Glory Hunter – Napoli: April 2022

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If Champions League qualification is what we’re after, then there should be no easier way to nail it than with a home game against SPAL. In seventeenth position but probably having racked up just enough points to avoid the drop, this has all the makings of easy pickings. I field a lot of my back-up players here, keeping my powder dry for the trip to Anfield in midweek. That means starts for the likes of Izzo and De Sciglio, and Lozano making his long-awaited return at last. The Mexican scored five goals in a 10-0 demolition of Nicaragua during the break, and that would suggest he’s ready for this.

As it turns out, Lozano’s comeback game is edgy and riddled with nerves. He does well enough because, y’know, it’s SPAL, but there’s a certain effervescence missing from his game. He won’t last the ninety. After making hard work of soft opposition, perhaps realising what’s on the line here, ill discipline finally gets the better of the visitors when Strefezza fells Odsonne Edouard in the area. There was little need. The Frenchman hasn’t exactly clicked for us so far. Still, he makes simple enough work of the resulting penalty, sending Berisha the wrong way. A muscular Armando Izzo header from Boga’s free kick later in the game settles the score at 2-0. As usual, it might have been better, but poor finishing (Edouard fluffing his lines, Lozano fretful) keeps the scoreline down to a conservative level.

With Europe in the bag, I am advised of my initial budgets for next year. They’re good, so much better than what we were dealing with last summer. The weekly spend on wages has been increased to just under £2.9 million, but it’s the £60.9 million I’ve been handed to lavish on transfers that really pleases me. At last, I don’t need to rely on wheeling and dealing as I’ve had to do so far. I’m reminded that Pellegrini and Edouard are here on loan and will have to be replaced. Permanent solutions at left-back and up-front are my top priorities.

Also arriving at the top of my inbox is the news that this year’s youth candidates are here to be evaluated. I was previously advised not to expect a vintage clutch of future talent, and they weren’t kidding, however 15 year old centre-back Simone Gatti looks like he knows the right direction to move in, and that’s something. I fire off a quick contract offer to a boy who could turn out to be half-decent.

Liverpool next, who obviously look totally brilliant. You may recall me starting this adventure with a friendly against them, a ‘backs against the wall’ exercise as they tore into us. I hoped then that when next we met the odds would be more even, and I guess now’s the time to find out. They have Lautaro Martinez playing in attack, a wonderful striker signed from Inter in summer 2021 for £73 million. He’s a handful, however their real strength is behind the Argentinian, Salah and Mane promising to give my full-backs one hell of a handling job.

They show their hand early when Sadio Mane fires them into an early lead, one of those incisive finishes from someone who knows how to find and exploit space so well. My defenders, normally so accomplished, aren’t used to seeing work carried out so quickly. We’re shell-shocked. Not long after that Grimaldo puts in a meaty challenge on Alexander-Arnold that results in broken ribs and will ensure he can’t figure in the return. A horrible way to go, but good lad Alex. We’re marshalled out of the attacking areas completely. Insigne, Politano and Osimhen are anonymous, and when I replace all three after the break the results are only slightly better. Our best comes from an Orsolini shot. Shut down by Virgil and his mates, his effort goes wide, quite a bit wide in fact, but it’s better than anything we’ve produced to that point. It finishes 1-0, and it could have been worse given how contained we were.

After that debacle, travelling to Bologna should be a reprieve. Sinisa Mihajlovic has guided them to sixth position, a good season, however we’re favourites for this one, even if I’m having to rotate once again. Worryingly, this doesn’t go to plan. We can afford to drop a point or two, and the draw we crawl to only reduces our margin over Juve to six points, but my feeling is that despite changing the side we should be winning at the Renato Dall’Ara. Instead, it’s 1-1. Edouard hits a penalty kick straight at the keeper, before Musa Barrow sucker punches us, and we then spend the majority of the game trying to find a way back. On the hour mark Victor Osimhen finally equalises. We pummel Bologna, giving Skorupski the football equivalent of playing in a hailstorm (of shots), but ultimately it finishes as a draw. Not good enough. I’m especially displeased with Edouard, who we’re paying handsomely for not much return. His diffidence in front of goal concerns me so much that I am tempted to start using Martinelli instead. Of the others who let me down here, Lozano is having a poor comeback from injury. My patience with him isn’t endless. The Mexican is valued at £40 million and is sporadically wanted by other teams. Is it time to consider cashing in…?

Back to the Champions League and the return fixture against Liverpool. Given the personnel amendments that pulled up short in Bologna, there’s a part of me hoping our European adventure ends here. To my mind, we aren’t strong enough to rotate to the extent that we are, and we need those top players to help the cause in Serie A, to drag us over the line. A resurgent Juventus doesn’t help. Sure, it’s good to have the tension of a competitive run-in. Last year we won the division by a margin of twenty-two points, great for us yet less exciting for fans of Italian football, and the Pochettino-inspired Old Lady roaring back into contention makes me concerned that we could choke it at some stage. We have Roma at home and an away day at Inter to come in May, so the banana skins are very much ahead of us.

Still, we’ll give it our best at the San Paolo. Sadio Mane again gives Liverpool an early lead, a disappointing goal to concede as we have been testing Alisson at the other end and get caught on a counter-attack. Shortly after, Grimaldo picks out Victor Oshimen with a long ball. The striker holds off the attentions of Virgil and volleys his shot home to make it 1-1, but that turns out to be it from us. The visitors have a world class defence and are not afraid to use it. Despite emerging with the majority of shots and Insigne spilling his life blood in trying to rouse us into winning the contest, I think in the end we went out to a better team, and there’s no shame in that. At least I got to see Grimaldo win his personal battle with Salah, and we now get to concentrate on Serie A. Despite losing, we are awarded £9.59 million for reaching the Quarter-Final. The game also becomes a new gate receipts record. The £2.2 million we rake in from this one shows where the real money is at. We’ll come back better, harder, stronger.

