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 – 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 – January 2021: Good Fortune at Goodison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – 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 – January 2023: Messing with the Big Boys

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 carefully unpack my players from their cotton wool wrappings before our visit to Old Trafford to take on league champions Manchester United. The fixture computer has seen fit to spit out both our games against them close together – we’ll entertain the Devils in just a couple of week’s time. Clearly, being the wielders of the Premier League crown makes them dangerous opposition. Though fifth in the table as it stands, the situation is so bunched up that a few wins will put them back on top and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer has spent heavily to advance their ambitions. Ruben Neves is now a United midfielder, joining Tielemans, Felix and Schick on their list of prestigious purchases, though the big news is Bruno Fernandes, who’s left them to play for AC Milan in a £103 million deal. Ole has also done what his predecessors could not in parting ways with Phil Jones. The defender, who it says here has won twenty-seven England caps during what must have been fallow times, is now a PSV player after completing a £6.5 million transfer. Phil Jones, huh? How many times have we all watched United and thought ‘It’s one on one, everything depends on who the forward has to beat… it’s Jones! And he’s panicking!

Naturally it’s chucking down in Salford. The stadium’s packed to the rafters, the fans expecting much from a side that puts out Semedo, Bentancur, Lenglet, Pogba, Martial and Rashford. We play with a cautious mentality because it’s the obvious thing to do, hoping to soak up their pressure with our midfield trio of Chirivella, Hughes and Vieira. And it works. After a sluggish opening, we test De Gea with a Lookman effort that soars narrowly wide of the net, and then a scrambled melee right in front of goal ends when the keeper emerges with a hard-won ball. We finally go ahead in the fortieth minute. Lookman plays an impish backheeled pass across the box that appears to have every United defender stop what they’re doing and appreciate it, which lets Adam Hlozek attempt a crack from just to the right of De Gea. Mendy isn’t really watching, and the keeper can’t reach the ball as it sails past him.

Within minutes, it’s 1-1. A really smooth move straight from kickoff puts the home team back on level terms, implying they can produce a slick passing display any time they like to produce their equaliser from Marcus Rashford. There’s nothing very wrong with what we do, but Rashers is a great player and on this occasion has the beating of Bogle to race past him and place his shot beyond Butland, whose fingertipped save can only help it into the net. And still the first half drama isn’t over. A Chirivella free-kick into the box hands us a penalty shout when Semedo is judged to have tackled Salcedo unfairly. De Gea isn’t the best keeper when facing penalties, and he barely moves when Hlozek places the shot to his right.

We’re prepared for the usual second half onslaught, but instead Tuanzebe is dismissed shortly after kickoff for taking on a second yellow, which he deserves after rather harshly taking Lookman down. From here we can play sensible football, not giving the home side one sniff of an open opportunity, and we walk away with a priceless three points.

This is a really great win for us. The Theatre has been pretty much impregnable, so to produce the goods counts heavily in our favour. We do it with Salcedo having another middling performance; he’ll need to do better as it’s all on his shoulders now. The alternative of course is to use Hlozek as our striker. It’s a role from which he’s had more success, and it’s my thinking that when both Wilson and Roberts are fit again this is exactly what we’ll do. The Czech’s importance is therefore enhanced, and it’s at this moment that Arsenal start to show an interest in signing him. They’re also sniffing around Lookman, whose form is showing a definite improvement; however they might be up against Tottenham Hotspur in bidding for his services, and by chance the latter are who we’re playing next to finish off January’s schedule.

Results elsewhere go our way and for now we are top of the table. Spurs are persisting with the F.O.C. Manuel Pellegrini, but you feel that it’s on a ‘for now’ basis. They’re sixth, which isn’t bad, but the impression is that the board had a taste of Big Time Charlie-ism when they spent much of last season in first place, and since then they have gently receded to their natural place in the race for Europa League positions. The manager has staked his future on the January signing of Wilfried Zaha, at a cost of £36.5 million from Crystal Palace. To me it’s an odd one. Zaha is now 30, and while he’s been pretty good in the second tier for the Eagles there’s a sense that his ability to influence attacking efforts has waned over the years. There was a time when he could carry his side forward, but those days are largely gone.

