Perfect Day(s) – Football Manager 2016 Part 7

Goals Everywhere

New England Saints hit a new apex this season. Eight players scoring more than 15 goals across all competitions. Four of those breaking 20. One surpassing 30.

During pre season not one player was signed. A big squad did not additions. It needed subtractions.

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Time up for Kortney Hause, Nathanial Chalobah and Cauley Woodrow. They had not convinced me that they would make it into the first team. Woodrow moving to Koln was interesting and he would have a good season.

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Chalobah and Hause got moves to big clubs. For one it would be a great success for the other his Saints career would just be repeated in a different setting.


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A very solid campaign with Arsenal.


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Hause actually played less for United than he did for Saints.

The sale of these young players was a signal of intent. After three seasons the players from the England summer of 2017 had their opportunities. Decisions were being made.

There is one exception on the list of sales. Dusan Tadic. The form of Onomah and the promotion of Maitland-Niles into the first team squad made Tadic the odd man out. Club captain or not, no one stands in the way of progress.

This transfer preamble may not appear to have any relation to the goals that Saints scored. It relates to the key element of this whole story. Opportunity.

Jack Grealish

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In the previous season Grealish made more appearances. That campaign he played 59 times with 41 starts. This season he started more games but more importantly he was the first choice wide on the left. He was not shuffled from side to side he had a position and it yielded 24 goals and 20 assists.

Natahan Redmond

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Redmond’s season was one that started really brightly but faded away. He suffered an injury around January which knocked him off the rails. From that point on Redmond only managed 4 more appearances. Despite this he made more appearances, started more games and scored more goals than the previous campaign.

Jay Rodriguez

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Since the first season no one’s role has changed as much as Jay Rodriguez. In the first season he was the redemption song. The player who forced his way in and became the star forward. The following season my hopes were pinned to him but he was marred by a terrible goal drought. Since then he has moved to the ultimate back up player. His ability to play right side, left side, attacking midfield and striker makes him invaluable as a rotation player and as substitute. This season he managed 58 games which he backed up with 23 goals, including one golden streak.

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Demarai Gray

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Gray’s average rating tells us a real story. Almost 8 in all competitions and slightly over 8 in the Premier League. Fewer starts this season than last but that was down to the performance levels of another right sided player.

Back To His Best – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Injuries are a major part of the whole story. Providing opportunities for some and way laying others. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a season hit by those injuries last time out. This time, apart form a few short lay offs he was free. Free to fly.

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2nd For Ox

Though his mantle of “most likely to score in a big game” has been passed on his consistency and quality remained high throughout. The 21 assists for this season broke his own club record of 20.

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The club leaned on him hugely in that first season, so his goal and assist numbers were inflated. Now he is another player in a very successful side, a big fish swimming with equally big fishes.

Kane vs Solanke

Two summers ago £50 million pounds was spent on Harry Kane. My expectation was that Kane would shoulder the goalscoring responsibilities, notching 20+ league goals each season and 30-40 overall.

Season 1

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Season 2

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He has been a disappointment. In the first campaign Kane did everything I expected of him in the league, he just had major issues in the Champions League. In the second season he suffered two long lay offs, but when his first injury struck he had played 16 league games scoring 4 goals. The struggle was there. It was only a late flurry of strikes that prevented Kane from being outscored by Jay Rodriguez as well as Jack Grealish.

Kane’s injuries and lack of form created an opportunity for another player to step forward.

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Solanke’s record ended up at exactly 1 in 2 games. For a time it was considerably better than that. He didn’t just score in “easy” games, grabbing important strikes against Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea and a cup final goal against Manchester City.

There is nothing more exciting than seeing a young player come through. Apart from a young player who is having a prolific season AND his attributes are improving. That is the perfect blend. At 21 he expected to improve further still.

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Once Kane recovered from injury it was difficult for him to get back into the side. However another injury meant that a Kane and Solanke partnership would form, but this did not seem to gel, there was not a game where they started together and both scored.

Then came the transfer rumour.

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Kane’s struggles and Solanke’s rise are such that if PSG are in the region of £60 million and more I would seriously consider selling.

Finding suitable replacements is not so straight forward. There is one obvious choice. The best striker in the world.

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Or there is the exciting Brazilian talent of Gabigol.

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Both would undoubtedly do superbly for the team. The issue is not them. The issue is without any question me.

Taking aside general game play and the basic tenet of signing the best player for the team, I have used Dybala and Barbosa many, many times. I would prefer something fresh, someone different.

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In FM 16 Mbappe is a very young winger at Monaco, not the PSG superstar we are familiar with today. He has been a squad player in some of the super teams that I have pieced together previously but not as a striker. Embolo has not featured in any of my teams before. These signing have appeal.

Then again, perhaps selling is not the right option.

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Harry Kane remains a fantastic player. For some reason he is not delivering. I will struggle to find anyone who is better.

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Dream Team

The Winner Is Vietto

Hidden behind the Kane and Solanke game within a game is the outstanding form of another striker. Signed for £20 million from Bayern Munich a month after the arrival of Harry Kane he has struck 75 times in all competitions. Vietto netted 37 times in his first season and 38 times in the second.

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His 22 league goals scooped the top scorer award.


Vietto also has replaced Ox as the cup final talisman. He has netted ten cup final goals in two seasons. Five last season (including a quartet in the final when he and Martial had a battle of the goal scorers) and five this. Three of them in the FA Cup final.

While Solanke and Kane duke it out, this team would not be as successful without Vietto, the player I broke my English rules to sign.

An Unmissable Bargain 

The rules would be broken once more in the January transfer window. It was noticeable that a top class player was on the transfer list at below his market value. Listed at £20 million and at the time valued at £24 million. I did not need the player, but the lure was too great for this particular Dane. In came Christian Eriksen.

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Joshua Onomah was having a very fine season. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was backing him up well. However, Eriksen is a player of huge quality. As good as I believe Onomah to be, Christian is much better in terms of technical attributes for the attacking midfield position.

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The opportunity to buy him and then sell him on for a huge profit was much too strong. He also made a significant impact in the playing side of things. At the end of the season Eriksen is valued at £37 million. Not that money is an issue at Saints, the transfer budget is over £200 million.

Eriksen was available for Europe but not the domestic cups. The first final he would miss would be the League Cup and that most familiar of foes.

The Curse Is Lifted

The nemesis slain. At my feet are the remains Manchester City and in my hands the glorious League Cup.

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Of all the trophies to be thwarted by. Manchester City were my impenetrable barrier. Two defeats in the final followed by being Agueroed in the semi final second leg. This time they would not prevent us. Although their neighbours seemed like they might do.

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Resilience. Or in FM terms, determination.

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A demolition in the second leg, with the men most likely to produce going out and producing.

In the final City scored a couple of goals to make the game appear close.

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This was a win for the young English players. Onomah returning for the final and Solanke continuing his hottest of streaks.

Finally the big one was in the cabinet.

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Perfectly Invincible

The trophies for winning trophies were all collected with ease during this season. An easy cruise.

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The real business is in the FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League.

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Three draws. Thirty five wins. A record points tally (but not quite a record goal tally). Convincing wins in what might be considered difficult away games in other seasons. This campaign there were no problems. Only a surprising draw at Leicester after the title had been wrapped up put an end to that particular run. Thrashings, professional victories, comeback wins, the season had the lot.

Given the mention of large amount of goals being scored it is unsurprising that so many Saints feature in the top scorers table.

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Two of the three draws came in the first three games. The team put together a run of twenty nine successive wins. It is not just about being unbeaten, you have to have the wins too. As Monaco demonstrated.

Meanwhile In France

Almost perfect.

FA Cup

FA Cup 18:19

Vietto worked his finals magic again, after four in the final the previous season he scored three this time. It was a tough game with QPR really taking us close.

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Champions League

Champions Leage 18:19

After another simple path through the group stage the knock out phase delivered big names but little challenge. Real Madrid at the Bernabeu was as competitive as one might expect. Yet come the second leg Harry Kane burst into life.

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Manchester City in another final. Our first Champions League win came against City. This time we complete the hat trick. It being a final, Vietto applies the finishes.

There was one thing missing from this season.

A defeat.

The New England Saints did not lose a single game across a plethora of competitions.

Perfectly Invincible.





Which Stats Matter? – Football Manager 2016 – Part 6


It is FM perfection. Those 20 out of 20 ratings are golden. There are very few players who are loaded with these perfect attributes but the closer you can get to these markers the better.

When I am looking for a striker I will always start with 15 finishing, 15 composure and 15 pace. I will often add 15 heading, but I immediately know I am ruling out some very good forwards. Anticipation, decisions and off the ball are all important but the more attributes I put in, the less likely I am to actually get anyone. Sometimes filtering down to a half dozen players is less useful, it gives you no where to go.

Even though I am entering 15 for finishing this is probably too low for the top level. The filters will be adjusted up for finishing, certainly down for pace (but not too far down). Composure I will drop by one or two. I am not going to get 20 finishers, not unless I am a Champions League winner, have mega money or something unusual has happened at other clubs. Finishing is probably the most extreme of the attributes to chase the 20 as there are so few. Dribbling, flair, passing and others are all desirable for midfielders or attacking players. Twenty work rate and stamina would be great for full backs and midfielders. Then we have the defensive set of marking, positioning, tackling and heading. A little bit of anticipation would not go amiss.

