Glory Hunter – Barcelona: March 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

The spacing of the fixtures means that for now we can more or less field the same side for each one. I still rotate to some extent, partly because I can’t help tinkering and of course also to make sure the players don’t feel left out, but at this point I find that Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are increasingly marginalised presences. They’re both team leaders and I don’t want to irritate them, but the fact is we have better choices for their positions now. My hope, I guess, is that both come to realise that the game is up for them and opt for retirement, but players can be bloody minded, especially when their careers are under threat, even more so for club legends who don’t want to accept that the end is nigh. How I treat them will be a matter of some delicacy.

March begins with a trip to Granada, an easier than it looks on paper 3-0 romp during which we are emphatic enough to allow for blown penalty opportunities by Tammy Abraham and Bruno Guimaraes. The former makes up for his gaffe by scoring from open play, a peach of a strike that is his first for us in the league. Ismael Bennacer scores his first also, a shot of pure venom that indicates he has this in the tank as part of a very good first season in Spanish football. Ansu Fati is the third goalscorer, part of a revolutionary campaign where he is quietly racking up the good work and steadily eclipsing Coutinho as first choice on the left wing.

On to Atletico Madrid at home, a fixture for which I select Gerard Pique thanks to the accumulation of Skriniar’s bookings making him suspended at just the wrong moment. This is your moment to shine, Gerry – channel the spirit of Per Mertesacker in the cup final. Elsewhere, Champions League ties are being concluded. Liverpool put six past Porto to advance, while Manchester United squeeze beyond Lazio, courtesy of Bruno Fernandes’s goal. PSG demolish Napoli. Real Madrid rely on penalties to complete an even tie of the titans against Bayern. Lewandowski misses one for the visitors.

All this is far more exciting than the Camp Nou match, one that promises much but instead delivers a 0-0 draw between two teams that cancel each other out. Getting past Jan Oblak is the football equivalent of conquering Mount Everest. It’s very hard. By the end we’re reduced to ten and operating defensively when Tammy Abraham is tackled by Christensen and needs to be removed from the field. We’ve made all our substitutions by this point and can’t do much but lick our wounds. Tammy’s injury is a bad one. It’s a twisted ankle, which is worth about a month in treatment. This is especially bad news as he is now going to be missing for the same length of time as Lionel Messi, the player he was brought in to compensate for. Talking of whom, we could have done with the Little God here badly. Someone who might have brought an element of individual magic, who cares to the extent that he raises his game decisively. What a miss that guy is.

With Chelsea on the horizon, I use the home game against relegation threatened Getafe to make the changes. Umtiti, Pique, Puig, Coutinho and Pedro are all selected. Regular starters like Skriniar and Griezmann get to watch from the bench. They witness, as I do, possibly our most leaden of first halves, one in which the visitors take complete control and go ahead through Carlos Fernandez, a lead they look in no danger of losing. We produce next to nothing. It’s terrible. Needless to say, the crockery starts flying at half-time. Puig is removed for being the baddest of a bad bunch, with my eye on the likes of Coutinho, who’s been rubbish but at least has the excuse that he’s just returned from injury. Not that it washes far with me – mate, you’re paid hundreds of thousands per week, do better! And we do. Pedri scores a brace from the right wing after the break, Coutinho rousing himself from his torpor to provide an assist, as we eventually pull through with a 2-1 win. Hector Bellerin is lost for three weeks after taking a boot to the groin, an awful tackle that does the rounds on YouTube. We could use his abilities at right-back – his loss guts me.

For the trip to Chelsea, we are without Bellerin (groin, three weeks), Messi (hip, three weeks) and Abraham (ankle, two weeks). Sergi Roberto picked up an innocuous training injury ahead of Getafe and is nursed back into the starting line-up for this one. We can at last reintroduce Dembele back into the side, albeit on the subs bench. After this we have Sevilla at the weekend, and then two weeks off for internationals, during which time I hope to have most of my first team (close to) back to full fitness. I wonder if we will be still in the Champions League by this stage.

Understandably, I feel, we play a conservative game in Londinium, all too aware that Barcelona’s past efforts to play open, fluid football in situations that don’t justify it have cost us in the past. Chelsea are good, as good we are really, but we’re capable of cancelling them out. Sergi Roberto plays the game of his life in nullifying the threat of Pulisic, and we play a high line effectively so that when Werner scores in the first half it’s the clearest of offside shouts. After the break, Harrington Kane nets from close range to put us in front. From a break, the home team equalise through Luis Suarez, an exercise in sheer pace as he leaves my defenders for dust before rasping his shot beyond ter Stegen. But 1-1 is a result I would more than accept, and we are safely through. For once, there are no fresh injuries to report, which comes as an additional bonus.

The draw for the Champions League Quarter-Final will pair us with a good team, no matter the number of the ball that drops. We avoid any more English clubs, and will instead face Internazionale, which considering the high standards is about as kind as the lottery could be to us. If we advance beyond them it will be one of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain in the Semi. I’m not sure which of the two I would least like to play. In the other half, Manchester City take on Liverpool, and Lyon will have the considerable task of prevailing against Manchester United.

If ever you have wondered what happened to former Premier League players like Eric Bailly, Luka Milivojevic, James Milner and Willian, then look no further than the Sevilla first team. All four veterans line up against us at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan for our pre-international break clash. The opposition worry me. They’re better than their ninth place suggests, and Real are winning their games right now so we need to remain as clear of them as we can. Harrington Kane does the business here, scoring twice to gift the points in our laps. Yussuf Polusen makes a reply fairly late to make the situation less comfortable, but we do enough to hold them off and claim a 2-1 win.

Not the most confident performance you’ll see from us, and I appreciate that right now I’m using the same players over and over, risking injuries, but we have retained our seven-point lead and that’s what matters. I hope the players get a rest. April looks titanic; nine matches to work through, including Valencia and two games against the white half of Madrid (the scarier half), along with Inter Milan.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: February 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

A month of six fixtures, potentially seven if we make it to the Semi-Final of the Spanish Cup, February features the return of the Champions League, in which we will be taking on Chelsea. Of the league ties, an away day at Athletic Bilbao, who are in fifth place, looks like being the hardest, however we don’t have to play any of Spain’s really big shots again until March, and the aim by that stage is to build on our commanding lead in the division.

We’re away to Lugo in the cup. The second division side, based in Galicia, are newly promoted after being relegated in 2022, and while they take to the field in Atletico Madrid colours that’s where the similarity ends. They aren’t that good, and even with something of a scratch eleven giving Abraham and Grimaldo an early playing opportunity, fielding Puig and transfer-listed Umtiti, we have far too much for them, running out 3-1 winners. The goal against, a marvellous strike from Xabier Dominguez, riles me a little because at Napoli we could shut up shop with ease whereas Barca continually pay the price for their attacking football. I guess that’s the difference. At the San Paolo our default mentality was positive, which made us a bit more conservative and defensively responsible, whereas Barca are like ‘fuck all that’ and just go for it. All the same, a double from Ousmane Dembele and Florentino Luis’s screamer see us safely through. Tammy Abraham misses a penalty in an overall showing that’s less than emphatic. The semi pitches us against Athletic Bilbao. In the other half of the draw, Levante will take on Real Madrid. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to see where this is heading.

