Arsenal FM21 – May 2021: A Tale of Three Trophies

Here’s the deal. We have already qualified for the Champions League and thereby met the Arsenal board’s vision for the season. Sir Chips and his buddies are happy. Now though, we are in the driving seat for the title with none of the big teams left to face. That’s the good part. The issue is the sheer number of fixtures remaining. Seven league games, an FA Cup final against Leicester City, also the second leg of our Europa League tie with United and then a possible final in which to complete the campaign. A total of ten playing occasions between now and the end. A two-day gap between matches on some occasions. Everything is there to play for, but with so much football still to play might we burn out before the end?

2 May – we’re off to Elland Road to take on Leeds United, possibly the trickiest of the remaining league games. On paper, at least. Under Bielsa, the Whites looked as though they were heading towards good things again, but he’s left for Manchester City and they now have Mircea Lucescu in charge. The former Dynamo Kyiv manager favours a defensive approach, which plays into our favour as we’re invited to attack them again and again. Partey puts us ahead early, and we add two more through Vinicius and Aubameyang in the second half when the game becomes more open. The home side are restricted to a single off-target shot. It’s almost the perfect game from us.

4 May – Fulham at home. A heavily rotated line-up is named for what ought to be a more straightforward challenge, and another 3-0 victory. Strikes from Demiral and Lacazette bisect Willian’s penalty, as the Cottagers set up to put men behind the ball and limit the damage, and they happily concede possession also. Their attacking pair of Lookman and Mitrovic are made to look remote and cut off as our defenders keep them entirely under wraps. Jack Wilshere has a great game for us in midfield, teasing Fulham endlessly with his passing, which maybe says as much about the opposition as it does Jackie.

6 May – at the Emirates again, and this time we’re entertaining Manchester United in what should be a Europa League tie where the hard work has already been done. We are three ahead at the break thanks to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Pepe and Aubameyang. In the second half, United suddenly remember what’s on the line and take the game to us. Diallo scores a couple of quick goals as the visitors pile on the pressure, and we spend the closing stages defending our lead. It’s far too late for them, as we win 5-2 on aggregate and look forward to the final at the Energa Gdansk in Poland. Our opponents will be yet another Premier League side, the so far disappointing Manchester City. We have a great record against them this season.

8 May – a trip to the resolutely mid-table Southampton. This ought to be a comfortable game, but as it is the home side defend like dogs to keep us out. Jan Bednarek plays the game of his life at the back and Fraser Forster deals with everything we throw at him. On their wing Theo Walcott has that whiff of ‘old player scoring’ as he forces Kolasinac to defend hard and often. Somehow the Serb fails to get a booking in this one, which normally suggests he hasn’t done a lot. An otherwise bad-tempered game threatens to dribble out towards a 0-0 draw, but in injury time the Ox gets a break, sails past Walker-Peters and crosses unselfishly for Auba, who only has to slot the ball home and never cocks up chances of this sort. Phew.

11 May – we’re hosting Brighton and Hove Albion. This lot beat us earlier in the season and we owe them. Bellerin scores early and late strikes from Aubameyang (from the penalty spot) and Willian seal the deal, but this isn’t straightforward. Brighton produce more work for our defence to do than some of the more illustrious units we’ve played, and Lacazette does precisely nothing before Auba comes on to at least give us a spark in attack. Saka and Willock are the Gunner heroes who spark our 3-0 victory here; great to see homegrown players being invested in our fortunes.

13 May – at home again; this time it’s Everton. I name a strong line-up against a good team and one that sets out to keep us at bay. For a long time it works, but two second half goals from Pepe hand us a 2-0 victory. Otherwise, we’re wasteful in attack. We have twenty-five shots against a Toffees side that frankly looks as though they are already on their holidays. Pickford does his acrobatic thing however, and the win becomes harder fought than it really needs to be.

15 May – one more win will hand the league title to us, but before that there’s the little matter of the FA Cup final. We’re taking on Leicester City, a good opponent but it could have been a lot harder and they do us a favour in the twelfth minute when Ndidi is red carded for the sort of challenge on Pepe that wouldn’t look out of place in a Sam Peckinpah Western. His dismissal defines the match. Pepe and Aubameyang score to win the contest 2-0. Willock has one ruled out for an arguable offside, and Partey plays a titanic game in defensive midfield. The Foxes offer little. By the end it’s Ndidi – the one player who looked committed and up for a fight, albeit exhibiting it in a dangerous way – who comes out of it with any credit.

19 May – with the league crown on the line we’re off on our longest journey within England to face Newcastle United at the Sports Direct Arena. Potentially facing relegation, the Barcodes have to see themselves over the line but this isn’t the time to do it. They fail to register a shot on target as we run out 2-0 winners. Partey scores early. Lacazette adds a second late and otherwise we stop the opposition from causing any problems for Leno in goal. Xhaka plays, safely anonymously, while Pepe and Vinicius earn the plaudits for keeping the Geordies busy in defence. We’ve won the Premier League!

23 May – suddenly there’s nothing left to play for in the league finale at Leicester City. I resolve to save my stars for the Europa League final and field a second eleven, and it’s perhaps the irrelevance of this one coupled with sheer fatigue that allows the Foxes to rack up a 3-2 win. The side we beat at Wembley puts in the sort of performance that reminds us they should be taken seriously. Cengiz Under and a wonderful Tielemans shot put them 2-0 up. Maitland-Niles finds a response, but Vardinho’s effort places them back into a commanding lead. Chambers heads in a Nelson corner late in the game, and we think we’ve equalised deep in injury time via Vinicius, only for the goal to be ruled out for what is revealed to be a clear offside. Ah well. I can’t be too upset after the heroics we have produced recently.

26 May – I’ve saved the stars for this, the Europa League final against Bielsa’s Manchester City in Poland. It’s a frustrating occasion. We tally an xG of 1.26 against the opposition’s 0.29, but they find the breakthrough when Fernandinho nods them in front, and it’s a lead they never give up. For our part, the silky football gives way to niggly fouls and bookings. Pepe tries to produce the spark for us, but Xhaka is predictably awful and at least on this occasion he isn’t the only one as Tierney is given the run-around ceaselessly by Raheem Sterling. It’s an underwhelming end to the campaign, but I am able to put it down to tiredness. The boys have spilled their life blood for the cause in May, raised their game again and again, and there’s always a price to pay. Perhaps the leggy performance here, when there’s so little left in the tank, is a simple reflection of our fatigue levels.

All the same, if I was offered the league and FA Cup at the start of the year then I would absolutely have taken them. Arsenal are a work in progress. We’re a mixture of good players, plucky youngsters and some who are ripe for the culling – looking at you, Granit Xhaka – and to finish with these honours, not to mention two additional cup final appearances, represents a fantastic season. Bernd Leno has played in each game. That’s a total of sixty-five appearances, crammed in between mid-September and now. There’s been a lot to do, and as the players slink off to play in a European international tournament or off to Dubai, they are left with my order that they will have to do it all over again in the new campaign.

