Derby FM20 – April 2023: Another Serving of Scouse

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.

To date we have enjoyed taking on Everton very much. Unlike their illustrious neighbours the blue half of Liverpool have been very obliging to our cause, rolling over helpfully on request. They’re in eighth place, as capable of dealing out judgement as they are of being dealt in turn, and for the life of me I can’t see what the issue is considering their squad is perfectly fine. If they do have a weakness then it’s one that we are very familiar with, which is their low goalscoring rate. Dominic Calvert-Lewin has put away eleven strikes in the league, but beyond him the pickings are slim. Jose Juan Macias – who they start with against us – has never risen beyond single figures since his £27 million signing, and Dominic Solanke is up for sale, unwanted and available at the knockdown price of £6 million. The 25 year old is on our longlist of transfer targets, present despite the heavy caveat that he’s just as goal-shy as anyone we possess – I’m not sure that he’s the answer. To any question.

Behind their forwards Thomas Frank can call on a great set of players. Jarrod Bowen, Hakan Calhanoglu and Richarlison could all walk into this side and enhance us. Andre Gomes and Nabil Fekir are cracking attacking midfielders, nor are they short of talent in defence where the likes of Mason Holgate and Lucas Digne represent a considerable wall. There’s potency, no doubt there, but they lack any level of consistency. We’re expecting to win against them.

On the day before we play Manchester United and Liverpool both draw. The former’s 0-0 at Wolves isn’t necessarily anything to be ashamed about, but it’s Swansea who go to Anfield and hold mighty Liverpool 1-1, featuring a goalkeeping masterclass from Emiliano Martinez. Even after Ashley Westwood has been dismissed early in the second half there’s no breakthrough, which suggests Klopp’s globetrotters can have a real problem when they’re taking on sides that they’re heavily tipped to beat. We are able to go five points clear if we beat the Toffees, and that should be more than enough incentive for us to perform.

It is obviously wet in Derby on Sunday afternoon. We’re playing on this day because the opposition is still contesting the Europa League. They’ve put four past Real San Sebastian in the first leg of the Quarter-Final, which is good for them but also for us as they are showing signs of match fatigue when they take the field here. Max Lowe continues to feature in our defence as Luca Pellegrini is handed a further two-match ban after his sending off in the Pool game. Will Hughes is back in the line-up, alongside Bellingham, whilst Eddie Salcedo is persevered with. I have to believe that he’ll come good eventually, though this run of games is essentially him on trial. If he picks up his form then he can stay; otherwise he’ll be gone at the end of the campaign.

Confident of victory we tear into the visitors from the start. They’re a good side but beatable, and our pressure results in a penalty on the half-hour mark when Mola shoves Hughes over in the area during a free-kick routine. A cheap one to give away. Gabriel Barbosa steps up to take it, and though he does little else in the game he’s competent enough to send the otherwise solid Jed Steer the wrong way before finding the net. Just before the break a Chirivella corner is headed out by Richarlison but then gets headed back towards goal by Will Hughes. It isn’t an especially strong effort, however its bounce somehow defies Steer and goes in.

Everton show more life after a Frank rollicking in the dressing room. To no avail, it turns out, as the only incident of note is the lower leg injury to Macias that simultaneously puts him out for a week and introduces Calvert-Lewin, who we have to marshal more earnestly. We have a known problem when it comes to scoring goals, but so do the opposition who struggle to make much of an impression. 2-0 is the final score, which is just fine. Salcedo has a quiet game, not even an offside goal on this occasion, and where I’m concerned this moves him a step closer to the exit.

There’s a two-day break before we open the gates again to welcome Wolverhampton Wanderers. Our main rivals are involved in the Champions League so it’s an opportunity to move further out of sight at the top of the table. Though we should prevail at home, Marcelo Bielsa brings a quick and dangerous squad that I think is better than its mid-table berth. There are some players in this side who I would love to have command over. My desire to sign Adama Traore has abated somewhat, however I’d reshuffle my midfield to accommodate Lewis Cook, who’s not available and therefore a remote prospect, while Todd Cantwell has been put up for sale and might become a bigger target if Ademola Lookman ends up going.

