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.

Arsenal FM21 – September 2020: Making Mourinho Mad

The Liverpool defeat spooks me. We’ve done all right elsewhere, well enough to suggest that I can at least meet the board’s requirements, but despite losing 1-0 we were steamrollered at Wembley and I don’t know what that means. Are the Pool just bloody brilliant, or are we that bad, or indeed are we quite good and it’s my tactics that are terrible?

I prefer a 4-1-4-1 formation, opting for a DM over an AM in an effort to seek the perfect balance between players committed to defensive and attacking roles. I like short passes, working the ball into the box and playing it out of defence. We’re a fast team and passing is something we’re good at, so we should be playing to our strengths; similarly, with our energy levels we ought to be capable of applying the press consistently.

The league campaign opens in tricky fashion with a north London derby against Sp*rs at home. Leno’s in goal. Maitland-Niles and Tierney are our full-backs, with Gabriel and Demiral at centre-half. The critical defensive midfield task is handed to Partey, along with the captain’s armband. Xhaka and Ceballos play in central midfield. Ahead of them, Vinicius and Willian start on the flanks, with Aubameyang asked to do Auba things up front.

And… it’s wonderful, a Christmas miracle, if it wasn’t a breezy afternoon in mid-September. Uncle Jose tasks his players with parking the bus and they let us tear into them from kickoff. Demiral heads in from a corner in the seventh minute, and shortly after Xhaka’s long shot makes it 2-0. The torture continues following the break as Sp*rs refuse to find any answers and we add two more to our account via Auba’s penalty and another set piece effort from Gabriel. Overall we’ve taken twenty-eight shots to the visitors’ seven, been on target with thirteen of them and produced an excellent xG of 3.51. It finishes 4-0. All Tottenham have to show for their efforts is a couple of bookings. We’ve debagged and tea-bagged them in a morale-boosting opener, and hell we know it won’t usually be as good as this but there’s nothing quite so good as entering a happy dressing room after the final whistle.

We’re off to West Brom the following weekend. A likely relegation candidate, but they have the better of us in the first half, only some Billy the Fish acrobatics from Leno stopping Pereira from giving them the lead. All that spirit built in the opener seems to have melted away, and I make an instant change at the break when I bring on Lacazette for Aubameyang, who has done little. This turns out to be a tactical masterstroke for which I claim full credit. Despite being not as good as the Gabonese striker, Laca plays like he’s got something to prove and has bagged a hat-trick within ten minutes of blistering second half virtuosity. Demiral adds a fourth to bring about a second 4-0 victory. What looked like a poor result, the sort for which I was mentally working out my ‘still early days’ comments to the press, has turned into an emphatic victory.

The changes are wrung for our Carabao Cup clash with Crystal Palace. Traditionally Arsenal have used this competition to blood their youngsters, their second stringers, and I see no reason to change that. Only Leno and Gabriel remain from the side that beat West Brom as the likes of Holding, Wilshere, Willock and Saka start. I’m pleased to see us line up with five English players in our eleven. Uncle Roy of course chooses to field his best spread, which turns out to be a mistake as we look much the fresher from kick-off and take a quick lead through Lacazette. Before the break Saka makes it 2-0, and second-half strikes from Laca, Saka and Pepe turn victory into a rout. For their part, the Eagles respond to being five goals behind by having Zaha sent off for a vicious sliding tackle into Willock’s calves. It seems an unnecessary challenge that’s born of frustration. We get to face Peterborough in the following midweek’s Fourth Round clash.

Manchester City are next, at the Emirates and bringing their high-rolling swagger with Bernardo Silva in sizzling form and attention as ever focused on the unpredictable brilliance of De Bruyne. Some of the gloss has rubbed off Uncle Pep’s shine in recent months. After two seasons where his City slickers redefined English football, they looked all too vulnerable in 2019/20 and it’s perhaps this quality that raises our heads as we run out 2-0 victors. Both goals come from Aubameyang, Willian and Xhaka both turning out to be good at finding passes that split the blue defence. Everyone comes out of it looking good, perhaps only Vinicius looking a little short of the pace though perhaps that’s to be expected as he acclimatises to London life. The board sniffily retorts that we might have won but it wasn’t very exciting. I don’t know what they expect… Auba to score after swinging into the stadium via a high-wire cable like a swashbuckler, perhaps.

The month closes with that Posh clash. Win this and we will make the Carabao Quarter-Final. In the meantime, I fail completely to find a new home for Pablo Mari. Teams are interested in him, but not to the extent of putting their hands in their pockets, and with the Spaniard sitting on a four-year contract that’s a lot of time for him to be floating around the corridors. Shkodran Mustafi is a different matter. There’s a part of me that’s stunned he’s still here, after he’s worked so hard to demonstrate why he shouldn’t be. For reasons that could well be down to long distance, he’s become a figure of attraction to sides based in Mexico. Tigres make an offer, but it’s Monterrey that captures both his heart and his wallet, nailing their man for a knockdown price of £5.75 million. I don’t think that’s bad business for an unwanted player seeing out the last year of his contract. The only downside is that he can’t move until January – enjoy your gardening leave, Shkodran.

I play Peterborough twice. In the first effort, we are 5-1 up at Weston Homes Stadium before the game crashes. The second time, our side of reserves prevails in a 2-0 decider. Eddie Nketiah starts and bags both our goals. Most of the time is spent holding off a game but limited Posh team, testing keeper Pym who naturally plays like Lev Yashin (ask your dad) and dominating without humiliating them. Darren Ferguson emulates his equally lovely father by claiming we aren’t as good as we think we are, a reality we will go on to prove against Chelsea at the weekend. We will take on Huddersfield in December.

There’s just time to cover the draw for the Europa League, which pits us in Group C with a former European Cup winner, Red Star Belgrade, along with Zorya and Sivasspor. We have the competition’s highest coefficient (all those Champs League years) and in truth I see little to fear among our group rivals here.

It’s been a good month, a really promising start, but our visit to Stamford Bridge before the international break ought to put us back in our place. Burnley and Sheffield United lie in wait among October’s fixtures, as does the close of the transfer window. We will end it having landed another former Gunner – can you guess which one? Here’s a clue – he gets injured a lot and he isn’t French, for those of you who are wondering what possessed me to recall Abou Diaby to the colours.

Derby FM20 – May 2023: Broken Records

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.

More good news arrives with the revelation that Derby are among the best Premier League clubs when it comes to the turnover-wages ratio. Salaries eat up 34% of our revenue, which is low enough to place us eighteenth in the table. Brighton are in the most parlous position, which given their little ground seems fair enough to me. You can probably imagine for yourself who’s in the rudest health. Honestly, when your reach is global the resources dwarf everyone else’s.