Arsenal FM21 – April 2021: Mounting Fixtures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal FM21 – December 2020: Up for all Cups

A busy month is in store. Five league games jostle for space with Huddersfield in the Carabao Cup and the remaining two Europa League fixtures. I’m beginning to get a much better grip on Arsenal’s big hitters and who might be heading for the exit. Demiral is emerging as a great signing and leads a very good defensive unit. Auba can’t stop scoring goals, which is good. There’s been a definite impact made by the Ox, and the flexibility of Calum Chambers – able to play at centre-back, right-back and defensive midfielder – means I can put Saliba out for loan. Adversely, Willian has done little to break my impression that Pepe and Nelson should be representing our right wing. Vinicius hasn’t been as effervescent on the left as Saka, though I need to bear in mind that the latter is enjoying softer Europa League nights rather than the challenge of the Prem. Longer term, I see the position as being a three-way challenge between Saka, Smith-Rowe – impressing on loan – and Martinelli, who will probably get a loan move in January to aid his recovery from a nasty knee injury. I’m increasingly unconvinced by Lacazette, and Nketiah looks frankly distant from being good enough. I will need to think about the future of our attacking options. They’re either getting on a bit or fall short of the standard.

There’s no league fixture at the weekend, so we have a week to recover before taking on Sivasspor in what looks more and more like superfluous Europa League commitments. The Turks scored twice against us at their place and need to be respected. At the Emirates it’s a more subdued contest. We have many shots and two disallowed goals from Lacazette, but ultimately we have to accept the single strike from Lewis Cook as the decider. Another fine defensive effort, with further plaudits heading in the direction of Willock and Saka, but the striker pulls a dud, and Nelson fails to make an impact. Close to 60,000 souls have turned up for this one. They wouldn’t be criticised for feeling that our win ought to be far more emphatic than it is.

We will be playing Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round, and in rehearsal for that tie we’re off to Villa Park in the league. You know their qualities just as well as I do. Grealish needs to be monitored, and they have a particularly good central midfield pairing in McGinn and Barkley. Their effort is based around showcasing Mr Grealish, who has a free hand to work his magic. Fortunately, when we man-mark someone they tend to stay man-marked. The home cause is neutralised, and a hat-trick by Vinicius, who for some reason comes to this one determined to prove his worth, gifts us the points. Villa are quiet. So are we for the most part. Ceballos and Wilshere cancel out the home midfield but are themselves made less impactful in return, and it’s left to the on-loan Brazilian to produce the goods.

The last and utterly redundant Europa League commitment, against Zorya, produces a 2-0 victory. As I recall it, when the group was announced this lot were considered our main challengers. They’re rubbish. Perhaps that’s the point. A second string eleven makes it a clean sweep of continental wins as Chambers and Lacazette find the net. On the whole it’s like watching a Mike Tyson fight when the heavyweight was at his most dangerous – nothing more than a matter of time before we deliver the decisive blow, neither do we need to be at our best in delivering it. The first knockout round, which is scheduled for February, will see us take on Kradsnodar.

At the weekend we entertain Leeds United, who are riding high in the table. We are handed a pre-match uppercut when Willian is ruled out for a month, following a training ground incident that results in a hernia. This should give Pepe and Nelson more chances to show their quality. The former especially deserves his opportunity, and he’s a significant factor in our 2-0 home win. The visitors are restricted to scraps. They manage one off-target shot throughout the entire ninety, whilst Aubameyang pads out his account with a brace to deliver a sound thrashing. Bielsa’s entertainers play very much like we do, except they aren’t as good at it, only Klich emerging with any credit as elsewhere they’re subdued. This is a great result for us. We dominate in every department, and – while being conscious of typing such banana skin words – it seems the side is really starting to get to grips with how they’re being asked to play.

A few days’ rest and then it’s across London to play Fulham. Currently eighth and defying the pre-season predictions, this has all the makings of a proper test. Most of the attention goes on striker Mitrovic, however we’re scouting the on-loan Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield, and beanpole centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo. Both could make for fine additions as we continue to rebuild with a more homegrown squad. Another alumnus of my FM20 Derby County outfit, Ademola Lookman, is starting for the home side on their left wing, but the reports on him are less positive. Fulham are decent, and there’s a danger that we will drop cheap points, but first half strikes from Vinicius and Aubameyang secure the victory. Bellerin is terrific in his forays down the right wing, rather more reliable than Pepe who does the time-honoured thing of being ordinary when injuries elsewhere have given him a chance to shine. One gaffe, a lazy pass deep in the opposition half that’s picked up by Lookman and sparks a Fulham attack, lingers in the memory. Cook has one of his poorer games, but Demiral is commanding at the back and Leno deals with everything that’s sent his way.

Liverpool are finally beaten. At Elland Road they collapse 3-0 against Leeds in a shocker of a reverse. Both leaders are ahead of us in the table but suddenly look that little bit less invulnerable. Mustafi goes to Monterrey. Bye then. Four and a half years in England that produced only disappointment and diminishing returns. We made a £27.5 million loss on him overall, which makes his time at Arsenal one of the more abject late-Wenger transfers.

Chris Wilder is handed his cards as we head to west Yorkshire to play Huddersfield Town in our Carabao Cup quarter-final. The opposition are fifteenth in the Championship and are steadily settling into post-Premier League life. We’re expected to have far too much for them, even fielding a weakened eleven, and that’s exactly what happens. The 3-0 win we achieve at the John Smiths is underlined by solid attacking pressure and superior finishing. Saka and a Ceballos rocket carve out an early two goal lead, and Nketiah’s late clincher is a reward for the smart positioning he’s produced since coming on for Lacazette. In the semi-final we are drawn at home to face Newcastle. The other half pits Liverpool against Chelsea.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Boxing Day sees us go to Crystal Palace, an in-form side that can present a banana skin for anyone. Uncle Roy fields an old-fashioned 4-4-2, featuring a who’s who of ‘whatever happened to’ players – Benteke, Schlupp, Sakho, knackered Nathaniel Clyne. My worries over Ebere Eze’s potential impact are calmed as the winger does nothing, and even Zaha looks reined in. What they can do is defend, hard and often, and I think we do well to get out of there with a 1-0 win, Auba doing the honours.

For Southampton two days later, I make a few changes to the line-up without resting players for the sake of it. The Saints don’t care about this. They haven’t got the squad depth we can command, and even though they can wield the likes of Ings and Romeu their cause begins to suffer from fatigue as time wears on. Shane Long opens the scoring for the visitors, which is kind of embarrassing for us, especially as we seem intent at the time to win nothing but the fouls count. But then Auba racks up a brace before the break, completes his hat-trick ahead of the hour mark, and there are further strikes from Pepe and Holding to complete a 5-1 rout. It hasn’t been our prettiest performance. I’d argue that we have never moved out of second gear in this one, but our shooting has been crisp and accurate, and the Saints faded long before the end.

