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 – October 2020: Return of the Ox

With the transfer window about to close, we travel across the smoke to take on Chelsea. The Blues have of course dipped into their considerable bank balance for this term, adding the likes of Chilwell, Ziyech, Havertz and Werner to counter the year when they couldn’t sign anyone. They’re the favourites, especially at their home, but for the first half we give as good as we get, playing cautiously, breaking frequently and having clearly the higher shot count. But no goal. Aubameyang is especially wasteful, Vinicius out of sorts and Ceballos makes little impression as we fail to press our advantage. Midway through the second half Giroud returns to haunt us by coming off the bench and handsome-ing the ball into the net from close range. It’s a bullied goal, the Frenchman making full use of his height to shrug off his marker and head in Werner’s cross. Despite the better xG, we slink back to our corner of the city after suffering our first league defeat of the season.

Losing to Chelsea leads to an inquest. We look like flat track bullies – capable of winning at home and against weaker sides, but once we come across a defensively capable outfit it all goes west. Little wonder that Tomori is named Man of the Match; they’re solid and can’t be ruffled at the back, indeed we appear lightweight in comparison.

Of most concern to me is our weak midfield showing. Partey was fine but Ceballos struggled and Xhaka looks like someone whose impact depends on the roll of a dice. Behind them sit three English players – Cook, Willock and Wilshere – who just aren’t as good, meaning we have scant options. Quality is required, and Liverpool might provide it by placing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the transfer list. He isn’t cheap at £35 million, and even with the Mustafi money made available to me I don’t have anything like those kinds of funds. But I can ask the board for help. Sir Chips agrees that we could use the Ox and arranges the deal on my behalf. Just like that, one phone call to the Ivory Tower, and we have welcomed back a player I see as a prodigal son. With any luck his injury troubles are behind him, though perhaps not as he joins us while recovering from damaged knee cartilage. He might be back in time for Burnley in a fortnight’s time.

Mari goes on loan to Basel, which is our last bit of business for the window, and two weeks of international football takes over. Fortunately, we only pick up one additional injury when Kieran Tierney suffers a gashed lower league during Scotland’s 4-0 win over Israel. He’ll be missing for two weeks.

Our trip to Burnley seems like a tonic after the perils of Stamford Bridge. We can’t underestimate the Lancashire opposition, but we should be okay and finally we achieve a first half breakthrough when Vinicius scores at the end of a sustained spell of attacking pressure. It’s felt like a matter of when, not if, and the home team look so distant from threatening Leno’s goal that one score might be enough. Winning 1-0 doesn’t sound especially sexy, but we’ve had to field Holding and Wilshere because Demiral and Xhaka have returned from duty for their countries at considerably less than full fitness and as a consequence they’re rested for this one. During the second half, Uncle Sean’s screaming fits and threats of violence towards his own players terrifies them into performing. They start to attack, more frequently, and steadily we’re pushed back until the inevitable happens and Wood scores a late equaliser. By this stage the Clarets are on top, and we’re grateful to leave with a point.

The good times are tested further still when we travel to Sivas in Turkey for our Europa League opener against Sivasspor. Despite the presence of Ivorian winger Max Gradel they don’t look particularly nasty, indeed we have one of our own in Nicolas Pepe, and he’s £72 million worth of talent. Wait, what? The first half goes to plan. Pepe hits a penalty shot wide and Willock has a goal disallowed, but Holding and Nketiah have put us 2-0 up, and when Nelson makes it three with eighty-five minutes on the clock we’re all looking forward to a celebratory kebab before catching the plane back to Blighty. Perhaps too much though. Xhaka’s mishit pass becomes a dangerous Turkish counterattack, from which Cofie scores. Yatabare has the ball in the back of our net again as we enter injury time, and it’s only the lack of minutes remaining that spare our blushes. Another worrying result. We start well and then we either tire, or lose interest, and we simply must maintain our tempo and vigilance until the final whistle.

Back in the league we’re taking on relegation threatened Sheffield United, who are fielding a FM2020 favourite of mine in former Derby full-back Jayden Bogle. Sutalo scores for them but we add three of our own, courtesy of Xhaka (making up for his Sivasspor error), Aubameyang and a rare Bellerin strike. It’s good stuff on the whole, an instance of us outplaying the opposition, though the rough play on both sides is not for the faint hearted. The visitors slightly edge us on fouls committed, though we earn three bookings to their two as the hard tackles and aggression at times takes over. There’s a part of me that’s happy enough with this. We do need to stop being a soft touch, beatable via sheer bullying, and here’s evidence of an occasionally harder edge that can enter our game.

Our European odyssey continues with a trip to Luhansk in Ukraine to face Zorya. We should win and we do, claiming a comfortable 2-0 win with goals from Pepe and Cook, while Chambers – making his first start on my watch at centre-back – has one ruled offside. Fair enough. He is, moving fractionally too quick to volley in Pepe’s free-kick. It’s a good performance otherwise. We restrict the home team to scraps while hitting them with fifteen shots. They’re a reasonable side, decent at putting bodies behind the ball and breaking up our play, yet we go there as the big-shot glamour side and the tie goes to form.

