Arsenal FM21 – May 2021: A Tale of Three Trophies

Here’s the deal. We have already qualified for the Champions League and thereby met the Arsenal board’s vision for the season. Sir Chips and his buddies are happy. Now though, we are in the driving seat for the title with none of the big teams left to face. That’s the good part. The issue is the sheer number of fixtures remaining. Seven league games, an FA Cup final against Leicester City, also the second leg of our Europa League tie with United and then a possible final in which to complete the campaign. A total of ten playing occasions between now and the end. A two-day gap between matches on some occasions. Everything is there to play for, but with so much football still to play might we burn out before the end?

2 May – we’re off to Elland Road to take on Leeds United, possibly the trickiest of the remaining league games. On paper, at least. Under Bielsa, the Whites looked as though they were heading towards good things again, but he’s left for Manchester City and they now have Mircea Lucescu in charge. The former Dynamo Kyiv manager favours a defensive approach, which plays into our favour as we’re invited to attack them again and again. Partey puts us ahead early, and we add two more through Vinicius and Aubameyang in the second half when the game becomes more open. The home side are restricted to a single off-target shot. It’s almost the perfect game from us.

4 May – Fulham at home. A heavily rotated line-up is named for what ought to be a more straightforward challenge, and another 3-0 victory. Strikes from Demiral and Lacazette bisect Willian’s penalty, as the Cottagers set up to put men behind the ball and limit the damage, and they happily concede possession also. Their attacking pair of Lookman and Mitrovic are made to look remote and cut off as our defenders keep them entirely under wraps. Jack Wilshere has a great game for us in midfield, teasing Fulham endlessly with his passing, which maybe says as much about the opposition as it does Jackie.

6 May – at the Emirates again, and this time we’re entertaining Manchester United in what should be a Europa League tie where the hard work has already been done. We are three ahead at the break thanks to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Pepe and Aubameyang. In the second half, United suddenly remember what’s on the line and take the game to us. Diallo scores a couple of quick goals as the visitors pile on the pressure, and we spend the closing stages defending our lead. It’s far too late for them, as we win 5-2 on aggregate and look forward to the final at the Energa Gdansk in Poland. Our opponents will be yet another Premier League side, the so far disappointing Manchester City. We have a great record against them this season.

8 May – a trip to the resolutely mid-table Southampton. This ought to be a comfortable game, but as it is the home side defend like dogs to keep us out. Jan Bednarek plays the game of his life at the back and Fraser Forster deals with everything we throw at him. On their wing Theo Walcott has that whiff of ‘old player scoring’ as he forces Kolasinac to defend hard and often. Somehow the Serb fails to get a booking in this one, which normally suggests he hasn’t done a lot. An otherwise bad-tempered game threatens to dribble out towards a 0-0 draw, but in injury time the Ox gets a break, sails past Walker-Peters and crosses unselfishly for Auba, who only has to slot the ball home and never cocks up chances of this sort. Phew.

11 May – we’re hosting Brighton and Hove Albion. This lot beat us earlier in the season and we owe them. Bellerin scores early and late strikes from Aubameyang (from the penalty spot) and Willian seal the deal, but this isn’t straightforward. Brighton produce more work for our defence to do than some of the more illustrious units we’ve played, and Lacazette does precisely nothing before Auba comes on to at least give us a spark in attack. Saka and Willock are the Gunner heroes who spark our 3-0 victory here; great to see homegrown players being invested in our fortunes.

13 May – at home again; this time it’s Everton. I name a strong line-up against a good team and one that sets out to keep us at bay. For a long time it works, but two second half goals from Pepe hand us a 2-0 victory. Otherwise, we’re wasteful in attack. We have twenty-five shots against a Toffees side that frankly looks as though they are already on their holidays. Pickford does his acrobatic thing however, and the win becomes harder fought than it really needs to be.

15 May – one more win will hand the league title to us, but before that there’s the little matter of the FA Cup final. We’re taking on Leicester City, a good opponent but it could have been a lot harder and they do us a favour in the twelfth minute when Ndidi is red carded for the sort of challenge on Pepe that wouldn’t look out of place in a Sam Peckinpah Western. His dismissal defines the match. Pepe and Aubameyang score to win the contest 2-0. Willock has one ruled out for an arguable offside, and Partey plays a titanic game in defensive midfield. The Foxes offer little. By the end it’s Ndidi – the one player who looked committed and up for a fight, albeit exhibiting it in a dangerous way – who comes out of it with any credit.

19 May – with the league crown on the line we’re off on our longest journey within England to face Newcastle United at the Sports Direct Arena. Potentially facing relegation, the Barcodes have to see themselves over the line but this isn’t the time to do it. They fail to register a shot on target as we run out 2-0 winners. Partey scores early. Lacazette adds a second late and otherwise we stop the opposition from causing any problems for Leno in goal. Xhaka plays, safely anonymously, while Pepe and Vinicius earn the plaudits for keeping the Geordies busy in defence. We’ve won the Premier League!

23 May – suddenly there’s nothing left to play for in the league finale at Leicester City. I resolve to save my stars for the Europa League final and field a second eleven, and it’s perhaps the irrelevance of this one coupled with sheer fatigue that allows the Foxes to rack up a 3-2 win. The side we beat at Wembley puts in the sort of performance that reminds us they should be taken seriously. Cengiz Under and a wonderful Tielemans shot put them 2-0 up. Maitland-Niles finds a response, but Vardinho’s effort places them back into a commanding lead. Chambers heads in a Nelson corner late in the game, and we think we’ve equalised deep in injury time via Vinicius, only for the goal to be ruled out for what is revealed to be a clear offside. Ah well. I can’t be too upset after the heroics we have produced recently.

26 May – I’ve saved the stars for this, the Europa League final against Bielsa’s Manchester City in Poland. It’s a frustrating occasion. We tally an xG of 1.26 against the opposition’s 0.29, but they find the breakthrough when Fernandinho nods them in front, and it’s a lead they never give up. For our part, the silky football gives way to niggly fouls and bookings. Pepe tries to produce the spark for us, but Xhaka is predictably awful and at least on this occasion he isn’t the only one as Tierney is given the run-around ceaselessly by Raheem Sterling. It’s an underwhelming end to the campaign, but I am able to put it down to tiredness. The boys have spilled their life blood for the cause in May, raised their game again and again, and there’s always a price to pay. Perhaps the leggy performance here, when there’s so little left in the tank, is a simple reflection of our fatigue levels.

All the same, if I was offered the league and FA Cup at the start of the year then I would absolutely have taken them. Arsenal are a work in progress. We’re a mixture of good players, plucky youngsters and some who are ripe for the culling – looking at you, Granit Xhaka – and to finish with these honours, not to mention two additional cup final appearances, represents a fantastic season. Bernd Leno has played in each game. That’s a total of sixty-five appearances, crammed in between mid-September and now. There’s been a lot to do, and as the players slink off to play in a European international tournament or off to Dubai, they are left with my order that they will have to do it all over again in the new campaign.