All the same they have a good squad, albeit one riddled with little conflicts and troubles. Eric Dier has put in a transfer request. Also listed is winger Gabriel Barbosa, a Brazilian I like the look of though he’s one who has struggled a little to come to terms with life in England. Spurs want £36.5 million, which we flat out can’t afford to pay, but perhaps if they would be prepared to accept a loan bid… Otherwise, they are carefully tearing apart the old Pochettino over-achievers. Toby Alderweireld is the latest to be taking his marching orders; he’ll spend his dotage over in Fiorentina when his contract runs out in the summer.

It becomes clear fairly early in this one that Spurs are soft at the back. At a wet and well-attended Pride Park they turn out minus the injured Camavinga and Ruben Dias, which is a bonus, and instead play the disaffected Dier in defence. Sanchez alongside him is fine, but he’s just one fella and the others look a bit soulless in coping with our attacking raids. In attack, they start with Debbie Alli, who seems easy enough for us to handle, though a crunching tackle from the England man on Krystian Bielik is vicious enough to end the Pole’s game, which what emerges as a thankfully short-term hamstring setback. The visitors can attack. Any side that features Correa, Lo Celso and even Zaha is capable of producing good things, but fortunately we’re able to defend with competence and a height advantage, and we put in forays of our own.

The deadlock is broken in the twelfth minute. Hughes picks out Max Willian in the area, who drags Alderweireld to the touchline before putting in his cross, in meeting which Adam Hlozek rises above Matvienko to head it past Strakosha. It’s 2-0 a minute later. This is the first – hopefully of many – for Max Willian. Salcedo races with the ball along the right flank. Evading Dier’s desperate challenge, he sends in his cross, which loops over the keeper and meets the young Brazlian, who’s hared into the box virtually unmarked and has only to produce a tap-in. Lovely.

Spurs raise their game manfully to try and find ways back into it. They know we are threatening to overwhelm them, and only producing a string of attacks will keep us from testing Strakosha again and again. We deal with it all, Oxford and Tosin doing especially well at dismissing balls into the box, while Bogle is engaged in a personal battle with Zaha that he’s winning. Even when the away team try to freshen things up by introducing Barbosa and Zapata we keep them at bay, and there’s time for Eddie Salcedo to seal the win. The striker darts ahead of Dier to connect with Hlozek’s cross and rifle his shot hard and true into the net. It’s a great time to score, both for us in calming any potential nerves and for him in showing he has what it takes to lead this team forward. Our good run against Tottenham continues.

Winning here makes it thirty games unbeaten, and that’s a new team record. Some supporters are publicly speculating when we’ll lose again – don’t do that, just don’t. More important is our recapture of first place. Chelsea lose at home to Man City, which will no doubt do much to ease the pressure on Uncle Jose, and it’s Arsenal who now press as the most in-form challengers beyond the usual threat of Liverpool. The Gunners are stepping up their efforts to sign Hlozek. According to sources they’re preparing a bid that could be worth as much as £101 million, and that would be hard indeed to reject.

Derby FM20 – February 2022: Man You Part 2

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.

We were knocked out of the FA Cup by West Ham and now we have an opportunity to gain some revenge as we are paired against them in the league. It’s a good time to kick them while they’re down. The Hammers are in eighteenth place, failing to get themselves out of danger even now they are under the new management of Chris Wilder. The former Sheffield United broom might find his time here to be short-lived. West Ham’s porn baron owners aren’t known for their patience, and Wilder’s addition of four new players aren’t making any real difference.

Former Rams target Stanislav Lobotka has been brought in to add deep lying support to their midfield. Also from Italy is Samu Castillejo, a Milan winger who’s here on loan. I’ll admit that as part of my FM experience I have managed the Rossoneri before and Castillejo never lasts very long in my thinking, so I’m not expecting a great deal of trouble from him. Dejan Lovren is now a Hammer, following his £2.7 million transfer from Liverpool, and finally they have tried to reverse the ageing make-up of the side by drafting in Shane Ellis, an 18 year old centre-back signed from Leeds.

With the weekend’s cup final in mind, I name a much-changed side, one that contains eight English players in the starting line-up. Ilaix Moriba is ill with a tight thigh so has to be removed for this one, offering a rare chance to shine for Maxime Lopez. Eddie Salcedo gets his first competitive start for us, and Lowe comes in for the suspended Pedraza.