After that, it’s incumbent on us to get back to winning ways in Italy. Fiorentina are the visitors, and we beat them 3-1, a scoreline that doesn’t quite reflect the superiority that we show here. Lorenzo Insigne bags two in a sublime display of attacking intent. His corner kick is headed in by Eric Garcia, the defender’s fifth of the season, and there’s also time for Felipe Caicedo to keep us honest with a tap-in after a sustained spell of Viola pressure. It’s a morale-boosting victory. That said, when your visitors’ main threat comes from Jesse Lingard then I guess the writing is on the wall (editor’s note – clearly this was written before Lingard became the new Cantona for West Ham; still, the comment stands).

We’re off to Cagliari in midweek, knowing that we can now finish no lower than second. Doing this would be a real shame, of course, but Juve have forgotten how to lose and we need to carrying on gathering the points. In a low-key affair, we win via the penalty spot, when Lorenzo Insigne is scythed down in the area. He nets the resulting spot-kick, and that’s about it. We’ve been compelled into putting Edouard into the team as Osimhen took a slight knock against Fiorentina. He does nothing. Lozano comes on in the second half and there might as well have been a big empty space in his zone. But we win, which is what counts, and even better news comes from Turin, where Lazio have produced a 1-0 away win.

April finishes with a home game against Sassuolo. We win 2-0 against a decent but perfunctory opponent. Victor Osimhen scores from a delightful Elmas through-ball, and then Riccardo Orsolini volleys in something of a worldy, a strike so good that it elevates him to Man of the Match status. The visitors are game yet limited. They get themselves into promising positions without being able to deliver a final product, ultimately generating one shot, almost an insult to a keeper with Meret’s calibre, whilst at the other end we constantly test the keeper. Props here go the Jeremie Boga, named in the starting line-up against his former employers, and to Eric Garcia who puts in an excellent tackle in our area to deny Berardi.

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Juventus go to the San Siro and are turned over 3-1 by AC Milan. The situation therefore becomes surprisingly simple going into the final month. Claim a single point from any of our remaining matches and we have won Serie A. Hopefully we can do it quickly. May also contains the final of the Italian Cup, tucked away neatly in midweek, betwixt difficult fixtures against Roma and Inter, so getting our league business out of the way before we complete this most important of matches will be a big bonus.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Pre-Season 2020

The first thing to do is some work on improving Napoli’s coaching team. We have a very good goalkeeping trainer in Alessandro Nista, but Valerio Fiori brings the side down and I agree mutual release terms with him. He’s replaced with Des McAleenan, an Irishman who currently works with the Colombian national team. To make up the shortfall of coaches, I sign Mainz 05’s Benjamin Hoffmann because of his attacking prowess, Ivan Carminati from Zenit (fitness and tactical) and Ricky Sbragia (defending) on a free. There’s still no training area where we are Serie A’s best, but we are now near the top at least. It irritates me that Juve have replaced a number of their coaches, leaving several very good personnel available for gratis, yet because of the rivalry between the clubs they have no interest of working in the San Paolo.

Elsewhere, French physio Jean-Georges Cellier replaces Vincenzo Longobardi, and we steadily fill out the open positions with recommended personnel.

Fernando Llorente is the first player to leave on my watch. The former Tottenham second stringer is sitting here on fat wages and little chance of playing, so a deal is quickly worked out for him to play his twilight years at Wolverhampton. £425k sounds like a negligible fee, but the guy’s 35 and removing him from the club’s groaning salary bill is a major plus. Arkadiusz Milik is next. Unwilling to sign a new contract and not in my good books because I’m not into poachers, he agrees an £8.5 million deal to join Spurs. The board aren’t happy with this. His value jumps due to the fact he’s agreed a five year contract, but we weren’t ever going to get much more than ten million for him and again, wiping his wages from the budget matters.

Their departures open the possibility that I can make a couple of signings. A back-up player for the right wing is the one significant gap within the squad. Right-back Kevin Malcuit can play there, but surely we can do better than that. Given that I really want to boost the team’s Italian presence it boils down to two choices – Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi, or Riccardo Orsolini from Bologna. I go for the latter. He’s younger, at 23, and I had a good time with him in an FM 2020 save. He joins for £18.5 million.

I identify a good alternative centre-back as a priority. In one of our pre-season matches we lose 3-2 to Sampdoria, featuring a second-half collapse, and a defining factor has to be replacing Manolas and Koulibaly with Maksimovic and Rrahmani. Not good enough, indeed a little bit scary. Armando Izzo is the player I want. Currently with Torino, he’s a cut above our existing choices and as a former Neapolitan he will add to the slim ranks of ‘trained at the club’ homegrown players. It’s a relatively cheap deal. £11 million is enough, not bad for a 28 year old ball playing defender who has three Italian caps to his name.

Izzo’s arrival means there is no longer any need to retain Amir Rrahmani, a Kosovan-Albanian who looks to me like the definition of bang average. He leaves for Lyon in an £8.25 million deal. Kevin Malcuit is the next to go. The Blues are well stocked for right-sided full-backs so the Frenchman is surplus to requirements. Ajax produce the £7 million needed to end our association with him.

With some money left in the bank I look next at left-back. Mario Rui and Faouzi Ghoulam are the existing choices. Neither inspire awe and both players are earning fat wads of cash that far outstrip their abilities. Algerian Ghoulam, taking home £78,000 per week as a fringe player, is the identified one to lose. At the time of writing, just ahead of the season opener, he’s agreeing terms with Ajax and should be leaving shortly. It won’t produce a windfall, £3.3 million with several clauses thrown in, but as always I need to think about how much we are lavishing on wages.

The player I want to bring in is Alex Grimaldo. There are no Italians who (i) are good enough (ii) are affordable. Luca Pellegrini is probably the best of the choices out there, a young Juventus player who’s out on loan, and at this stage I have no idea whether the trade of players between us is an anathema, in the way that Manchester United and Liverpool refuse to deal with each other. So Grimaldo then, a former Barcelona youth player whose reputation at Benfica has steadily grown. 24 years old and installed as the first choice left-back, Grimaldo costs us £23.5 million and will hopefully seal his place in the side for some years to come.

