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 – September 2020: Making Mourinho Mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby FM20 – February 2023: The Missing Piece?

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

The transfer window closes with projected moves for Hlozek and Lookman coming to nothing. Arsenal were the main interested party. I checked them out, and quite honestly they didn’t look as though they could afford it. Mikel Arteta might look very smart, and a bit like an alien with that emotionless stare and iron hairstyle, but he isn’t fooling anyone.

As discussed in previous posts the injury to Sebastiano Esposito has left us in a bind. It looks as though he will be out until late April or early May, and as a key member of the squad his lack of availability leaves a yawning gap in our ranks. I can cover his striker’s position with Eddie Salcedo, and Adam Hlozek can play equally well in attack, but that has a knock-on to my choices on the right wing, where I’m relying on Harry Wilson and Pat Roberts. Both choices are all right enough, but compared with the riches on the left the quality simply isn’t there. But neither are any players who I can afford to plug the gap.

My concern is the remainder of the season. It’s increasingly the case that we don’t have to make sweeping changes to our roster, so I can focus on the right wing and the situation at left-back in the summer. In the short-term a loan move will probably paper over the cracks, and I’ve identified my man in the shape of Spurs’ Gabriel Barbosa. Transfer listed and paid a handy £120,000 per week, his team want us to meet his wages in full but they don’t require a monthly fee. Often enough a mandatory future transfer wedge is slipped into the small print, yet Spurs are happy enough to make it optional. If we like him we can pay £35.75 million to make it permanent.

So what have we ended up with? Gabriel Barbosa Almeida is a 26 year old Brazilian international, who moved to London after a particularly fruitful period with Flamengo. He’s fast, agile, comfortable on the ball and he can shoot really, really well. While the right wing is his natural home he’s just about as potent when played as a striker. At 5′ 10″ he’s not the best in the air, and there are negative aspects to his teamwork that won’t be improved within a squad where that quality is at a premium. All the same, I’ve been criticised by the board for not signing high-reputation players, and he fits that bill. Just as important for me is his nationality. Though not a problem as yet, I worry about Max Willian’s ability to fit in here, and Gabriel as a fellow Brazilian should help to smooth his transition. Max hasn’t gelled at all with the core group; hopefully the newcomer’s presence will help to change that.

Speaking of social groupings, in terms of finding players who can be inserted smoothly into the existing personnel I have been pointed in the direction of the following:

  • Maarten Vandervoordt – 20 year old Belgian goalkeeper, who’s just moved to Manchester City in a £24.5 million deal. He’s valued at a cool twenty mill, and the Blues have him earmarked as their cup keeper.
  • Eduardo Camavinga – I’d dearly love to have this Spurs midfielder in my side and agree he would be a perfect fit for us. Against that is his value, which has risen to a jaw-dropping £67 million.
  • Erling Haaland – now you’re taking the piss, right? Of course we could make use of Haaland, who this season is scoring at a rate of a goal per game for Dortmund and is priced beyond pretty much any metric. I’m not even going to name his value. It’s a lot.
  • Fabio Silva – another one we’d love to have, the 20 year old Porto forward with an 80% scouting rating and a price tag that ranges between £54 million and £110 million. Real Madrid looks a more likely destination.
  • Hamed Junior Traore – Ivorian attacking midfielder who struts his stuff at Sassuolo. We don’t use an AMC, but he’s as happy playing as a Mezzala. We’re looking at around £50 million for this 22 year old, who’s attracting the attention of Manchester United.

Oh well, back to the drawing board. To rebalance the squad, I need to lose someone in meeting registration rules for forthcoming Champions League commitments. The obvious choice is Leonardo Morawski, who’s done well enough for us in the cups and might have been in line to play against West Bromwich Albion in midweek. The Argentinian centre-back has a definite future at this club, but we can afford to send him somewhere to get game time, and the team he opts for – over a number of decent choices in England – is the Seattle Sounders.

