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 – February 2021: Cups and Cock-Ups

The Sebastiano Esposito deal falls through because his work permit isn’t arranged by the time the transfer window closes. A strange one as I saw the teenager as a signing for the summer (his loan agreement would keep him at SPAL until then), but c’est la vie, as the French say. We lose no first team players, though Nicolas Pepe is on a number of radars and Sead Kolasinac – who I wouldn’t mind losing – is winning admiring glances from Chinese clubs. Bayern and Barca want Bellerin. They can carry on wanting.

We’re straight into the new month with a home tie against West Bromwich Albion. Never higher in the table than sixteenth, this one’s seen as a routine affair and to make it even easier Ivan Strinic gets himself sent off for a horror movie tackle on Pepe. Now on Easy Street and more than capable of dealing with Robson-Kanu, we stroll out 2-0 winners after goals from Demiral and a Cook screamer struck from outside the box. It could have been more emphatic, but the points are what count.

A few days later and we’re entertaining Chelsea. This lot beat us earlier in the campaign and we’re keen to get revenge. It looks like it’s all going to plan too, when Pepe gives us a first half lead. Auba has one disallowed, but that’s okay. We’ve spent the first half blowing the visitors away, the fact we’re only one to the good whilst our tails are up registering as a minor concern. Then it all goes wrong in a ten-minute blitz as Werner, Lozano and Ziyech all put shots beyond Leno. Each time we’re caught out on the flanks, Tierney and Maitland-Niles collapsing defensively against the attacking virtues of Ziyech, Pulisic and their mates. Shell-shocked after believing we had the match in the bag and I’d been busy resting tired legs for future challenges, we pull one back via Willian, but it’s done. We’ve lost at home. What a crushing feeling.

United and Liverpool both win and we’re back in our traditional berth of third. I’d have gleefully taken that position had I been offered it at the start of the campaign, but now I want more. Newcastle are next in the cup. No such mistakes this time, as we restrict the Geordies to one shot while Nelson and a Lacazette hat-trick put us out of sight. This is more like it, though in reality I appreciate we’ve simply bullied a weaker opponent and worked some frustration out of our system. In reaching the quarter-final I have met a club vision, and that’s good because the draw pits us against Manchester United. The fun could end here.

City lose the Manchester derby at home to United and Uncle Pep is sacked. We have Sheffield United, quite a different challenge to Chelsea as the Blades are rooted to the table’s foot, having accumulated sixteen measly points. By now we are in a two-games-per-week cycle. I’m rotating my players each time. At Bramall Lane Cook starts, after serving his FA Cup suspension. Partey drops to the bench – he more or less crawled off the pitch at the end of the last match. We struggle to cope with the pace of Lys Mousset. He gets two for the home team, both inspired by incisive breakaways. But we score six – Auba, the Ox, an own goal and a Pepe hat-trick. The latter’s list of suitors grows as Real Madrid joins the gaggle of top clubs fluttering their eyelashes at him. I can’t say I blame them. He’s playing out of his skin and he has eclipsed Willian as our preferred right sided attacking midfielder.

Back to the Europa League and a tie that propels us to Mother Russia and FC Krasnodar. Despite knowing little about the opposition there’s little I can do but rotate the personnel again. I’m a hostage to that stinking heart icon… In any event, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s little to fear. All the action happens in the first half. Saka and Lacazette score the goals in a 2-0 win. Two more strikes are disallowed due to narrow offside decisions. Resolute second stringers like Cook and Wilshere both feature here, and they play well. The former’s booking rules him out of the home leg and also lands him with the fine of a week’s wages. That’s forty-nine grand he won’t see again.

No sooner are we back in Blighty than we’re preparing for Burnley’s visit. The relegation contenders are under pressure and I’m forced to defend Sean Dyche when I’m asked if he should be sacked. Solidarity with a fellow manager, and all that. I might support him in public, but on the pitch we have to put his team to the sword and we do with a very fine 3-0 victory. Another Pepe double and a superb solo effort from Oxlade-Chamberlain cause the damage as the visitors barely feature in our half. The only downside is a calf injury to Chambers, which will rob us of his services for up to a month.

With Liverpool on the horizon, we first have to get our European League tie with Krasnodar out of the way. I’ll be happy if we get through this unscathed and safely through to the next round. The latter wish comes true. It takes us until the second half to turn our dominance into goals, however strikes from Xhaka and Lacazette see us over the line. Dani Ceballos is removed halfway through the first half with a knock, something relatively superficial that will make him unpickable for the Carabao Cup final but quickly recoverable. In the last sixteen we’ll be up against Leicester.

