Arsenal FM21 – February 2021: Cups and Cock-Ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – October 2020: Return of the Ox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – December 2020: Points Target Reached

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 2020/21 season is about at its halfway point. It seems an appropriate time to work through the squad and decide who is essential to us, the ones who can stay or go and finally the damned, the list of poor buggers who are surplus to requirements. It looks like this:

The ratio is split along the same sort of lines as it was when I did this exercise last year. Those in the ‘keep’ column make up the players who are capable of handling themselves within the Premier League, or look as though they will grow to that level. The five who can go should come as little surprise. They’re either people who have no business being at this level, or are relics from our Championship rump, or in the case of Emile Smith Rowe just haven’t impressed at all. Where the middle column is concerned the jury is essentially still out. I feel bad about including Lewis Baker here. He’s a hero from our promotion campaign yet my coaches argue that he hasn’t pushed on as well as he might, and there will always be those who just don’t make it. Bakery Jatta continues his mixed run of occasional brilliance and blasts of petulance. I think we will suffer for players who threaten to scupper the whole effort, and for me much of our late collapse to Manchester United was down to being reduced to ten men.

Unless the Derby board puts up some extra cash then there are likely to be few changes between now and summer. The treasury is bare, deliberately so as I much prefer to add to the squad in the off-season and know these are the boys I’ll be working with for the full term, and besides my brief was to improve the roster in order to cope with playing at the top table. However, a couple of Rams have demanded loan moves away. If we lose Marc Stendera and Christian D’Urso we’ll be left perilously light in midfield. Salernitana want the latter. I will have to find someone to play a cover role, and the likely man has been identified as Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher, who’s 20 years old and available for loan. Highly rated but typically unable to break into their first team, Conor could do a decent job for us though we’ll be up against the likes of Villa and Burnley, who are also sniffing around.

The latter are today’s opposition and our last match of the calendar year. We drew with the Clarets 0-0 at Pride Park back in October, an unexciting affair punctuated by a lack of adventurousness from both participants. Since then they have become a relegation prospect, despite losing not a single tie throughout December and yet winning none of them either. In our favour is the fact that they played on Boxing Day and we did not. While they were hauling out a 2-2 draw at West Ham we were working through the Christmas Day leftovers, thanks to Manchester City (who we were supposed to be up against) playing their Carabao Cup quarter-final with Bournemouth. It’s now 28 December. Hopefully the Burnley players will be knackered as a consequence of the rough holiday schedule. Certainly, if we had two games in three days then the level of rotation I’d instigate would be frantic…

We can select a more or less fully fit side for our outing at Turf Moor. The one player I’m a little bit worried about is Adam Hlozek, only just returned from injury and now being asked to fill his position from the start because of Jatta’s suspension. He should be fine, as he’s been building his match fitness with the Under-23s, but it isn’t an ideal situation and a recurrence of his twisted ankle is something that no one wants to see. January looks tough, so a fully fit Hlozek is a requirement.

For all that, he’s been passed to play and I welcome back probably our best player with relish. The Czech teenager is improving all the time, showing a gleeful attitude to developing his game here. He’s an absolute asset, a pleasing incongruity that someone from a completely different country has made Derby his home, settled in well, and wants to do the business for us.

We start well and have the ball in the net in the 26th minute when Pedraza fires in a shot from Stoger’s corner kick. It’s ruled out, the linesman deciding that Lookman is offside. As though they aren’t giving us enough help, Burnley then get Vallejo sent off when the forward drives his elbow into Chirivella’s face as the pair are rising to meet a launched ball. We become more positive, and it’s just at these moments when we are open to the sucker punch. Westwood plays a long ball forward, which Jay Rodriguez beats McKenna to collect. With nothing now between himself and goal, the forward races into our area and drives his shot across Montipo to give the home side the lead. And that’s how it stands going in at half-time.

I’m angry. We’ve been on top throughout and have the man advantage – there’s just no way we ought to be losing here. The boys sense also that they should do better. Early in the second period, we win a free kick in their half when Gibson commits a foul, one of a series that leads to the referee exercising his booking arm towards Burnley players. Chirivella lofts it into the box. McKenna heads the ball on and Kevin Stoger pokes it across the line. Another set piece. Another goal.

At this point I remove Hlozek. He hasn’t played badly, but he’s fatigued and I don’t want to push my luck with him. Hughes plays on the right as an emergency option and Stendera takes his place in central midfield. In the 60th minute the latter’s shot on goal rebounds off the woodwork, somehow coming straight back to him. He plays the ball to Hughes, who crosses to Sebastiano Esposito, loosely marked in the box and able to place his shot in the near corner. And we aren’t even done yet. Stendera picks out Esposito with a ranged pass. The striker has two defenders – Veltman and Gibson – marking him but is able to get a shot off, and again beats Pope. It finishes 3-1 with Derby plainly on top. In the end it was very easy.

That completes our December run, with the points target for the whole season already attained. No one here really expects us to achieve title challenging form by adding another forty points, but it’s really pleasing stuff and suggests only good things for our future prospects.

Derby FM20 – October 2020: Heroes and Villains

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.

Our results are weird. We seem to be at our best when we’re playing teams that should knock us into last week – Arsenal and Chelsea stand as unlikely victories, both sides most impressive and far superior to what we put out there and yet dispatched. Sheffield United meanwhile was appalling. The board criticised me after that one for our collapse at the back. There’s an expectation on me to play ‘defensively solid’ football, which we did not do on that occasion and they are quite right to exercise their disappointment.