On our travels again at the weekend, we’re at Girona, who showcase former Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani. He’s annoying in the sense that he’s done well everywhere apart from at the Riverside, which maybe says more about us than him, though I couldn’t possibly comment further than that. Stuani’s been deadly in the cup but is yet to hit the back of the net during any of his league appearances, and that proud record continues here. My experiment of fielding Antoine Griezmann on the right (not that brave – he’s a natural here) pays off in style, as a player who struggled for goals up front scores a superb hat-trick, giving Antonio Luna at left-back the sort of game that will produce nightmares. Florentino Luis finds the net again. Of the rest, I’m really impressed with Bennacer, who puts in a powerful performance from central midfield, and Kane’s intelligent hold-up and selfless play in attack really helps us out. Alfredo Ortuno gets a late consolation to finish a 4-1 rout. It’s their solitary shot of the match.

Valencia and Atletico Madrid both lose (to Espanyol and Levante respectively) to increase the gap. Real put two past Sevilla to become our main challengers. They’re a full ten points begin, though their match in hand makes it more like seven.

Athletic Bilbao await in the Spanish Cup Semi-Final, to be played at Real’s Santiago Bernabeu. A healthy crowd of more than 81,000 turn up for this one, welcomed by a storm of hail, which makes playing conditions difficult. I’m anticipating a difficult contest here. The Lions showcase some players I’ve heard of, from difficult to beat keeper Unai Simon, captain and star forward Raul Garcia, and Inaki Williams, a tricky winger who operates on the right. Sure enough, the match is an even affair. Defensively we’re tight where it counts, keeping out the attacking forays by Nicolas Serrano, whilst at the other end Tammy Abraham fires an early effort against the post before finally putting us in front when he converts Dembele’s fine assist. A great moment for a striker who hasn’t scored in his ten appearances before this one. There is a cost to our win. Dembele stubs his toe and will miss the Leganes match. Coutinho’s injury, a pulled calf muscle that he incurs in the first half, pretty much ends his February. Fortunately for us, Pedri – who’s been unavailable for a couple of weeks courtesy of a virus – is available again.

With a sense of inevitability, we will face Real Madrid in the Final. The venue has been pre-selected, but the good news for us is that it will take place at the Camp Nou. For the record, our thirty-one Cup wins make us the competition’s most successful participant, but against Real in the showpiece we pretty much share out the victories. It’ll take place in the middle of April.

At the weekend it’s first against last with the visit of Leganes. They’ve just sacked their manager, Albert Celades, and we are fairly sure that we will get to take on a side that’s in both real trouble and a sense of disarray. With nearly a week after this until our next fixture there’s the possibility that this will allow us to inflict some pain, and that’s just what we do in a 7-0 home win. 88,890 supporters are delighted with an Antoine Griezmann hat-trick, a brace from Harrington Kane and further goals by Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets as we rack up the shots. Leganes have a couple of opportunities to reply, but Juan Munoz has struggled in front of goal for good reasons and makes a mess of his two chances. Puig and Umtiti play for us here. Pedri comes on for the last thirty minutes to improve his match fitness, and the game produces the sort of dream result that I could only hope for.

We’re back at Athletic Bilbao, taking on a side that is sitting pretty in fourth place and taking advantage of a downturn in form by Valencia to ease themselves into a Champions League spot. For all their gifts, we’re a side of match winners and we go on to show it when Milan Skriniar loops his header over Simon from Griezmann’s corner to put us ahead. That’s the only goal of a game that descends into fouling from the visitors. This pays off for them when Dembele comes on for the last half-hour and takes on a crunching challenge by Berenguer. This leaves the winger with a thigh strain and an absence of three weeks. Thanks, Athletic Club. Without the Little God for the foreseeable future, our options on the wings are thinning quickly.

A poll amongst Manchester United fans shows that 70% are in favour if signing Frenkie de Jong. In all honesty, if they want to cough up a big figure for the Dutch midfielder then I will listen to it. I don’t think he has been especially impressive for us, suggesting to me that his future may be back in defensive midfield rather than playing centrally. Elsewhere, the news flashes through that we have signed Ramos! No, don’t worry; Real’s thuggish legend is retiring at the end of the season, and instead we have agreed a £5.5 million deal for San Lorenzo’s 17 year old winger, Ariel Ramos. A consistent and quick performer, the right-sided flanker is absolutely one for the future, but it could be a good one.

Espanyol hold Real Madrid 3-3 in what could turn out to be a crucial result. We are now eleven points clear in La Liga. Chelsea are next for us, the first leg to be played at home in what is tipped to be a cagey, low scoring affair. Key new signings for Frank Lampard’s Premier League set-up, sitting in second place, are left-back Theo Hernandez, Gianluca Mancini in central defence, and strikers Divock Origi and Luis Suarez (not that one), with Franck Kessie offering steel in midfield. A reminder here that we are expected to reach the final. Chelsea are difficult opposition, but then who isn’t by this stage? Elsewhere, there have been wins for Napoli, Bayern and Porto (the latter downing Liverpool 2-0), but all the ties are wide open. I’m genuinely nervous about who we will face if we prevail against the Blues.

As it turns out, the home tie produces a relatively straightforward 3-0 victory. I have to be careful about any triumphalism. Barca are notoriously gash on the road in their continental adventures, so a big win at home is a guarantee of nothing, yet this display encourages me that we may yet meet the board’s requirements for the competition. Harrington Kane separates the teams with the sort of excellent, first half goal that reminds me why we pay him so well. It’s the kind of athletic strike that not many people would even consider attempting, but it completely defies Livakovic and that’s what matters. After the break, Kessie is dismissed for a second yellow and that allows us to grab two more – Pau Torres from a corner kick, and later Kane’s second from the penalty spot. Harrington is an easy match ball winner, yet Griezmann also excels from his new berth on the right wing, and defensively we are rock solid. It’s not often that I can say this.

The month ends with a visit to culinary capital Real San Sebastian. Lodged in mid-table despite promising much more, they’ve sacked Julen Lopetegui and replaced him with Erik ten Hag by the time we arrive. Their new broom, much like Lopetegui, was an international manager previously, finishing his stint in less controversial circumstances when Holland’s 1-0 defeat to Jamaica at the World Cup prompted his resignation. I think we all would, right? Still, he’s a good one and he proves it here when he organises a stiff rearguard defence to hold us to 1-1. In truth it’s a lazy performance from the Barca boys, who suggest that they expect to turn up and be gifted the points, and are punished as a consequence. Martin Zubimendi fires them in front early, a position that remains in place until the second half, when Oyarzabal is red carded for an offence that most people would consider to be worth a yellow only. It’s the fillip we need, as Antoine Griezmann goes on to produce a late equaliser. On the downside, Pedri and Moriba stand out here as especially terrible, both players suggesting that much to learn they still have. Definitely a case of two points dropped within the overall context of regaining the league title.