As a consequence, we end 2020 five points behind the two leaders but with a match in hand, and we’re ten ahead of fourth-placed Man City. Keep plugging away and we will get to form a mini-league with the Pool and United, though clearly in their case there is little room for error, a fact that makes me grateful for removing David Luiz from the roster. Aubameyang is named World Footballer of the Year, along with a haul of awards in the African categories. He deserves it. The Gabonese has scored sixteen league goals, seven ahead of Mane and Rodrigo. And to think I was going to start the season playing him on the left wing! I might as well have gone the whole hog and neutered the guy.

Derby FM20 – April/May 2023: Close, So Close

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.

Southampton are starting their bid for Premier League safety early this year. For the past two seasons they’ve pulled off a great escape, often enough leaving it until the last weekend to haul themselves over the line into seventeenth. Not long before we take them on, the Saints’ manager Paco Jemez is under pressure. It’s the normal lot of gaffers at St Marys as panic sets in, the desperate need to cling on. But the Spaniard made of sterner stuff than his predecessors. He’s saved their bacon in 2021/22, and this time he’s guided them to fifteenth. They aren’t safe yet, but the small gap between themselves and the relegation places might be just enough.

None of this is our concern of course. We have our own thing to fight for, and it isn’t an insignificant matter to go for the league title. I’m happy to see Southampton come close to another top flight campaign, but not today. Today we win… hopefully.

This one takes place at Pride Park, in the unfamiliar surroundings of a mild and sunny afternoon. Dad, what’s that big yellow thing up there? Why’s the sky… blue? I name an attacking line-up. The in-form Bellingham joins Moriba in central midfield. Hlozek plays on the right wing because we can at last name Sebastiano Esposito in our match day squad again. The Italian’s back problems have been overcome, but he’s considerably short of match fitness and I am recommended to give him substitute’s appearances to build it back up. He’ll do well to get any time with Eddie Salcedo in such stonking form, but he ends up having more than I planned for when the striker goes off in the twenty-first minute with what is later diagnosed as a tight hamstring. Typical, right? Salcedo’s played himself back into our hearts, only to be lost for a week.

Almost as though Eddie is the only man who can make a difference here, the game dribbles out to a 0-0 draw. We pull out every trick we have, restricting the visitors to scraps while we surge forward again and again, yet to no avail. It’s a classic stuttering job of work by my attacking cohorts. Hlozek is almost anonymous on the right before he gets pulled for Wilson, to little effect. Worse still is Esposito’s work. He’s a pale shadow of the predatory striker we are used to watching. An understandably weak showing produced from someone who hasn’t touched a competitive ball in months, and not the heroic comeback we are all hoping to see.

For their part, the Saints do well enough and demonstrate to everyone watching that there’s steel in their ranks. Bosko Sutalo, a Croatian centre-back signed from Atalanta in the summer, is their main man, dealing with everything sent his way, as though fuelled with the spirit of former Saint Virgil Van Dijk. Fraser Forster does what he has to do in goal, and ultimately I can only chalk this up to nerves on our part coupled with the away side’s gritty defending that it ends goalless.

The good news comes from elsewhere, as we learn that Wolves have downed Liverpool 1-0 in the Saturday evening game. United do for Bournemouth, but it was always the Pool with their matches in hand that I perceived to be the danger team, and the Wanderers have done us an enormous favour by prevailing against them.

After a fantastic April run of results that has seen Derby win all but one of our matches I am named Manager of the Month. Salcedo is selected as its best player, which seems fair and only exacerbates the effects of his loss to the cause. The board are still very happy with my work, and why shouldn’t they be? We have exceeded each and every expectation, and I am as pleased as Mr Morris and his cronies with the harmonious changing room spirit. There are no unhappy players here, and they all – with the exception of Gabriel Barbosa, who’s only on the books temporarily – support me entirely. Here’s a tip for you, readers – get this bit right. Make sure you treat the players properly, get them on your side, and you can produce gold dust from ballers who are normally in the bronze category. You might remember my abortive save with Real Madrid – I gave up when it became increasingly clear that no matter what I did, how I handled the players, they really didn’t care for me and their playing performances were indifferent at best.

May opens with another highly winnable home tie, this time against Brighton and Hove Albion. They’re safely ensconced in lower mid-table, accruing 36 points that ought to be enough to see them preserve their status. Graham Potter has done a fine job here. He’s performed the single task I would expect of anyone with an intent to succeed, which is to invest in a good goalkeeper. Pontus Dahlberg is a 24 year old Swede, a highly competent signing from Watford who ends up conceding a lot because of the side he plays for but personally carries fantastic attributes for his job. He isn’t eccentric, he has catlike reflexes and at 6′ 4″ possesses the natural height to deal with most things. Ahead of him is a very decent pair of English defenders in Dunk and White, while the likes of Gross, Shaqiri and Trossard lend them the sort of brittle quality in attack that means we can never switch off against them. Apparently Shaqiri, a recent acquisition from Liverpool, is unhappy with his manager due to a broken promise. As always I’m intrigued to know what this might be – he’s played a lot of matches so what exactly was offered to him and then denied?

This one takes place on a Tuesday evening. It’s cold and wet in Derby, which makes it feel like home. Hlozek starts in attack for us. Esposito is on the bench again. Wilson is picked for the right wing because I would rather rely on a proven and dedicated club servant over the more talented yet largely indifferent Barbosa, an enigma who isn’t going to be our problem for very much longer. You want high-profile signings, Derby board? Be very careful what you wish for.

A first half that’s blissfully highlight-free leads to angry scenes in the dressing room. How can they not be ahead, I demand, not appreciating until later that we’ve been given plastic cups in order to spare the DCFC crockery? We haven’t played badly, but it seems that without the scoring exploits of Salcedo we’re toothless, and nobody wants to be in a position where they’re relying on the inconsistent Italian. The visitors have come to hold the line, and just like we do sometimes are capable of producing a strong display. They’ve lined up with four defenders and two defensive midfielders, building a wall that we are failing to overcome. Better is expected. Attack!

It’s at moments like these that I’m grateful for Adam Hlozek. One of the match’s most individually gifted participants, the Czech can be utterly vexatious by doing nothing for eighty-five minutes only to be immense during the other five. He has us ahead shortly after the action resumes. Settling back into arraying ourselves just outside the Seagulls’ penalty area, the move starts with our midfielders passing between themselves. They’re looking for gaps and eventually Moriba finds one as Hlozek is pushing against Dunk, who is on a booking. The Spaniard finds him, and easing away from his marker Hlozek plants a low shot into the far corner that for once defies Dahlberg, the keeper left on his knees. Shortly before the end, Chirivella picks him out when he’s close to goal, just behind White. Hlozek lines up to volley from point-blank range, a spectacular strike from a tapping-in position, and we couldn’t be happier.