What’s going on here then? How do I possibly explain these varied results and learn from them? Is there actually anything to learn? Clearly we are settling into top flight life well enough. We’re fifth in the table, already amassing 19 points after nine fixtures, so if things continue like this – or even half as good as this – then our pre-season aim of fighting bravely against relegation will come to look staggeringly modest.

I mention the specific results above because we are playing Burnley at home this weekend. Judging on our current form (we must be a nightmare for people placing accumulator bets, and manna for the bookies – and by the way, when the fun stops stop, kids, indeed I would humbly suggest not getting involved in the first place), we’re going to struggle, because that’s what we do against Premier League opposition that we can pencil in as possible sources for points. The Clarets are near the bottom of the table. They should be beatable. It’s exactly against these teams that we fail to produce the goods. Why?

Our heroes of the season so far are:

  • Kevin Stoger – technically mighty fine midfielder whose ability on set-pieces has provided a steady supply of goals. Currently he’s accumulated a 7.57 average rating, has five assists to his name and he’s scored a couple also. For these reasons the Austrian’s value has risen £8 million since we first signed him – he’s now worth a princely £27 million, and if we sold him for anything like that amount we’d be earning pure profit from someone we signed for nothing.
  • Pedro Chirivella – another incredibly cheap acquisition who has done very little wrong since his arrival. He’s only 23 so his route to improvement continues, as it has consistently since he was here on loan in the second half of our promotion campaign, and it’s in his positioning where his value really shows. He’s utterly eclipsed Lord Rooney as a starting choice in defensive midfield, and his price tag is rising quickly as a result.
  • Sebastiano Esposito – if only we could afford to sign him outright. Since breaking into the side the Italian teenager has scored five goals in six appearances, which is outstanding. Mickey from the Rocky series has described the source of his powers as greasy fast speed, and he’s getting better and better on this front, producing a 7.26 rating overall. Inter have named their price, but it’s increasing as he improves…

It would only be fair to nominate three points of concern in contrast…

  • Ademola Lookman – while Hlozek grows and impresses on the right wing Ade has struggled for form on the opposite flank. He was man of the match against West Ham, which suggests to me that he does have ‘it’, but too often he’s been a meandering presence, apparently playing an entirely different game to everyone else on the pitch. Good for a 6.86 rating so far, which isn’t bad but it could be better. Perhaps I’m starting to see why we got him so cheaply.
  • Emile Smith Rowe – the one good thing here is that we can give him back at the end. In fairness to Emile he’s played second fiddle to Lookman so far and perhaps it’s time to give him an extended starting run. The thing is that he hasn’t caught the eye in any of his appearances, while at the same time the coaches can’t say enough good things about him and he is absolutely improving in training. An enigma.
  • Max Lowe – whisper it, but I’m starting to prefer using Pedraza at left-back. I need to recall that Max is still a young ‘un, and at 23 his entire playing history has been within the more forgiving climate of the Championship. This is a big step-up for him and he’s struggling to rise to the challenge, whilst at right-back Bogle looks more comfortable. None of this amounts to an excuse to sell him, but I was hoping for more.

After a horrific September that featured four straight defeats Burnley are returning to form. They’ve beaten Everton and Bournemouth this month. The left wing is their most prolific attacking channel, and no surprise. Dwight McNeil is their one to watch. Jay Rodriguez can also fill in here. In the summer we were scouting Jeff Hendrick with a view to bringing one of Derby’s favourite sons back home. Unlike with Will Hughes it didn’t work out. The reports on Jeff were underwhelming. They saw him essentially as a Championship footballer, but one earning Premier League wages, and he wound up going to Ludogorets on loan for the year. We got Kevin Stoger instead, which makes every kind of sense, yet I continue to watch this space. Will’s worked out so well as a signing that I would love to add to the ranks of prodigal sons by bringing Jeff back, but the asking price for him would need to drop first. Signing a 28 year old doesn’t really fit my remit of drafting young footballers. I will make an exception for the right person, however. Maybe he’s it.

The match – played on Friday evening, so imagine the viewers who get to tune in to this at the end of a busy working work – is a non-event. Little of any note happens. It turns out the two teams are just about perfectly balanced and as a consequence produce an incident-free affair that confers the easiest of single points earned on both teams. As expected McNeil is a problem for Burnley. He’s very busy and full of tricks, but Lowe matches him well enough and reduces his expected threat levels. We have the better of the match statistics, yet rarely look like we’re going to overcome the opposition. Ultimately the beneficiaries are defenders. Mike te Wierik wins the match ball for his display of sheer competence at the back. I’m pleased that we don’t produce too many fouls, as opposed to the casual violence occasionally instigated by Burnley. We incur no yellow cards, so our good discipline is very promising. On the downside, Smith Rowe starts and does very little. This was his chance to shine. He failed to take it, though Joel Veltman in the Clarets defence had a very good game in dealing with him.

0-0 then, a solid and safe result, disappointing in comparison with some of the victories we have earned so far and yet probably a fair outcome. A two points per match record is excellent, probably unsustainable but good while at lasts. We have two away days before we see the month out. First, the Carabao Cup in midweek where we will travel to Manchester City, and then at the weekend we’ll be taking on struggling Brighton. Given our recent form I am unable to predict either game, though the league fixture is the one we will need to take more seriously.