’s 5-0 spanking of Newcastle demonstrates the disparity of resources at this level. There’s just no living with them when they hit their stride.

As an additional ‘treat’ the above graphic identifies our most significant performers of the campaign. Esposito, Chririvella, Stoger and Hughes have been outstanding throughout, by and large sustaining high performance levels and making all the difference. Though Jayden Bogle gets the ignominious plaudit of being our only red carded Ram, in reality I’m very proud of him. His average rating of 6.94 is comparable with what he produced in the Championship, suggesting – I think rightly – that he’s pushing himself to cope with the demands at this level. Considering he kept Grealish quiet for much of the Villa match that says a great deal for his winning character.