If no further transfer action takes places then I’ll be happy enough. Gaps have been identified and filled, and with the new recruits installed we’re looking in a pretty healthy place, I feel. Here in a simple table format is how the squad stacks up:

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In a neutral Milanese stadium picked as our base for pre-season we dispatch Chievo Verona 3-0. The game features a fantastic incisive strike from Victor Osimhen, who looks confident and deadly when presented with chances, a really promising acquisition. The only downside of this one is a hamstring strain incurred by Insigne that will remove him for much of the run of friendlies. This game is followed by the Sampdoria debacle. We go 2-0 up and everything’s looking good, only for a combination of clumsiness and defensive mix-ups to gift three easy goals to the opposition. I think the players are a bit unsettled over how angry losing this one makes me. It shouldn’t be happening. Sure it’s a friendly, but the collapse is such a disconcerting thing to witness. We really ought to be keeping the limited Genoese opposition at bay.

At the end of August, we produce a 1-0 victory over VFL Wolfsburg. This is more like it. Osimhen puts us ahead on the cusp of half-time and I use the second period to flex our muscles at the back. The Germans can’t find a way through so I am much more sanguine by the final whistle. We dominate in terms of shots, xG and possession, and the home team predictably air their frustrations by boosting the fouls count.

Another humbling of sorts follow when some sadist includes a visit to Anfield as part of our schedule. Thankfully, there’s little chance that we will face Liverpool again this season. They’re better than us, even as both sides are picking at their rumps with the international break taking place. Unless the opposition foul up their Champions League group and end up dropping into the Europa League this should be our only meeting, and I am tempted to slot them in again for a friendly next summer when hopefully we are an improved team. They beat us 1-0, on paper not a terrible result but there are moments when we are doing all we can to stem the red tide. Scary stuff.

A week before Serie A hostilities begin, we host Benfica, complete with soon-to-be-Blue Grimaldo slotted in at left-back for them. I see the Portuguese giants as roughly at the same level as we are, and it’s vastly encouraging to produce a 2-0 victory. The opposition are reduced to scraps while Politano and Bakayoko produce the goods. A fine performance, with Lozano taking the match ball for being an ever-dangerous threat on our left wing. Orsolini spends the second half on our right and looks really good, comfortable in Napoli blue and scoring, only for the goal to be ruled out for a dubious offside i.e. he was definitely off.

The season will open with the visit of AC Milan, a tough start against a side I have a lot of affection for and who of course can call on the godlike presence of Zlatan. How we perform against them will say a lot about our prospects for the campaign, so I’m hopeful for a good showing.

Arsenal FM21 – April 2021: Mounting Fixtures

I’m asked to decide what to do with the players who will be out of contract at the end of the season. Apart from Kido Taylor-Hart, who deserves a new deal, I resolve to release them all, which wipes nearly half a million pounds from the wage budget in the summer. This includes the weekly £150,000 we will no longer have to pay David Luiz for his clownmanship, the small contribution we make to Sokratis’s salary and the rather more substantial one we are putting towards Mesut Ozil’s spends.

April contains league fixtures against Manchester United and Liverpool; both are super significant given the race for the title. Get the results where it counts and we might be right in the mix. Fail and it’s probably over. Before any of that we are facing Wolverhampton Wanderers at home. Recognising their strengths we field a strong side and quickly carve out a 2-0 lead through the twin towers of Aubameyang and Pepe. At the break we’re completely on top. The visitors have done so little. They score via Fabio Silva in the fifty-fifth minute and suddenly things become interesting. The punted balls forward that have represented their first half attacks had an air of desperation about them. We can deal with these blunt strikes. But now they’re working the ball forward carefully and artfully, relying on their great dribbling and an imperious central midfield featuring Neves and Moutinho. Time for beautiful football to go out of the window as we aim to protect our advantage, and we do it. Just.

The Europa League has us travelling to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk. Against Leicester in the previous round we sneaked through via home goals and defending at their place. We opt for the same approach here, on the basis that the home side are about as good as we are, and we want to stop them from establishing a rhythm. It works until early in the second half when Taison nudges them ahead. I order the lads to play a more open game and bring on Ceballos for Xhaka (who’s done nothing). The Spaniard it is who equalises before the final whistle, a lovely effort as he cuts inside the D, spots a gap in the defence and places his shot. It’s nothing less than we deserve, and better still we’ve done it while resting some key players…

…Which is fortunate because we’re away to Manchester United next. There’s no need to big this one up. The Devils are leading the league and could go pretty much out of reach with a ninth straight win. Just to make things that bit harder Demiral earns a straight red card seventeen minutes in when he scythes into Cavani from behind. It’s a bad one; the Turk has no excuses, and we have little option but to set up defensively for the long seventy-something minutes that remain. United pour forward. They sense blood, and yet the defence stands firm and Leno enjoys the game of his life, the epitome of ‘none shall pass’. Shortly before half-time Auba volleys from close range at the end of a classic combination with Pepe, and we set about defending our unlikely lead. Late in the game and United win a penalty. Hmmm, thanks ref, and at Old Trafford as well. Daniel James steps up, but Leno keeps everything out and that includes the palming aside of his spot-kick. Somehow, despite facing eighteen shots (against three of our own), we’ve pulled off an incredible rear-guard victory. Talk about parking the bus.

Back in Europa Land and we put on a disciplined and clinical show in dispatching Shakhtar 2-0. After absorbing some early pressure from the visitors Saka shoots us in front, and then Willian finds the net after a desperate penalty area scramble late on to seal the victory. Demiral makes up for his dismissal against United by ending it named as Man of the Match, which underlines how solid we are at the back. The semi-final will give us the chance to extend our good run over the red half of Manchester. Playing them five times sounds like at least two head-to-heads too many.

We’re off to Wembley at the weekend for our FA Cup semi-final date with destiny, and Southampton. Of some concern is the fact that some teams are playing in the league, a few now three fixtures further along than we are. The games are stacking up. The Saints are in lower mid-table but they’ll be a tough nut to crack. With Liverpool next I can’t even put out my best eleven. Ward-Prowse causes us some problems and we need to keep a careful eye on Ings’s forays, yet it’s a straightforward 2-0 victory as Lacazette and Cook do the honours. Things turn in our favour at some point in the second half when we introduce the Ox for Xhaka (again, not good) and the midfielder turns on the style against his old team. The Ox has been a hero for us; money well spent. With each passing match and another bang average showing, Xhaka on the other hand is falling out of favour very quickly.