Due to the lack of time we are much changed for their visit. Tosin and Bogle are back in the eleven, two players who are on other teams’ wanted lists – Spurs are eyeing the tall centre-back, while Jayden is an object of unrequited lust for Wolves and Boro. We aren’t selling him, and that’s all there is to it. Well, maybe if you offer a ridiculous sum of money…

The game is a low-key affair, almost certainly because you can’t play two matches so close together and retain a full-blooded pace. The visitors force a couple of quick reactions out of Butland, and Hlozek makes a nuisance of himself in the Wolves area, producing good saves from Juan Musso, who will end up being named Man of the Match mainly due to the absence of obvious nominees elsewhere.

I believe that this one will peter out to a 0-0 draw. We’ve broadly cancelled each other out and are playing a fractious, bad-tempered game in the traditional rain. Wolves target Lowe as the main focus of their attacking pressure. This makes sense. He’s the weak link in our defence; as always though Max is at least competent and deals with Rui Peixoto on their right wing well enough. We’re focusing on the same flank. Max Willian versus Jonny carries far more potential for us than the pitched battle between Barbosa and Vinagre, pitting our diffident winger against one of the better left-backs out there. Our goal comes from the left, a comedy of errors when Max Willian’s cross is turned beyond his own  keeper by hulking German defender Christoph Zimmermann. As soon as it’s scored, we spend the remaining twenty-five minutes reducing our attacking focus, dealing with everything they throw at us. Tosin is forced off with a minor knee injury, but Bielik is a capable alternative, and Moriba is sacrificed for Chirivella as we see the time out in solid fashion.

Not one for the highlights reel then, but we had a job to do and we’ve done it. The eight points margin we hoped to carve out has been achieved as requested, though Liverpool now have a catch-up game so in reality the cushion isn’t quite as plump as it appears. Still, good times. We are well on course to beat our Premier League points record of 79, and we cannot now finish any lower than fifth. One more victory will place us beyond Arsenal’s reach, guaranteeing Champions League football in 2023/24, and the golden points total is 94. If we hit that amount then it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.

Derby FM20 – January 2023: In with the New…

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.

Happy New Year, readers! January opens with one in and one out as pre-arranged transfers kick in. Demarai Gray’s loan spell ends. I could have extended it, indeed my initial plan was to perhaps keep him on based around my past experiences of managing him, however he never really showed me that we were gaining anything via his presence. Over his five league games Demarai achieved a 6.76 average. Some of these appearances were as a substitute, but still all he really did was make me miss the effervescence (albeit in a limited way) of Sheyi Ojo.

The doors open to welcome Max Willian to Derby County. An 18 year old Brazilian prodigy, honed and sharpened with Atletico Mineiro, he’s the first player from his country that I’ve signed and of course carries that lustre of Samba glamour with him. The coaches instantly have him rated as our best left winger, even ahead of Lookman, with particular attention drawn to his pace, technique and raw determination. My only concern, because I think he will be as important a capture for us as Moriba, is that he has no fellow countrymen in the squad. There isn’t even a Portuguese player to at least share the language with him, so for now it’s with fingers crossed that I hope he can acclimatise to England quickly.

While all that’s going on, a midweek schedule elsewhere sees the Manchester giants battle to a 2-2 draw. Chelsea beat Everton by a single Matheus Henrique strike to go top. I believe we were due to face Liverpool but their fixture commitments have handed us a seven-day period without a game. Keep postponing, people; I’ve no desire to take on the Pool right now.