That does for Brighton’s  challenge, one in which they defended with aplomb yet came across a forward who was determined to play his part for the cause. 2-0 is a great result at a time when we just need the points, and it leaves us on the cusp of glory.

Liverpool and United are both involved in the Champions League while we carve out a hard-fought victory here. The latter do enough against Leipzig, winning 1-0 at home to finish on a 2-1 aggregate. They will face Barcelona, who frankly look terrifying. The Pool record a 2-1 win at Anfield, but overcoming the four unanswered goals Barca put past them back in Catalonia was always going to be a tall order, even taking into account Messi and Co’s now traditional troubles on the road, and they don’t achieve it.

We have three games remaining – Arsenal and Fulham away, Manchester City at home. Our requirement is a point, a single point. I’m asked about the possibility that Derby will emulate the great Arsenal Invincibles team and go through the entire league campaign without losing, and I don’t care. As long as we get the one point then any and all other feats can be damned.

Derby FM20 – August 2022: That Minnow Feeling

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.

A Rams side that has been massively reconfigured goes to the New York Stadium and wins 3-1 against Rotherham United in our Carabao Cup tie. Despite the presence of old boy (briefly, at any rate) Christian D’Urso in the opposition ranks, they’re really no match for us. It’s nice to see the Italian, a player I confess I treated a little shabbily as his transfer came through before we got promoted and he’d been cut adrift with Derby playing at a higher level than his abilities. What’s even better is a clean win, Salcedo, Ojo and Bellingham all adding to their accounts before Adrian O’Rielly scores a very late consolation for the home team. We’re drawn at home for the fourth round, in which we will be entertaining another Championship side in the shape of Hull City.

Sheyi Ojo wins Man of the Match for what he produces against the Millers, which is either very good or very bad because he finds himself on the transfer list the day after the match takes place. Demarai Gray has agreed terms on his loan deal, the 26 year old with us until January and carrying an optional £24 million release fee in his contract. This is something we could consider if the perpetual interest levels in Lookman become serious. Valued at £16.5 million, Ojo quickly becomes the subject of offers from Borussia Monchengladbach and Lille, with several other overseas teams looking on with lustful eyes. We expect this one to run until the close of the transfer window, which happens on 1 September.

The Champions League draw finally takes place. We receive £13.13 million just for being part of it, which I guess is what contesting the big European cup is all about in the end, and then we avoid Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich of the top picks… But we will be up against Paris-Saint Germain, who are arguably harder than any of the above. The French trophy hoovers, who have won the French league in nine of the past ten seasons, are still after their first triumph on the continent’s grandest stage. They lost out to Manchester City in the 2020 final, the nearest they’ve got to claiming it, and everyone assumes that it’s just a matter of time before they leap over that particular hurdle. Their squad reads like an international who’s who. More on this later, but to give a flavour of what they can put out Mo Salah and Sergio Aguero are their nominal choices as centre-forwards, but they are also able to deploy Karim Benzema, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mauro Icardi if those guys happen to be firing blanks. Ouch time, I suspect.

Beyond the outrageous talent levels available to Thomas Tuchel, we will also be facing Porto and Lazio. More ouch-ing. The latter I can just about see us overcoming if we’re at our sharpest, though with a squad sporting the likes of Asensio, Puig and Luis Alberto perhaps not. Porto are ridiculously tough, a perma-overachieving Champions League outfit that showcases the skills of 20 year old striker Fabio Silva, one of the game’s most exciting prospects and a player we could potentially attract, but only in our dreams. Our best hope is that Fabio is snatched away by one of the big boys before we face them. The usual lot are hovering; we’d like it to be Atletico Madrid rather than Arsenal who land him, so at least we might never have to find a way to cope with him.

As mentioned, we are seeded below all the other group participants. Even Athletic Bilbao and Galatasaray have a higher pedigree than ourselves, and that adds grist to the mill of Derby’s board expecting little of us beyond being competitive. To put things into even sharper perspective, our precious little co-efficiency of 22.314 is matched up against 54.000 (Lazio), 75.000 (Porto) and the 106.000 that PSG brings to the table with a loud thump. It’s like when they show you how tiny the Earth is when placed alongside Jupiter and Saturn, don’t you think?

The Champs League will commence in mid-September, after the international break, when the fixture computer doles out away days at Manchester City and then Parc des Princes. Two petro-fuelled megaclubs in four days, in other words. I have no idea what we’ve done to deserve that, though having said this it’s what we’ve been aiming for and we need to play these matches at some point. It might also be the perfect time to face City, now managed by Uncle Jose Mourinho and in the division’s bottom three before they put three past Norwich ahead of our final August fixture.

We complete the month with an away day at Southampton. In their traditional spot near the bottom of the table, the Saints are seen as a relatively easy bowling pin to fell, however they seem like anything but during a blistering first-half when they have the best of the chances. Our attack shows very little sense of fluidity. Moriba is quiet, while Harry Wilson has the kind of game on the right wing that never really starts, and he’s pulled off at half-time. As always, the home team deploy their three main weapons – Ward-Prowse, Redmond and Ings – and each one is capable of giving us a tough afternoon.

For all that, they’re down there for a reason and when Ademola Lookman puts us ahead shortly after the break we are beginning to look good value for it. A flurry of Derby attacks nearly add to our lead, but Roberts and Salcedo fail from close range, which sets us up when substitute Moussa Djenepo conjures an injury time equaliser. By this point we should be well ahead and wondering whether to stay on the south coast for a fish supper, and maybe that’s exactly what’s in their heads as Lookman’s lazy pass forward towards Salcedo is pinged away by the Saints’ Carlos, the ball dropping nicely for Djenepo on the halfway line. We’re playing in advanced roles at the time, which means the winger has pretty much daylight between himself and Butland’s goal. Pouring up the field, he slides the ball neatly beyond the keeper to make it 1-1. Things could be even worse moments later when Ings bags a second, but rightly enough the goal is ruled out for offside, by which time we are grateful to be hightailing it out of there with a snatched point.

A not so pleasing way to complete the August run of fixtures then, with two draws on the road to complement the three victories we have achieved at Pride Park. We could have been two points adrift from the pack, and instead we are sharing the Premier League’s top spot with Chelsea, with ourselves only ahead thanks to goal difference.