Little time to pause for breath because we’re hosting Liverpool in midweek. The press pack make a big deal of the fact that we have lost to the Pool on each of the three occasions we have played them, and I’m haunted by it also. Okay, they probably are the best side in the division, hell maybe even the world, but have we been paying them too much respect? Now that we are drawn into the title race this has become a must-win affair. So we take off the brakes, play positively rather than cautiously and win 3-0. Pepe is the orchestrator. He scores two and causes problems for Robertson throughout, forcing the full-back to pay attention to his defensive duties rather than support the attack. Auba gets our third and otherwise it’s a good all-round performance from the boys. I’m impressed with our defenders. They blunt the visitor’s forward-thinking spark and stop them from finding any foothold in the game. By the time the mist has cleared we are top of the table, with a match in hand on our rivals.

Our good form complements Manchester United’s downturn perfectly when we travel to Old Trafford in the semi-final of the Europa League. Our 2-0 victory shouldn’t really be allowed to happen, but the home team do themselves no favours when Greenwood gets himself sent off. We’re a goal up via Vinicius at that point. Aubameyang adds a second, and our man advantage gives us the licence to shut the door after the break and see out the win.

Things look good, but it ain’t over. There are still seven league games to complete in May, involving a couple of weeks where we will need to work through six fixtures. Expect heavy rotation, wrapping players in cotton wool, calling on all my resources, and hoping to god that we don’t blow it now.

Arsenal FM21 – March 2021: Future Squad Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – 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 – Pre-Season Summer 2020

Arsenal’s staffing situation is an area for concern. The big worry is our medical unit, the two physios we have on our books that make us the lowest rated Premier League club in this area. We have several first teamers who are injured – how can we expect to get them back on the road to fitness? I agree mutual terms of dismissal with the pair of them and put the feelers out. No way should we be so lacking in this area, especially not given the Gunners’ withering, unwanted ability to lose players to a variety of knocks.

The standard of coaching is fair but not eye-watering. I like my Assistant Manager, Steve Round, but for me the rest are eminently replaceable, and I’m tempted to do exactly that. The way I see it is that we have a lot of fine youngsters, but they may never become stars if they aren’t coached properly so it’s time to hunt for a bunch of highly qualified and reputable new faces. I have little interest in the training aspects of Football Manager, and it follows that I need to find people who I can trust to take on this crucial area.

Where the squad is concerned the choices to me are either to stick with what I’ve got or be prepared to sell in order to buy. The first team does need to be trimmed, I think – I want the young Gunners to get game time, and to give them it I will be looking to move on some of the veteran players. Arsenal have a massive imbalance here. A lot of ageing pros, brought in cheaply and offered big contracts based on their past glories. I want to reduce the average age considerably, and over time increase the homegrown elements within our group. In past games this has involved returning former players to the squad – I’ve re-signed Coquelin, the Ox and Gnabry before now, and all those (especially the latter; who wouldn’t want that?) are under consideration – but a stronger English presence will do for now.

Napoli rush in with a £12 million offer for Ozil. It can’t be this easy to get rid of him, surely. If agreed, we will have to pay £165k of his weekly salary for another year, close to half of what he’s earning currently, but that would mean we save an enormous wedge, and best of all is that he wants to go. I don’t think I’ve ever loved Gennaro Gattuso quite so much as I do now. Burnley and Brighton place bids for Sokratis, and I urge him to accept one of them. Cedric is transfer listed and offers from Newcastle, Ajax and Palace come flooding in.

We play an early friendly, a warm-up to build some match fitness, against Carno in Wales. It finishes 6-0 and it could and should have been more emphatic than that. Even with a group of players who are working within a new system, for a new manager and often new to each other, they have far too much quality for the opposition and it shows in the difference in movement, vision and overall quality. Lacazette’s propensity for firing shots wide – is this going to be an issue? He bags a double and that’s good, but this was a turkey shot for long passages and I might have expected more from him.

The end of an era is reached as Ozil sods off to Italy. I can’t believe he’s going. He’s the longest serving first team member and a leader, but here’s the thing – I’m trying to build a side with a determined mentality and he’s just the wrong sort of inspiration. There are moments when Ozil has shown glimpses of being the global strider who has won World Cups, a ton of international caps, friends and admirers, yet all that’s in the past. We need the money and letting Mesut go is an important step towards generating some much desired transfer funds.

Sokratis and Cedric earn their moves, the former to Brighton while our right-back is off to Ajax. Our transfer budget is boosted to nearly £27 million, while there is around £650,000 available in salary spends. Wriggle room, in other words. I identify centre-back as a position that requires an injection of quality, and the scouts propose Merih Demiral as the ideal, long-term replacement for David Luiz. At 22, the Turk is just the right age for us, and I fire off an offer that amounts to a £15.5 million initial fee with a further £5 million in instalments. To boost numbers in midfield, I take a deep breath and offer a contract to Jack Wilshere. A long, long way from the potential England star that he once was, Jackie is 28 and on the list of free agents. He’s not brilliant, but we can have him on a very cheap wage and he also contributes to our complement of homegrown players, and that helps to make my mind up.

Matt Macey, Folarin Balogun and Emile Smith Rowe leave on loan. With Demiral installed, forming a starting central defensive partnership with Gabriel and slashing the average age in this position as both players are a tender 22, it’s time to move David Luiz on. There are good reasons for keeping the Brazilian here for the last year of his contract, but more for letting him go. I think of all those unforced errors, hand in mouth moments, and I shudder… Dynamo Kyiv won’t buy him outright, but they will take him on loan. We still have to pay the majority of his wages, however there’s a monthly fee that amounts to £3.4 million over the course of the year, compensation I guess for slicing off one of the more mistake-riddled top flight stars I’ve seen in a number of years.

I expect the squad to mount a revolt over the sale of Ozil. His team leader status leaves a vacuum, yet they aren’t bothered in the slightest. What does concern them is my decision to part ways with David Luiz. Why they would choose Mr Hair Bear Bunch as the hill to die on is anyone’s guess, but many of them are unhappy that he’s gone. Their mood worsens when I dismiss their complaints. As someone who likes to think I have a decent handle on team dynamics it’s a worrying moment. Hopefully some decent results will bring them back onside.