With perfect players how can I lose?

When I have young players I look at their attributes in the same way. As they develop I hope and expect their numbers to get as close to that magic twenty as possible. If they aren’t heading in that direction quickly enough it could be curtains for those players.

This is how I have played the game for years. Yet I might be completely wrong.

I have become somewhat frustrated with my New England Saints project. The player development feels extraordinary slow. Players are inching forward in increments. This is despite selling off a number of older players and creating more positions for the young players, giving them more minutes and opportunities. My frustration is nothing to do with their performances. It is just their attributes.

So does it matter?

Results and awards suggest not.

Shield and Super Cup

These two games had little of note. In the Shield Arsenal were beaten on penalties following a 0-0 draw. In the Super Cup a much better performance put a 3-0 win on the board against Marseille.

Club World Championship

This competition proved slightly trickier than usual. Gremio are tough opponents with good players.

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Marcelo Grohe kept Saints down to one goal until the 89th minute when Vietto would grab the winner. Another first achieved for the club.

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The League Cup

Apart from in this competition. My nemesis strikes once again.

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This time City didn’t even wait for the final to take us out.

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In the first leg our finishing was simply not up to standard.

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In the second leg I was Agueroed. Agueroed like never before. Two of the goals were of utterly ridiculous quality, skinning a couple of defenders and smashing the ball right into the far top corner the other a perfect volley from a cross on the left.

The league cup will have to wait another year (I can now cut and paste this sentence ready for next season).

The FA Cup

Thankfully the FA Cup remains a dear and trusted friend. Though this year the matches took on a far more epic quality. The 5th round tie against Arsenal was fairly straight forward, their goal coming late on. From the quarter finals onwards, the games were rather remarkable.

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Against Liverpool the scoreline makes it look more interesting that it really was. Lallana equalising quickly sparked life into my team who struck twice with rapidity soon after. In the second half another quick double made it 5-1 before an 89th minute strike tightened the game up a little.

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In the midst of semi-final season I was relieved to be facing struggling Fulham. So I took the opportunity to rotate the squad. Hubris almost struck. Fulham went in ahead at half time. The second half pounding is evident in the overall game statistics, but Fulham just would not go away. Ultimately the result was secured and the rotation worked. Just.

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I am sure the nature of the FA Cup final itself caught the eye. Eight goals and extra time. Must have been a classic right? Classic is not even half way there.

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The statistical weight of the game shifted towards the Saints in extra time (though Martial did hit the woodwork), during normal time the game was far closer. The pace of Martial causing all sorts of problems as we attacked. If Fulham were hard to shake off Manchester United and Martial were glued to us. It felt poetic that following Martial’s goalscoring feats it would take Vietto one upping him to win the game.

The Champions League

The group stage was not quite as generous as last season but it could have been much worse. It was one of those strange years when the big names were sitting in pot two, lurking to frighten me. Thankfully it was Dortmund rather Real Madrid who came out of the fish bowl.

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Two areas of significance. The form of Vietto (who from the FA Cup and the Champions League group results you have probably worked out that he had rather good season) and that the rotated team generally performed better than the first choice team in this competition. We had guaranteed qualification following the back to back games with Celtic. The draw with Lyon secured top spot. Destroying Dortmund away with a rotated team was a massive bonus.

Drawing Zenit in the first knock out stage was another opportunity to rotate.

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Moving on. Nothing to see here.

Then it was nemesis time again.

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Another decent enough performance. Thankfully Aguero was injured. City well placed but home advantage was ours. The danger being that lack of an away goal.

The first significant action of the second leg was a City away goal. After 22 minutes of the quarter final City led by two goals with an away goal.

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I call City nemesis but we did beat them to win that first Champions League. Ox had injuries this season but he still showed that knack for scoring important goals.

On to Barcelona in the semi-finals.

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A statistically dominant performance against an attribute rich Barcelona.

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You would not take any of my players ahead of those Barcelona players. Perhaps Danilo in the holding position instead of Busquets and Vermaelen at left back are not ideal. Yet we were able to dominate, though the goals were not as forthcoming as they might have been.

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A little bit of backs to the wall at the end but Barcelona were safely negotiated.

To the San Siro and the final. Another European giant awaits. Juventus.

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A really tough encounter that went to penalties. Vietto’s brilliant season continued with another cup final goal in quick response to Dybala. Ox netted another important goal. Both teams continued to attack but Butland and Patricio kept the attackers out.

Shoot out time.

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Jay Rodriguez blinked first.

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Marchisio blinked immediately after. If he had scored it was over. Sudden death befell Bonucci as his penalty was straight at Butland.

Back to back Champions League wins for New England Saints.

Premier League

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Fifteen points clear of Aston Villa. I don’t know how they did it either. Looking at the table someone just drop two random teams on top of the traditional top six. Liverpool and Chelsea could not manage to win half of their league games. Even with Guardiola and Bielsa in charge. Pep would be sacked. Bielsa managed to hang on, even though Klopp was sacked with better results.

Two of my losses came after the league had been wrapped up and the end of season finals had become the focus (one loss against City #Nemesis). Though an early season defeat has to be shared because it was one of the most extraordinary games you can imagine in a season of extraordinary games.

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Four nil up. Five four down. The quality of the Arsenal goals was beyond belief. Santi Cazorla smashed a shot from over 30 yards that flew into the top corner. I had never seen a strike like it on FM. Then Berahino’s strike kissed in off the post. Then Mahrez did the same. It was as if the game had just decided that we were not winning this. No changes slowed them down. After 69 minutes the storm settled. Two minutes into stoppage time, just as I am thankful that I didn’t lose a game where we had a 4-0 lead, they struck. An unbelievable and truly memorable match.

The team is superbly successful. This would not be possible without the players performing to a consistently high standard. I have stripped the squad right back. There are only two non English players in the first team, Tadic and Vietto. Is the squad still too big, possibly, but the opportunities are there for the young players.

(Screen shot one is two seasons ago, screen shot two is the end of the current season)

Jack Butland

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Butland 3

In two years the improvements are tiny. He is far from being the best goalkeeper in the world. He isn’t England’s best goalkeeper. In terms of attributes, but his raw statistics in performance terms are incredibly strong.

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His average rating overall is 7.3. In 26 league games he kept 16 clean sheets. Twenty four clean sheets overall. So what do the attributes really matter?

This will be repeated over and over. Purely with the design of convincing myself that attribute chasing is not the key.

Jordan Pickford

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The story is the same for Pickford. He doesn’t get anything like as many games as Butland but I make sure he gets a good number. With Pickford the aim is to keep him happy enough that he stays. I will not find a better number 2.


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Walker-Peters has reached the status of being a regular in the squad. He performs quite well and has made similar moves forward. One point a season.

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Those numbers are very strong even for system that favours wide players.

Joe Gomez

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Joe Gomez has developed into a top level defender. If he doesn’t improve a single attribute further he will still be phenomenal player.

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Calum Chambers

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Chambers is another player of high quality. In Chambers and Gomez I have two players whose attributes are at that top level of quality.

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Eric Dier 

Dier is not strictly part of the experiment, he was signed aside from all of the other players. His performance have also been to a superbly high standard, just as would be expected from a successful side.

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Ryan Bertrand

Bertrand is a Southampton original. He was not a player I was looking to develop but I have retained him. I am not sure if he is just in the way or an important player.

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Kortney Hause

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Hause has suffered with lack of game time. The lack of game time has come because I don’t trust his attributes. His performances have been ok, but I feel the team is weaker with Hause in it.

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His average rating disagrees with everything I just said. Almost 7.8 is superb, but that has to weighed against the fact that he rarely got a start against strong teams.

Ben Chilwell

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Ben Chilwell has spent a lot of time out on loan. I felt it was time to start playing him. Though he might have played more, when he did play he played very well. Chilwell has a future. Possibly even a present.

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Harry Maguire

Maguire has fallen behind the other players in the pecking order. He remains a good player but the development of the other central defenders has pushed him into a firm 3rd place.

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Nathaniel Chalobah

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Chalobah spent the season on loan at Aston Villa. He is 23 and has already played for 10 clubs. He has had game time but zero stability. I am not sure that I will be the one to offer it to him.

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Matthew Targett

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Targett’s attributes have not pushed forth in a particularly eye catching way. Left back has developed into a huge problem. I have three of them and I am not really sure who is my best one. Targett only played 15 games because of injuries this season.

Lewis Cook

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Expectations are sky high for Lewis Cook. He spent the previous season on loan at West Ham, this time he had a real battle with Ward-Prowse for the first choice central midfield position. Ward-Prowse still holds the edge for me but I am waiting for the time to come when I can’t ignore Cook.

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One goal and zero assists in 48 appearances is not yet telling me he has to be my first choice. The numbers on tackles and passes are pretty strong though.

Will Hughes

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Hughes had 22 appearances and did little of note. With Will Hughes I really want him to be good but other players are ahead of him. Hughes is another long term problem.

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Nathan Redmond

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Spot the difference? Redmond is not quite the stats vs attributes phenomena I describe as his attributes are average to decent and his stats are in the same realm.

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Five goals and thirteen assists in quite a lot of games. His average rating of 7.5 is really solid but the output isn’t quite there.