So we enter the second half of the season with an extra attacking midfielder and one less defender. We’re nicely proportioned though, with the option to shift Bielik back into central defence should the need be there. At the end of a window that promised fireworks but ends up delivering a soggy pack of sparklers, Hakim Ziyech leaves Chelsea for Juventus, Norwich’s 18 year old striker Callum Mallett moves to Brighton for £31 million, and the Hammers’ Issa Diop becomes a £44 million acquisition for Bournemouth. They could use the help. They’re nineteenth, trapped on seventeen points at the foot of the table alongside Boro, Fulham and the somewhat obligatory Southampton. Leicester and Brighton are a point ahead of them.

We’re taking on the Baggies, or the Throstles if you prefer, who are currently tenth. Their arses have been kicked already when we won 1-0 at home, and now we need a similar scoreline if we are to remain in first place. Kurban Berdyev has added conservatively to his ranks. His only January signing is the splendidly named Joris van Hoogdalem, an attacking midfielder who has been drafted in from FC Utrecht for the remainder of the campaign. The 20 year old looks nothing special, however if that was a reason for taking them lightly then it would explain just how we have gained so many good results during our Premier League stay. Their main strength is in central midfield, where they wield former transfer target and team captain Sam Field, alongside onetime Ram Marco Benassi. We’ve seen enough of the latter to not fret over him too much, indeed our main concern is in shackling Matheus Pereira, their Brazilian winger who has turned into their primary forward thrust. He’s coming into this one carrying a twisted knee, which is a turn of phrase rather than a thing he will literally be doing, like in a shopping bag or something.

Will Hughes is absent for our trip to the Hawthorns. Where he is happens to be back home, suffering from a bout of the flu and armed to the teeth with Ibuprofen and a Netflix account to keep him happy. Esposito is still in America being touched up by spine surgeons, while Roberts and Wilson are both given reserve football to help get them back to full fitness.

I field Max Lowe for this game, mainly to give Luca a break, while Henderson gets a start in goal as we can afford to rotate our keepers a bit more often than in the past. It takes thirty-one seconds for me to regret that decision. A WBA move straight from kickoff puts Jonathan Leko through on goal. Lowe is on hand to clear up; great, I think, only for his back pass to the keeper to be under strength and Leko snakes in to nick the goal.

Not the sort of start anyone would want, especially given my lingering concerns about Max. Everyone’s got a mistake in them, we all know that, but we have a reputation for basic defensive competence to maintain and we aren’t offering a good example of it here. Time to go on the attack. The Baggies’ lead lasts twenty-two minutes, when they fall to a classic set-piece goal. Hlozek’s corner is nodded down in the area by Salcedo and hammered in with some force by Tosin Adarabioyo, an unusual one for the lanky defender in that he scores with his feet. Keeping up the pressure, we get our second via a rare Jeremie Frimpong strike. He’s found by Pedro Chirivella, who’s ranging just outside the box. WBA defenders are everywhere, doing their jobs by sticking to our boys well, but the full-back is moving up from deep and is wide open. Pedro picks him out with a great cross-field pass. Frimpong launches his shot, which beats Johnstone at his near post.

There are no further errors from our players in the second period. The home team work hard but are beatable, and we add a further two to our account. Ronaldo Vieira fires one in from another corner kick, the ball bobbling about the area before arriving at the midfielder’s feet, and he lashes it through a sea of legs and defies the keeper. Max Willian makes it 4-1 very late. He tortures Manquillo in darting past him on the left wing, cuts inside and picks out the sweet spot between Johnstone and the net to cap off a good afternoon’s work. All West Brom have to show for their efforts is an injury to Leko. He’ll be out for a few weeks with what looks like a nasty groin strain.

A vintage performance – if you erase the first minute – and a very fine result. We turned up, bullied the smaller team and pummelled them into submission, which is just what a side that’s aiming for the top ought to be doing. The big match of the weekend sees United beat Liverpool 1-0, which puts four points between ourselves and the Scouse challengers. Norwich are bested 2-0 at Carrow Road by Chelsea, with strikes from Martinez and Coman, so for now they are our closest concern.