My long-term hope for defensive midfield is to make do and mend before Lucas Torreira returns from loan. For now, Thomas Partey looks like exactly the kind of tank I would hope to occupy this role, however he could use a plucky young back-up to share the load and the man I identify is Lewis Cook, admittedly someone I like because of my experiences with playing him in previous editions. The 23 year old from Bournemouth doesn’t come cheap. With instalments he will set us back £30 million, but he could be part of the set-up for a decade. Lewis accepts squad rotation status happily, can operate either in defensive midfield or centrally as a deep lying playmaker, and can expect to start in lesser games and Europa League fixtures.

As we now have Cook I see no reason to continue our association with Mohamed Elneny, an Egyptian international who has always screamed ‘squad rotation’ at me with no obvious benefits. Keeping the squad numbers to a happy amount isn’t easy and Elneny becomes a casualty. Getting him off the books is another matter. The things I could do with his £24.5 million value, but all I can find for him is a loan season at Zenit. The Russians at least pay most of his salary and the fee for his services amounts to £1.8 million for the duration. A problem set aside for another year then.

After a promising run of friendlies we’re up against Liverpool in the Charity Shield. This is a proper test, and so it proves as I’m left to patrol the technical area helplessly, watching the Scousers run riot. It isn’t pretty. They go ahead through Thiago, have a Salah penalty saved and for long nightmarish passages put us to the sword. Hell, maybe this is just what it’s like to face off against England’s best team, but they’re the standard we are aiming for and we fall well short. Arsenal clock up six shots, not one of them on target. We lose out in terms of possession statistics. Lacazette is wretched as a striker. On the left Aubameyang looks shorn of many of his natural powers and I make a resolution to use him as he ought to be fielded, which is as a pressing forward. Partey works hard at DM, but Xhaka is cut through as though he doesn’t even exist, which hopefully is nothing more than a one-off aberration.

Much food for thought. I learn that Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior is available on loan and, in panic-buy mode, fire off an offer. The Spaniards want me to pay his wages – £195,000 per week – in full and I comply, even though this will put our salary budget in the red. Matters are made slightly worse here when Ainsley Maitland-Niles has a successful international debut and I’m compelled to agree a better contract for him. Things should level out here if we can find new homes for Mustafi and Mari before the transfer window closes.

Going into our opener, on 12 September against Sp*rs, the Gunners roster looks like this (in order of ability), with homegrown players in bold:

Derby FM20 – April 2023: A Nice Plate 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.

April opens with an A+ score from the Derby board. They’re thrilled with Derby’s progress, however despite the high rating and multiple thumbs aloft there are caveats and concerns. A couple of results have disturbed them, including our Carabao Cup final defeat to Liverpool (in which they overran us) and the 0-0 away draw at Brighton, where arguably we ought to have performed better. They aren’t happy about the wage we are paying to Dean Henderson – £27,500 per week, never a problem with them when Joel Pereira was earning exactly the same sum for doing less work. Another bugbear is the lack of high-profile signings. I will admit that I haven’t done well in this area. I’m far more comfortable when recruiting young players who can be moulded into big names, but they’re the ones putting the money onto the table so I guess I should do their bidding with it.

A heavy run of matches starts with our toughest domestic opposition – Liverpool. Fancied to win back the Premier League title and playing like it, Jurgen Klopp’s world eaters haven’t lose a single match since a 1-0 away defeat to United early in February. Their only recent draw came against us at Anfield. Otherwise it’s been win after win. They’re in terrific form and have that ‘Mike Tyson imperial phase’ sense of unstoppability indicating we’re in for a tough one.

It isn’t essential that we win this game. We’re three points behind with a match in hand and there will be plenty of opportunities to catch up before the campaign’s finished. But I don’t want us to lose either. I select an ambitious midfield pairing of Moriba and Bellingham, the idea being to balance the line-up perfectly between five defensive and five forward thinking players. In my bitter and at times terrifying memories of the Pool they’re at their most dangerous when we play cautiously. Where they’re concerned it’s like unfurling the red carpet. They’re so good at pouring forward and have multiple ways of finding paths through to goal, so it’s as well to try and put them under pressure, refuse to invite them to attack, because they will. Relentlessly.

After an opening spell during which we thrill the rain-soaked supporters, we go ahead in the fifth minute. Pellegrini advances and puts in a deep cross, which Barbosa connects with instantly. His effort rattles back off the crossbar, and Eddie Salcedo is the first to react, hitting a lovely strike across the face of the goal that sails into the bottom corner. The crowd erupts. Revenge for Wembley is on their minds, and I’ve made sure via my team talk that it’s on the players’ also. We can’t serve it cold, but this is Derby and we can serve it wet.

The visitors take little more than ten minutes before fashioning an equaliser. Dybala’s corner is cleared out to the edge of the area by someone in the goalmouth melee, but only to Sadio Mane, who unleashes a virtuous volley that can’t be stopped. The situation becomes bleaker shortly after half-time when Naby Keita makes it 2-1. Alexander-Arnold beats Pellegrini before sending in his cross, which is headed down by Mane into the midfielder’s path. There isn’t much that anyone can do about the power and accuracy of his shot, though an effort to put him under some pressure would be nice.

Salcedo scores shortly after, but it’s his regular offside goal that could become the subject of a drinking game or an office sweepstake. When will it happen? How many times will his goals be ruled out by VAR? To give him his due, Eddie is off by a matter of inches. It’s a tight shout that might have been allowed without the benefit of computer technology, and ultimately it doesn’t matter because he scores for real in the seventy-sixth minute. It’s a delicious one too. As a Derby set-piece is cleared away, Tosin finds himself in possession on the left wing. He puts in a cross, for which the Italian times his run perfectly to race ahead of Van Dijk and Gomez before netting at very close range. It’s a goal that’s worth waiting for, evidence that he can do it when he really wants to and of course it could hardly come at a better moment.

It’s been an even affair, a bit of an attacking classic with both sides abandoning their defensive responsibilities to clinch the winner. After much to and fro, scary and exhilarating passages of play, action at both ends of the pitch, Jayden Bogle plunges into the opposition half and crosses. It’s cleared outside the area, but who should advance to meet the ball but Pedro Chirivella, who slams in a venomous strike from around twenty yards out. If you’re going to fashion a deciding goal then why not make it the most spectacular one of the evening?