Jack Grealish

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Grealish 3

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In Jack Grealish we can see my issue. His development has been steady with the most significant growth in physical areas. He is a good but not great player according to his attributes. The productivity of 18 goals and 11 assists is very good. Grealish benefited hugely from the sales of Mane and Shaqiri. In the previous season he started 12 games with 16 appearances from the bench. This time it was a huge 41 starts. It made little difference to his rate of growth.

Dusan Tadic

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Club captain but injured. This was not a good season for Tadic. Even when he was fit he struggled to regain his place.

Sheyi Ojo

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Ojo went out on loan again. This time at Burnley who granted him 39 starts. His average rating did little to catch the eye.

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Demarai Gray

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Gray was brilliant. His attributes are good but there are many players better. His season stats of 16 goals, 17 assists and 10 player of the match awards are hard to beat.

To compare.

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De Bruyne played exactly the same number of games as Gray. Scored 5 fewer goals. Created two more. Player of the match half as many times. De Bruyne’s average rating was 7.53. Demarai Gray averaged 7.78. Kevin De Bruyne’s attributes are stronger than Gray in some places significantly, but does it matter when Gray out performed him?

Jay Rodriguez

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The redemption song of Jay Rodriguez has changed it’s tune. His role changed significantly. No longer a first choice striker Rodriguez survived being sold because of his versatility. Sixty one appearances is testimony to that. A return of 12 league goals is more than useful and he scored some very important goals. Far from a star but an important part of the club.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

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Ox was not at his World Player Of The Year winning best. Injuries saw to that. As noted earlier he retained his knack for scoring important goals but his general output was down. Still only 24 he has had a career that would be the envy of many.

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Ainsley Maitland-Niles

Maitland Niles 2

Maitland-Niles 3

Maitland-Niles had 38 games at Reading on loan. His average rating of 7.14 is strong for a young player at a Premier League club who finished 17th. The potential of Maitland-Niles could contribute to the potential sale of Tadic.

James Ward-Prowse

My 23 year old vice captain (behind Tadic). He has now appeared more than 200 times for the Saints (and Southampton). His position as first choice is under threat from Lewis Cook but he continues to perform solidly. The central midfield position in my system is not a glorious one. Win it, pass it, keep things moving. Both he and Cook perform the role equally well. The big advantage that Ward-Prowse has is that he is the best set piece taker at the club.

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Joshua Onomah

Onomah 2

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Josh Onomah is a player where significant improvements have been made on his starting point. His attribute numbers are now high quality, but they are clearly not world class. Yet he performs as well in the position behind the strikers as any player I have ever had there. Coutinho and Isco have been very good all round performers in the role but Rafinha scored the most consistently from the 10 position. Onomah has shown glimpses of Rafinha’s effectiveness.

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Those numbers don’t look so great but six of those goals and half the assists came in the second half of the season when Onomah had nailed down his place. Tadic very much second choice.

Dominic Solanke

Solanke 3

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After spending time on loan I decided to give Solanke his chance in the first team. His performances were encouraging and his attributes are solid. Unlikely to be as good as Kane or Vietto but very likely to be better than Woodrow or Armstrong.

Luciano Vietto

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Vietto had a fantastic season. He was steady in the league but a bit of a specialist in the cups, with that ability to score in finals. Four in the FA Cup final will always help. I was unsure whether to sign him but I am very pleased I did. Vietto has all the attribute scores I look for in a forward. Dribbling, finishing, touch, composure, off the ball, anticipation, acceleration and pace. All are 15 or over. He doesn’t quite have the heading ability I would like but the rest more than make up for it.


Harry Kane

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I was so pleased to sign Harry Kane, yet it was hard to know what to make of his season. He scored 22 league goals but failed to score a single European goal. His ratio ended up as less than one in two. The average rating was 7.49. There isn’t a better English striker.

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The attributes are excellent but the goal output is a little too low. So which stats really matter?

Cauley Woodrow


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Cauley Woodrow spent the season at Norwich. They clearly didn’t rate him. Despite my best efforts to convince them to give him more minutes he just could not force his way in.

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Adam Armstrong

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Armstrong 3

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Armstrong also had a season on loan. He appeared 30 times in the Premier League for Fulham, scoring only twice.

What now?

The players are quite clearly developing their attributes very slowly. Some may have hit their limit for improvement already. In terms of their output for the season they are clearly capable enough, is that sufficient development? The game is clearly not all about 20s but is it about 14s, 15s and 16s? Am I unreasonable to be looking for more from them?

Then there is off the field.

The club are developing into a real power. The stadium has been expanded, up to 48,000 with plans in place for a further 6,000 seats to be added. There are no debts and I have brought in considerable income through prize money and sales.

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The transfer budget is over £200,000,000.

If the players are not really improving as I want how long should I remain faithful? I have shown these young players can form a group capable of winning major trophies consistently. They have won major awards as individuals. And yet. The funds are there to buy the very best attributes, forget about stats.

As always a season ends and the questions emerge.

Time to answer them.





Beautiful Bergkamp and Magical Messi

Pep Guardiola.

Close your eyes and imagine a Guardiola team. What did you see?

My expectation is that your mind’s eye generated the image of a ball being zipped around at high speed, with minimal touches most of the time but on occasion an individual producing moments of stunning dribbling.

Beautiful football.

As the commentator says within the first 20 seconds of the first video, spectacular simplicity.

One of Johan Cruyff’s many quotes is about playing simple football and how difficult it is to do so.

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There is a great difficulty in writing anything about modern football without referencing Cruyff. His Barcelona side, containing Pep Guardiola, was the first modern football team. Not the first beautiful team, but the incorporate so many of the key principles which are predominant in the upper regions of football today. Pressing, positioning and possession.

Legends of the game, Laudrup, Romario, Stoichkov, Koeman and more combining with beautiful passing football. Simple play at high speed and with precision to create and use space.

At the same time beautiful pictures were being painted in Cruyff’s spiritual home. At Ajax Luis van Gaal had his own wonder team.

While Cruyff and van Gaal were great foes their teams had a commonality. Both played good football. Both played beautiful football.

The human eye demands to be pleased. Although the cliche states that beauty lays in the eye of the beholder, it is fairly clear that there are common attributes that we find to be beautiful. A certain elegance, style, balance and poise that embodies beauty.

Dennis Bergkamp is beautiful.

The passing and assists of Bergkamp are all that is beautiful. His precision. His vision. His style. Elegance. Generosity. That generosity is a piece of the beauty puzzle.

When Liverpool’s four forwards combined with breathtaking beauty it was not just the speed that made people gasp, it was their generosity. Each wanting the other to score. Their gift of giving was far more significant than what each was taking.

Within the beauty was also magic. The little magician Philippe Coutinho. A player capable of doing the unexpected and inexplicable. Dennis Bergkamp also had magic in his game. His passes gloriously gorgeous, but his goals, particularly his most famous goals, were as magical as you could imagine. In fact their magic came from the fact that they were beyond your dreams, beyond your imagination. The ball dropping over the shoulder, cushioned with the right foot, flicked inside with the same right foot and then fired into the top corner with the little toe of that same foot. Brilliance.

For a player to score that goal against Argentina is amazing. To top it is unbelievable, but Bergkamp did. The goal he scored with Newcastle is the purest of magic. Extraordinary to even think of it, let alone pull it off. Orientating his body to have the defender behind him and then spin the ball with the inside of the foot and around the defender. At the same time Bergkamp spin his body the opposite way around the defender. Nikos Dabizas is left in a state of confusion. Which spinning object to go for? Dennis then has the beautiful balance to position his body to the left side of the ball, opening his hips out and gliding a right footed pass into the corner.

Only because I have seen that goal so many times do I know exactly what happened. Even now I have to watch the replay to comprehend it. Magic indeed.

Perhaps the most magical player on the planet is Lionel Messi. The statistics of Messi are difficult enough to comprehend before we even attempt to analyse his goals. A thousand words may not be enough. For just one goal. The man has 550 for club and country at the age of 30.

There is a complex simplicity to the moments of Messi. He is not a player of dozens of step overs and intricate dribbling moves. The magical question is “how does he do it so quickly?” Touches and turns performed with supernatural balance and speed. The “how” is a deeply complex question that digs deeply into the subjects of player development, agility, balance, coordination, ball manipulation, one vs one play, decision making, environment, awareness and games for understanding. Or a very simple question about a boy and his love for a ball.

Many players have consistently provided magic moments. Moments that have brought jaw dropping joy. Great names like Ronaldinho sprinkling their performances with magical touches, juggles and tricks. The magic isn’t only limited to those who have hit the very top. Jay Jay Okocha may not have played for the biggest clubs or won huge numbers of trophies but his magic won him many admirers.

Perhaps the ultimate in magic moments is a signature move. Something so wonderful that everyone wants to spend hours firstly to break the moment down and then hours rebuilding it in their own image.

The Maradona turn.

The Berbatov spin.

The Littbarski move.

The McGeady spin.

The Cruyff turn and many others.

The term magic tends be attached to singular moments of brilliance from individuals while beauty is applied to the larger picture of a group performing in a certain manner.

Though magic could extend to a particular group of players.

I chose the title Beautiful Bergkamp and Magical Messi purely for alliteration. Though they do offer fantastic examples of the magical and the beautiful.