Derby FM20 – September 2022: 1-0 Heaven and Hell

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 run of four straight fixtures at Pride Park begins with the visit of West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League. They’re newly promoted after four seasons of Championship football, a frustrating period during which they ever figured in the race to go up but fell short until now. They’re led by Turkmenistani manager Kurban Berdyev, a real left-field choice after he was best known for some good work done whilst managing Rubin Kazan in the Russian scene. Promotion stands as the culmination of a couple of years’ work. From where I’m sitting, it stands him in good stead to have pretty much kept his squad of players together, added to them assiduously and eventually reaped the rewards.

The Baggies spent around £45 million in the summer transfer window, and have added a Rams old flame to their ranks in signing Marco Benassi from Fiorentina in a £7 million deal. You might recall the Italian box-to-box midfielder doing precious little for us whilst on loan during 2020/21, but don’t worry if you cannot – it wasn’t especially memorable. The big money has gone on Sheffield United’s Greek centre-back Panagiotis Retsos, somehow worth £26 million to them, but their real strength lies in the players they have retained. We made strong overtures to bring in Sam Field at one point and failed to. The defensive midfielder is still here, anchoring their cause like a low-rent Declan Rice, and in the end things turned out well for us because we got Rolando Vieira instead. Nathan Ferguson, a homegrown defender we’ve had a half-eye on for some time, continues to do this thing, and Rekeem Harper is still a fixture in midfield.

There’s a lot here to admire, but only in that condescending sense that we still expect to whip them back into last week when they turn up. After tough games against City and PSG this one comes as a bit of a relief. We’re expected to win, and to do so with some ease. Our scouts suggest that West Brom are defensively tough to break down. They will aim to do the same thing as most promoted teams, which is to put men behind the ball and try to outlast us. In my planning for this one, I rest some of the usual suspects. Eddie Salcedo starts in attack, and even Jack Butland is given a reprieve as Dean Henderson is selected to wear the goalkeeping gloves.

You and I both know what’s going to happen next. A turgid first half devolves into the ball pinging around the middle of the pitch as the visitors defy our attempts to break them down. They attack rarely. Bradley Dack has little to do for them, this remote figure upfront whose job is to keep Oxford and Tosin honest while the rest try to stop us from finding a way through. Salcedo is quiet after several games of good stuff. Demarai Gray is on for his first Derby start and fails to impress. Lookman has been playing as hot and cold as ever, but the game could do with his solo dribbles from deep, and he’s on shortly after half-time, trying to break a 0-0 deadlock.

Eventually we do find a route past Sam Johnstone, a classic Derby set-piece in which Sebastiano Esposito heads Wilson’s corner into the net, though the keeper manages to get a hand on the goalbound effort and is perhaps a bit unlucky. Remarkably, it’s Seb’s first goal of the season, a personal barrier crossed after a combination of injuries and tight marking have blunted his usual impact to date. And… that’s it. Esposito pushes his luck with another effort, which sails harmlessly over the bar, and Wilson wins the match ball for an overall positive effort. There’s an interesting contract between the Welshman and Hlozek. The latter is a star, effortlessly classy and giving everyone the anticipatory tingles whenever he’s on the ball. Wilson is slower and less flashy, but technically he ticks most of the boxes, and his work on corners and free-kicks is always promising.

1-0 is a disappointing result overall. We’ve bagged the points and that’s what matters, nullifying a lightweight Throstles attack by restricting them to three shots and 41% possession, and yet we should have been far more secure in winning the game. It’s a sign of the team’s rise to prominence that no one seems especially happy in victory. Elsewhere, the day’s big match sees Liverpool draw 1-1 against Manchester United. In the classic tradition it’s an attritional affair, both giants pacing around each other warily and placing exciting and open football at a premium.