Still, it doesn’t make so much difference. Our rivals are just as capable of choking, which leaves our commanding lead in La Liga pretty much intact. We’ll be up against Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou in March, a critical game that we can afford to draw rather than win, though clearly better than a sharing of the points would be ideal. There’s the return leg against Chelsea to come, along with three further league games.

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 – April 2023: Eddie’s Back

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.

You know how I have spent many recent posts expressing my frustrations about Eddie Salcedo? Just as I’m thinking of replacing him in the side at the end of the season he scores four goals during a single match. The victims are Middlesbrough, visitors to Pride Park at the weekend as Liverpool are beating Chelsea elsewhere. Seeing them overcome the considerable challenge of Unai Emery’s Londoners it’s clear we need to sustain the margin we’ve built up in the Premier League, especially as we’re off the Stamford Bridge in midweek.

Boro are the perfect opposition for us. Fourteenth in the table, five points clear of the drop zone but with more hopeless cases between themselves and the bottom three, they aren’t in truth very good and we should have enough in the tank to overcome their challenge. We welcome them to an inevitably soaking Pride Park and go ahead in the seventh minute when a Wilson corner is headed in by Salcedo at the near post. Poor defending by Dael Fry, Boro’s best centre-back, who is absolutely defied by Eddie for movement and in jumping for the ball. Salcedo’s twenty-first minute goal is even more spectacular. It’s another Wilson corner. This one is aimed deeper, the Italian dashing into a wall of three Boro players and rising above them all to once again head beyond Lecomte.

Eddie gets his third shortly before the break. A shot at goal by Max Willian hits the post and the ball stops dead on the wet turf. Former Derby defender Perr Schuurs is nearest and has the task of clearing it as far as humanly possible, but he’s slow to react and Salcedo sneaks in again, slotting his shot across the goalmouth and in at the far corner. The striker’s fourth is claimed straight after the whistle blows for the second half. Frimpong sends in a cross and he’s there to fire home, Schuurs on coverage and looking entirely lost. Just as I’m thinking that all the ill-will and curses I have sent in Salcedo’s direction have been misplaced, he has to go off with what turns out to be a tight Achilles. Fortunately the layoff is considered to be worth a day or two’s worth of treatment only, but it would be typical of him to have his best match in a Rams shirt and then get himself injured.

4-0 is an emphatic scoreline, and obviously everyone’s delighted. Chelsea‘s defeat means that they now can’t catch us in the league. Carrying eighty points in the bank, we are unable to finish any lower than third and that brings with it a guarantee of Champions League qualification. As a consequence the Derby board hangs me upside down in leg irons for a meeting in which they outline my budgets for the new season. We now have £2.2 million per week to splash out on wages, along with a transfer budget of £78.8 million. That’s a serious amount of money, and I look forward to working out where to spend it. A right winger and left-back are the priority positions. Eddie’s exploits and the recovery of Esposito might have stayed my hand where drafting in a centre-forward is concerned, but there may be a consideration towards finding a new left-footed centre-back to alternate with Reece Oxford. As ever, matching my requirements with who’s available will present the usual quandary.

Burnley and West Ham both guarantee promotion from the Championship as they have only one match left to play. The playoffs will be a mash-up betwixt Sheffield United, Watford, Leeds and Crystal Palace. Aside from the Peacocks all these sides are recently relegated outfits, so for once I’m hoping that they do it, even though it’s been fun to watch Sean Dyche‘s boys fail to meet their potential.

The night before the Chelsea game I watch Liverpool take on Barca in the Champions League. It isn’t pretty. Played in Catalonia, the first leg sees a 4-0 wipe-out for the Catalans. Two goals apiece for Mbappe and Griezmann and the usual defensive solidity of Van Dijk brought low as he’s named as the centre-back most culpable for their poor showing.

This also means that Pool are stacking up the fixtures. They have to play away again two evenings later when they go to Norwich. How they can be anything other than fatigued for that one is anybody’s guess, but who cares, right? We’re at Stamford Bridge. I’ll take a draw here very happily. We won this fixture last season at a time when we were building towards an unlikely title tilt that went away just as quickly as it arrived. This time we’d love to win again, and on this occasion to continue our march to the top.

Unai Emery is under pressure to get results at the Bridge. His Blues are in a Champions League place, but their own title challenge has vanished and their place in the top four is under threat. It isn’t what old Moneybags would be hoping for, I’m sure, especially after another season of heavy spending (£230 million). Worse still is the persistent rumour that Lautaro Martinez could be spirited away to Old Trafford. As the league’s leading scorer both for this campaign and the last, the Argentinian is a totemic influence and it looks bad when it appears he might be hoping to go elsewhere.

It’s raining – again! – in London. We take the lead in the first minute when Ihattaren is robbed of possession. The ball is threaded back to Hughes, who hits it long to the penalty area where Eddie Salcedo is in line with the Chelsea defenders and weaves himself clear. As Colwill and Ampadu try to surround him the Italian places an accurate shot that crosses Kepa’s body and flies into the bottom corner.

This is good, but now we have to prepare for the best part of an entire match where we will weather the blue-shirted storm. And that is exactly what we get. Our outlook becomes increasingly defensive as the home team do everything they can to beat us. We rack up fouls, take on three yellow cards, attack sparingly, look for gaps, hold on to the ball even if there’s little we can do with it but retain possession and catch our breath… It is anything but beautiful football as we see out the time, frustrating the Blues, throwing bodies in their way and very occasionally relying on Jack Butland to pull off another worldie, as he has to when Martinez pinches the ball from Oxford and finds himself with only the keeper to beat. Jackie steels himself, gets a fingertip to the shot and tips it over the bar. A corner, but that’s okay. Not conceding is the only thing that matters.

We know we’ve got away with it when Chelsea leave gaps wide enough for us to get in some late shots. Moriba hits one that goes so narrowly close. It’s fine. As long as the ball is at the opposite end of the pitch to our goal I am happy.

The whistle for full-time blows, and we’ve beaten the Blues. Eddie wins the match ball for generating its solitary goal, while Hughes and Butland come in for justified praise after producing two battling performances, but in reality this is a victory for our defending. Derby have set a new team record of not conceding a goal in seven straight games. Since beating Liverpool 3-2 at the beginning of April, nothing has got through while we have won seven straight, five of those by a single goal. That’s absolutely cool with me.

The table above includes the situation after Norwich have pulled off a shock 1-0 victory over Liverpool the following evening. When I look at the exhausted Pool players struggling off the pitch at the end I can see that simple tiredness has killed off their challenge. Had we stayed in the Champions League then this might have been us. Two home games follow. The opposition are Southampton and then Brighton, and if we have anything about ourselves then we’ll beat them both, indeed we will need to with May containing an away day at Arsenal and taking on a rejuvenated Manchester City at home. The magic number now is 91. That’s the number of points we need to accumulate in order to clinch the league, regardless of what anyone else does. It feels as though we are very nearly there.

Derby FM20 – December 2022: Welcome to Part Two

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.