The Hungarian team of the 1950s was known as the Magical Magyars manly for the purposes of alliteration. Much like Danish Dynamite. Brazil have had truly magical national teams. The 1982 World Cup side was probably the most magical, so much so that not winning the tournament has done little to tarnish their legacy.

Beauty and magic. There is a difference. A very fine and very subtle one. Beauty is always going to be aesthetically pleasing but will largely be explicable. Magic will also be easy on the eye, but far more difficult to explain and understand.

There is beauty in the build up to Serginho’s header against Argentina. The beguiling curve of the outside of the foot pass. The beauty of the pass that opens up the space to cross. There is beauty in the build up to Falcao’s low near post finish, an exchange of passes that a Klopp or Guardilola team would be proud of. Then we see the magic too. The magical touches, flicks and back heels. All of which wraps itself together in the final strike against the USSR, the magic of stepping over the ball, flicking it up and volleying from distance.

Magic and beauty wrapped together, intertwined yet distinguishable from the each other. Although what exactly is magical and what exactly is beautiful and why they differ can not truly be defined. What is for certain is the moments of magical and beauty have little to do with winning and losing. The beauty of 1970s Dutch football has not been lost because they failed to win a World Cup. Manchester City are no less beautiful because they lost 4-3 at Anfield. In many ways they are all the more beautiful because of it. The skills of players like Georgi Kninkladze and Juninho are no less magical because their teams were relegated. Other great magicians won few trophies. The magic of Matt Le Tissier remains despite his lack of international caps or major trophies. We still marvel at how he reached out behind him to draw the ball in and rapidly lifted it over the advancing defender against Newcastle. Or how he scooped up the free kick rolled to him before dipping the volley over the wall.

Magic and beauty create indelible memories. They transcend jewellery and pots. Inspiring awe and imitation. These moments can be the hook that beguiles the young fan who goes on to become a superstar, perhaps even creating their very own signature move.


Through The Big Window – Football Manager 2016 Part 5

The whole point of this New England Saints project is to develop young English players with a bias towards those who featured during the 2017 summer. In two seasons the Saints have delivered two Premier League titles, two FA cup wins, one Europa League and the Champions League (plus the other super cup and shield ephemera). They have delivered a World Player of the Year in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Yet the progress of the young players has been slow, with small attribute increases rather than large jumps forward.

The squad is brilliant, but too big. Too few chances for the young players.

Time for action.

The great thing about being successful is that plenty of clubs are interested in the players. The bidding begins.

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The monsters of Europe came in.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are the beasts under the bed. The monsters in the closet. Just as your club is sailing along, with a bright new star leading the way the behemoths emerge to upset your equilibrium. Philippe Coutinho is playing the best football of his life? Don’t get used to it, here come Barcelona. Mo Salah is having a magnificent scoring season. Zidane is heaping praise upon him. Salah the Galactico. Dybala could be the next global star? Sounds right for Barcelona. Xherdan Shaqiri has just scored the winning goal in the Champions League final. Here come Real Madrid.

Shaqiri cost me £15million from relegated Stoke City. He was signed partially because he was terrific player at a cut price and partially because there were clubs interested in Tadic and Mane. Shaqiri could play in both their positions. He was signed quickly but the interested dissipated. Shaqiri had a wonderful season, scoring that historic goal, but actually he was holding back Redmond, Gray and Grealish. Real Madrid offered £40million plus add ons. The monster was welcome.

Naby Keita has performed well for me, but could never quite dislodge James Ward-Prowse. Nor did I really want him to, after all this is about young English players. Not only that, but Lewis Cook had a brilliant season on loan at West Ham. He deserved to be in contention for the midfield. The FM 2016 Naby Keita is not the one man midfield of RB Liepzig, I signed him from RB Salzburg for just over £6million. AC Milan offered £17million plus add ons. Another space cleared.

Meanwhile I was discontent with my strikers. Though the team had achieved much the Jay Rodriguez romance couldn’t continue, not after a 20 hour goal drought. Rodriguez is a wide player or attacking midfielder anyway. Over at Spurs Harry Kane was not pleased with finishing outside the top four. I pursued him all summer. Declaring an interest every other week, making offer after offer. Finally he handed in a transfer request. My offer of £50million prised him away. I had a the best English striker for my English project.

Then came a huge stroke of luck, Spurs decided that Charlie Austin and Sadio Mane were the perfect replacements for Harry Kane. A combined £70million was offered and accepted. The sale of Mane created even more opportunity for the young wingers. Mane had also played a lot of games as a striker, so by selling him and Austin opportunity could knock for Solanke, Armstrong or Woodrow. Mane, like Keita, is not the player we see in 2017/18. In 15/16 he is a raw speed machine who can also strike the ball with both feet. In 2016 he is good player and little more. The potential of the English youngsters far outweighs his.

Offers then came in for some of the other young players. Baker, Dowell and Mount. The offers were not particularly good, but were these players going to ever make it into my first team? No, they were not. After a little negotiation and future fees all three were sold.

Space had been cleared. Pathways into the first team activated.

And yet…

There was £150million in the bank.

John Stones and Ross Barkley were unhappy. They would fit into the project remit.

I just made the space in their positions. It would undo the transfer window work.

If I could take a player in any position it would be striker. Kane is the best English forward around. The rest are average, Berahino probably the next best around. Tadic was the only non English player left in the first team. Perhaps this was a place I could break the rules? Armstrong, Solanke and Woodrow could be loaned out, it couldn’t hurt?

The best two players available were Mauro Icardi and Luciano Vietto.

Inter wanted £110million for Icardi. Vietto was at Bayern Munich. Who wanted between £15million and £25million. Vietto signed for New England Saints for £20million.

Woodrow and Armstrong left on loan. In a system with two strikers the choices were now Vietto, Kane, Solanke and Rodriguez. Rodriguez was also an option wide where my other players were Ox, Redmond, Grealish and Gray. Josh Onomah, Tadic and Will Hughes were choices behind the striker. The squad remained big but at least it was now 2 players per position, rather than three. Could more be sold? Possibly, but who? Might it be time to move on Jay Rodriguez and throw romance out the window?


Much Too Much – Football Manager 2016 Part 4


The second season at New England Saints has been completed. On the pitch it was a second season of unexpected success. Off it, there was an ongoing takeover bid that ultimately fell apart. In a “normal” save being unable to sign players might be a problem. In this game, it was a blessing.

The squad is still too big.

I don’t help myself either. At the beginning of the season I sold Virgil van Dijk for £24million, plus many millions of add ons, replacing him with Eric Dier (. I then sold Dominic Iorfa to Bayern Munich in January for £8.5 million. Iorfa had played 9 games at that stage, he may have gone on to play over 20 but he wanted to go and I didn’t see him becoming a first choice. One of the England youth successes of the 2017 summer was gone.

He was not the first. Alfie Mawson left in the summer window, going to Wigan for less than a million. On FM 2016 Alfie clearly had limited potential. A third, Jacob Maddox, left for Watford for £250k plus add ons. Three players from that huge raft of 2017 players have moved on. A number had to go out on loan, as was always going to the case. The list is long.

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In the next season that list will have to be long again. Especially as I was unable to resist adding Reece Oxford and Trent Alexander-Arnold to the squad.

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Poor Reece. Just days after arriving, the game decided to destroy him.

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How will Oxford recover? Will he recover? Another layer added into the story.

Last season featured the resurrection of Jay Rodriguez. He understands the predicament of Reece Oxford better than anyone. In the previous season he had a brilliant campaign, scoring 34 goals in all competitions. This season was good but also managed to be a huge disappointment.

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The numbers look solid but what they don’t show you is the huge 20 hour goal drought he suffered at the back end of the season. Of those 19 league goals, 17 were scored before Christmas, 10 before the end of September. Rodriguez started brilliantly, but my attachment to the romantic notion of his glorious come back could have cost the team. In the end it cost us nothing as the season delivered more silver.

Community Shield and European Super Cup

The two games could not have been more different.

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The Community Shield offered a cruise to 2-0 victory. The most notable thing was how dominant we were against such strong opposition.

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If the opponents for the Community Shield were strong, the European Super Cup opposition was herculean. Yet managerless (I had been linked with the role, no interview was forthcoming, but I would have said no anyway). Barcelona.

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An epic clash in which the heat was really turned up during extra time. Barely a shot was fired by Barcelona in the extra 30 minutes. Mane added the fifth at 118. A major marker or a nice pot?

The League Cup

Another relatively easy run through the rounds, only Tottenham representing a real challenge. I rested players in the second leg and was very comfortable with the 2-1 loss.

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The final would be a rematch of the previous season. An opportunity to put right the defeat by Manchester City (now managed by Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola sacked after just a few months with City sitting in 16th).

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Not this time. Also a rare occasion where an opposing team undoubtedly deserved the victory (and actually got it).

There is always next season.

The FA Cup 

The FA Cup was a strange mix of demolitions and tough battles. In the replay with Chelsea we snatched the game from them late on to take it into extra time. From there it was a non contest. The semi final with Liverpool was back and forth in extra time but the only goal came from Naby Keita, with his first for the club. Football Manager really knows how to do irony, Mourinho in charge at City and Keita knocking Liverpool out of the cup.