Our new striker has the ball in the back of Zoet’s net after twenty minutes, but he’s drifted marginally beyond Smalling and the goal is cancelled for being offside. A shame; this is his best moment in a difficult debut that will see him removed midway through the second half. It takes us until then to force the issue. The Hammers have some good players with Felipe Anderson always a source of concern, as he proves when he intercepts a Lowe pass and isn’t stopped until he gets a shot off, but really they are there for the taking. If we can’t win this one, at home, then we probably shouldn’t be where we are in the table, and eventually we take control.

Our first comes when seventy minutes have lapsed. Roberts takes a free-kick, which is aimed towards the far corner, where Krystian Bielik has shrugged off Ruidiaz to head home. This prompts West Ham to seek an equaliser, which in classic fashion leaves them more open to the counter; a slick passing move leads to Vieira’s assist for Patrick Roberts‘s first goal for us, a delicious volley into the top corner. A third comes in injury time, when Adam Hlozek’s shot is diverted into his own net by Charlie Taylor. There’s even time for a fourth, but Roberts’s searching cross is collected by a grateful Zoet. Good to finish with a flurry of attacks, and to pad out our goal difference, which is much lower than that of the teams around us.

Before the Carabao Cup final, we learn who we will be facing in the next round of Europa League matches. In a draw that contains Juve, Dortmund, Arsenal and Monaco, we are paired with Sampdoria. The tie will spirit us off to Genoa first before we host them back in Derby. My stock answer is that the competition contains no easy games, but the lottery could have been harsher to us than it is, even though Claudio Ranieri has the likes of Ivan Perisic and Ross Barley to call upon when his team faces us.

I’m reminded that Derby have never won the League Cup. We haven’t made the final before now, in fact, so this match counts as a very big deal. While we hope that our league form will put us back into next season’s continental picture, achieving victory in the final would gift us with another year of Europa League action, and beyond that there’s the considerable prize of clinching a piece of silverware. Sure, it’s the least of the competitions we’re involved in, but it counts. I’m sure that our illustrious opposition will be contesting it closely.

With the prospect of a further two-match ban facing him, which I’m appealing, Alfonso Pedraza is back in the line-up. Chirivella returns, as does Moriba, and I’m unable to select Laird (on loan from our opposition), or the cup-tied Roberts and Tosin. I have had a word with Esposito about his declining form of late, however he’s still our most reliable goalcorer and he makes the eleven, though now I have the luxury of backing him up with Salcedo, while Hlozek is on the bench for Wilson.

Manchester United emerge from the Wembley tunnel with almost exactly the same alignment of players as those that downed us in the league. They’ve swapped out Lindelof for Tuanzebe, otherwise they’re unchanged. I’ve been advised via Francesco Baiano’s comments to the media to keep an eye on Anthony Martial, for which I’m grateful as otherwise I might have forgotten he was on the field.

It’s breezy and cool in London. The place is packed, the mood of the players tense and anticipatory. I have told them that this is a real occasion, to savour it, and they have responded well. Deep down, I realise the result doesn’t matter very much. Then again, nothing else does. We play football for days like this. It’s a sign of the team’s rise, a compliment to the board for backing me and to the players for their endless work and capacity to pull off good results, more than anyone else to the fans, here in their droves and hoping for something of an upset.

We tear into United from the start, eager to make up for losing to them in the league and hoping to impress the supporters. It’s really positive stuff, my players treating a team as good as this without any level of awe. And it pays off in the twenty-sixth minute when Ilaix Moriba slams his volley into the near corner, the end product of a dizzyingly quick passing sequence between himself, Hughes and Lookman that finds him in the space to take his chance. Before the break we have a second. Hughes is loping up the pitch and passes wide to Wilson before he can be challenged off the ball. The winger takes a punt from an acute angle, which a keeper as accomplished as De Gea deals with, but his parry drops the ball in front of goal, right at Sebastiano Esposito‘s feet, and despite the close attentions of both Lenglet and Tuanzebe he’s perfectly positioned to poke it over the line.

I’m reticent about making us play a cautious game after the break. What we’ve been doing has turned out to be worth it, and the last thing I want is to hand the attacking initiative over to the Devils. So we continue, the swapping of Cavani for Martial making little difference as the Uruguayan forces one good save from Butland and does nothing else. In the meantime we score two more. Pedraza fights off the challenge of Semedo to cross into the middle of the area, where Harry Wilson is only loosely being covered by Mendy and fires his shot into the top corner. From kickoff, as United try to salvage something we regain possession and spark another break. Moriba makes the killer pass to Ademola Lookman, with Semedo and Tuanzebe on either side of him but he knows where the back of the net is and volleys into it. De Gea is a spectator for this one, marvelling with the rest of us at the shot’s virtuosity. At last, the opposition pull one back courtesy of a Bruno Fernandes special from outside the area, the sort of pinpoint bullet of a shot that suggests he can pull this sort of thing off whenever he pleases. But it’s far too little, way too late, and we finish the game nearly padding out our lead as the United challenge crumbles.