The league calendar finishes with the visit of Manchester City to Pride Park. They’re looking to consolidate their recent grip on Champions League qualification, having risen from nowhere under new manager Diego Simeone. As I think I’ve said previously, this looks like a match made in heaven. Simeone may be no Guardiola, ruling with fear and an iron grip, but if his approach coaxes results out of City via sheer terror of failure then maybe a kick up the arse is exactly what they need. They’re going to be a team to watch in 2023/24, I’m sure of it. United and Liverpool should both still be up there, and now you can add the blue half of Manchester as they roar back into contention and make life just that little bit tougher for the rest of us.

Over time successive City managers have remodelled the team’s attacking ranks. The likes of Aguero, Sterling and Jesus have gone. Sir Harrington Kane is the head of their arrow, playing in front of an attacking midfield three comprising Zaniolo, Havertz and Tiba. The latter is a recent acquisition, a 20 year old Brazilian left-winger snapped up from Sao Paulo for £22 million. You can think of him as a rival for Max Willian within the future of the national team.

Having sealed the league title a couple of weeks ago we are now playing for the possibility of an unbeaten season. Nobody has taken us down in the contest yet, indeed the only defeats at all that we’ve suffered were at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the Champs, and our Carabao Cup final loss to Liverpool. Hardly a bad record to carry into the last regular fixture and now it’s something I would like to preserve. If we can avoid defeat today, which is a reasonable ask, then we will have equalled the 2003/04 Arsenal side for invincibility, and that’s something we can all look back on fondly.

It looks as though that proud record will be undone just before half-time when Sir Harrington heads in from a De Bruyne free-kick. Ordinarily we are terrific at defending set-pieces, but there’s something otherworldly about the Belgian’s kicking and of course Kane is as potent a centre-forward as you will ever find. I could blame Pellegrini for conceding the goal as it’s his marking job; in truth though, it’s just a great goal. Up until this point we’ve participated in a very even game. Hlozek has missed a few chances and we have never looked second best in going toe to toe with the blue-shirted giants.

With nothing left to lose we spend the second half attacking in greater numbers. City feel the pressure and begin to withdraw, and has been the case since time immemorial their defence remains the weaker link for them. It’s still good, obviously, but the players are flappable and when you showcase John Stones you are always going to present chances to the opposition. Eventually we get our reward for pushing forward. Frimpong does a terrific job on the right wing of dummying Tiba, forcing the Brazilian to commit himself to going to ground and evading the challenge, then crossing for Eddie Salcedo, who treats Stones like a minor obstacle in ignoring him and slicing his shot into the bottom corner.

We continue to press, but everyone’s happy enough to share the spoils from this one. City have met their objective of Champions League qualification. We get to finish without giving away a first Premier League defeat, and we all have smiles on our faces. Simeone’s post-game handshake is like iron. Clearly when we meet again it’ll be a much fuller blooded affair.

Here’s the final league table. We end the campaign seven points clear of Liverpool in second, which is terrific. After this I’m not sure where we can go next – having an unbeaten season is a rare thing indeed, not to mention a bit of a bonus as it wasn’t something that concerned any of us until the title was clinched and we were looking at secondary targets. West Brom and Swansea join Fulham in going down after managerless Leicester save their campaign at the very last gasp. It’s quite beyond me how they can be as bad as they have, and maybe there’s a warning for us there. One tip from me – try sticking with your manager, unless it’s clear that they’re going to be a disaster a la Frank de Boer. All that chopping and changing can’t help.

Our domination in the league has been underpinned by tight and solid defending. Everyone knows it, and it’s why Oxford and Tosin are included in the team of the season. In a line-up containing only Rams and Liverpool players, we can look smilingly on at Moriba, Lookman, Hlozek and Salcedo who are also included from our ranks. I am named as the best manager of the season. Paulo Dybala is Footballer of the Year both in the supporters’ vote and the separate one conducted among his fellow players. Jack Butland comes third in the Golden Glove award, behind Alisson and De Gea. Unlike his rivals, Jackie didn’t play every minute of the campaign for us. Dean Henderson got a relatively high amount of time in goal, including those instances when I plain forgot to switch my starting keepers, and it’s this that has probably done for his chances within a campaign during which we conceded a measly nineteen goals. For the mathematicians among you, that’s zero point five goals conceded per game.

On to the FA Cup final, on a pleasant late May afternoon at Wembley. We haven’t contested this since it was known as the Empire Stadium, whereas our opposition are regulars and still carry the best overall record in the competition. They have finished the season in sixth place, on 69 points, with Mikel Arteta promising to do better by apparently transfer-listing half his squad and seeking replacements. They line up with Jota playing up-front, Pepe, Almada and Saka operating behind him. As far as we’re concerned Thiago Almada is as ever the one to watch, a dynamic game-changer in the Eden Hazard mould, however as it is he does next to nothing. Rumours that he’s off to Real Madrid persist. Clearly those stories have legs, and unless the Gunners get an unlikely reputation boost that somehow propels them into the highest echelon I’m quite sure that he’ll be off before too long.

Harry Wilson misses a penalty in the first half, a weak effort that Onana palms away gratefully. His game never recovers and at half-time I have little choice but to replace him with Adam Hlozek. Though he’s better when playing as an attacking forward, the Czech still has the ability to make a difference, which is exactly what he does in the forty-seventh minute when his header collides with Pellegrini’s cross and sails into the net. Ake’s defending is at best loose on this one.

It feels as though we can really punish the Gunners at this point. They’re tired and they don’t appear to be working very hard for their manager, who never moves from his spot in the technical area, staring stony-eyed into the middle distance as though he wishes he was anywhere but here. We don’t need to do very much more, just maintain the pressure, press their players off the ball when we have to, and ease towards victory. I remember Arsenal beating us in the league last season, when they gave us a hard time and worked with enterprise and purpose. They’re a pale shadow of that side. I don’t know why exactly but I’ll take it, even if we could have entertained the spectators a little better on what turns out to be a damp squib of an occasion.

The season therefore ends with us claiming the precious double of winning both the league and the FA Cup. We’re the talk of the town, the fans and board delirious with happiness, and me feeling as though the Derby job to a significant extent has been done. Sure, we can try and retain the league, which will be no laughing matter with City almost certainly emerging refreshed as contenders. We can give Europe a better go, move the Rams closer to – or even achieve – glory in the Champions League. That would confer on us the title of being the best team on the continent, not to mention righting some wrongs from the 1970s, and wouldn’t that be nice?