The key moment in the League Cup final comes when Fabinho is dismissed late in the first half for a second booking. It’s 0-0 at this stage, a bad-tempered and thrill-free occasion when the referee’s card waving hand has had a lot of work to do. I’m persuaded to switch from being cautious to positive, and that turns out to be a mistake. Mane nudges them ahead, then Salah adds a second, and there’s nothing I can do but make us more attacking still. Auba scores a penalty when Gomez is adjudged to have held Pepe back in the area, and that gives us some hope, but Liverpool can defend as well as produce one of the more emphatic pressing games out there, and the time peters out.

In fairness, there’s no shame in losing this one. It was close and for long swathes we were the better side, however the opposition turned out to be that bit more decisive when it mattered and kept us under pressure with our passing and movement throughout. Alisson claims the match ball, which speaks volumes about where the match was lost.

Arsenal FM21 – 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 – November 2020: Red Star Revolt

A month of Europa League fixtures, three domestic ties and another international break lies ahead. While the title isn’t part of our vision, we watch the top of the table already turning into a two-way tussle between Liverpool and Manchester United. Is this how it’s going to be? The Red Devils are powered by the virtues of Bruno Fernandes. Liverpool’s charge is led at the back by Van Dijk, who’s incredible, and the noted brilliance of Mane (who scores the goals) and Salah (provides the assists) in attack. Against such wonders the rest of us appear to be on a lower level, consigned to looking up with envy. Of the other contenders, Manchester City have already lost a few – even a single dropped point is putting them at a considerable disadvantage – and Spurs have made a shabby start. Third place is up for grabs and we are sitting in that spot. All we can do right now is try to carry on winning games and solidify our grip as the ‘best of the rest’.

We begin with the hosting of Newcastle United at the Emirates. I’m glad this one is taking place at home. Uncle Steve has guided his unlikely high-fliers to sixth. They aren’t an especially exciting team but they are grinding out the results, helped along by Wilson’s goals, the battling qualities of Sean Longstaff in midfield and the presence of Allan Saint-Maximin, a young French winger who is attracting admiring glances from all comers. He’s had an 80% recommendation from my scouts, gushing notes about his pace and dribbling qualities, his love of a big match and the rather meaty caveat that he’s likely to cost a minimum of £47.5 million. They line up with an orthodox back three, which means they have come to defend and catch us on the break. Our job seems simple – keep the ball in their half, and monitor ASM like there’s no tomorrow. Keep him and Almiron quiet and we ought to have neutralised the Mags’ attacking threat. Demiral’s headed goal and an Aubameyang penalty have us two goals to the good after twelve minutes. The Gabonese striker adds a second midway through the second half as our tactics pay off. A very late response from Almiron produces a 3-1 final score, and that’s fine with me. We’ve mounted thirty shots in this one to generate an xG of 3.73, and that’s good, though I think we might have scored more.

Red Star Belgrade at home are next. I see the Serbian giants as the toughest draw in our Europa League group, a pale shadow of the early nineties vintage that once claimed a European Cup (one of the more boring finals I’ve seen, if I’m honest, but you can imagine for yourself how good they were when they represented Yugoslavia back then and could call on all that Croatian talent) but then, you could say the same about us. As always I use this tie to put out something close to a second eleven. Lacazette starts. Wilshere, Ceballos, Holding and Saka are on from kick-off, and so’s Nicolas Pepe who scores all four of our goals. A sizzling performance from the winger, whose season is a little undermined by playing second fiddle to Willian and as a consequence he plays like he’s waving his arms at me, demanding attention, and this competitive quality makes him try to be a bit special. The visitors don’t rack up a single shot. Our 4-0 win makes us feel temporarily like a superpower.

A trip across the city follows as we go to face West Ham at their very quiet and looming London Stadium. Uncle David has made a torrid start to the campaign. They’re in second-last place, and if their horrid form continues and they end up going down then I expect to lead the queue of teams waiting to pluck Declan Rice from their sweaty grasp. The reason for their malaise becomes clear as they set up to defend, at home, with a back three of Rice, Ogbonna and Dawson, and hoping that Petkovic can nick the odd goal. They don’t. After the goalfests we’ve enjoyed recently this is a somewhat prosaic 1-0 victory, courtesy of the inevitable Aubameyang. For long swathes nothing much happens. The foul count is high. Eight yellow cards are shared out, three for us, while Bellerin is forced off with a tight groin that happily turns out to be a minor injury. It’s a ground out and attritional victory, yet I’m happy with it. Too often we have been exposed as lightweight on these occasions. Not now. For the home side, who will sack Moyes before much longer, they have the added ignominy of a dubiously awarded penalty that Noble fires straight at Leno.