Arsenal FM21 – January 2021: Good Fortune at Goodison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – April 2023: Another Serving of Scouse

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

To date we have enjoyed taking on Everton very much. Unlike their illustrious neighbours the blue half of Liverpool have been very obliging to our cause, rolling over helpfully on request. They’re in eighth place, as capable of dealing out judgement as they are of being dealt in turn, and for the life of me I can’t see what the issue is considering their squad is perfectly fine. If they do have a weakness then it’s one that we are very familiar with, which is their low goalscoring rate. Dominic Calvert-Lewin has put away eleven strikes in the league, but beyond him the pickings are slim. Jose Juan Macias – who they start with against us – has never risen beyond single figures since his £27 million signing, and Dominic Solanke is up for sale, unwanted and available at the knockdown price of £6 million. The 25 year old is on our longlist of transfer targets, present despite the heavy caveat that he’s just as goal-shy as anyone we possess – I’m not sure that he’s the answer. To any question.

Behind their forwards Thomas Frank can call on a great set of players. Jarrod Bowen, Hakan Calhanoglu and Richarlison could all walk into this side and enhance us. Andre Gomes and Nabil Fekir are cracking attacking midfielders, nor are they short of talent in defence where the likes of Mason Holgate and Lucas Digne represent a considerable wall. There’s potency, no doubt there, but they lack any level of consistency. We’re expecting to win against them.

On the day before we play Manchester United and Liverpool both draw. The former’s 0-0 at Wolves isn’t necessarily anything to be ashamed about, but it’s Swansea who go to Anfield and hold mighty Liverpool 1-1, featuring a goalkeeping masterclass from Emiliano Martinez. Even after Ashley Westwood has been dismissed early in the second half there’s no breakthrough, which suggests Klopp’s globetrotters can have a real problem when they’re taking on sides that they’re heavily tipped to beat. We are able to go five points clear if we beat the Toffees, and that should be more than enough incentive for us to perform.

It is obviously wet in Derby on Sunday afternoon. We’re playing on this day because the opposition is still contesting the Europa League. They’ve put four past Real San Sebastian in the first leg of the Quarter-Final, which is good for them but also for us as they are showing signs of match fatigue when they take the field here. Max Lowe continues to feature in our defence as Luca Pellegrini is handed a further two-match ban after his sending off in the Pool game. Will Hughes is back in the line-up, alongside Bellingham, whilst Eddie Salcedo is persevered with. I have to believe that he’ll come good eventually, though this run of games is essentially him on trial. If he picks up his form then he can stay; otherwise he’ll be gone at the end of the campaign.

Confident of victory we tear into the visitors from the start. They’re a good side but beatable, and our pressure results in a penalty on the half-hour mark when Mola shoves Hughes over in the area during a free-kick routine. A cheap one to give away. Gabriel Barbosa steps up to take it, and though he does little else in the game he’s competent enough to send the otherwise solid Jed Steer the wrong way before finding the net. Just before the break a Chirivella corner is headed out by Richarlison but then gets headed back towards goal by Will Hughes. It isn’t an especially strong effort, however its bounce somehow defies Steer and goes in.

Everton show more life after a Frank rollicking in the dressing room. To no avail, it turns out, as the only incident of note is the lower leg injury to Macias that simultaneously puts him out for a week and introduces Calvert-Lewin, who we have to marshal more earnestly. We have a known problem when it comes to scoring goals, but so do the opposition who struggle to make much of an impression. 2-0 is the final score, which is just fine. Salcedo has a quiet game, not even an offside goal on this occasion, and where I’m concerned this moves him a step closer to the exit.

There’s a two-day break before we open the gates again to welcome Wolverhampton Wanderers. Our main rivals are involved in the Champions League so it’s an opportunity to move further out of sight at the top of the table. Though we should prevail at home, Marcelo Bielsa brings a quick and dangerous squad that I think is better than its mid-table berth. There are some players in this side who I would love to have command over. My desire to sign Adama Traore has abated somewhat, however I’d reshuffle my midfield to accommodate Lewis Cook, who’s not available and therefore a remote prospect, while Todd Cantwell has been put up for sale and might become a bigger target if Ademola Lookman ends up going.

Due to the lack of time we are much changed for their visit. Tosin and Bogle are back in the eleven, two players who are on other teams’ wanted lists – Spurs are eyeing the tall centre-back, while Jayden is an object of unrequited lust for Wolves and Boro. We aren’t selling him, and that’s all there is to it. Well, maybe if you offer a ridiculous sum of money…

The game is a low-key affair, almost certainly because you can’t play two matches so close together and retain a full-blooded pace. The visitors force a couple of quick reactions out of Butland, and Hlozek makes a nuisance of himself in the Wolves area, producing good saves from Juan Musso, who will end up being named Man of the Match mainly due to the absence of obvious nominees elsewhere.

I believe that this one will peter out to a 0-0 draw. We’ve broadly cancelled each other out and are playing a fractious, bad-tempered game in the traditional rain. Wolves target Lowe as the main focus of their attacking pressure. This makes sense. He’s the weak link in our defence; as always though Max is at least competent and deals with Rui Peixoto on their right wing well enough. We’re focusing on the same flank. Max Willian versus Jonny carries far more potential for us than the pitched battle between Barbosa and Vinagre, pitting our diffident winger against one of the better left-backs out there. Our goal comes from the left, a comedy of errors when Max Willian’s cross is turned beyond his own  keeper by hulking German defender Christoph Zimmermann. As soon as it’s scored, we spend the remaining twenty-five minutes reducing our attacking focus, dealing with everything they throw at us. Tosin is forced off with a minor knee injury, but Bielik is a capable alternative, and Moriba is sacrificed for Chirivella as we see the time out in solid fashion.

Not one for the highlights reel then, but we had a job to do and we’ve done it. The eight points margin we hoped to carve out has been achieved as requested, though Liverpool now have a catch-up game so in reality the cushion isn’t quite as plump as it appears. Still, good times. We are well on course to beat our Premier League points record of 79, and we cannot now finish any lower than fifth. One more victory will place us beyond Arsenal’s reach, guaranteeing Champions League football in 2023/24, and the golden points total is 94. If we hit that amount then it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.

Derby FM20 – February/March 2023: Goal Scoring Allergy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – October 2022: Points Please!

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.

Strong winds howl around Pride Park on the Wednesday evening when we entertain Paris-Saint Germain. It’s like facing a Celebrity Eleven, so I’m hoping that the conditions act as a kind of equaliser. Can they produce much in the way of silky football when the likes of Azpilicueta, Grimaldo, Salah, Sandro and Milinkovic-Savic are playing through a gale force? We bask in the impossible luxury of having already qualified, so there’s an extent to which the game doesn’t matter. That said, we would like to top the group, and knocking PSG out brings the bonus of not having to face them again later in the competition. With all their experience of playing in the Champions League, I imagine they will rediscover their mojo further down the line, when all that quality can be brought to bear. To date, they have drawn three and lost to Porto. I don’t think I’m lapsing into hyperbole when I suggest they have a bit of work still to do, and if I was Thomas Tuchel I’d be looking to take apart the team that stands in their way tonight.