All the same, bit by bit and especially as players come and go, this is feeling less like the Derby County Football Club that I took over all those years ago. Only Bielik, Lowe and Bogle remain from the original first team squad I was placed in charge of, and it’s likely that I will replace Max this summer so the side once again moves away from what it was. That’s progress I guess, though it seems to me that we are increasingly just another good team rather than identifiably being a set of Rams. Hopefully that’s okay with readers and fans of the club who can’t understand why I haven’t made more of the elusive gifts that Graeme Shinnie brings to the cause. To my mind I might have done fine things with the team, but so many changes have been made along the way, and in the 2023/24 season we will take a further heretical step when we call Villa Park our home while the stadium is expanded. Strange times.

Derby FM20 – January 2023: Cups and Crocks

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

I like this format of the Carabao Cup Semi-Final, played at a neutral venue and decided over one match, rather than the usual home and away two-legged affair. I get that it’s been done to cut down the number of fixtures amidst a packed post-World Cup schedule, and for this I’m grateful. While the glut of football sounds like a plus, there’s such a thing as too much, and trying to fit in all those extra matches already looks like a herculean task.

We’re facing Manchester City at Old Trafford, whilst at Wembley Liverpool will take on United. How come those two get Wembley? Oh well, who cares? The self-appointed Theatre of Dreams is a perfectly good venue. Thousands of people are going, and there’s the opportunity here for us to pile the pressure onto Jose Mourinho by beating his troubled Blues.

It’s been a trying time for our opposition, in twelfth place right now, which by their current standards this season represents staggeringly good form. They were in the bottom three until early November, and that ought to be an impossibility given their talents. Of course, everything points to the appointment of the Special One. You can question or praise his hiring, but whatever your views handing him the keys represents nothing less for City than a total reboot. If you’re going to replace Guardiola, then why not go all in and appoint his complete opposite, right?

Jose’s struggled, from what I can see for no really good reason. To add to their considerable arsenal they have recruited Jean-Clair Todibo, an excellent centre-back who has continually rated well for Schalke 04 and is a World Cup winner. I’m quite sure they will be as keen to progress to the final as we are. Anything to add some solace to what’s shaping into a difficult season, anything at all.

I want to strike a balance between respecting their obvious abilities – keeping an eye on Harrington Kane, man-marking Kevin De Bruyne – and aiming for the victory. Our line-up is about the best we can put out there, Hughes playing alongside Moriba with Vieira sitting behind them. Theirs is the usual Celebrity XI, indeed their bench features considerable riches with Jesus, Zaniolo and Rodri all available in case things go awry. We make our plans, weather their early storm, retain possession where possible. There’s a moment where a Ferro shot looks to me as though it’s gone in at Butland’s near corner, indeed I go all the way to half-time before realising it went wide and the score is still 0-0. The most notable moment for us is when Sebastiano Esposito needs to be removed after a horror show tackle from Florentino Luis. The striker doesn’t get up. He normally does, but not this time. He’s stretchered off, Salcedo comes on, and it’s later we learn he’s suffered a damaged spine and will be unavailable for three months. Wow…

We’ve faced the best of City and it hasn’t amounted to very much. Then again, we haven’t produced a great deal more. Hlozek is hooked off shortly after the break. Roberts comes on, and lasts around ten minutes before he too needs to go, taking on a pulled calf muscle that will remove him for a few weeks. We end up with Jude Bellingham serving as right winger.

Eddie Salcedo makes good use of his time on the field, which he’ll need to given Esposito’s injury. Collecting a Pellegrini cross on his head, he produces an expert deflection in handling his effort across the goalmouth and into the far corner. Steffen in the City goal barely reacts. Laporte is utterly beaten by the Italian, a rare lapse in concentration. The opposition could ease themselves back into it, but it’s a sign of their ebbing confidence that the blue-shirted heads go down and they seem resigned to defeat. We sign, seal and deliver the win with Ademola Lookman‘s late drive, which is gift-wrapped to him when he’s on hand to collect Rodri’s messy clearance.

A fine win then, even if it’s a costly one with Esposito out for the foreseeable future. Jayden Bogle is picked as the best player, which he deserves after neutralising two threatening attackers in Sane and Jesus. Even KDB isn’t his usual virtuous self. Something is definitely missing from this team. There’s no spark.

We’ll face Liverpool in the final. They see off United after outlasting them by a scoreline of 3-2 at the end of a committed and artful 3-2 classic that does honour to the game.

Suddenly, we’re facing a minor injury crisis with the Watford FA Cup tie approaching. Frimpong isn’t quite there yet, and while Wilson is rated as being good enough to make the subs bench he’s still returning from injury. Roberts is unavailable until February. Esposito has gone to see the specialist for the purpose of getting his spine fixed. That last part sounds a lot more terrifying than it is. Bielik is carrying a minor knock, which means he ought to sit this one out, and while not injured Pellegrini has run himself into the ground. The biggest issues are in attack, where we have to go with Hlozek on the wing and Salcedo up-front. Lowe comes in for his first start at left-back since before the World Cup. I’m scouring the market for potential solutions to the right wing dilemma. What was something that I could have put off until summer now seems more urgent, however the players I would hope to recruit are either unaffordable, nothing better than what we already have or assets their current teams don’t wish to part with, such as Ferran Torres at Leeds. This may be a case of toughing it out, pinning my hopes on what we’ve got and hoping we don’t miss Esposito too much.

The Fourth Round tie we play at the Vicarage puts me back into panic mode. Watford are third in the Championship and in white hot form. They’ve been in the promotion picture ever since going down but have never quite got themselves over the line; nevertheless they look like a Premier League team in waiting, and despite pummelling them with shots the scoreline remains a stubborn 0-0. Defensively we’re fine. It’s more in attack where the problems lie. Salcedo is the sort of greedy forward who wants to score a hat-trick each time, but nothing goes right for him. Gazzaniga in the Hornets goal leads a charmed life, dealing with each shot that doesn’t go wide, or over, or clatters against the woodwork.

By the time we’re entering extra time Ade Lookman is playing as striker and Harry Wilson has been asked to defy his unfit status by putting in a fine cameo on the right wing. Needs must… And still it drags on, offering a terrifying preview of what life might be like without the skills and verve of Esposito. In the end there’s nothing for it other than to resolve the tie on penalties. Stuparevic and Dawson score for them. Wilson and Moriba do the same in our cause. Dean Henderson then transforms into Billy the Fish, parrying Jordao’s effort and outright catching the weak kick from Bacuna. Hughes scores for us, and then Lookman, with the decisive shot puts it away with aplomb. We’re through, but not without heavy caveats and concerns.