And so history is made. We’ve won the Carabao Cup, the first trophy of my Derby career, with Lookman winning Man of the Match for scoring and making a goal. There are no weak performances to speak of, with Esposito back to producing some good predatory work and Chirivella controlling things from his defensive midfield base.

Derby FM20 – February 2022: Man You Part 1

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.

CSKA Moscow won their Europa League group, just like we did, indeed the teams they overcame – FK Austria Vienna, Astana and Bohemians 1905 – are like a wet dream line-up, all beatable. Little wonder that the Russians ended on eighteen points and a +14 goal difference. They’re waiting, as we are, to find out who they will get in the second knockout round, and until then they’re at the top of their Premier League with a squad made up of cast-offs and hand-me-downs, some from England. Ever wondered what happened to David Luiz, Sokratis, Nainggolan, Jovetic and Robbie Brady? They’re all here, a team of golden oldies. Hell, even Football Manager legend Igor Akinfeev is still on their books. I think we must all have signed him at some point in the past, no? He’s now 35, having taken in 498 league appearances, each one for CSKA and stretching all the way back to 2002.

A cheap gate for our friendly encounter – hey, if you’re wondering what to buy for your Valentine… – attracts 23,469 Derby fans, who get to watch us win 2-0 with a vastly reassembled side. Jason Knight plays in midfield for this one. Eddie Salcedo gets to strut his funky stuff as our starting forward, and Ojo and McKenna supply the goals. In a game that doesn’t matter we look impressive, restricting the Musovites to one on-target shot while we pepper their goal with chances. Sure enough, no one busts a gut to produce the victory. Everyone is looking forward to a few days’ break, so the last thing the players want to do is pick up a dumb injury, nevertheless they determine to put on a show for the supporters and everyone goes home happy.

There are European matches taking place before we return to action. I catch some of the first leg matches of the initial knockout round. Man City and Borussia Dortmund both look ominous, putting five goals past Ludogorets and Austria Vienna respectively. Juventus conspire to lose 1-0 to Lille – a turn-up of a result, with ageing legs not producing the goods for the appropriately nicknamed Old Lady. Ronaldo is still the man for them, more like the codger by now, at 37 and slowing down to the extent he’s only scored the 22 goals so far this season.

And then it’s off to Old Trafford and the joys of taking on Manchester United. This warm-up game for the Carabao Cup final at the end of the month is the perfect tester. What will our opposition be like to play? They’ve lost Paul Pogba with a nasty bout of torn knee ligaments, which will keep him out for some time, and Harrington Maguire has sadly broken his leg and will be lucky to feature again this season. If we had a couple of injuries to such key players then our effort would be – sorry! – crippled, and yet the Red Devils can shrug their shoulders and power through the fixtures. Theirs is a squad of champagne footballers. They’re so stuffed with talent that an outright god of the game like Edinson Cavani is only good enough for the bench, sitting on his £225,000 weekly salary and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Greenwood and Wan-Bissaka.

In a blustery but mild stadium, they put out an international XI of elite talent that we can only admire. The absence of Pogba is mitigated by a midfield pairing of Fernandes and Bentancur. Lindelof and Lenglet compensate them for the loss of Maguire. Martial is up front, supported by an attacking midfield trio of Rashford, Dembele and De Arrascaeta. The latter, a Uruguayan January signing, is still adjusting to English life, but United can afford to help him ease into their side. Must be nice…

I’ve been warned about their fluidity, their sheer ease whilst on the ball – which is all you would expect from such a high standard of playing personnel – and the class of David de Gea in goal. Getting anything past him will be a tall order, indeed for my forwards it’s a privilege to test themselves against such a superb keeper, a net custodian so physically accomplished that it can seem at times as though he has extendable, Mr Tickle arms. As against Liverpool, I opt to defend first, hoping that we can absorb their pressure and gut-punch them on the counter. United don’t like marking players very much, I’m informed, a rare weakness that can hopefully be exploited by our pace in attack. You never know, maybe Lookman and Esposito bearing down at top speed will produce something…

Instead, a first half played on Saturday lunchtime before the cameras produces a premium of entertaining football. It’s on the home team to break us down, and this they stubbornly fail to do. Against the Pool we had the ominous sense that they could score from anywhere, especially from free kick situations, but the Devils don’t quite have the same cutting edge. There’s an element of stodginess to them – they can do all the same things as Liverpool, nearly but not quite as well. Martial misses an opportunity from point-blank range – Dybala would no doubt make no mistake in the same situation. These efforts are a matter of split-second timing, but the ball finds him beyond our defenders, with only the keeper to beat, and he sends his shot into the sky.