October therefore ends with us looking a bit more human than we did previously. That’s fine. Effecting the Gunners’ transition towards being a Champions League team again isn’t easy. We have to reverse our league position of the last four years, which has headed gradually downwards, but we appear to be doing it, and for my efforts the board give me a ‘B’ grade. They’re happy with how things are going, though the Chelsea defeat and Mari’s loan deal count as black marks on my record. Liverpool and Manchester United haven’t dropped a single point yet, which shows the scale of the challenge. A defeat and a draw and we look completely off the title chasing pace, but perhaps that is exactly the standard we have to aim for.

Derby FM20 – April 2022: Shut Out

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.

Reaching the Europa League semi-final is worth £1.29 million. Every little helps, and coupled with TV revenues the competition is keeping us financially healthy. A report on profits made in the Premier League ranks us in fourteenth place, having raked in a small gain of £1.1 million. That’s a considerable drop from what we turned over last season, when our wage bill was much smaller than it is now, and it illustrates the juggling act that getting all this right represents.

There’s still a healthy £41 million in the DCFC bank balance. Things are looking good, though it wouldn’t take much for us to be spending enough to cut very seriously into the club’s finances. Ah for the might of Manchester United, a club built to print its own money and producing the Premier League’s most profitable output. Clearly, if we were contesting the Champions League then the cash would flood in. We’re working very hard to achieve this end. Newcastle produce an England World Cup winning scoreline against Arsenal to ensure the Gunners cannot mathematically catch us up, meaning the lowest position we can now finish in is fifth. Man City are six points behind us and have the capacity to rack up a total of 84. We have to remain above them, hopefully not relying on the tie between us that will take place at Pride Park in order to prevail. Overall we have done enough to achieve a top four place, and there’s always the possibility of winning the Europa League itself if that plan goes awry. It’s in our hands. Five league matches. Five opportunities to produce the goods.

While some of our rivals are involved in the FA Cup we have Sheffield United to face at Pride Park. The Blades are still rooted in the league’s lower reaches. They’re eighteenth, on 24 points and involved in what looks like becoming a four-way contest to find out who survives. Danny Cowley has been in charge since late January, leaving Hull to take this post, and while he’s managed enough to lift his team away from dead bottom there’s much still to do. Given his appointment towards the end of the transfer window, Cowley has not had time to add to their ranks, meaning he’s using the group of players that got Chris Wilder sacked. They’re a team surviving on relatively slender means, their squad made up of the rump of the side that was promoted three years ago, with a few select additions and loanees.

Nick Pope is a very good goalkeeper. While we were agreeing the deal for Jack Butland Burnley’s Number One swapped the red rose for the white one in signing for United. He joins on-loan stars Thomas Meunier, Joao Mario and Bernard, while Willian adds years of experience as a free signing and Norwegian right winger Hakon Evjen is their bank breaker, a £36 million capture from AZ who perhaps hasn’t developed into the star they were hoping to acquire. As always, the one to watch here is Sander Berge, by some distance their most accomplished player and a tricky midfielder who we have to look out for. Maximilian Meyer is played as their outright striker, something of a slap in the face to Lys Mousset, who’s done rather well as a Blade and has previously been getting our scouts hot and sweaty.

The Blades come to defend. Clearly Cowley’s feeling is that the relegation dogfight is one that will be won attritionally, grinding out the matches, stealing points here and there, slowly amassing the total they need. I guess I can’t blame him. We are second and come into this one as heavy favourites, but it just doesn’t happen for us in the first half. We’re squeezed by the opposition, defenders in their Brazilian yellow shirts crowding out our forwards and reducing us to potshots that fail to hit the target or even unduly trouble Pope. It’s frustrating to watch, as we work with our usual patience into good positions again and again, only to finish with a speculative effort that sails harmlessly wide. Moriba is especially culpable, sensing he is on orders to shoot from anywhere (he isn’t), whilst Esposito is having one of those games where everything he tries comes to nothing. He doesn’t survive into the second half.

In the end, it takes a goal from an unlikely source to finish the job. Salcedo is deep in their half and tries a volley from the left hand side of goal. His effort bounces off the legs of Meunier and lands kindly for Alfonso Pedraza, who finally eases the tension by placing his shot low and beneath Pope’s body. Phew!

The Sheffield team fail to rally, even though we do our best to make things easy for them. Pedraza earns a second yellow to be dismissed with around seven minutes of the game remaining. It’s his third sending off of the season, three too many in my opinion and an utterly needless action as he’s caught out challenging Mousset in a rare Blades attack and goes in too hard. Wilson then gets involved in a meaty tackle, courtesy of Bernard, which is bad enough to remove him from their field. He’ll be missing for up to two weeks with a gashed thigh. So we finish the game with nine men as all our substitutions have been made. Ojo is playing left-back at this point and Salcedo casts a lonely figure as our sole forward. Even now though, the away team produces nothing and we prevail to clinch an important 1-0 victory.

Pedraza is fined half a week’s wages for being sent off. It’s a sad way to treat someone who carved out our victory, but it’s justified. The Spaniard has effortlessly snatched away the record set by Jayden Bogle as our most ill-disciplined player, having earned ten yellow cards and three reds. It’s a side of his game that I really don’t want to see. He is aggressive, yet this normally channels itself into a fierce competitiveness and will to win. The tendency towards violence he has exhibited this season is not something I want to see, as we will now lose his services for two games.