The fifth round spits out an unfriendly trip to Everton, in a match scheduled for the beginning of March. Before that happens we will have played eight Premier League games, including home and away against Manchester United, a visit to Anfield and taking on the Pool again in the Carabao Cup final. Oh yes, and the matter of Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. This is exactly what we want, testing ourselves against the best teams out there, but suddenly the schedule looks unfriendly and not a little daunting.

Derby FM20 – September 2022: The Terror of Paris

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.

The transfer window is closed. A total of £1.81 billion has been spent on hopes and dreams in the Premier League, a stunning amount of money in which we certainly played our part. All the same, United’s £100 million acquisition of Joao Felix means they have paid only slightly less for one player than we have on our entire complement across the window. Overall City have gazumped the pack, racking up a total spend of £252 million. Newcastle have emerged as the most prolific buyers, making ten purchases of which precisely none tease me as people we could use.

For the record we stand as the sixth biggest spenders of the window. The teams above us are precisely the ones you would expect to see there. Derby stand fifth in the table of transfer monies received. Our net spend of £26 million places us twelfth among Premier League teams. The Red Devils have made the biggest splash, perhaps unsurprisingly, £238 million outgoing against a mere sixty coming in, while Leicester stand as the only side to make a net profit. This is mainly fuelled by the £44 million exit of Youri Tielemans, who now has a future of jostling for space in the Man You midfield to look forward to, but it’s a worryingly quiet window for the Foxes, who looked to me as though they could have used some fresh faces… Well, more than Frances Coquelin, anyway.

We come out of the international break facing what should be the most terrifying of challenges, which is Manchester City away. Like most challengers we don’t have a brilliant record against them, and that’s because they’re a super good team. I don’t really care very much about the constant excuse that they are only where they are due to rampant spending. I mean that’s still true, but any idiot can blow a lot of cash (just read through most of the posts on this site for more) and City are either at or near the top on a regular basis. They need to be respected.

All of which said, I don’t fully know what to expect with Pep gone and Jose Mourinho leading the blue half of Manctopia. Via a quick Google search, I’m sure this means that Jose is the first person to manage both Mancunian giants since the straw-boated days of Ernest Mangnall, back in the early twentieth century. What I do know is that the transition hasn’t been entirely smooth. City are currently in the bottom half of the table, something that I do not expect to continue, and whatever the Special One does to unravel the beautiful football instigated by his predecessor the fact remains that a team starring Kevin De Bruyne is capable of twatting anyone. And if you are out there, reading these words and thinking KDB? Hah! Totally beatable, then a few more names to throw out for you – Harrington Kane, Kai Havertz, Mateo Kovacic, Gabriel Jesus, Aymeric Laporte, Ederson, and so on, and on, and on. Quality oozes out of every pore. I imagine Jose will take some adjusting to his new job, and the players to him, but they are far too good to be waddling around the bottom half, twelve positions beneath ourselves.

Of course, Mourinho is no longer an instant translation into success. The gloss has come off in recent years, and this perhaps explains why we go to the Etihad and shade the first half. We don’t score, but we’re good, holding this world class bunch at arm’s length while Esposito has a couple of decent chances that he usefully fails to convert. They come out stronger after the break, turning the screw more successfully and finding more inroads into the danger areas, though everything still goes through KDB and Bielik’s man-marking job on him is nullifying much of their pressure. It can’t keep going our way forever, and the situation changes when Pellegrini is penalised for a push on Zaniolo as he’s ambling through the penalty area. It’s a horrible foul to give away – the winger’s looking to go down, and our man completely obliges him.

Harrington Kane puts away the kick with ease; nerves of steel are his as he slots into the bottom left corner in a way that Butland has no chance of reaching. I’m angry by this stage because we don’t deserve to go behind, so I make the decision to go more attacking, introducing Wilson and debutante Gray for the under-performing Hlozek and Lookman. Now it’s our turn to up the ante, looking for space and making quick runs and passes to sweep forward. If we have one thing going for us then it’s raw speed. When you’re quick you always have the capacity to cause blind panic in opposition defences, apart from maybe Virgil Van Dijk, and the rest of the half sees blue-shirted players backpedal as we put them to the sword. In the eighty-fourth minute Bielik plays a pass out to wide on the right, where Frimpong is darting past Tavares. The Dutchman gets his cross in to the feet of Eddie Salcedo, who shoots high into the net despite being covered – whatever that means – by Stones. It’s a great reaction, and we are due such a moment of ecstasy after our performance here. We could go on and win all three points, but Ederson pulls off a good point-blank save from Wilson to guarantee both teams sharing the spoils.

Other fixtures ensure that we lose top spot, and there’s the slightly worrying sign that we have won three home games in the league and drawn all three that have been played away. Perhaps we should have done better against Villa and the Saints, but there’s no reason not to be happy in clinching a draw at the Etihad. The players’ response to my demand that they don’t accept defeat is encouraging. We could very easily have lost; instead we refused to take such an outcome on the chin.

There’s not much time to dwell on it. Within a couple of days we’re jetting to France from Derby International Airport with Paris-Saint Germain lying in wait. I appreciate that at many points in this blog I have gone on about the size difference between my team and some of the sides we’re up against, but PSG are frankly frightening enough to have me cagily padding around the computer for a couple of days before mustering all my courage in order to engage the fixture.

Like in real life, Thomas Tuchel‘s Parisian Galacticos are a who’s who of top drawer players. To give an idea of how mismatched this one is, here are a few facts and stats:

  • Tuchel has lavished £848 million on his team since 2019. He’ll swoop beyond the billion barrier before too long. This makes PSG by a distance the biggest spenders in the game. In contrast, my total outlay is £304 million, which puts me in ninth place overall.
  • They have won Ligue Un in each of the last three seasons. Last year they finished on 98 – their points haul and margin of victory increases exponentially with each campaign.
  • They’re French top scorers, and thanks to their sheer attacking verve they also concede the fewest goals. In 2021/22 they scored 99 and let in 25, making for a staggering +74 goal difference.
  • Mauro Icardi and Mohamed Salah both enjoyed 20+ goalscoring seasons last term. Neymar came in third place with 15. That wasn’t good enough apparently, so PSG have snapped up Aguero and Benzema just in case their main forwards are firing blanks. Aubameyang, signed for £32.5 million a couple of years ago, can’t make it into the team so he’s been hawked off to Leicester on loan.
  • The Champions League continues to elude them, and you get the impression once they claim that particular grail things might calm down, a bit. Their best effort was in 2019/20, when they were defeated by Man City in the final, however ultimate success in the competition continues to elude them. Maybe this will be their year…

Lining up against them is like reaching the boss level of an especially hard video game. They’re so good that a central midfielder of some renown like Saul can be played at right-back just to find something for him to do. PSG field Reine-Adelaide and Milinkovic-Savic in the middle, with Kluivert and some bloke called Neymar on their wings. Jordan Pickford’s the guy who normally has little to do in goal. Their players regard us a bit like that fit girl you walk past, the one who fixes you with a stare that cuts the crap and demands you keep walking, loser.