There are a lot of ‘coulda’ aspects to this game. A point on our travels isn’t anything to get really upset over, not at the stage where the team is still gelling with their new arrivals and we’ve been robbed of Sebastiano Esposito for much of it, however I think I have a right to expect more from a trip to St Mary’s. Oh well. The international break begins with the usual suspects being rounded up to play for their countries. Several days of the transfer window remain, with Hoffenheim entering the race to sign Ojo, while Esposito, Oxford and Chirivella all in demand by other teams. Keeping my squad intact by the time we reach the other side of the window could yet end up being a battle.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Transfer Musings

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

I’ve been talking recently about letting Kevin Stoger go, selling him while he has some serious resale value. It looks as though this isn’t going to work out. Teams have been interested to the extent of putting serious money into the mix for him, but he’s turned down their contract offers while growing disgruntled at not being allowed to move on – no one is stopping you, friend – and in the meantime I am sourcing potential replacements.

The obvious solution is to not sign anyone at all. With Adarabioyo signed we now have five centre-backs, one more than we really need. I could rebalance the situation by letting Jesus Vallejo go, but I quite like the Spaniard and think that he could have a future with us, so the more likely solution is to push Krystian Bielik into a defensive midfield role and in turn field Rolando Vieira in central midfield.

That’s certainly a thing that we can do, and Bielik will go on to play with some distinction against Southampton in his new position. Talking of the big Pole, his development is hitting a bit of a wall after he initially raised his game to Premier League standards. Coupled with this is his demand for greater playing time. Selling him has never previously been part of my plans. I envisaged a future in which Bielik was carried along with the rest of us to whatever end, but if he has reached the limit of his improvement then perhaps it’s time to consider cashing in on a player who could fetch up to £20 million in the market.

Another option is to scour the talent that’s out there and add a new face. So far we’ve sold two first teamers in January, and signed two more. I don’t want to spend for the sake of spending, and as it goes there is a world of difference between drafting in players who’ll genuinely improve us but will eat up our resources in the process, and signing ‘just enough’ types who come cheaper yet might add little – hitting the sweet spot in between both camps is the trick. In the former bracket, I would like to go to Chelsea and snap up Tammy Abraham and Ruben Lotus-Cheek, who are both transfer-listed, and perhaps throw in a cheeky loan deal for Conor Gallagher whilst I’m at it. Three English players who would enhance our ranks, but the former two each earn more than £100,000 per week, and it’s beyond our meagre budget to pay them anything like that much. At the very least, we would expect (i) Chelsea to pay a portion of their wages (ii) the players to accept a pay reduction (iii) a combination of (i) and (ii) to make it work.

As for Gallagher, he’s a long-term target, a 21 year old midfielder of enormous potential who has never quite broken into the Chelsea first team. On the plus side, he can play happily on the left-hand side of central midfield, and all the indications are that he would love to play for Derby, a place where he would actually get to make some appearances. The downer is that the Blues know they have an asset on their hands, as little as they may value him as a playing individual. The least they would want is £35 million, which is around three times more than I have to spend, so the chance of him being anything more than a loanee who wows us all temporarily is slim.

Abraham moves to Shandong, who do have the power to keep him in the fiduciary manner to which he’s become accustomed. Other people we like also go elsewhere. Sander Berge narrowly avoids being swallowed up by Spurs, who make a late move for him, offering a sum that starts at £38.5 million with various add-ons, while Dominik Szoboszlai, a tongue twister of a midfielder who we’ve been tracking for ages, moves from Salzburg to Borussia Dortmund for £40.5 million. There appears to be a gulf emerging between those I want and the ones I can realistically afford. As the transfer window bleeds away and I watch players who I admire become lusted after by rival set-ups, I can only be reminded that Derby have come a long way very quickly, and financially we need to do some catching up.

We’re off to St Mary’s at the weekend, taking on the Saints before our double header against Everton. As Josh Kirk agrees a new contract with us, ending the speculation that he will be gazumped by the blue Merseysiders, we have to plan for that most banana skin of fixtures – an away game at a club that we ought to beat, but that has the capacity to trip us up. The tale at the table top is getting tighter. Manchester United wallop Arsenal 5-0. City, Spurs and Liverpool all claim victories, so simply to remain in the conversation we have to match them. Now, I know what you’re thinking – but Mr Side, this is Derby, they aren’t expected to be riding so high… And you’d be right, however here we are and it’s incumbent on us to be part of the race for as long as possible. In February, we have the joy of away days at Anfield and Old Trafford, so the points must be banked now.

Southampton are nineteenth in the Premier League. On 15 points, it’s fair to say that things are going ill for them, and the managerial bounce that replaced Martinez with Paco Jemez from Saint Etienne has not translated into a boost up the ladder. Paco has signed two Kierans – Phillips from Cardiff, and Everton’s Dowell – for modest fees, but he’s also overseen the departure of defender Joris Gnagnon, who is now a teammate of Tammy Abraham’s at Shandong. Worse news for them is their injury list. Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings are both unavailable, so they’re up against the wall when we arrive. For us, the omens are good.

In classic fashion, when the chips are stacked in our favour we find a way to screw it up. In the twelfth minute, after some non-committal early exchanges Bertrand finds Djenepo on the left wing. Evading Bogle, he crosses into the box, where Elyounoossi nods down in the direction of Omrani, who’s covered by Bielik. The good news is that the forward is too well marked; the bad comes when  the ball bounces off Bielik’s head and diverts into the net, a horrific own goal.

There’s nothing for it now but to go on the attack, try to take apart a side that we have already beaten twice this season. Steadily, we become more forward thinking, replacing players who are doing badly with good ones, revelling in the silky footwork of Ilaix Moriba in central midfield that sadly has no outlet. The teenage Spaniard-Guinean can’t do it on his own, and Forster’s goal is leading a charmed life as shots thwack off the woodwork or sail harmlessly wide. An Ojo goal in the seventy-first minute that looks perfectly good to me is ruled offside – it looks at this point like being one of those occasions. Very late in the same, Roberts sends a corner kick sailing into the area. To this point the Saints have defended well, en masse, but they’re stood watching when our tall centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo rises to nod it into the net. The new signing, a friendly giant, has his first for us, and given his height advantage it could be the first of many.

We aren’t done yet. As the seconds tick by in injury time, McKenna sends a pass out to Sheyi Ojo on the left. The Liverpool man is still seething over his disallowed goal and goes off on a run, defenders in his wake, before finishing the move with a low shot that beats Forster and billows into the bottom corner.

There’s so little time left after this that the whistle is blown pretty much as soon as the ball is returned to the centre circle. Privately I might seethe about leaving it so late to produce a winning strike against a side we ought to slap into last week, but in the end all that really matters is recording a victory, even if it took the use of Fergie Time to make it happen. It’s tight at the top. Spurs just about hold an edge, while City are threatening to fall off the pace, a bit like those mountain stages in the Tour de France when chancers peel away from the leading pack because they can’t handle the punishing rhythm that’s being set. Below them there’s an eight point gap to Arsenal, thirteen behind ourselves, so even though there’s plenty of season left it feels as though we would have to collapse dramatically to allow them to catch up with us.