The FA Cup final will be contested between Liverpool and Manchester United. In the Merseyside derby, Everton are handed their most recent trouncing, a 4-0 defeat, while United come from behind to prevail 3-2 against Spurs. It’s disappointing for the latter, a team effort that has seen them at or near the top of the division throughout the campaign and only now are they running out of puff. Clearly Giovani Lo Celso is a key member of the squad. He’s out right now with ankle problems, and it seems in his absence they are without teeth.

There’s a week between this match and another that will decide our destiny, at home to tenth placed Aston Villa. Other sides that now have catch-up fixtures are getting them out of the way in midweek. Tottenham are at home to Man City and, from our perspective, generate the best of results in stuttering to a 0-0 draw. It’s a low key affair, in which Spurs have the best chances, especially after Zaniolo has seen red for an industrial tackle that is bad enough to remove Mykolenko from the field. No such worries for Liverpool, who are up against West Ham and win 2-0 to smoothly ease back into the top position that we were keeping warm for them. United produce a 4-1 victory over Brighton to rise to third place. They’re four behind us now, with a match in hand. Anthony Martial, who’s playing better for Ole than he ever did for me when I operated as United gaffer, bags all four of their goals.

Didier Deschamps lasts a grand total of 34 days at Juventus. In his brief time he oversaw their exit from the Europa League and has just completed three league games without a victory, effectively ensuring that his team can play no part in the destination of the league title. My feeling is that the problems there are bigger than the manager, but it’s easy to blame him when the malaise isn’t arrested, don’t you think?

Along with Wilson, we find we are also going to be without Tosin Adarabioyo when we face the Villans. The big defender is out for a week after incurring a pulled groin during a training ‘incident’, and I’m not going to begin to explain how that one happened.

Chelsea beat Spurs to pile on their misery and just about end their chances of winning the title this season. Fulham pull off a surprise, beating Manchester City 1-0 at the Cottage, while Liverpool unleash a can of whup-ass on Newcastle, Origi bagging a brace as part of a 6-0 romp, to advance their Premier League crown ambitions. United win too, 1-0 over Everton, which keeps up the pressure. We’re playing on Saturday night. You lot are all settling in to your cans of Foster and cheap curry takeaways while we’re walking out at Pride Park.

We’re favourites to win, which is always something that causes me concern. I’m far happier when we’re battling the odds, when there are no expectations on us, but a victory is expected and we anticipate a big crowd to watch us do it. Added to the mix is Villa’s dreadful form. They haven’t won a game since February. Even the dogged efforts of gentleman Jack Grealish (not a gent) haven’t been enough, as a possible European spot is being denied them and they seem to be settling for their traditional mid-table finish. There’s a lot about this team that’s good. Sigurdsson is injured, but they can call on John McGinn in midfield and their centre-back pairing of Bednarek and Engels is tough to break down.

On paper this is the simplest of games. We’re playing someone who has little left to fight for, while we are going for the largest of honours. This too is probably the most straightforward fixture of the run-in. So when we emerge at the end, having fought to a 0-0 draw, it’s disappointing, indeed ‘devastating’ wouldn’t be too far from explaining my feelings. There isn’t much that we do wrong. Especially pleasing is our shackling of Grealish, who gets little time to work his particular brand of magic. The Villans get a handful of chances, mainly snatched at and with just one on target. At the other end we put Pacheco under siege. The entire Villa defence wins plaudits for limiting the damage, as we rain shots in. Only nothing comes of it, apart from an Esposito goal that is clearly ruled out for offside. Will Hughes puts in one of most commanding midfield performances, a true general, but this doesn’t lead to goals on its own and I’m angry with Lookman, Esposito, Hlozek, Roberts and Ojo, who should have produced something between them and don’t. This is a unit of players that has contributed 56 goals over the course of the season, reduced to being shut out.

The reason for my ire should be obvious enough. Liverpool are now three points clear and completely in control of their destiny. United can leapfrog us into second place if they win all their remaining games, and there isn’t a darn thing we can do about it. Given their recent form, you’d have to fancy them to pull it out when it counts. With a win here we could have guaranteed a place in next year’s Champions League. As it is, Spurs and City can still mathematically gazump our position, which means we continue to lie two points shy of that target, with Arsenal, City and Norwich on the near-horizon.

Derby FM20 – November 2021: Thinking About the Future

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 international break approaches, and there’s one game left to play beforehand, which takes in a visit to Bramall Lane. Sheffield United have scored two eleventh placed finishes in their two years of top flight football, but they look in trouble this time, sitting in the relegation zone to encapsulate the myth of that difficult third season. Chris Wilder remains ‘the man’. I’d argue their transfer window activity was largely positive – Thomas Meunier (on loan), Thomas Sabitzer (£6.5 million), and most enviably Nick Pope (£8.5 million) have been added. Their most ambitious acquisition is Hakon Evjen, a Norse international winger brought in from AZ for £36 million, someone we scouted and overlooked, and he’s very much in his ‘settling in’ period at the club.