By the time the World Cup draws to a close, I have my full squad back and everyone gets to celebrate Christmas by doing it a day early. We have our first match on Boxing Day so while you lot are over-stuffing yourselves on roast beef and York Fruits we’re training in preparation for the visit of Chelsea. Only two Rams are unavailable at this point. Adam Hlozek has been out for a few weeks with a back strain. He’s nearly recovered but we won’t risk him yet. Max Lowe has spent most of the break suffering from sprained knee ligaments, the consequence of a freak incident involving something that happened during an intense FIFA session. Don’t ask.

Before things resume, I’m dragged kicking and screaming before Mr Morris in the Pride Park Star Chamber. He has already authorised a rise in my wage budget, which wasn’t strictly necessary, and now he demands to know if I want to increase the team’s target for the season. At the moment all they’re asking for is a top-half finish, which seems unambitious for a team that is sitting in first place. I agree to upscale our outlook to qualifying for the Europa League, which comes with a less exciting increase in available monies than I’d hoped for. We now have a weekly wage budget of £2,126,980, which places us in a rather competitive position at this level. It also leaves nearly five hundred grand of wriggle room in the figures, so whilst I can’t go out and get Messi I could afford to offer some meaty salaries if I so choose. The transfer budget increases a little also, to just under nine million, though of course I have the capacity to juggle things around and increase it if the right transfer target comes along.

And he would have to very much be Mr Right. Though I have a few niggles over some players’ futures and can clearly see areas I’d like to strengthen, there’s less and less squad movement that I would wish to enact. A high quality right winger maybe. Perhaps look at the long-term futures of Scott McKenna and Patrick Roberts, two players who seem to be falling behind the general upswing of development within the group. But there’s nothing I need to do right here, right now…

Or is there? The Chelsea game hints at one massive gap in the side, one I have created myself, which is the absence of older, experienced players. We’ve got by with the league’s youngest squad so far, with Jack Butland and Will Hughes standing out as rare instances of Rams who are over 25 years old, but this one is a prime instance of when we could have used the steady hand of someone who’s seen it all before. I think back to Kevin Stoger, his exploits with Austria at the World Cup, how cheaply we let him leave to open up space for a much younger, English model, and I wonder if I made the right decision.

The Blues show up with their usual swagger. They showcase Lautaro Martinez, who’s developing into the division’s most potent marksman. Against them, we have a ground full of supporters, wintry temperatures and gale force winds, along with the BT Sport cameras, which are here to capture a top of the table confrontation. They get a spectacular.

The visitors are ahead after eight minutes. A sweeping move into our area, during which they pass our ranks like they aren’t there, ends with Pulisic sending in a cross that Martinez slips behind McKenna to tap into the net. I’m torn between blaming the Scot and feeling that it was just one of those fifty-fifty opportunities where the Argentinian got the better of his defender. Five minutes later and we’re level. This is good work from us, forcing our way back into the action when Rudiger concedes a free-kick just outside the area after bringing down Esposito. Harry Wilson steps up to take it, and curls his effort beyond Kepa. We then take control for the rest of the half. Not long before the half-time whistle, Pellegrini surges forward and hits a cross into the box. Esposito has Rudiger all over him and the ball is cleared, but only as far as Ademola Lookman, slicing his effort along the ground and beyond the keeper, who’s already fallen to the turf in what looks like confusion.

All we need to do now is hold on. We have the beating of Chelsea, so a balanced and disciplined approach is required to kill the game. Needless to say, we last two minutes into the second half before conceding. This time it’s Christian Pulisic, who has the beating of Pellegrini when he heads in from Theo Hernandez’s pinpoint cross. Poor from Luca, and we’re equally at fault in the sheer amount of space we hand over to the French wing-back. Back on to the attack we go then, which results in a comedy goal when Rudiger, under pressure from two forwards, passes back to Kepa. The keeper panics, hits his clearance almost instinctively and Lookman is about three yards in front of him, connecting with the ball to nod it home. The most expensive goalkeeper in the Premier League, ladies and gentlemen. We put up the barricades, trying to see out the remaining minutes with time wastage and keeping men behind the ball. It doesn’t work. In the eighty-ninth minute, another Theo cross is launched into the area. Despite supposed coverage from both Tosin and McKenna, Martinez is there to barrel in the equaliser from close range.

3-3 then, hardly a terrible result and certainly an entertaining one for the masses. All the same, I should be disappointed. United go to Newcastle and win 2-0. Liverpool down Arsenal, and as a consequence we have dropped to third place. That’s the standard at the top of the division. Give way at all and suddenly you’re off the pace. Try as I might, however, I can’t be hard on the boys. It was riveting to-and-fro stuff, a pulsating barnstormer of a welcome back to domestic football, and as far as I’m concerned a more experienced player or two might have been able to keep us ahead. But we don’t have such a guy, so being forced to a draw is on me ultimately.

Several days later and we’re entertaining Preston North End in the FA Cup Third Round. Memories of our defeat at this stage last season should be motivation enough for us to get the win, and in the rain of an end of December fixture we do what must be done. This one must go down as the Eddie Salcedo Show. He scores two, the first a tidy bit of individual skill as he works the ball around four comparatively static defenders before hitting the back of the net; the second comes from the penalty spot. The Italian spends the rest of the game trying everything he can to bag a hat-trick, but all he has to show for his efforts are two disallowed goals for offside. Scott McKenna volleys in a Patrick Roberts corner, and then the winger turns scorer when he collects Pelegrini’s cross and beats Earl to find the near corner.

The 4-0 win we produce is a clear sign of Derby’s superiority, our bullying of a League One team. We rack up twenty-nine shots in total, restricting PNE to scraps. Salcedo is an easy Man of the Match winner, while Roberts does very well from the right wing. This may very well be Demarai Gray’s last game for us. With Max Willian due to arrive within the next few days I have the option to extend his loan period and I pitch him in here to help make up my mind. As it is Demi does all he can to ensure that it won’t be an issue. He’s poor, wayward and wasteful, amidst a sea of Rams who really put on a show to exihibit their talents. Maybe he was never very interested in staying… Either way, his time here is at an end.

The Fourth Round draw sees our ball pulled out second. We’ll be playing this one away from home, a trip to the North-South divide to contemplate when we face Watford, who are still a Championship set-up. They were relegated just as we were going up, so I think this might be my first competitive meeting with the Hornets and that, as they say, makes it one to tick off the bucket list.

Derby FM20 – March 2022: Getting the Blues

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.

This year’s cohort of youth candidates are revealed to me. My first instincts are supported by Darren Wassall’s summary that it isn’t a very strong group – no Josh Kirk types this year, some who can’t even face in the right direction when I’m talking to them. I like the look of John Vasey, a 16 year old striker hailing from Grimsby who has an athlete’s burst of pace, but I wouldn’t expect the 2022 vintage to turn out to be especially memorable. A shame; you might think that the club’s investment in the Academy and in youth recruitment might end up being worth something. Sadly not the case.

Despite a certain amount of hype building around Ademola Lookman‘s credentials as an England international, the only Ram selected by Gareth Southgate is Jack Butland. Bogle joins Laird in the Under-21s, but there’s still no place within the Seniors for Ade, or for that matter Ronaldo Vieira (at the top of the player ratings chart), Reece Oxford and Will Hughes, all of whom have played themselves into contention. What more can they do? As I suspect, is this the curse of playing for an ‘unfancied’ team? Certainly, if any of these boys were performing at the same levels for Manchester United, they would be a shoo-in for their call-ups. Elsewhere, in addition to our usual suspects Harry Wilson is picked for Wales, and rightly so based on his recent form.