Derby FM20 – October 2021: Very Bad, Very Good

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

October opens with a visit to Molineux and Wolverhampton Wanderers. It’s somewhat bizarre to note that Marcelo Bielsa‘s team are newly promoted. They just had no business being relegated in the first place. Well financed, stacked with top flight talent and in my opinion stronger than we are, I see the Black Country contenders as a very tough opponent. They naturally destroyed the Championship in sailing straight back up and, crucially for them, retained the majority of their squad. To celebrate their top flight return they have spent a small fortune, recruiting Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook (£44.5 milion), Bruma from PSV (£19.25 million) and Idrissa Gueye, briefly a target of ours, from PSG for a fee that could rise to £20 million. The message should be clear. Going down was an aberration; in reality they are gunning for the table’s upper echelons, which puts them into a direct confrontation with our good selves.

It’s a mild, early autumn Sunday afternoon. The cameras are following the action, and normally we relish getting to play under the Sky Sports lights. This lot are good though, and it’s all we can do to remain in any sort of contention. I’ve picked pretty much my best available line-up, yet Wolves pitch in with very much an international eleven. There are no English players in their starting side. Cook’s on the bench, while we face a group that contains Rugani, Sakho and of course the super-fast Adama Traore, who sets out to give Alfonso Pedraza the contest of his life. On the wings they’re highly potent, tricksy and sizzling with invention, but it’s in the middle where their real strength lies. Moutinho continues to lend his veteran guile alongside Ruben Neves, a mercurial playmaker who’s routinely on the radars of various big clubs – scouts from Barcelona and Liverpool are in attendance for this one, and it quickly becomes clear they are here to track the Portuguese.

Getting past Neves proves to be hard, verging on impossible. He’s in a partnership with Moutinho ahead of Gueye, making them incredibly strong in midfield. Chirivella, Hughes and Moriba have a hell of a time trying to gain any kind of foothold here. For all Wolves’ guile, it takes them until close to half-time to beat Butland. It’s a good move, expansive and making full use of the pitch’s width. Gueye picks out Bruma on the left wing, who skins Bogle before delivering a cross that scythes our central defence of Bielik and Oxford to find Raul Jimenez. In an uncomfortable amount of space, the striker volleys first time into the bottom corner. Simple.

It’s to our credit that we reply instantly. We win a free-kick midway into their half, which Chirivella takes, launching an effort into the box. Sebastiano Esposito beats everyone to head beyond Olsen and make it 1-1. We’ve equalised against the odds, defying the match’s script, but it’s about the last significant threat we are able to mount. Once we’re back out after the break, the game takes on the elements of a siege. Wolves press, heavily, all the time, and we are made to defend, barely unable to break and instead being made to scrap furiously. Again, a sign of our hard-to-beat potency that it takes the home side until the 72nd minute to conjure their decisive goal. Neves sends a diagonal ball to Traore, who’s Billy Whizzing into our area and even before the defenders can reach him he’s lashing a shot past Butland.

Our reply never comes. It isn’t a bad effort from the boys, but it will take something special to get anything from the game and we just don’t have it in the tank. So we lose, 2-1, and we get to lick our wounds throughout the international break. The usual suspects go off to represent their countries, and by the end of it Esposito, Butland and Bogle go down with the minor injuries and will play no part when we come to take on Southampton at Pride Park. This should be a more straightforward tie. Despite being guided by Roberto Martinez and benefiting from their great escape in 2020/21, they’re once again rooted in the table’s lower reaches and come into this one in eighteenth place. No doubt they see us as a potential smash and grab. Nobody – and that includes me – yet knows how good we are going to be, so ties like this are an acid test. If we truly are to match last season’s achievements then we should win here, hopefully in a straightforward manner. Lose or draw, and we face a new slew of questions to answer.

Added to the mix is the fact we clobbered them in the Carabao Cup back in September.  There’s vengeance on their minds; on ours is the need to ignore complacency and put in a professional effort. Hlozek comes in for Esposito,  Pereira is in goal, and Laird makes his first league start for us as we entertain the Saints at a blustery Pride Park. The latter is instrumental in our opening strike. Marauding into their penalty area, he hits a cross that Lookman drives against the goalkeeper. The ball bobbles around the box, Saints defenders massed together as our forwards try to find a way through. In the end it’s Christian Pavon who finds the breakthrough, seeing a small gap and slotting his shot into it.

Nerves are settled, but not for long. As long as Southampton have Ward-Prowse, Ings and Redmond in their line-up they’re a threat, and it’s the latter who produces a reminder of their potency. Breaking up a Derby attack, Ings finds Redmond deep in their half. The winger has loads of room to move forward and darts a full sixty years forward. Vieira is the only challenger, but his attentions are dismissed and the Saint lashes a volley that beats Pereira to make it 1-1.

Time to go again, and we spend the rest of the game trying to find a winner. We think Hlozek has done it in the seventieth minute when he heads in Pavon’s cross, but the goal is ruled out for offside, in my opinion wrongly. Maybe it’s just going to be one of those days… Or perhaps not. Ten minutes later, our attacks becoming more frequent and the visitors defending manfully, they eventually go down to a wonder-strike from Maxime Lopez. This is what it takes, a rasping effort from twenty two metres out after all the patient build-up play in the world has crashed against their stout efforts to keep us at bay.

I’m really pleased with this one. You might argue that it’s only Southampton; of course we should be winning here, it ought to be by a more comfortable margin… For me, they’re a better side than their position suggests, whilst arguably we are not as good as ours, and it’s taken character and resolve to carve out the result.

Victory leaves us in sixth place, which is acceptable, though these are the league’s early blows and with three defeats already against our name we are going to have to be better. It’s a relief we aren’t going to need to travel to Liverpool in the league again.

In the meantime, I’m having to talk down the possibility of a transfer away for Ademola Lookman. Sheffield United are interested, and as far as I’m concerned they can take their sweaty overtures elsewhere. It’s a concern, though. The Blades can be batted away, ‘bigger’ sides less so, and as long as Ade remains outside the international picture I can see him becoming increasingly restless. Now valued at £16.5 million, I’ll be looking at around twice that amount before I will even consider losing him.

Valencia in the Europa League are next, the first of our two ties against the Spanish giant that will almost certainly decide our group. Following that we have a double header, taking on Fulham in both the league and then the Carabao Cup. With Leicester in the near-distance to wrap up October,  we’re looking at four ties in eleven days as the fixture list begins to compress. That’s the price of success.

[Writer’s Note – apologies for the lack of updates in the last couple of weeks. Before the hiatus updates were coming thick and fast, and I guess I just needed a bit of a break. Back to normal service now, with a regular churn of three posts per week as we see if this team can repeat their over-achievements of the previous seasons. With tension like this, it’s little wonder that I’m the grey haired gamer.]