Despite a highly impressive 2-0 home win over Liverpool, the Blades have disappointed so far and we are strongly backed to end the pre-break window with a victory. We beat them twice at Bramall Lane in the previous season, so all the omens are with us, and it’s in these moments that feel we are most likely to suffer a fall. It’s what follows pride, after all, in that recurring Law of Sod that plays such a mischievous part in footballing fortunes. The Yorkshire outfit still command the talents of Sander Berge, the sort of player we circle, vulture-like, if his team ends up being relegated, while for us Cristian Pavon is serving the first of his suspended matches. We now know that his ban will extend to four fixtures. This is unfortunate. The positive spin is that Harry Wilson now has a opportunity to shine, and there’s the flexibility for us to use Adam Hlozek in this position if all else fails.

Pav’s slow start already has me looking at alternatives to play on the right wing. I don’t want to sound as though I’ve given up on him. I haven’t, however the reality is that I signed him based on how good he was in Football Manager 2018 and there’s a possibility that the 2020 vintage just isn’t as potent. There’s a bit of transfer money left in the kitty and a laughably outside chance that the board will make more available before the January window. David Brooks, still at a Bournemouth team that’s been relegated, is a strong and tantalising possibility. We could entertain the idea of drafting Reiss Nelson in from Arsenal on a loan deal, and a string of players who aren’t homegrown – Orsolini, Weah, PSV’s highly rated Ritsu Doan – are all on the radar. The most highly rated right-sided attacking winger we’ve scouted is Allan Saint-Maximin, who tortured us in the season’s early passes in a hiding from Newcastle. ‘A superb signing‘ is the summary of Antonio Dias’s scouting report, for a player who could cost us as much as £48 million, so unless things change dramatically he will remain a remote outlier.

Those are all thoughts for the future, one in which the financial projections suggest we are in for a bonanza windfall of transfer money. The graphs tease me with the possibility of a budget of anything up to £90 million in the summer of 2022, an outrageous level of largesse that even a generous boardroom like ours isn’t renowned for, and with the wage allowance not seeing great change such figures need to be tempered to allow for pay rises and the like. Besides which, I need to bear in mind that whatever spends I’m given £32.45 million is already squirreled in Barcelona’s direction to make Ilaix Moriba‘s transfer permanent. I will also have to consider what we are going to do to resolve the situation at right-back, which will have a vacancy when Ethan Laird’s loan season is up, and then there’s the very real prospect that we will make a move for Birmingham’s Jude Bellingham. The young English midfielder looks like such a Derby County player that it would seem rude not to try my best to make this future a reality, and yet that’s another likely £29 million siphoned off. The reality then, is one where we may indeed have a lot to spend yet much of it is already assigned to existing commitments and playing targets.

In the meantime, we’re in a cold and wet Sheffield (is there any other kind?), the home of the Human League and Sean Bean, and today’s opposition. Joel Pereira has suffered a fractured lower arm in training and is removed for a month, which just puts a seal on Jack Butland’s status as starting goalkeeper. The good news for Jackie continues with his recall to the England national team, where he’s fighting with Pickford and Pope for the number one jersey. Laird is at right-back for his last guaranteed start before Jayden Bogle recovers from injury. The central midfield showcases Hughes and Moriba ahead of Chirivella, with Stoger, Lopez and Vieira on the bench. Esposito is in our line-up. Bielik and McKenna make up our starting central defence as my regular rotation of centre-backs kicks in.

Anyone who reads my team selections with interest may be questioning the ever-changing identities of the people I choose in defence. I rotate here continually to minimise injuries, keep things fresh and favour no one among four players who are roughly as good as each other. Until someone pipes up with a moan about the amount of playing time they get, the rotation works as follows:

  • Game One – Bielik and McKenna start, Oxford on the bench, Vallejo rested
  • Game Two – Bielik and Oxford start, Vallejo on the bench, McKenna rested
  • Game Three – Vallejo and Oxford start, McKenna on the bench, Bielik rested
  • Game Four – Vallejo and McKenna start, Bielik on the bench, Oxford rested

The idea is to ensure everyone gets a good level of time in the team and none of them lose out, and in my experience working to this plan cuts down the number of injuries suffered by this unit, particularly as my aim to progress as far as possible on all fronts stacks up our number of fixtures to play.

The Blades line up against us with a three-man defence, and no place in their starting formation for Evjen because they’re using wing-backs rather than outright wingers. Maximilian Meyer is the main threat. They’ve built the side around him, the German who’s playing a number ten role like a lesser Ozil, though I’d argue their real strength is in central midfield, occupied today by Berge and Fleck. Stevens and Meunier are their wing-backs, and they’re worth keeping an eye on, with McBurnie and the on-loan Bernard figuring as targets for their offensive activities.

The difference here is confidence. We have it, they don’t, and we get to play like the home team throughout the match, dominating possession and attacking statistics, while there’s a welcome level of discipline to our play. Fouls happen at a premium. We incur no unnecessary yellow cards, and this can’t only be a consequence of Pavon watching the action from the stands.