We’ve a week to wait until heading to the Midlands, where we will be facing off against ninth placed Wolverhampton Wanderers. By the standards of early January it’s a really mild afternoon, global warming and all that. I fear the Wolves. Marcelo Bielsa’s team are quick and talented, and they’ve added to their ranks with Norwich’s Todd Cantwell, a £27.5 million answer to their attacking cohorts that never posed an obvious question. Juan Musso, drafted in from Dynamo Kyiv, plays between their sticks. They’ve only just picked up Nathaniel Chalobah, the former Watford midfielder who made for a very cheap £3 million purchase from Ulsan in the South Korean league. We’re without Ronaldo Vieira, who’s at home with a virus, while Jeremie Frimpong has picked up a twisted ankle and will be lost for a fortnight.

Halfway through the first half we also have to find alternatives for Harry Wilson, who is taken off with what looks like a really bad foot injury. It turns out to be a fractured toe, which necessitates a three week break – not as bad as I thought, but not great all the same. By then we’ve taken the lead. Wilson has burst into the area and taken his shot from an acute angle, which Musso parries. Sebastiano Esposito is there to collect the rebound, and produces something incredibly elaborate from what is pretty much a tapping-in position.

Ademola Lookman, no doubt putting on a show with his new rival watching from the bench, makes it 2-0 shortly after half-time. Picking up a Bielik pass in the area, he beats Otto before sending in a low shot that completely defies the keeper. Not long after that and the home team have pulled one back via Raul Jimenez. A good goal this one; Butland parries his first effort towards the goal-line, but before it can go out for the corner the striker latches back on and shoots from an impossible angle. Or so it seems… I’ve felt that we have been in control of this one from the start. It would be shame to let the points slip away now, and we manage to secure them when Ilaix Moriba scores from a directly taken free-kick with around ten minutes remaining.

A fine win against decent opposition, and it’s nice to see our middling away form of earlier in the season show an improvement. There was a time when we might have lost this one… Elsewhere, Liverpool retain the top spot courtesy of a 7-1 drubbing of Norwich. Chelsea contrive to lose at home to Swansea, while Man You go down 3-0 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Debbie Allie’s brace doing the damage.

Jack Butland is wanted by Arsenal, and he wants to go. The Gunners ask me to name my price and I quote £30 million, thinking they will either sod off or that the money would cover the minimum fee release clause for Bilbao’s Unai Simon. So they offer half that amount, which I am forced to turn down. To keep Jackie in check I’m taken to the negotiating table, all of which results in a new £54,000 weekly deal for him. To be fair, it isn’t a bad amount for a Premier League goalkeeper who gets selected for his country. He doesn’t play for England, but he’s there. Pedro Chirivella and Krystian Bielik are also offered new deals, which will pay each player £60,000 on a weekly basis. The overall outlay for salaries is creeping up, though we are still well within our budget and I suppose it’s right and proper to pay players healthy amounts for keeping us near the top of the table.

The Carabao Cup Quarter-Final is a home tie against Aston Villa, played in winter drizzle before an admirably nearly full stadium. Morawski, Hlozek, Gallacher, Vieira, Salcedo are all chosen for this one. Max Willian makes his full debut. By this point, we are beginning to throw ourselves around with the swagger of a side that expects to beat mid-table opposition and this one results in a routine 2-0 victory. After a first half during which we pummel them without a breakthrough, batting aside the forays of Grealish and McGinn, we finally nudge ahead thanks to Eddie Salcedo. Hlozek drives into the area and picks out the Italian from the right wing. For once loosely marked, Eddie hits a low drive that beats the keeper. Several minutes later, Adam Hlozek snatches the ball from Engels in his own half. He then takes off, dribbling sixty yards up the pitch, before forcing Pacheco into committing himself, rounding the keeper and ostentatiously walking the ball into the net. It’s a swaggering goal, a timely reminder of his worth (which I wish he would display more often) and seals the victory. As for Max, he has a promising start. His best move comes when he intercepts a cross-field pass aimed at the Villa right, hurtles up-field and drags his pass to Salcedo before the move is finally broken up. I like what I’ve seen.