As the second half picks up where the first left off, more of the same and Ojo and Hlozek now on to throw fresh legs at the situation, it looks for all the world as though we are going to battle to a 0-0 scoreline that does nothing for neither of us. And then Alfonso Pedraza gets himself sent off when he takes down Dembele just outside the area. As challenges go it’s messy. There’s no malice and it isn’t a dangerous tackle, but it’s clumsy, a clear foul, and you can almost sense the referee deciding to send him off just to spice things up. At this point United are reaching some sort of ascendancy. Their attacks are becoming more frequent, and now they can take us to task. Anthony Martial produces their sixty-ninth minute winner, a shot from the left side of goal that Butland parries, but only right back into the forward’s path who is able to slot into a gaping net.

With a man down, we are unable to respond in any fervent kind of way and are left to accept the defeat. It’s pointed out to me that this is our first league defeat in eighteen matches. I’m asked whether our lack of experience, the youth of my players and the fact they’ve never been involved in a title challenge, will count against us when it really matters? Don’t ask me, kidda. The prospect of fighting for a Premier League crown was never seriously on our minds. A top four place is our goal, and we still have in it mind even after losing here.

The battle for first is in full swing all around us. Drop any points, any at all, and suddenly we’re off the pace. Spurs beat Wolves 3-0, and in the pick of the round Liverpool go to the Etihad and produce a 2-1 triumph thanks to an injury time Bailey winner. This opens a four point gap between the front two and ourselves. United are a single digit behind us now, and City are marooned. Pep’s situation is described as insecure; he joins Sheffield United’s Danny Cowley and Chris Wilder of West Ham in looking over his shoulder for the chairman’s sacking finger.

Speaking of the Hammers, they’re who we are up against in several days’ time. This is a rearranged fixture, which should be taking place at the weekend but instead we will be going to some ground no one has heard of called Wembley to take on United all over again in the League Cup showpiece.

Derby FM20 – December 2021: Manchester United are Good

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

The fun in December keeps on coming, with Sheffield Wednesday first before we face Manchester United at the weekend. The latter is billed as something of a title bout, and I would ask you to pause and think about that phrase for a moment before we continue.

I make a decision about Cristian Pavon and put him up for sale. By anyone’s standards it’s a hasty verdict on him, but there’s much resting on our ability to attack well and the prize at the end is to have Patrick Roberts, a talent I’ve coveted almost since walking through the doors at Pride Park. On such moments is football history made. Pav has been largely poor, indeed he’s ranked as the most lowly rated player in my team this season, but this doesn’t stop the offers from flowing through our fax machine. Eintracht Frankfurt, Fulham, Southampton and West Ham all make bids around the £10.5 million mark, which would weirdly enough generate a profit of a few mill for us, while Palace are also hovering because a misfiring Argentinian is the answer to saving their season, apparently.

Meanwhile, we have a trip to Hillsborough to get through. Playing Wednesday has handed us arguably the easiest Carabao Cup tie of the round. Liverpool, Everton and Man You are also in action, and it seems like we will inevitably face one of them before the end. A place in the semi-final is the prize for us. Managers of ‘more impressive’ teams might wring their hands over the unnecessary additional fixtures this would involve; for us, the prospect of winning some silverware trumps all other considerations. In their past, Derby have claimed the FA Cup and the league title, but we’ve never done anything in the League Cup. To add our name to the roll call of winners would be thrilling.

Mark Hughes is still in charge at Wednesday and is as bullish as ever, claiming because he’s identified Sebastiano Esposito as our main threat that he’s somehow solved us. Some fine scoutmanship there, Sherlock. We’ve played them three times under my watch. In our promotion campaign, we downed them at home and lost 1-0 away. Last year, we took them on in the FA Cup, producing a 2-0 victory at Pride Park, so confidence levels are high, though fatigue is equally an issue. It’s two days since we faced West Ham, and while I’m not the sort of pedantic, whiny manager who bleats on about fixture overload it has to stand as a concern.