Still we aren’t done. Liverpool pour forwards to get back on terms. As Oxlade-Chamberlain causes problems on the right wing, a fresh pair of legs to rip into those of my tiring defenders, Luca Pellegrini puts in a late challenge that’s nasty looking enough to earn him a red card. At this stage we are a minute away from the end of stoppage time. I’ve no substitutions left. Bogle, Oxford and Tosin form a defensive three, with Pedro and Vieira sat in front of them. Our mentality becomes very defensive, a holding pattern, and with all those men behind the ball we are able to nullify the Scouse threat until the final whistle. Phew…

With this victory we have joined a three-way tie at the top. Today’s visitors, Manchester United and ourselves are all on 65 points. The kicker where we’re concerned is that we have matches in hand – we’ve played one fewer than Pool while United have three more fixtures in the bank over ourselves. They’re both involved in the Champions League in midweek. It’s a competition that’s dead to us and we are instead away to Leicester City.

This one must be serious because I’m asked to hold a team meeting beforehand. It seems premature to be doing so with eleven league matches remaining, and I recall how divisive these were during last season’s run-in. I used them to play down our chances, calling for a softly-softly approach, and even then some of the boys were flustered as a consequence of me asking them nicely to win, as though that isn’t what they are being paid to do. A lot of the less ambitious players have now gone, and so when I tell them in no uncertain terms that three points is expected I’m gratified to be confronted with a wall of nodding faces. They agree. Clearly the winning mentality I am trying to engender among them is spreading.

The Foxes are never an opponent I can discount. James Maddison is an excellent attacking midfielder leading a very good set of ballers, and they now have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading their forward line. Even at 33, with his contract winding down and having scored seven goals in 28 appearances, he’s a danger. The Gabonese striker must have seen just about every situation in the game that it’s possible to witness. His guile and finishing are a threat, even if his legendary pace is leaving him.

For all the hoopla they’re sitting in fourteenth place, still under threat of being sucked into the relegation battle and struggling to string together any sense of consistency. Jose Luis Mendilibar is the latest lamb to the slaughter, drafted in to replace Phillip Cocu and achieving a 34% win rate, which I’m sure has him under pressure. It’s set up for a Rams victory, but can we score goals? Even one might do.

The answer to that question is no, not for the longest time. Salcedo does what he normally does – everything right until the final product. God, I wish I could open him up and see what’s inside… He scores a brace against Liverpool so I think he’s turned a corner, only to watch him make a mess of the one genuine chance that he has created for himself. Other shots appear to be magnetically drawn to Kasper Schmeichel; he deals with everything, while the home side wilt as the match progresses. They start well and go close several times. Aubameyang has one great punt that thankfully clatters off the goalpost. But over the course of the proceedings their inspiration dries up.

It looks for all the world as though it’s going to be another goalless nothing as the minutes tick by. Salcedo goes off. Adam Hlozek comes on, darts on a solo run and shoots from twenty yards out, beating Schmeichel as though the keeper’s abilities mean nothing to him. Eighty-eight minutes are on the clock. Once again, we’ve the Czech forward to thank for sneaking victory from the jaws of a nil-nil draw.

And here’s the table, with Derby three points clear and bearing the capacity to pull even further away if those matches in hand are won. We’re approaching Easter weekend with two games in three days, both at home against Everton and Wolves. It feels as though we are approaching something close to good form again. In the wider world, we can no longer finish the season any lower than seventh, so our chances of meeting the board’s aim of finishing in the Europa League qualifying place should be in the bag before too long.

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 – February 2023: (Young Guns) Go For It

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.

Aside from the cheer of seeing ourselves in first place, the table appears to have formed a five-team mini-league at the very top. This comprises of ourselves, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Even though there’s a very long way to go in this slog of a campaign, the feeling is that one of these five will go on and win the thing. Newcastle are some way off in sixth.

For our part, we are celebrating the fact we haven’t yet lost a league game, in fact I don’t believe we have come off second best in any match at all during the term. As you might expect, our statistics are also very high. We’re second behind Liverpool on goals conceded, and in third place at the other end. Our scoring rate has witnessed a sharp rise, though the effect of losing Esposito for much of the season is yet to be felt, I feel. We have the fourth best record in the division for keeping clean sheets, with ten. Nearly as important for me is our disciplinary record. This was a real problem when we were first promoted and racking up the sort of card counts that would make no manager this side of Joe Kinnear’s Crazy Gang smile, but things here are much improved. We’re well off the top eight in fouls committed, sit twelfth in terms of yellow cards collected and haven’t been shown a single red.

All this good work could come a cropper if we don’t maintain our high standards in one of the more difficult periods we face. At the weekend it’s Manchester United at home, played in near-freezing temperatures and the singular joy of sleet. The visitors are four points behind us and still smarting from our victory at the Theatre. Surprisingly by their standards no new faces were added in January despite the loss of Bruno Fernandes, though a quick glance at their midfield – they can chose from Pogba, Bentancur, Felix, Tielemans and Neves – suggests recruitment isn’t at the forefront of their needs. Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer of course looks to retain his league crown, and we aim to snatch it from them. There’s no point in denying it anymore – we’re gunning for the title, and why not? We might not possess their all-star profile but we have good players and we’re doing well. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be us, and this game will go some way towards determining our fate.

Despite the lousy conditions the action is full on, two committed teams that give everything and work their charms to try and outfox each other’s defences. The standard of passing is very high. United have brilliant distributors and the sort of off-the-ball movement that means we have to stay sharp throughout, but we can’t do a lot about their opening goal. On their right wing is Magomed-Shapi Suleimanov, a tricky ball player who can dribble comfortably until the end of time. In the twenty-fifth minute, he’s racing into our half. Vieira makes a good challenge that parts him from the football, but it only drifts as far as Rashford who in turn feeds Shapi, still running towards goal. The little Russian does the rest, evading defenders and slotting his effort beneath Butland to open the scoring. It’s a goal that doesn’t fully reflect the tide of the game. We equalise within minutes, Frimpong putting in a cross that Ademola Lookman connects with from the left of goal. It’s 1-1 at the break.