Our prize for winning is a trip to Old Trafford in a week’s time, when we’ll take on Manchester City in the Semi-Final. The Blues, who are finding their feet after a rather terrible start to the season, have seen off Blackburn, and I think it will be a good occasion. Beating Villa has established a record of nine straight wins in the League Cup. Let’s see if we can make it ten.

In between Carabao clashes we have a home game against Newcastle in the league, as the schedule deals out twice-weekly fixtures as routine. Taking on City pushes what should have been a date with Brighton further down the calendar, a list of playing commitments that is starting to bunch up.

All the while, I’m keeping a close eye on players who might be available to sign. There’s no burning need to add a fresh pair of legs; it’s more a case of window-shopping than actually targeting anyone. In other places January explodes into life. Odsonne Edouard joins Atletico Madrid from Juventus in a £43.5 million deal. We’ll be playing them next month and the Frenchman’s presence will doubtless add to the fun. Emamuel Vignato, a winger we quite fancied, has gone to Lazio for £49 million. Milan have been taken over by a dolce papa consortium and flex their muscles by taking Everton for £45 million. This is just a warm-up, though, as on consecutive days United’s Bruno Fernandes goes for £103 million, and then Lorenzo Pellegrini is snatched from Roma at the price of a very cool £121 million. It’s deals like this that really tend to turn a transfer window white hot. In the meantime, Bournemouth finally announce their new manager – they’ve handed the reins to none other than Frank Lampard, which should help to quell suggestions that football is at heart just a bit of fun.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Bielsa’s Bucket

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.

Graeme Shinnie is one of Derby’s forgotten men, a factor in our promotion campaign but since then no longer needed and having spent his last eighteen months in Colorado. The MLS season is over and he’s back with us, playing reserves football and waiting for his contract to wind down. But Colorado want their man and agree to take him on once his time here is done, which I think is a rather nice end to his story with us. Dirk Proper ends his half-season on loan with Seattle. The Dutch youngster has played with heart and, now 19, has the possibility of making it into the dizzy heights of our first team, though this is a consideration for the future. A series of clubs make fresh loan offers for him. He can pick from Amiens, Leicester, Frankfurt and Hannover 96; while the Foxes would provide him with top flight football, I would like him to go the team that wants to use him more frequently.

Leonardo Morawski is a 19 year old Argentinian defender who joined us at the end of the summer transfer window. Like Proper, he’s working towards first team status and will become homegrown over time, so we see him as an asset, however for now I have a promise to keep that I will send him out on loan. A string of offers flies in. I refuse all but the ones that will regard him as a regular starter, and ultimately he opts to join Sunderland, still a League One side. The Mackems have gone from hoping to bounce back into the second tier to being settled in within their current climes, so hopefully Leo can help them to spark a resurgence.

Less welcome is the effort by other teams to poach our promising youngsters. Everton want Josh Kirk, who joined us from last year’s youth intake. A 17 year old right-back for whom I’m trying to secure a loan deal (Oxford are interested), the Toffees submit a £6.75 million offer. This is serious, but following the deal that spirited Lee Buchanan from the Stiffs two years ago I am reticent about letting talented Ramlings like Josh go and I offer him an improved contract. We could absolutely use the money if the player decides to transfer his talents to Merseyside, but the plan is to mould Josh into the man who will ultimately challenge Jayden Bogle for his place in the starting line-up.

Then there’s the Kevin Stoger situation. Other teams want him. The offers for his services are steadily getting lower, from the original one that met his valuation to the bids of around £12 million we are receiving now. These are accepted, and he wants to leave due to the interest being shown in him, but when he turns down all the contract proposals It all starts becoming a bit wearisome. Stay? Go? Make up your mind, pal, and in the end I remove him from the transfer list just to try and place some closure on the situation. We can try this again in the summer. By now, the Austrian is only the sixth highest rated midfielder in the squad. He’s been valuable to us. I can’t put a price on the contribution he made last season, when he and Will Hughes were more or less constants in the line-up, but that time is over. We have a lot of options now and other players I would like to consider bringing in, so unless someone produces the sort of terms that neither we or he can turn down he’s going to stay here until the summer.