I suppose I should be happy enough that we finish the first half only a goal down. Esposito has an early chance, which he puts wide of goal, and moments later he’s crowded out by Diallo when in a prime spot, but PSG turn it on from then and take the lead through Justin Kluivert. After peppering our goal with shots, the Dutchman breaks the deadlock with a bit of loveliness taken from just outside the area, taking advantage of our defenders not knowing quite who deserves the most attention. As against City I have soon swapped out all three attacking players. There isn’t a lot more that their replacements can do, but with some encouraging words from me we eventually fashion an equaliser. Rolando Vieira volleys in from the D, Reine-Adelaide agog that a supposedly lesser player can produce a fast and true shot of such accuracy. We could even win, when Hughes is put through, but the angle’s wide and Pickford is able to nullify the danger.

All the same, 1-1 from our first ever Champions League encounter, and against one of the favourites, is a great result. Two draws from two away matches, in which we’ve played perhaps the twin richest clubs in world football, is not to be sniffed at.

The rest of the September schedule will be played entirely at home. West Brom and Bournemouth are our league opponents, and we will also entertain Lazio and Porto in the continent. Hopefully the toughest test is behind us now.

Derby FM20 – May 2022: Down and Out in Rotterdam

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.

I’ll be honest. Given the way we finished the league season probably the last thing we need right now is to be contesting a major final. The players would far rather be drifting off onto their holidays than be forced to raise their game for a last time. The mood in the dressing room is downcast. They’re finished, done, just leave us alone and stop hurting us. The Derby County Training Centre has turned into an unhappy place.

I’m not used to having to deal with the prevailing mood, and similarly the players’ mental fatigue is something I am unable to deal with. Perhaps a great motivator can inspire his charges to go over the top one last time, go on boys, do it for the fans, etc, but it’s challenging. Those lads have walked through walls at times, yet I get the impression they’ve been asked to do it once too often and contesting another big game, even something as illustrious as the final of the Europa League, is yet another demand that’s quite beyond them.

We’re up against Manchester City, in a showpiece that’s being played at Stadion Feijenoord, nicknamed De Kuip, in Rotterdam. It’s a lovely ground, capable of hosting more than 50,000 human beings, and it’s best remembered as the site of France’s spectacular 2-1 victory over Italy in the Euro 2000 final. I remember that game very well. At the time I had only recently become a father, and like any new parent it was a hard-going period of almost relentless skintness, all our money seemingly going on nappies and infant milk. The European Championships were an important distraction, and the final was a good one, the two teams going into extra time before David Trezeguet produced a sudden death winner.

The background to this is that no matter what happens Pep Guardiola is likely to be sacked by City, the consequence of a disappointing league campaign by their standards and falling out of the Champions League. Truly, to be even in a match like this one isn’t good enough for a club with their outlook. A season during which they have sold something like £350 million worth of talent, notably Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo, hasn’t gone well at all as Pep has tried to replace his old faces with new ones, and as a consequence they simply aren’t the effervescent attacking force that they once were. After clinching three league titles in a row and winning a couple of Champions Leagues, what they’ve done this year isn’t adequate for a set-up with their nebulous levels of ambition. By all accounts, whoever takes over will have pots of cash to play with, the opportunity to reshape the entire team with world class protagonists. It’s mouthwatering. I’ll learn later that yours truly has emerged as one of the leading candidates for the role.

As for the match, it goes just as badly as the build-up suggests. We can argue that to be even here is a massive achievement. We’ve seen off the likes of Valencia, AZ and Arsenal on our route to the final, all banana skins past which we have navigated successfully; you can’t come here and not dream, but the three first half goals they put past us during a nightmarish six-minute spell of attacking verve slams us back down to earth.

I name what I think is a good team for this one. Butland in goal, as always. A defensive line of Bogle, Pedraza, Oxford and Bielik. Chirivella in the shielding role behind Vieira and captain Hughes. Wilson and Lookman on the wings, with Esposito playing as striker. City in comparison look like Godlike giants. Ederson is a tattooed and awesome presence between the sticks. Eric Garcia and Johnny Stones are flanked in defence by Ferro and Nicolas Tagliafico. Florentino Luis is imposing as their defensive midfielder, with Kai Havertz and the ever dangerous Kevin De Bruyne operating ahead of him. Harrington Kane is their forward, with Leroy Sane and Nicolo Zaniolo operating as wingers.

This turns into a personal nadir for Alfonso Pedraza, as Zaniolo toys with him endlessly on his flank before I put him out of his misery in the thirty second minute, bringing on Max Lowe to at least give us some defensive ballast. It’s a rare lapse in the Spaniard’s normally high standards, and it forces me to think back to all those fractious team talks when he led the cabal of players who were questioning my efforts to gee them up. A good player and generally a happy one, but I’m reminded that he doesn’t enjoy big matches and here’s some sterling evidence of that fact.

For City’s first, Ferro finds himself in acres of space on the right wing. As Pedraza tries gamely to reach him, the Portuguese has all the time in the world to pick out Kane at the near post. The striker flicks the ball on to the other end of the net, where Sane is waiting to nod past Butland. Two minutes later, De Bruyne finds Zaniolo, who turns the luckless Pedraza before volleying home. To kill us off, Kane justifies his presence by heading in from KDB’s free kick. All too easy.

I try for one last time to raise the players’ heads and spirits for the second half. We get our reward thanks to a superb solo effort from Sebastiano Esposito, who runs along much of the left wing, covered by Garcia, finally cutting inside, leaving blue shirted defenders in his wake as he fires one into the top corner. It’s a beautifully taken strike from a player who has excelled for us, playing with passion in producing the game’s outstanding moment of individual skill, but that’s about it. At least I can claim, a bit pathetically I know, that we’ve won the second half. In reality our opposition are happy to hold on to their lead, defending competently and not needing to go back into attack mode as we generate no further goals. It ends 3-1.