The Interlull ends happily with no further injuries to worry about. I can name my strongest eleven for our journey into the Black Country for the game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. They’re opposition that I fear. Quick, dangerous and very Portuguese, they’re like taking on the best qualities of that country with the added Spanish spice of Adama Traore’s sheer bulk and pace to cause us problems. Kieran Tierney is given the happy task of keeping him quiet. As against the Hammers it isn’t the prettiest of occasions. We know that we’re in for a tough time and this is exactly what we get. The home side work the ball around crisply and delightfully. There’s no question of being anything but at our most alert, and as a consequence we dominate easily in the number of fouls committed. Another three bookings for us, one of which turns into a second yellow for Xhaka after one industrial challenge too many. Not for the first time I’m questioning the Swiss hard man’s long-term presence in my squad. Fortunately we can break at times, and it’s two rapid moves, both prominently involving Oxlade-Chamberlain, which give us the two goals we need. Once again it’s Auba supplying the finishes as we leave at the end of a 2-0 smash and grab.

There’s no question of the two leaders dropping a single point between them. They will face each other in early December, which will inevitably end in someone giving way, but the Pool and United have maintained their five points gap for now. Where we’re concerned our third place looks increasingly secure. There’s now open space between ourselves and Chelsea in fourth. Spurs’ lower mid-table placing is a lot of fun, while Leicester’s relegation position stands as an outright aberration.

November finishes with a flight to Serbia as we face Red Star in the return fixture. Winning here will guarantee our qualification from the group, indeed a draw ought to be enough, especially as the last two ties are being played at home. The opposition are decent. Gabonese midfielder Guelor Kanga is very small and a tricky prospect to contain, as is (Gentle) Ben, a winger from Comoros who is singled out for a man marking job, however they don’t possess our quality. Saka gives us a first half lead. Vinicius seals the deal towards the end, and there’s even a disallowed effort from Lacazette to underline our 2-0 victory. It’s another goalless outing for the Frenchman, who to me plays decently otherwise, even though his record pales in comparison with Aubameyang’s. For their part Red Star have Sanogo – not that one! – sent off shortly after the break, which sums up a frustrating afternoon of few scoring opportunities but many instances of dirty football.

Derby FM20 – March 2023: On Continuing

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’m writing these words towards the back end of September – if memory serves, I think they will be due to appear on the site in mid-October. With the fourth Derby County season drawing towards its latter stages I am beginning to wonder whether to plough on into a fifth or stop the story at that point. Of course, we all know that Football Manager games never really end. There are greater heights to scale with the Rams, I’m sure, or the possibility that I’ll win the league with them and then potentially look at a new challenge within the save, but as regulars – are there any regular readers? – will be aware there’s a lot of work that goes into transferring my deeds into daily updates. Putting it together remains good fun, however the plan for it was (ill-)conceived to be little more than something to do while we were all in lockdown – and to give me a distraction whilst I worked towards stopping alcohol, a feat about which I’m pleased to say I am close to celebrating my nine month anniversary – and now I’m back in full-time work.

How long that will continue to be the case remains to be seen. The government rules about their tackling of Coronavirus change daily, almost as though they have no strategy at all (surely not). I work in a school, and clearly the idea is to keep places of education open for as long as humanly possible, however at the time of writing staff and students are falling ill, or shielding, within a pandemic environment that’s getting worse and not better. It feels like we are coming in on notice, ahead of what seems to be an inevitable second wave of shut-downs, and though I work from home well enough the lack of travelling time obviously gives me more free hours to continue this blog. It may very well be the case that soon enough I’m going back to the frankly blissful and trouble-free ‘falling out of bed and into the office’ state of affairs that punctuated spring and summer. For now, who can say? Maybe all that will be happening again once you read these words.

So to carry on, or not? I can’t decide at this stage. There’s an element of me that would like to blitz through the remainder of the season. I play and write about the game simultaneously, and I’m as keen to see how it works out as hopefully you are also. All the same, with things at Derby on their usual knife-edge and potential league and cup glory on the horizon there’s a lot to carry on for and the temptation is just to while away half a day playing it all out. Doing that would come at the expense of detail, outlining my feelings and strategies at each hurdle, the players who aren’t available, things that are happening in the stimulated world of football, and if I’m going to do justice to the written account then I just can’t work that way.

We’ll see, I guess. To continue or not to continue; that right now is the question.