The backdrop to all this player movement is a busy January schedule. We have eight fixtures to play, and next up is a heavy going home tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Midlands side helmed by Marcelo Bielsa is in upper mid-table, arguably playing within themselves because their side is stronger than ours. They’re intent on strengthening their ranks also, having a loan offer for Dortmund’s transfer listed Thorgan Hazard turned down, because what they really need is more attacking talent. They beat us earlier in the campaign, presenting a relentless and sustained pressing force that we struggled to cope with, so it’s fair to say we come into this one respectfully and not without some fear.

It’s cold and wet in Derby. The cameras are tracking us, Jamie Carragher wanking on about xG, which I’ve never really understood, and for this game I start with Patrick Roberts as part of a line-up that contains seven English players. That’s seven more than Wolves use. Things go ill for our visitors from the start. Raul Jimenez is involved in a rough challenge with Pedraza and needs to be taken off, an injury that will turn out to be broken ribs and more than a month’s worth of treatment. Ouch! Roberts is next to go, replaced in the twenty-fifth minute with a potential thigh injury that thankfully is negligible. My gratitude goes to Vinagre for making that happen. After the game, Bielsa has a whine to the cameras about our rough-house play, a criticism I don’t agree with as we cancel each other out in terms of fouls.

There’s an aspect of this that’s pure sour grapes. We win 2-0, surprisingly emphatically, as though Raul was the key to it all and without him they’re toothless. Harry Wilson comes on and is terrific, making both goals. The defence plays well as a whole, while Vieira and Hughes in midfield operate like sentinels, holding back the golden horde and starting forays of their own. A great team performance, capped off with goals from Sebastiano Esposito and Reece Oxford. I’d have taken a draw from this, but right now we’re in the thick of the top of the table action, determined not to be dropped from the pace. Earlier, Liverpool defeat Sheffield United to maintain their title challenging credentials. Manchester City are the unlikely losers, at risk of falling out of the race for the top when they collapse 4-1 to Chelsea. Guardiola is at last flashing the cash. Florentino Luis is brought in for £84 million. A further £91 million is sent Roma’s way for winger Nicolo Maniolo. They’ve sold Phil Foden, who is now a Barcelona player at a price of £74 million. Those are some big numbers. In comparison, our captures of Roberts and Adarabioyo have netted them a combined £16.5 million, a drop in the ocean.

Tottenham are next. The Londoners have been surprise title challengers throughout the term, with much of their effort being in service to Eduardo Camavinga, the teen sensation who is currently the third highest rated player in the division (behind Liverpool pair Dybala and Mane). They’re the division’s highest goalscorers, Zapata leading the way with thirteen strikes, while Barbosa, Debbie and Son aren’t far behind. We have beaten this lot at Pride Park, however that was during the league’s early swipes back before the table settled down into what it’s become. Everyone is expecting a tough time at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where Manuel Pellegrini has put in a sterling job of work guiding them back into contention for honours.

I put out a midfield designed to keep us safe, Vieira and Hughes playing ahead of Chirivella, and order a balanced approach with the option to become cautious if the situation demands it. The first half has us cancelling each other out. We both have swiping opportunities, but the clash of the titans this one’s billed as largely fails to live up to the promise. In reality, neither side is exactly ‘titanic’. Spurs have maximised their talent but they’re hardly Real Madrid. And you know our situation. We work hard as always, look for gaps like any good side would, and I’m pleased with the work of Adarabioyo in his first start for us, yet we aren’t fooling anyone. We’re game but limited, which is all we are going to be with the resources available.