So that’s that. We receive around £15 million in prize money and are named the competition’s biggest over-achievers, which sounds about right to me. Jack Butland is listed in the Europa League’s squad of the season, while City have five entrants. Without doubt we’ve done well to be here. Against another team we might even have gone a step further and lifted the trophy, but the Manchester giants represented a very strong obstacle and just had too much in the tank for us to overcome.

Sure enough, Pep’s thank you note for winning silverware comes with an attached P45. No such ignominy for the losing manager. The board love me, demanding nothing greater than a top half finish in 2022/23, and even agree to invest five million in upgrading our training facilities. This apparently represents Mr Morris’s display of appreciation over what I have achieved with his football club. It’s nice. We’re in good health. Derby have effortlessly passed the financial fair play periods in both the Premier League and the Europa League, turning a healthy profit in each one. Shirt sales are another positive, 34,755 items sold with Hughes’s number 19 proving to be the most popular. The outlook can be represented by a big thumbs up. I would be happy too, if not for our poor form at the end of the season, which has left me feeling troubled and shaken my faith in the squad.

Derby FM20 – May 2022: Endgame

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.

Here once again is the situation going into the last two league games, which for us will be played against Manchester City at home and then Norwich City away. The sums have it that we can finish anywhere betwixt first and fifth, though I am fairly dubious about challenging for the title after our recent dodgy form. In reality we haven’t played badly, apart from choking to the Gunners perhaps, but the standard at top is dizzyingly high. Anything less than constant winning is no good at all, and in dropping seven points in recent weeks, after briefly topping the table, we find ourselves bounced back down into third place and being in jeopardy of losing that Champions League slot. In any event Manchester United can end our fleeting hopes of claiming the crown with a win away to Chelsea on the day before we take on City, and in some ways that will be a relief, one less impossible dream to play for. If we get a point against either City or Norwich, then we’ve eased ourselves over the line and guaranteed a top four finish. One point. That’s all we need.

Chelsea win their match 3-1, but Liverpool beat Palace after a nervy yet decisive ninety minutes and are now six points clear of us. We can match them in terms of points, but our goal difference, which is twenty less than theirs, makes the outcome pretty much academic. Far more important is Fulham doing us a big favour by overcoming Spurs in a 2-1 result. As a consequence we can’t finish below fourth place and have guaranteed a Champions League slot. This prompts the Derby board to set our initial budgets for the coming season. I can now spunk up to £1.7 million per week on wages, a rise of just over two hundred grand, and there’s £68 million available for player transfers. Thirty two of this will be headed straight into Barcelona’s coffers for Ilaix Moriba, so in reality it’s more like £36 million, but there isn’t the need to replace enormous swathes of the squad like we have experienced in the past. My intention now is to pin my hopes on the bulk of this lot and change things judiciously.

All of which said, several of the boys are in demand. Tottenham are making cow eyes at Pedro Chirivella, who’s now valued at a cool £32 million. Villa and Leicester like the look of Adam Hlozek, while Max Lowe is the continued subject of interest from Brighton and Newcastle. I’m not especially up for selling any of these, but Hlozek’s situation is an interesting one. He’s coming into the final year of his contract and the temptation to cash in on him while his stock is high lingers in the back of my mind. According to reports the Foxes are considering an offer that could be worth as much as £66 million, a titanic amount of money and a vast profit level for someone who cost us less than a quarter of that amount. I don’t mind what happens especially. It’s just as likely that the Czech will agree a new deal, and a further factor is that in a year’s time he becomes homegrown. The guy’s scored nineteen goals across all competitions this season and the petulance that undermined every good thing he produced in 2020/21 is a thing of the past. So he’s not without value, but that is a lot of cash money…

It’s lucky that we come into the City game not especially needing anything. We can stomach a defeat without it having an adverse effect on our position, and that’s just what happens as the players appear to be mentally on their holidays already for this one. The blue shirts score midway through the first half when Mendy’s cross is scythed towards goal by Kane. The shot bounces off Butland’s legs, but Gabriel Jesus is right there to pick up and is able to walk the ball into the net. To add to our misery and ending any chance of us being able to engineer a comback, Will Hughes gets himself sent off for a rare lapse of concentration, crashing into Havertz from behind with more than half an hour remaining. It’s grisly, dangerous, and there’s a lot of frustration summed up in the moment as the visitors have us chasing shadows for so much of the game. The match statistics suggest that it’s been an even affair, but I feel like we’ve been schooled by a better team. It bodes ill for the upcoming Europa League final.

The points mean a lot more to Pep Guardiola‘s men than they do to us. The illustrious Catalan is under massive pressure to achieve, as always, and in my press conferences before and after the game I am compelled to defend his position publicly. It seems bizarre to me that someone who has delivered so much to football in England as he has could be in danger of losing his job, but I guess nothing less than challenging fiercely for the title is going to be good enough. In any event Pep seems to appreciate my supportive words, so that’s nice.

On to Norwich, on a glorious spring afternoon in the south-east. The Canaries are rooted in mid-table, which in itself is no small feat. They’ve started spending heavily after their takeover, leading to relatively expensive acquisitions like Croatian striker Bruno Petkovic, and Matias Vecino, a midfielder from Inter, lining up against us. Without our captain, who is starting his three-game ban, we place Moriba alongside Vieira in central midfield, and the latter puts in a commanding turn, showing the vision and determination to succeed. This is a performance unmatched by many Rams out there, notably the three forward players who do very little, whether they’re Wilson, Lookman and Salcedo, or Roberts, Ojo and Hlozek, all of whom look like they have mentally completed their season’s work. The match is decided on a single goal, and it isn’t one that’s scored by us. Todd Cantwell heads in from a Sidibe cross that’s cleared by Bielik, but weakly and dropping like a beautifully wrapped gift for the winger.

Not the best of finishes to the campaign, and as I’ve teased at beforehand the impression I get is that in their heads the players have spent all their effort by this point. I could always see us struggling against a side as good as City, but ordinarily we would have done much better when taking on the likes of Norwich, and ending the season so ignominiously hurts. Man City, who started this mini-run of games six points behind us, and with an inferior goal difference, needed two victories and six additional goals to claim our third place. They nearly do it, twatting Sheffield United 4-0 on the final day as we’re choking in Norwich, and the final table reveals that they remain behind by that single strike.