My main issue at Pride Park currently is our goal-scoring potency, or rather our lack thereof. This side has never been a cavalier, all-out attacking operation. The effort relies first and foremost on stiff defending, which is a whole team concern and skews us towards being responsible when going forward and always looking out for breaks. Whilst our league positions have generally been very good we are the smallest outfit to be playing in the Premier League’s upper echelons. In terms of outlook and size we are probably on a par with the likes of Leicester City, Newcastle United and maybe Wolverhampton Wanderers. United and Liverpool, our main challengers for the top spot, can blow us away on sheer spending power. We have neither the reputation – yet! – or the financial muscle of the big London clubs, and so the attacking players we go for are generally based on good potential levels rather than existing star power. The likes of Esposito, Hlozek and Max Willian have been signed as teenagers primarily for what they might become, as opposed to off-the-shelf greats who bring massive swaggering reputations with them. I can only stretch the club finances so far, after all.

We are good against sides that try and play an expansive game. For me, we bested Everton at Goodison Park because they viewed us as being there for the taking. Committed to attacking us, they left gaps for us to flood into when we gained possession and that’s always going to lead to scoring opportunities. When playing teams that come to defend and launch counters, essentially taking on sides that do what we do, we struggle more. The draw at Brighton happened as a consequence of them setting up in a similar way to ourselves, relying on stiff defenders like Dunk and White to bat away our fast but lightweight forwards. It worked. Clearly we are going to have to look at other ways to overcome such obstacles.

Eddie Salcedo remains a massive problem. I signed him on the basis that he was better than his recent form at Inter suggested, and because of that poor scoring form got him on the cheap, but he’s jollily recreating those – whatever the opposite of ‘halcyon’ is – exploits here, and it’s a problem. There’s an extent to which we’re relying on him to produce the goods. Hlozek and Barbosa can both play as our forward, but he’s the only outright natural in the role, especially with Sebastiano Esposito unavailable, and as these things tend to go now his rival for the position is injured his early season goal streak has turned to effluence. I have concerns about my broken backed Italian as well. Will he return to the team and be as good as he was before he went off for surgery? It looks as though he’ll be back in time to play the final phase of our run-in, and he will be most welcome, but the injury has to have had an effect on his potency, right?

At the moment Gabriel Barbosa looks like he’ll play out his loan period and then be dispatched straight back to Tottenham. Though a good player on paper, he hasn’t been anything like as powerful as I hoped he would be, which suggests Spurs were quite right to put him up for sale. It’s back to the drawing board then. We seek a right winger still. The scouts’ choices are Riccardo Orsolini (almost certainly outside our price range), Steven Bergwijn (good but expensive) and Francisco Trincao (like Bergwijn, but without having blooded himself within the English game). My thoughts turn to Rhian Brewster, who’s equally comfortable in attack or on the right. The Liverpool player would cost around £20 million, and I wonder whether he might genuinely offer anything beyond what we already have. Joe McClaren would love us to sign Borussia’s Karim Adeyemi, a 21 year old forward who has by and large failed to make an impact since his move from RB Salzburg last summer. The German has everything in his locker and is available for £38.5 million, therefore a big expense, and again given his form it feels to me like we might end up with a costlier Salcedo.

There’s never a very good time to go to St James Park and play Newcastle United, well not since the dismissal of Steve Bruce anyway, but now – when we really need to get a result if at all possible – the timing couldn’t be much worse. They’re sixth in the table, led with staggering levels of competence by Lee Johnson, still with no fantastic alternatives to tricky winger Allan Saint-Maximin, and of course they beat us here at the start of 2021/22. I am hovering like an angry and persistent mosquito around their centre-back/defensive midfielder Nohan Kenneh, a young Englishman who is not up for sale at any price but who looks dead good. He’s anchoring an effort at the back that has proved to be stingy, and for much of this one he will keep us in check. Worse still, they go ahead after seventeen minutes courtesy of Jonny’s penalty kick. The culprit once again is Luca Pellegrini. Jonny cuts in from the right wing and is felled clumsily inside the area before he’s even become too dangerous. This looks like turning into a failing within the Italian’s game – it’s probably a good thing that he’s suspended for our next match.

After that, we spend the remainder of the proceedings trying to find a way through their massed ranks. It isn’t easy. Our forwards’ confidence is through the floor; their efforts are swatted aside. Once again, all the good stuff appears to be coming from our defenders, and from Pedro Chirivella. Salcedo is running around a lot, to little effect. Barbosa is unhurriedly hammering another nail into the coffin of his Derby future. A sixty-third minute free-kick by Patrick Roberts pulls us back on level terms. Swung into the penalty area, Tosin Adarabioyo is the tallest target by some distance and he heads from close range past Martin Dubravka.

1-1 isn’t a bad result here. Once again, it’s an improvement on what we achieved at this place last season and that matters, but from a position where we looked to pull away we are now being sucked back into the race. The table I’m showing is from a week later, thanks to incompetence in copying and pasting it at the wrong time, but it shows our predicament clearly enough. April will be our catch-up month. We’re going to have to hit some semblance of winning form, including on our travels.