At half-time, the F.O.C. unwraps his surprise package, Dutch winger Steven Bergwijn, and before I can exhort the players to show him special attention he scores direct from the second half kickoff. Lo Celso finds Ndombele on the left flank. Covered well and without a route to goal, the Hotspur instead picks out Bergwijn, who’s hurtling into the area, pursued by Hughes, and who then unleashes a rocket of a shot to break the deadlock. Needless to say he’s ‘looked after’ following that incident, and it takes us until the eighty-fourth minute to redress the situation. Hughes, Roberts and Vieira are all involved in the move that ends with a launched ball to the left wing, where Sheyi Ojo is drifting into the box almost unmarked. Spurs defenders are all busy looking after Hlozek, and the winger gets to dink a soft looking shot that catches Lloris out to make it 1-1.

Getting a draw from this is a scenario we’ll take any day. The table following our result is actually slightly better than it looks here – United have played their early match before the next round of fixtures and won 5-0; after Spurs we are tucked neatly into third place and a single point off the top.

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 – March 2021: Up for the Cup

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.

Marcelino is the latest managerial casualty. Leicester City were supposed to be challenging for the European places this season and instead have oscillated between tenth and fifteenth. I’d have to agree that one of the more exciting young squads in the Premier League has somewhat under-achieved. While I entertain no thoughts whatsoever of leaving my current post, there’s something enticing about the job at the Crisps Stadium. Fortunately the Foxes have no interest in recruiting a manager who’s guided his newly promoted team to fourth in the table, and are instead after the less imaginative choice of Neil Lennon. Poring through the somewhat ghoulish odds available for the next sacked boss, Manuel Pellegrini is looking insecure at Tottenham, and Roberto Martinez, who is struggling to get Southampton out of the bottom three, is on dodgy ground. Your humble writer is considered to be ‘Untouchable’, which is nice.

As promised, the flood of new faces arrives in the shape of this year’s youth candidates. Some of them look half decent. Head of Youth Development Darren Wassall can’t stop praising himself for the discovery of Josh Kirk, a right-back who he thinks could one day be better than Jayden Bogle. One thing I especially like about the kid is his perfect level of determination, which as I have said is a quality I hold highly.  This future leader looks good physically and is definitely one to watch. Jamie Baxter is a defensive midfielder from Loughborough who has very promising physical levels and is vaunted as a great team player. The absence of any bravery when facing rough challenges is something he will need to work on. Central midfield may one day be enhanced by Terry Willmot, a Wrexham born player who looks every inch the rough diamond. The kid has a hell of a passing range on him, but in his instance there is clearly a long way to go. He will need to improve quickly just to get himself up to the level of his peers; however there’s no risk in giving him a youth contract and seeing what he does with it. At left full-back, Paul Hallam from Northampton has a lot of potential and is clearly the sort of player who will work and work and work. Like his fellows Paul looks determined and plays well within the team.

Clearly we won’t hear much from these boys for several years yet. Theirs is a grind of Under-18 matches, endless training and future loan moves, however there’s much here to be hopeful for in terms of their long-term futures. I think I share Mr Morris’s aim to be producing good players from in-house for the first team, and these boys are a big part of that target.

Adam Hlozek remains disgruntled about his substitution at Tottenham from a month ago, and that’s a problem. To me he’s a powder keg right now. On the whole his morale is considered to be really good. He’s an important player and he knows he is, so all’s good, yet there’s still the worry that if he’s removed again then he may very well start demanding a move away, which none of us want to happen. This is reflected in his training levels, which are showing a worrying recent dip. We need to keep him onside, and as an 18 year old with the world at his feet Adam has to get his head back into his work and put past indiscretions behind him. Sometimes, you just aren’t having an effect on the game and need to be taken off for your own good. As good as you are, no one is indispensable. In his instance the alternative to his role is Bakery Jatta, who has shown glimpses of ability but is now hitting the wall in terms of his development, so for the last couple of months of the campaign he probably is essential.