Derby FM20 – September 2021: Bitter Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – April 2021: Dropped Points

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 win over Aston Villa means we can now finish no lower than ninth in the Premier League. Beat Southampton in our midweek catch-up game and that will stop Sheffield United in eighth from possibly catching up with us also. Everton’s number of points has us requiring a total of 74; four more league victories from the remaining seven in other words, and only that many if the Toffees claim the honours in all theirs, and they’ve got Liverpool and Chelsea to come before the end.

It’s a promising situation but it illustrates the competitiveness in the table’s upper reaches. In these heady climes there’s no room for error. I can stomach Manchester United and Arsenal finishing ahead of us. They both possess crack sides, the envy of the likes of us, and the former continue to have the distraction of Champions League football. A quarter-final tie with Real Madrid is sandwiched amongst all their league fixtures, so Ole needs to keep his eye on the prize.

Ruben Neves rejects the opportunity to sign for Norwich, which isn’t a surprise given who he is, the Wolves side he plays for that is nailed on to get promoted, and the simple fact he could no doubt hold out for a bigger destination. The Portuguese midfielder has been scouted and carries a recommendation of 91, which makes him a ‘must sign’ player, albeit carrying a complete lack of affordability. Derby’s scouts have generated a wide reaching and varied shortlist for me. I have pooh-poohed my usual policy of sending them to destinations of my choosing, instead giving them the chance to go where they will and fire back picks for possible future signings. The elite club of players with 90+ tips makes for a select and tasty talent pool. Here are their ‘must sign’ selections from this season’s scouting missions:

  • Carles Aleñá (23, Barcelona, MC, £11.5-16.5 million, ) – advanced playmaker who’s high ranking comes from successful loan spells with Augsburg and Real Hispalis. He’s tantalisingly interested in joining us, and brings a degree of unpredictability that makes him a tempting prospect.
  • Cengiz Ünder (23, Roma, AMR, £14-20 million, ) – his high wage demands present an issue,  and he’s dubious about swapping the delights of the Italian capital for the English midlands, but what a way to announce our ambitions. The winger has racked up ten assists this season.
  • Ritsu Dôan (22, PSV, AMR, £15.25-21.5m, ) – two banner seasons in the Netherlands make this Japanese international a cracking prospect. He’s a very technical player and has demonstrated his ability to acclimatise to working in a new country, but he’s unclear about his prospects with us.
  • Donyell Malen (22, PSV, SC, £22.5-31 million, ) – now making a goalscoring impact with sixteen goals across the term and breaking into the Dutch team, Donny is greyhound quick and a future star. Borussia Dortmund want him, which in many ways is the highest of recommendations.
  • Rolando Mandragora (23, Udinese, DM, £11-15.5 million, ) – I once had him in a Milan save and he was brilliantly consistent, with excellent tackling and passing, and a fine positioning instinct. Likely to demand his pound of flesh, but a more committed player would be hard to find.
  • Jérôme Onguéné (23, FC Salzburg, DC, £16.5 million, ) – spirited, fast and unimpeachably brave defender whose height makes him a looming presence at the back. The report claims we would need to make him a menu of promises in order to convince him to sign.
  • Riccardo Orsolini (24, Bologna, AMR, £15.5-21.5 million, ) – winger I’m hopelessly in love with, holding good numbers in each relevant area and he’ll work himself into the ground to achieve results. He earns a lot at Bologna, and would be looking for a massive pay day from us.
  • Xaver Schlager (23, VfL Wolfsburg, MC, £25.5-35.5 million, ) – the awful Wolfsburg green otherwise, he’s an easy on the eye prospect, hard working and very determined, a sharp passer who again comes with a likely excessive salary demand.
  • Greg Taylor (23, Celtic, DL, £11.25-16.5m, ) – ‘sign him whatever the price‘ screams the report for this alternative to Kieran Tierney, a reliable and consistent performer who can perform all the facets of his role with aplomb. More robust than the notoriously flaky Tierney also.

Some mouthwatering potential acquisitions there, I’m sure you’ll agree, and a list that suggests much thinking needs to be done once we hit the end of the current season. Today we have the Saints at home, on paper the easiest league match we could possibly have with our opposition placed dead last in the table. Even illustrious recent managerial appointment Roberto Martinez has been unable to reverse their fortunes, and he is largely in command of an unchanged side, which means the likes of James Ward-Prowse and Danny Ings continue to strut their funky stuff at St Marys. The latter is maintaining a ‘one goal in three’ record, which is fine, and scoring goals isn’t necessarily their issue. Defending is, though. The Saints have a lamentable record at the back, conceding 58 goals (32 more than we have), and while the situation is salvageable in a tight relegation battle, the manager is struggling to coax any kind of good form out of them.

Home bankers are of course anything but. No such scenarios exist at this level, especially for a side like ours that can’t treat any opposition as an easy day, however it’s a different sort of challenge. We need to take advantage of their reported lapses in teamwork, their unease with sustaining a fluent passing game. If we can control midfield, press hard and make remote figures of the three forwards they deploy, then we should prevail.

I make several changes to reflect the weight of fixtures. Benassi has been tipped as an appropriate pick for this game, so Hughes makes a rare appearance on the bench as our tiredest midfielder. Jatta starts as Hlozek continues his recovery from the minor groin injury he picked up against Villa. It’s Bakery Jatta who gives us an early two goal lead. A pair of near-identical strikes, both scored from classic Derby set-pieces as Stoger lofts the ball into the area and the German heads into Gunn’s net. But then we seem to decide as one that Southampton are easy meat, relax and get sucker-punched on the brink of half-time. Ward-Prowse puts one into the top corner after a comedy of errors during which Bogle loses the ball thanks to Redmond’s pressure, and a routine Lookman clearance falls to the advancing Bertrand. We maintain a positive spirit in the second half, and perhaps it’s unfortunate that we concede a second when Redmond does us at the end of a sustained spell of Southampton pressure. My feeling, however, is that we have let this one slip away. We should have put them away. We didn’t and were punished for it.

The shining lights are that we didn’t mess up completely, and there’s a tiny bit more breathing space between ourselves and Everton, who are now eight points distant. It’s doubtless that the Toffees can bridge the gap, but we have to drop several bollocks first and with luck and the alignment of certain star systems in a rare configuration that will not happen. All the same, this was a golden opportunity to increase the gulf to ten, which I think would have been insurmountable, and we didn’t achieve it.

Derby FM20 – November 2020: The Sack Race

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.

Another international break, two weeks with little to do although I hear that the club is in the process of another board takeover. I have no idea how seriously to take this news, the impact it will have on me or my squad. There’s always the possibility that if it goes through the new broom will be a benevolent passing tycoon who has a particular fondness for footballing organisations with named links to male sheep, but in my experience the effect generally means little. Besides which, I’ve a growing fondness for Mr Morris, the sense that he can be quite generous if I catch him ‘on a good day’, his genuine care for the club, his often cutting and curt shutdowns when I make a request for something I think of as perfectly reasonable. Sometimes, it’s a case of better the devil you know, isn’t it?