Their manager can’t select Neymar, who’s out with broken ribs, and as he’s the highest rated player in Ligue 1 that must come as a bonus for us. I could insert some old joke about him thrashing about on the field after incurring the injury for several minutes, everyone thinking oh come on you big fanny, just get up, before they realise something might actually be wrong with him, but I like to believe I’m better than that… In his absence they are forced to field Alex Sandro on the left wing, a heartbreaking change, I’m sure you’ll agree. Salah and Icardi are operating as their strike partnership, which is a little bit terrifying, and Saul joins Milinkovic-Savic as the string pullers in midfield.

From the videos of their previous European antics this season, and the experience of having already faced them in Paris, they give the impression of being the sort of team that turns up to grounds, holds out their hand and declares Points please!, in the voice of Queenie from Blackadder II. That’s fair to an extent. They are very, very good, and having that attitude has worked for them in the domestic league, where they have claimed honour after honour. But perhaps it’s this same level of entitlement that puts them behind here. Adam Hlozek comes away with the ball after a routine clearance in our half, runs the entire length of the pitch and puts in a cross, where Ademola Lookman is pretty much wide open to place his headed shot beyond Pickford. Where was the marking from Azpilicueta? Being PSG it takes them around three minutes to equalise, Mo Salah scoring the most prosaic of goals after claiming Sandro’s cross. They can do this any time they like, only they don’t, reverting to playing within themselves and allowing us to force them to a draw.

Elsewhere, Lazio go to Portugal and win 1-0, which makes the last round of matches kind of fascinating in determining who will make it through. Despite not winning a game, it could still be the French royalty who prevail. The chances are we will use a lesser eleven when we go to Rome in our final group game as we are now confirmed as winners and it’s an irrelevance.

That match will come in a week’s time. Before that we have to travel to Merseyside and face Everton, who are currently anchored in tenth, surely that most ‘Everton’ of positions for them. Our opposition finished thirteenth in 2021/22, disappointing after scoring a succession of top tens, and they will be hoping for better with a serious number of squad changes. Whipping boy Luca Zidane is out, having been transferred to Ajax, and goalkeeping duties have reverted to Zan-Luk Leban, a 19 year old Slovenian who can’t possibly represent an improvement unless he’s imbued with the same qualities and spirit as Donnarumma. Dominic Solanke and Nabil Fekir have been added to generate some additional firepower, but the one I’m really envious of is Declan Rice, signed for £36 million in the wake of West Ham’s relegation. The defensive midfielder might be labouring under the traditional tag of English Hammers youngsters that he’s going to be the answer to all questions (see Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, etc), but still he’s a hell of a player and there’s part of me that would love to have him strutting his stuff for us.

We have a good record against the Toffees, and we come into this one as favourites. This tag always raises my hackles. Despite everything they’re a pretty good set-up. Andre Gomes is capable of machinating victory for them, and though the odds are on our side I would view escaping from Goodison with a draw as a perfectly respectable outcome. I do get it though. Everton remain this monolithic team, always present in the top flight, far too talented to be sucked into the relegation battle and yet never capable of challenging for honours. When you come into a season basically knowing in advance how it’s going to work out for you then where’s the fun in that?

Thomas Frank’s side are clearly up for the fight. They come out all guns blazing, attempting to overwhelm us, and they get their reward in the fifth minute when Richarlison heads in from close range. This is annoying. We know we have to mark the Brazilian closely, and yet when he’s at his most threatening our defence simply melts away.

At this point I think we may just crumble. Despite fielding a strong side we aren’t getting much in terms of traction. The home side are pressing well, never allowing us to get comfortable on the ball. Their fatal flaw is in thinking with eighty-five minutes left that it’s okay to sit back and defend their lead. That allows us to push forward more, and eventually we force an equaliser in the twenty-ninth minute of play. This is one of our less artful goals. Lookman attempts a cross from the left, under pressure from the enterprising Guga. His effort finds Gomes only. All the Portuguese has to do is get rid of the ball; instead he opts to try and play it out of defence, which allows Lookman to steal in and battle with him for possession. Guga gets involved in the melee. So does Mina, and finally Sebastiano Esposito, who in predatory fashion pokes the loose ball over Leban’s line. If a goal can ever claim to have been bullied into creation then this is just that moment. It’s not pretty, but who cares?

As contests go this is a pretty even affair. We’re well matched, both able to put out strong defences that can deal with ninety percent of what’s thrown at them. Everton’s job is to protect their keeper, a clear weak link in the chain, and in Mina, Holgate, Digne and man of the match Guga they have defenders who work hard and stay alert. The latter does a good job of preventing the opportunistic Lookman from causing any further damage against his old team. On the other flank, Digne plays well to stop either Wilson or Hlozek having anything better than ‘well, they were there’ type games. The match eventually cancels itself out into a middling 1-1 draw, satisfying perhaps for neither side but overall probably the correct and fairest result.

Liverpool go to Swansea and unleash clobbering time to produce a crisp 4-0 victory. There are wins also for Chelsea and United, so our lead in the division is cut to a single point. Pity Manchester City, if you will. Their 2-0 downing at the hands of Leicester has them in nineteenth place, and surely places Jose on notice.

Esposito’s goal against Everton triggers another clause in his transfer from Inter and squeezes an extra three million out of us. The value of his transfer now stands at £41 million overall, and it could rise further still if he puts in another three appearances for the Azzuri.

Two more matches remain before we break up for the World Cup. Lazio will host our final Champions League group match before we in turn welcome Swansea City to Pride Park. We haven’t played the latter since both sides were in the Championship, and we produced a pair of 1-0 victories to aid the Rams’ promotion cause.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Everton Two Times

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.

A lot to get through in this post. I have sinned a bit by playing more of the game than I should have, so this update will be a bumper effort that takes in three matches and much of the January transfer window. Incidentally, as I am updating at a feverish pace right now, basically because I want to see how it all turns out, I am adding posts well in advance of when they are scheduled to appear. I’m writing this on 4 August, and it’s booked in to be posted towards the end of the month. As a consequence I will be updating on a daily basis until the season is complete. It’s what we all want, isn’t it?

We now have two games against Everton to get out of the way. The first is the slightly important fixture of hosting them in the Premier League, before what I hope will be the formality of the second Carabao Cup leg at Goodison Park. As you know, we lead the tie 4-0, so the game will be a case of holding our nerves and not becoming unstuck (sorry) to the Toffees.

It’s the middle of January, so naturally it’s wet and cold when the visitors arrive in Derby for our Tuesday evening league game. Let’s face it, January’s rotten, isn’t it, especially in the You Kay? They really ought to find a way of suspending us all in hibernation until things get good again. With a full schedule of league fixtures taking place today, there’s no let-up and we can’t allow ourselves to fall behind, not with some gruelling games coming up where we probably will leak valuable points. Everton’s challenge is ebbing by the match. After threatening to enter the race for Europe, they’re now slipping into the bottom half and both scoring and conceding at the rate of about one per game. In short, they’re the same mid-table fodder that they’ve been for some years.