Clearly having one really good right winger isn’t ideal and this is a position we will be looking to add a new face to in the summer. My dream is to draft in Adama Traore, the Spanish Billy the Whizz who’s built like an NFL linebacker. He was once terrific, if somewhat lacking a finished product at Middlesbrough, but for the last three seasons he’s been with Wolves where those missing elements have been worked upon. Our possibility of getting him depends in part on his relegated team not bouncing straight back up, but they’re owning the Championship and this will have a knock-on to how much Traore will cost. He’s interested in joining, and anyone could make use of his 100 metre sprinter’s pace, but the cost is likely to be high.

Of the more homegrown picks, West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen has a more complete all-round game than Adama, however he’s paid twice as much (it is the Hammers, after all), so there’s the issue of blowing a hole in our wage budget for him. Patrick Roberts is an outlier, probably gettable on a loan deal only unless City decide they no longer require his services, and there are two former Rams in Harvey Wilson and Jordan Ibe to think seriously about. We’d love Cengiz Under, Roma’s Turkish winger, who is almost certainly beyond our reach and yet an ambitious prospect, and I’m a fan of Riccardo Orsolini, at Bologna currently and who Joe McClaren believes should be signed at any price. That could be as low a sum as £15 million. By this point, we have almost certainly outgrown QPR’s Bright Osayi-Samuel and Niclas Eliasson of Norwich, a pair of targets from last season.

The overall prognosis is that the talent is out there. Signing someone to pose a challenge to Hlozek is a challenge for us once the campaign is over.

For now though, the Czech winger remains an essential pick as we face Wolverhampton Wanderers in the quarter-final of the FA Cup. The relegated Midlanders are first in the Championship and the matter of being promoted looks a like small matter of mathematical confirmation. They have no right playing at that level. Their squad is arguably better than ours and they have one of the most seasoned managers in world football in Marcelo Bielsa. Conor Coady might have been lost, but they’ve signed Inter’s Danilo D’Ambrosio and agreed loan deals for Xherdan Shaqiri and Idrissa Gueye to underpin their effort to put this year behind them quickly. It’s obvious we need to be at our best. The previous rounds, in which we could largely rest our stars, have given way to a very good side that we must take very seriously. At least this is the last fixture before we enter the fortnight’s break for international football.

As expected, Wolves have none of the fear and sense of respect that comes with playing a high falutin’ Premier League opponent. They go at us from the start, but we are used now to taking on sides with their quality and we take the lead in the 17th minute. We’re bumming around outside their box. Everyone is trying to put Esposito through with a killer pass, yet Boly and Moutinho crowd him out and clear the ball, only in the path of the advancing Alfonso Pedaza who unleashes a rifle of a right-footed shot. It will take something special to beat Patricio and this is of such a nature. Several minutes pass and we score a second. Bogle puts in a cross that Sebastiano Esposito rises above D’Ambrosio to head past the keeper.

All too easy, and the story switches narrative after the break when the visitors attempt to get back on terms. We grow steadily more cautious, the prize of making the semi-final in sight, when Pedro Porro picks out Diogo Jota, who shrugs off Bogle to hit the back of Montipo’s net. The Portuguese winger is someone any manager would relish having in their side. He’s the brightest talent on the pitch, however this is his one significant contribution to the action. As time bleeds away and Wolves attempt to terrify us by introducing Adama as in impact substitute, we deal with all their forays and earn a well-deserved 2-1 victory.

The only possible future opposition in this competition now are high-placed Premier League outfits. We could be matched with Chelsea or Manchester United. These obstacles are bypassed and we instead get drawn against Liverpool, in a tie that will be played in mid-April at Wembley Stadium. It’s hard to see us progressing further when Jurgen’s mighty league leaders stand in our way, and yet you never really know, do you? With a domestic title to win and continued participation in the Champions League, in which they face Manchester City in the quarter-final, they have fixture overload and perhaps this will be the competition they see as expendable.