Ivan is the latest player to come moaning to my door about his lack of playing time. While he’s quite correct to point out that I promised him more football than he’s actually getting, he’s another victim of signing players on the basis that we’d be performing at a lower level to where we actually are. For added kicks he’s up against Jayden Bogle, one of the most promising of the team’s youngsters. I call his bluff, offer to place him on the transfer list, and he backs off. It’s a cruel and unjust way to treat him, but he’s clearly now playing second fiddle at right-back and I adjust his importance to the team accordingly.

Another recent moaner, Bruno, suffers a hip injury as a consequence of a training accident (something to do with falling awkwardly on a bollard – very nasty), and he’s out for nine weeks. It’s no big loss to the squad as a whole, yet that leaves us with three fit centre-backs, with a busy December schedule on the horizon. I order in extra stocks of cotton wool for cocooning the players between matches.

Next up for us is a trip to Southampton, who are currently 19th in the table. Their lowly status has done for Ralph Hasenhuttl, one of those Germanic managers who became all the rage in England in the wake of Jurgen Klopp’s successful transition to football on these shores. It turns out there really is only one Klopp and that people who have managed in the Bundesliga are not as a rule geniuses. I imagine Ralph misses the salad days when he was in charge of RB Leipzig, steadily constructing a squad built to challenge the German elite set-ups. As for the vacancy at St Marys, it seems nailed on that they’ll look to reappoint Ronald Koeman, who’s been available since he resigned from the post of the Netherlands national team trainer. The Dutchman had a couple of wildly successful seasons with Southampton a few years ago, so presumably they are hoping that lightning will strike twice.

Other Premier League managers under pressure right now include:

  • Steve Bruce – almost too predictable this one. Brucey Baby always felt like an uncomfortable fit at Newcastle, who had been working with Rafa Benitez before him and by most teams’ standards that’s a tough act to follow. The Magpies are dead last in the table, and your man’s position is viewed as very insecure. But who on earth would want a job like his, as long as the regime in charge of the organisation remains in place and treats any bit of business beyond creaming off the profits as a complete rigmarole?
  • Sean Dyche – disc-bearded manager of Burnley, hovering just above the relegation places and you’d imagine that the longer they’re under threat the sweatier his situation becomes. In his favour is the length of time he’s been in charge at Turf Moor, his intimate terms with the players who are all Dyche signings and fit his vision for the playing personnel. If he keeps them out of trouble then I expect his job prospects will improve; otherwise it depends on the desperation of the boardroom to gamble on a new manager with Premier League survival on the line.
  • Eddie HoweBournemouth are in a similar position to Burnley. A manager who’s been in post for a long time, surviving on relatively slender means, and his survival rests on how perilous the side’s status becomes. In many ways he’s a victim of his previous successes. The Cherries have been playing above their natural status for a number of years now, and no doubt everyone wants to see the good times continue, but will this be with or without their talismanic head coach…?

Along with Mikel Arteta and Frank Lampard, my position at Derby is considered to be untouchable right now. All the same, I have the lowest reputation of anyone managing at this level. I’m on three stars. Even Jonathan Woodgate stands on three and a half. The only outright five star boss is Pep Guardiola, with Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Fat Frank bubbling just under that godlike tier. So that’s the standard to aim for, is it?

This match represents another opportunity to snatch the points while the Saints are in transition. David Horseman is their caretaker manager. They have some players who would slide into our set-up with ease. Danny Ings is their captain, a troublesome striker who had a good 2019/20 and isn’t quite hitting the same heights during this term, though no doubt he’ll be licking his lips at the prospect of facing fresh meat. His main supply line comes from Nathan Redmond, a left winger who to me is best known for being the player I rejected in favour of signing Demarai Gray in a recent Football Manager save. Bogle’s going to have to be at his best to match him for pace, though you’d have to argue he has done better against more vaunted stars. Joe McClaren’s pre-game scouting summary reserves special praise for James Ward-Prowse, very much the Saints’ version of Will Hughes as an engine room within central midfielder. Personally I see Mario Lemina as the more frightening opponent. I’m not even sure why and Joe’s report is a bit dismissive of him, but to me the Gabonese midfielder looks like the one who has to potential to unlock us.

The lucky viewers of Sky TV have the opportunity to catch us again on Sunday, so we watch as the other results filter through. Sheffield United beat Brighton to move within a point of us. Chelsea overcome Manchester City 1-0 in the big match of the day. A minor groin injury incurred by Scott McKenna keeps him out of our starting line-up. We’ll go with Bielik and te Wierik. Jatta plays for us, with Hlozek returning from international duty in a less than perfect overall condition. Otherwise we’re unchanged.

The Saints start with an intention to swamp us. Pressure comes thick and fast, with shots rained in and Redmond pulling out every trick in his repertoire to overcome Bogle’s attentions. The wastefulness of their efforts gives some indication of why they’re in trouble though. Chances go wide, or over, or Montipo has routine saves to sake. In the meantime they’re open to the counter-attack. Will Hughes scores a fifth minute screamer when he latches on to Jatta’s assist outside the area and beats Forster with his launched shot. He’s delighted. Before half-time, we’ve made it 2-0. Bogle takes a throw-in close to their goal-line. Receiving the return pass he crosses into the area, where Ademola Lookman has three defenders between himself and goal. What else to try but an errant bicycle kick, a showboating effort that he pulls off with aplomb. Up until this moment, Ade has been having one of his more pedestrian games, but this makes up for it.

Early in the second half, Oriol Romeu heads in from Ward-Prowse’s wicked corner, beating Chirivella in the process. It’s a reminder, as though we need one, that we need to be serious-minded, and our approach becomes more cautious. We time waste more frequently. Old traits, like keeping possession, kick in. The fouls count rises, as we commit double the number of whistles blown as our opposition to spoil their forays. Bogle gets booked. Hlozek comes on for the ailing Jatta and himself sees yellow. Lookman goes off with a lower leg injury that at the time looks really serious, but turns out to amount to a couple of days’ treatment. Most importantly, we prevail. We can confess to some luck, to taking our chances better than the Saints did and for the rest of the time putting in a display of rearguard action that earns praise for te Wierik and Bielik.

Victory here is enough to boost us up to third place, though a mere glance at the sides behind us should indicate how long we’re likely to remain there. That said, we have now played five games without losing and on Saturday we will get an opportunity to pile on the misery for Steve Bruce, the Longstaff brothers and their groovy buddies when we entertain Newcastle. And we need to accumulate the points now. In December we have a sequence of playing Liverpool and the two Manchester giants, so it’s going to be important to enjoy being in the upper places for as long as we can.