Derby FM20 – January 2023: Squad Ruminations

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.

As transfer records are broken elsewhere, with more player moves sure to follow, I am sitting pretty with a squad that doesn’t need to be changed. That isn’t to say I’m deliriously happy with everyone, that I have your mythical completed jigsaw in terms of the array of talent at my disposal, yet it seems to me the overall quality at DCFC is about as high as it ever has been. This is as it should be. I’m halfway through my fourth season. I’ve spent a lot of money in putting this side together, and they’re repaying me by getting good results.

It’s incumbent on me to keep a rolling list of the players I want to take this team forward, and others who I see as being essentially surplus to requirements. The breakdown looks a bit like this (players in bold are or will be homegrown; italicised players are or will be homegrown ‘within the club’):

I emphasise the homegrown players for a couple of reasons – the first is to show that homegrown limitations aren’t a problem at Pride Park. We can afford to look overseas for our new faces if we need to, though my preferred philosophy is to seek out English talent, or youngsters – Max Willian is a good example – who will qualify in three years’ time. The second factor is to emphasise the importance to us of Max Lowe. By rights Max isn’t a Premier League footballer. His place in the side has been protected to an extent because we either must have four ‘trained at the club’ players registered for European competitions or carry a squad of fewer than 25 personnel, however this summer will find Hlozek become part of that valuable cohort; Moriba and Morawski are due to join him a further year down the line. So the need to keep Max has lessened, and more and more the left-back is being cut adrift from the rest of the squad. They’re progressing, at pace, while he is not. I’m not looking to move Max on for now, particularly because alternative choices aren’t conspicuous, but he’s on borrowed time.

Of the other ‘Might sell’ lads, Pedro Chirivella has been here nearly as long as I have. He’s hit the limits of his progress, and to an extent he’s fine but in the meantime Vieira has been signed and Bielik has played himself into the same role. Steadily, Pedro is becoming third choice for a position that he was once to obvious choice to fill. The same with Scott McKenna, signed when we were first promoted and wanted a decent centre-back to represent us alongside Bielik. He’s been exactly that, a Scottish international and the side’s vice-captain, but we have better choices now and at some point Morawski will shift from ‘emerging’ to ‘important’, and that’s when Scott will stop being a regular starter.

I’ve spoken of my hope to develop the right wing for a little while now. Hlozek is the clear top pick, while Harry Wilson and Patrick Roberts are both decent players with clear limits. The former, a Rams favourite, seems intent on improving his talents in order to meet the grade and if he achieves that then the problem solves itself. Pat Roberts looks like a player who’s too good for the second tier and not quite up to the challenge of the first. He isn’t a bad option to have when others are injured, yet he earns a lot of money for not doing very much work and I’m not convinced of his sustainability.

Finally Connor Gallagher, the fifth pick among five central midfielders. He’s in this bracket because he isn’t progressing as well as I’d like, especially among a competitive group who jostle for two places in the line-up, but he’s a decent option to have. I guess I’m saying that I am happy to keep him on board, and I won’t be sitting on the floor and telling sad stories if he ends up going.

Manchester City in the Carabao Cup Semi-Final lies in our near future. After that we’re going to the Vicarage to take on Watford, hoping to continue our FA Cup odyssey, so the next post should be a cup special and will hopefully end with Derby remaining in at least one of those competitions. Before that, we are entertaining Newcastle United in the league. Lee Johnson is doing a good job at St James Park, as the sleeping giant’s sleeping giant slowly wakes up following the years of being left to rot by their previous owner. They’re sixth, a legitimate shot for working their way back into the right end of the table. Johnson has made them hard to beat, a bit like we were when we first went up. They don’t score too many goals, but Cican Stankovic in goal doesn’t concede a lot either. They press hard and well, and in attack we need to pay respect to Allan Saint-Maximin, their left wing dynamo who remains a lively and predatory forward. Certainly he’s the one to watch, another afternoon of guard duty from Jayden Bogle, while their on-loan striker, Ante Rebic, is one of those nomadic talents who seems to pop up somewhere different each season and provides good value.

It’s a proper English Saturday at Pride Park. The rain scythes down, making it unnaturally dark, and it’s also very cold. What a fun time for football; not that this prevents the good people of Derby from turning out in their usual droves. Their commitment always impresses me. The level of home support we receive is a genuine prompt for us to take the game to our visitors, and we end the first half two goals to the good. Marc Cucurella is playing well for them at left-back, and Stankovic – a signing from RB Salzburg – is nothing less than a cat. Going forward, they’ve presented little discernible threat to my defenders. Saint-Maximin is kept under wraps, given no time on the ball, while we produce a couple of special moments to pull ahead.