All this leaves me in a bittersweet mood. I can’t complain about our overall performance in the Premier League. Two years ago Derby were in the process of being promoted, so to reach third place and at one point challenge for the league title is a fantastic achievement. There’s a great deal to be proud of in our work overall. Yet it is the case to me that we simply gave up at some point. The last few weeks weren’t a pleasure, and much of this I put down to nerves, the fun of playing good football giving itself over to seriousness and stress during that brief period when we found ourselves in the driving seat, the top flight crown in our hands. Suddenly the dressing room became a sombre place, as every mistake led to over-analysis and recrimination, and we ultimately choked. Team talks were especially grim. As I tried to underline the importance of continuing our good progress the response was mixed, the more ambitious players nodding emphatically along whilst others became unsettled at the pressure being placed on them. I guess that’s what happens when we’re in a situation we aren’t used to dealing with, and we allowed sides that are more versed to winning things getting the jump on us.

Credit goes to Manchester United, who pull off a 5-0 wrecking ball of a performance over West Ham to both clinch the title and consign their opposition to relegation. Liverpool have Arsenal on the final day, and at the Emirates can only produce a 1-1 stalemate. This allows the Red Devils to snake in and steal their place at the top of the table. It’s brilliant stuff from the Manchester team, who probably came into the final stages as the form team and deserve their success. At the other end, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United join the Hammers in the ignominy of going down. Another escape for Southampton, whose 2-2 against Wolves turns out to be just about enough, while the two relegated teams have looked pretty wretched for much of the term.

Derby FM20 – September 2021: Bitter Blues

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

I think I have confessed previously on these pages that facing Manchester City is not one of my favourite aspects of the job. The blue half of that metropolis to the north of us is a terrifying prospect as always, even if their summer transfer window was a surprise of signing almost no one while divesting themselves of nearly £250 million worth of talent. For most teams that would represent an enormous problem, but this is City, who can afford to sell Bernardo Silva, Olexandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo, and not lose too much sleep. They’re still awesome.

Taking them on is a slightly different prospect to trying to cope with that other Premier League juggernaut, Liverpool. The Scousers are masters of the pressing game, something we all try to emulate but without ever reaching their terrifying levels of forcing teams off the ball. What City have is attacking effervescence. Each time they are in possession you’re facing an uphill task in trying to get the ball back before they’ve had another chance on goal. Working out who to mark is ridiculous. The exercise begins with De Bruyne, obviously, but who do you look out for after that? Harrington Kane is a superb attacking presence. Kai Havertz can spark any move, and then there’s Jesus, Sane, Everton, and all their funky buddies.

It’s hard, and our only real chance is to get the odd breakthrough because defensively they’re ever so slightly suspect. Note the use of the word ‘slightly’. They’re hardly Arsenal, who we all know have more than a note of dodginess at the back, but unlike Liverpool, with Van Dijk controlling everything like an imperious pitch commander, there’s more of a possibility that we can put one past them. First though, we need to get hold of the ball, find a way through those ranks of world class ballers and use our raw pace to cause them problems. Easy, huh?

The Etihad welcomes us with a full stadium and ‘welcome to Manchester’ rain. Sebastiano Esposito has an early chance when his cross ends up becoming a looping shot that Ederson has the wherewithal to bat away. It’s promising. Fourteen minutes are on the clock when Hughes picks out Bogle on the right wing. The full-back is in space and darts forward, launching his cross before Rodrigo can force him off the ball. It’s a good one; Esposito gets to the ball before Stones to head in at the near corner, and we’re in front.

That means sticking to our cautious mentality and being ready for a siege, which is exactly what we have to endure for the remaining seventy-something minutes. Kane equalises shortly after when McKenna’s header rebounds to him, but VAR rules the goal out because he’s slightly offside. Jack Butland selects this occasion to channel the spirit of Lev Yashin, keeping each and every shot at bay as City’s work gets increasingly frenetic and they try to dazzle us with all the thrills and spills in their massive repertoire. De Bruyne is key to everything, spraying passes with Pirlo levels of sheer virtuosity, but we’re equal to it all. He’s watched by Chirivella, charged with minimising his effect, and he does his best in the role, but the real credit goes to Oxford and McKenna in defence, who deal with everything.

In the second half, Pavon is sent off for a second yellow when he ‘deals with’ Leroy Sane. We are forced to play the game’s last third with ten men, which ends Esposito’s contribution as I go for damage limitation and pack our defensive ranks. Guardiola brings on Everton and Aguero, which isn’t a bad couple of substitutes to revert to… And somehow we hang on. As much as De Bruyne tries to force matters, City can’t find a way past us. We get a priceless three points, at a place I never expected to grab them. All our experience and guile at over-achieving against the division’s best has been on display here. No doubt back at Pride Park they will seek bloody vengeance, but that’s a story for another day. For now we have a moment to celebrate.

Victory here puts us up into fifth place, broadly on the points total I would hope for at this stage – considering we have now done both City and Liverpool on the road it’s a staggering achievement. The pundits point out our excellent defensive record. We now haven’t let in a single goal in four league games, not since losing to Newcastle in fact, and like last season it’s this quality that will ultimately decide whether we get to stay so far up the table.

In midweek we are up against Southampton in the Carabao Cup, before entertaining Tottenham. The latter are currently first in the league, while the Saints are already occupying their traditional place within lower mid-table. In the meantime we receive the news about a horrific injury to Marc Stendera, whose currently on loan with Wurzburger Kickers. A routine challenge during a training session has left him with a damaged spine, which will put him out of action for up to a year. It doesn’t matter right now that Stendera will never play for us again, being as he is in the last year of his contract. Nobody deserves this sort of awful luck, certainly not after he had made such a good start to his campaign.

On to the Saints then, in the least of the four contests for which we are entered. As against Mainz, I make liberal changes to the line-up. Vallejo is having his first start. Lopez is in the eleven, partnering Stoger ahead of Vieira, and Hlozek gets another opportunity to show what he can do. More of what he produced at this time last week will be very welcome. It’s good to be able to put out a strong side. The leisure to chop and change is something I need to be able to do, with the likes of Hughes, Oxford, Bogle and Esposito given the day off and Pavon banned.

Southampton aren’t a side to be taken lightly. We’re up against highly respected players like Ings and Ward-Prowse, and they’ve also made a very promising signing in Gonzalo Montiel, a £9.25 million acquisition from Torino who is playing at right wing-back. What the team doesn’t do is change much from the weekend’s action, and it becomes clear that the signs of fatigue are showing in their ranks as we romp to a 5-0 victory. The fun starts early when Scott McKenna heads in a Stoger corner, a well worked two-fingered salute to the board who have been moaning about the lack of set-piece success from us recently.