Mourinho’s real life team awaited in the final. Managed by Paco Jemez, whose work at Rayo Vallecano somehow was enough to impress the Old Trafford decision makers.

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Comprehensive. The Ox finishing things off. Back to back FA Cup wins for the Saints and major trophy number one bagged.

The Premier League

Both Manchester clubs having surprising managers might be an indication as to how the season played out. If I add that Guardiola is actually in charge at Chelsea, Benitez at Arsenal and Bielsa at Liverpool, an even clearer picture starts to form.

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That is a 25 point margin.

The defence was improved on the previous season, conceding 8 fewer, while the attack scored 2 fewer, despite at one stage looking a certainty to smash past the 100 goal mark. Jay Rodriguez goal drought really caused issues there.

The two losses are worth noting. Both away from home. The first 2-0 at Swansea (who had been crushed 7-0 at home) and 2-1 at QPR (who took 4 points from us in the league, drawing 0-0).

Champions League

While the FM gods may have decided they hate me in the League Cup they must love me in the Champions League. A club in it’s first ever CL season could not wish for a more friendly group.

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The loss came in game 5. Having qualified with 4 wins out of 4 a reserve team was sent to Basel. Basel cashed in. The young players had plenty of opportunity to get minutes in this group phase. Woodrow, Gray and Onomah making the most of their chances and somewhat changing my views of them in the process.

In the first knock out round the kindness continued with PSV, who we faced on route to the Europa League victory last season.

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Then the love ran out.

Paris St Germain.

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An incredible performance. A shattering defeat. Quarter finals at the first attempt is a good showing. Provided the performance in Paris is good we can look back on a good campaign.

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More than good. I expected to go out. Then when Moura scores it is over. Somehow it isn’t. A New England Saints barrage in the second half knocked the financial might of PSG out. A run to the semi finals at the first go.

Where we would face Real Madrid. It could have been Ajax, but the fates chose Real.

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The fates then chose to give a Dani Carvajal a red card. From then on it was the Keylor Navas show as he kept the score down.

A lead to take to the Bernabeu. I know that going to Madrid and defending is just asking them to win. We fight fire with fire.

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The fates clearly have a dislike for Real. Carvajal in the first game, Sergio Ramos in the second. Two red cards helping send New England Saints to the final.

And our League Cup nemesis. The Special One. Manchester City.

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He cost £12million pounds from relegated Stoke City in the summer. In the 89th minute he volleys in a long diagonal cross from Demarai Gray to win the Champions League. A team of mostly young, mostly English players had now conquered Europe.

Thank you Xherdan Shaqiri. Even if Joe Hart should have saved it.

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(subs Redmond, Gray and Woodrow for Tadic, Mane and Austin)

Champions of Europe.

A brilliant season by any measure.

Except when the true measure is not the trophies. It is so difficult to remember that. You would think that with a youth coaching background it would be easier for me. I can do it in real life, but on the game, there is still no way that I will put the younger kids in for a run of games against the big names.

The main goal is to improve the players. Screen shot 1 is their stats at the start of the season. Screen shot 2 is the end of the season.

Jack Butland

Jack Butland has firmly established himself as the number 1 at Saints. A year passes and he is essentially the same goalkeeper. The only real statistical changes have been for the worse in his vision, pace and command of area. Although his balance is up slightly.

Butland 1

Butland 2

Butland is also locked into a tussle with Joe Hart to be England no.1. At the moment Hart is ahead with Butland picking up caps here and there.

Jordan Pickford

Pickford only played 17 times, however he showed more improvements than Butland. No statistic jumped significantly but he grew by 1 point in several areas.

Pickford 1

Pickford 2

Kyle Walker-Peters

Walker-Peters started the season on loan, making 18 Championship appearances for Wigan. Then I sold Iorfa and a slot opened up. He was immediately recalled. His improvement has not been huge but he is up by one in most areas, though determination jumped forward at a greater rate. Importantly his potential remains very good.

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Joe Gomez

Gomez was brilliant last season and that continued this time out. He has not nailed down any one of the defensive positions as his own but is my first choice to replace any of the other players. He added a further 3 England caps and appeared regularly in squads.

Gomez 1

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Calum Chambers

Chambers had very little room for improvement and his statistical changes reflect that. Up here one, down there one. A first choice in defence for the Saints and another who added 3 England caps.

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Chambers 2

Chambers also won the European Golden Award. Another indication of how far he and the club had progressed.

Kortney Hause

Last season Hause played 26 times, this season he appeared 22 times. The over twenty target was hit. Another player who has made marginal gains in ability. However, the club staff don’t seem to think he has much more to give. Could he follow Iorfa out of the club?

Hause 1Hause 2

Ben Chilwell

Chilwell went out on loan for the full season at Reading, playing 33 times. He showed minor improvements in his ability but most importantly a small improvement in his potential.

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Nathaniel Chalobah

Chalobah went on loan to Celtic for the season, playing 34 times. Statistically he made small improvements and according to my staff he is at the peak of his potential. If this is the case and there are no improvements remaining Chalobah could be a player who moves on.

Chalobah 1

Chalobah 2

Matthew Targett

There is a pattern amongst the players thus far. All gains have been solid but unspectacular. Targett has also gained 1 point in most areas. He has gained spectacularly in his value, increasing from £9.75million to £26.5million. In the previous season Targett had been injured for much of it. This time Ryan Bertrand picked up injuries and Targett played more games, 32 in total.

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Lewis Cook

Cook was on loan at West Ham, playing 36 times. Cook remains a player with huge potential. If Chalobah is a player likely to be sold, Cook is almost a banker to be retained. He made the same 1 point improvements as the other players, improving by a half a star in ability. He has many more stars to improve, possibly by 1.5. If each half a star is 1 ability point then we might well see his attributes increase by 3. That would be a phenomenal player.

Cook 1

Cook 2

Lewis Baker

Baker played 50 games on loan at Sheffield Wednesday. They didn’t seem to help him, with his potential ability stalled at 2 stars. There was very little change in his stats. Baker could also be leaving soon.

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Baker 2

Will Hughes

Not surprisingly for a player recovering from a bad injury Hughes made improvements in physical areas. He made very few improvements else where although he did play 21 games.

Hughes 1

Hughes 2

Nathan Redmond

A regular for England, adding 6 caps over the season but still not a regular for Saints, 49 games is a great total but 29 were as a substitute. Fourteen goals and eleven assists show a good contribution. The attributes made 1 point gains in a large number of areas, but this might be it now for Redmond. A very good player, whose role will remain the same, an important but not key player for Saints.

Redmond 1

Redmond 2

Sheyi Ojo

West Brom were relegated into the Championship last season. They were very keen to take Ojo on loan and he played 26 times for them over the course of the season. He is virtually the same player as at the start of the campaign.

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Ojo 2

Demarai Gray

A huge improvement in the determination of Demarai Gray. Otherwise he continued the pattern of improving by 1 point across multiple areas. My staff don’t seem to think he will improve any further. This season Gray played 37 times scoring 5 goals with 11 assists, including the assist for Shaqiri’s Champions League winner.

Gray 1

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Josh Onomah

Onomah pushed himself into my first team plans. He was set to go on loan but his attributes were not all that far from those of Dusan Tadic, my first choice attacking midfielder. Onomah appeared 21 times during the season, improving by a full star in current ability. Tadic may find his position under threat.


Onomah 2

Jack Grealish

Grealish made 28 appearances, fewer than last season. The reason for that was Demarai Gray and his improved form. Gray, Grealish and Redmond continue to be a conundrum. They remain incredibly similar in statistics and attributes. How to choose between them? I am yet to work that out.

Grealish 1

Grealish 2

Cauley Woodrow

In the previous chapter I suggested that Woodrow would not be any more than cover. This season he produced some fine performances and popped up with important goals. Woodrow improved in the most important areas for a striker, finishing and composure. In other areas he dropped, but his job is to score, not take throw ins.

Woodrow 1

woodrow 2

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Adam Armstrong

Armstrong was loaned out to Sunderland and played 20 Premier League games. He only scored 3 times, though this could be more to do with Sunderland than Adam Armstrong. Armstrong hardly improved at all and lost a great deal of his potential. Not a good loan move at all.

Armstrong 1

Armstrong 2

These are the young players form the 2017 crop who are included within my first team squad, however there are a number of significant players in the U21s and U18s who are worth noting. These players all spent the season on loan.

Jay DaSilva

DaSilva bounced between three Championship clubs, playing 13 games. He made a few improvements in his attributes and has high levels of potential. The club have a lot of left backs and a lot of wide players, so DaSilva will go out on loan. He is still only 19, so could be an important player in 2 or 3 seasons.

DaSilva 1

DaSilva 2

Ademola Lookman

Lookman played 36 Premier League games for QPR, scoring 5 and assisting 6. He is still only 19. Given the size of my squad he will probably be loaned out again. His attributes hardly changed, though I would hope that they do in the future.

Lookman 1

Lookman 2

Dominic Solanke

Solanke went on loan to Brighton, playing 15 times in the Championship and scoring twice. Similarly to the previous two players his attributes have not changed much but he retains high levels of potential.

Solanke 1

Solanke 2

Ainsley Maitland-Niles

Maitland-Niles was at Derby for the entire season. Playing 33 league games, scoring once and assisting 8 times. He probably improved the most out of this group of loanees. However, his path into the first team is in those competitive wide areas.