Lazio are next. After the terrors of Paris this one seems like a more standard game, and indeed the Romans are defined more by who they’ve sold rather than the players who have arrived. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is the big one. The Serbian has moved twice in recent seasons, spending two years terrorising the Premier League with Chelsea before joining PSG in the summer. Ciro Immobile is now at Real Madrid. This summer, Joaquin Correa was the marquee player to depart, taking the time-worn path across Italy that has spirited various players to Juventus.

They’re managed by Alessandro Nesta, someone I’m sure we all remember as a bloody brilliant Italian defender – tough, unbreakable and technically supreme. His own line at the Olimpico is anchored by Francesco Acerbi, now a 34 year old veteran who has brought high levels of determination to his role and is recommended by my scouts. Someone so old is completely off my radar obviously, but Acerbi plays like a man whose body is five years younger than his actual age. He’s very fit. Luis Alberto is an attacking midfielder we must keep an eye on. Highly valued and unpredictable, he could very well warrant a Chirivella special man-marking assignment. Federico Valverde has been captured from Real Madrid to offer security in defensive midfield, and they also showcase a player I would love to sign if he could ever beat the work permit labyrinth – Matias Zaracho, an Argentinian who is equally potent when played in either central midfield or on the right wing.

All in all a good team, albeit only sound enough to be sitting fifth in Serie A, and as far as our group goes the best opportunity to gain a foothold. We’re encouraged by the news that Spanish international winger Marco Asensio is unavailable, courtesy of the fractured ribs that will keep him out for a month. He’s a player who was awesome in FM 2019; more of a mixed bag in this edition while happily sucking up enormous salaries wherever he plays, like a big succubus. For our part, Adam Hlozek is ruled as doubtful due to a bruised ankle. His absence kind of removes a headache, because his play on the right wing hasn’t yielded much and I’m reticent about wasting everyone’s time by using him there. In attack, I’m going with Esposito, because surely by the sheer law of averages the good form must return for him at some point, right?

That might be so, but it doesn’t happen here. The first half takes on a similar pattern to many of our home games. The Romans come to defend, with their three centre-backs, two wing-backs, and Valverde being everywhere at once to bat harmful things away. Like the classic Italian sides they are dab hands at keeping us out, and Esposito isn’t having the best of times again. I start wondering if the game’s artificial intelligence has figured me out; more likely is the case that opposition sides are respecting us more and so the counter-attacks and quick breaks that have defined our winning ways are harder to come by at this stage.

Eventually we force the issue. We win a free kick just outside their penalty box, which Ilaix Moriba sails wide of the wall and curls back into the net. It’s about the only good thing the teenage Spaniard does all match, yet it’s enough to transform an anonymous performance into something rather special. Lazio respond by changing their formation to a 3-4-3, putting us up against three centre-forwards. What they also do is open themselves up more, and we nearly add a second several times, before walking away with a highly prized 1-0 win.

Unlike against West Brom I’m pretty happy with this one. A Champions League group game win carries £2.32 million as a bonus, which has the Derby suits purring, while the TV revenue that comes with continental football is turning a profit for us overall. Little wonder that teams fight to play in this competition – it’s a real money-spinner. Porto win 1-0 against PSG – they’re our next opposition, and one that we will need to face without the services of Luca Pellegini, who’s ruled out with a pulled back muscle for up to a fortnight.

Derby FM20 – April 2020: A Dead Parrott

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and the attempt to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

As always the international break represents a unique opportunity for my players to get themselves injured. Tom Huddlestone leads the charge with a twisted ankle, which is worth up to a month’s lay-off. This could have come at a better time. The Derby veteran may be far from a regular starter for us, but he’s useful to have around and when we are in need of someone composed to come on, take control and put his foot on the game there are few better. Next up is Matt Phillips, the on-loan winger who we lose for two to three weeks with pulled knee ligaments. Ouch! His absence gives me pause to think about his Derby future. Matt was drafted in to see how he could play before potentially making a permanent transfer offer for him – he’d cost somewhere between £2.1 and £3 million to sign. The idea is to ascertain how well he can challenge Jatta for the starter’s role; so far he’s well off the level at which the German is producing.