Hillsborough produces a good crowd for this one, nearly 35,000 souls braving the rain to watch the action. Wednesday feature two on-loan players to watch, Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn in attack and Claudio Gomes from City operating in defensive midfield. Elsewhere, it’s a resolutely second tier group of players, while we line up with a large-scale changed eleven. Scott McKenna wears the armband, partnering Bielik in defence while Lowe and Laird play the flanks. Chirivella is a reliable presence in midfield, lurking behind Stoger and Lopez. Ojo and Wilson are on the wings and Adam Hlozek is up-front.

Despite the overhaul in personnel, the match goes as you might expect. We play with the swagger and confidence of the bigger team, dominating possession at a ratio of nearly 2:1 and producing the majority of the game’s sweet attacking moves. Kevin Stoger gives us the lead after ten minutes when he fires one in from outside the area, an irresistible pile-driver that defies Dawson in the home team’s goal. It isn’t long before we’ve made it 2-0, McKenna rising above a sea of blue and white shirted defenders to head in Wilson’s free-kick.

And that’s about it. We have more chances, hold Wednesday at arm’s length, and perhaps most importantly suffer no injuries beyond the groin problem that removes Ojo from the action, fortunately for a few days only. The semi-final will place us against Everton, over a two-legged affair scheduled for January. Norwich pulled off a shock 1-0 over Liverpool and will take on United.

It’s Manchester United at the weekend in the battle for third place. Ahead of us, Liverpool are taking on City and win 2-0 with goals from Firmino and Wijnaldum. Spurs can reclaim top spot, but they have a visit to Wolves to fulfil and this is a tricky prospect for anyone to negotiate. As for our opposition, they come into the game with Mason Greenwood in sparkling form, having netted seven from his ten appearances. He’s the kind of jet-heeled, sharp shooting forward we really fear, and we will need to be at our very best to contain him. In the summer, United spent more than £200 million on just three players. Their biggest signing was Ousmane Dembele, a £98 million capture from Barcelona. You can argue that he’s never really produced anything like the play to justify the massive fees lavished on him, though he’s started well at Old Trafford, weighing in with goals and assists aplenty, and the amount he cost puts my hand-wringing over the parlous sums involved in wrapping up the futures of Roberts and Pavon into the shade.

Heading into the game, I assume that the latter will accept at least one of the offers that are in for him, hopefully Frankfurt to minimise the risk of him coming back to haunt us. For this reason I confirm the signing of Patrick Roberts, who can’t move to Pride Park until January. If I can seal a deal for City’s other listed youngster, Tosin Adarabioyo, then I will consider that to be business well concluded.

I look at the side put out by Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer and wonder how on earth we can hope to stop them. Even the players on their bench – Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Cavani – are better than anyone we can call upon, while their first eleven is an international who’s who. De Gea. Semedo. Maguire. Lenglet. Mendy. Bentancur. Pogba. Greenwood. Fernandes. Dembele. Martial. Against them, our predominantly homegrown line-up – six Englishmen plus Welsh Wilson – looks somewhat agrarian. Sure enough, for most of the game I think we are going to lose. Bruno Fernandes floats in a thirty-fifth minute free-kick that Dembele heads beneath the diving frame of Butland to put them ahead, which could represent the opening of our defensive floodgate. They’re a slick set-up, passing smoothly and finding space, making the pitch somehow look very empty as their off the ball work is so difficult to keep up with.

As we start to pull back into it more during the second half, and with United beginning to show signs of fatigue as they too have been involved in the Carabao Cup, I start making changes. Pavon comes on for the worryingly anonymous Wilson and for once begins to make his presence felt. Willing to run at Ferland Mendy, try some tricks, essentially treating his time on the pitch as a shop window, his dribbling virtues worry the Red Devils and force them to play conservatively. In added time, as the seconds are bleeding away, Hughes finds him in a bit of space on the right. Shrugging away the attentions of Bentancur, Pavon tries a difficult volley at the near post that David de Gea somehow fumbles through his fingers and into the net. It’s an own goal.