In the second half, we run riot. This shouldn’t be as easy as it is, but the opposition looks tired, leggy and frankly disinterested. No such absence of resolve from ourselves, as provider Kevin Stoger becomes a scorer when he rifles one in from outside the area after latching on to Vieira’s assist. In the sixty-fifth minute, Lopez’s nicely weighted through ball finds Josh Maja, who scores from the right of goal. It’s a lovely bit of work from both players. The French midfielder is enjoying his start in English football, while Maja clearly can do this sort of thing against anyone and especially relishes using his speed to overcome knackered defenders. McKenna then heads in a second from Maja’s free-kick, before we make it five late in the game when Adam Hlozek, who’s been running the Saints ragged throughout and by now is operating from the right wing, bags another to add to his personal account.

A good, open game and a sensational result, the only shame being that it’s played before a half-empty stadium. Such a pity – our best attacking display of the campaign and only the die-hards have come to see it happen. I can’t really blame the supporters. They have Europa League football to pay for as well as our league exploits, so something has to give. The next round, which has whittled the number of contenders down to sixteen, again places us as the home team, and this time we’ll be up against newly promoted Fulham.

Derby FM20 – February 2021: Capitulation

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 January transfer window closes. We make some half-assed attempts to bring in an extra player on loan, but without success because we have very little to offer, similarly I opt against the possibility of terminating the deals for Morgan Whittaker and Jason Knight because they would likely play such a minor role for us. Better, I feel, for them to least get regular football at their current teams and return to us improved. Of the current crop of boys playing elsewhere these two have the most robust future with us, I feel.

Money is spent elsewhere as football talent gets moved around. Angel Correa joins Spurs from Atletico Madrid for £43 million. He’s an attacking midfielder I have used in other saves and a good one, capable of doing the unexpected, however the £145,000 weekly salary he’s exacting puts him quite out of our reach. Liverpool take Dinamo keeper Dominik Livakovic, a Croatian international who clearly wants nothing more than to play second fiddle at Anfield. Someone we had been scouting, Brazilian forward Kaio Jorge, is subject to a £15.5 million transfer to Sevilla. The fee wouldn’t be beyond us in a normal transfer window where we have a full treasury to play with, but getting the work permit for a 19 year old prodigy might be. Another signing from an alternative reality, Pablo Sarabia, joins Brighton to give them options on the right wing. I once brought him in to Arsenal in an FM 2019 save, to compete with Christian Pavon on the wing. Both were relatively cheap and very, very good, indeed memories of their success reminds me to scout the latter, who’s now playing for Boca Juniors and tantalising me with his Italian dual nationality.

We entertain Manchester City at Pride Park, a fixture in which the opposition remember to use Kevin De Bruyne this time. If our season has a nadir then I hope this is it. Pep’s winning machine could only secure a draw against us at the Etihad but they make no such mistakes here, playing at their best and securing a 3-0 victory without breaking much of a sweat. To them we’re like that much smaller kid who’s taking part in a playground fight. We can be safely held at arm’s length, swinging punches that harmlessly push the air aside while they pummel us in return.

Their first comes in the 33rd minute when Bogle takes down Everton in our penalty area for the easiest of refereeing decisions. Harrington Kane dispatches a nerveless spot-kick in the manner we have all seen previously. At 1-0 it’s far from over and we harbour thoughts of mounting a comeback, however the visitors absorb our efforts to attack them with some ease and score a second on the hour mark when Laporte heads in a KDB corner at the far post. Shortly afterwards they make it 3-0, Laporte again from almost the same move and Foden supplying the assist. It’s reasonably well marked by Jatta but the centre-back’s height advantage makes the difference.

We have a few chances, and Stoger comes out of the confrontation with some credit by making himself useful in midfield, but once that third goes in I feel as though I have little choice but to adopt a defensive mentality and limit the damage. By this stage, City feel similarly and are happy to hold on to the ball, confident we can’t hurt them. The area in which we do excel is in collecting yellow cards, five of them in total. Mostly these are for late challenges, because the blue shirted visitors really had us chasing shadows for much of the time.

It’s terrible, understandable I’m sure against someone this good but a real capitulation after losing to Everton so recently. I’m asked why we have such a poor home record. It’s a fair question. I approach most matches at this level the same way, playing a balanced system whilst I work out whether we can become more positive or focus on caution, and perhaps when teams come to Pride Park they leave fewer openings for our forward players in the way they do at their own lair.

And then there’s the KDB factor to consider. The Belgian is on a different level to everyone else, even many of his illustrious teammates, and we do well enough to keep him from inflicting further damage. Having him in the side feels as though City have an unfair advantage; he’s that good, and he got to dictate the play here in a way that made the final result inevitable.

I’ve discussed beforehand that February has all the makings of a terrible month for us. Four games against four big sides. I will have to think deeply about what I’m going to change for our trip to Tottenham at the weekend, even though my choices are limited because Derby don’t have the luxury of riches enjoyed by the standard of the better teams at this level.

One thing I will have to do is give Ivan a chance at right-back. Jayden Bogle‘s booking against City puts him on ten for the campaign and suspends him for the next two fixtures. That’s disappointing, but I can’t really criticise the full-back too heavily. If the Premier League has got one thing then it’s the abundance of pacey wingers, and while Jayden possesses similar gifts the reality is that he’s a 20 year old kid who is working hard to bring himself up to the required level. I think he’ll make it too; he’s much improved from last season and has the stamina to work at full tilt for entire matches, which he really needs.

As for the Spaniard, like many of our signings last season he was brought on board to cope with the rigours of a Championship campaign and he simply isn’t built to cope with the Premier League. It’s almost certain that we will have to replace him, to at least bring in a decent right-back to properly challenge Bogle and increase our options, whereas Ivan is little more than an emergency alternative.

The obvious name here is Max Aarons of Norwich City, but the English defender seems fully aware that his next move will be to someone who can pay him top whack wages and that just isn’t us. We’ve been scouting Kyle Walker-Peters for some time. A product of the Tottenham Academy and by  staggering coincidence sharing almost the exact same name as a fellow Spurs right-back who made the jump to the Etihad, the 23 year old is now with Crystal Palace and could be acquired for up to £5 million. Other options include James Justin, largely trapped in the hinterland of the Leicester Under-23s since his move from Luton, Manchester United youngster Ethan Laird, and Tosin Adarabioyo of their cross-town rivals. With the latter trio, the price could increase exponentially depending on how reluctant their clubs are to let them go, but they are all worth a watch.