Clearly this is anyone’s game, and we make a bid to claim it near the hour mark when Adam Hlozek collects from Moriba’s cut back pass on the edge of the area and lets slip a volley that De Gea can’t do a thing to stop. That’s the signal for the side to become more cautious. The visitors are outdoing us in terms of possession, if not in the shot count, and we now need to slow things down and leave with the points. It works, right up until the seventy-second minute when McKenna is clearly showed to have pushed Greenwood over in the area, gifting them an easy penalty shout. Paul Pogba takes it, a good shot that Butland reacts to superbly, falling to his right to parry it for the corner. Sometimes it feels like your moment, and this is ours. The fight goes out of United at that point and we get to see out the rest of the time, finishing with an important 2-1 victory.

Liverpool are now our nearest challengers, keeping up with our winning run in an irritating way because we can’t shake off their shadows. They have beaten Spurs at Anfield, not just winning but performing a demolition job when Bailey scores a hat-trick as part of a 4-0 show of strength. Mr Levy and the Tottenham board think they have seen enough and sack Manuel Pellegrini. It’s been coming for some time apparently, and in fairness it probably has after the north Londoners have faded horribly following their period atop the table for lengthy swathes of the previous season. Spurs are sniffing around Lookman and Hlozek, and the latter is having further coquettish fans fluttered in his direction by Arsenal. I’ve no intention to sell, though the prices being talked about are dizzyingly high, temptingly high.

Several days later and we get to play our catch-up match, which happens to be an away day at Anfield. Destiny catches up with you sooner or later. This fixture has been postponed several times already; part of me was hoping that it might be called off again and end up falling off the end of the schedule so that we wouldn’t have to play it, as if that has ever happened. On paper, it’s a good time to be playing Jurgen Klopp’s imperial empire of a team. They’re without Roberto Firmino, who’s out with a slipped disc for several weeks, while Fabinho is unavailable for a fortnight thanks to a hernia. This makes them only slightly less terrifying. To compensate for the absence of Firmino and for Salah, who’s now at PSG, Klopp fields Paulo Dybala in attack and places Jason Sancho on his right flank, Mane as always taking the other, so there’s no need to feel sorry for them.

The Pool are four points behind so even a defeat here can’t remove us from our fucking perch, but there’s the psychological dimension to consider also. We’ve been to Anfield and won, but there are times when we’ve tasted the inevitability of defeat also. Gifting the points to them feels as though it could precipitate another Scouse procession to the title, hell that might happen regardless of what goes on here. We’re determined to fight for our position though, and I name what I think is my strongest line-up. Bogle is asked to cope with Mane once again, while Bielik and Oxford have the happy task of keeping the ever-predatory Dybala under wraps. Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira make up a gritty midfield that’s built to soak up Liverpool attacks and pass them to death in sparking our own.

And we defend. A lot. All the time. In a first half that features little action in the opposition half, we are made to deal with Liverpool pressure. Butland makes point-blank saves from Mane and Dybala. Our central defence holds firm. Pedro is a titan in the defensive midfield hole, playing everywhere at once to sweep up any player who deigns to enter his space. They’re slick and quick, transferring smoothly to their flanks when the middle is congested but Bogle and Pellegrini are there to address the threat. In the second half the game opens up more. The home side are getting more desperate, leaving gaps, which we are reticent to break into because that will mean opening ourselves up, however late on there’s a move that ends with Butland saving from Mane. He feeds the ball forward and it winds up drifting to Patrick Roberts, who bursts into the opposition half, tricks Robertson into committing himself and then cuts inside, darting through on goal, launching a rocket that Alisson… saves! It’s a save and a reaction catch, the Brazilian keeper collapsing to the turf as though he’s holding the entire season in his hands.

There’s little dividing the two teams. Sure they dominate the attacking statistics, however our defending is leonine and we deserve to leave with the 0-0 result that surely stands as a point gained for us and two dropped where they are concerned. The very top of the table is as it was, and we are now eight points clear of Arsenal who have risen to third. Next up is what should be a more prosaic home game against Aston Villa, before we travel to the Spanish capital for our Champions League knockout tie, in a meeting with Atletico Madrid.

Derby FM20 – February 2022: Drawing with Honour

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.

Morgan Whittaker goes off on loan to Sunderland, after his performances for the Under-23s lead to the suggestion that he could use some first team football elsewhere. The winger joining a League One team implies that he’s some way short of being ready for our level. Josh Kirk will play the remainder of the season with Oxford. We sign a free agent keeper, Julio Falcone, an 18 year old Argentinian-Italian, and bundle him out to Morecambe until summer. There’s interest from Brighton in signing Max Lowe. Without Whittaker we are down to four ‘trained in club’ homegrown players, so we are compelled to hold on to the full-back. It’s all very low-key. As ever, I would rather keep my January transfer business to a minimum. This isn’t always possible, however the dream is to produce a squad in time for the start of the campaign and stick with it.

Elsewhere, Man City’s legendary right-back Kyle Walker is their latest high-profile leaver. He takes the Chinese coin, moving to SH Shenhua for a fee of £16.5 million and drawing a weekly wage of £81,000. Liverpool flex their considerable muscles with Bayer’s imposing defender Jonathan Tah, a £47.5 million capture, and then toss a further £47 million in Ajax’s direction and return with Edson Alvarez. ‘Best defender in the world’ Dejan Lovren has made a significantly humbler transfer to West Ham, and you’d have to argue that these moves have made them even stronger. Arsenal’s perpetual effort to possess a defensive backbone has led them to the door of Presnel Kimpembe, a £25 million purchase from Paris-Saint Germain. Beyond these shores, Porto midfielder Romario Baro goes to Hertha Berlin for a stonking £57 million, Dynamo Kyiv winger Georgiy Tsitaishvili is a £42 million gift to the PSG fans, and Bayern plunge £41 million into PSV’s Calvin Stengs.

I have to be pleased that we landed Eddie Salcedo for comparatively loose change; he’s a good striker who improves us. If you think that before the window we had Josh Maja in the side, then things must be better now. Patrick Roberts is a like-for-like replacement for Pavon; hopefully it will be a better fit to graft an English winger to an English club, rather than expect an Argentinian who has never previously left the American continent to make an instant impact. Tosin Adarabioyo is considered by our coaches to be the side’s best rated defender, alongside Reece Oxford, so with good fortune he will work out to be another sound capture.