In the twenty-first minute, Roberts on the right is under considerable pressure from a couple of Newcastle defenders. Jinking and snaking to shrug off his markers, he finally gets a cross in, where Sebastiano Esposito is on hand to head an incisive shot across goal and into the far corner. Before the break, he makes it 2-0 from the penalty spot. The foul that leads to it is a bit suspect according to my eyes, an expert bit of diving from Max Willian, who is brought down in the box by Fofana. The winger’s Greg Louganis impression is enough to hand us the spot-kick – it almost certainly was a foul, in fairness, but Max’s reaction is wonderfully theatrical. Seb makes no mistake with the penalty, and we go in at the break feeling we have probably done enough.

And we have. The Magpies are put in a difficult position, having to become more pro-active and not finding it to be very natural. They don’t like giving up their defensive discipline, while we are happy to hold them off and keep Stankovic honest by testing him. 2-0 is the final score, with good performances all round from the boys. It’s the kind of fixture that we just have to try and win, without fuss, and then move on to the next one.

The tight race at the top is maintained with Liverpool going to Middlesbrough and winning 3-1. This keeps them at the Premier League’s peak by a single point’s margin. We’re tucked in at second place. Manchester United (who we will be facing in the near future) put four past Brighton, and Chelsea beat Bournemouth 3-1 away from home as the pressure builds.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Everton Two Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – August 2021: A Difficult Start

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.

If I could choose a nice, gentle opening for the new season then I wouldn’t select to face Liverpool at home. Even a title winner that isn’t quite at full strength is still the most formidable of opponents. Since lifting the Premier League crown, Jurgen Klopp‘s side have sold £188 million of talent and signed precisely no one. The biggest outgoing is a certain Mohamed Salah, now a £123 million capture for Paris Saint-Germain, but there’s also Marko Grujic (£24.5m to Atletico Madrid), Bruno Petkovic (now with Norwich after a £17.5m move), and of course Harry Wilson and Sheyi Ojo to our good selves. Of these, only little Mo is a big miss and illustrates their awesome strength in depth. I’m hearing that they plan to compensate for their loss by going after Leon Bailey, but that’s a move for the future and I’m slightly grateful we don’t have to plan for the Jamaican winger on top of all their other talents.

It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon to be taking on the Pool. The TV cameras are here, and so’s a big crowd, Derbyistas filling the ground to catch a sight of their heroes. I pick Jack Butland to play in goal. Bogle, McKenna, Oxford and Lowe make up our defence. Ahead of Chirivella I opt for Hughes and Stoger, partly because they’re tried and tested and also as I don’t think this is the place to field flashy youngsters. It’s one for knuckling down and weathering storms. Lookman and Pavon play on the wings behind Esposito in attack. Liverpool are a familiar sight. Wijnaldum is now being used in attacking midfield because Jurgen has the riches to be able to call on Fabinho and Keita in a formidable midfield. Weaving through their ranks to cause any damage is going to be little more than a throw of the dice. And loaded dice at that.

It isn’t long before they’re are causing problem after problem in our defence. I might consider Scott McKenna to be a marvellous defender, probably our best one in fact, but even the indomitable man from Kirriemuir can withstand only so much pressure, and he’s culpable for their eighth minute penalty when he pushes Wijnaldum over in the area. Not the start we wanted. Fortunately for us Butland is alert for Fabinho’s spot-kick and palms it harmlessly into touch. It’s an early reprieve, though the visitors’ attitude, which is to roll up their sleeves and go again, and again, and again, makes for long passages where we need to carry on defending with everything we’ve got. We make it to the break with the score 0-0. Everything of any consequence has happened in our half. We’ve hardly had a single chance to break; more typical is the punted clearance from deep in our half, which is inevitably collected by Van Dijk or Gomez who patiently spark off yet another attacking foray. This is how it feels to be under siege.

There’s not much more for it than to start all over again. We’ve done well to keep them out so far, but there simply isn’t a game saving option on the bench. I could bring on Moriba to work his magic, yet unleashing his potential is an answer for a different stage, I feel. Ultimately the Spaniard will be brought on in the second half, when we’re a goal down and chasing the lost cause. Where we are really getting killed is in conceding fouls. The champions’ relentlessness forces my defenders to make mistakes. A Lowe challenge on Mane in the 62nd minute lands him with a yellow card and gifts them with a free kick twenty yards outside goal. Shaqiri floats one in and Joel Matip heads them into the lead. We could have defended it better, though in truth there were so many players to watch, their movement splendid and foxing, and I feel it was always going to come. There follows around thirty minutes of Liverpool happily sitting on the lead and inviting us to attack. We do. It isn’t a terrible effort from us. Lookman gets our best chance, weaving through a sea of red shirts to shoot at Alisson, yet the final effort is tame and all too easy for the Brazilian to scoop up. In the end, our attempts to find parity melt away, and all we can do is accept the 1-0 defeat. The epithet it could have been worse is made for this one. We were toyed with, and how many sides will they do this to over the course of the campaign?