Ainsley 1

Maitland Niles 2

These are the only players who I really believe have a chance of getting into the first team. The rest are going to really struggle.






And other lesser lights.

The future does not look so bright them.

Oxford and Alexander-Arnold are both new additions and might have a chance, while Trevor Chalobah and Ryan Sessegnon both have time to get back on track, but it will be very tough for them.

At some point these players will have to be sold. Not just these but some of those attached to the first team squad. Otherwise I just have a collection of players for the sake of having them. I am not looking after them. I am not nourishing them. I am just owning them.

There are a number of senior players who could be leaving too. Mane and Tadic remain at the club, but Mane’s contract is running out. We couldn’t agree terms and the vultures are circling.

Austin and Rodriguez scored plenty of goals, almost sixty between them, but I can do better. Especially as over at Spurs Harry Kane is unhappy. I have made a number of offers to them but each one was turned down. I don’t think I can give this one up. As successful as the team is, with Kane surely they can’t be stopped.

Except. Here come Real Madrid with a big bid for Shaqiri. Shaqiri is interested, can I keep him?

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

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The Ox had been inspirational. The player who produced big moments at big times. Even so, winning the World Player of the Year shocked me. Mane ran away with every award available in Africa, but for Ox to win the big prize ahead of Messi, that was a huge moment. In a game about player development, it doesn’t get any more significant.









Farewell Phillipe

Steve McManaman broke my heart.

Not so long ago I wrote a piece about how McManaman leaving Liverpool for Real Madrid had left me bereft for a considerable amount of time. No player since has even come close to that level of heartache.

Today (Jan 6th, 2018) Phillipe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona from Liverpool has been all but confirmed.

In my chest I can feel a numbness. I am not heartbroken. I am not angry. Not with the club. The £142 million fee is fantastic. Not with the manager. I can’t conceive how much Jurgen Klopp could do to stop the move. Certainly not with Barcelona, they have simply made a move for one of the most exciting players on the planet, as a club of their size should do. Nor do I feel anger towards to Coutinho. He spent 6 years at the club. I can never recall watching a game and feeling that Coutinho could have worked harder, tried harder, he always gave Liverpool everything he had. Some games the skills might not be coming off, the coordinates of the long shots might have been off beam, the cutting passes might have been blunt, but he was always looking to make things happen.

And when they did happen the results were breathtaking.

The Coutinho cliche has been that of the magician. Cliches are generally utilised for a reason. They are true. Since Steven Gerrard ended his Liverpool career the talisman mantel was passed to Coutinho. He became the player most likely to make the difference. As time passed he lived up to it, being at the heart of numerous comebacks (Dortmund) and wonderful team performances. Even producing late winners with stunning long range strikes (Stoke).

There is no doubt Liverpool will miss such an exciting and productive performer.

As well as slight numbness there is also a hollow space. I can feel it high in my chest and touching the back of my throat. This is not another McManaman though. With Steve McManaman there was no tomorrow. The sun would never rise again. It was all so pointless now. Now there was no Macca. The magic dribbler had gone. Now another magic dribbler has gone.

Even though Coutnho has gone, even though a world class player has gone, there will still be a tomorrow. Perhaps Steve McManaman taught me that. Or perhaps the difference lays in the circumstances.

As brilliant as Coutinho is this 2017/18 season Liverpool’s reliance on his sorcery has waned slightly. The presence of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah is a continued cause for optimism. As wonderful as the “fab four” were they did not actually all play at the same time that often due to a combination of factors, in the main injury and tactics. Having that quartet of players on the pitch together will rarely provide enough balance to combat quality opposition.

But when they did play together. Oh my.

That was were magic truly happened. The combination of these four players, with their intricate, sharp, fluid play, was mesmeric. It is not the loss of Coutinho alone that has generated an empty feeling, it is the fact that this glorious foursome will not be able to produce any more memories. And memories are all we will have.

Instead Coutinho will reunite with Luis Suarez. The two were together when Brendan Rodgers was at Liverpool and an infamous Steven Gerrard moment  contributed to the Premier League crown remaining absent form the Liverpool cabinet. As well as Suarez there will be a footballing icon on his side, Lionel Messi. Add to that the return from injury of Ousmane Dembele and Coutinho will be forming a new “fab four”.

He just won’t be doing it for “us”.

For as special as memories of brilliant footballing moments are, they are never as special as when they are for the team you support.

What of Liverpool now? They are certainly not a team without hope, nor a club without resources. The eventual capture of Virgil van Dijk for £75 million is as clear an illustration of that as is possible. The Coutinho deal is generally believed to be over £100 million up front, plenty of spending power to bring in a direct replacement, should that be the avenue they follow. Who such a replacement would be is a game of speculation, albeit a fun one. A signing that is not speculation is that of Naby Keita, a player of excellent qualities. Keita is due to join in the 2018 summer. The Keita speculation is whether he can be brought in sooner? We shall all wait and see.

How Liverpool replace Coutinho is a game that others can play. The papers and social media will be crammed with items on that topic until such a signing is made.

There will also be fire and fury.

What there should be is gratitude.

For Coutinho’s graceful brilliance should not be allowed to be forgotten. Too often fans move into a red rage of betrayal. It is their career, they only get one. As fans we are fortunate, we get hundreds. We can live that progression. Liverpool lived it with Coutinho. From an undersized, slight boy, picked up for a paltry £8.5 million from Inter Milan. One who some fans with their ear to the ground would have heard of as having great potential but the majority would have asked “who?”. Liverpool saw glorious development. He became a player who could take control of a game, appearing all of the pitch to bring sparkle to an attack that appeared to be going no where fast. Every free kick was a genuine opportunity to score with him on the park. Opposition defences could be parted at any moment by a genius pass or GIF creating dribble.

With Coutinho there was always hope, even when there appeared to be none.

So thank you for the journey.

Thank you for the brilliance.

Thank you for the hope.

And thankfully that hope remains.


Amazing Things – Football Manager 2016 – Part 3

The season is over. At the beginning of the season the expectations for my (deliberately) young squad were low. The board would have been delighted if the side had finished in the top half. Similarly in the cups. In the Europa League they just wanted my Saints team to get into the group stage, while quarter finals would be more than good enough in the league cup and FA Cup.

It is safe to say that those expectations were exceeded.

Vastly exceeded.

I love the league cup. It provides those opportunities for the young players that I am so desperate for. Many boards don’t think it is that important. I disagree. I want kind draws and lots of games.

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The draw could have been much kinder. No home games until the second leg of the semi final. The draw could have been much harsher. No “big teams” until the semi final. Unfortunately there would be no trophy as the team who dished out my worst league loss of the season (4-0 away) once again came out on top. We were 2-1 up but once again City had too much for my Saints.

The other competition that is vital to developing these young players is the Europa League. It turned out to be a vital competition for Jay Rodriguez. At the start of the season my planned first choice forwards were Pelle and Austin. Jay Rodriguez scored a few in the early rounds, but it was more that Charlie Austin suffered a season ending injury in a Europa League tie.

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The early knock out rounds allowed for rotation with AZ and PSV the opponents. Liverpool and Schalke far more taxing. I expected to knock out Liverpool as my league form was excellent while theirs was poor. Schalke was a bigger concern, with their immense list of young talents. Fortunately for Saints those talents were not on song as Ox saw them off at home. Away from home Schalke battered us, but a penalty knocked in by Pelle made it difficult for them. Saints, Europa League finalists.

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There have been more exciting finals. I didn’t care. Dusan Tadic had delivered a first trophy. I am always desperate to win the Europa League. Simply because I just don’t know when the team will play in it again. Hopefully never. Other competitions come along every year, but the Europa league, that can be a rare thing.

Two finals for this young Saints side. One win and one loss. Tremendous performance. Anything from the FA Cup would be a bonus.

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A third final. A second trophy.

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The stats suggest that it was a close game. The first half we pounded Chelsea. The second half they pounded us. Ox netted a brilliant solo goal, Chelsea did not have a response. Three finals. Two trophies. Like the Liverpool side of 2000/1 we fulfilled every available fixture. Just what was needed to get the minutes into the young players legs.

Of course every team is guaranteed 38 Premier league games. How did the Saints league season pan out in such a competitive league?

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The league was too competitive. Everyone beating everyone else allowed a team that had a statistically good season to have a legendary season. The Saints finished 9 points clear. In other seasons 81 points might only be good enough for 2nd or even 3rd. Not this time.

A treble.

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Unsurprisingly individual awards followed. Along with a great deal of interest in the players. In January the players were being hunted by the big clubs, but none of them made any offers. Now they circled round Rodriguez, Mane, Ward-Prowse, Tadic, van Dijk, Pelle, Hause and Iorfa. Some of those I wouldn’t mind selling, at the right price. Though maybe not the players one might expect.

The one I do not want to sell is Jay Rodriguez.

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The numbers may not be Messi or Ronaldo like but his goals were vital. Other players made contributions. Pelle scoring 23 in all competitions, the same as Ox. While Tadic and Mane scored 17 each. With Rodriguez there was that air of the fairy tale, a player who had been in England squads before a horrible injury.

Here was his glorious rebirth.


This project was not supposed to be about rehabilitation. The aim was to develop the young English players. So how did they do?