After some indifferent opening phases we take control of the game and begin to press the Blades heavily. This earns its reward in the thirty-sixth minute when Pedraza wins a free-kick deep in their half. Wilson takes it, lofting a searching ball towards the far post that Will Hughes heads in to continue his rich goal-scoring vein. With half-time looming, United redress the balance from a very similar move, McBurnie scoring from a pinpoint header to convert Fleck’s free-kick. As headed goals go you would struggle to see better, though it helps when the marking on him is almost non-existent. But we aren’t done. With the referee placing the whistle between his lips, there’s time for Laird to hold the ball up on the right wing before finding Hughes. He sends his pass across the goalmouth and Ademola Lookman evades Meunier to slice a shot past Pope.

The second half sees no further goal action. We have the best of it, whereas United get little more than an injury to Meunier to reflect upon. For reasons that perhaps best belong in the Twilight Zone, Bramall Lane once again becomes a rich hunting ground for us. We’ve controlled the game and played like a team that belongs in the division’s upper reaches; better still, we are able to make substitutions based on keeping players fresh rather than due to anyone playing horribly. Esposito hasn’t enjoyed one of his more notable outings, but that’s perhaps to be expected when the Italian is facing a wall of three central defenders.

This leaves us five points distant of the table’s summit, a position occupied by Tottenham for the time being. The usual crowd are hovering, lining up to take over when normal service resumes, while you might be wondering where Chelsea sit in the ranking. They are currently twelfth, without the excuse of injuries taking a part in the difficult start to their campaign. We are their next opponents, once the international break is over, so it’s to be hoped that their revival doesn’t start with a victory over ourselves.

Derby FM20 – January 2021: Hat-Trick Heroes

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.

Sebastiano Esposito is named as the Premier League’s Best Young Player for December. Your writer comes third in the managerial stakes. It’s been a good month, with a profit of nearly £4 million registered and the boardroom continuing to purr over my activities. They give me the opportunity to update the minimum expectation for this season in return for an increase in transfer revenues available. It turns out that any financial input will be slight. I agree that we will achieve a mid-table finish, which plunges a few hundred grand into the kitty but also increases the wage budget, which now stands at £865,078 per week. That at least gives me some small room for manoeuvre.

It looks as though both Stendera and D’Urso will get their loan moves, as the offers come flooding in. Festy Ebosele is a promising young Derby striker who is also subject to bids, with a string of lower league clubs showing some interest. A blast from the past returns when Graeme Shinnie‘s loan deal in the Major League expires. Even with our potential losses I’m not clamouring to restore him to the line-up, and Colorado decide they would like him back for the remainder of the term. On the downside my interest in Conor Gallagher comes to an end when it’s pointed out to me that Derby can only loan two long-term domestic-based players. We already have Juan Hernandez and Emile Smith Rowe, and whilst I’d be happy to flick either player (especially Emile) back to their mother-clubs there’s no termination clause in their contracts.

This time last year I was busy arranging for players to join for free at the end of their contracts. The pickings are slimmer this time around, which is probably a good thing as by the time the 2019/20 season ended we didn’t want most of those new signings. I pore through those on our shortlist carefully. I’d love to get Federico Valverde, the Real Madrid defensive midfielder who’s spending his year with Napoli, yet it’s with some predictability that he shows no interest whatsoever in swapping the Bernabeu for Pride Park. His loss. Tottenham’s American defender, Cameron Carter-Vickers, is on our radar, but with enough caveats to put us off for now. His lack of appearances for Spurs coupled with an average 2019/20 at Luton are negative factors.

We end up offering a contract to Maxime Lopez, a 23 year old French midfielder who currently plies his trade with Marseille. Joe McClaren considers him to be ‘a quality signing‘, a mighty fine passer of the ball with a wide range of technical goodies in his arsenal. The Under-21 international agrees to a contract that will pay him a very reasonable £24,000 per week. I think he’s a great signing for us, and if we do end up losing our other back-up midfielders then I will aim to draft him in sooner than the summer.

The UK leaves the European Union, which it’s reported will not change much at all within the work permit rules for new and existing players. And we have an FA Cup tie to play against Birmingham City, rooted somewhere in the middle of the Championship table, managed by Steve McClaren and seemingly going nowhere. It’s a good excuse for me to use my squad. Lowe is suspended so Pedraza continues at left-back. Te Wierik partners Bielik in the middle and Ivan fills in at right-back. It’s an increasingly rare start for Lord Rooney, who’s behind a central midfield pairing of Baker and Stendera. Jatta and Lookman are on the wings. Josh Maja gets his first start in attack.

We hope this is going to be fairly straightforward, and indeed that’s how it appears when Maja slices us ahead in the second minute. It’s the culmination of a pacey attack between the striker and Jatta; good to see them showing their superiority so early. Before the break, Marc Gual scores an equaliser and I’m beginning to see some familiar traits re-emerge – lackadaisical play, not taking the opposition seriously enough, giving them too many openings. But fear not. Bakery Jatta decides to put on a show, presumably to make up for his red card in December, and scores a wonderful hat-trick in the second half. It’s good stuff, watching this guy when he’s at his best, bringing out his full repertoire of tricks, jinks, feints and dodges to put the Brummies to the sword. They go for broke at that point and make it 4-2 via Jeremie Bela, but we still have a final ace to play when Smith Rowe supplies an inviting late cross for Maja to get his second.

A solid 5-2 result, especially considering we rested so many of our leading players. In the fourth round we will be at home again, this time hosting Sheffield Wednesday.