It was chucking down in Genoa when we turned up for the Sampdoria game, and it seems only right to welcome them to England with much the same conditions. The lousy weather has no effect on the number of supporters who turn up for the match, another full house for a tie we’re tipped to win. Ranieri lines La Samp up the same way as in the home leg. I do some swapsies, introducing Lopez to a side containing players who might not normally expect to get a regular game. Hughes is on the bench for this one because I don’t want to ruin even someone as hardly and enduring as my captain by pitching him in again and again.

After some early exchanges, in which we pick up a couple of needless bookings and are forced to sub off Maxime Lopez – four minutes into the game, suffering a tight calf that will keep him out briefly – we go in front through vice-captain Scott McKenna. Chirivella’s corner is cleared, but only to Vieira, who spots the Scot on the right of the penalty area, totally unmarked, and able to produce a fast volley that beats Satalino. Just before the break, we get a penalty when Pellistri fells Ojo clumsily in the box. A cheap one to give away; the winger wasn’t through on goal but the tackle is meaty and frustrated. Eddie Salcedo makes good on his error in the first leg, sending the keeper the wrong way.

Ivan Perisic pulls one back on the hour mark, all his years of experience being brought to bear when he rises above Laird to head in Mazraoui’s cross. We then fall foul of an issue that could come to blight our European odyssey when McKenna is dismissed after collecting a second yellow. At this point there’s still more than ten minutes to go, and being reduced to ten at least gives me a good reason to make us finish the game defensively. By now, we all feel that we’ve done enough to weather any Sampdoria storm, and the tie finishes with a 2-1 victory on the day, 3-2 in our favour on aggregate.

AZ have beaten Juventus 2-0 in the Netherlands and will face us in the quarter-final. Their two goals have come from a certain Lewis Baker, not a face I really expected to see returning to haunt us and a surprise to find one of our own felling a giant like the Italian Old Lady. To my mind, it’s a bit of a pity because taking on Juve is one to tick off the bucket list, AZ less so, but I imagine they have made it this far on merit and need to be respected. If we make it through to the semi we will be up against one of Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, the latter here to defend their Europa League title.

While all that was going on Liverpool have lost 3-0 away to Middlesbrough. A big surprise of a result; the Pool clearly didn’t take Jonathan Woodgate’s team seriously enough and paid for it. It says on my profile that Woody and me are close acquaintances, two old Boro boys who are producing good things in our first managerial posts. Normally, these things mean little to me but I like to believe he inspired his team to such an important victory as a personal favour to his mate. Not that they need the points or anything, of course. Boro are doing well enough, sitting in fourteenth and positioned eight points clear of the relegation places.

For some Premier League teams their weekend focus is on the FA Cup, which has reached the quarter final stage. We are going to Chelsea. Stamford Bridge is a ground that holds some element of fear for us. Our 3-0 defeat there at around this time last season was something of a low. We were put in our place by a team that was bigger and better than we were. Nobody likes to feel like they’ve been fooling everyone by putting themselves in a good league position, but that’s exactly how it was. Welcome to the top flight, fool, was how it felt as we were bitch-slapped all the way back to Derby.

Since then, things have changed. We are a better side now than we were then, while Chelsea are a bit poorer. Unai Emery is in charge after Frank Lampard’s sacking. Despite spending more than £250 million on a set of world class stars, including Lautaro Martinez, the Argentinian striker who is contending with his fellow Inter alma mater Esposito to become the division’s top scorer, the fluency has never quite fallen into place for them. They come into this one having not won a single game since mid-February, which is putting them outside the top seven, and perhaps they’re missing sold off perennials like Jorginho and Azpilicueta more than they care to admit. All the same, Martinez is a forward straight out of the top drawer, and on a wet Sunday afternoon in west London they are able to put out a strong side. Their attacking midfield three of Thauvin, Loftus-Cheek and McNeil is full of bruising potential. Milinkovic-Savic and Theo Hernandez are their main supply lines. Needless to say, we aim to spend the game defending against them.

The first half is cagey and indecisive. Last time at the Bridge they used this period to score a decisive knock-out, putting three past Montipo as they stormed our ramparts with continual assaults. Not so now, as they dominate the attacking areas but fail to get anything beyond Tosin and Oxford, even though we are toothless in forward areas as Tomori handles Lookman’s forays with aplomb, and Esposito is suffering from one or his quieter outings.

Strangely enough though, this contest starts to feel like one we can prevail. Harry Wilson finds a breakthrough on the hour mark, shooting from Pedraza’s cross as Theo is forced to look after Esposito and giving the winger time and space to line up his effort. Chelsea take around quarter of an hour to fashion an equaliser. They do this when Martinez catches Tosin dwelling on the ball. Robbing him, the forward swoops forward and is easily good enough to dummy Butland before putting a low shot beyond him. He does the same thing again shortly after, but this time the keeper has learned from his wiles and saves his effort. And then it happens. Adarabioyo spots Adam Hlozek in line with the Chelsea defenders and lofts a long pass up to him. The Czech, on for Esposito, has pace to spare, beats offside, jet-heels beyond his markers and beats Kepa at his near post.

Somehow, we’ve come through and won the game. All of a sudden it feels as though we are no longer fighting for a Champions League finish but the actual title itself. For the first time we are top of the table. Sure we’ve taken advantage of Liverpool and Spurs playing in the FA Cup, but the former’s defeat against Boro has allowed us to sail beyond them. Dare we dream?

Derby FM20 – November 2021: Frank’s Nadir

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.

The main talking point ahead of our home game against Chelsea is the news of Frank Lampard‘s falling out with N’Golo Kante. By all accounts, the French midfielder and Blues star has completely lost faith in Fat Frank and is demanding a move away, and worse still is that the dressing room at Stamford Bridge is split on their reactions to this. It’s a headache the manager doesn’t need, indeed the potential for this drama to turn into a crisis is the sort of nightmare scenario that can have us all pussy-footing around the players to keep our pampered princelings happy. No doubt much of it is down to Chelsea’s poor start to the season, the sort of combustible nonsense that can uniquely derail this team (remember when it went downhill under Mourinho?), and I have a horrible feeling that it will only end with Lamps being asked to leave. Looking at the job security of Premier League managers (a pleasure as I am rated as Untouchable), Frankie boy joins David Moyes and Chris Wilder as being in an insecure position. Only Roberto Martinez, struggling at Southampton, is considered to be more precariously placed.