We’ll take a 1-1 result against this lot any day. I’m asked afterwards whether equalising so late constitutes a smash and grab against a better team, but I don’t think it does. Yes, they are without a doubt a superior set of players, yet we battled for that point and took our chance to get something. Predictably, Pavon uses the opportunity to make a statement about his worth. He has another shot that fizzes across the goalline, and we are definitely more adventurous when he features. Fernandes claims the match ball. No one in our side is singled out for praise, though I think Butland does quite well to limit United’s damage, and as an overall defensive effort we can be pleased to have dealt with most of their trickery.

Spurs go on to beat Wolves at Molineux and take their (unlikely) place back at the apex of the Premier League. With little more than half a season remaining it appears the title could be down to either themselves or Liverpool, though I would expect City to come roaring back into contention at some point, and a side as talented as United can’t be happy with being placed behind ourselves. Where we’re concerned, Everton is our next destination. They’re loitering just below the top seven and hold the promise of a tough game, before December closes with a hopefully more straightforward tie against Fulham.

Derby FM20 – February 2021: The Adam (not Joe) Show

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.

Two weeks pass quickly enough. I spend the time worrying that at any moment I will receive a communiqué from Adam Hlozek‘s agent that contains his demand to be transfer-listed, but it never arises. Nevertheless I am clearly on a short leash with him. The teenager is having a tantrum, throwing his dummy out, but he’s also our most talented player and it simply isn’t in my plan to lose him so quickly after we caused a minor stir in signing someone of such promise and blossoming ability.

There’s little I can do but ride out the strop, hope that in the end he falls back into line after realising that life isn’t necessarily going to be any better or fairer for him than it is right here. At the same time, he is bang out of form right now. Any sensible manager would drop him, though there’s also the consideration that Bakery Jatta is the alternative and he isn’t half as good.

Our defensive lustre has slipped a little after the first half of the season, in which we were one of the league leaders in goals conceded. That said we are still in fifth place, having let in a mere 23 across our twenty-six matches (behind the usual suspects of Liverpool, Manchester City (16 each), United (19) and Chelsea (20)). It’s a very good record, though unlike our rivals it’s partly down to a defensively minded tactical foundation, whereas the others have prevailed via sheer attacking might.

We have three fine centre-backs to call upon, a trio that has rotated splendidly throughout the term. Krystian Bielik and Scott McKenna have both played 24 matches apiece. Mike te Wierik isn’t far behind on 18. The former pair makes up my preferred partnership, though the Dutchman can alternate with either and at 28 is the senior statesman of the unit. According to Chris van der Weerden, my intrepid Assistant Manager, te Wierik is already showing some worrying signs of entering an early decline. His heading and marking aren’t what they once were, and a quick look at his development has all the arrows pointing in the wrong direction. All the same he’s done very little wrong for us so far, even if his twin wishes are unlikely to be fulfilled. He hasn’t shown sufficient leadership qualities to be considered for the team captaincy, and he doesn’t really deserve a new contract, even though his current salary (£10,000 per week) is more appropriate for a Championship defender. He’s also far superior to our fourth choice, Bruno, a 30 year old Spaniard whose most noteworthy contribution was being injured for two months with a hip problem. If he’s still here after this season then  I won’t have been doing my job properly.

The main starters have both performed very well across the campaign. At 24 and a full Scottish international, McKenna continues to improve, especially in the key areas of heading and marking. He’s the defender’s defender, a solid professional who quietly and competently gets on with his work, and at 6′ 2″ is capable of being useful on set-pieces. Bielik has broke into the Polish national side during his time here and possesses superb long-term potential. There are worrying notes about his injury proneness, which has never emerged as a problem but it feels as though we are continually dodging a bullet in this regard. Something to seriously think about is his potential as a defensive midfielder. It seems that if anything happens to Pedro Chirivella then we might be best to ignore Lord Rooney and start Krys instead. Like Scott he is very good in the air, a useful asset when up against tall forwards. The pair make us very capable of dealing with – and posing – aerial threats.