Christian D’Urso agrees a loan deal with Amiens SC in the French Ligue 1. His task will be to help his new side escape relegation. VFL Bochum take Marc Stendera for the remainder of the term. They’re in the second division of the Bundesliga and chasing promotion. That leaves us very short in midfield. Should anything happen to Hughes or Stoger we’re left with Baker and Lord Rooney, so I need to find someone to plug the gap. This won’t be easy. There isn’t enough left in the kitty to sign Lopez now, so the only thing we can realistically opt for is a loanee, and it can’t be someone who plays in England. The plus side is that they don’t need to be all that good. Someone competent and better than what we’ve removed from the roster are our simple criteria, and two names emerge – Marco Benassi, who’s transfer listed at Fiorentina, and Marco Parolo of Lazio. The latter is an antique at 35, yet he’s sound and fit, and he only needs to lift his walking stick for a few months. Benassi is someone I managed previously in a Football Manager save. He was bang average, as I recall, but that’s fine. Average will do nicely.

In the press conference before the Sheffield United game at Bramall Lane, I’m told that Derby can go top with a win. That’s nice, I think, but gaining revenge for their 3-1 turnover against us earlier in the season would be enough for us, thank you very much. I name as strong a side as I can. Lord Rooney is out for a week with a pulled back muscle, which means we now have Baker as the only alternative choice in central midfield. Esposito is restored to the starting eleven. His nine Premier League goals make him the third top scorer, behind Jamie Vardinho (on ten) and Harrington Kane (twelve). That’s some lofty company to be keeping.

The fixture is made for us to exact some vengeance, and that’s just what we do. The home team play a laboured, tired game, and rarely threaten us; when they do Montipo has his mind on the action and is always there to make the catch. At the other end, Sebastiano Esposito scores a hat-trick, and much of it he does on his own. Goal One comes when Retsos has the ball in our half. The striker nicks it off him and sets off, too quick for anyone to challenge him, and slides his shot neatly beyond Verrips. Goal Two comes four minutes after he’s put us in the lead. Lowe has a throw-in by their penalty area. The ball is won by Retsos, but his control is wobbly and again Esposito steals it, tries a shot, which is parried, and he has the quickness of mind to run on to the rebound and fire home. Goal Three is a sweetly taken direct free-kick. The young Italian curls his effort around the five-man wall and into the roof of the net. So easy.

Otherwise, a possession-heavy affair from us and much second half time-wasting gifts us with a 3-0 victory, the sort of highly satisfying tie where I can make my substitutions based on match fitness and running the clock down. It does indeed leave us top, but not for very long. The real big boys are playing later in the day and soon snatch up the places at the table’s pinnacle. Still, it’s a rewarding afternoon’s work, with Middlesbrough to come in midweek.

Derby FM20 – October 2020: Blunted!

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

The start of another month. Derby’s boardroom exercises its pleasure over my progress. The old farts are still counting last season’s achievements among their delights, but they’re understandably chuffed about how things are going currently. Thanks to televised matches we are actually making a small profit at the moment, which seems unbelievable compared with the normal reality of losing money – traditionally siphoned off into players’ pockets – month by month, only to recoup it at the end through sponsorship deals and season ticket sales. If things carry on like this, then I wonder if I will be able to ask for additional transfer funds in January, perhaps coupled with raising our level of expectation for the current campaign… We are being asked to fight bravely against relegation, but we’re fourth in the table so if things continue to go well then I think we can upscale to achieving a mid-table finish.

Incidentally if we do manage to squeeze more lolly out of Mr Morris then the first thing I will aim to do is sign Sebastiano Esposito outright. That kid’s going to be a star; it may as well be for us.

21 players in the first team support me, leaving only four – Pedraza, Hernandez, Hlozek, Smith Rowe – who have no real opinion, which I put down to newness and not knowing me well enough yet. The hierarchy has expanded. Hughes and Baker sit atop the tree as team leaders alongside Lord Rooney, which is encouraging, while Lowe, Carson, Montipo and Jatta are considered to be highly influential. Happiness prevails, which you would expect; the majority of the players are quite young, similar-minded human beings, and there’s a growing level of determination among them that I find especially encouraging. Points of potential future conflict lie in the figures of Max Lowe and Lord Rooney. In the case of the former, I put it down to the issue of wanting to transfer to a so-called bigger club. He’s dropped this from his wishlist recently as there are no potential suitors, but he’s playing well and if the vultures begin to circle once again then he may be tempted into forcing a move away.

Lord Rooney‘s rising chagrin is over his lack of playing time. I recall first taking over at Pride Park and being pleased at having a living legend like his Lordship to count upon. The old international was titanic in our first few months together, yet his once-mighty powers are in decline and increasingly he’s a peripheral figure. He isn’t part of the core social group and his dwindling physical attributes make me reticent about favouring him over Chirivella. He’s also our best paid player, by a distance, and I’m sure his presence has been a deciding factor in other players signing for us. It’s going to take careful management. Lord Rooney is in the last year of his contract, one I’m not interested in renewing. Is it possible keep him onside, play him in occasional games against less speedy opposition, until we get to part as friends at the end of the term…? I hope so. The other factor is that he’s a first team coach as well as still registered as a player. I wouldn’t especially miss his services in training if we were to lose them, quite frankly, whilst at the same time I want to treat him well. As Alexander the Great once observed, it’s a knotty one.