Jack Butland (23)

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Jordan Pickford (22)

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Butland established himself ahead of Pickford. He is statistically superior (though not significantly) in most areas. Next season the objective must be for Pickford to play more than 25 times in all competitions.

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Joe Gomez (19)

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Calum Chambers (21)

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Chambers and Gomez were both excellent. In fact Gomez was magnificent. He is a player that I might struggle to retain.

Dominic Iorfa (21)

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Kourtney Hause (21)

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Iorfa just did not play enough games. Even when adding the 4 games he had on loan at QPR. Hause had a good number of games. A similar number next season will be satisfactory.

Harry Maguire (23)

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While Maguire is not a part of the group of young English players who played in the summer of 2017, at 23 he is certainly a young English player. He established himself as first choice centre back alongside Virgil van Dijk.

Ben Chilwell (19)

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Matthew Targett (20)

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Neither player made much of an impact. The form of Ryan Bertrand effected both of them. Targett suffered a bad injury. One of these two will have to go out on loan next season. With this many players who are good performers at full back it will be really tough for Walker-Peters and Jonjoe Kenny to make a mark.

Nathaniel Chalobah (21)

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Lewis Cook (19)

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Lewis Baker (21)

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Of these three Lewis Cook was the biggest success. Chalobah’s numbers look disappointing but post January he was on loan at Hull where he played another 20 games. Lewis Baker could never get into the side. He went on loan to Birmingham in January, playing 18 games.

James Ward-Prowse (21)

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An established first team player, but still a young player. Like Oxlade-Chamberlain I don’t think of him as a youngster. At the end of next season I expect him to be the Saints captain.

Will Hughes (21)

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Nathan Redmond (22)

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Jack Grealish (20)

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Will Hughes was only available for the last 2 months of the season because of the awful injury he picked up at Derby. Both Redmond and Grealish were in similar positions. Always in the match day squads, not always first choices.

Demarai Gray (20)

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Sheyi Ojo (19)

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Josh Onomah (19)

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These three deserved more. Gray always found himself slightly behind Redmond and Grealish, who were slightly behind Mane and Ox. Ojo and Onomah were interesting as no one would take them on loan as anything better than back up players. So they stayed at the club.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (23)

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A brilliant season. Twenty three goals. Eighteen assists. Ten man of the match awards. He also scored goals in the big games. Nigh on perfect.

Cauley Woodrow (21)

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Adam Armstrong (19)

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Armstrong started the season as a back up forward but I felt he would be better served on loan. He joined Burnely, playing 20 games and scoring 5 goals. Cauley Woodrow became the back up forward. I would be surprised if he can ever become anything more than that, especially with Solanke and Lookman waiting for their chance.

The agenda will not change next season, more games, more games, more games.

To get the kids those games I have to sell, but also keep the squad strong. The first to go was Virgil van Dijk. Bayern Munich came in. Eventually I took £24million up front and a further £14 million in add ons.

Then I did something strange. Having said Iorfa and Hause need games and that I would sell van Dijk to get them those games, I signed Eric Dier for £30 million. Dier is still only 22, he is a young English player. Centre back is just too important a position and Iorfa and Hause too big a risk as first choices.

The bids started to come in. Bayern made an offer for Mane, but only a fraction over his market value. Then Barcelona made and offer for Tadic, again just over his market value. Juventus came in for Tadic as well. I rejected their bids but I would definitely accept higher offers. Stoke were relegated, meaning Xherdan Shaqiri was available for below market value. I put in a £15 million bid for a player who can fill both Tadic and Mane’s positions.

It was not just the players who the offers were being made for.

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Following the Euros Allegri had taken the Italy job. Luis Enrique then took the Spain job. The favourite for Enrique’s old job at Barcelona, with 3-1 odds, was me.

No interview was forthcoming. Interest cooled. As did the interest in the players. No further offer came in for Mane or Tadic. Shaqiri signed. Thus, going into the new season I find myself once again with an over stocked and unbalanced squad.

Time to open the out door.

The Red And White Song – Football Manager 2016 Part 2

In 1909 a young basque man returned to Bilbao from England. With him he had around 50 Southampton shirts. The red and white stripes matching perfectly with the flag of Bilbao. Athletic Bilbao dropped their blue kit and began wearing the strip of Southampton.

My New England Saints are no longer Southampton, but thanks to Southampton’s excellent 7th place finish the Saints are participants in the Europa League. The opening league fixtures have been kind, but the Europa League has not. In the final qualification round New England Saints face Athletic Bilbao. Resplendent with Iker Munian, Inaki Williams, Aymeric Laporte and Aritz Aduritz.

The opening fixtures in the league allowed us to cruise past West Brom and Sunderland (2-0 and 3-0) but Athletic not allow any such cruise. The first leg was away from home.

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Injuries stripped me of strikers. Two wingers pushed up top. Really I should have switched to the one striker formation but the team are much less familiar with this shape.

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The performance was not bad. A young team with several key players missing came very close to a positive result. The lack of options from the bench hurt the team as the minutes passed by. Still, a vital away goal as the cliche goes.

Athetic Bilbao are famed for their Basque only player policy. Providing them with possibly the strongest sense of identity in Europe’s big leagues. Daniel Fieldsend spent time at Bilbao for his book The European Game. In it he describes the importance of their youth academy.

“It is difficult to pinpoint where the first team ends and the academy begins, such is the club’s dependence on it’s youth sector.”

In a way this is similar to what I am trying to attempt with my squad packed with young English players to develop. Bilbao have a tendency to bring back old players for 2nd, 3rd and even 4th spells. Aduritz is a prime example. In my Saints side we have Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fulfilling that role. Though perhaps the presence of Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle slightly skews the local talent rules. Maybe we are more Real Sociedad than Athletic Bilbao.

Following another red and white interlude (1-1 away at Stoke) the Saints and Bilbao would face off once more. The injury problems had not abated. This time I decided to dip into the U21 squad for a striker and play Sam Gallacher.

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It could not have gone any better. The Europa League was going to be vital for the development of this squad. The more fixtures available the more opportunities for the players to get those vital minutes.

After overcoming Bilbao things were looking good. Unbeaten in the league and with a relatively kind Europa League draw. Fiorentina, CSKA Moscow and KR (an incomprehensible Icelandic name).

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Then came Manchester City. My squad was pretty strong by this stage. Pelle had dropped down the pecking order and Jay Rodriguez had hit fine form. Harry Maguire was injured but Kortney Hause filled in nicely.

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Too much class.

The squad rotated giving players as much time as I could. It just was not enough. The U21s could not get a look in because of the amount of players within the first team. They had to go on loan. This time I had the final say, no interference from Les Reed. Only saying yes to those clubs that offered first team football. By the new year almost the entire squad would be out on loan. Their development placed into the hands of others, simply because I could not do it myself.

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Others will also have to go out from the first team squad. Both Alfie Mawson and Doninc Iorfa have spent time on loan. Shyi Ojo has only managed 7 appearances and Joshua Onomah has only played 4. I have to move them on, they are good players but not quite good enough. In the meantime I decide it is a good idea to sign Naby Keita for just over £6 million. This is not the Red Bull Leipzig megastar, this is the Red Bull Salzburg kid that non one had heard of. His arrival will mean that either Nathaniel Chalobah or Lewis Cook will go on loan. Or both. Only to clubs who offer first team football. I have to repeat this mantra or I will just get lazy and hit the “accept all offers” button.

The Europa League proving ground only really proved that the players needed more time. The final game was a win or crash out encounter away to CSKA. The team had drawn too many games away from home but the league game before would make my observing eyes pop.

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This was not a weak Chelsea side. Yet they were powerless to resist. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain finally put in a big performance. I had been considering using the two striker formation against CSKA but the Chelsea result changed my mind.

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This was a big run of fixtures. Upon second glance it was even bigger than I had imagined.

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Arsenal’s third appearance on the list would be the first leg of the league cup semi final. Another competition which had allowed my young players their minutes. The Leicester result was a let down. A 3-3 draw. I was 3-0 up. Moving on.

I could really story these events. Journalism has been accused of sensationalism for many years when often just the facts are sensational enough. Here are the facts.

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The United 4-0 and the Arsenal 5-0 were astonishing. The Liverpool result less astounding as they sat 16th and had just sacked Klopp. Then we won 6-0 at Arsenal. Playing my “conservative” formation. Amazing.

It would be if this was a different story. Of course I want the Saints to be a success but I really want to develop these players. Only in the West Brom game did young players really get a big chance. The other games relied upon experienced players, including the Sociedad gang. Their fine performances now mean that the big clubs are interested. Creating a further dilemma. They all want out. Mane wants to go to Real Madrid. Ward-Prowse to Chelsea. I will sell Mane, but will make sure he goes at the end of the season. I will fight for Ward-Prowse. He is the standard bearer for the club. The link to the Southampton past that can lead us into the New England Saints future.

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Having leaned so heavily on the experienced players in December I must now give more minutes to the young players again. Having ridden out the toughest set of fixtures thus far there are opportunities on the horizon. The only chance these players have is if they can get around the 25 game marker for the season. Who cares if I don’t win the league?

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There will be other chances. Right?

Say Hello As I Wave Goodbye – Football Manager 2016 Part 1

I am and have always been a fan of Football Manager.