There are a number of fine young English centre-backs out there. A few on the radar are:

  • Rob Holding (25, Arsenal – on loan at Celta Vigo) – he made it clear he wasn’t interested in joining us last summer, but I expect one year on that his mind will change. A hard working defender, but with a history of incurring injuries, and his wage demands could be a sticking point.
  • Ben White (23, Brighton) – ‘Composure aids his skilful approach to the game‘, claims scout Harry Croft, who has submitted a praiseworthy report on him. He could be ours for as little as £10 million, and he has a tendency to play the ball out of defence, which fits with our ethos. Much here may depend on whether the Gulls stay in the division.
  • Dael Fry (23, Middlesbrough) – Boro don’t want to entertain offers for their homegrown star, which is fair enough. He’s a good, no-nonsense centre-back, very much in the Scott McKenna mould, though as with White his future could rest on the team’s capacity to stop up. Boro are fifteenth and they still have the potential to fall into the relegation zone.
  • Reece Oxford (22, FC Augsburg) – for a central defender Reece possesses great pace. His team aren’t interested in selling, and unlike ourselves they are playing in the Europa League, but all that might change by the season’s end. The former West Ham man could be a sterling acquisition, if only we can make him interested in signing for us.

We take the trip up north at the end of our mini-break to face Manchester United at Old Trafford. Ole’s army squeezed a 2-2 draw out of us back in December, taking advantage of an unfortunate late defensive collapse from us, and it’s to their credit that they fought on until the final whistle. They’re slightly ahead of us in the table and strong favourites for this one. Brandon Williams is suspended, as Jayden Bogle is for us, and they have injuries to Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly; I consider neither to represent a cataclysmic loss when they can call on Lindelof, Maguire and Lenglet. Otavio is a massive threat with his potential for assists, and Marcus Rashford is as slippery a goalscorer as ever. On the whole however, you would have to expect that a squad containing Fernandes, Pogba, Bentancur and Martial should be doing better. Perhaps part of the problem lies in Edinson Cavani, a world renowned striker who has fallen out of love with football due to a broken promise that was made when he agreed terms to join the club. It’s glimmers of trouble like these that give me hope.

And glimmers are what we need. Ivan is in the side. I opt for Lowe over Pedraza, but the big question mark is Adam Hlozek. After his meltdown during the Tottenham game what are we going to get from the Czech winger? The positive spin is that he’ll show everyone that he’s better than he has been playing and have a blinder – if there’s a stage on which to showcase his silky skills then surely it’s here. But what if he’s crap again? What do I do? If I take him off will there by another unseemly fracas? It’s a knotty one. In some ways the safer bet would be to use Jatta instead, but as mentioned that’s like getting rid of an Aston Martin because I’ve seen a pea-green Vauxhall Corsa that I’ve hopelessly fallen in love with. I really do own the latter car, by the way, despite my fabulous Derby County salary.  The only difference is that I’ve never had, driven or even touched an Aston Martin, nor do I love the Corsa, which is at best a runaround.

You know by now that as poor as we have been at home, we’ve played beyond all expectations on the road. No one knows exactly why. Arthur C Clarke is in talks to cover it in a future edition of his Mysterious World. Well, he might if he was still alive… Perhaps the eminent Sir Arthur would be able to explain why we take the lead in the 21st minute when Hlozek tries a shot, only for it to be fisted away by De Gea, the ball falling to Sebastiano Esposito who, despite being covered by two defenders, gets in his punt from close range. Maybe he would have some theories as to why the Czech makes it 2-0 early in the second half, when he sets off on a dribbling run from the halfway line. Evading Shaw’s clumsy efforts at a tackle and then skinning Lenglet, he puts in one peach of a finish from a tight angle to the right of goal.

Clearly, this is Hlozek’s return to form. I was expecting the worst, instead he’s responded to his adverse situation in the best possible fashion, making a chump of Luke Shaw for both goals and in the process claiming the match ball. Defensively we’re rock solid. Martial and Greenwood are both subbed off by the end as the illustrious home side look for ways through, but we deal with it all. Fair enough, they do get more shots in than we do at a ratio of 14:10, yet they’re exposed far too often and it’s ourselves who win all the game’s four clear-cut chances. I’m so pleased with our work that I don’t dare make a single substitution. They’ve been massive out there, all of them, and I am loathe to interrupt the delicate balance we’ve achieved at the Theatre of Dreams (Nightmares?).

After the match, Mr Solskjaer is surprisingly churlish about what’s happened. Maybe it’s shell-shock, but when he tells the press ‘I’m stunned that things didn’t go our way. I can see [Derby] falling away quickly based on what I saw out there‘ he seems to be saying something really rotten about his own team. No matter. We have leapfrogged United into fourth place thanks to this victory, even if it’s a temporary elevation as they have a match in hand, coupled with the fact we are up against Liverpool next. For now though, this proud job of work by the boys has put a smile on my face. It might very well be my best result as manager at Derby.