October contains some big challenges for us, but we begin with what we hope is a routine home tie against Sheffield United, the side we beat recently in the Carabao Cup. To someone of my age, the Blades will always be that prosaic and unlovely set of over-achievers from the early years of the Premier League. Back then they were managed by Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett, who mixed Cockney wide boy rhetoric with ordering the dullest brand of football imaginable, the sort of Route One fare that blighted the scene in England for many years. Route One, for the uninitiated, meant distributing the ball from defence to attack as quickly as possible, which essentially meant hoofing it far up the pitch to where a man-mountain like Brian Deane could use his height and power to force goals. The entire midfield might as well not have existed within this system. They were effective, in the way a wrecking ball is unsubtly devastating, but never very pretty, and the current side is clearly a million light years away from what they used to be.

They finished eleventh in 2019/20 and are tipped to finish in around the same position this time, however by Premier League standards they are a minnow. German attacking midfielder Max Meyer breaks their barrier for paying players more than £100,000 per week, but broadly their contracts are in line with our own, albeit slightly higher thanks to being a year ahead of us in their top flight project. We continue to track several Blades – notably Jack O’Connell – should things go wrong for them in the league, and we hope to put a dent in their prospects in our meeting.

Coming into our line-up are Lord Rooney and Jatta, while the preferred central defensive partnership of McKenna and Bielik starts, and Lowe gets the nod ahead of Pedraza at left-back. Like when we took on Bournemouth, I think this is a fixture we should be profiting from and, less and less, we as a team are fearing the Premier League. It’s tough, certainly, yet we don’t feel ill-placed within the division and it’s our view that United should be viewed as equals to ourselves.

Hubris, though. Before a bumper attendance at Pride Park we conspire to lose 3-1 in a contest that does much to humble us, which you could argue we probably need, and to teach me a lesson in expecting too much from the boys. Say what you like about the Blades. They’re a mid-table outfit for a reason. Efficient and rarely wasteful when in possession, they make the most of their chances and we don’t. For the first time we look like a newly promoted side, making naive mistakes and failing to shut the door on them when we had the chance. Trossard puts them ahead in the tenth minute. When Esposito gives the ball away in their half, they work the ball neatly forward to Meyer, who holds possession against two marauding Rams before perfectly launching it beyond our line into the Belgian’s path. Launching a spectacular volley first time, Trossard’s shot is unbeatable, though I think it’s a training ground move that we fell for entirely.

It takes until the 80th minute for us to equalise. By then we are broadly on top, working within an attacking mentality and looking for gaps in their mean defence. In classic Derby fashion it’s a set-piece that yields results. Stoger fires one in from the left side of the D; Hlozek nods it on and Bielik races beyond O’Connell to head it past the keeper. By this point I should accept the point, revert us to a more balanced approach and shut the door. Instead I sense blood, creaking Sheffield United just waiting to be beaten and so I order us to press harder. On another day this might work, and the circumstances seem to favour us, but of course we’re open to counter-attacks now and the opposition benefit from one of these. Berge finds Freeman racing down the right flank. Smith Rowe and Lowe both fail to deal with him before he’s hit a cross in towards the near post, where a loosely marked Billy Sharp heads in. The kicker comes in injury time when we’re pushed forward to find our second. Trossard dummies Bogle and produces a superb solo goal to seal the away win. It’s simple stuff really, wonderful looking but the result of slack defending as Bogle doesn’t stop him and there aren’t enough Rams around to get in his way.

A very disappointing scoreline then, one that brings us crashing back down to Earth and with the difficulty of a trip to Arsenal to take in after the international break finishes.  It feels to me as though we’re at our best when no one expects anything from us. As soon as we play someone we possibly should get the better of is the moment we get shown up. What really hurts are the match statistics, which mainly play in our favour, but we didn’t do the business when it counted. We were wasteful in attack, replacing our entire front line before making any significant impression, and Montipo had a rare poor game. The replay shows how far off his line he was for Trossard’s opener. Despite the striker’s speed he ought to have done better. Maybe he felt the goal was offside, though VAR proved this not to be the case, and really there are no excuses for being caught out like that.

Defeat here nudges us down to sixth place, still elevated against where we probably ought to be, but with the Gunners next it’s likely we will concede another place or two before long.

Derby FM20 – September 2020: Carabao Progress

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.

Derby have two away games in one week. At the weekend we’re in the north-east to take on Middlesbrough, who were promoted via the playoffs. Before that it’s the short hop to South Yorkshire and Sheffield United in the Carabao Cup.

The Blades are one of those Premier League sides we really look to for inspiration. Their unfancied team went up in 2019 and have thrived at the top table, despite not spending ridiculous levels of money and retaining faith with largely the same set of players who got them there. The one significant addition is Sander Berge, who to my mind is a playmaking midfielder who could do a fine job for just about anyone.

I want us to do well on all fronts, but for this season staying in the league is our top priority and so I name a hugely changed squad. Lord Rooney returns to the line-up as captain. Stendera, Ivan, Bruno and Hernandez all start. Hlozek is the only significant player from the weekend to retain his place as Jatta serves the last of his suspended games. As we take to the field in a well filled Bramall Lane, it transpires Chris Wilder has picked pretty much the same eleven as the side that crashed to Manchester City several days earlier. That means we’re up against a strong United eleven, but hopefully one that will struggle for fitness as the time passes.