There are no excuses for letting things slip, and we pull through 1-0 in a tense, end-to-end encounter where we just about turn out to have the cutting edge. Wilson wins a first-half penalty when he’s impeded by Bakayoko as he diddles around harmlessly on the ball in their box. It’s a cheap and needless foul to make, and Sebastiano Esposito puts away the spot-kick confidently. After that it’s a case of holding the opposition at arm’s length, most pertinently keeping Andre Gomes under wraps. The Toffees midfielder remains their main creative force, like a crappier Pirlo spraying passes around to the likes of Macias, Calvert-Lewin and Kean, all of whom find fun and interesting ways of turning promising moves into nothing. In fairness we’re solid at the back, while Vieira and Hughes play a good game in midfield, but Gomes probably deserves the match ball for playing so positively, even if the same can’t be said for his teammates.

The weekend is given over to fourth round FA Cup matches. We get to sit it out, and with all the games we’re playing it feels a bit like a reprieve. Our conquerors West Ham are beaten 2-0 at home by Brighton, which feels like an extra slap in the face. The Seagulls will enjoy a south coast Derby when they play Bournemouth in the next round. Currently seventh in the league table, this is turning into a banner season for Brighton, while their opposition are strolling through the challenges presented by the Championship, sitting six points clear of Stoke at the top.

And so we have a week in which to fiddle with our thumbs before we take on Everton again, this time in Liverpool and with a place in the League Cup final at stake. The Toffees are still in that other cup competition, the one we no longer care about and is dead to us, drawing 1-1 against Preston, so they are leggier than we are because Thomas Frank believes not in squad rotation. This doesn’t stop them from taking a first half lead, Bakayoko making up for his error when last we met by heading in a goal from a free kick that we fail to clear well enough. Reece Oxford will have to think about his weak header for some time.

It’s not a disaster to go in at half-time losing. Everton would have to destroy us to overcome the lead we’ve built, and they have reckoned without Adam Hlozek, who leads a second period charge. His first comes from a simple Vieira through-ball, which he guides past Mina before slotting neatly home. Not long later he does it again, Ronaldo supplying a second killer pass and the Czech pretty much ignores Mina in sliding his shot past Zidane. By now the aggregate scoreline is 6-1, and it’s great to have won both legs. The home side are too much on their knees to do a thing to stop us, and a second half’s power play kills off their effort.

A fantastic job well executed. We will take on Manchester United in the Wembley final, after they dispatch Norwich 5-0 to romp through. This is going to take place at the end of February, neatly happening before our journey through the Europa League resumes, and frighteningly marking our second meeting with the red half of Manchester during the month. Because they aren’t quite terrifying enough, Ole adds some extra firepower to his ranks, paying £25 million for PSG’s right-sided midfielder and Russian international Magomed-Shapi Suleimanov, and strengthening his attacking cohorts with Giorgian de Arrascaeta, who was tearing Brazilian football a new hole for Fluminense prior to his £19 million move. They’ve offloaded Daniel James to Southampton in order to free up some space, but the £16 million they rake in via his sale is a speck next to the near £300 million outlay they have impressively lavished on personnel this season.

There’s no arguing with that kind of spending power, the sort that is designed to propel United towards where they want to be and should spin them way beyond our lowly means. I’m after a striker, with Maja gone and Hlozek earmarked for a return to the right wing if Roberts and Wilson don’t work out as the incumbent choices. The initial choice is Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster, who has been made available on loan. Jurgen resists my effort to sneak in a cheeky optional buyout clause and will only consider letting his man go to a team that will treasure him as their first choice forward, which is not in line with my thinking. I go foreign instead, thinking about Esposito and the team that sold him to us, Internazionale. They also have Eddie Salcedo, a 20 year old Italian who can be signed for anything between seven and fourteen million. We bid somewhere in the middle, offering £11.75 million, and then we wait. The Genoese forward looks terrific, not so good as an aerial threat, which is fine, but he’s quick, agile and full of running. We’ve been scouting him for some time, indeed it was tempting when we first signed Esposito to double-dip with Eddie and go in for an Inter job-lot, and if he can be anything like as good as his former Nerazzurri teammate then we will have done well here.

Before the transfer window closes we have another league fixture to fulfil, this time at home to Newcastle United. The Geordies beat us very early in the season, back when we were arguably easy to overcome, yet they are now back in their traditional lower mid-table berth, even under new ownership. Resolving them isn’t difficult – stop Allan Saint-Maximin – but actually effecting it is another thing entirely. The French winger presents a fine attacking force, their one genuine spark, and he’s enjoying his third good year in the north-east. They also face us with Olivier Giroud, on loan from Leicester, in their line-up. Now 35 and bereft of any physical spark, yet still a big unit with great finishing, we will absolutely need to keep an eye on him.

The first half is an absolute snorer. While I order us to attack frequently and get revenge for that beating, the Magpies are smothering our efforts and our front three of Roberts, Lookman and Esposito is doing precisely squat. The only upside is that Newcastle remain happy to bat aside our pushes and do little of their own, content to contain us and return to Newcastle with a shiny new point in their pockets.

After the break, and a half-time telling off, I start switching things around. Ojo and Wilson are introduced, and Adam Hlozek is brought on to continue his rich vein of form. For the away team’s part, Saint-Maximin makes his impact in the best possible way by being sent off after collecting two yellows, a sign of frustration after Bogle has shackled him so well to this point. Hlozek’s first is a simple cross and dispatch that co-stars Ojo, an easy goal that hints at the true calibre of Newcastle. He then nets from Wilson’s nod-down after the winger has picked up Pedraza’s cross, an effort that’s watched appreciatively by four orange shirted defenders. The third comes from the penalty spot, when a free kick is handballed by the luckless Giroud.

Liverpool travel to Chelsea and win 2-0 to declare their title-retaining credentials, but the Manchester derby ends in an indecisive 1-1 result that doesn’t do either party much good, and Spurs can only draw against Leicester. The upshot is that we have advanced to second place, indeed we’re top before the Scousers achieve victory in the later kickoff. We had better enjoy the good times while they last. February sees us go to Anfield for a date with destiny, and there’s also United at the Theatre of Screams to come. All the same, it’s a great record to carry into the remainder of the campaign. The gap to sixth now stands at a yawning nineteen points, and I’m even being asked by the media to comment on Pep Guardiola’s job security at the Etihad, opting for the classic u ok hun? retort as it seems bizarre to me that such a titan of the game could be in any kind of peril.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Out of the Cup

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.