None of these are made to make your mouth water necessarily. We can’t really afford to make flashy signings, but we can keep an eye on the transfer market, spend prudently and steadily develop the players I have at my disposal. The casual way our rivals are able to blow enormous sums shows the scale of the challenge we are facing. If we are able to keep battling at this level, placing ourselves in the Champions League picture, then the sums available to us will increase, and with these come more difficult questions. The difference between us and the big hitters is that, for example, City’s Zaniolo can fail and they simply have to brush themselves down and seek out another target. We would face ruin if we did that. Assiduous scouting and targeted signings are the orders of the day.

With Liverpool on the horizon, I’m awarded Manager of the Month for the second time this season. Kevin Stoger, who I tried to sell in January and was becoming increasingly unsettled, has been removed from the list and fallen back in line. He’s also unavailable for a couple of weeks thanks to a virus. This won’t be the last time I try to find a new home for the 28 year old Austrian. He’s been a terrific club servant, from being signed on a free seeing his value rise to £30 million, however we have better options in his position now and some very fine potential replacements out there. Jude Bellingham continues to hover on the radar. We can have him for £22 million if Birmingham fail to get promoted; they’re fourth currently. No doubt there will be a queue of interested clubs, but my hope is that with a large homegrown clique of young Englishmen Jude will see Pride Park as a suitable home away from home.

Anyway, Liverpool. They beat us at home in the season opener, and we go to their gaff knowing that their ranks are arguably as strong as ever. Mohamed Salah is no longer on the Scouse menu, of course, but there really isn’t a weak link in the side. Along with their two recent defensive signings they have added Max Aarons and Leon Bailey, and then there are people like Dybala, Mane, Firmino, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wijnaldum, Keita and Fabinho on whom to keep watch. The fun doesn’t even end there. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson in the full-back roles are both ebullient attacking forces. There literally isn’t a man who we can safely ignore or not worry about too much. It isn’t hard to see why Liverpool are title favourites. They have four players in the Media Dream Eleven (I’ll let you guess the size of our contribution); frankly, it would take a miracle for us to overcome them. The best thing I can say is that once this fixture is out of the way we won’t have to face them again. It’s like queuing up for a bout of medieval torture. Planning for the likes of Trent is akin to submitting my own thumbs to the screws. You get the general idea.

What makes it all the worse is how magnanimous Jurgen Klopp comes across in his media dealings. He’s a Rams admirer, by all accounts; he’s very impressed with us and thinks his team will do well to get anything out of our meeting. Bollocks, mein Herr. Chances are they’re going to flatten us – he knows it, I know it, and so do you. All I can do is pick my best eleven, send them out onto a wet, early February Anfield, and hope for the best.

We’re set up defensively. I opt to field Ilaix Moriba rather than two deep lying playmakers just to keep the Scousers on their toes. The young midfielder is proving to be a cracking asset, well worth the £32 million we will be shelling out for him in the summer. His rise comes at the cost of Maxime Lopez, the Marseille freebie who’s done little wrong but is fighting for his place with a teenager who’s living up to his billing as the Chosen One. He deserves better than the eleven appearances he’s made for us, but that’s football and he isn’t complaining.

Liverpool take the lead after seventeen minutes via the easiest of routes to goal. A free-kick won in our half; a Dybala rocket that’s met by Tah and headed into the net at some speed. All too straightforward, and it feels to me like this is going to be a long ninety minutes. I ask the players to play a bit more expansively, and they respond in the thirty-seventh minute. Bogle passes infield to Moriba, who picks out Ademola Lookman with a raking pass right in front of the keeper. Ade is covered by Alexander-Arnold, but he’s in front of the defender and is able to slice his shot past Alisson. We then somehow take the lead with our next attacking move, a Pedraza cross into Lookman, who has time to line up his shot and put it low beyond the keeper. Trent is really at sea for this one, racing across to tackle his man but all too late. Another Dybala free-kick is picked up first by Pedraza, but this is the worst thing that can happen. The full-back should have let the kick go and watch it sail out for a goal kick. Instead, he reaches it with a boot tip, having no control, and simply diverts it into Trent’s path who can poke it past Butland.

This all happens before the break, a finely poised thriller in which we have clearly rattled the Pool but look vulnerable against their set-pieces. Anything could happen next, and as it is tempers start to fray. Lookman is booked for an untidy challenge on Alexander-Arnold as the pair get involved in a series of personal battles. Moriba is setting off on another dangerous dribble towards the Liverpool goal, but then he’s caught from behind by Alvarez, who takes him down with a graceless two-footed challenge. It’s a red card. The home team will have to play the second half with ten men.

What to do? The coaches urge me to press our advantage, but I’ve been here before and seen what can happen. In truth, I am happy to play for the draw. Having a man advantage only means that we are a bit more on level terms with them. Liverpool are still terrifying opposition and continue to have chances, but we waste time, try our luck with a few decent attacks of our own, and the game eventually peters out. Who knows, perhaps I’m wrong to play it safe. We could have ended the game in first place, but it seems to me that we got a break and did well enough to come away with a point.

Tottenham beat United 2-0 to go back into first place and open up a four-point gap between the top three and the pack. By some miracle we are in a three-way tussle for the title, though it would take another big effort for us to produce the goods in our upcoming tie at Old Trafford. Then again, even if we lose we will still be a point in front of United, and without the pressure of conceding our place it doesn’t feel quite so heated.

As for this tie, Ade wins the Man of the Match award for his two goals, both taken with composure and a marked lack of modesty against such illustrious opposition. It’s a good moment for him; he’s having a difficult season after the heroics he produced in 2020/21, so any sign that he is turning the corner and regaining his good form is very welcome. Moriba is very highly rated for his threat levels in midfield, and Bogle puts in one of his best jobs of work as a consequence of keeping Sadio Mane relatively quiet. The Senegalese superstar is one the campaign’s top performers, so it’s an accomplished covering task that has done Jayden some real credit.

We now enter a two week winter break, a well-earned rest, even if I’m a bit reticent because our form is so good right now. A friendly at Pride Park against CSKA Moscow has arranged, before the build-up to our date with destiny against the United half of Manchester.