I can go further. I was a fan of Championship Manager. I was a fan of the original Football Manager on the Commodore 64. Premier Manager with it’s “creative management” that allowed you to list certain players for a stupendously high fee (billions) and you would get the money. I played many management games. Even the FIFA ones.

Only one has retained my attention. Football Manager. It has taken me to the point of addiction but it has also helped me get out of some very dark places.

Yet I have never written about it. Never felt it to be my domain.

Time to break that.

The series is now on FM 18. I am still using FM 16. It has been a more loyal and faithful friend than any previous football management game. We all know that things have to come to an end. This is the end of the run for FM 16.


I decided to give myself one final run. As well as never having written about the game I have also never used the create a club mode. That was also going to change.

People have their own preferences while playing Football Manager. Mine has always been to try to develop players and guide them from wonderkid to legend. There is nothing more exciting in football than the blossoming of a young talent, it puts hope in all of our hearts. And heaven forbid them if they fail.

It had to be done in England, in the Premier League. I have managed teams all round the virtual world but home is where the heart is. The only issue being that would mean diluting the league by removing a club. Eventually I chose Arsenal. They had the stadium, the budget and the location. I could call them “something” London and the game would still feel right.

Squad construction essentially came down to a saved wonderkid shortlist. Which was actually a very long list. The list yielded these 1st team, under 21 and under 18 squads (click the image for clarity)


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It is fair to say that I got over excited. Not only was the first team squad packed with young players but the whole club was stacked the whole way through. Sixteen year olds Martin Odegaard and Kylian Mbappe sat in the U21s. Marcus Rashford and Reece Oxford in the U18s. It was all too much. The only thing I could guarantee success in was killing around 40 careers. I had no hope of bringing them all through.

Time for a reshoot.

Rather than Arsenal I went to Southampton, renaming them New England Saints and narrowing my field of recruitment. The focus would be on the successful England youth sides of the 2017 summer. Not all players would exist but bringing the majority of them together ought not to be an odious task.

The first problem, none of the under 17 squad exist. This isn’t really a surprise, they would have been 14 or 15 in 2015 when the game begins. Not bringing in these players allows me to retain much of the Southampton youth squad and a few key older players.

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Immediately there is more success with the under 19s (though not the goalkeepers).

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The midfield is easily absorbed.

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The forwards proved problematic. Edwards and Nmecha are in. Sadly FM 16 has never heard of Ben Bereton or Isaac Buckley-Ricketts.

From the U20s I only chose to take one of the goalkeepers. Freddie Woodman. Some of these players have fantastic in game potential, others barely register.

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From the under 21s there were still goalkeeper issues. I resolved this by bringing in Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland.

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I ran out of space. I could have recruited every single one of them but there would have been no space remaining. The club had to have some experience or I could see the away day thrashings that would get me the sack looming. Another one for the list of things that has never happened with FM 16, I have never been sacked. Might that be how I say farewell?

My final New England Saints squads.

First team.

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Under 21s.

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Under 18s

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I broke another “rule” by bringing a player back to Southampton. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He is a player I have never had in any of my teams and I would like one run with him to see just what he is capable of producing.

With the personnel in place tactical choices have to be made. Given the age of the game we are at the point where there are engine breaking tactics out there. I have enjoyed great success with a version of a 4-Diamond-2. The system crashes in goals with wide players and strikers regularly contributing big numbers. The issue with it is that there are huge holes in the defence. When you are the best team in the league this is not too big a problem. When the side is very young and very 10th predicted that might be a bit too risky, so I have also imported a 4-3-3 that was my go to system prior to the two up front.

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With these young players I will need to be able to ease off the pace from time to time. Not too much though because I want to attack.

The pre season went badly. Results and performances were fine, but as you can see above, key experienced players picked up injuries. With the Europa League a part of this season there will be lots of fixtures. Great for giving opportunities to players but terrible for keeping everyone fit. Fortunately the board expectations are low, so my job won’t be much of an issue. I want those fixtures though. These players need games if they are going to develop.

Speaking of which. Loan deals. Some of these guys can go out of the door to get lots of first team minutes. Lookman, Sims, Walker-Peters, Solanke and Maitland-Niles are offered out.

Before I can blink they have gone. As squad rotation players, all of them. I didn’t agree to this. What is going on? The obvious is going on. Les Reed, director of football, still has the say over these deals. That is changed straight away.

Not the best start with injuries and some players progress possible hampered already. Not only that, but having eased past Celje (Slovenian) in the 3rd Europa League qualifying round the next side to face is Athletic Bilbao, just to get into the group stage. Tactics are far from familiarised either.

At least Bilbao respect the shirt.


Dribble to Dominance

Philosophy is such a heavily used word in football and sport it feels like everyone should have one. Pragmatism is something from the past. We are all ideologists and theologians now.

Including me.

The foundations of my belief began before I really started to coach and actually form a part of the reasons I became a football coach. This foundation has solidified over time.

It all starts with dribbling.

My faith in dribblers partly comes from my moderate playing capabilities. I was not a great dribbler, but an average defender. Until someone with good dribbling skills came at me. Then average was a kind assessment of those defensive attributes.

More recently that faith has been reinforced by actual events. One was a cup game that my then U16 (now U17) team played at the end of the 16/17 season. At this point they were deep into GCSE territory. We had not trained for a month or played for 3 weeks. In the first half combinations and switching play were not prosperous. Just one aspect of our play allowed us a foothold in the game. Dribbling ability. The 3 players on the pitch with the ability take people on and put opponents on the back foot. From that base a comeback was mounted, taking the game into extra time. Ultimately the fightback was fruitless but the game showed just how much dribblers change games.

France showed that dribblers can overcome disadvantage when they faced England in a friendly during 2017. Following Varane’s red card the French looked to be struggling and England headed for a fantastic victory. However, the Mbappe, Dembele, Martial, Pogba et al had different ideas. They used their dazzling individual abilities to countermand the disadvantage, push on and win the game. England may have had an extra player on the pitch but France’s ability to beat players 1v1s one meant that they had overloads all over the pitch.

These exciting players used their dribbling abilities to dominate their direct opponent and take players out of the immediate passage of player. Not all 1v1s are equal. When players have fabulous dribbling skills a 1v1 becomes an overload. A huge advantage to capitalise upon.

What if we could have six overloads? Six players with exceptional 1v1 abilities. Then we are no longer playing 11v11, we are playing 17v11. Or seven? Eight? Nine? How far can we overload the opposition if they are all superior 1v1?

Twenty two vs eleven.

As wonderful a notion as this might be it is impossible. We would need a ball each to even get start. As we only have one, 12v11 might be our limit. The observable impact of 1v1 superiority is less that of an overload and more that of elimination. As a player goes past his opponent in the 1v1 situation that opposite number is taken out of the game. Eleven vs ten. Then the next. Eleven vs nine and so on. The effect can be even greater when the dribble beats entire lines of players.

Players bringing the ball forward quickly from defence can create chaos amongst the ranks of the opposition. High risk but high reward. Though what is the risk? At the highest level it might be an important goal. When developing young players, taking the risk and reflecting on the result is a risk that is always worth taking.

Central midfielders have become conductors, quarter backs and various other glamorous phrases used to describe a player who drops deep and passes the ball under very little pressure. Moussa Dembele does not fit this mould. He drops deep, collects the ball and dribbles. Sublime dribbling skills and incredible strength mean that Dembele opens up defences from 70 yards away, dominating with dribbling.

By having great dribbling skills players enjoy greater comfort on the ball. For the most revered passers like Pirlo, Xavi and Scholes it became their fall back, to get them out of difficult situations. Yet their opponents knowledge of that dribbling ability created more time and space for them to execute their passing game.

Before moving onto forward players dribbling is about much more than effectiveness on the pitch. Being able to dribble and manipulate the ball at will is a wonderful boost to the confidence of young players. Pulling off exciting and complex moves is highly rewarding, bringing a sense of accomplishment. Upon producing that move on multiple occasions competency develops, pushing their levels of self esteem. Then when they can consistently take players on in match situations an entirely new level is reached. Heightening confidence, competence, self esteem and effectiveness. That young player can not wait for the next game and to show us what they can do.

You can be certain that this is how the numerous thrilling dribblers that populate football feel. Fortunately in the last 25 years the laws (and the interpretation of them) have adapted to protect dribblers and allow them to flourish.

None of this can happen without encouragement.

No young footballer should be afraid of the consequences of being tackled. The only consequence should be the opposition getting the ball. Of this they will have no fear. What they will fear is a potential barrage from their coach, their team mates and their parents. Steps are being taken to address this, but we must remain ever vigilant, providing encouragement to the dribbler for the intention of their dribble. Each time seeking to build that mentality where an opponent is a challenge to conquer, not hand on the responsibility by giving the ball to someone else.

The England DNA at the Foundation Phase is now all about giving players the oxygen to dribble. The directive is coming down from the very top. Telling our players to take more risks. And reap the rewards.

The ability to dominant an opponent with dribbling ability has far more than effectiveness at stake. It is a psychological battle to be won. There are a reason why bountiful YouTube dribbling videos have the word “humiliating” attached to them. Dribbling skills get into the head of your opponent. Dominating them mentally and physically. Overloading and overwhelming.

Long live the dribble kings.