So you’ll remember that we made it all the way to the FA Cup semi-final back in the 2020/21 season? Our run ended when we met Liverpool, who duly bitch-slapped us out of the tournament even though we played with pride and were just facing an infinitely better side. But it was great until then, right? We dared to dream, sprinkled with the magic of the world’s oldest cup competition. Well, you can forget all that this time around. West Ham knock us out at the first time of asking. To make matters worse, they do it without a permanent manager. David Moyes has been sacked and Kevin Keen is in temporary control. Thinking about it, maybe Moyes was part of the reason why the Hammers offered up such easy prey… They join Sheffield United in looking for a new boss as the Blades part ways with Chris Wilder. It isn’t difficult to see why this has happened. Wilder had got his team out of the bottom three and then determined to reverse their good form, losing seven straight before they resolved to seek an alternative in the hot seat. Sacking him makes sense.

Before going to London Stadium, everything seems to be going so well. Pavon and Maja leave. Tosin Adarabioyo agrees terms and signs for us, joining Patrick Roberts as new arrivals at Pride Park. With these boys in the squad our homegrown contingent is up to seventeen; Hlozek, Esposito and Moriba are set to join their ranks once their three years are done. I get the impression that we are definitely growing in terms of overall quality, and my personal reputation within football is on the rise also. The board increase my transfer budget, and even with Tosin drafted in I have nearly £13 million to play with, which will increase should Kevin Stoger get his big money move elsewhere. Mr Morris and his suited bezzies also want to offer me a new contract. This is fantastic news, coming on the back of my first Manager of the Month win for my work in December. It’s all coming up Derby.

Naturally, the happenings during a football match can ruin everything. There’s no reason for me to think that we won’t prevail against the Hammers, in their stupid massive stadium against their ridiculous, ageing players. We won 4-1 here within the last month, and they’re stuck in the Premier League’s lower reaches, flailing about in eighteenth place. They are even refusing to use Lukasz Fabianski, a keeper who struck me as having two of the safer hands in the division.

I think I start to go wrong when our balanced mentality seems to be striking a stalemate, so I shake things up by demanding a great degree of urgency. This produces more attacking effort, but it also opens us up to the counter and that’s exactly what the grateful home side do. Issa Diop finds himself in acres of space when a free-kick is dealt with messily. The Hammers for once move the ball around at pace, and my defenders are all elsewhere when the Frenchman picks up Sanchez’s pass and has the easiest of shots to nose them in front.

By the middle of the second half we’re putting the home side to the sword. We’re having chance after chance, proving profligate in our shooting, and I feel that nothing’s going to happen until midway through the second half. Harry Wilson equalises when he sends his shot from Moriba’s assist underneath the body of the stretching Zoet in West Ham’s goal. It’s a fine goal, really our just rewards and, feeling that the game is switching our way we should keep up the pressure. Big mistake. We probably ought to park the bus and prepare to take the tie back to Pride Park, but we don’t and we pay the price when a late flurry of home team attacks gets its reward. We’re not easy to score against. Haller is robbed when he’s on the ball by our goalline. Vrsaljko is next to try, and he’s dispossessed, but Kolasinac picks things up and finds Albian Ajeti, a transfer listed Swiss striker, who is betwixt Laird and Vallejo and nods the ball under Butland and into the net.

Going out at the first time of asking was not in the script. We’re gutted. The statistics have us on top in just about every category, apart from the one that matters, so there’s nothing to be cheered about going out. Fans of fixture decongestion might have it that we can’t do fantastically in every competition, so perhaps it’s a good thing to lose one of our commitments, but nobody likes ending an FA Cup run before it’s ever really began, and that’s exactly what we have done here.

At least we are still in the Carabao Cup. It’s time for the first leg of our semi-final against the Evertonians. We’re starting at home, so there’s a requirement for us to make a real statement of intent here. If we can take a good result back to Goodison Park then I will be able to shut the door there and steer us through to the Wembley showpiece. Derby County in a cup final? Yes please, Sir.

Patrick Roberts is cup-tied for this game (as is Adarabioyo), so without wishing to overload the pressure it’s on Harry Wilson to produce the goods here. So far he’s been an up and down player, good one week and poor the next, without any identifiable pattern to what makes him tick so I’m never certain which Wilson I’m going to get from game to game. He is of course a Derby favourite, based on the season he once played here when we were still a Championship side and he a fledgling talent at Liverpool. Considered by the coaching staff to be an emerging top flight talent, there’s a sharper onus on him producing the goods than there ever has been previously and I’m convinced he has what it takes to make the grade.

What Harry does against the Toffees is put on the Wilson Show, following superb individual performances by Esposito and Hlozek in recent matches. After a cagey first half in which we dominate but produce no breakthrough he turns on the style, scoring all the goals in what becomes an emphatic 4-0 victory, giving Otavio and Davies evenings to forget as the players assigned to keeping him under wraps. His first comes from an opportunistic launched ball into the area by Pedraza. Wilson is first to it, racing ahead of Ben Davies and poking it into the net from point-blank range. Ten minutes later and he produces a raking volley from the right, which Zidane misses as it sails home. It’s a goal from nothing, after Esposito has been challenged off the ball and it drifts out to where he’s drifting. In added time, the visitors are going all out for their away goal and leaving massive holes for us to exploit. A break sees Stoger lofting the ball out to him. He’s on the halfway line, launches an attack of his own, rides Mina’s challenge, runs into the area and puts it away. Lovely stuff. The last comes from the penalty spot, after Davies is penalised for tackling Vieira from behind in the Everton box.

I don’t want to tempt fate by suggesting that we have already done it. The Toffees can punish anyone, and we will need to be careful when we head over to Merseyside at the end of the month. All the same, we have given ourselves permission to dream of playing in the final, which at the moment looks most likely to be against Manchester United. Playing Norwich at Carrow Road, Marcus Rashford’s first half strike is cancelled out by a late Pukki equaliser. The outcome is to Norwich’s credit, but you have to imagine that back at Old Trafford it will be a straightforward case of the Devils making good on their advantage.

A bittersweet set of cup performances then. One disappointing, the other highly positive. The board are unhappy about being dumped out of the FA Cup before we hit their expectation of making it to the fourth round, which in itself wasn’t asking for a lot, but they claim to be understanding of West Ham gaining an edge over us. Maybe they see things more realistically than I do… Cup exploits are now put back on the shelf. We’re up against Wolves at the weekend, before making one of the trickier journeys that we will need to over the course of the campaign when we travel down to North London to meet Spurs.

Derby FM20 – December 2021: Season’s Beatings

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.

A week off in December ends with the traditional grind of two matches over three days. Wonderful. While you’re tucking into your Christmas dinner and being disappointed by the Doctor Who special we are getting ready for our visit to Everton on Boxing Day.