Krystian Bielik gets his first cap for Poland, playing throughout their 5-0 friendly win over mighty Liechtenstein. It was always a winnable tie and all the centre-back needs to do is be composed, but he does it well and earns credit for his performance, and partly as a consequence his value as a player has risen to £9 million. Bielik then scores in the follow-up against Estonia, taking the opportunity to make himself essential to the national cause.

As we enter April I learn I have been named Manager of the Month for my work in March; it’s my first personal award. The board are delighted with me, and I really hope the good feeling can continue as we enter a season-defining group of fixtures. I take the time to watch the midweek match involving Nottingham Forest, our opposition on Saturday. They play a plodding 0-0 at home against Bristol City, which is encouraging, especially the missing in action turn put in by star man Jota. Our rivals are in 14th place, on 50 points and going nowhere quickly. Their one scrap of hope to cling to was their status as the last non-Premier League in the FA Cup, an admirable run that took them all the way to the quarter final before Leicester City dumped them out. As for our vanquishers Brighton, they saw off Arsenal after an exciting 4-3 victory that lasted into extra-time. They have Liverpool next, a daunting prospect for any team.

We go into the game needing a win, and knowing if we do that we’ve guaranteed a playoff position. Under normal circumstances a challenge like this should be utterly straightforward – the opposition’s going nowhere and has every right to be playing out their commitments on auto-pilot – but it’s Forest, our main rivals, and the chance to reclaim the Brian Clough Trophy is on the line.

At half-time it’s 1-0 to us. The goal, a Matt Clarke header from Lewis Baker’s corner that comes straight from endless set-piece training routines, is a fair reflection of the overall action. Forest need to be respected. Their players are much better than the league position they’re in suggests, and Chris Hughton is a positive appointment as manager, however beyond the bluster there seems little about them to fear. In the end the threat of possible reprisals from the visitors never materialises. Maybe it’s the fact they had to play that extra fixture, but they wilt as the match progresses. We’re happy to keep possession, just stop them from doing anything by starving them of the ball, and it stands as a professional job.

In reality we should probably have produced better than a 1-0 victory. I’m always tense when it’s so close, but when we look back at the course of the term it won’t matter. The game will be a footnote and it’s the points that count. And the trophy…

Afterwards I’m asked about Pedro Chirivella and repeat my assertion that I would love to make a permanent acquisition of him. Jurgen Klopp weighs in next, saying the player isn’t for sale, and I’m like my god, Jurgen Klopp’s talked about me! His dazzling smile… There’s now a queue of seventeen clubs showing an interest in the player. The media speculation is that he’s most likely to opt for a return to Spain, with Celta Vigo the obvious next step, so it’s on us to transform Pride Park into the Chirivella Fan Club, remember his birthday with a lovely cake and try to force/compel him to think of this place as the home away from home that he never realised he really needed.

We all know the true message of Easter, don’t we, that it’s about stuffing in as much football as possible. We have matches on Good Friday and Easter Monday, two crunch ties in the run-in. The first is away to West Bromwich Albion, a team I tipped heavily for promotion but have perhaps not developed into the sum of their parts. They’ve hovered in and out of the playoff picture throughout the campaign, whereas I expected them to be pushing for the automatic positions. Matheus Pereira has been good on the right wing, whilst on the left Kamil Grosicki is the side’s leading goalscorer but has failed to settle in the area, and his performances have suffered as a result.

Personally I’d be happy with a draw at the Hawthorns. The Baggies beat us at home earlier in the season, back when I was still finding my feet, so anything we get here will represent an improvement. The first half is cagey and largely devoid of excitement. The home team try to entertain by actually taking the game to us and promising a decent level of competition, but in attack they struggle to get the breakthrough, a combination of lacklustre shooting and Montipo being able to deal with everything.