At least we don’t have to go through that again. Wounds duly licked, we prepare to go north and taken on Newcastle United, a team that was altogether more generous to us in 2020/21. I’m still on the sniff for a new face to work alongside Chirivella in defensive midfield. The options are few. PSG have decided they no longer need Idrissa Gueye and list the Senegalese international for £16 million. He’s 31 and would instantly add a weight of classy experience to my ranks, but his £110,000 weekly wage is a hurdle we can’t in all good conscience leap over. Perhaps a loan deal…

Lee Johnson has made a positive impact since he took over the Geordie nation. Carefully guiding them out of the trouble they’d been in throughout the tenure of Steve Bruce, he has added sensibly to their roster, introducing Monaco defender Benoit Badiashile and Thiago, the Portuguese midfielder who was playing for Forest previously. These are support acts to Allan Saint-Maximin, the tricky winger who will be inflicting pressure on Bogle all afternoon. For us, Bielik replaces McKenna in the line, the consequence of a minor training ground injury rather than punishing the Scot for the time he conceded a penalty. Moriba gets his start, replacing Stoger and injecting, I hope, a new attacking element to our midfield.

Ademola Lookman has us in front within the first fifteen minutes. Weaving solo through their defence, evading a clumsy challenge from Doherty and mugging Badiashile before finally he slots the ball calmly beyond Dubravka. Phew, it’s a return to normal service, only it isn’t. The Magpies equalise on the half-hour mark. A Wissa cross should be dealt with easily enough. It’s a good one, aimed venomously into our box, but we have four players there against their single forward, Joelinton, and Oxford meets it, heading it away… But only to the feet of Newcastle’s striker, who is presented with the most gift-wrapped of opportunities to sink the ball into our net.

I would take a 1-1 back to Derby. The opposition are at least as good as we are, so there’s no dishonour in achieving a hard-fought stalemate here. And that’s exactly where the game looks as though it’s heading. Lookman and Pavon are both removed with very minor injuries, which hands introductions to Wilson and Ojo. Hlozek replaces the tiring Esposito up front, the Italian having spent his effort on keeping their defenders busy. So it really hurts when they produce a late winner. Thiago takes a corner kick. Lascelles is beyond the far side of goal, covered loosely by Chirivella, and he launches a rasping and unbeatable header into our goal.

This is slack from us, and while we aren’t at the point of crisis yet it’s hard to see a pointless opening to the season as anything other than difficult. Fair enough, getting anything from Liverpool is a big ask and Newcastle are a fine outfit now that they are being competently managed. But we were never out of the top six last season and expectations are high, and the opening salvoes have left us at the table’s wrong end. There’s a quick onus on us now to start turning things around before a bit of a worry begins to develop into a proper concern. It’s Arsenal next, out for revenge and one of the last sides we would hope to be facing at this time.

None of this is what we hoped for after a summer rebuild that I felt went rather well and has left us much stronger than we used to be. Of course, there’s the issue of settling in all those new faces, but by now we ought to be as much as the sum of our parts. We should be better than this.

Derby FM20 – April 2021: The Quest for Sixth Place

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – November 2020: Misery in Monochrome

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.

November finishes with a home tie against Newcastle United. We’re third and they are dead last, having accumulated a grand total of 5 (five) points so far. Steve Bruce has spent the best part of £60 million on ‘talent’ in the summer, and the club was bought out by a supporter-led consortium in 2019, so the bigger picture is that the outlook is very slowly improving for them…. But this is a slow process. They aren’t suddenly going to go from all those years of under-investment to hitting the heights as they did back in the 1990s, and I suspect they will probably need to go down and regroup, come back fighting and stronger, before they can truly begin to re-establish themselves within the level where they should belong.

Of those acquisitions, the best has been Mario Rui, the 29 year old Portuguese left-back drafted in from Napoli. By all accounts the player is deeply unhappy, having already asked to be sold as a consequence of a signing promise being broken. I know all about these, and I wonder if Brucey guaranteed that the Magpies would be fighting for a European spot this season, whereas their form suggests anything but that kind of finish. Rui looks good though. Despite the malaise he’s been a consistent and effective performer, linking well with Allan Saint-Maximin, by some distance their biggest threat from the left wing. Newcastle spent heavily (£27.5 million!) on Wolves defender Matt Doherty, a decent yet staggeringly average right-back who cost them more than Hughes and Hlozek combined. Ghanaian striker Caleb Ekuban has been signed from Trabzonspor – again, little to concern ourselves with where he’s concerned. Winger Marko Pjaca is there on loan from Zebre. The Croatian is in the fourth year of being at teams other than his mother ship on temporary deals, suggesting that a future with Chelsea surely awaits.