Such is football however, and while I have the break I do some crunching of the players’ numbers. Here’s how they stack up, showing the figures for those who have made more than five appearances:

What have we learned from this? One clear lesson is that I’m probably right to be selling off Cristian Pavon, and that transfer-listing Kevin Stoger is almost certainly a hasty decision. Admittedly the latter is based on the player’s age (because I am ageist like that) and recouping a decent whack for him while he’s hot, but I am questioning whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s still there, available to you for £22 million with no likely takers,  and if things carry on like this – and with more performances like the commanding effort he puts in against Fulham, more on which below – then I can see him quietly being removed from the list and cuddled closely to sweeten him up. It’s worrying that all four Derby wingers are among the lowest rated of our players. Ademola Lookman is tailing off after what he produced in 2020/21, though most of his good stuff last season happened in its second half. Then there’s the Jayden Bogle factor to consider. Am I putting too much faith in a full-back who ultimately isn’t all that good, especially at this level, just because he’s a young, homegrown player? Just compare his rating against Ethan Laird‘s, an on loan sprite who is doing everything to justify his place in the side…

The game at Goodison is viewed as a clear chance for us to claim victory on the road, but I’m not so convinced. The Toffees overwhelmed us the last time we played them. They need to be taken seriously, Thomas Frank spending their money on some good squad additions like Jarrod Bowen, Otavio and Tiemoue Bakayoko. At the same time, talismanic keeper Jordan Pickford is now a Gunner, and Frank has replaced him with Zinedine’s son, Luca Zidane. Perceived to be a weak link in their line-up, all we need to do is pass the ranks of high class players to test him, which is not as easy as it reads here, whilst also marking Andre Gomes, who remains their strongest bridge to attacking play.

I pick a strong side for this challenge, thinking that I can afford to make changes for Fulham in – sigh – two days time. A freezing Goody Park is well attended, and plays host to something of a low-key affair in which we excel defensively. Everton have a lot of early chances, Calvert-Lewin particularly problematic with his great pace, but Bogle is alert to his wiles and plays a composed and, more importantly, a disciplined game in nullifying his effect. At the other end, Moriba is a busy presence and gets to spark off our best attacking move. Ben Davies is on the ball on their left flank. Moriba cuts all the way across and robs him, then sets off into their half where he picks up Esposito who’s racing into space and evading Mina. The striker rakes a pass across the penalty area, where Ademola Lookman is loitering, and he fires a shot that wriggles into the net beneath Luca’s body.

The goal comes against the run of play and I hope is a reminder to all teams that they need to respect us. We prepare for the Evertonian onslaught, which of course comes, and fervent it is, however we are solid at the back, where Lowe, Bogle, McKenna and Oxford all put in a shift of top quality. We hold them successfully until the eighty-eighth minute, when Otavio’s free-kick is steered home by Moise Kean. But it’s one of those afternoons for the home side. Kean’s about a yard offside, and we survive to savour a hard fought victory.

With the Pavon money banked I decide to reinforce our defensive ranks by placing a bid for City’s Tosin Adarabioyo. An initial fee of £7.5 million is agreed, with further instalments that will make the final transfer worth around £12 million, and City agree to meet £10,750 of his agreed weekly salary. As we are always stretching the limits of the wage budget, this is a welcome clause. We are one of a number of clubs interested in Tosin, and for now he’s sitting on our bid, hoping that someone offering him a bigger pay deal might come along, yet I’m hopeful of getting this one over the line. It seems like a very good deal for a 24 year old centre-back who carries a £25 million value.

It’s wet and cold in Derby as we entertain Fulham. I’ve never lost against them, and I don’t plan to change anything here as I make sweeping changes to my line-up to keep things fresh. Transfer-listed Stoger starts in midfield. There are big bids in for him from Shandong and DL Pro, both in the region of a cool £20 million mark and therefore too good for me to turn down. Otherwise, only Butland, Oxford, Moriba and Wilson from the Everton win keep their places. Rotation is the name of the game. Harry Wilson wears the captain’s armband with Hughes and McKenna on the bench.

We get to play with an attacking mentality, the effort being to exert our superiority from the opening whistle. Sheyi Ojo scores an early opener for us. Wilson’s corner is knocked straight at Rodak in the visitors’ goal by Hlozek, but rebounds to Ojo who just has to angle his shot out of reach and into the net. We then have one disallowed for offside – I agree grudgingly – before Adam Hlozek makes it 2-0. A routine back-pass from Akieme towards Costas is intercepted by the Czech, who races into the area and volleys home. Fulham defenders are struggling to keep up with him. When he wants to be Hlozek is unplayable. He’ll demonstrate this further in due course.

Before the end of the half Mitrovic has nodded one back for the away team. It’s a simple goal, Cavaleiro’s cross and Alek’s goal, made sickening because there are three white shirts surrounding the striker and he still does the business. Perhaps it’s a warning to me that I should at least take the opposition seriously. Then again, maybe not. Even as I drop our intensity levels, one man is determined to stake his own claim to greatness on this pitch. He’s Hlozek. The second period is transformed into his show, the Pride Park pitch his stage. He starts in the sixty-third minute, when he receives Pavon’s nod-down from Ojo’s cross, ignores the administrations of Costas and rifles home. Straight from the ensuing kickoff, Stoger robs the ball from perpetually confidence-free Ben Gibson and runs into the Fulham half. The only player ahead of him is Hlozek, the one defender the luckless Costas. The Czech collects, launches another volley, and it’s 4-1. His fourth and our fifth arises from a failure among the away team to clear their lines. Stoger takes a corner. Oxford picks it up in the box and is crowded out by defenders. Somehow the ball trickles out, as though from a ruck, and there’s Hlozek again to put it away.

By now, the Cottagers are waving white flags, begging for no more punishment, they’re already dead, and we coast on the crest of a 5-1 barnstorming. A highly satisfying afternoon’s work with no weak performances from my boys, though Wilson is fairly ordinary, possibly a consequence of him assuming the captaincy. Hlozek’s four-goal turn makes him an easy choice to receive the match ball. For Fulham, Sergio Akieme is identified as the main culprit, setting the tone with his horrendous mistake in making that erroneous back-pass. Only Mitrovic comes out of it with any credit.

We finish 2021 in a very healthy third place, and we hope to retain it or at least end the season in the top four. Like ourselves, United are sustaining their pressure levels with straight wins over Middlesbrough and Leicester, but City have dropped points after their goalless draw against Arsenal and are now four points behind. The next update is a cup special. January starts with West Ham in the FA Cup, before we play the first leg of our Carabao semi-final when we entertain Everton. It’s a lucky thing that we love the self-appointed Peoples’ Club, as January will see us line up against them on no less than three occasions.

Derby FM20 – January 2021: A Reckoning

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.

We should have the home return against Manchester City next, but that’s been pushed back to early February as our illustrious opposition are still represented in every competition and have a welter of fixtures to play. It’s like trying to book in with an especially in-demand dentist – sorry, City are fully booked for the next few weeks, will 2 February be all right for you? Are you prepared to change the appointment at very short notice?

Naturally we’re in no rush at all to take on the blue shirts again. They are on a world tour of taking on and beating the best teams on the planet. City have won the Club World Championship, beating Sport Club do Recife in Qatar. Ajax await in the Champions League. They will be opposing Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final, are still in the FA Cup and in between all these fixtures have a Premier League crown to defend. How they are getting players fit and motivated for competitions on all fronts is anyone’s guess, and perhaps here’s a clue why we prevailed against them. Derby have the league and the cup to contest, and nothing else. It’s relatively easy for us to produce a fit eleven for each game, but if we do qualify for Europe in 2021 then that’s an entirely fresh welter of ties to plan for. A stronger squad with two good players for each position will be mandatory.