It all explodes in the second half. Bogle and Jatta are given far too much space on the right and spark a move that culminates with the latter’s cross into the middle, where Marriott slips the attentions of Gibbs and Bartley to shoot past Johnstone. Shortly after, we build similarly effectively on the left. Full-back Furlong is carrying an injury and can’t deal with Lowe and Waghorn. The latter picks out Jatta who climbs above the defenders to head home. With the Baggies attacking more desperately and leaving gaps, giving me the luxury of bringing on fresh legs, a foray late in the game opens a hole in the defence for Jason Knight to fire in one of his long shots. It’s 3-0, a superb scoreline at a place where I would have been grateful with 0-0.

Charlton and Millwall‘s relegations are confirmed. At the table’s other end we have opened a nine point gap to third place, with four fixtures remaining. We can’t finish lower than fourth, but naturally anything less than automatic promotion would now be viewed as failure. It’d take a collapse of epic proportions to screw it up. We’re as capable as anyone of producing one, yet the mood in the camp is excellent. The players support me, have developed into a team really well, and are generating an atmosphere of high spirits.

We have Brentford at Pride Park on Easter Monday. First versus second – who could have predicted such a predicament earlier in the season? I hold a team talk beforehand, trying to downplay the importance of the fixture and instead urging the players to treat it as they would a normal game, which appears to go down well. I know I couldn’t take this approach if I was in charge of Manchester United, where ambition – ought to! – ooze from every pore. Because West Brom was a couple of days ago I make sweeping changes to the line-up. For me, a relatively fresh side is better than knackered players, and hopefully our superior fitness will be a factor.

It isn’t. During the first half we have our backs against the wall, the visitors pressing hard as I suppose they must – after all, we’re in the driving seat here. Even an in-form Olly Watkins isn’t so much of a challenge for my defenders, but their pressure reaps results in the end when they win a free kick and the striker’s lofted ball is headed in by defender Henrik Dalsgaard. For our part, Troy Parrott – who’s on for Marriott – has one tame strike that’s easily saved by David Raya, before going off injured. It turns out to be a broken foot that will keep him out of action until August, and that wins him an instant return to Tottenham. It seems a somewhat ignoble way for someone who’s played a lot of matches here to end his time, but that’s football, and at least he leaves on a relative high. Whatever criticism he’s endured for the lack of goals, he’s been part of the effort that has got us to the verge of promotion and for that he deserves some gratitude. Apparently I’m one of his favoured personnel, which is nice to hear, though I’m not sure the love of a goal-shy striker really counts for very much in the final analysis.

Meanwhile we’ve a match to save. There’s nothing for it but to tell the players off at half-time. Nerves or not, title on the line or whatever, I don’t think we’ve got any excuses for the way Brentford have bullied us. Knight (a poor game) and Phillips (not good on his return from injury; also he played a lazy back pass that nearly led to a second goal) come off for Baker and Jatta respectively. we respond in the best way, by forcing our way back into the reckoning and pushing for an equaliser. For long passages there’s nothing doing. Little goes right for us – headers sail over the bar and forays into the penalty area are broken up. But when Baptiste bowls Marriott over from behind in the box, it’s the clearest shout for a spot-kick that the referee will ever have the pleasure of making. Rooney is up to take it. He’s had two chances beforehand in the campaign and scored from one of them, so it’s a wayward record for someone who’s so revered. And yet in this situation, within a tie of some significance and nerves of steel required, who else would you choose to take it? Lord Rooney doesn’t blow it. Raya dives one way. He shoots the other, and it’s 1-1.

I’ll take a draw here any time, which is what we end up claiming. Fine – there are still three matches to play and a hat-trick of opportunities left to produce the goods, and that’s if Brentford and Fulham win all their remaining fixtures. We need to wait until the following evening to see if the latter give us a backdoor promotion, but they wind up beating Cardiff 1-0 to keep the pressure up. Boro are on 78 points in fourth place, so it’s between the three of us now.