This adds spice to an enterprising summer of activity at the Bridge, where Chelsea secured the fourth biggest transfer of the window when they acquired Lautaro Martinez for £103 million. That this titanic bit of business ranks only fourth shows just how crazy the world of player trafficking has become. Mbappe’s move to Barcelona was the largest, setting them back £157 million. Second was Mo Salah’s £123 million switch to PSG, and then there was Manchester City’s capture of Harrington Kane, which set them back one hundred and seven million big ones. Chelsea whacked a further £72 million in Milan’s direction and came back with Theo Hernandez, while also recruiting Florian Thauvin and Dwight McNeil for the more conservative fees of £58 million and £24.5 million respectively. A stunning summer’s work, enhancing a squad that was already world class with a cool quarter of a billion’s worth of spending. Some funds were recouped with the sales of Kurt Zouma (PSG, £33.5m), Jorginho (Inter, £30m) and Azpilicueta (PSG again, £28m).

The result is a squad that should have the muscle to compete with anyone. A hard working line-up, with goalscoring potency ribboning throughout their ranks, and working out who to cover is a Sudoku-like conundrum. Obviously Martinez, but their attacking midfield three of Thauvin, Van de Beek and Hudson-Odoi is about as good as it gets, and behind them lie Milinkovic-Savic and Kante. According to the scouting report they aren’t good at marking, and they don’t like through balls, so they are open to being scored against and the possibility is that this fixture could feature a lot of goals.

More bizarre still is the news that we are strong 4-7 favourites for this one. Our good league form, coupled with Chelsea in disarray, puts us in the driving seat. Naturally enough all I can see is a banana skin in the waiting. At least the international break has produced no additional injuries, meaning that we are missing only Pereira (broken arm, out for up to three weeks) and Pavon (suspended for three English matches), and these are surmountable losses. We’re playing on Sunday, entertaining the TV masses, so we get to watch much of the rest of the division play their games, no scorelines as dumb as the 10-1 shellacking that Manchester United produced against Southampton recently. Indeed, Brighton beat them 2-1 in one of the weekend’s more surprising scorelines. The Seagulls take their chances and Rashford misses a penalty, which means a win over Chelsea will leapfrog us above United in the table.

We set up principally to keep the Blues’ attacking potency under wraps. Our midfield three features Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira, as I want us to build an unsurpassable wall in the centre of the field, and by and large this is what I get. We score early, when a spell of attacking pressure finds Hudson-Odoi faffing around on the ball by their goal; Sebastiano Esposito pinches it and just has to poke it over the line to claim the strike. It’s the definition of a poacher’s goal, and it’s undone entirely minutes later when Laird pushes Van de Beek in our box for a softly conceded penalty. Martinez takes it, about as sure a choice as they could get, but his shot hits the post and we get to breathe again, and this amounts to the sum total of their scoring chances.

As suggested by their in-fighting and league position, Chelsea’s morale is through the floor. There can be no other explanation for the ease of our victory, an incident-free second half in which we play with a balanced mentality and prevent them from doing anything further. As it is the opportunities for us to add to our account are there, but Esposito heads an easy chance over the bar and Wilson shoots wide.

For us, it’s a fifth straight win in the league, putting us in fourth place and opening a five-point gap to Everton, who lost 2-0 to Newcastle on Saturday. As far as Chelsea are concerned, the consequences are severe as Frank Lampard is dismissed. Clearly, beating us was an ‘or else’ situation for him, and he’s gone. Whilst I have no wish to manage Chelsea (some of those star players, on the other hand…) it would be nice to be in the conversation as someone they’d consider. I might not have Frank’s Blues background, but I’ve done better with the team he used to manage and I am currently guiding them to far higher in the table than the one from which he’s just been relieved. But no, the usual names are in the mix – Deschamps, Spalletti, Amorim – and I suspect most of them are busy putting as much distance between themselves and the poisoned chalice of the Chelsea job as quickly as possible.

In midweek we are away to Mainz 05. They say pride comes before a fall, and this fixture represents an abject lesson for us in taking our opposition seriously and maintaining discipline. We lose 2-1, get two men sent off, concede a penalty, incur six bookings and the scoreline is only as tight as it looks because VAR rules out two German goals. We’re crap, completely lacking in control and ever off the pace, which is surprising when we consider Mainz are decent but far from the most sparkling opposition we’ll face. As it is, Hlozek’s early goal is soon nullified by a penalty from Kownacki when he’s brought down in the box by Chirivella. Oztunali makes it 2-1 when he scores from a Bogle error, and just to compound on a wretched comeback game Jayden is dismissed in the second half when he goes in two-footed on Churlinov. Lowe goes soon after, sent off after picking up a second yellow, and any chance of a comeback is wiped away as we can only play a defensive game from then on and hope Mainz don’t overrun us.

One from which to move on. I give the lads a dressing down, and later in the week I praise them for their contribution overall. At this stage I can let the bad result go, consider it to be a blip, but the number of bookings and sendings off we’re receiving is an issue. As a tackling side we are average within the Premier League, hardly among the best but not shocking either, and it isn’t as though we are wanting for pace (we’re rated fifth), so there should be no excuses. Luckily, the other Group F match sees Gent pull off an unlikely 3-0 win over Valencia, so we have guaranteed first place. A good thing – this match was a horror show, the sort of unbelievable viewing that had me barking at the team and wondering just what had happened to my top five side. It’s fortunate that it doesn’t matter, that we’ve been let off.

Derby FM20 – April 2021: The Quest for Sixth Place

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.

Despite the title of this piece we would like to finish in a higher league place than sixth, but it’s important that we outlast Everton and clinch a European spot. Derby’s form has put us in these higher reaches for the entirety of the campaign, so to blow it now, at this late stage, would be crushing. The situation is simple. Both the Toffees and ourselves have played 33 games. Five remain. We’re ten points in front so two victories will seal the deal no matter what the self-appointed People’s Club manage to do. Their next tie is against Liverpool, so everything might be settled long before the close of hostilities.

We’ve two away fixtures before April’s end. This update will cover them both, a double-header as we now want to get the campaign wrapped up and look to the challenges of the future. Our Head of Sports Science George Bentley sends me reports screaming about the high injury risk to a number of players, for the most part those who are starting regularly. In an ideal world we will be rotating players on a regular basis. Two matches per week is a killer for maintaining fitness, but the other concern is the enormous dip in quality beyond our first eleven. I’ve been rambling on about transfer targets in each position for a reason. The need for two good players in every role, especially if we have ambitions to play on the continental stage, is going to be of paramount importance.

Our list of liggers, relics of the Championship team we once were and those who just don’t have a future, is beginning to crystallise. Anyone with less than three stars of current ability – Bruno, Carson, Jatta, Lord Rooney – is going to be shipped out in one way or another. Two of the players mentioned are approaching the end of their contracts, and they will not be renewed. I’m interested in signing permanently only two of our five loanees. Pedraza looks nailed on to stay. Esposito is more of a wishlist acquisition than a dead cert, but we’ll chance our arm with him, whereas Smith Rowe, Hernandez and Benassi are approaching the end of the line.

I’m beginning to reach the limits of my patience with Adam Hlozek. The dream was to make the teenager a focal point in the squad, to drive forward with him in it, hopefully for years, but petulance and a string of petty grievances are beginning to undermine his qualities. His effort in training is dipping, and this is impacting negatively on his abilities. The Czech simply isn’t a good team player, which is ruining my ideal partnership on the right of him and Bogle, and when it comes down to it the full-back’s future is here. Come what may, my loyalties are with the 20 year old from Reading, who’s been a part of the team since before I started and has worked hard to push his standards up to the level required. It makes me sad to think of ending my association with Hlozek. He has everything he needs to be a fine asset. He’s also a brat, and I’ve no place in my team for such nonsense.