The first half is a largely meandering affair. The home side is indeed suffering from fatigue, but they’re also a good set of players and we need to be on our guard constantly. Little happens of note. There are no on-target shots, though the play has by and large been even, and aside from a yellow card for Lord Rooney when he barrels over Maximilian Meyer, we’ve had a decent showing. Early in the second we score from a corner. As though we’re the only team in the world to effectively use set pieces, we make it look very routine as McKenna nods Stendera’s searching kick beyond Dewhurst. And then the advantage of taking on a tiring set of players really starts to count. The Sheffield lot can’t raise their game to press for an equaliser. They have chances. Callum Robinson takes a shot that is fortunately aimed right at Montipo. Lys Mousset breaks the offside trap to enjoy a free effort. He wastes it.

It ends 1-0, a tie that some claim has been stolen but on the whole I think we deserve our win. The statistics underline my impression that it was an even contest, which we will be lucky to achieve in the Fourth Round where we are pitted to play away at Manchester City.

But there’s no time to worry about that now. Middlesbrough await. In my press conference I tell the media I think Boro will survive, yet what’s really on my mind is revenge. They beat us when last we took them on, Patrick Roberts making the difference though of course they can’t call on the City winger this time. What they do have is a widely reassembled squad. We’ve scouted some of their signings before now. At one point we considered Ben Pearson to be a possible acquisition, back when we were in the Championship and he was putting in some promising performances for Preston. Upon promotion we felt he wasn’t up to it, but Woodgate saw it differently and claimed  him for £1.9 million. Another new boy, attacking midfielder Izzy Brown, has been plucked from the depths of Chelsea’s Stiffs, whilst Antonio Sanabria was a Real Hispalis striker, now brought in to bolster their attack. The special one to watch for us is Alexander Milosevic, our centre-back from last season who moved to the Riverside early in the transfer window. My suspicion was that Alex couldn’t handle the top flight, and he’s barely played for Boro after making his £4.3 million move, yet it wouldn’t be the first time that an alumnus returns to haunt us.

They’re tenth in the table. Clearly Boro have been a credit to their manager, scoring priceless wins over Leicester, Brighton and Brentford but elsewhere going down heavily. Norwich put four past this lot. They lost 6-0 to Arsenal and Chelsea did them 5-0, though you can argue these are much grander outfits that can eat their lunch off the fattened carcasses of newly promoted sides like Boro and ourselves. The pre-match analysis indicates they pack the middle of the pitch and relish playing sides that deploy five-man defences. We should enjoy some domination on the flanks. They are susceptible to pace and tire in the game’s latter stages, so I choose a line-up to suit. Though our form to date has been good, this is a prime opportunity to get some points on the board.

It’s a near-capacity crowd at the Riverside. Fortunately we’re in late September so the ground’s potential for producing an Arctic micro-climate isn’t in evidence. There’s a gust coming off the North Sea, but the conditions are mild and the stadium has its usual shirtless freaks braving what can best be described as an English autumn. As against Sheffield United the first half isn’t one for the extended highlights package. We broadly cancel each other out, Boro trying to gain traction via their wing-backs Spence and Borja while their busy centre makes it difficult for Stoger and Hughes to develop any rhythm. It’s like watching the first few rounds of a lengthy heavyweight featherweight bout, both protagonists circling each other cagily, probing rather than launching fervent attacks and neither able to achieve any breakthrough.

Personally I would take a draw from this one. There’s no shame in winning a point here, and Boro are helping our cause by refusing to even place Lewis Wing on the bench. There’s nothing wrong with the midfielder’s fitness. He just isn’t selected, and that seems a strange decision when we specifically had him marked as one to watch. Along with Dael Fry, Wing could very well become a Derby target if Boro fail this season.

By the hour mark I have replaced Hlozek with Jatta and the German puts in his usual busy, energetic display. He doesn’t threaten them directly, but the sight of a six foot winger charging towards their defence at speed has them worried and he wins a free kick deep in the Boro half after an industrial scything by Paddy McNair. Stoger takes it and in the box Djed Spence impedes te Wierik, which gifts us a penalty. Sebastiano Esposito steps up and dispatches his ball coolly. 

After that we wait for a response that never comes, indeed home team heads go down and we wind up getting chance after chance. I’m keen to press our advantage, but despite some superb crossing from Pedraza we’re unable to add to our account. Lookman gets a gilt-edged scoring opportunity when he hares beyond the last man with only the keeper to beat, but his volley cannons back off the woodwork.

All the same, it’s a 1-0 win away from home, our third victory in a row, and as always those points are priceless.

September closes with the Rams in a ruddy-cheeked fourth place in the table. Some of our players are now high in the individual statistics – Stoger is the division’s second leading assist maker; Montipo is just as good at keeping clean sheets here as he was in the Championship. The way forward is clear – stop the Premier League now, we’ll take this! October might be less kind to us. A visit to rampant Arsenal awaits in the calendar, along with the rather sizeable obstacle of City in the Carabao Cup.