Derby FM20 – August 2019: Of Baggies and Bees

I’m aware how slowly this game is moving, glacial even by my standards, and so this post is dedicated to closing out August and the four remaining matches that feature within it.

Fixtures come thick and fast at this level. We have three days to prepare for another tough tie at home to Bristol City, and it seems only sensible to give the players a day off from training to recover their fitness. The transfer window is closed in England but still open within Europe as a whole. I wonder if anyone will improve on Manchester City’s £41 million splurge on former Arsenal defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin, I mean what sort of world is it where Le Coq is king? Brizzle will be without Korey Smith and Jay Dasilva, two English players who are pretty good by Championship standards. We still have no Wisdom, Bogle or Bird, and the physio team isn’t even bothering to discuss Anya, who’s still a long way away (in more ways than one). City are strong opposition. Lee Johnson has been in charge for four years, an eternity at this level, and seems to be in a spiral of perpetually building his side for success. They can call on Nakhi Wells, Tomas Kalas and Henri Saivet, the latter a player we scouted with a semi-serious view to drafting him in.

I feel as though we needn’t have worried as we go 2-0 up in the first ten minutes. Both goals arise from breaking up the Robins’ play. For the first, Benkovic and Williams are faffing about with the ball and allow Troy Parrott to pinch it from them. With only the keeper to beat, he slots the ball into the corner. Two minutes later Baker opens his account with a delightful volley, again arising from City meandering in possession. I’m sat on my bench thinking football is so very easy, and for much of the half it is, until Kasey Palmer pulls one back in the 27th minute from a corner we fail to deal with, which is enough to put me back in my place. Strangely enough the reply appears to be enough to make the away team think they’ve done their jobs for the evening. Time for a half-time brew, perhaps? We make it 3-1 with 70 minutes on the clock when Bielik nets from close range at the culmination of a messy goalmouth tangle following a Baker free-kick, and that turns out to be the final result. It’s a tie that statistically looks fairly even, a similar amount of possession and a comparative shot count, but either through more incisive attacking or just wanting it more we have a fairly straightforward outing. I even have the luxury of taking Rooney off for the last quarter or an hour to save his precious legs.

We have the early televised match on Saturday, at home for the considerable challenge of West Bromwich Albion. Tipped for promotion and managed by Slaven Bilic, they bring a squad of highly valued players that includes unlikely England international Jake Livermore and onetime future hot prospect Charlie Austin, a £4 million summer signing after he failed to make the step up. There seems to be an optimistic mood in the dressing room before the game, a consequence of our good start, and when I tell the players I expect them to pick up from where they left off they appear to show signs of being motivated by my words.

It’s at times like these you know you’re in for a rough session. Bakery Jatta shows off the darker side of his game when he clatters two footed into the back of Kieran Gibbs in the first few minutes. That earns him a dismissal and puts us on the back foot for the rest of a long, long match. Long before Ajayi gets their goal from a corner, West Brom have mounted attack after attack and we’ve collected a further five bookings. Discipline has been thrown out of the window. When I should be urging them to focus I’m instead begging the players to calm down.

In the second half Lawrence comes off for Duane Holmes, who can at least add some balance by moving into the middle. Jack Marriott is introduced for Parrott and we show a little bit more adventure. A couple of Marriott shots give Sam Johnstone a chance to earn his keep, whilst at our end Montipo pulls off a few heroics to keep it 1-0. But there isn’t a lot what can do to get anything from the match. The Baggies know they can exploit our weakness on the flanks, build on their wide superiority all afternoon, and on a more incisive day could have caused more damage.

Derby were top of the table before this debacle, but a complete programme of Championship action shuffles us back down to reality and into sixth place. We’re on the same number of points (ten) as Leeds, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Fulham and Barnsley, and by chance it’s the latter we’ll be taking on for our midweek Carabao Cup clash.