It’s raining and mild in the north-east as we take on Newcastle United, stuck in lower mid-table, probably in possession of two many points to be sucked into the relegation battle and looking to a better future under new ownership. We bested them back in November, and given their fresh outlook perhaps the days when they were content just to prevail are coming to an end. A good thing too, I suggest, apart from in the context of our head to heads. The Magpies ought to be too crucial a concern to be doing so poorly, overseen by a Chairman who uses them to suck out all the profits and minimise any sporting joy. They’re now managed by Lee Johnson, who has steadily been improving their fortunes after an awful start to the season. From 22 August through to 19 December they won no games and picked up three measly points from a potential forty-five. If I produced that sort of run I’d be sacked, and in due course Steve Bruce was rightly handed his cards.

Things are getting better for them, of that there’s no doubt, and they have players who we need to respect. Allan Saint-Maxmin is a tricky French winger, a rare bright spot who has scored eleven goals and made seven assists. He’s their main creative outlet, and also worth fearing are two on-loan ballers – Barca’s Alex Collado and Marko Pjaca, from Zebre.  On the downside  are remnants from the old regime, the warm bodies who have little future at the club. I’m astonished that they still find a place for Andy Carroll, the rangy streak of piss who once promised a lot yet delivered an injury-inflicted and unreliable set of performances. He’s out currently, with a torn hamstring, which sounds about right.

Newcastle start brightly and take the lead in the fifth minute. A corner for them is cleared with little confidence, and ends comically when Ivan’s attempted hoof away bounces off the head of Pjaca and rebounds into the back of our net. They’re threatening to blow us away at this point, but we slowly haul ourselves back into contention. By the end of the half it’s 1-1. A rare Hlozek foray sees the Czech attempt to beat Dubravka from wide on the right. It should be a savable effort and yet the keeper struggles to hold onto the soggy ball and palms it into the near corner for an embarrassing own goal. A piledriver from Ademola Lookman on the hour mark nudges us in front, and then the Magpies search for the rest of the allotted time for an equaliser. I think they’ve finally done it when Collado scores in injury time, but the goal is ruled out for an infringement. So we take the 2-1 victory, a very valuable win that in places is nothing less than a smash and grab.

We don’t need to be at our best to beat the Geordies, but the same isn’t true when it comes to the weekend fixture at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea, or should that be Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, are in third place, on the same number of points as we are but with two games in hand. They have a Champions League semi against Bayern to plan for, and with their crush of matches still to play we’re hopeful that fatigue will be an issue. They’re without former Derby favourite Mason Mount, who’s unavailable courtesy of a nasty torn hamstring. We have to field Josh Maja over Esposito, the Italian having incurred a tight Achilles in training that indicates the best recipe is to drop him from the match day squad entirely.

There’s a lot to fear in this side. Quality runs through their line-up, from Hakim Ziyech and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic representing the best of overseas acquisitions to the homegrown likes of Tammy Abraham. Ross Barkley is playing. He’s transfer-listed and available for £11 million. Better still is his slight interest in playing for us, a factor only undermined by his likely demand for a six-figure weekly salary, for which we would expect the moon on a stick. His failure to deliver exactly that is why he’s in this position in the first place.

On the whole we have excelled against the division’s better sides. I don’t know if they have taken us on expecting an easy day out and getting stunned on the break, but we beat Chelsea earlier in the term and we have had similar successes elsewhere. Not today. Here, we’re playing a confident and prestigious group that knows exactly what’s on the line if they don’t perform as well as they can. We actually have a goal ruled out for offside in the game’s first few minutes, a Maja strike that represents his one significant contribution to the action. Otherwise the first half is all Chelsea. Ziyech, Zouma and Rudiger score as they stroll to a 3-0 lead. I’m forced to remove Stoger due to a possible injury, which fortunately turns out to be nothing worse than a bruise. Will Hughes has his most wretched performance since his return to Derby. Nothing goes right for him. By the second half, we are using a central pairing of Chirivella and Baker, with Bielik pushed into defensive midfield. I’ve seen no other option than to crouch back into a very cautious set-up, limit the damage, and luckily for us the home side sense that there’s nothing left to fear and are content to play out the rest of the time, saving their efforts for the challenges to come.

All told it’s a poor capitulation of a performance, albeit against a team that is stratospherically better than we are. Perhaps the real issue is that we have performed above expectations and ordinarily results like this one are entirely what we should have coming to us. Within the bigger picture it isn’t a massive problem. Everton lose to Liverpool and hand us the guarantee of at least a sixth place finish, which is all we wanted to achieve. Mathematically we can no longer win the title outright, but that was never really on the cards. A Champions League place may still be on the line though. Arsenal draw against Villa and United secure a bravely contested 2-2 with their cross-city rivals. Results elsewhere have conspired to hand us a golden opportunity to achieve a top four placing. The matter is ultimately out of our hands, and yet all we can do now is keep plugging away and see how the chips fall.

Derby FM20 – August 2020: Jatta Attacks

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 League Cup tie against Crewe Alexandra is a good excuse to pitch in some of the team’s second stringers. Lezzerini plays in goal for the first time, and also enjoying their competitive Derby debuts are Ivan at right-back and Bruno in central defence. Mike te Wierik has incurred a minor injury in training so won’t be able to take part. Bogle is suspended for this one and so is Jatta, a consequence of his sending off against Manchester United in last season’s game. Lord Rooney has another week to go before he’s back to fitness so Chirivella starts in defensive midfield, behind a central pairing of Baker and Stendera. Marriott starts up front. Smith Rowe and Hlozek play on the wings.

I don’t know any Crewe players, however I’m charmed by the fact their goalkeeper, Will Jaaskelainen, is the son of Bolton’s Jussi. The first half is turgid, especially after our recent heroics in the league. The Railwaymen get in one early shot that Lezzerini smothers effectively enough. Otherwise it’s all us, just as it should be, but the breakthrough refuses to arrive. Marriott has a couple of shots that whistle wide. Smith Rowe goes off with a suspected knock. I bollock the boys at half-time and introduce Esposito and Lookman.

The changes – along with a shift in our mentality to ‘Very Attacking’ – work. Hlozek’s been quiet so far, but has a wonderful exchange with Esposito when the striker collects a ball from him as he’s rounding the keeper, leaving him to slot in from close range. On 80 minutes, Billy Sass-Davies is dismissed for a bad challenge on Chirivella. Stendera takes the free kick and curls in a beauty that beats everyone to make it 2-0. The midfielder’s had a very good game and earns the match ball for this crowning effort.

The continental connection has spared our blushes. An occasionally sluggish encounter has turned out okay, and I’m pleased to see signs of clinical incisiveness from the previously injured Esposito. Apparently he’s considered to be the second coming of Roberto Bettega, a legendary striker for Juventus from the 1970s. We could work with that, don’t you think? As for Stendera, he’s someone I have used sparingly in the league. The advice of the coaches – that he is essentially a Championship player – has put me off a bit, however he has high potential levels and perhaps he will get to see more action.