Planning for next season begins here. Without going into any further detail at this stage, I think we will need a goalkeeper, right back, centre back, defensive midfielder, central midfielder, both wings covered and another good forward. That’s eight players to be drafted in as a minimum, not counting the transfer of Maxime Lopez in the summer. We just need to be better, improved across the board, and if possible a number of those new arrivals ought to be English. I send my scouts out to take another look at Jack Butland. He’s an ideal rival for Montipo in goal, and because he’s still with Stoke he could be a relatively cheap acquisition. They’re in League One this season though they’re top right now, so hopefully prising the keeper away to play for a Premier League team should present no real obstacle.

For sure there will be much player movement in the summer, particularly if we can hold on to a place in the division’s top six, now both a staggering and yet very real prospect. Before any of that we still have a season to get out of the way of course, beginning with an FA Cup tie at home against Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls are eighth in the Championship. They’re now managed by Mark Hughes, who’s trying gamely to propel them into the playoff picture, which they really should achieve because it seems incredible that a club this big has been outside the top division for so long. Their main threat comes from Troy Parrott, on loan at Hillsborough and doing better for them than he ever lifted his legs to achieve with us. I found him a vexatious figure, a striker with all the latent talent in the world but too often vanishing from the action. He’s scored eight in 27 for Wednesday, a rather improved return than what he produced for Derby. Perhaps it’s the case that he is better suited to the 4-4-2 set-up as preferred by Sparky.

In any event the match is about as clear-cut as it gets. Within the last year we have become a front-footed Premier League outfit and we play like it, firing 26 shots at Cameron Dawson’s goal with a largely second string side and winning 2-0. They barely get a sniff, indeed their most significant contribution is when Alessio da Cruz gets sent off in the second half for two yellow card offences. Bakery Jatta and Josh Maja are our goalscorers, the latter claiming the match ball for causing the Owls defence constant problems even if on the whole he’s a bit wasteful. There aren’t too many times when he receives such a birthday gift of easy scoring opportunities and fluffs his lines more often than not, but then Maja is playing with something to prove and his adrenaline runs hot. Marco Benassi is on the field for almost the entire game and does well. He provides the assist for Jatta’s goal, which is encouraging. Emile Smith Rowe has his usual show of nothing before he’s removed in the 64th minute. He isn’t someone we’ll miss when his loan term with us finishes. I’m still wrestling with the decision whether to bring Morgan Whittaker back from Millwall. It’s a choice between regular football at the New Den, where he’s excelling, or a bit-part role here, and I have to decide either way before the end of the month.

It’s a safe victory that eases us through to the fifth round, where we will take on either Cardiff City or Preston North End at Pride Park. Unless we play ‘cups for cock-ups’ we should be reaching the quarter-final, which will be an excellent sign of progress. The tie will take place in early March, leaving clear a February schedule that reads (with a shudder) Manchester City at home, before away trips to Spurs and Manchester United, and then we get to entertain Liverpool. By anyone’s standards that’s a rough run of fixtures, though I suppose it gets them out of the way, with only Chelsea left to play from the remaining schedule.

We can only watch as players we have been scouting go elsewhere, a consequence of having zero funds left in the transfer kitty. Jack Harrison goes to Brentford for £5 million. Chelsea seek a relatively cheap back-up goalkeeper when they bid £1.7 million Liverpool’s Loris Karius. Despite memories of that Champions League disaster he would be a good pick for us. Korean outfit Ulsan snap up Nathaniel Chalobah from Watford. I harboured dreams of partnering him up again with Will Hughes for Derby, which alas will now never be. Our only bit of business is the £275,000 sale of Festy Ebosele to Ponferrada. Before agreeing the deal I was advised that the striker would struggle to ever raise his game to anything above League Two standards, so it makes sense, even though my default position is to resist the departure of any Ramlings.

After giving my stars a rest in the Wednesday game they are now being asked to produce the goods in three matches within an eight-day period, before a fortnight’s break in February. The first of these is against Everton at home.  We bested them in our first victory of the season, away at Goodison Park, so spirits are high for this fixture, one in which we once again have to be mindful of Andre Gomes, their spirited midfielder. Added to that is the fact the Toffees played in midweek. We ought to have an edge in terms of fitness. For all that, they’re eighth currently and need to be taken seriously. Whatever our exploits to date, the opposition are a prestigious top flight outfit. We have got to where we are on merit, but the situation can change quickly and on paper the opposition are superior to us, as is so often the case this season.

It’s a freezing cold Derby afternoon, -5 celsius, with light snow, a fell wind, and a semi-frozen playing surface to produce one winter wonderland of a tie. The fans are out in force, which shows a great commitment to cheering on the boys.

Esposito gets in a position to test Pickford straight from kickoff. The shot is dealt with, and that remains our best effort until late in the game. Everton get a grip on the contest and never let go, scything through our defence like butter, raining shots in on Monitpo’s goal, and we have done well to finish the first half goalless. In the second they finish us off. Bazoer beats the keeper with a screamer from outside the box, something a bit special to liven up this dismal afternoon, before Calvert-Lewin heads in Gomes’s crossed ball. For our part, we rarely seem to get going. Maja comes on for Esposito and threatens to worry the Toffees defence with his pace. Smith Rowe has a cameo and does decidedly more with his time than Lookman, though that really isn’t saying much.

We lose 2-0 after one of our more depressing and flat performances. I can’t even single anyone out for particular culpability. As a team we just never got going. We were made to look like a lower division plucky underdog, there for the taking, and we were duly undone. The Toffees were just that bit smoother, readier to press their advantage when we made mistakes, and they ruthlessly controlled midfield. Then there’s the added factor of vengeance. Derby claimed a 2-0 victory at Goodison Park back in August, so perhaps we just had this one coming to us.

One to move on from then, at least I certainly hope it is with such a punishing run to follow in February. It’s a month that could break the season, put us back in our place, and at the time of writing I feel as though we are due a reckoning.

Derby FM20 – August 2020: Stealing Toffees

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 English transfer window might be closed, but that doesn’t stop Manchester United from lodging a £50 million bid with Benfica for Ruben Dias. I can only watch with a mixture of awe and frustration. I have just over three million left in our transfer budget, and our allocation for wages is nearly at its limit, and that’s after I have expanded it so that we are paying close to £760,000 per week in salaries. This is close to double what we were shelling out last season. We have five players who are now earning more than £2 million per year (Lord Rooney, Lookman, Jatta, Hughes, Hlozek), however within the division we have the third lowest budget. Only Brentford and Boro play less than we do, and reportedly Manchester City shell out close to a staggering five million each week!  There’s no real competing with that level of largesse. Neither will this figure go down. The aim is to get Scott Carson off the wage bill as soon as possible. I would rather eat my own vomitus than keep paying Lord Wayne £63k weekly to fund his hair transplant operations, a term that finishes at the end of the season, but it won’t stop further transfer activities from nudging the amount we spend on salaries towards the sky. That’s the reality.