Despite Barnsley’s good start I see this one as an opportunity for some squad rotation. I don’t do this for fun. Rooney, Baker and Clarke are feeling the impact of our constant rotation of games and could use the rest. Holmes remains short of match fitness, so Lawrence starts outside his natural position on the right wing; Waghorn comes in to play the left hand side. The Tykes’ main threat comes from central midfielder Alex Mowatt, who’s scored twice from his five appearances. They field pretty much their best eleven, which makes sense but also means they have some tired legs out there. We’re relatively fresh in comparison, which emphasises the deeper pool of players I have to work with.

And it works! The only downside is a knee injury to George Knight that instantly removes him from the field of play; fortunately it’s just twisted rather than incurring worse damage and he should be available again within a week. Otherwise we put three past Brad Collins in a first half blitz. I put this down to superior quality and fitness, and of course superb management. The assault starts after quarter of an hour. Lawrence’s corner is cleared from the area, but only out to Max Lowe who’s marauding down the left wing. Totally unmarked the full-back is able to place his shot – a rare treat from the ever-present Lowe. Twelve minutes later, Lawrence steals the ball from Cobbaut and finds Jack Marriott, the striker shrugging off the unromantic attentions of Sollbauer to shoot past Collins. I’m pleased for Marriott, the forward whose effectiveness has been dulled by injury. Waghorn makes it 3-0 from the spot when Baker is bundled over clumsily by Ludewig in the area.

A very pleasing evening’s bit of business, and we learn we’ve avoided the big boys in the third round to be tied away to Luton. This cup run could have a little more life in it yet.

August closes with a journey down to the Big Smoke to take on Brentford. The Bees are a promotion possibility and have spent a truckload in attempting to underwrite their bid. A cool £27.5 million has been lashed out on the best part of a whole new team. Pontus Jansson, Ethan Pinnock and Bryan Mbuemo are the pick of their arrivals as they boost their credentials. They’re currently in second place, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them stay in the upper echelons throughout the campaign. So it’s a tough one we’re anticipating, a game in which Andre Wisdom could technically take part after recovering from injury, though no doubt his match fitness will be awful. Rushian Hepburn-Murphy has a thigh strain and can’t be used. Nobody sees this as a massive loss. As we prepare for the game I discover that Manuel Ugarte, for whom we once had a work permit application turned down, has been signed by Sevilla. His loss, though the move suggests he belongs in a higher tier than we could offer him.

Jatta has been banned for a further two matches, which robs us of his services for this one and for Cardiff at the end of the international break. Parrott, picked for possibly his first Republic of Ireland cap at the tender age of 17, is back in the line-up, while at the other end of the international scale the much-needed Rooney makes his return.

At the break we’re 1-0 ahead. Max Lowe has scored another special – clearly you leave a left-back unmarked at your peril as he lashes home another powerhouse. The Bees have had slightly the better of it elsewhere in a closely fought tie between evenly matched sides, nothing less than you’d expect from an ambitious team playing before their home fans. We’re anticipating a second half onslaught, but I’m reticent about becoming too cautious. Instead we put a second past Raya when Waghorn heads in Christie’s crossed ball. Brentford have their chances, but they can’t find a way past Bieliek, Milosevic and Montipo and they’re struggling to find any rhythm with our press working well. All I need to do is time waste more often, play carefully and replace lads who are looking knackered. 2-0 is a fantastic final scoreline and underlines a very positive start to the season.

The table makes for good reading. Derby are third, and if we can maintain anything like this form then we will be able to reflect on a good season indeed. Remember, the target is mid-table so we are presently bucking the odds and this is mirrored on the board’s praise in their end of the month meeting:

Even the squad dynamics make for good reading – Tom Huddlestone no longer sees himself as my enemy (calloo callay, etc) and of the 27-man squad 14 support me and 13 have no real opinion, so things are moving in the right direction. September contains just three league games, plus the Luton cup match, and in the meantime all we need to do is get through the Interlull without suffering further injuries. Yeah, good luck with that.