Newcastle scored a thirteenth placed finish in 2020. This earned Brucey a stay of execution, yet his position at the helm looks close to untenable and Sky Sports News is entering an unseemly period of being on sack watch, dispatching Keith Downie to warm up his usual spot outside St James Park and report on the same things that may or not be happening, possibly tomorrow, perhaps later. What a dog of a job, though no doubt Keith is highly used to discussing problems, turbulence and tribulations at the north-east megalith, listening to the despairing wails of Newcastle supporters as their team lurches towards yet another crisis.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this must be a hell of a challenge to take on. The new owners have apparently restored the riches to NUFC, or at least they’re reinvesting back into the club rather than siphoning off their resources like certain unethical owners might choose to do. It makes me realise how lucky I am at Derby, a much smaller operation but one run by people who at least care about it. The turnaround at our opposition is going to take some time. Even as their takeover was taking place the club’s Academy was being lowered to Category Three. Within a system where Category One (we’re at this tier) is the best and Four the worst, this is a shocking state of affairs for a region that prides itself on developing great footballers. There really ought to be a production line of talent, regularly conveying players into the first team, but the occasional Longstaff aside there’s been precious little action. What a shower. You know it’s going to become a lot worse before it starts getting better.

Not that any of this suggests we should be treating them lightly. It’s a gift-wrapped opportunity for us to pile on the misery, to make it a hat-trick of victories in November while pushing the Geordies just that bit closer to the drop. I want us to take a positive approach, to play on the front foot and put them under pressure. Pedrza comes in for Lowe. McKenna starts alongside Bielik in the middle. Hlozek gets his place back on the right wing and Smith Rowe makes it back on to the bench because one day, some day, surely he has to find a morsel of form from behind the sofa.

There’s a bumper crowd at Pride Park for this one, with Newcastle’s travelling army filling out their allocation and being in full voice, which is more than I can say for their side. It’s a decent autumnal afternoon, dry and mild, and a dour first half in which we pad out our foul count without producing anything on the pitch. The thing is the Magpies are just as bad. Their attack is of the minimal kind. Apart from Saint-Maximin, who at least runs at our defence and tests the keeper, there is absolutely nothing to them, very little for us to fear. It’s painful work. We’re playing as though we can turn up and have the points handed to us; the front three are especially meandering as we hand Dubravka one of his easier times in goal.

It isn’t anything like good enough and I tell the players exactly that. For the second period we are going to go with an attacking mentality, the players charged with getting us that precious goal, and we set about putting our visitors to the sword. As it is it takes us until the 81st minute to get a winner. Bakery Jatta is on for Hlozek by this point. The Czech has been game but ineffective, and maybe Jatta’s pace will cause panic among the Barcodes. He’s driving into their penalty area when Stoger finds him with a cross-field pass. Evading the slack attentions of Rui, he nets from a tight angle, a confident finish that’s reminiscent of last season’s forward at his best. We could make it 2-0 when Doherty fouls Smith Rowe just outside the box. Chirivella tries a floated ball in yet all Bielik can do with his header is launch the ball into outer space.

All the same, it’s a 1-0 win and I’ll take that any time. We won’t often get the victory so cheaply. The opposition rarely give us anything to deal with, despite Saint-Maximin trying to make something happen on his own. Chirivella wins the match ball. He’s spent the entire time trying to keep Shelvey under wraps, which should be fine given the midfielder’s limitations but is made harder due to his sheer willingness. There’s a suggestion that I should warn the players to guard against complacency, but is that fair? It wasn’t a vintage display from us, and yet we did enough to get ourselves over the line and for now that is completely good enough.

The month ends well. We’re an incredible two points away from being at the top of the table, but December is going to be a month for character building with some very tough matches to come. One reprieve is that our Boxing Day encounter with Manchester City has been postponed due to them playing the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Bournemouth on that day. All that means, however, is that we get them in January instead, the vagaries of the fixtures computer scheduling us to play them twice in the space of four days. What a treat, huh?

The FA Cup third round draw is made. We will be taking on Birmingham City, who are currently tenth in the Championship. Before any of that we have a schedule of five league ties in December. The fun begins with a visit to fellow promoted side, Brentford, another opportunity to bag some points before a string of televised fixtures deal out some potential ass-whuppings before the harsh gaze of the camera’s eye.