We have a whole week to play around with until our next fixture, which is an away tie at another firmly established top flight outfit, Everton. Their season has started with a 2-2 draw at Bournemouth, Holgate and Gomes getting their goals in a straightforward, even contest. You will recall that I turned down an interview for their manager’s job in the summer. Instead they appointed Thomas Frank, who finished second to Derby as the chief at Brentford and for his achievement was named the Manager of the Year. Some mistake, surely. Apparently he and I are acquaintances. He has a very good opinion of me, which is only right, though it says here that I’m also on very good terms with Sabri Lamouchi, the former Forest manager I wouldn’t have passed urine on had he been discovered writhing on the ground in flames.

Unlike Tottenham, Everton spent more than fifty million on players in the summer. One of their signings, Ben Davies from the aforementioned Spurs, was targeted by us when Jose Mourinho transfer listed him, however he was never on the cards due to his high wages. The Toffees are paying him eighty grand per week to alternate with Lucas Digne at left-back. We can’t come close to matching their spending power, not for a very long time at any rate. Another new arrival, Mexican striker Jose Juan Macias, from Chivas, earns £91k – again, we scouted him, with concerns in the report about his willingness to join. Everton paid £27 million to make him theirs, which places him in a separate universe to the one in which we operate.

More on our level is Flynn Downes, the 21 year old Ipswich midfielder who has put in a transfer request to his manager, Gordon Strachan. We added him to our shortlist some time ago, more on the basis of his potential than what he can produce at this level, and besides the Tractors are demanding a fee in the region of four million.

The draw for the second round of the Carabao Cup could hardly be kinder to us. We’ll be entertaining Crewe Alexandra of League Two, so the board’s preferred minimum target of Round Three should be intact, providing we don’t find a way to mess things up.

Derby are contesting the Monday night fixture against Everton, so we get to watch as the rest of the division plays round two, and by the time we go on to the Goodison Park turf we’ve slipped to 14th, through no doing of our own. Lord Rooney hasn’t recovered from his knackered toe and is rested. This is a disappointment for everyone, particularly the home fans, and his Lordship is reduced to waving from the dugout, though secretly I’m happy enough with his unavailability. Bielik partners McKenna at the back, my dream team central defence, and Max Lowe makes his top flight debut at left-back. Otherwise we’re unchanged.

The Evertonians are obviously superior to us on paper, but it’s the sort of unspoken secret everyone knows that their spark comes from Andre Gomes. I’ve signed him for my teams in previous games, back when he was a perma-listed Barcelona midfielder. My feeling about him was that he was a good player, a hell of a passer with a tendency to showboat, all round your classic entertainer. But I could never rely on him, so he was essentially a cheap addition – because Barca never wanted a lot for him, which should have said a lot – who became a casualty further down the line once I could really begin to reshape my squad. Richarlison and Sigurdsson are obvious further threats, the former being played out of position as the team’s short of a right wing specialist and Gylfi is preferred on the left. In any event, the key to this one is that we must keep Gomes quiet. Stopping him becomes the main brief for Chirivella. Do that and we may just survive this, and what’s more you’ll be a man, my son.

Kipling quotes won’t save us. Goals will, and we’re ahead as early as the second minute. Hughes fields a long pass out wide to the right, where it looks as though Digne will harmlessly collect it, however the full-back fluffs his lines and the miscontrolled ball falls to Hlozek. The young Czech races forward, entirely unmarked as Digne is still stumbling over his error. Before Mina can reach him Hlozek has rifled a placed shot beyond Pickford and into the bottom corner to put us on top. We’re so happy, and Everton so shell-shocked, that we make it 2-0 five minutes later. Weirdly, Digne is the culprit again. Bogle is in possession outside the box, the culmination of a sustained attacking move that’s pulling defenders here and there, and Lucas just needs to stop him. Despite his block tackle our man still has it and picks out Hughes just outside the box. He sends an aerial ball into the danger area, which is met crisply by Hernandez‘s head from point-blank range for our second. A thoroughly professional goal. We can’t believe how easy it is.

A good team would pull themselves back into it at this point – who do Derby think they are… Plenty of time left on the clock, let’s get our collective shit together and then let’s get ’em… That’s broadly what I’m expecting to happen now. It’s far too early to even think of changing our approach to the match. Whatever we’re doing is working and I’d be an idiot to mess around with it. And they do start nosing ahead in terms of scoring opportunities. Macias is a quick  and tricky forward with an excellent shot, but he’s also new to these shores and hasn’t quite synced with his side yet. Montipo’s good at just getting himself in the right places at the right time, but we owe the most to our centre-backs who ensure the Mexican has a quiet showing. Bogle’s having a great game, keeping Sigurdsson in his pocket on the left. All the Icelander has to show for his efforts is a booking at half-time. Digne has also seen yellow before the break, his frustration mounting, as the referee sprays cards around liberally, a result of the home team responding to their troubles with petulant behaviour.

It’s still 2-0 in the 70th minute, indeed nothing seems to be putting a dent in our lead. We play to our strengths, soaking up the pressure and trying to keep the ball as often as possible, passing them to death. Only Lookman has been having an ordinary game, and he’s replaced early in the second by Smith Rowe. On the whole we’re titanic. Hlozek’s pace can cause any side problems. The old adage, that defenders don’t like players who are confident enough to run quickly at them whilst on the ball, remains true here, where the winger forces Toffees players into making mistakes and getting booked. And then it happens. Digne is sent off for a second yellow, the culmination of ill-tempered and persistent fouling, and we know at this moment that the points are ours. No need to adopt a more attacking mentality. We don’t have to press our advantage; instead we just keep doing what we’ve been doing so far, swapping out tired legs and even having the luxury of bringing Will Hughes off ten minutes before the final whistle in order to give him a break and Stendera some time in the line-up.

The post-match statistics show that Everton just about shaded the shot count. Neither of us had a clear chance, and we did for them with possession and more incisive shooting – we took our opportunities. Andre Gomes has had a decent game, but the attentions of Chirivella have limited his effectiveness. Rarely did he have any openings to put his foot on the game. At every turn the Spaniard was there to get in his face. He earns the match ball for his efforts.

For my part I could barely be happier. Two outings, both resulting in clean sheets. We’re sixth in the table. The Sky coverage has the presenters conveying pleasure at witnessing a genuine turn-up – they, like most viewers, were expecting a straightforward home win to go with their cheeky school night beer bottle; instead they have a good news story about which to talk, and they even don’t have to bang on about Lord Rooney. Bogle, Hlozek, Hernandez and Hughes – new names to get used to. Bielik and McKenna being heroic at the back. Chirivella – so tenacious. The good times won’t last forever. We’re away again at the weekend, this time to West Ham, but for now we can bask in getting three priceless points on our travels.