We learn that our opponents in the Third Round will be Sheffield United and that the tie is going to be played at Bramall Lane.

For some reason I thought the transfer window had closed just before the season’s start. It turns out transactions are still in full flow until the end of the month, and the sort of big money deals to give Sky Sports’s Jim White palpitations are happening all the time. Raheem Sterling has moved to Barcelona in an arrangement worth £77 million. Manchester United have added to their defensive ranks by signing Barca’s Clement Lenglet for £62 million.

But that’s all in another galaxy and we have the little matter of Chelsea at home for which to prepare. Hopefully this opposition will attract more people to Pride Park than the 15,133 brave souls who watched us struggle to overcome mighty Crewe. Frank Lampard‘s lot need little introduction on these pages. Runners up in the league last season, they achieved second place while working under a transfer ban, which they have learned from by making two big summer signings. Hakim Ziyech is a £35.5m acquisition from Ajax, and the Londoners have spent really big bucks on Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, because of course they need the additional strength in a midfield unit that already contains Kante, Kovacic, Jorginho, Mount and Loftus-Cheek.

This will be a tough one, more difficult even than Tottenham, though they do come into it carrying injuries. Hudson-Odoi, Mount and Bakayoko are all unavailable, and Azpilicueta is a doubt. In classic Chelsea fashion half the squad is transfer-listed – Barkley, Batshuayi, Loftus-Cheek and Zappacosta are all hoping other sides will show an interest in them. Each one is of course priced outside our purchasing range, not to much for the requested fee but rather the gold-plated contracts on which they currently sit. I would love to have Ruben Loftus-Cheek on our books, for instance, but even as a squad rotation player he is picking up £150k per week at Stamford Bridge, which is around three times more than the highest tier wage we could possibly offer.

As we all know, Fat Frank moved from Derby to pick up the Chelsea managerial reins. A popular figure at Pride Park, he’s listed amongst our favoured personnel, as am I having *cough* achieved more than he did while he was here, but there were also successful loan spells for Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori that should guarantee them a warm welcome from our supporters. within our ranks, Lewis Baker is a product of the Chelsea Academy, one of their many players who was shunted out to other clubs for season after season as he could never quite make it into their first team. I don’t suppose their fans think much of Lewis, a footnote within their lengthy roll-call of departees, but he’s been great for us and it’s possible he will get an opportunity to prove his worth to them here.

After his fine 45 minutes against Crewe, Esposito has been given the Under-23 match to improve his match fitness. Hernandez returns to the starting line-up. We learn that Bogle’s playing ban extends to a total of three games so he’ll be in the stands for this one. Ivan played well enough in improving his fitness in midweek, so he gets the opportunity to prove me right in selling Andre Wisdom to make room for him.

The real trick with a side like Chelsea is knowing who to look out for, who the main danger man is. With Everton and West Ham the main supply lines could be identified and cut off, but today’s opponents are stuffed with quality players. Early in the match they force Chirivella into making an error, going in too hard on Ziyech, which earns him a booking and limits his effectiveness. They’re so smooth, transitioning with ease and sweeping forward at will. While we appear to be handling Ziyech well enough, this just puts the onus on Pulisic, who forces Lowe to be at his best and even drags Lookman back from focusing on his attacking duties. Fortunately, they’re wasteful in the final third. Their best effort comes from the American. Recycling possession after dealing with our free kick deep in their half, Abraham skips past Bielik with errant ease before picking out Pulisic, who evades McKenna and tries a shot. It goes wide. We’ve held our own well enough. We’ve even had a few shots, only one which can be classed as being on target, but on the whole our fluency just isn’t there. We’re playing with a sense of fear, especially Stoger, ordinarily massive in central midfield but utterly blunted by his personal contest against Kante.

Somehow it remains 0-0 at half-time. There are changes I could make to the line-up right now, but I am remiss about upsetting the balance and resolve to leave it until these are absolutely necessary. It’s a decision I regret straight from kick-off when Chelsea work their way into our half and finish their move with Milinkovic-Savic’s lashed screamer into our net. It’s a wonder goal that Montipo can’t do a thing about, and it’s really upsetting.

At this point it feels as though the floodgates could open at any moment. The visitors are threatening to overwhelm us through sheer virtuosity, and I make my first substitution by bringing Jatta on for the strangely ineffective Hlozek. It’s at times like this that I need to remember the Czech winger is still a kid. Azpilicueta’s attentions at left-back have kept him saddled throughout, and whilst I see him as vastly more skilled than Jatta there’s nothing to lose by making the switch. If Bakery has one thing going for him then it’s an innate sense that the whole of football is lucky to have his presence, and we could use that kind of impish arrogance right now.

In the 61st minute, yet another slick passing exchange is finally broken up with Stoger tackling Kante off the ball deep in our half. Bielik collects and feeds Jatta, who passes wide to Ivan. The full-back sends a long ball on the right flank that loops over Azpilicueta and finds Cucho Hernandez. Making it into the area and evading a challenge from the Spaniard, Hernandez cuts back to Jatta, who launches an instant, clean strike that beats Kepa at the near post.

We’re delighted, but it takes Chelsea three minutes to restore their advantage. This comes from a corner kick that results in a melee at our goalmouth. A chaotic mix of white and blue shirts contest for the ball at close quarters. It seems to take an eternity, but the result is Christensen trickling it over the line. Again, I think we’re done, but Stoger – who has grown in authority – sees it differently. We win a free kick deep in their half, which the Austrian curls beyond the wall and into the net. 2-2.

By this stage it’s anyone’s game. 70 minutes are on the clock when Tomori foils an attacking run by Lookman. The ball slips to Max Lowe, who launches a cross into the area. Jatta is being marked by Azpilicueta but climbs above his man to head in and give us the lead. A stunned Chelsea can only watch as we make it 4-2 in injury time, the most routine of Rams goals as Hernandez connects with Stoger’s corner.

The whole thing has left me breathless, almost delirious in happiness about bucking the odds so completely. The highlights do it no justice, but here they are anyway:

The downside of this one is the six bookings we pick up, which earns us a £25,000 fine from the FA. It’s easy enough to see how we accrued so many; for long passages we were chasing shadows. The Premier League is a massive hike up from the Championship, and sometimes the boys put in their tackles a fraction of a second too late. It’s something we will need to work on and improve.

In the meantime, we enter the international break with the table looking extremely healthy. No one expects us to keep up this level of performance, least of all us. Quite honestly when Chelsea took the lead against us I was ready for the inevitable disappointment of folding to one of the league’s fascist bully boys, like the good little soldiers we are. Except we didn’t. We showed real heart here. This was a massive test, and we passed it not without some hiccoughs along the way but ultimately with aplomb.

Scott McKenna, Adam Hlozek and Krystian Bielik are called up to play for their countries. For me, there’s the chance to take a brief breather, look for any bargains in the closing stages of the transfer window, get through the fortnight’s break and train the players like demons for our visit to Leicester City on 11 September.